This story segment contains scenes of violence and death, and implications of familial neglect.
33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Central District, Quadrant “Home”
12th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso
Suds and water splashed across the wooden floor and mixed with the dust seeping through a seam in the roof. Soaked through, the old floorboards turned a sickly grayish green. At one point it had been a fitting room in an old dress shop. All the lights shattered when a small bomb hit the upper floor. There were still bits of bulb in the corners.
On a chair that was turning a little green as well, in the middle of this gloomy old room, a young woman rubbed a bar of soap across her arms and legs and dunked them in a big metal bucket. Orange candlelight danced over her bronzed back, her lean limbs, and the slim valley of her torso. The air was still, but the wicks burned wildly, as if moved by her ragged breath. She conducted herself almost religiously, rubbing in the soap and soaking it off her skin. Her mirror was a long piece of broken glass, but that was fine.
She knew well how she looked.
She washed around her neck, the nape, the apple, collarbones. She scrubbed fiercely. Days without care in the warzone had allowed grime to form like a shackle around her neck, and over her wrists, on her chest. It repulsed her. Seeing people coming in and out of the damaged old shop, she had worked up the courage to ask an officer. Graciously she was afforded a makeshift washroom. She had no intention of looking or feeling like a prisoner. Not in this city, not in this country, not up in those mountains and not in her own body.
Pulling on her hair she dismantled the long braid that she had repeatedly tied it up into in the past few days. Once it was loose, she applied oil, tracing it with her fingers until her mane was slick and honeyed over, and then she leaned down and submerged her head in the water. She closed her eyes and held her breath. She pulled out; she rubbed her hands on the soap and pressed them against her cheeks, against her sharp nose, against her soft lips. She thought she could taste it; up in the mountains they used fat and plant ash in soap.
Had circumstances been different, perhaps she would have still remained in the Kucha, making soap with the women of the village. She dunked her head in the water again.
Outside she heard the distinct report of a howitzer, and resolved to hurry on back out.
Corporal Gulab Kajari pulled her head out of the wash bucket and wrung out her long hair over it. Water dribbled down her brassiere and undershorts, tinged by streaks of bronze-colored oil and soap. She had put a bit of a hair-care solution through her braid and head and it was washing off. Another soldier had found the hair care bottle in a ruin, and left it in here for others to use. Gulab left some for the next person too. It was only right.
She had about four minutes to spare reserved just for her, but she resolved to take care of business quickly. The last thing she wanted was to be half-naked during an attack.
On a nearby chair there was a fresh combat uniform. There was even a new brassiere with it, a small one. Over her flat chest it fit well enough. Her shorts were a little loose, but they fit. She dressed eagerly, a contented sigh escaping her lips as she felt the crisp texture of her new, clean uniform, as smooth as her own clean skin under it. It was a great relief.
She did not notice anymore that her uniforms were not the muted green of the Territorial Army, but the black with red trim of the KVW’s elite assault forces from the 3rd Motorized Division. She buttoned up the jacket, straightened out the sleeves, and tied her hair in a braid again. She tucked herself well into her shorts and pants and laced her boots.
Outside, she bowed respectfully to the older woman in charge of the washroom, who smiled and waved off the need for any thanks, and she went out into the street. As she set foot on the pavement, across the road from her in a cleared-out ruin between two short buildings, a pair of howitzers fired into the distance. She looked down the road, toward the southern bend, and saw no enemies coming, but there was a truck and a tank driving down from the north, and a dozen people bringing out crates of ammunition and small arms.
“Under attack, southeast, southwest! Assault forces needed! 3rd Line Corps form up!”
Within moments there were crowds of green uniforms on both sides of the street, gathering weapons and ammunition and dispersing behind sandbag emplacements and into various houses. Snipers started getting into position, the tank hid around a corner, and the truck unloaded a heavy howitzer that was pulled to a position a few houses farther north.
Gulab looked around, but there was no KVW around that she could ask for her specific orders. She stood in the middle of the street staring idly, waiting as everyone got ready.
She felt awkward in her uniform and tags, all suggesting that she was an officer, idling in the middle of a fight without instructions. But everyone was too busy to berate her.
Then from around the corner of the dress shop, she saw a black and red uniform approach and felt relief. Again Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had come inadvertently to the rescue. Her somewhat curly pale hair was slightly wet, and her dark-brown skin looked clean and healthy. She too had a clean uniform – she had probably come fresh out of a different improvised shower room. Her expression was clean of emotions too, as usual.
