The Battle of Rangda II — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda

Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.

“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.

Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.

Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.

All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.

Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.

Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.

There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.

“How many do you see?”

“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”

“Okay. Estimate.”

Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.

“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”

“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.

Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.

Why were they fighting her?

What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?

She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.

Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?

She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.

She could not afford to have that happen.

She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.

But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.

Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”

Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”

Again there was a pause on the radio.

“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.

“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.

“It could be a trap.”

“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.

This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.

Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.

Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.

There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.

Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.

From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.

Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.

“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”

Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”

“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.

Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.

Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”

“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”

“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.

“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”

Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.

She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.

Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.

On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.

“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.

Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.

“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”

“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.

“It was all on the turret front.”

Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.

“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”

She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.

Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”

“One second.”

At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.

“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.

“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.

Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.

Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.

“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.

“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”

“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.

It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.

And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.

That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.

Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.

There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.

Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.

“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”

Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.

Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.

“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.

She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.

Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”

“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.

Gulab held on much more tightly.


 

City of Rangda, Streets of Northeast Rangda

So strong was Lieutenant Munira’s voice that bad audio did nothing to diminish her cry.

“Comrades, we are taking Umaru park! After the initial salvo, we charge! Show no fear to the craven enemy! We have the utmost superiority over them, tactically and morally!”

On nearby vehicles, Adesh saw fists raised into the air in excitement, and heard shouts.

That necessary salvo mentioned by the Lieutenant would end up being the responsibility of the Chimera self-propelled guns. No other artillery was ready to deploy. Adesh peeked his head around the sloped armor of the gun casemate, scanning his surroundings.

Slow and steady, their Chimera was in motion. Their three-gun unit of Chimeras trailed behind a large column of soldiers on motorcycles and on foot. More Chimeras followed, but the bulk of the column was composed of sleek motorcycles. Some of the motorcycles towed mortars behind them, and lagged along the edges of the column, while others had Khroda machine guns affixed to the side-car that they could shoot. Those had proven useful in the last roadblock, which had been budged aside with minimal effort of the column. Now they were slightly uphill from their next objective, which was in sight.

Atop the hill, the Chimeras halted. They were not that high above the target. Ahead of them the road descended maybe a dozen meters and expanded around a small woodland park. Ditches had been cut around the park to prevent the entry of tanks, and a triangle formation of trenches chock-full of men and women defending the approaches. Machine guns and mortars were visible in special mesh-netted foxholes behind the trenches.

Umaru was the hinge between Rangda University and Forest Park, directly connected to the main avenues and roadways running along Northern and Eastern Rangda. Adesh understood as much just from looking at the map. His eyes naturally drew a line between each of the main, circled objectives, forming a triangle. One of the triangle’s sides ran right through Umaru. It was a prime spot to support attacks on the two linked areas.

As the column reorganized in preparation for the attack, all of the men in ordinary motorcycles dismounted them and hid them in buildings and around alleys. Only the motorcycles with machine gun sidecars remained mounted. Mortar-carrying bikes were parked near the Chimeras, and their tubes were deployed by the riders and passengers.

There were at least fifty or sixty men and women from the few dozen ordinary bikes who were loading up with weapons and ammunition and making preparations to fight on foot.

“Can’t they fight in their bikes? Wouldn’t it be safer?” Adesh asked.

“Too exposed.” Nnenia replied, in her trademark fashion.

“She’s right.” Eshe said. “They don’t have any armor on those things, and no matter how fast they go they could run into gunfire and die if they don’t have cover or armor.”

“Makes sense.” Adesh said. He felt stupid for asking.

Behind the three of them, Sergeant Rahani sat against the rear armor, whistling.

“How are you holding up?” He asked.

“Me?” Adesh asked back.

“Yes, you.” Rahani said. He smiled. “You look concerned.”

Adesh scratched his hair. “I recall that we’re not supposed to fight from atop hills.”

This was not his chief concern, though it was written in their fighting manuals that they should use the sides of hills for cover and not fight directly atop them. Doing so would expose them to enemy artillery and air attacks. Higher elevation had to be used sparingly.

Sergeant Rahani giggled.

“We’re in an urban environment, so unfortunately the hillsides are all occupied by buildings. We can’t really fight well in the blocks, so we have to stick to the roads.”

He reached out and patted Adesh on the side.

Adesh thought that the Sergeant must have known something else was bothering him, but he did not pry, and Adesh was thankful for it. In reality, Adesh’s concerns were greater than what could be covered by a tactical manual. Rolling in his head was a mixture of anger and guilt and trepidation and shock all of which individually fed into the others.

Above all, he wanted to believe in Colonel Nakar. She was a hero; she was their hero!

He wanted to believe in his friends too. He wanted to protect them, to be with them.

He supposed that the 8th Division had their own heroes who they followed, too, and their own friends they needed to protect. It was easier to see this with them than with Nocht.

To him Nocht were demons; thinking of them summoned an anger and a fear quite different from what he felt for the 8th Division. Nocht were not human. But the 8th Division were his own people and he was so confused, so torn. It was hard to deal with.

Looking around himself he saw Nnenia’s stoic affect, Rahani’s warmth and Eshe’s gallant confidence and he wondered if they were torn up inside too. He did not want to ask them. He did not want to become a burden to them, to trouble them.

Instead he kept the turmoil inside, and faced forward again.

Lieutenant Munira came on the radio.

“We will begin with a twenty-gun salute to our wayward friends! May the light of Diyam deliver them. All Self-Propelled Guns fire a ten-shell rolling barrage on mark!”

Adesh checked his optical equipment. He had instruments to measure distance and orientation of his target, to adjust gun elevation to a fine degree, as well as ordinary sights for direct fire. Using his map, which had been hand-gridded by the artillery section computing team, he adjusted the direction and elevation of the gun to fire on the park. Nnenia turned the wheels and performed the mechanical adjustment; Kufu drove the vehicle as a whole and begrudgingly turned it in the directions Adesh called out.

For the rolling barrage he would shift elevation a set amount after each shot.

Just as he was nearly done with his preparations, the Lieutenant’s voice sounded anew.

“Fire Mission, TRP 68493. Fire for effect! Mark!”

Sergeant Rahani got on his own radio and called the two other Chimeras in the platoon.

Eshe looked at his watch and then helped Nnenia load the gun with a 76mm shell.

Finally Adesh pulled the lever and discharged the ordnance.

He felt the great thundering force of the gun as the shell soared skyward.

Off into the morning sky the red tracer joined over a dozen other shells.

Adesh quickly turned to his long-range periscoping sight.

He laid eyes on the park in time to watch the first shells land on the exterior trenches. In quick succession the individual shells struck the ground with a great clamor. There were terrible fiery flashes, and dust and smoke blew up in front of the trenches, sending sandbags flying and cutting great gouges into the soft soil. It was hard to tell which shell had been his until his brain recalled the exact calculations he had done. Judging by the effects, he had put his shell right on the lower edge of the park, as he had wanted.

Before the smoke could even begin to settle the guns were ready for the second shot.

“You’re doing great, my beautiful crew!” Rahani called out. “Adesh, calculations!”

He was already planning to say it. He knew what to do.

“Shift five degrees up!” Adesh called out.

Nnenia nodded and turned the elevation lever, raising the cannon the few degrees needed, while Eshe loaded the gun. Sergeant Rahani relayed the adjustments to the other guns. It was hectic. For Adesh it felt like everyone was talking at once. Even Nnenia’s panting and Eshe’s grunting vocalizations as he hefted the gun felt like input he needed to hear.

Shutting his eyes and breathing in deep, he tried to focus his thoughts.

Immediately after loading the shell, Eshe checked his watch again.

“Adesh, fire!”

Almost mindlessly, Adesh pulled the shooting lever. He then looked through the sight.

His own Chimera had been the fastest to reload. Adesh heard his own gun cry out first, almost alone for a second before the rest of the vehicles opened fire. All around him Adesh heard and felt the succession of gun reports from the other vehicles in the battery, stirring in the pit of his stomach. Even the Chimeras far across the street rattled him.

They were twenty in all, all of whom were firing together. It was noisy and rumbling.

Through the sight, Adesh watched the second wave of shells hitting ground. Several of the trenches suffered direct hits, sending pillars of dirt and human debris flying from between the slits in the earth. Small fires trailed through the grass as 76mm shells hit mortar holes and supply pits dug in and around the trenches. Adesh’s own shell crashed through the foremost trench, just a little too far right, collapsing the edges of the hole.

Smoke and fire and dust formed a cloud around Umaru park. Adesh could hardly see green through it anymore. He could hardly see undisturbed ground around the edges of the park. Slowly and methodically they were stomping on every meter of dirt. He saw shadows through the fog, men and women fleeing the trenches for the forest.

He swung his sight up a touch and scanned for new targets. Then he spotted it.

Directly behind that trench was a large, dug-in gun pit getting ready to counter-fire.

It was hidden beneath a camouflage tarp, but with the barrel now poking out the front of the hole and highly elevated, it was clear that this was a 122mm gun, ready to shoot.

One shot from that would kill everyone he loved here.

He felt a thrashing in his heart, but he could not panic. He couldn’t even call a warning.

His mind was working faster than the time around him. He just had to stop the gun.

Knowing where his shot hit in the trench, Adesh quickly calculated hitting the gun pit.

Closing his eyes, he could still see it. Eerily, he thought he knew when it would shoot.

It was as if with his eyes closed a different sense, a powerful sense, took over for them.

Something greater than vision guided him. A strange intuition, working in milliseconds.

He had precious little time left.

“Traverse left, ten degrees, and then three elevation!” Adesh called out. “Hurry!”

“I’m goin’, I’m goin.” Kufu’s irritable voice responded.

At once the Chimera shifted its bulk.

Adesh looked through his angle sights. “Correct traverse, one degree right, Nnenia!”

“Yes!”

Nnenia nodded her head. After adjusting the elevation, she used a lever to shift the gun itself. While it was limited to perhaps five degrees in any direction, far less than the range of movement available by moving the vehicle as a whole, the gun’s traverse could be much more quickly and minutely adjusted than the facing of the entire tank. In short order Nnenia had the gun facing exactly where Adesh wanted. Eshe loaded.

He checked his watch and nodded to Adesh. He was the commander, so he had to call the shots, but it was clear that everyone was on top of the action. He didn’t need to shout.

Silently, Adesh pulled the lever and prayed.

Through the sights, he briefly spotted a pair of artillery crew rushing shells out from the woods to the camouflaged gun behind the trench. They had run into the open in time to be crushed by the third barrage of shells, rolling in deeper and deeper into the park.

The shelling now completely bypassed the trenches and began to fall into the wood and around the second tier of defenses. Adesh watched as his shell landed directly atop the dug-in gun before it could fire back at the Chimeras. Multiple detonations followed like the bursts of a firecracker rope. Behind the camouflaged netting and the pit walls the gun’s ammunition was burning and blowing up and belching black smoke into the air.

Those two people Adesh had seen had simply disappeared. Whatever was left with them was buried in the shellholes somewhere. He felt momentarily both sick and glad. But he couldn’t peel himself away. His mind floated up a message, a message he needed to hear.

They were only three shells into a ten shell barrage. He had to complete the fire mission.

Lieutenant Munira needed him to; Nnenia, Eshe and Rahani needed him to.

It was clear to him, however, that when the infantry marched in, they would find little resistance left in Umaru park. He didn’t even need the fourth shell’s hit location to calculate that particular fact. Such was the power of an artillery battery that could run to any location and launch a fire mission fully under its own power. Back at the camps in rural Adjar, when he first learned gunnery, such a thing seemed unimaginable to anyone.

Modern war was falling right over the heads of the antiquated 8th Division.

It brought the guilt, the anger, the stress, and the sheer awe back to Adesh’s mind.

But he resolved to complete the mission. He calculated for that fourth shell.


 

City of Rangda, University Avenue

Orange-tinged in the morning light, the defenses at University Avenue looked static, peaceful, unprepared amid routine personnel rotation for the death swooping close.

“Hang on tight!” Danielle shouted over the radio.

Gulab could not have clung more tightly, and yet the ride was no more safe.

As the enemy line came clearly into view, Harmony sped up to its maximum speed.

At home on the roads, the Kobold accelerated to fifty kilometers per hour.

Gulab saw the faces of the enemy soldiers darken, incredulous, as they spotted the tank and trucks barreling toward their suddenly unprepared defenses. Horses stood out in the open, and there were many men and women loitering around the sandbags waiting for orders to regroup or retreat or transfer. Several guns lay abandoned during the shuffle, and when Harmony charged into combat range there were many soldiers out of cover.

The Kobold’s crew wasted no time engaging.

“Firing High Explosive!” Caelia shouted.

Gulab heard a loud report and saw the gun flash ahead.

She felt the turret shake, and it almost caused her to slip back on it. Pressing the Norgler up against the turret, she managed to hook the empty bipod mount against the handle on Caelia’s hatch, and in so doing, just barely maintained her grip on the firearm.

Some 500 meters ahead the shell slammed into the middle of the sandbag wall and displaced several layers of fortification. Alarmed, 8th Division soldiers ran every which way around the first sandbag wall. Horses fled from the flash and noise of the tank gun. Gunners rushed back to weapons that were aiming at haphazard directions or completely dismantled for transport. Caelia gave them no respite. Directly after firing its explosive shell, Harmony’s turret screeched with automatic gunfire, its coaxial Khroda machine gun spitting out thick lines of furious red tracers that crashed wildly across the sandbags.

“Corporal, you brought that thing out for a reason, open fire!” Private Suessen shouted.

“Sure thing pal! Here goes nothing!” Gulab responded.

Without any idea of what to expect, she held down the trigger on the Norgler.

Kicking and screaming were the immediate effects.

Then came a rate of fire too intense to be real.

She had never fired a Norgler; Gulab had only been on the receiving end. Shooting it felt like becoming acquainted with the monster anew. Operating the weapon felt like wrangling a thrashing boar. From the moment she held down the trigger the weapon seemed to feel compelled to drag in all of the belt on her shoulder, pushing what felt like hundreds of rounds through its barrel. Livid green tracers soared in long, horrifically quick bursts, ending only when Gulab’s finger swung off the trigger by accident and resuming immediately as she pressed down again. Smoke wafted up from the barrel’s frontal cone, and the sides of the gun flashed red through slits cut along its length.

That familiar infernal sawing noise punctuated the moment.

Gulab struggled to hold the weapon in place, and her gunfire swept and sliced from street to street and across the front and over the top of the sandbag defenses. Bullets went flying in seemingly every direction ahead of the hurtling light tank. Small traces of dust kicked up wherever she hit from the sheer velocity of the rounds; part of the sandbag wall became so saturated with her gunfire that it seemed a small cloud of smoke formed there.

She had little control, and yet, the endless screeching and the strong kick and the sheer volume of bullets produced an intoxicating effect that brought a sick grin to Gulab’s face.

Why hadn’t she stolen one of these before? They were incredible!

Like any Norgler attack the effect was immediate. Under this loud, incessant barrage and with a tank speeding toward them gaining over ten meters a second, the defenders panicked. Several fled the sandbag wall, while others hid ineffectively. Every head, every gun, every limb, hid away from the shower of lead. Resistance from the first tier of defenses ceased entirely as the tank descended on them. In seconds Harmony closed in.

“Hold on Corporal!” Danielle called again.

Gulab ducked her head behind the turret as Harmony plowed through the sandbags.

