Absolute Pin (21.5)

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This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

Soon as she exited the tunnel Gulab had been fighting desperately once again. Her squadron came out of the civil canteen near the home base to find a labyrinth of burning hulks just off of the defensive line and dozens of men huddling behind them. Two of the Svechthans were picked off by a Norgler almost immediately and nobody had time to mourn — everyone ran off the street and rushed as fast as they could to take cover behind the nearest surface. Nikka and the remaining Svechthans made for the street corner, but Gulab, Chadgura, Dabo and Jande ran forward and jumped behind a half-circle of sandbags protecting a 76mm gun off the left side of the line. Since they began running the gun had not put a single shell downrange.

For a second they caught their breaths behind cover, having barely made it to safety.

“Why isn’t this 76mm shooting?” Gulab cried out in anger, trying to yell over the gunfire.

To her surprise, she found huddled behind the sandbags all the kids she had met days earlier. Adesh, Nnenia, and Eshe, all with their heads down. They looked up and pointed at her in amazement when she appeared. Their commander, a soft-faced and pretty Arjun with a peach slice clipped to his hair, banged on the side of a radio and shouted into the handset.

Behind the gun was a scruffy looking man leaning drowsily against the shield. He waved.

“No ammo, ma’am.” He shouted with a shrug. “I dare say we’re kinda doomed here.”

“Shut up, Kufu!” Eshe shouted. “Nobody asked you for your pessimistic opinion!”

Corporal Rahani put down the handset and sighed. “Now’s not the time for this.”

“I agree.” Sergeant Chadgura said suddenly. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“You can’t go out there!” Adesh interrupted. “Those Nochtish men are just waiting for that!”

Nnenia slid a small portable periscope over to Gulab. She picked it up and looked over the sandbags and across the fighting. Their little gun redoubt was positioned diagonally and just off the western side of the defensive line, across the street from the civil canteen, on the road running in front of Madiha’s House. Twenty meters away the wreck of a Nocht troop carrier and an assault gun shielded a what seemed to Gulab like several squadrons of men, who fought from in and around the remains of those vehicles. They had practically split the line in two just by losing their vehicles in that spot. A Hobgoblin wreck was the nearest piece of cover.

Overhead, Gulab spotted a group of aircraft. Orange spears from somewhere in the horizon shot at them and dispersed them every few minutes, but they remained solidly in control of the air space. Gulab figured that was long-range AA fire from Nyota Hill to the northeast of Home. Judging by the wrecks of Hobgoblins all along the defensive lines, it had been ineffective.

She handed the periscope to Chadgura and urged her to look as well. “How are those planes?”

“We think the planes are out of bombs now. A few of them even went down.” Nnenia said.

“Good. Those planes are all that worried me.” Gulab said. “Just let us handle the rest!”

“Ms. Kajari– err, I mean, Corporal Kajari,” Adesh said, rubbing his hands together nervously. “It’s too dangerous to go out now. We’re glad you came along but– you just can’t!”

Gulab felt a surge of warm fondness for the boy. She smiled, and lifted her chin up, and pressed her fist flat to her chest. “You do not know me very well, Private. I don’t know the meaning of can’t! I can run out, get some shells and run right back here. Just tell me where to go.”

“Please be careful, Corporal Kajari.” Adesh said, frowning. He looked utterly deflated.

She sympathized with him. But Gulab did not let herself get bogged down with fear. Certainly all the physical symptoms were present. She felt a thrill along the surface of her skin, as though bugs were crawling on her. She felt a slight shaking in her feet and across her hands. There was a slight ache in her head. It must have been adrenaline and nerves, but it didn’t stop her.

Whenever she was overcome by fear, someone had died or been hurt. Even Chadgura had been hurt before. Her grandfather had paid dearly for it. She couldn’t allow that anymore. That was her bad star’s luck to bear and nobody else should have to suffer for depending on her.

“I will go, on my honor!” She turned to Corporal Rahani, who looked terribly perplexed.

“I suppose they must have some ammunition left inside the HQ proper.” He said softly. “They were hit by a shell at the start of the enemy attack, but since then they have recovered.”

Gulab turned to Chadgura for permission. The Sergeant clapped her hands.