“You look clean.” Sergeant Chadgura said softly. Gulab quirked an eyebrow at her.
“Huh? I look clean? I guess I must. I just took a bath.” Gulab said, arms crossed.
Sergeant Chadgura clapped her hands a few times. “Sorry. It was a compliment.”
Gulab nodded. “Alright, sorry about that. Let’s start over. Hujambo, Sgt. Chadgura.”
“Sijambo.” Chadgura replied. It was the rather rare original counterpart to Hujambo; ‘how are you’ was normally answered ‘I am fine’ but in Ayvarta, over time, the response had simply been replaced by a second Hujambo. ‘How are you,’ responded to with ‘How are you?’ so both parties could show their support and care for one another.
“I’ll take it.” Gulab said, smiling warmly. “We got orders yet? Everyone’s mobilizing.”
“There is an attack but we’re not yet meeting it; we’re the mobile reserve. There’s a Half-Track hiding around the corner here that we should group up on, just in case.”
Gulab nodded her head. She felt a surging in her limbs, a need to move. There was an attack! She wanted to ride out to meet it! Corporal Gulab Kajari of the elite 3rd KVW Motorized Division, would save the day like old storybook cavalry. Who among the close-minded old yaks in the Kucha could have foreseen the gallantry to which she had ascended?
“Is something wrong?” Chadgura asked. She had her hands up as though about to clap.
“Nothing. Let’s ride that half-track.” Gulab said sweetly, woken from her daydream.
Around the corner a Sharabha half-track truck, armed with a heavy gun turret, rested under a tree in a grassy lot nestled across the road from the dress shop. Grey metal plates had been bolted over the thick nose and brow of the truck, around the windshield, and also along the sides to raise the armor coverage of the cargo bed, as well as to support the turret. There was a refreshing breeze blowing under the shade of the tree as they approached.
Gulab climbed onto the back using a metal ramp. There was no tarp. All of the machine was armored. It was almost like a wheeled tank. But the interior was still spacious enough for a squadron of infantry. There were benches to sit on, and a ladder for the turret.
There were also several slits and sliding windows from which to shoot.
Inside, Gulab was surprised to find ten Svechthans in the truck alongside the plump, boyish Pvt. Dabo and the stern-looking Pvt. Jande. Gulab had not seen very many of their allies from the far north. Among the small, pale, blue-haired Svechthans was a familiar face, however – Sergeant Illynichna or “Nikka,” her hair tied in an ice-blue ponytail.
She was actually perhaps a few centimeters smaller than the rest of her kin aboard the half-track. Her new subordinates all had beige uniforms with blue plants, and the tallest among them was perhaps 150 centimeters tall. They had for the most part round faces, straight hair and slim builds, with rather dour expressions on their lips and eyes.
“Zdrastvooyte,” Sgt. Nikka said. “This time I brought along some comrades of mine.”
“All of your help is appreciated.” Chadgura said. She bowed her head politely to the newcomers. Gulab knew off-hand that the Svechthans from the Joint-Training corps had been spread around the city as artillery officers and had helped coordinate the construction of the defensive lines, but most of their offensive strength had been kept far in reserve in the north district. They were probably itching for a fight! She would have been.
Gulab looked across the faces of the Svechthan men and women. For the life of her, she could not tell their expressions apart from those on the KVW soldiers. Nikka had a fairly emphatic demeanor however, and she grinned and held up her fist over her head while speaking. She looked like she had a fire in her belly, just like Gulab did.
“Anything to defend the Bread Mother, right, comrades?” Nikka shouted.
Her troops nodded their heads calmly. A few smiled while doing so. This little gesture was enough to separate them as merely reserved folk, rather than altered like the KVW.
“Ah, we do give you guys a lot of food don’t we?” Gulab said. “I guess that’s fitting.”
“Our languages are somewhat difficult to translate to each other. So on both sides we accepted a few unique terms. So your country’s name is the Bread Mother.” Nikka said.
“And what does Svechtha mean?” Gulab said. She found it hard to pronounce.
“Nothing at all, in any tongue. It is a completely invented word. Our continent did not have one word but many different ones for the regions we inhabited; those were lost to colonization. In the end, as a community we created a new word to describe us, one which had no meanings to the oppressors. One that is, in fact, hard to pronounce in Lubonin.”