Shrugging aside the defense, sending sandbags and chunks of wooden crate and pieces of metal flying out from under and around its tracks, the tank barely slowed as it crushed a machine gun and its operator underfoot and finally penetrated inside University Avenue.

Danielle hit the brake; Gulab slammed roughly into the turret.

Her crazed Norgler dropped clumsily to the side of the turret, and the strap nearly pulled her shoulder out of place as she half-fell off the sloped rear of the Kobold tank.

“Hey, watch it!” Gulab cried out.

Behind her, the trucks braked harshly to a stop, and disgorged dozens of her comrades.

Submachine guns and rifles to their shoulders, they charged past her into battle.

Grumbling, Gulab tugged on her shoulder strap until it lifted from the antennae mount.

So released, she slid farther down the engine cover, almost dropping from the tank entirely. Climbing back on, she crouched around the side of the turret, atop the ventilation grating, grabbing hold of the Norgler once more. She pulled open the top, and reloaded the machine gun with one of her belts. This time she hooked herself to a turret foothold.

“How’s–”

Before Gulab could even start her sentence Caelia was already shouting into the radio.

“There’s an engineer in that building– CABLE CHARGE! Fall back!”

Harmony reversed, turned its turret and opened machine gun fire on a distant building.

It was too late to stop the trap.

Across the road in front of them a dozen explosions went off all at once.

Gulab almost thought it was artillery. But the blasts came from underground.

Huge columns of dust and smoke blew in from cracks in the earth as the road several meters behind the first sandbag wall collapsed into the sewer below, forming a ditch almost five meters deep in an instant. The wound cut right across the front of their advance, stretching from one side of the street the other, across the road, and even collapsing the street corners around the nearest buildings on University Avenue.

Harmony was far back enough that it received only dust and chunks of hard road tar.

Red and Green squadron troops fell back from the blasts, some wounded by the shock. Gulab saw nobody fall into the ditch, but the squadrons broke up as comrades converged on the wounded and pulled them back around the tank. Nobody was attacking anymore.

Before the dust even settled there were tracer rounds flying in from behind the cloud.

“Caelia, we can’t drive over that, get around it!” Gulab shouted.

“Danielle!” Caelia shouted in turn.

“I’m on it, I’m on it!”

Harmony lurched back suddenly in reverse, swung itself around, and turned to face the glass maw of a nearby fashion boutique just a few meters back from the sandbags.

“Hold on tight!”

“You keep saying that but it never helps–”

Gulab’s shouting turned to incoherent screaming as Harmony hurtled suddenly into the street and shot its gun into the store. There were a series of rough bumping noises as the road wheels experienced the elevation shift from the road and the ditch to the street level, and then a storm of glass and soft stuccoed brick as they went crashing through the front.

Fancy lace gowns and fur scarves and silk pantyhose flew into the air as the tank ground through the mannequins, over the counter, burst through the back, the structure weakened by the high explosive shell. Out in the rear parking lot, surrounded by palm trees planted on ornate raised brick beds framing the blacktop, Harmony turned around again and ran along the back street, parallel to the road was barred to them. There were palm trees flanking them as far as the eye could see and the back street was tighter than the main road, but all the same buildings and the same destination was ahead of them.

Gulab was so in shock throughout this maneuver she forgot to call her troops.

Ducking behind the turret, with one hand on the norgler and another on mic, she hailed.

“Red Squadron!” Gulab shouted, her hair whipping in the wind as Harmony soared. “Run through the clothes shop and follow us! Green Squadron, hold the rear sandbag wall!”

“Firing Armor-Piercing High Explosive!” Caelia suddenly shouted.

“YOU’RE WHAT?”

Gulab peeked her head around the turret again in confusion.

In the ensuing chaos, she just barely spotted an armored car running in from around the buildings ahead, in time for the Kobold’s 45mm gun plant a shell through its top-heavy machine gun turret and burst half the vehicle open like a tin can under pressure. As if still alive under its own power the car turned clumsily toward them, catching on fire.

At seemingly a hundred kilometers per hour, screaming fast, the car rushed for them.

Danielle gasped into the radio. “Um! Hang on! We’re ramming or something!”

“Ramming?” Caelia shouted.

Gulab rushed behind the turret again with a panicked gasp.

She felt the wind rush past, and a surge of hot air.

She heard leaves rustle and brick crack and sift.

She distinctly did not feel or hear herself die screaming as a car flew over them.

Danielle breathed deep on the radio. “Phew! It missed us. Are you ok corporal?”

Gulab tentatively peeked around the turret again, and found a gap in the line of palm trees. It indicated where the armored car had veered away from them, lost control, chopped through a raised bed and slammed through the side of a nondescript building.

“No. I think I died.” Gulab said in exasperation.

“Rest in peace.” Caelia jokingly replied.

Harmony slowed to a less reckless pace, calmly bypassing several buildings, and then angled itself around a Civil Canteen. Edging around a corner and back into the main road, the tankers and Gulab caught sight of the second tier of the enemy’s defenses, slowly regrouping. Behind them, Red Squadron’s ten remaining soldiers ran through the gouged-out clothing shop and into the back street, and hurried to catch up.

Gulab waved them over. “Red, we’re about to attack, hurry.”

“Corporal, tell us when we’re formed up.” Caelia said.

“I will.” Gulab replied, keeping an eye on her troops.

Meanwhile the tankers called each other on the open line.

“Caelia, do you want to go fast or steady?” Danielle asked.

“Keep it steady this time.”

“Oh? Not fast? My my, how unlike you.”

Caelia sighed, a bit wistful. “Well. I don’t know–”

“I was just teasing! I support you wanting to go slow sometimes.”

“Thank you. It’s silly, but that means a lot to me.”

Gulab blinked at the tanker’s rapport, and crouched beside the turret.

Around the corner she saw gunfire being traded.

Tracers flew from both sides of the ditch. Green Squadron was holding down the end of University Avenue, while the 8th Division’s defenders on the second tier, in the middle of the Avenue, clustered around their sandbags for cover. There were men and women retreating from the gun battle, perhaps to organize a defense of the backstreet now that the tank had, in their eyes, disappeared from the main road. Gulab didn’t know.

She did know the defense still looked to be in disarray. There were guns abandoned along the sides of the road and left unmanned on the line itself. Defenders fought on with rifles and light Danava machine guns instead of with their Khrodas and AT guns and mortars. They were in a mind to retreat; perhaps this wasn’t a troop rotation at all. Maybe they had been getting ready to vacate the line. Maybe a little push was all they needed to rout.

Gulab was more than happy to provide that push.

Soon as her Red Squadron formed up behind the tank, Gulab nodded to them.

At once, they nodded back, submachine guns and rifles in hand.

“Tankies, get moving!”

“Yes ma’am!” Caelia and Danielle said at once.

Harmony let out a furious shout from its engine and steadily took the corner.

Gulab pointed the Norgler in the general direction of the enemy line and held it down.

She was almost on her belly and the gun was almost controllable.

From the barrel cone a shower of green tracers fell savagely on the sandbag wall. Caught unawares, a pair of machine gunners shooting over the fortifications were hit about the shoulders and face and collapsed behind the wall. Riflemen all along the line ducked for cover as Caelia joined the attack, her turret-mounted Khroda supplementing the Norgler’s gunfire. Red and green tracers flashed together in the air, laying down suppressing fire.

Around the tank’s sides, Red Squadron advanced diligently, split into five on the right and five on the left. Submachine gun fire peppered the defenders, keeping them off their machine guns. Harmony’s turret roared once more, and behind the line a mortar went up in pieces. Like an arrow plunging into a breast, they advanced from the corner, into the road, and diagonally up against the second sandbag wall. Retaliatory fire bounced off the tank. Not one grenade was thrown. More and more defenders huddled rather than fight.

It didn’t take much more of this punishment for the 8th Division to retreat.

As Gulab suspected, the defenders broke and tumbled out from behind the sandbags, amid the gunfire, unable to take any more. Several were cut down almost by accident by the sheer volume of automatic fire bearing down on their line. Dozens of people seemed to pop up as if from out of nowhere, running for their lives from behind the contested walls.

Red Squadron left the side of the tank and formed up on the opposite side of the sandbags.

Gulab dropped off the side of Harmony as it maneuvered itself behind the wall, and ran up. She slid to a crouch behind the sandbags, taking the same position as her own troops.

“Green Squadron, hold fire and get ready to move up! Red Squadron, slap the abandoned Khrodas around and use them!” Gulab shouted. She was unused to giving tactical orders, but it was not a responsibility she resented. It was a natural order to give now.

All along the wall there were weapons ripe for the taking. Red Squadron fighters turned Khrodas once facing south toward the north, targeting the final line and the runners. Two intact machine guns and, surprisingly, a small mortar, were captured immediately, and soon employed in this way. Ammunition for them was plentiful on the other side of the wall, and it was all grabbed and pulled over the sandbags to their side and employed.

In less than a minute they had their own defensive line set up, and it was their turn to fight from a strongpoint. Stolen Khroda guns flashed red tracers up the streets. Light mortar shells soared overhead and fell around the third line of defense. Gulab pulled up her binoculars and saw men and horses vaulting over the final line, and others congregating behind it. There was only a third of University Avenue left to go.

She felt a surge of pride and power and accomplishment. She had helped this happen.

Absentmindedly pulling back the charging handle on the Norgler, readying to fight, Gulab found herself unfortunately dry of ammunition. No more belts, no more sawing.

“Oh shit. I’m gonna miss this stupid thing.” She lamented.

Gulab dropped the Norgler on the floor and peered over the sandbags, searching the 8th Division’s abandoned side of the wall for a familiar discarded rifle or submachine gun.

Before finding any weapons, she saw the flash, and the next instant, the fire.

She was struck by a power that took the world from her in a split second.

From across the Avenue a shell came smashing into the sandbag wall, just six or seven meters away. Gulab felt the heat, briefly, and a surge of force that pushed her back onto the road and off the sandbags. As she fell back, she saw the fragments come flying like a cloud of knives, fast, like hundreds of needle-shaped bullets from one single smoking cannon. Across her cheek, around her arms, into her hip, she felt the chunks go slicing.

She was frozen in that moment, as if she could see the individual pieces of metal go flying, and she thought to move this way or that as if that decision could affect anything, and perhaps she did; perhaps she avoided death then. It was impossible to confirm, it was a dreamlike state, a suspension of a moment that should have been imperceptible.

Then the moment passed, paradoxically long enough and much too brief.

She was no longer suspended, and time was cruelly flowing.

Gulab hit the ground hard. She found the world shaking and eerily silent, and she was deafened and numb. Her vision swam. She saw the warm yellow and blue sky swirling like the froth atop a fancy coffee drink and thought she could not move. But slowly, though she knew not the time it took, the pain started to return. Everything was hurting.

“Pull the Corporal away!” shouted a squaddie, “pull her away now! Into the building!”

A woman nearby was shouting. “Shit, it’s an Orc! We got an Orc coming!”

“Since when do Orcs have guns that big?” A man replied. Gulab felt herself dragged.

“It’s got a seventy-six, how the heck did they mount that on an Orc!”

Everyone around her was shouting. Everyone one the radio was shouting too.

Caelia’s voice on the radio was firm. “Firing Armor-Piercing High Explosive!”

Gulab thought she saw the flash of the gun at the corner of her eyes.

Then a greater flash as a larger, redder tracer that went flying past the tank.

It exploded far behind them in a plume of fire. Gulab saw it as she was taken away.

“Crap, that would’ve wrecked us. Danielle, back off! We can’t fight it head-on!”

Harmony came briefly into her field of view as it retreated quickly around the corner.

More voices on the radio, some too sharp, some too soft, she could barely register–

“Danielle, keep hidden, I’m going out–”

“Caelia, wait. What are you doing?”

“We need to call in artillery. I’ll grab the shooting table and map from Corporal Kajari. Then, I guess, I’m going to duck out of this building, and have a really terrible time.”

“Please be careful.”

“I’ll be fine, I think. I hope.”

“Well wishes.”

Gulab felt all the voices starting to converge and the world go darker.

She saw a roof, sliding over her head, and a half-dozen faces.

Private Suessen was the last one before everything fell away to shadow.

“You’re going to be ok, Corporal.”


City of Rangda, Umaru Park

A hundred 76mm shells and something on the order of fifty 82mm mortar rounds had fallen on Umaru Park, and that had been enough almost to wipe it from the map. Trees splintered and burned and had to be put out. Through the gouges in the earth one could trace lines from the edge of the park right to its center, almost like a star pattern with many arms. It was as if a perfect stencil, a flawless artillery dispersion chart, like the ones Adesh had drawn for practice in camp, had been superimposed right on the park.

There was nothing left but corpses, stirred earth, blood and water from broken underground pipes and smashed fountains, turning the soil to mud. Intermittent patches of grass looked eerie amid the wasteland. Not much of the little park wood was left. Perhaps three or four stubborn trees, their crowns mostly burnt or smashed off.

It was a scene as if from a nightmare, but it was real, and Adesh had helped cause it.

And yet it stirred little emotion in him. He sat on the track of the Chimera, parked along one of the roads framing the park, waiting for further orders, with a head that was mostly clear. He felt like he was daydreaming on the border to Adjar again, just staring up at the wide open skies without aim or ambition. There was bustle around him. Motorcycle infantry stood guard around the approaches, and a security detail from the rear arrived to help clean up bodies and to pick through the area for survivors, supplies, anything.

“You okay?”

Nnenia leaned down from the side of the Chimera. Atop the vehicle, Eshe was talking with Rahani, perhaps about what responsibilities being an artillery officer entailed.

“Are you?” She asked again.

“I’m fine.” Adesh said. “Maybe too fine.”

“Too fine?”

Adesh smiled. Even the smile felt strange. “Nnenia, how do you deal with this? I don’t know whether I’m going insane by stressing about it or going insane because I accept it. My head feels really empty right now. And my heart’s all a mess of emotions.”

“I’ve dealt with worse.”

“I can’t imagine there’s worse.”

Nnenia’s eyes trailed off, as if she couldn’t bear to maintain contact.

“I’ll tell you sometime.” She said.

Adesh bowed his head. He hoped he hadn’t offended her. “Alright. Sorry.”

She shook her head. “It’s ok. You have a reason to fight?”

That was perhaps the longest sentence Adesh ever heard Nnenia string.

He really did not feel like he had a good answer.

“I just want everyone to be ok.” Adesh said.

“Me too.”

“That’s all?”

‘That’s all.”

Nnenia shrugged and pulled herself back up to the Chimera.

Adesh sighed. Perhaps nobody had an answer.

It was almost frustrating. Training was fine; in fact, training felt empowering. He felt ready to fight, ready to walk alongside everyone. He didn’t feel scared of Nocht. Yes, there was some trepidation fighting the 8th Division, because they were Ayvartans too. But this felt different. He felt an overarching unease with war that he could not afford. He was a soldier. And on some level, he wanted to be. He wanted to destroy all of these bad people.

He remembered the anger he felt toward that pilot in Adjar.

He still felt that anger.

He just didn’t know exactly what to do with it; or whether it was right to feel at all.

Fighting should have been the place where he felt most at ease with these emotions.

But it was hard to subsume it all even as he did the mechanical actions of fighting.

He could ignore it, but he couldn’t make it completely go away.

And right as he was getting lost in these thoughts, he heard banging on the metal.