“I agree with the urgency of the situation and I also agree, regrettably, that there are not many solutions beside your proposition. But please, do be careful. I do not believe that I would recover easily from the loss of you at this juncture.” Chadgura said. Her voice sounded awkward for once. Deadpan as it was, Gulab could see a lot of feeling behind this.

She patted Chadgura on the shoulder. “I like you too, comrade. So, I will be back.”

“We’ll be cheering for you.” Nnenia said. Eshe and Adesh nodded, looking subdued.

Gulab took her rifle, crawled to the back of the redoubt, and looked to the street corner.

Nikka!” She yelled at the top of her lungs. “I’m going to run out, keep them off me!

From the corner a small head peeked out. “Are you mad, Gulachka?” She shouted back.

Maybe!” Gulab shouted back.

She thought she saw the Svechthan flash a grin.

I like your spirit Tovarisch! Udači!”

Several submachine guns and Nikka’s rifle suddenly appeared from around the corner.

Beside the overturned troop carrier, a Norgler gunner using the damaged track for cover caught a bullet between his eyes and slumped against his weapon, momentarily silencing a third of the gunfire on the redoubt. Behind him his loader crawled up to the discarded gun. Submachine gun rounds then started plinking off the vehicle’s armor and across the dusty, torn-up concrete between the hulks. Heads started going down, men started stepping back.

Gulab took off running, discharging her rifle toward her right flank on automatic.

Chadgura suddenly took off behind her, twisting around her side to shoot as she ran. She held down the trigger and sprayed the husk of an assault gun until her magazine emptied. Dabo and Jande were left speechless behind, and got up over the sandbags momentarily to cover her.

Combined, the threat of automatic fire from the street corner, Nikka’s sniping, and Gulab and Chadgura’s haphazard running and gunning bought enough time for the sprint. Not one rifle snapped at them as they crossed the no-man’s-land. Both officers reached the Hobgoblin’s battered metal corpse and crouched behind it, catching their breath for a moment.

“Why did you run after me like that? You could’ve been killed!” Gulab shouted.

Chadgura looked at her with that deadpan expression of hers, blinking her eyes. She started talking abruptly, as though she had rehearsed and was waiting for an opportunity. “You see, it is a feature of my psychological condition that I sometimes become too restless to remain in one place. At those times, I sometimes jump in place, or run in a circle; now I was compelled–“

“You’re making excuses!” Gulab said. She grinned at Chadgura, more amused than angry.

“It is for the best that I am present for this tactical deployment.” Chadgura said. She reloaded her rifle, and Gulab did the same. Whatever he reasons, she was glad for the Sgt.’s company.

“Well, you are present, boss. Now what?” Gulab looked to the side of the Hobgoblin. There was a stretch of ten meters or so to get to the stairway, and then the steps up to the lobby, and finding safe cover in said lobby, added perhaps ten more meters to the journey. On the other side of the street, Nochtish riflemen behind the remains of abandoned sandbag redoubts and burnt out frames of tanks exchanged fire with the troops garrisoning the school lobby.

She waited patiently for Chadgura to survey the area as well and give her a response.

The Sergeant pulled four grenades out of her pouches. They looked like sealed bean cans.

“We throw all of these and run as quickly as we can.” Chadgura said calmly.

Gulab blinked. She searched her own equipment and found a single can in her bag.

Chadgura nodded her head. They pulled the pins and threw the first two cans over the top of the tank wreck. Chadgura pulled the pins on her remaining three grenades simultaneously and threw them after. Soon as they heard the first bomb went off they took off running.

To their right several enemy positions had been temporarily suppressed as a grenade went off near them. Gulab had hear the cries of GRANATE from the line, and caught glimpses of men crouched behind sandbags and metal debris from damaged vehicles. They covered the few meters to the steps in mere seconds, and took the first steps without slowing.

Then the enemy came alive again. Preceded by a chewing noise like that of an automatic saw, bursts of Norgler machine gun fire flew beside them and hit the walls around the lobby entrance. Bolt action rifle fire bit at their heels and flew past their heads. They bowed their heads and raised their guns behind them as if that would provide any protection.

A pair of Nochtish stick grenades landed a few steps behind their feet and rolled down.

At the top of the stairs, Gulab and Chadgura themselves through the door and onto the ground.

Fire and smoke and fragments blew in from behind them. Medics scrambled to pull them from the doorway and help them out of sight, behind the thick concrete walls. Though dizzy at first Gulab recovered, feeling an urgency to check her own body — and then a different urgency.