“I see.” Gulab said. She did not understand well, but she didn’t know their history.
“If you have difficulty with it, you can also call us Narot – ‘people’.” Nikka said.
“No; I will try to pronounce it better from now on.” Gulab said, smiling awkwardly.
“But yes,” Sgt. Nikka turned her eyes back to Sgt. Chadgura, “we had been waiting somewhat restlessly to take a few bites out of Nocht. But I can understand you would be loath to send your allies to fight like this. We have been manning a lot of artillery and doing a lot of organizing. We have also been preparing for the Major’s next operations.”
“You have more experience in such matters than the bulk of our troops, I’d wager.” Chadgura said. “But what the Narot truly specialize in is the forward assault, isn’t it?”
“Indeed!” Sgt. Nikka said. “We have no fear of rushing against the tall folk. Especially not the northern capitalist bastards like Nocht. We are eager to show you Ayvartans how it’s done! Nobody can turn away the bayonets and guns of a Svechthan battle charge!”
Gulab nodded her head with a big smile on her face. She sat down on the bench. Chadgura looked at the bench opposite hers and took a seat as well. Periodically they heard the sound of an artillery gun being fired in the distance – the pounding noise of the 122mm howitzer shooting, and sometimes the clink of a shell casing hitting the earth.
Such sounds were just natural background noise by now.
Inside the Half-Track they had a backpack radio that had been left in a corner, and a few spare arms in a crate. Once they were settled, Pvt. Jande handed Chadgura and Gulab a pair of Nandi automatic carbines and 15-round magazines. These were the same short automatic weapons they used in Matumaini. Gulab noticed however that the Svechthans carried submachine guns or bolt-action rifles in their hands. Nikka had a Laska silenced carbine. Private Jane and Dabo had old Bundu bolt-action rifles, standard-issue.
Gulab supposed she got the automatic because she was an officer and trusted with the rarer weapon, while everyone else was equipped at random or for the sake of balance.
She unloaded her weapon, looked down the sight, and pressed the trigger to test it.
“Careful with the automatic fire on it,” Nikka warned, “it tends to jam every so often.”
“I’ll be careful.” Gulab said. “I don’t like the auto-fire; the magazine is too small.”
“It can be handy in a pinch. Soften your trigger pulls to control it.” Nikka said.
Across the floor of the half-track bed, Sergeant Chadgura looked almost restless herself. She rubbed her hands together and kicked her legs every so often. Her eyes were half-closed and made her look drowsy. She scanned around but avoided moving her head.
To Gulab it looked as though there was something stewing inside the Sergeant’s head.
“Corporal Kajari,” Chadgura finally said. She clapped her hands softly while calling.
“Something wrong?” Gulab asked. She looked at Chadgura, who then averted her eyes.
“I would like to discuss the conditions of my defeat in our last chess game.” She said meekly. “I played better than the first time, because you did not become aggravated.”
Or about as meekly as she could say it; perhaps Gulab was imagining her tone entirely.
Gulab raised her hands to her chin and recalled the board at the end. Ever since the battle at Penance they played at least once a day when together. She had played sloppily to try to give Chadgura a chance. Though she did not fall into a fool’s mate again like before, Chadgura played weakly and cluttered the board very fast. Against an opponent who wanted to take her out, it would have been a smorgasbord of bad trades in their favor. So it was a game that was generally difficult to remember. It was any game Gulab played against a beginner. There was, however, one detail that came to mind most strongly.
“You pushed too fast and you had a bad bishop at the end of the game. You blocked it from moving anywhere when you could have pressured me if you used it right.” Gulab said.
Chadgura snuck a peek into Gulab’s eyes and averted her gaze again. “I see.” She said.
“You lost your aggressive knights and rooks very quickly, and put yourself in a bad position in the endgame where your only aggressive pieces left were bishops.” She started to think almost faster than she could speak – she pointed her finger strongly at Chadgura. She recalled some of the things she had been told about her own game when she was little. “You have to watch the board and think of what trades you are making. A lot of beginners underrate the bishop and leave it stuck on the board while parading the knights and rooks.”
“Yes, I can see what you mean.” Chadgura replied. “Thank you.” She clapped her hands softly again. “I want to be an opponent worthy of entertaining you someday.”