“Adesh, come up, you need to hear this!”

He heard Eshe’s voice, and leaped up onto the track and climbed into the compartment.

Everyone was huddled around the radio. Sergeant Rahani was trying to adjust it.

He finally seemed to turn the dials the correct way once Adesh climbed on.

Adesh donned his headset, and heard the call come in.

“–This is Tank Commander Caelia Suessen, calling for artillery support! We have a desperate situation in University Avenue! Come in! I know this is the right–”

She sounded very distressed. There was a lot of noise in the background.

Sergeant Rahani cut her off. “This is Sergeant Rahani of the 1st Self-Propelled Artillery Battery. I’ve got three guns ready to answer. Please call back with targeting data.”

As Rahani spoke to her he waved his hands toward the instruments.

Nnenia, Eshe and Adesh hastily took their places.

“Okay. Let’s see if I remember this.” Caelia took a deep breath on the radio. “Fire Mission, TRP,” she paused, and Adesh heard paper shuffling, “32917, fire for effect! Hurry!”

“Copy that.”

Sergeant Rahani signaled for Adesh, and then hailed the other two vehicles in their group.

Adesh picked up the map from the utility box inside the Chimera. He found the correct Target Registration Point. It was the end of University Avenue. Part of the TRP number was map grids, part of it was specific landmarks within the grid square coordinates that had been specifically numbered for quick prior registration. Once Adesh knew what the TRP was, he could run the math in his head to orient the tank toward the correct location.

“Kufu, swing forty degrees north-northwest. Nnenia, adjust elevation by twenty.”

Kufu, surly as usual, offered no response, but the tank started moving.

“Feeling better?” Nnenia asked.

“I’m dealing with it. Adjust elevation, please.” Adesh gently replied.

Nnenia nodded and turned the wheel.

Eshe stared at them for a moment before loading in the first shell.

“Alright, Tanker Suessen, we’re coordinating fire. Please hang on.” Rahani said.

“I’ve got no other choice!” She shouted back. Distinct rifle reports sounded near her.

Adesh felt nervous from the sounds, and from the general situation.

It was not panic; panic was for the war near one’s skin.

It was just a strange disquiet about his role.

There was a battle happening somewhere far that he was now involved in.

Her life, and that of her comrades, depended on him now.

And he could only hear her cries and the noise on the line.

Checking his instruments, he found everything aligned as it should be.

Adesh nodded to Eshe.

“Firing High Explosive!” Eshe called out.

Almost in unison, the three Chimera opened fire into the distant sky.

Adesh prayed he had done his math right.


 

City of Rangda, University Avenue

The 8th Division’s Lion Battalion were starting, against all odds, to attack.

Caelia could think of no other reason why she was seeing what seemed like dozens of soldiers and horses and even a tank gathering at the end of University Avenue.

Cavalry officers with swords in hand paraded around the arriving marching ranks. Dismounted fast attack troops with long, bayonet-equipped rifles formed up behind the third defensive line, taking what appeared to be a broad box formation. As the cavalry got ready to attack, the third defensive line gathered machine guns and mortars and anti-tank weaponry, and brought heavy fire down across the avenue at the former attackers.

Such was the volume of building fire that the second defensive line, captured by Red Squadron before, was completely abandoned. Red Squadron huddled inside a nearby building and Caelia crawled atop its roof, binoculars in hand, a radio at her side, praying that she was not discovered. Meanwhile Blue and Yellow squadron troops began to arrive and took up defenses behind Green, but all of them were stalled. Though they might repulse the incoming attack, it was going to be bloody unless something was done.

And the crown jewel of the enemy arsenal was that tank. It was an old Orc, antiquated compared to Harmony, but as a medium tank it was powerful in ways that mattered. Two rotund machine gun turrets on its front defended it from infantry, while a 76mm short-barreled artillery gun on its drum-like turret enabled it to lay down devastating fire on fortifications. It was an old tank, but it could still outshoot Harmony in direct combat, and was a deadly threat to the infantry while sequestered behind enemy lines.

Whenever that 76mm fired, Caelia could almost feel it under her own flesh.

Every minute or so it fired one thick, broad red tracer across the avenue.

It had hit their sandbags twice, and it had struck around Green Squadron’s wall too.

Now it was turning its turret before firing.

Caelia winced immediately upon seeing the direction of this next shot.

Bracing herself, she clung on to the roof as the building shook from a shell impact.

She heard screams under her and grit her teeth. There was nothing she could do.

“Come on, come on.” She mumbled. She was not a trained artillery observer, but she received enough cross training in it that she knew vaguely how to call for fires.

Now it was up the artillery to deliver. Holding her binoculars up, she watched with held breath as the tank’s turret continued to point their way, as the soldiers started marching, as the bulk of a spirited enemy attack began to make its deadly way down. They must have had at least a Company, and a Platoon was all that could meet them at the Avenue.

Then Caelia heard the tell-tale whistling of a shell flying overhead.

Nothing on their line had fired at her; so it was her own artillery.

Soon as she repositioned her binoculars and fixed on the enemy, she saw three large plumes of smoke rise around the tank and sandbags. It was instantaneous, as if it were not shells falling but explosives set off that were already there. Sandbags collapsed out onto the floor in front of the defensive line, and wounded soldiers shambled from the blast area in disarray, bleeding and dazed. A machine gun was silenced, a mortar blown up, and the cavalry assembling behind the defensive line started to split up for safety.

Behind the smoke the enemy Orc tank started to limp back from the craters.

“Confirmed effect on target!” Caelia called over the radio. “Adjust fire five north!”

“Acknowledged! Adjusting fire mission!” replied the pleasant but firm voice of the gun unit sergeant, Rahani. Within a few seconds he called again. “Shells going out!”

“Watching for effect on target.” Caelia called back, recalling the observer’s rote.

Almost as soon as she said this, the effect played out rather effectively on the target.

Though the shots were spread a little farther apart and the succession was much more deliberate, Caelia could not quibble with the results. She watched the first shell crash right behind the sandbags and scatter the defenders, destroying their machine guns, killing their gunners, and almost instantly relieving the pressure on Green Squadron.

One shell seemed to fall off the road, hitting nothing.

The Orc backed right into the final shell.

Like a spear fallen from heaven, it smashed through the turret roof and exploded inside the tank, ejecting its hatches, detonating the two front turrets as if in a chain reaction and setting fire to the tank. From the gun, a plume of smoke and tongues flame spilled out as if was equipped with a flamethrower rather than a cannon. It was catastrophic damage.

“Kill confirmed.” Caelia replied. “Good kills 1st Battery.”

“Any adjustments?”

Caelia was almost ready to breathe easy and call off the fire mission.

Inexplicably, the 8th Division’s Lion cavalry did not feel the same way.

With a great clamor, a united shout and raised fists, the assembled masses of the Lion battalion rushed past their defeated tank, vaulted over their crushed sandbag walls and dead gunners, and began an all-out death charge against the lower sandbag wall and against Red Squadron’s little stronghold off the road. Horses rode alongside them, spurring Lion’s fighters to action. Rifles and submachine guns flashed with the stoked fury of their wielders. A hundred men and women, it seemed, were running down.

Bullets started to whirl past Caelia, and she ducked and backed off the edge of the roof.

“Continue Fire Mission! Adjust fifteen down! We’ve got a column marching past the previous targets! I need all available guns, now, right now!” Caelia shouted.

“Acknowledged! Adjusting fire mission!”

Traces of gunfire flew out from under her, from inside the building. She briefly glanced and saw tracers from Red and Green taking small bites out of the mass, but the charge continued unabated, closing in meter by meter, undaunted by the resistance.

There were maybe eight people in fighting condition in her building and maybe twenty in the first defensive line. They could not hope to turn back an enemy this vehement.

Within the cacophony and panic, she felt the disquiet of her own heart to an ever greater extent. Her hands reached for the radio and she wanted to turn the knob, to call Danielle, to just tell her, to just admit to herself what she wanted, to throw away the fear. She, who had always known what to do with herself, what she wanted to do; how did she end up in this situation? How did she go from sound to silence in such a stark, maddening way?

Despite everything the fingers would not move over the dial. She wept. She couldn’t–

An operatic boom annihilated her every thought.

For an instant, feeling the roar of the shells, she thought they were meant for her.

Her beating heart and untouched flesh proved quickly otherwise.

It was University Avenue that was suffering this punishment.

Shells started falling from the sky like a shower of stars.

Within the fire and the smoke the charging warriors of the Lion Battalion disappeared.

Explosions swept viciously across the road and street like the successive stomping footsteps of a monster smashing and smashing away at cockroaches or ants, trailing meter by meter, a creeping barrage that saturated what felt like the entire Avenue with high explosive shells. It was only a select section, the section Caelia had called during her adjustment, but the saturation fire was so immense it seemed world ending.

Dozens of shells fell in intervals of four or five seconds each, a rate of fire that seemed impossible, inhuman. Amid the charging ranks, the blasts turned men to mush, the fragments clipped runners like an invisible tripwire, and vast swathes of humanity seemed to vaporize, there one moment and the next gone into smoke and fire.

And the sounds, oh the sounds! It was almost operatic, the rhythm, the vicious drumming of fire and force on concrete, the sifting of skyward dust falling back to earth, punctuated by the helpless, scattered reports of rifles, the almost tinny sounds of machine guns. Caelia felt like she was in a macabre orchestra. Had she done this? Was this her piece?

She had thought there were hundreds of men coming for her and her comrades.

Now it seemed that all of them were gone. That maybe they were never there.

“Kill confirmed, Tank Commander Suessen?” Rahani jovially asked. He sounded confident, despite being too far to see the handiwork of his troops. “Everything sounds mighty peaceful over there, so I hope you’re alright. We can’t do another of those.”

Surveying the devastation in shock and awe, Caelia could only call in the usual rote.

“Good kills, 1st Battery.”

Her fingers were still tempted to switch the frequency, to call Danielle and confess.

But the urgency was past. Instead, she just wanted to quietly contemplate the scene.

Her mind was still trying to turn the whole thing into music.

What would she title this piece? She had always been bad at titles.

Perhaps: “The Way Into Muhimu Shimba.”

The Battle of Rangda II (54.4)

This scene contains violence and death.


City of Rangda, Umaru Park

A hundred 76mm shells and something on the order of fifty 82mm mortar rounds had fallen on Umaru Park, and that had been enough almost to wipe it from the map. Trees splintered and burned and had to be put out. Through the gouges in the earth one could trace lines from the edge of the park right to its center, almost like a star pattern with many arms. It was as if a perfect stencil, a flawless artillery dispersion chart, like the ones Adesh had drawn for practice in camp, had been superimposed right on the park.

There was nothing left but corpses, stirred earth, blood and water from broken underground pipes and smashed fountains, turning the soil to mud. Intermittent patches of grass looked eerie amid the wasteland. Not much of the little park wood was left. Perhaps three or four stubborn trees, their crowns mostly burnt or smashed off.

It was a scene as if from a nightmare, but it was real, and Adesh had helped cause it.

And yet it stirred little emotion in him. He sat on the track of the Chimera, parked along one of the roads framing the park, waiting for further orders, with a head that was mostly clear. He felt like he was daydreaming on the border to Adjar again, just staring up at the wide open skies without aim or ambition. There was bustle around him. Motorcycle infantry stood guard around the approaches, and a security detail from the rear arrived to help clean up bodies and to pick through the area for survivors, supplies, anything.

“You okay?”

Nnenia leaned down from the side of the Chimera. Atop the vehicle, Eshe was talking with Rahani, perhaps about what responsibilities being an artillery officer entailed.

“Are you?” She asked again.

“I’m fine.” Adesh said. “Maybe too fine.”

“Too fine?”

Adesh smiled. Even the smile felt strange. “Nnenia, how do you deal with this? I don’t know whether I’m going insane by stressing about it or going insane because I accept it. My head feels really empty right now. And my heart’s all a mess of emotions.”

“I’ve dealt with worse.”

“I can’t imagine there’s worse.”

Nnenia’s eyes trailed off, as if she couldn’t bear to maintain contact.

“I’ll tell you sometime.” She said.

Adesh bowed his head. He hoped he hadn’t offended her. “Alright. Sorry.”

She shook her head. “It’s ok. You have a reason to fight?”

That was perhaps the longest sentence Adesh ever heard Nnenia string.

He really did not feel like he had a good answer.

“I just want everyone to be ok.” Adesh said.

“Me too.”

“That’s all?”

‘That’s all.”

Nnenia shrugged and pulled herself back up to the Chimera.

Adesh sighed. Perhaps nobody had an answer.

It was almost frustrating. Training was fine; in fact, training felt empowering. He felt ready to fight, ready to walk alongside everyone. He didn’t feel scared of Nocht. Yes, there was some trepidation fighting the 8th Division, because they were Ayvartans too. But this felt different. He felt an overarching unease with war that he could not afford. He was a soldier. And on some level, he wanted to be. He wanted to destroy all of these bad people.

He remembered the anger he felt toward that pilot in Adjar.

He still felt that anger.

He just didn’t know exactly what to do with it; or whether it was right to feel at all.

Fighting should have been the place where he felt most at ease with these emotions.

But it was hard to subsume it all even as he did the mechanical actions of fighting.

He could ignore it, but he couldn’t make it completely go away.

And right as he was getting lost in these thoughts, he heard banging on the metal.

“Adesh, come up, you need to hear this!”

He heard Eshe’s voice, and leaped up onto the track and climbed into the compartment.

Everyone was huddled around the radio. Sergeant Rahani was trying to adjust it.

He finally seemed to turn the dials the correct way once Adesh climbed on.

Adesh donned his headset, and heard the call come in.

“–This is Tank Commander Caelia Suessen, calling for artillery support! We have a desperate situation in University Avenue! Come in! I know this is the right–”

She sounded very distressed. There was a lot of noise in the background.

Sergeant Rahani cut her off. “This is Sergeant Rahani of the 1st Self-Propelled Artillery Battery. I’ve got three guns ready to answer. Please call back with targeting data.”

As Rahani spoke to her he waved his hands toward the instruments.

Nnenia, Eshe and Adesh hastily took their places.

“Okay. Let’s see if I remember this.” Caelia took a deep breath on the radio. “Fire Mission, TRP,” she paused, and Adesh heard paper shuffling, “32917, fire for effect! Hurry!”

“Copy that.”

Sergeant Rahani signaled for Adesh, and then hailed the other two vehicles in their group.

Adesh picked up the map from the utility box inside the Chimera. He found the correct Target Registration Point. It was the end of University Avenue. Part of the TRP number was map grids, part of it was specific landmarks within the grid square coordinates that had been specifically numbered for quick prior registration. Once Adesh knew what the TRP was, he could run the math in his head to orient the tank toward the correct location.

“Kufu, swing forty degrees north-northwest. Nnenia, adjust elevation by twenty.”

Kufu, surly as usual, offered no response, but the tank started moving.

“Feeling better?” Nnenia asked.

“I’m dealing with it. Adjust elevation, please.” Adesh gently replied.

Nnenia nodded and turned the wheel.

Eshe stared at them for a moment before loading in the first shell.

“Alright, Tanker Suessen, we’re coordinating fire. Please hang on.” Rahani said.

“I’ve got no other choice!” She shouted back. Distinct rifle reports sounded near her.

Adesh felt nervous from the sounds, and from the general situation.