“Everything there?” Gulab asked, breaking away from a medic and grabbing Chadgura. She looked over the Sergeant, searching behind her back, under arms, across her legs, for wounds.

“I’m unharmed, I believe.” Chadgura said, standing very stiff and still while Gulab obsessed.

“Thank everything.” Gulab said, heaving a sigh of relief. She collapsed against the wall.

In the lobby, two large groups of soldiers huddled behind the concrete walls to the sides of the door. Because all of the glass on the windows had been broken, and the ornate door frame had been shattered by the fighting as well, there was only a strip about two meters wide on either side of the broad, open doorway that was safe to stand on. They had provisions stacked up against the corners, mostly boxes of various shell and ammunition calibers. There was one broken mortar piece of maybe 81mm caliber, and a smaller piece intact and unused. Behind the front desk a big radio box was constantly monitored. There were maybe 25 people around.

Periodically, fire from a Norgler or rifle would soar through the middle and hit the back wall. So often had gunfire penetrated the lobby that the back wall sported a crater a meter wide and several centimeters deep, formed from hundreds, maybe thousands of bullet impacts on it. After each burst of Norgler fire a man with a Danava light machine gun peered through the window and fired a long burst into the sandbags ten or twenty meters away.

One of the medics who dragged them off the door knelt beside them and offered them a nondescript bagged drink with a cardboard straw. “You both ok?” He said. “Drink this.”

Gulab tasted it first — the drink was salty and bitter and thick. “Yuck! It’s horrible.”

“It tastes bad but it will energize you. What’s your errand, Corporal?” asked the Medic.

“We require 76mm gun ammunition.” Chadgura said. She tasted the drink, and her left eye twitched ever so slightly as she swallowed the slurry. “I assume you have some.”

“We probably do. Check the crates. Don’t know how you expect to get out though.”

“Huh? You guys are stuck here?” Gulab asked, making a face at the medic.

“I’d think so. Biggest bulge in the Nochtish lines is right in front of us. They’re maybe fifteen meters away from us. They almost penetrated into the lobby once before.” said the Medic. “Had their tanks not been destroyed they would still be trying to charge us. They must be waiting for the next wave of reinforcements. Meanwhile we’re here waiting for some good news.”

In the distance, several howitzer shells hit the ground deep into the Nochtish lines, a hundred meters away. Gulab hunched her shoulders, startled; she wondered what they even hit.

“We don’t hand your orders though,” the Medic smiled, “if you try and succeed, try to get word out that we’d really like to leave this school before a tank sends a shell through the door.”

He stood up, and rushed across the room after the next Norgler burst, rejoining a pair of medics on the other side of the lobby. They sat together and shared the rest of the drink.

“We could go to the second floor, follow the hallway to the west, and drop from a window.” Chadgura said. She seemed to be musing to herself aloud, staring out the doorway.

Gulab stood up and sidled across the right wall. She picked through the mound of supply crates and found a box of 76mm shells, buried under crates of unused 60mm smoke rounds. She found a canvas bag and stuffed five shells into the thing, and then awkwardly rigged it to her belt and pouches like a backpack. It was heavy and awkward, but manageable enough for her.

Errand completed, she returned to Chadgura’s side, sat down, and sighed deeply. She put her fists to her cheeks and waited a moment. Another five-second spray of Norgler fire flew in.

Bits of lead dislodged from the wall and clinked as they struck the ground. At the window the Danava was passed to a young woman, and she took her turn shooting at the grey uniforms.

“We’ve got a message on the radio!” Shouted a young man behind the front desk.

Gulab and Chadgura looked over; so did everyone else in the room. He set the radio atop the desk and turned up the volume. It was connected to a speaker loud enough for the room.

“–Repeat, this is Ox HQ! Naval group ‘Qote’ has arrived in Bada Aso. The Revenant, Selkie,Selkie II, Charybdis and the Admiral Qote have arrived to support us. Naval and air support will help to relieve the siege across the Central districts. Now is the time to awaken, comrades! Seize your arms and fight! Push back against the imperialists!”

“That sounded like C.W.O Maharani,” the Medic said, looking around, “so help is coming?”

“You heard her, comrades!” shouted the woman at the window. “It’s time to fight back!”