It was not panic; panic was for the war near one’s skin.

It was just a strange disquiet about his role.

There was a battle happening somewhere far that he was now involved in.

Her life, and that of her comrades, depended on him now.

And he could only hear her cries and the noise on the line.

Checking his instruments, he found everything aligned as it should be.

Adesh nodded to Eshe.

“Firing High Explosive!” Eshe called out.

Almost in unison, the three Chimera opened fire into the distant sky.

Adesh prayed he had done his math right.


City of Rangda, University Avenue

The 8th Division’s Lion Battalion were starting, against all odds, to attack.

Caelia could think of no other reason why she was seeing what seemed like dozens of soldiers and horses and even a tank gathering at the end of University Avenue.

Cavalry officers with swords in hand paraded around the arriving marching ranks. Dismounted fast attack troops with long, bayonet-equipped rifles formed up behind the third defensive line, taking what appeared to be a broad box formation. As the cavalry got ready to attack, the third defensive line gathered machine guns and mortars and anti-tank weaponry, and brought heavy fire down across the avenue at the former attackers.

Such was the volume of building fire that the second defensive line, captured by Red Squadron before, was completely abandoned. Red Squadron huddled inside a nearby building and Caelia crawled atop its roof, binoculars in hand, a radio at her side, praying that she was not discovered. Meanwhile Blue and Yellow squadron troops began to arrive and took up defenses behind Green, but all of them were stalled. Though they might repulse the incoming attack, it was going to be bloody unless something was done.

And the crown jewel of the enemy arsenal was that tank. It was an old Orc, antiquated compared to Harmony, but as a medium tank it was powerful in ways that mattered. Two rotund machine gun turrets on its front defended it from infantry, while a 76mm short-barreled artillery gun on its drum-like turret enabled it to lay down devastating fire on fortifications. It was an old tank, but it could still outshoot Harmony in direct combat, and was a deadly threat to the infantry while sequestered behind enemy lines.

Whenever that 76mm fired, Caelia could almost feel it under her own flesh.

Every minute or so it fired one thick, broad red tracer across the avenue.

It had hit their sandbags twice, and it had struck around Green Squadron’s wall too.

Now it was turning its turret before firing.

Caelia winced immediately upon seeing the direction of this next shot.

Bracing herself, she clung on to the roof as the building shook from a shell impact.

She heard screams under her and grit her teeth. There was nothing she could do.

“Come on, come on.” She mumbled. She was not a trained artillery observer, but she received enough cross training in it that she knew vaguely how to call for fires.

Now it was up the artillery to deliver. Holding her binoculars up, she watched with held breath as the tank’s turret continued to point their way, as the soldiers started marching, as the bulk of a spirited enemy attack began to make its deadly way down. They must have had at least a Company, and a Platoon was all that could meet them at the Avenue.

Then Caelia heard the tell-tale whistling of a shell flying overhead.

Nothing on their line had fired at her; so it was her own artillery.

Soon as she repositioned her binoculars and fixed on the enemy, she saw three large plumes of smoke rise around the tank and sandbags. It was instantaneous, as if it were not shells falling but explosives set off that were already there. Sandbags collapsed out onto the floor in front of the defensive line, and wounded soldiers shambled from the blast area in disarray, bleeding and dazed. A machine gun was silenced, a mortar blown up, and the cavalry assembling behind the defensive line started to split up for safety.

Behind the smoke the enemy Orc tank started to limp back from the craters.

“Confirmed effect on target!” Caelia called over the radio. “Adjust fire five north!”

“Acknowledged! Adjusting fire mission!” replied the pleasant but firm voice of the gun unit sergeant, Rahani. Within a few seconds he called again. “Shells going out!”

“Watching for effect on target.” Caelia called back, recalling the observer’s rote.

Almost as soon as she said this, the effect played out rather effectively on the target.

Though the shots were spread a little farther apart and the succession was much more deliberate, Caelia could not quibble with the results. She watched the first shell crash right behind the sandbags and scatter the defenders, destroying their machine guns, killing their gunners, and almost instantly relieving the pressure on Green Squadron.

One shell seemed to fall off the road, hitting nothing.

The Orc backed right into the final shell.

Like a spear fallen from heaven, it smashed through the turret roof and exploded inside the tank, ejecting its hatches, detonating the two front turrets as if in a chain reaction and setting fire to the tank. From the gun, a plume of smoke and tongues flame spilled out as if was equipped with a flamethrower rather than a cannon. It was catastrophic damage.

“Kill confirmed.” Caelia replied. “Good kills 1st Battery.”

“Any adjustments?”

Caelia was almost ready to breathe easy and call off the fire mission.

Inexplicably, the 8th Division’s Lion cavalry did not feel the same way.

With a great clamor, a united shout and raised fists, the assembled masses of the Lion battalion rushed past their defeated tank, vaulted over their crushed sandbag walls and dead gunners, and began an all-out death charge against the lower sandbag wall and against Red Squadron’s little stronghold off the road. Horses rode alongside them, spurring Lion’s fighters to action. Rifles and submachine guns flashed with the stoked fury of their wielders. A hundred men and women, it seemed, were running down.

Bullets started to whirl past Caelia, and she ducked and backed off the edge of the roof.

“Continue Fire Mission! Adjust fifteen down! We’ve got a column marching past the previous targets! I need all available guns, now, right now!” Caelia shouted.

“Acknowledged! Adjusting fire mission!”

Traces of gunfire flew out from under her, from inside the building. She briefly glanced and saw tracers from Red and Green taking small bites out of the mass, but the charge continued unabated, closing in meter by meter, undaunted by the resistance.

There were maybe eight people in fighting condition in her building and maybe twenty in the first defensive line. They could not hope to turn back an enemy this vehement.

Within the cacophony and panic, she felt the disquiet of her own heart to an ever greater extent. Her hands reached for the radio and she wanted to turn the knob, to call Danielle, to just tell her, to just admit to herself what she wanted, to throw away the fear. She, who had always known what to do with herself, what she wanted to do; how did she end up in this situation? How did she go from sound to silence in such a stark, maddening way?

Despite everything the fingers would not move over the dial. She wept. She couldn’t–

An operatic boom annihilated her every thought.

For an instant, feeling the roar of the shells, she thought they were meant for her.

Her beating heart and untouched flesh proved quickly otherwise.

It was University Avenue that was suffering this punishment.

Shells started falling from the sky like a shower of stars.

Within the fire and the smoke the charging warriors of the Lion Battalion disappeared.

Explosions swept viciously across the road and street like the successive stomping footsteps of a monster smashing and smashing away at cockroaches or ants, trailing meter by meter, a creeping barrage that saturated what felt like the entire Avenue with high explosive shells. It was only a select section, the section Caelia had called during her adjustment, but the saturation fire was so immense it seemed world ending.

Dozens of shells fell in intervals of four or five seconds each, a rate of fire that seemed impossible, inhuman. Amid the charging ranks, the blasts turned men to mush, the fragments clipped runners like an invisible tripwire, and vast swathes of humanity seemed to vaporize, there one moment and the next gone into smoke and fire.

And the sounds, oh the sounds! It was almost operatic, the rhythm, the vicious drumming of fire and force on concrete, the sifting of skyward dust falling back to earth, punctuated by the helpless, scattered reports of rifles, the almost tinny sounds of machine guns. Caelia felt like she was in a macabre orchestra. Had she done this? Was this her piece?

She had thought there were hundreds of men coming for her and her comrades.

Now it seemed that all of them were gone. That maybe they were never there.

“Kill confirmed, Tank Commander Suessen?” Rahani jovially asked. He sounded confident, despite being too far to see the handiwork of his troops. “Everything sounds mighty peaceful over there, so I hope you’re alright. We can’t do another of those.”

Surveying the devastation in shock and awe, Caelia could only call in the usual rote.

“Good kills, 1st Battery.”

Her fingers were still tempted to switch the frequency, to call Danielle and confess.

But the urgency was past. Instead, she just wanted to quietly contemplate the scene.

Her mind was still trying to turn the whole thing into music.

What would she title this piece? She had always been bad at titles.

Perhaps: “The Way Into Muhimu Shimba.”


 

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The Battle of Rangda II (54.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


City of Rangda, University Avenue

Orange-tinged in the morning light, the defenses at University Avenue looked static, peaceful, unprepared amid routine personnel rotation for the death swooping close.

“Hang on tight!” Danielle shouted over the radio.

Gulab could not have clung more tightly, and yet the ride was no more safe.

As the enemy line came clearly into view, Harmony sped up to its maximum speed.

At home on the roads, the Kobold accelerated to fifty kilometers per hour.

Gulab saw the faces of the enemy soldiers darken, incredulous, as they spotted the tank and trucks barreling toward their suddenly unprepared defenses. Horses stood out in the open, and there were many men and women loitering around the sandbags waiting for orders to regroup or retreat or transfer. Several guns lay abandoned during the shuffle, and when Harmony charged into combat range there were many soldiers out of cover.

The Kobold’s crew wasted no time engaging.

“Firing High Explosive!” Caelia shouted.

Gulab heard a loud report and saw the gun flash ahead.

She felt the turret shake, and it almost caused her to slip back on it. Pressing the Norgler up against the turret, she managed to hook the empty bipod mount against the handle on Caelia’s hatch, and in so doing, just barely maintained her grip on the firearm.

Some 500 meters ahead the shell slammed into the middle of the sandbag wall and displaced several layers of fortification. Alarmed, 8th Division soldiers ran every which way around the first sandbag wall. Horses fled from the flash and noise of the tank gun. Gunners rushed back to weapons that were aiming at haphazard directions or completely dismantled for transport. Caelia gave them no respite. Directly after firing its explosive shell, Harmony’s turret screeched with automatic gunfire, its coaxial Khroda machine gun spitting out thick lines of furious red tracers that crashed wildly across the sandbags.

“Corporal, you brought that thing out for a reason, open fire!” Private Suessen shouted.

“Sure thing pal! Here goes nothing!” Gulab responded.

Without any idea of what to expect, she held down the trigger on the Norgler.

Kicking and screaming were the immediate effects.

Then came a rate of fire too intense to be real.

She had never fired a Norgler; Gulab had only been on the receiving end. Shooting it felt like becoming acquainted with the monster anew. Operating the weapon felt like wrangling a thrashing boar. From the moment she held down the trigger the weapon seemed to feel compelled to drag in all of the belt on her shoulder, pushing what felt like hundreds of rounds through its barrel. Livid green tracers soared in long, horrifically quick bursts, ending only when Gulab’s finger swung off the trigger by accident and resuming immediately as she pressed down again. Smoke wafted up from the barrel’s frontal cone, and the sides of the gun flashed red through slits cut along its length.

That familiar infernal sawing noise punctuated the moment.

Gulab struggled to hold the weapon in place, and her gunfire swept and sliced from street to street and across the front and over the top of the sandbag defenses. Bullets went flying in seemingly every direction ahead of the hurtling light tank. Small traces of dust kicked up wherever she hit from the sheer velocity of the rounds; part of the sandbag wall became so saturated with her gunfire that it seemed a small cloud of smoke formed there.

She had little control, and yet, the endless screeching and the strong kick and the sheer volume of bullets produced an intoxicating effect that brought a sick grin to Gulab’s face.

Why hadn’t she stolen one of these before? They were incredible!

Like any Norgler attack the effect was immediate. Under this loud, incessant barrage and with a tank speeding toward them gaining over ten meters a second, the defenders panicked. Several fled the sandbag wall, while others hid ineffectively. Every head, every gun, every limb, hid away from the shower of lead. Resistance from the first tier of defenses ceased entirely as the tank descended on them. In seconds Harmony closed in.

“Hold on Corporal!” Danielle called again.

Gulab ducked her head behind the turret as Harmony plowed through the sandbags.

Shrugging aside the defense, sending sandbags and chunks of wooden crate and pieces of metal flying out from under and around its tracks, the tank barely slowed as it crushed a machine gun and its operator underfoot and finally penetrated inside University Avenue.

Danielle hit the brake; Gulab slammed roughly into the turret.

Her crazed Norgler dropped clumsily to the side of the turret, and the strap nearly pulled her shoulder out of place as she half-fell off the sloped rear of the Kobold tank.

“Hey, watch it!” Gulab cried out.

Behind her, the trucks braked harshly to a stop, and disgorged dozens of her comrades.

Submachine guns and rifles to their shoulders, they charged past her into battle.

Grumbling, Gulab tugged on her shoulder strap until it lifted from the antennae mount.

So released, she slid farther down the engine cover, almost dropping from the tank entirely. Climbing back on, she crouched around the side of the turret, atop the ventilation grating, grabbing hold of the Norgler once more. She pulled open the top, and reloaded the machine gun with one of her belts. This time she hooked herself to a turret foothold.

“How’s–”

Before Gulab could even start her sentence Caelia was already shouting into the radio.

“There’s an engineer in that building– CABLE CHARGE! Fall back!”

Harmony reversed, turned its turret and opened machine gun fire on a distant building.

It was too late to stop the trap.

Across the road in front of them a dozen explosions went off all at once.

Gulab almost thought it was artillery. But the blasts came from underground.

Huge columns of dust and smoke blew in from cracks in the earth as the road several meters behind the first sandbag wall collapsed into the sewer below, forming a ditch almost five meters deep in an instant. The wound cut right across the front of their advance, stretching from one side of the street the other, across the road, and even collapsing the street corners around the nearest buildings on University Avenue.

Harmony was far back enough that it received only dust and chunks of hard road tar.

Red and Green squadron troops fell back from the blasts, some wounded by the shock. Gulab saw nobody fall into the ditch, but the squadrons broke up as comrades converged on the wounded and pulled them back around the tank. Nobody was attacking anymore.

Before the dust even settled there were tracer rounds flying in from behind the cloud.

“Caelia, we can’t drive over that, get around it!” Gulab shouted.

“Danielle!” Caelia shouted in turn.

“I’m on it, I’m on it!”

Harmony lurched back suddenly in reverse, swung itself around, and turned to face the glass maw of a nearby fashion boutique just a few meters back from the sandbags.

“Hold on tight!”

“You keep saying that but it never helps–”

Gulab’s shouting turned to incoherent screaming as Harmony hurtled suddenly into the street and shot its gun into the store. There were a series of rough bumping noises as the road wheels experienced the elevation shift from the road and the ditch to the street level, and then a storm of glass and soft stuccoed brick as they went crashing through the front.

Fancy lace gowns and fur scarves and silk pantyhose flew into the air as the tank ground through the mannequins, over the counter, burst through the back, the structure weakened by the high explosive shell. Out in the rear parking lot, surrounded by palm trees planted on ornate raised brick beds framing the blacktop, Harmony turned around again and ran along the back street, parallel to the road was barred to them. There were palm trees flanking them as far as the eye could see and the back street was tighter than the main road, but all the same buildings and the same destination was ahead of them.

Gulab was so in shock throughout this maneuver she forgot to call her troops.

Ducking behind the turret, with one hand on the norgler and another on mic, she hailed.

“Red Squadron!” Gulab shouted, her hair whipping in the wind as Harmony soared. “Run through the clothes shop and follow us! Green Squadron, hold the rear sandbag wall!”

“Firing Armor-Piercing High Explosive!” Caelia suddenly shouted.

“YOU’RE WHAT?”

Gulab peeked her head around the turret again in confusion.

In the ensuing chaos, she just barely spotted an armored car running in from around the buildings ahead, in time for the Kobold’s 45mm gun plant a shell through its top-heavy machine gun turret and burst half the vehicle open like a tin can under pressure. As if still alive under its own power the car turned clumsily toward them, catching on fire.

At seemingly a hundred kilometers per hour, screaming fast, the car rushed for them.

Danielle gasped into the radio. “Um! Hang on! We’re ramming or something!”

“Ramming?” Caelia shouted.

Gulab rushed behind the turret again with a panicked gasp.

She felt the wind rush past, and a surge of hot air.

She heard leaves rustle and brick crack and sift.

She distinctly did not feel or hear herself die screaming as a car flew over them.

Danielle breathed deep on the radio. “Phew! It missed us. Are you ok corporal?”

Gulab tentatively peeked around the turret again, and found a gap in the line of palm trees. It indicated where the armored car had veered away from them, lost control, chopped through a raised bed and slammed through the side of a nondescript building.

“No. I think I died.” Gulab said in exasperation.

“Rest in peace.” Caelia jokingly replied.

Harmony slowed to a less reckless pace, calmly bypassing several buildings, and then angled itself around a Civil Canteen. Edging around a corner and back into the main road, the tankers and Gulab caught sight of the second tier of the enemy’s defenses, slowly regrouping. Behind them, Red Squadron’s ten remaining soldiers ran through the gouged-out clothing shop and into the back street, and hurried to catch up.

Gulab waved them over. “Red, we’re about to attack, hurry.”

“Corporal, tell us when we’re formed up.” Caelia said.

“I will.” Gulab replied, keeping an eye on her troops.

Meanwhile the tankers called each other on the open line.

“Caelia, do you want to go fast or steady?” Danielle asked.

“Keep it steady this time.”

“Oh? Not fast? My my, how unlike you.”

Caelia sighed, a bit wistful. “Well. I don’t know–”

“I was just teasing! I support you wanting to go slow sometimes.”

“Thank you. It’s silly, but that means a lot to me.”

Gulab blinked at the tanker’s rapport, and crouched beside the turret.

Around the corner she saw gunfire being traded.

Tracers flew from both sides of the ditch. Green Squadron was holding down the end of University Avenue, while the 8th Division’s defenders on the second tier, in the middle of the Avenue, clustered around their sandbags for cover. There were men and women retreating from the gun battle, perhaps to organize a defense of the backstreet now that the tank had, in their eyes, disappeared from the main road. Gulab didn’t know.

She did know the defense still looked to be in disarray. There were guns abandoned along the sides of the road and left unmanned on the line itself. Defenders fought on with rifles and light Danava machine guns instead of with their Khrodas and AT guns and mortars. They were in a mind to retreat; perhaps this wasn’t a troop rotation at all. Maybe they had been getting ready to vacate the line. Maybe a little push was all they needed to rout.

Gulab was more than happy to provide that push.

Soon as her Red Squadron formed up behind the tank, Gulab nodded to them.

At once, they nodded back, submachine guns and rifles in hand.

“Tankies, get moving!”

“Yes ma’am!” Caelia and Danielle said at once.

Harmony let out a furious shout from its engine and steadily took the corner.

Gulab pointed the Norgler in the general direction of the enemy line and held it down.

She was almost on her belly and the gun was almost controllable.

From the barrel cone a shower of green tracers fell savagely on the sandbag wall. Caught unawares, a pair of machine gunners shooting over the fortifications were hit about the shoulders and face and collapsed behind the wall. Riflemen all along the line ducked for cover as Caelia joined the attack, her turret-mounted Khroda supplementing the Norgler’s gunfire. Red and green tracers flashed together in the air, laying down suppressing fire.

Around the tank’s sides, Red Squadron advanced diligently, split into five on the right and five on the left. Submachine gun fire peppered the defenders, keeping them off their machine guns. Harmony’s turret roared once more, and behind the line a mortar went up in pieces. Like an arrow plunging into a breast, they advanced from the corner, into the road, and diagonally up against the second sandbag wall. Retaliatory fire bounced off the tank. Not one grenade was thrown. More and more defenders huddled rather than fight.

It didn’t take much more of this punishment for the 8th Division to retreat.

As Gulab suspected, the defenders broke and tumbled out from behind the sandbags, amid the gunfire, unable to take any more. Several were cut down almost by accident by the sheer volume of automatic fire bearing down on their line. Dozens of people seemed to pop up as if from out of nowhere, running for their lives from behind the contested walls.

Red Squadron left the side of the tank and formed up on the opposite side of the sandbags.

Gulab dropped off the side of Harmony as it maneuvered itself behind the wall, and ran up. She slid to a crouch behind the sandbags, taking the same position as her own troops.

“Green Squadron, hold fire and get ready to move up! Red Squadron, slap the abandoned Khrodas around and use them!” Gulab shouted. She was unused to giving tactical orders, but it was not a responsibility she resented. It was a natural order to give now.

All along the wall there were weapons ripe for the taking. Red Squadron fighters turned Khrodas once facing south toward the north, targeting the final line and the runners. Two intact machine guns and, surprisingly, a small mortar, were captured immediately, and soon employed in this way. Ammunition for them was plentiful on the other side of the wall, and it was all grabbed and pulled over the sandbags to their side and employed.

In less than a minute they had their own defensive line set up, and it was their turn to fight from a strongpoint. Stolen Khroda guns flashed red tracers up the streets. Light mortar shells soared overhead and fell around the third line of defense. Gulab pulled up her binoculars and saw men and horses vaulting over the final line, and others congregating behind it. There was only a third of University Avenue left to go.

She felt a surge of pride and power and accomplishment. She had helped this happen.

Absentmindedly pulling back the charging handle on the Norgler, readying to fight, Gulab found herself unfortunately dry of ammunition. No more belts, no more sawing.

“Oh shit. I’m gonna miss this stupid thing.” She lamented.

Gulab dropped the Norgler on the floor and peered over the sandbags, searching the 8th Division’s abandoned side of the wall for a familiar discarded rifle or submachine gun.

Before finding any weapons, she saw the flash, and the next instant, the fire.

She was struck by a power that took the world from her in a split second.

From across the Avenue a shell came smashing into the sandbag wall, just six or seven meters away. Gulab felt the heat, briefly, and a surge of force that pushed her back onto the road and off the sandbags. As she fell back, she saw the fragments come flying like a cloud of knives, fast, like hundreds of needle-shaped bullets from one single smoking cannon. Across her cheek, around her arms, into her hip, she felt the chunks go slicing.

She was frozen in that moment, as if she could see the individual pieces of metal go flying, and she thought to move this way or that as if that decision could affect anything, and perhaps she did; perhaps she avoided death then. It was impossible to confirm, it was a dreamlike state, a suspension of a moment that should have been imperceptible.

Then the moment passed, paradoxically long enough and much too brief.

She was no longer suspended, and time was cruelly flowing.

Gulab hit the ground hard. She found the world shaking and eerily silent, and she was deafened and numb. Her vision swam. She saw the warm yellow and blue sky swirling like the froth atop a fancy coffee drink and thought she could not move. But slowly, though she knew not the time it took, the pain started to return. Everything was hurting.

“Pull the Corporal away!” shouted a squaddie, “pull her away now! Into the building!”

A woman nearby was shouting. “Shit, it’s an Orc! We got an Orc coming!”

“Since when do Orcs have guns that big?” A man replied. Gulab felt herself dragged.

“It’s got a seventy-six, how the heck did they mount that on an Orc!”

Everyone around her was shouting. Everyone one the radio was shouting too.

Caelia’s voice on the radio was firm. “Firing Armor-Piercing High Explosive!”

Gulab thought she saw the flash of the gun at the corner of her eyes.

Then a greater flash as a larger, redder tracer that went flying past the tank.

It exploded far behind them in a plume of fire. Gulab saw it as she was taken away.

“Crap, that would’ve wrecked us. Danielle, back off! We can’t fight it head-on!”

Harmony came briefly into her field of view as it retreated quickly around the corner.

More voices on the radio, some too sharp, some too soft, she could barely register–

“Danielle, keep hidden, I’m going out–”

“Caelia, wait. What are you doing?”

“We need to call in artillery. I’ll grab the shooting table and map from Corporal Kajari. Then, I guess, I’m going to duck out of this building, and have a really terrible time.”

“Please be careful.”

“I’ll be fine, I think. I hope.”

“Well wishes.”

Gulab felt all the voices starting to converge and the world go darker.

She saw a roof, sliding over her head, and a half-dozen faces.

Private Suessen was the last one before everything fell away to shadow.

“You’re going to be ok, Corporal.”


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The Battle of Rangda II (54.2)

This scene contains violence and death.


City of Rangda, Streets of Northeast Rangda

So strong was Lieutenant Munira’s voice that bad audio did nothing to diminish her cry.

“Comrades, we are taking Umaru park! After the initial salvo, we charge! Show no fear to the craven enemy! We have the utmost superiority over them, tactically and morally!”

On nearby vehicles, Adesh saw fists raised into the air in excitement, and heard shouts.

That necessary salvo mentioned by the Lieutenant would end up being the responsibility of the Chimera self-propelled guns. No other artillery was ready to deploy. Adesh peeked his head around the sloped armor of the gun casemate, scanning his surroundings.

Slow and steady, their Chimera was in motion. Their three-gun unit of Chimeras trailed behind a large column of soldiers on motorcycles and on foot. More Chimeras followed, but the bulk of the column was composed of sleek motorcycles. Some of the motorcycles towed mortars behind them, and lagged along the edges of the column, while others had Khroda machine guns affixed to the side-car that they could shoot. Those had proven useful in the last roadblock, which had been budged aside with minimal effort of the column. Now they were slightly uphill from their next objective, which was in sight.

Atop the hill, the Chimeras halted. They were not that high above the target. Ahead of them the road descended maybe a dozen meters and expanded around a small woodland park. Ditches had been cut around the park to prevent the entry of tanks, and a triangle formation of trenches chock-full of men and women defending the approaches. Machine guns and mortars were visible in special mesh-netted foxholes behind the trenches.

Umaru was the hinge between Rangda University and Forest Park, directly connected to the main avenues and roadways running along Northern and Eastern Rangda. Adesh understood as much just from looking at the map. His eyes naturally drew a line between each of the main, circled objectives, forming a triangle. One of the triangle’s sides ran right through Umaru. It was a prime spot to support attacks on the two linked areas.

As the column reorganized in preparation for the attack, all of the men in ordinary motorcycles dismounted them and hid them in buildings and around alleys. Only the motorcycles with machine gun sidecars remained mounted. Mortar-carrying bikes were parked near the Chimeras, and their tubes were deployed by the riders and passengers.

There were at least fifty or sixty men and women from the few dozen ordinary bikes who were loading up with weapons and ammunition and making preparations to fight on foot.

“Can’t they fight in their bikes? Wouldn’t it be safer?” Adesh asked.

“Too exposed.” Nnenia replied, in her trademark fashion.

“She’s right.” Eshe said. “They don’t have any armor on those things, and no matter how fast they go they could run into gunfire and die if they don’t have cover or armor.”

“Makes sense.” Adesh said. He felt stupid for asking.

Behind the three of them, Sergeant Rahani sat against the rear armor, whistling.

“How are you holding up?” He asked.

“Me?” Adesh asked back.

“Yes, you.” Rahani said. He smiled. “You look concerned.”

Adesh scratched his hair. “I recall that we’re not supposed to fight from atop hills.”

This was not his chief concern, though it was written in their fighting manuals that they should use the sides of hills for cover and not fight directly atop them. Doing so would expose them to enemy artillery and air attacks. Higher elevation had to be used sparingly.

Sergeant Rahani giggled.

“We’re in an urban environment, so unfortunately the hillsides are all occupied by buildings. We can’t really fight well in the blocks, so we have to stick to the roads.”

He reached out and patted Adesh on the side.

Adesh thought that the Sergeant must have known something else was bothering him, but he did not pry, and Adesh was thankful for it. In reality, Adesh’s concerns were greater than what could be covered by a tactical manual. Rolling in his head was a mixture of anger and guilt and trepidation and shock all of which individually fed into the others.

Above all, he wanted to believe in Colonel Nakar. She was a hero; she was their hero!

He wanted to believe in his friends too. He wanted to protect them, to be with them.

He supposed that the 8th Division had their own heroes who they followed, too, and their own friends they needed to protect. It was easier to see this with them than with Nocht.

To him Nocht were demons; thinking of them summoned an anger and a fear quite different from what he felt for the 8th Division. Nocht were not human. But the 8th Division were his own people and he was so confused, so torn. It was hard to deal with.

Looking around himself he saw Nnenia’s stoic affect, Rahani’s warmth and Eshe’s gallant confidence and he wondered if they were torn up inside too. He did not want to ask them. He did not want to become a burden to them, to trouble them.

Instead he kept the turmoil inside, and faced forward again.

Lieutenant Munira came on the radio.

“We will begin with a twenty-gun salute to our wayward friends! May the light of Diyam deliver them. All Self-Propelled Guns fire a ten-shell rolling barrage on mark!”

Adesh checked his optical equipment. He had instruments to measure distance and orientation of his target, to adjust gun elevation to a fine degree, as well as ordinary sights for direct fire. Using his map, which had been hand-gridded by the artillery section computing team, he adjusted the direction and elevation of the gun to fire on the park. Nnenia turned the wheels and performed the mechanical adjustment; Kufu drove the vehicle as a whole and begrudgingly turned it in the directions Adesh called out.

For the rolling barrage he would shift elevation a set amount after each shot.

Just as he was nearly done with his preparations, the Lieutenant’s voice sounded anew.

“Fire Mission, TRP 68493. Fire for effect! Mark!”

Sergeant Rahani got on his own radio and called the two other Chimeras in the platoon.

Eshe looked at his watch and then helped Nnenia load the gun with a 76mm shell.

Finally Adesh pulled the lever and discharged the ordnance.

He felt the great thundering force of the gun as the shell soared skyward.

Off into the morning sky the red tracer joined over a dozen other shells.

Adesh quickly turned to his long-range periscoping sight.

He laid eyes on the park in time to watch the first shells land on the exterior trenches. In quick succession the individual shells struck the ground with a great clamor. There were terrible fiery flashes, and dust and smoke blew up in front of the trenches, sending sandbags flying and cutting great gouges into the soft soil. It was hard to tell which shell had been his until his brain recalled the exact calculations he had done. Judging by the effects, he had put his shell right on the lower edge of the park, as he had wanted.

Before the smoke could even begin to settle the guns were ready for the second shot.

“You’re doing great, my beautiful crew!” Rahani called out. “Adesh, calculations!”

He was already planning to say it. He knew what to do.

“Shift five degrees up!” Adesh called out.

Nnenia nodded and turned the elevation lever, raising the cannon the few degrees needed, while Eshe loaded the gun. Sergeant Rahani relayed the adjustments to the other guns. It was hectic. For Adesh it felt like everyone was talking at once. Even Nnenia’s panting and Eshe’s grunting vocalizations as he hefted the gun felt like input he needed to hear.

Shutting his eyes and breathing in deep, he tried to focus his thoughts.

Immediately after loading the shell, Eshe checked his watch again.

“Adesh, fire!”

Almost mindlessly, Adesh pulled the shooting lever. He then looked through the sight.