Everyone in the room seemed truly to awaken at that point. The Medic and his friends recovered their weapons from the corner and huddled at the window. The Danava gunner looked down her sight with renewed zeal and did not hide away from the window, firing burst after burst of automatic fire on the Nochtish line. Her comrades opened fire from the sides of the doorway. This burst of energy seemed to take the grey uniforms by surprise.

Gulab looked over the supplies. She got an idea. She stood up and took the 60mm mortar in hand. She gathered some of the people hiding behind the desk, and got them together near the center of the room and told them to hold the mortar just so — suspended over their shoulders, at an angle more suitable to a direct-fire cannon than a mortar. Confused by her intentions the hapless non-commissioned signals staff served as her stand without making a peep.

“What the hell are you doing?” shouted the Medic, watching Gulab as she schemed.

“Just watch! It’s a brilliant idea. Besides, we’re only using a smoke round.”

The Medic stared between Gulab and the confused signals men holding the mortar.

What?” He asked again, gesturing impotently at the contraption.

Gulab had no time to explain any further. “Chadgura, get ready!”

She nonchalantly shoved mortar shell down the tube. It shook, and the shell soared out the door. Both signals staff members holding the mortar fell back, and the backplate on the piece snapped, but the shell crashed into the street outside and kicked up the smokescreen.

 

“Ho ho ho! It worked! It worked!” Gulab shouted. She took Chadgura by the arm.

In seconds the smoke had risen high enough, and the two of them ran out of the lobby, stomping down the steps, sporadic fire from startled enemies crashing around them. They leaped off the bottom steps and ran for the tank. When the Norgler started shooting again, they were well away, and the lobby had engaged the enemy again and given them their next chance.

Soon they cleared the tank, and managed to return to the sandbags with the shells in tow.

Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe stared, mouths agape, when Gulab and Chadgura reappeared. They had all kinds of cuts on their uniforms — those bullets had come a lot closer than they thought in the middle of things. Didn’t matter. Gulab unloaded her bag and offered Corporal Rahani a 76mm shell like it was a piece of candy, with a big, self-congratulatory grin on her face.

“Anyway, we’re all saved. Naval and air’s on its way to clean up here.” She said.

“Air and naval?” Eshe asked, crawling to the gun. “From where?”

Gulab shrugged. “I don’t know. Somewhere in the ocean. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“My, my, you are quite reliable, Corporal.” Rahani said softly. “Thank you for your help. Adesh, please get behind the gun again. We only have five shots; but I have faith in you.”

“Yes sir!” Adesh said. He glanced over Gulab with awe before taking his place behind the gun. Eshe pulled the crate behind the gun shield, and Nnenia and Kufu lifted the gun by the bracing legs and adjusted it. Rahani called their first target — the overturned APC in front of them.

“Adjust elevation to account for proximity, and then fire when ready, my precious crew!”

Gulab peeked out with the periscope while Adesh punched the shell into place and fired.

With a target less than thirty meters away it was not a question of hitting or missing, but the effect achieved. In this case, the 76mm HE shell easily punched through the thin armor of the overturned half-track troop carrier, even without a penetrating nose, due to the proximity and the muzzle velocity of the gun. Rahani was likely counting on this. Behind the carrier Gulab saw the burst of fire and smoke from the shell. Then she saw men running and crawling away.

Many were bleeding or mauled. Behind her, Nnenia helped traverse the gun further to the left. Eshe pushed away some of the sandbags from the wall to give space for the gun to be moved.

“Hit the assault gun wreck next, and then shoot the sandbags!” Corporal Rahani called out.

Adesh easily obliged. He put a shell right through a large hole that had been bored through the dead tank by whatever killed it first, and penetrated the flimsy, decayed armor on the other side. Again he hit the men hiding behind the gun. Gulab saw the concrete and dust flying behind the obstacle. This time no one sprinted away, though a few did crawl desperately.

All across the line the defenders started to awaken. Over the lazy, sporadic din of the Norglers she heard again the belabored thock thock thock of Danava and Khroda guns, and the sharp whiplash of rifles, the chachachachak of submachine guns from the Svechthans on the street corner. She saw men and women charge out of the lobby and take the steps again.

Rahani’s crew launched another shell and sent flying a wall of their own sandbags, tossing away a half-dozen Nochtish men who must have thought the arrangement convenient until now.

“One more down the road! Let us turn the fiends back, my beautiful crew!” Rahani said.