His own Chimera had been the fastest to reload. Adesh heard his own gun cry out first, almost alone for a second before the rest of the vehicles opened fire. All around him Adesh heard and felt the succession of gun reports from the other vehicles in the battery, stirring in the pit of his stomach. Even the Chimeras far across the street rattled him.

They were twenty in all, all of whom were firing together. It was noisy and rumbling.

Through the sight, Adesh watched the second wave of shells hitting ground. Several of the trenches suffered direct hits, sending pillars of dirt and human debris flying from between the slits in the earth. Small fires trailed through the grass as 76mm shells hit mortar holes and supply pits dug in and around the trenches. Adesh’s own shell crashed through the foremost trench, just a little too far right, collapsing the edges of the hole.

Smoke and fire and dust formed a cloud around Umaru park. Adesh could hardly see green through it anymore. He could hardly see undisturbed ground around the edges of the park. Slowly and methodically they were stomping on every meter of dirt. He saw shadows through the fog, men and women fleeing the trenches for the forest.

He swung his sight up a touch and scanned for new targets. Then he spotted it.

Directly behind that trench was a large, dug-in gun pit getting ready to counter-fire.

It was hidden beneath a camouflage tarp, but with the barrel now poking out the front of the hole and highly elevated, it was clear that this was a 122mm gun, ready to shoot.

One shot from that would kill everyone he loved here.

He felt a thrashing in his heart, but he could not panic. He couldn’t even call a warning.

His mind was working faster than the time around him. He just had to stop the gun.

Knowing where his shot hit in the trench, Adesh quickly calculated hitting the gun pit.

Closing his eyes, he could still see it. Eerily, he thought he knew when it would shoot.

It was as if with his eyes closed a different sense, a powerful sense, took over for them.

Something greater than vision guided him. A strange intuition, working in milliseconds.

He had precious little time left.

“Traverse left, ten degrees, and then three elevation!” Adesh called out. “Hurry!”

“I’m goin’, I’m goin.” Kufu’s irritable voice responded.

At once the Chimera shifted its bulk.

Adesh looked through his angle sights. “Correct traverse, one degree right, Nnenia!”

“Yes!”

Nnenia nodded her head. After adjusting the elevation, she used a lever to shift the gun itself. While it was limited to perhaps five degrees in any direction, far less than the range of movement available by moving the vehicle as a whole, the gun’s traverse could be much more quickly and minutely adjusted than the facing of the entire tank. In short order Nnenia had the gun facing exactly where Adesh wanted. Eshe loaded.

He checked his watch and nodded to Adesh. He was the commander, so he had to call the shots, but it was clear that everyone was on top of the action. He didn’t need to shout.

Silently, Adesh pulled the lever and prayed.

Through the sights, he briefly spotted a pair of artillery crew rushing shells out from the woods to the camouflaged gun behind the trench. They had run into the open in time to be crushed by the third barrage of shells, rolling in deeper and deeper into the park.

The shelling now completely bypassed the trenches and began to fall into the wood and around the second tier of defenses. Adesh watched as his shell landed directly atop the dug-in gun before it could fire back at the Chimeras. Multiple detonations followed like the bursts of a firecracker rope. Behind the camouflaged netting and the pit walls the gun’s ammunition was burning and blowing up and belching black smoke into the air.

Those two people Adesh had seen had simply disappeared. Whatever was left with them was buried in the shellholes somewhere. He felt momentarily both sick and glad. But he couldn’t peel himself away. His mind floated up a message, a message he needed to hear.

They were only three shells into a ten shell barrage. He had to complete the fire mission.

Lieutenant Munira needed him to; Nnenia, Eshe and Rahani needed him to.

It was clear to him, however, that when the infantry marched in, they would find little resistance left in Umaru park. He didn’t even need the fourth shell’s hit location to calculate that particular fact. Such was the power of an artillery battery that could run to any location and launch a fire mission fully under its own power. Back at the camps in rural Adjar, when he first learned gunnery, such a thing seemed unimaginable to anyone.

Modern war was falling right over the heads of the antiquated 8th Division.

It brought the guilt, the anger, the stress, and the sheer awe back to Adesh’s mind.

But he resolved to complete the mission. He calculated for that fourth shell.


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The Battle of Rangda II (54.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda

Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.

“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.

Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.

Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.

All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.

Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.

Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.

There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.

“How many do you see?”

“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”

“Okay. Estimate.”

Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.

“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”

“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.

Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.

Why were they fighting her?

What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?

She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.

Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?

She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.

She could not afford to have that happen.

She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.

But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.

Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”

Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”

Again there was a pause on the radio.

“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.

“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.

“It could be a trap.”

“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.

This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.

Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.

Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.

There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.

Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.

From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.

Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.

“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”

Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”

“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.

Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.

Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”

“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”

“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.

“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”

Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.

She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.

Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.

On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.

“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.

Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.

“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”

“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.

“It was all on the turret front.”

Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.

“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”

She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.

Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”

“One second.”

At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.

“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.

“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.

Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.

Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.

“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.

“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”

“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.

It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.

And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.

That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.

Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.

There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.

Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.

“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”

Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.

Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.

“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.

She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.

Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”

“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.

Gulab held on much more tightly.


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The Battle of Rangda I — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

After the Colonel’s speech on the loudspeakers it was clear that the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment was going to battle, and it was clear against whom it was. What was not immediately clear was how they would go about the endeavor; there had never been, in all of their training in Rangda, any focus on strategy. It had all been about real time tactics.

Tactical units and officers thus stood in quiet contemplation, waiting for the Majors.

Once the speech concluded, the Colonel summoned her battalion commanders for an emergency meeting. It was the first time they would see the Colonel since the current events. They convened in an unusual location: a curtained-off corner of the base infirmary, around Madiha Nakar’s bed. She sat against several pillows stacked in front of the raised backrest of her bed, the lower half of her body covered in a medical blanket. On her lap, a small, heavily bandaged pet drake lay, curled up and asleep, purring softly.

Before her, the recently promoted Majors arrived together. Marion Burundi stood in the middle like an obsidian pillar, dark, strong, with his face lit by a bemused grin. He positioned himself front and center. At his sides were Shayma El-Amin, a sharp-featured woman maybe a year Madiha’s junior with short cropped hair under her peaked cap and sandy skin; and Nizar Jakan, a lanky, blunt-faced man with a sleepy expression.

“Ma’am, it is good to see you back. Consider me fully at your disposal.” Burundi said first.

“All tank crews are at full combat readiness, Colonel. Just say the word.” El-Amin added.

Jakan contributed nothing to the greetings. He seemed almost to want to hide in the back.

Despite her many visibly bandaged wounds, the Colonel had a fire in her eyes and spoke with a candor unhindered by exhaustion or medication. At her side, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani had pinned a map of the city on a board. Already there were several different markings on it. Neater ones could be attributed to C.W.O Maharani’s careful writing, while the more chaotic lines and scribblings in black were likely the Colonel’s.

“I am pleased with how you have handled yourselves in my absence. It was prescient to put the base on high alert and to build up combat readiness. You have vindicated my faith in your abilities a hundredfold. But the real battle begins now.” Colonel Nakar said.

Clearly her will to fight had not been diminished by her experiences. Nobody in the room knew what thoughts were swirling in the Colonel’s head, but all of them knew, quite clearly now, that her health was deteriorated. Some among them could ignore it or brush it aside, especially hearing her speak with such force. But one among them had concerns.

“Colonel, if it’s not much to ask, I’d like to inquire as to your condition.” Burundi said.

El-Amin glared sharply at him. Jakan again made no move. Across from them, Parinita averted her eyes from the group. Burundi was friendly, outgoing — perhaps too much. Whether he was being comradely or intrusive didn’t matter to the room. It was just taboo.

His inquiry did not appear to offend the Colonel, however, and she responded neutrally.

“To call what I suffered the past night anything but torture would be putting it too lightly. I do not wish to say any more than that, Major. Despite the torment I went through, I acquired useful information. With your aid, I am ready to exploit it.” She calmly said.

“Very well. I am glad you’ve got eyes forward, Colonel.” Burundi said with a soft smile.

El-Amin spoke so quickly and with such a strong voice she almost cut off Burundi.

“Colonel, my forces stand ready to shove aside the Federation sympathizers.” She said. “Merely say the word, and the cannons of the 3rd Tank Battalion will crush them!”

Where Burundi was easygoing, El-Amin was serious and intense. She had proven herself in the forest fighting of the Kalu, where she whipped into shape meager Goblin-armed tank companies into vicious and brave ambush groups that devastated the vaunted Panzer forces of the Federation. Her spirit and focus were unmatched among their peers, and she had a particular single-minded loyalty to the Colonel that was visible and indisputable.

Madiha smiled at her and treated her like a friend.

“Your zeal is always appreciated, Shayma.” She said.

El-Amin’s cheeks turned a touch redder but her stony expression was unchanged.

The Colonel then turned her eyes toward her even more faithful, ever-present aide.

“Parinita, explain the situation on the board.”

“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said. She turned to everyone else. “As you well know, we’re going to launch offensive operations against the 8th Ram Rifle Division. Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the division, and the capitulation of Rangda’s government.”

Burundi’s eyes drew wide. El-Amin grinned with delight. Jakan nodded off a little.

“Complete destruction sounds like a bit much with our numbers.” Burundi said.

“Well I’ve crunched the numbers, and the disparity is not as great as you may believe.” Parinita said sharply. “Please allow me to explain, and have faith in the Colonel.”

Burundi frowned and shrugged but maintained his calm.

The Chief Warrant Officer picked up the corkboard map from the wall and set it on a tripod easel that was closer to the bed. Producing a telescopic pointer from her jacket, Parinita pointed at three separate locations marked with blue circles — Rangda University in the north, Ocean Road in the center, and Forest Park in the eastern city limits.

“Elements of the 8th Division in the city of Rangda number an estimated four to six thousand personnel, with the remaining quantities of their men and matériel expected to arrive between today and tomorrow. There are three key areas for the 8th Division in the city. Their strongest forces, the Lion Battalion, are located in Rangda University, and would likely make up the vanguard of any encirclement assault on our positions. Forest Park is a necessary entry point into the city for arriving forces, and Ocean Road is a necessary transportation route that bisects the city and connects all points.”

Parinita spoke clearly and concisely, with a warm, excitable smile on her face she pointed to the three locations and to three chits stationed in their base on the map. She stretched her arm and took one from the corkboard and stuck it on Forest Park, a second on Ocean Road and a third on Rangda University. Once she had the chits in their proper places, she addressed the room again as a whole, with her pointer swiping at the chits in turns.

“These will be our initial objectives. Our attacks will benefit from surprise, but not for long. And because of our current resources, we can only black out the communications of the Lion Battalion and the Council. So the rest of the 8th Division in Ocean Road and Forest Park will be able to talk with each other, but not with them. One greater advantage that we enjoy is numerical parity — you might be skeptical, but our ability to concentrate our forces means we will outnumber the 8th Division in critical areas at the start of the battle. They have to defend all of Rangda; we’re hitting three specific locations.”

Having taken her part in the briefing, Parinita ceded the floor to the Colonel with a smile.

Madiha took up the deliberations from there. “Jakan, 2nd Battalion will attack Forest Park, avoiding Ocean Road and carving a pathway through the urban center. This will be a diversionary attack disguised as our main thrust. You will attack ahead of all other units and at first without additional support, drawing in 8th Division units from other positions. The 8th Division knows that they require the rest of their forces to decisively defeat us, and that those forces are slowly arriving. By securing Forest Park, we have a stronghold from which we can fight their arriving units piecemeal at Rangda’s city limits, negating the advantage of their numbers. They will place a lot of importance in sealing up the city limits, so you should expect heavy resistance. Your goal is to tie them up.”

Jakan nodded his head silently. Shayma and Burundi glanced sidelong at him and sighed.

“El-Amin.” Madiha continued, setting her gaze on the tank battalion commander. “Once the attack in the center is underway and we know the enemy is recommitting their forces to defend or to take back Forest Park, your 3rd Battalion will form the right wing of our attack by moving on Ocean Road. Yours will be our most decisive thrust. I want you to hit the enemy with excessive force. Your goal will be to cut the 8th Division off from Council and to divide it into two pockets of resistance, stuck on either side of Ocean Road.”

“They’ll scream under the weight of our tracks, Commander.” El-Amin said. She had a wide, vicious beaming expression as she spoke. She must have been delighted to have had the Colonel’s trust and attention and to be tasked with delivering a decisive thrust.

Madiha then turned to Burundi, who saluted amicably in response, awaiting his orders.

“Burundi, your attack starts after Jakan’s breakout to the east. You will break through to the Lion Battalion’s stronghold in Rangda University and destroy it, preventing Lion from relieving Forest Park’s defenders. Lion is the only force available that could potentially disrupt Jakan’s takeover of the Park. They threaten his flank all throughout the urban center, and they are loyal veterans of the 2026 mutiny. Right now they are likely the unit in Rangda with the best equipment and largest numbers. You must break them.”

“I like the sound of that.” Burundi replied. “Matumaini is on it, Commander.”

Of all the newly-promoted personnel, Burundi was the least officer-like of the bunch. He had started the war a platoon sergeant on the border with Cissea, and exhibited great leadership qualities throughout the retreat. He practically acted as a Captain when several went AWOL during the organization phase of the battle of Bada Aso. After great personal bravery during the Matumaini defense, his battalion was granted the street as a moniker.

“Once Lion is routed, Ocean Road is ours, and Forest Park is held, we will decapitate the government by launching an attack on Council, and force the 8th to stand down.”

Parinita crouched by the corkboard and withdrew a pen, drawing lines connecting the circles and chits and various numbers and other markings on the map. As Madiha spoke, she drew. All of them swept east and north toward the exterior of the city, and then finally slammed back onto Council. Whether with overwhelming force or as a final desperate measure it remained to be seen. Judging by the excitable look on Col. Nakar’s face as she explained her plan, she seemed confident in what the outcome could be.

Once the drawing was done, the Chief Warrant Officer stood at the Colonel’s side with a confident smile that mimicked the Commander’s own, holding a clipboard to her chest.

“Any questions?” Parinita asked warmly.

At this, Jakan raised his hand stiffly into the air.

“Go ahead.” Madiha said.

Jakan cleared his throat roughly.

“Ma’am, may I humbly suggest that the Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion and the Motorcycle Recon Company launch an attack between mine and Burundi’s thrusts? They can support a small push against displaced elements from both areas, while being available for artillery support for both of us. I would find that comforting.” He said.

His voice was nasally, froggish, and a little grim, but he made perfect sense.

Madiha smiled and nodded her head. “An excellent suggestion. I will consider it.”

Jakan bowed his head.

Unlike Shayma and Burundi, Jakan had already been a commissioned officer for a time.

He was the kind of officer who outlasted demilitarization, and he was one of the very few Captains of Battlegroup Ox who did not disappear when the going got tough. His forces held the Umaiha river with great bravery until the weather swept most of them away. His new battalion was named Umaiha in commemoration of their sacrifice. Though he was a bit of an eccentric, he had Madiha’s trust. And she had entrusted him the toughest task.

“Thank you, Commander. I will diligently seek the objective.” He said.

El-Amin gave him a look of begrudging respect. Burundi laughed.

Thus the strategy was set forth, and the seed for the battles to come planted.

“I can’t move from here right now, but I will keep an eye on your progress.” Madiha said.

One by one, the battalion commanders bowed in respect, and left the infirmary.

“With that kind of plan, they can definitely win.” Parinita said, almost as if to herself.

Madiha merely grinned, and settled back against the bed to rest.


City of Rangda, Streets of North Rangda

“Sandbags ahead, Corporal!”

Corporal Kajari quickly responded. “I see ’em, I don’t need a glass to see that close!”

Chuckling, Caelia Suessen switched from her periscope to the sighting equipment on the 45mm gun in front of her. She appreciated a little humorous color from her officers.

From within the tight interior of the Kobold light tank, she had a restricted view of the battlefield ahead of her. She could see enough to fulfill her role in the battle, however. Fighting their way through the houses and buildings that made up Rangda’s northern urbanization, Caelia’s platoon had almost fought their way to University Avenue, the main road through the campus. Only two landmarks remained that stood in their way.

First was the roadblock coming into view; second was the building it blocked off.

At the end of a long street, the enemy strongpoint stood before a block of tenements connecting to University avenue. Soon as they came into view of the strongpoint, the machine guns behind the opposing sandbag walls opened fire, their rounds bouncing off Harmony‘s frontal armor as the tank advanced ahead of the column. There were several Khroda machine guns and riflemen, but from what Caelia could see, no anti-tank weaponry. She breathed a sigh of relief — her soul had nearly departed her body when that BKV almost shot them. Against an ordinary Khroda she had far less to fear.

Her comrades were not so lucky. Running along both sides of the street and on the road around Harmony, they avoided the gunfire by sticking to the tank, or by sticking to any surface that could take a bullet. As the tank advanced, the squadrons making up the column sought any opportunity to move with it, hiding behind street-planted trees, garbage cans, mail banks, and ducking within storefronts, moving window to window between adjacent buildings as much as they could to seek respite from the gunfire.

“Private, get ready to shoot!”

Corporal Kajari called over the radio, from her position behind the engine block.

Caelia sat back from the gun sight and took in a breath.

Inside the turret, Caelia heard every impact like a series of sharp taps on the armor from an errant finger. When the machine guns were at their most fervent she could almost not hear herself think over the noise. Hundreds of bullets crashed into her armor in a long, breathless cacophony. It made it hard to focus. There was no worse noise than that of battle. Even the most amateur musician could not butcher sound like a gun could.

She could feel her skin shiver under her suit with every deflected burst.

“Load High Explosive and fire on the machine guns, Private!”

Over the intercom Caelia heard and heeded the voice of Sergeant Chadgura.

Along her left side was a line of shells for the tank gun, partially depleted from previous battles. Caelia seized a high explosive shell in one hand — 45mm ammunition was small and light enough to be easily handled — and loaded it into her breech. Cocking open the breech and closing it was as simple as the turn of a lever. Aiming was much the same. One circular wheel lever controlled elevation, and a turn-lever rotated the turret for traverse.

Turning both while staring down the sights, Caelia put the machine guns squarely within her cross-hairs. Bullets spat from the weapons as she sighted them, angry red lines traveling across her field of vision and crashing, unseen, repeatedly against her tank. Unless a burst of gunfire caught the front hatch while it was open, Harmony was safe; her allies were not. She settled for an expedient shot to silence the gun and slammed her foot.

Her electric trigger was a pedal at her feet, to conserve instrument panel space.

One good slam of the pedal and the gun ejected its killing blow.

At once, there was a sharp report inside the turret and one sharper outside.

She watched through the gun sight as a portion of sandbag wall disappeared into smoke.

From the side of the cloud, a pair of enemy soldiers ran out, abandoning their posts, visibly wounded from the shell fragmentation. One machine gun was silenced. In its absence, red tracers came flying from behind Caelia and struck the remainder of the enemy sandbag line. Without that machine gun to cover the approach, her allies now had good spots from which they could safely retaliate, and they rejoined the fight in earnest.

Having delivered a decisive blow, Caelia switched hands from the 45mm tank gun’s instruments to the coaxial Danava machine gun at its side. It was nearly impossible to aim accurately, fixed into a limited traverse beside the main gun, but she could point at the sandbags and join her attacking comrades, launching careful bursts of 7.62mm fire.

Soon as she pulled the trigger she felt the gun kicking around on its ball mount.

Press, depress, thock thock thock. It sounded like a toy compared to a Norgler.

She looked through her sight as she turned automatic fire on the enemy.

She found her tracers becoming lost in the flurry of gunfire that was saturating the target.

Everyone around her was moving up, and shooting, emboldened by Caelia’s attack.

“Danielle, keep her steady!” Caelia ordered, over the tank’s intercom. “And mind your sides, we have comrades mobile. We don’t want any road dosas on our conscience!”

“Yes ma’am! But to be honest, they should be minding me! I can’t see them well!”

Danielle’s voice was a pleasantly middling pitch in her ears, a little deep, a little affected.

“Now, now! They’re trying their best!” Caelia laughed. Her own voice was similar.

Neither of them had an uncomplicated feminine voice, but they loved their sound.

Both of them had been around many small tanks together over the year.

But the Kobold was their favorite; both of them agreed.

The Kobold was a small tank with a crew of two. Surrounded by the turret ring and gun mechanism, Caelia could still, if she ducked low or craned her head down, she could see the back of Danielle’s head of short, curly black hair below her, and her square shoulders, dressed green in her tanker’s bodysuit. Sometimes she would turn her head over her shoulder and their eyes would pleasantly meet, blue on one end and black on the other, both behind spectacles perched on their noses, one pearl-pink, one light bronze.

Caelia looked down from her equipment, and their eyes briefly met on that Rangdan road.

“Eyes forward, commander! This is serious!” Danielle grinned.

“I’m always serious, Private Santos!” Caelia said in a mock stern voice.

She returned to her gun sight briefly, let go of her machine gun and looked down again.

“Danielle, shift to a minimal gear, we’ve got friendlies forward!” She ordered.

“I see them!” Danielle replied, pulling back momentarily from her periscope.

Caelia lifted her head up to her own periscope again.

Perhaps inspired by Corporal Kajari’s brave (but foolhardy) tactics in the last roadblock, several submachine gunners charged along the road and then ran ahead of the tank, and quickly made it past the traverse angle of the remaining Khroda’s gunfire. Once past that point they brazenly engaged the roadblock. Hundreds of pistol caliber tracer rounds peppered the roadblock as the gunners pulled their triggers down with a fury.

Under such gunfire enemy Khroda gunners could not pull up their bipods and readjust. Suppressed behind the sandbags, their guns silenced, and a dozen more fighters soon joining that brave first squadron out in front, the roadblock defenders could do nothing but tie handkerchiefs to the barrels of their rifles and wave the white flag that way.

Harmony ground to a halt in front of a picket line of submachine gunners slowly advancing on the roadblock. There was a moment of tension as they approached, and as the defenders stood from their positions with their hands up. But there was no trick. One by one the surrendering enemy threw their weapons into the open, disabled their machine guns and gave themselves up to the custody of the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment.

This too, happened almost casually and without much incident.

Individually they were stripped of equipment, including their uniform coats, and led on a march back toward the base by some of the rear guard. It was a methodical process, and the dejected traitors stood with their heads down, patiently waiting for their turn at it.

“Finally, a breather.”

Caelia removed her headset and sighed.

She did not know what winter was like in Rangda, but the interior of a tank was always a bit sweltering in her experience. She could feel her skin going slick beneath her bodysuit, and she felt cool droplets trailing down her nose and around her cheeks. Her breaths came rapid and hot as she laid back against the turret’s single seat. She popped open the hatch but did not climb out. A brief but welcome gust of cool morning air blew in through it.

“Can you feel it down there?” Caelia asked aloud. Behind them the Kobold’s engine whirred and thrummed but it was quiet enough that they could speak over it.

“Yes, but I opened my own hatch too.” Danielle replied.

Caelia looked down, and saw that it was indeed a little brighter below.

“How are things up there?” Danielle asked.

“I’ve still got a decent bit of ammunition–”

“No, no! I mean, how are you? How are you doing?”

Caelia shrugged her shoulders. “I’m ok,” was all she found herself saying.

“Well. I’m ok too.” Danielle replied.

Both of them stared for a moment. Did they really have nothing more to say?

Awkwardly they resumed their posts.

Caelia could have been more conversational, but it was difficult in this situation, and in most situations in fact. Danielle wasn’t the only shy one in the tank, and it felt awkward to chit-chat. After all, there was still a war going on; and Caelia just wasn’t the most equipped person where it concerned making the first move outside of tank gunnery. Whether speaking plainly or speaking from the heart, Caelia was just a touch reserved.

Still, she cherished the moment, even though she did not say so aloud.

Hearing her discarded headset buzzing, she put it back on.

Raising her head out of the hatch, she saw the prisoners nearly cleared around her.

As they left, the rest of the column moved bloodlessly on.

“Danielle, start her up again.” Caelia ordered. “Keep her steady.”

“I thought you liked her fast as hell?” Danielle laughed.

“I do, but, keep her steady for now. No road dosas!” Caelia said.

At a brisk pace, Harmony started advancing behind the infantry for once.

Corporal Chadgura addressed the tank crew over the intercom. “Ahead of us is University Village, a housing complex for students and laborers. From what we can see of it, it’s not occupied by the 8th Division. Keep your eyes peeled. There may be snipers ahead.”

Past the sandbags, the road went in a rhomboid pattern around a broad, open urban block occupied by a pair of towering tenement buildings with exterior walkways connecting each visible unit on each floor. Grassy lawn surrounded each building and filled in the space between the two. Around the properties were a few trees, a playground for children, a large bus stop, a small private parking lot for those who had cars, and a few large box-shaped refrigerant and power supply units for air conditioning systems. Their ductwork and cables probably extended into the buildings from the underground.

There were a lot of places to hide. Multiple windows on each building, various obstacles in and around the tenements, and two sets of corners, as well as the connecting streets.

Harmony stuck to the road, Danielle carefully keeping the tracks on the asphalt and away from the gutter and the raised concrete street next to it. Green lawns stretched to either side of the car road. Allied infantry spread out across the street, the green and the road, arranged in individual squadrons and advancing at a walking pace, casting eyes about.

“Red squadron, move into the first building. Yellow and Blue will cover the green on both sides of the road. Harmony, keep watch on the road.” Corporal Chadgura ordered.

“Yes ma’am.” Caelia replied. “Danielle, cut engine for stealth.”

“Stealth is overstating it.”

Giggling, Danielle switched Harmony off.

Caelia opened up the hatch and climbed partially out of the tank.

From the inside of the tank, even with up to date sights and periscopes, visibility was far from perfect. Even a 360 degree periscope was limited by its aperture. It was like staring into a room through a peephole. Out of the tank, with the wind blowing her hair and cooling the sweat on her face, she could naturally see everything around her.

Standing on her seat, her head and arms above the hatch, Caelia craned her head.

She watched as Red Squadron entered the tenement, smashing the glass doors to the lobby with a shovel and moving in through the ground floor, and up the stairs. They exited out into the open-air walkways across the front of the building, starting on the second floor and climbing steps on each side of the building to move to the upper floors.

Corporal Kajari was at the front of the group — she had left the tank to lead the way in. Systematically they kicked open the doors in each floor. Two people went in, two stayed out. They could clear three rooms at a time this way. Corporal Kajari stood guard.

At her flanks, soldiers from Blue and Yellow squadrons laid on the grass and behind the big cube-like power units and trees. From their bellies or behind cover they deployed each squadron’s Danava light machine gun on an overwatch position, ready to shoot if anyone came up from around the corner formed between the two buildings, or around the farthest of the two seemingly unoccupied tenements. Corporal Chadgura approached the tank while her soldiers set up, waving her hand at Caelia. She hid behind the engine block.

In her hands was a rolled piece of paper that was likely a district map.

“Private Suessen, see anything on the road?” Corporal Chadgura asked via radio.

Caelia raised a pair of binoculars to her eyes. As far as she could tell, her branch of road went off due somewhere east, going around the tenements, past their land and out into the urbanization. It was all very flat terrain, surrounded by empty green with maybe a few benches, up until it connected with the other road and met the buildings on the far eastern side of the block. That was the street intersection, where the road that ran behind the second tenement met with her own. There was nothing there too from her vantage.

“No ma’am.” Caelia said. “Danielle, see anything?”

“Nope– wait!”

Caelia looked down into the hatch, startled. “Wait?”

“There’s a garage three buildings to our right from the intersection, look.”

Caelia looked through her binoculars again. She fixed on the intersection. Sure enough, past a private barber shop, a civil canteen and a government-operated sundries store, there was a union repair shop with an ample garage and a fenced-off blacktop.

There was a stack of junk cars and another stack of what seemed to be parts.

Caelia adjusted her binoculars and scanned the street.

She found the garage door unbolted, and partially open.

There were lights coming from under it.

Almost as soon as she set eyes on it, she saw the garage door start to rise

It did not take long from there to catch the first glimpse of slanted tracks and a flat glacis.

“Tanks!” Caelia shouted over the platoon radio. “We have Goblins coming in east!”

“How many?” Chadgura replied.

Caelia lifted her binoculars quickly, and counted one coming out of the garage — and two others stomping in from over the fence, smashing past the stack of spare parts and rolling in from around the stack of junked cars. “Three tanks. Dunno if they’ve seen me.”

“Private, we have inadequate anti-tank weaponry on site. I’ll call for a BKV team for reinforcements, but you will have to buy time. Can you do that?” Chadgura said.

“I think I can get rid of them ma’am.”

Caelia dropped down back into the turret and set her sights on the road.

In a quick movement, as if sleight of hand, she moved a shell from wall rack to hand.

“Loading Armor-Piercing, High Explosive!”

In another fluid, almost acrobatic movement, she loaded the gun.

In any tank battle the most crucial shot was the first one, taken from a position of strength, before the engagement became fluid. It was this shot that was the safest, the most well-planned and carefully executed. An average tank battle began almost like an ambush: from a safe position, the first tank to see an enemy seized the initiative, took the opening shot, and likely, scored a kill. Her position was anything but safe. However, though the ground was relatively flat and the road open, that did not mean the enemy was aware of her. Caelia knew that if the Goblins had seen her already they would be shooting.

Since she was not dead, it meant she had the first shot on them.

The Goblin were occupied extricating themselves from their hiding places and forming up on the road. Perhaps they received orders from a retreating 8th Division unit, or perhaps they had orders to move if a certain amount of time passed without contact. Regardless of what set them moving, Caelia knew she had the initiative here. She had the first shot.

She descended her gun a few degrees, set her sights several hundred meters out on the closest Goblin, the one at the front of its column, loaded, and hit the pedal for a shot.

As the shell went flying, the turret shook. The report and flash of her gun unveiled her.

But in her mind the battle was already won.

She watched through her sight as the lead Goblin absorbed the shell through the front hatch, where the driver would be. Smoke blew from the interior, and the top hatch flew open from the pressure of the blasting charge going off inside the chassis. It was dead.

This was enough to ruin the entire column, it seemed.

Directly behind it, the second Goblin in the ranks crashed into the first, perhaps unaware that it had been stopped. At the back, the third Goblin stopped, popped its hatches open, popped them closed, and then reversed wildly, trying desperately to maneuver around the stalled column. Nobody was acting in cohesion. Killing the lead tank confused them.

“Danielle, get ready to back us up!”

“I’m on it!”

Harmony’s engine fired. Caelia’s sight shook, but she reacquired the targets quickly.