“I’m startin’ to feel like objecting to these!” Kufu groaned as he helped traverse the gun.

Gulab sat back and laughed. She just could hear the triumphant marching drums and trumpets in her head already, the battle hymn of the socialists; she felt energized. She knew that she had not been abandoned, that help was on its way. They all knew it now, they knew it from each other, even if they had not heard the radio address from the Headquarters. Perhaps each of them had seen one comrade who had started to fight, and it renewed the strength of them all.

At their side, the Svechthans reappeared from the street corner. They pushed out all of the sandbags, and started shooting from over them. Nikka seemed to be having a great time.

“Like shooting ducks frozen into the lake!” She said. She looked through her scope and easily picked off a man lying on the ground behind the stock of a Norgler. Gulab had barely seen him before she got him. Svechthan submachine gunners laid down a curtain of fire against the enemy. Not a single rifle seemed to retaliate now. The volume of fire was too much.

Then came the sound of tracks, and Gulab could pick it out even amid all the shooting.

“To the south! Adesh, you can see them, can’t you?” Rahani asked. He pointed south.

“Their reinforcements have arrived; we can’t let this break our counterstroke!” Nikka warned.

From the bottom of the main street Gulab saw a group of tanks approaching. Everyone scrambled to turn the gun back to the right, but they had only two shells left! Nnenia and Kufu set down the gun, and laid back on the floor, exhausted. Adesh pulled the firing pin; his shell struck the track guard of an M4 Sentinel and blew it off. One shell left; it was no good–

Over the advancing tank platoon a massive shell descended, casting a very brief shadow.

When it crashed, all five tanks disappeared into a grand fireball. A hole was smashed into the road six meters in diameter and four deep, and the tanks collapsed, broken into burning pieces.

Adesh looked over his gun shield as though wondering if he could have potentially done that.

When the rest of the heavy shells started to drop, it was clear that it was not him. Nonetheless, he smiled, and laughed. Nnenia and Eshe took him into their arms. Rahani burst out laughing as well. It was not exactly funny by itself to see the Nochtish men being blasted to pieces. But Gulab thought that everyone was so glad to be alive that there was no other natural response.

“We held!” Shouted the younger gun crew members together. “We held! We held! We held!”

Rahani clapped his hands softly along with them, as though providing percussion. Nikka and the Svechthans seemed to fall over on their backs all at once, like dolls pushed by the wind. They had the same grumpy faces as usual, but they seemed eerily contented nonetheless.

Gulab pulled down the periscope and surveyed herself the carnage unfolding along the line.

All across the road Nochtish men left their arms and hurried away as the naval artillery rolled over their path. Hurtling shells from 300mm and 200mm guns stomped massive holes into the tar and concrete and cast vast clouds of fast-moving debris and fragments. Previous artillery volleys seemed like a child throwing rocks in comparison to the overwhelming power on display. Choking smoke and the stench of gunpowder spread rapidly across the Nochtish lines. Even men safely ensconced in buildings retreated from the disaster unfolding. Troop carriers freshly arrived abruptly reversed from the combat area and turned away from Sector Home.

A Nochtish Archer plane crashed near the line, its wings and cockpit riddled with bullet holes. Gulab heard the familiar, lazy sound of the propellers on a modern Garuda fighter plane, and then saw the long green shapes cutting through the sky and chasing after Nochtish planes. There were far less Garuda in the Air Force than the old but compact and tenacious Anka biplane fighters — but in the Navy, the Anka had been completely replaced by Garuda. Now Nocht got a taste of their own medicine in the air, as a fighter as capable as their own now outnumbered them. Archer planes banked and rolled and struggled with all of their might and skill shake off the Garudas, but there were three green planes to every gray plane.

Within thirty minutes it became clear that the attack was completely broken. The Nochtish troops had given up all of the several hundreds of meters they had gained on Sector Home. Twenty meters from the door, and they had been turned away. Above, the Nochtish Air Force either flew away wounded or crashed down to earth The 3rd Line Corps had held.

“We held!” Gulab joined in, seated against the sadbags, wrapping her arms around Chadgura and kicking her legs. “We held! We held! Eat shit you imperialist scum! Rotten mudpigs!”

Chadgura did not clap or cheer or protest. Instead she simply sat, seeming almost relaxed.

* * *

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