Reaching for another shell, she loaded the gun, and turned the turret a few degrees right.

As the third Goblin showed its sides to try to escape, Caelia put a round through it.

She blasted through the engine block and set the rear of the tank ablaze.

Now the second Goblin was trapped between two hulks. It could escape, but it would have to maneuver in a much more confined space. Within seconds, its crew opted not to — Caelia watched hatches go up from the front and turret roof, and the tankers bailed from their perfectly unscratched tank and ran past the intersection and away from battle.

“All sighted hostiles have been eliminated, ma’am.” Caelia called on the radio.

She heard a flat, monotone sigh of relief. “Good job, Private.” Chadgura said.

“Wait,”

Danielle was back on the intercomm. Caelia was startled again.

“What’s wrong?”

“Are there any other garages around here? Are there any garages on the northern side of this street from University? They could be hiding Goblins there too!” Danielle said.

Caelia lifted the hatch, hoping to ask Sergeant Chadgura.

She lifted it in time to hear a blast in the distance.

Caelia barely had her head out of the hatch when she saw smoke behind the tenements.

“Shit.” Caelia exclaimed. She dove back inside the turret immediately.

“TANK GIRL!”

Corporal Kajari was on the radio in clear distress.

“We just got to the top floor of this tenement and something shot at one of the rooms! I think you’ve got tanks headed around the tenements from the north! Watch out!”

“Private Suessen, move in support of Red Squadron, now!” Sgt. Chadgura shouted.

Whenever it came to Corporal Kajari, Sgt. Chadgura always got a touch alarmed.

Caelia could relate; she felt a bit similarly about Danielle. She called her quickly.

“Danielle, I’m going to need that prodigal driving of yours!”

She looked down from the turret seat, and found Danielle grinning up at her.

“I’ll make it go fast! Just stay on that gun.” She said.

Harmony’s engine roared to life.

Caelia’s heart thrashed like the festival drums.

This was a tank battle, like in the jungle, like in Bada Aso.

They could die.

She nearly whispered Danielle’s name into the microphone, but something stopped her.

She always found it hard to say much — maybe to say enough.

Perhaps she picked the wrong times to say anything.

Over the gutters and the street, the tank accelerated into the green, and doubled back around the face of the lower tenements and toward the lower connecting road. Danielle did not take that road. Instead she swept around the northern side of the tenement, keeping to the green, moving with the playground between herself and the road approach.

Caelia swept across the landscape with her periscope.

She focused on the battle, on survival.

“Target acquired! On the road!” She shouted.

Three more Goblins, moving in an arrowhead formation toward the tenement.

They had clearly moved in from University avenue, the main road leading farther north, and were headed into the green. Two had their barrels down, but the head Goblin was turning its fully-elevated gun on the tenement’s top floor, and it unleashed a second high-explosive shell just as Caelia acquired its location. Caelia did not see the effect.

Instead she heard it on the radio as Corporal Kajari screamed.

Her status could not be confirmed from Harmony. Visibility was too limited.

It was like being stuck in one’s own little world, trapped amid the larger battle.

Just the walls of this tank. Even Danielle was hard to see.

Gritting her teeth, Caelia laid her sights on that aggressive lead tank.

She hit her pedal just as Danielle hit a bump in the terrain.

Her sight swung up, and her shell flew just over the Goblin’s engine block.

“Danielle, keep it steady!” She shouted.

“I’m trying!”

At once, the turrets on the Goblins started to turn toward them.

Caelia gasped. “Okay, forget steady; evasive maneuvers!”

Harmony jerked sideways to face its glacis toward the opponents.

Two barrels flashed in their direction.

Caelia braced herself and the words escaped her lips despite her prior reticence.

In the face of death she felt compelled to try–

“Danielle, I–!”

One shell flew just over the engine block before Harmony could fully turn; the other crashed into the gun mantlet and deflected. Inside the turret Caelia felt the deafening clang of the shot impact and all of her instruments shook violently. Her head blared; she felt like the shell had gone off inside her skull instead of bouncing off. She nearly collided with the gun sight in a daze, but managed to hold her ammo rack and jerk herself back.

Had anything struck her head it might have knocked her out and doomed Danielle.

Caelia regained her bearings quickly. She lifted the hand she had on the ammo rack and used it for a more pressing concern: seizing a shell and loading the main gun.

“Caelia, are you alright?” Danielle shouted.

She felt immediate relief hearing her driver’s voice.

“Yes! Are you?” Caelia asked.

“Don’t worry about me!” Danielle replied.

Harmony barreled through the green, building speed on the rough ground.

The Goblins’ turrets tracked them as they moved.

“One, two,”

Danielle counted down for something and then hit the brake.

Harmony ground to a halt with a cubic power generator unit between it and the enemy.

Caelia barely registered this maneuver; she flinched at the sight of the barrel flashes.

Two more shells hurtled toward them.

Both struck the power generator and punched deep holes in the unit.

Fire started to dance atop the generator and smoke blew out.

Harmony quickly resumed running.

Soon as the Kobold left the side of the power generator, the damaged unit burst.

Chunks of metal, tongues of flame and a copious cloud of smoke blew from the unit as its engine and fuel violently went up. Caelia felt a dozen tiny impacts on Harmony’s armor from the remains of the unit. Her sights were suddenly obscured by the spreading smoke and the flames, trailing across the dry off-green grass of the tenement lawns.

“I’m hooking around their backs Caelia, can you put shells on them?”

“I can certainly try!”

Caelia glued her eyes to the sights, and turned the turret, looking into the fog of war.

She spotted two violently red trails plowing through the cloud of smoke.

Caelia flinched, bracing for the impact.

Both shells flew past Harmony as it hurtled away from the green.

The Goblins did not know their exact position anymore.

And judging by the flashes shining through the smoke, the Goblins had not moved at all.

It was the most common mistake of inexperienced tankers: to stand in one place and shoot repeatedly without moving the tank, hoping to land killing blows before having to turn the tank. Reacquiring a target on the gun sight took time, and it had to be done whenever the tank moved too violently. But the gunnery time saved by remaining stationary was a very minimal advantage compared to the safety of a new firing position.

Even Caelia fell into this trap, but not to this extent. Not against a moving enemy.

These tankers were rookies, and it was the gulf in experience that had saved her.

Soon as Harmony hit the road and charged up the rear of the tenement buildings, Caelia spotted the enemy again, still in an arrowhead formation, still parked on the green near the lower tenement, their turrets still turned on the smoking, burning power unit.

Caelia spun the turret lever and turned her gun on the farthest of the tanks.

Despite Harmony’s speed, she corrected quickly enough to get the enemy lined up.

“Firing AP-HE!”

Soon as the first shell went out, she reached out for a second, and punched it through.

“Firing AP-HE!”

She glanced through the sight, saw smoke, and reached for a third shell.

This one she did not call out before firing. It simply went with the rest.

Through the noise of the gun and the tank she heard the sound of fire and damage.

When she looked through the glass again, she found one Goblin burning from a shell exploding in its high-necked turret ring and setting ablaze its ammunition. Another Goblin had its tracks torn in half, and its turret scanned the environment in confusion while the driver and radio operator struggled to escape, having given up on the tank.

But the third Goblin was turning in place to face them. Its turret aligned with them.

It had to be mere seconds away from shooting, and Harmony was not facing it.

One good shot through the side armor would kill them both.

“Danielle–”

Again the word escaped her lips, but Danielle was quick to allay her fears.

“Shoot now!”

Danielle suddenly hit the brakes again. Harmony came to a screeching stop.

This time it was completely exposed, out of cover.

But the enemy Goblin’s turret kept going. It moved past them.

It was trying to lead the shot, and over-corrected.

Caelia seized her advantage and quickly aligned a stable shot.

She hit the pedal and flinched at the gun’s recoil.

A shell speared the aggressive Goblin right through the gun mantlet.

In the blink of an eye the turret burst open and disgorged its gun onto the ground.

Without waiting, Caelia reloaded the gun and turned it on the remaining Goblin.

She then unlocked the breech again with a deep sigh of relief.

Surrounding the enemy tank, Blue Squadron arrived, led by Sergeant Chadgura. In their hands were AT grenades and pistols. They caught the half of the tank crew that had bailed out before, and threatened the tank commander and gunner still in the vehicle. From the hatches, a pair of hands soon appeared — the Goblin surrendered to them.

“Hey, tank girl, the area’s secure, you can rest easy.”

Caelia felt a little relief hearing Corporal Kajari on the radio, alive.

“Are you unscathed, Corporal?’ Caelia asked.

“Turns out these tenements have pretty sturdy walls. I’m doin’ alright.”

“Do you have overwatch then?”

“Yeah, yeah. I told you not to worry, right? We’ve got BKVs on the approaches now. Any Goblin tank that approaches these tenements is getting some lead in the eyes.”

“Acknowledged, Corporal.”

Caelia nodded to herself in her seat, and pulled off her headset.

She laid back and felt the sweat dripping down her brow again.

Harmony’s engine shut off once more. Everything was eerily quiet.

They had survived another tank battle, destroyed four tanks, forced two to surrender.

Likely, they had killed several people. Or at least, Caelia’s gunnery had.

Though of course, Danielle’s driving was instrumental.

Perhaps ‘they’ was indeed warranted.

Everything was quiet, and the adrenaline subsided slowly.

Nevertheless, Caelia always felt a little eerie right after the battle. It felt as if there was a hole that should have been naturally filled, and yet, nothing was happening to close the gap. There was no sound. In the blink of an eye the heated violence of the past few minutes had simply stopped. Absent battle, the battlefield caused her a hint of anxiety.

She always felt as if there should have been a gentler transition after battle.

Instead, the high to which her heart and soul had been pushed dropped inadvertently.

It reminded her of playing an instrument. Such a rapid transition from sound to quiet.

Just a breath between life and death. One pull of the lungs between song and silence.

Silence was troublesome. When the world was silent, the mind started to speak.

“Caelia, how’s everything up there? You look dazed.”

Danielle peeked into the turret ring from below.

“It’s ok.” Caelia said, smiling slightly. She didn’t want her companion to worry.

“Hah. It’s always just ‘ok’ with you!” Danielle said.

Caelia smiled. “Well, how are you then?”

“I’m ok.” Danielle mimed.

Caelia scoffed jokingly. “Hey, listen: my ‘ok’ is pretty ‘ok’, I’ll have you know.”

Danielle giggled.

“Oh, wait.”

Remembering one of their good-luck rituals, Caelia reached into her bodysuit’s belt pouches and withdrew a small harmonica. She wiped it quickly with a little cloth.

“Oh!” Danielle said in recognition.

Caelia nodded. “A few notes for the departed.” She said.

She raised the harmonica to her lips, and started to play.

Danielle quieted expectantly, and she smiled too.

From within Harmony, a somber little tune could be heard, muffled, in the surroundings.

Until it was time to move again, Caelia gently played, and Danielle quietly listened.

What she could not say with words, Caelia tried to convey with the song.

Her quiet tension and anxiety with the instrument she was now called on to wield.

And a newfound love within the bowels of this instrument.

Even if she could not say it yet. Even if the right words couldn’t yet beat the silence.

Trapped within the world of the tank. Visibility was bad; but she could see what mattered.


 

Rangda University — Muhimu Shimba, Lion Battalion HQ

Confusion reigned over the Lion Battalion fighters and planners at Rangda University.

Far as they knew, the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment should have remained contained to their base in southern Rangda, but all communications other than foot traffic had been lost to the rest of the 8th Division and to the military command in Council. So there was no way to confirm or broadcast the locations of the enemy’s units. Through foot traffic, they had hoped to link their forces to begin a counteroffensive. This had proven useless, and despite sending dozens of horses out, they had no intelligence. There were maps, but nobody was certain whether anything being pinned to them reflected the real situation.

Everyone suspected it was the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment — who else could it be? — but without visual, without radio, without active confirmation of the enemy, and without any connection to command or to units suspicions were worthless. They could not be acted on.

Lt. “Lionheart” Badir knew only that most of his couriers were not coming back, and that those who did were the ones who did not travel far and did not see enemy movement, and therefore could not organize any sort of attack in any useful direction. At best they heard gunfire somewhere in the distance, but that too was useless. He had attempted to launch artillery on areas thought to be threatened by an enemy advance, based on perceptions of gunfire direction and trails in the sky and other similar forms of divination, but he had no way of knowing the effects or correct his fire, so the impetus to shoot was utterly lost.

Instead of using them as artillery, he had his 122mm guns latched onto horses and readied to drive out to meet the enemy. Fortresses were worthless — this was the era of the assault troops! Liuetenant Badir hoped to gather all of his remaining forces and launch a bold counterattack through University and down the Northern roads.

His preparations for battle were slow, tentative; until one particular horseman returned.

“Sir!”

Arriving at the edge of Muhimu Shimba in a stout cavalry horse of old, 1st Sergeant Arando swung his steed around a line of parked artillery guns and dismounted swiftly. He saluted. He was the kind of man Badir appreciated. Tall, gallant, with a thick beard and cropped head, large arms and long legs, black as the night. Like Badir, he had taken up his sabre in mutiny against Solstice in 2026. He was the courier Badir knew to expect back.

“At ease, Sergeant.” Badir said. He smiled, and approached for a shake of the hand.

Arando did not move. He cast eyes aside and heaved a sigh.

He was not alone in Muhimu Shimba.

Behind his horse, Badir spotted a second rider, and farther behind, a line of men and women arriving, many wounded, most disarmed. At first, Badir wanted to think that Arando had defeated a column and caught prisoners. But he knew these were his men and women. They all shared the same uniform with the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment, and Arando, despite his bravery, lacked the combat power to defeat any enemy unit alone.

Badir did not ask from where they came. It could only mean that several of his roadblocks had been broken, and the platoon-level unit of disparate soldiers arriving at the park were all the remained of these fortifications. They made their way back, having discarded their weapons and vanished into the urban thickets, dispersing into alleyways to hurry north.

“Sir, we have at least sixty survivors from battle with the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment. They are still able and willing to fight, but they are shaken. I advise we have them build–”

Badir raised his hand to quiet Arando.

“Rearm them. We’re not building more fucking forts.” He interjected.

“Sir?” Arando asked.

Badir turned around and moved deeper into the park woodland without answer.

Arando followed him.

Several dozen meters into the treeline, Badir arrived at a massive object beneath a tarp bound to the floor by poles. It was over nine meters long and four meters tall, dwarfing the men in stature. Badir beheld it with a grin. He had been hiding it, in case the enemy had an air force to speak of. Air attack was the only weakness of his great weapon.

Beneath that tarp was a tank with more firepower than any Ayvarta had ever seen.

“To think, Arando, that they chose that little girl Ravan’s tank design over Orabe’s!”

Arando stroked his own beard in confusion.

“Orabe? Sir, you have a tank designed by Orabe? I thought he was–”

“Disgraced? Yes. But still a genius. He gave us an invaluable tool.”

Badir turned over his shoulder, casting an intense look at his subordinate.

“Will you gather your cavalry and join me on the assault, my friend?” He asked.

Arando had a dark look on his face, but he did not immediately deny him.

That was enough for Badir.

He turned back around and began to extricate his ultimate weapon from its bonds.

Soon the Yotun would roar to life and his enemy would be crushed under its treads.

Badir The Lionheart would cower in Rangda University no longer.