Gulab blinked hard. Her thoughts ground to a halt from their previous breakneck speed.
“Yes, well, I think so,” Gulab awkardly said, “I’m a great teacher after all.” She laughed. She crossed her arms, her face frozen in a clumsy grin. “You’ll do great, kiddo.”
Chadgura nodded dutifully after every repetitive affirmation out of Gulab’s mouth.
Gulab was certainly not ready for someone else to become invested in Chess with her.
On the radio set a little needle in a gauge started to move, giving everyone in the vehicle something to stare at other than their awkward commanders.
Sgt. Chadgura stood up, knelt down beside the radio and put the headset against her ear. For a minute or two she took the message and then set down the handset.
Calmly she returned to the bench and sat again.
She cleared her throat and addressed everyone in her usual, inexpressive tone of voice.
“We have our orders: travel down to Mulga and hunt down an artillery position that is covering for the advance in the Central sector, then return to Home.” Chadgura said.
Everyone nodded, and began to load their weapons and make themselves ready.
Chadgura stared at them for a moment. She raised her fist.
“Let us make haste, comrades!”
Her forced emphatic voice sounded tinny and choked.
Everyone stared at her momentarily.
For close to a minute their Half-Track idled under the shade without any effort to move.
“Oh.” Chadgura said aloud suddenly. “I forgot.”
She stood stiffly off the bench. Nonchalantly she stepped out of the half-track. Gulab heard her footsteps going around the side, and the twisting of the driver’s side window lever. Chadgura informed him of the orders and then started to trample back to the truck’s rear.
When she returned, she clapped her hands quickly and loudly in front of her face.
“There is a slit for talking with the driver, you know.” Nikka said. She pointed at it.
Chadgura turned her head slowly and spotted the opening in front of the benches.
“I see.” She said. Dejectedly she returned to her seat and began to stare at her shoes.
Gulab leaned forward, reached out across the bed and patted her on the shoulder.
Their bodies stirred as the Half-Track’s engine churned.
“I think Kajari should go up on the heavy gun.” Nikka said. “She can handle it, right?”
“It’s the same as shooting an anti-tank gun right? I got some training in that.” Gulab said. This time it was not an exaggeration or misconception – she had shot about a hundred dummy rounds on a 45mm gun for training. Every Shuja in the Kalu had to take river-defense courses where they shot light artillery across the banks. This could not have been that different! After all it was the same gun, only modified for turret use.
“I have confidence in Kajari.” Sergeant Chadgura said, rubbing her hands together.
Feeling energized, Gulab stood up on the moving half-track and carefully made her way to the steps bolted to the back of the driving compartment wall, climbing them into a squat, drum-like turret structure with 45mm gun, like the one on a Goblin tank. She sat herself on a canvas and strapped herself to the turret, and looked around the interior.
There was a niche carrying the gun’s high-explosive shells, each close to the size of her arm. There was a manual handle to traverse the gun turret, and a wheel for gun elevation. There was a scoped sight. It reminded her of the inside of the tank that she had stolen in Buxa the other day. Sliding plates on either side gave her some ability to look at the streets, but a periscope and gun sight hanging before her were the gun’s key visual aids.
“Are you comfortable in your position, Corporal Kajari?” Chadgura asked from below.
“I’m fine!” Gulab said. She picked up a 45mm shell and turned around in her hands. Once they got going in earnest, she looked out the gun’s telescopic sight at their surroundings as the half-truck drove south at a brisk 60 km per hour on a slight downhill journey from “Home” block and toward their objective. She scanned around the area.
“Keep your eyes peeled!” Nikka said. “There could be hidden enemies!”
“I was informed that our way was mostly clear.” Chadgura said.
Regardless the Half-Track advanced. Mulga was a small, tight urban block to the southeast of Madiha’s House, quickly accessible through the road network leading to the school. There was a large, square U-shaped tenement building, five stories tall and surrounded by a broad street and a grassy lawn, dotted with trees and shrubbery; this building and its surroundings made up most of Mulga block. Much of the tenement had been damaged, but even split down the middle by bombs it still dominated the skyline of the Central District. She could see it over the rest of the buildings as they drove downhill.
Gulab adjusted her sights and opened the gun breech, to have it ready to fire.
“Hey, don’t play around in there!” Nikka shouted. “Bozhe moi! Shoot only if ordered!”
“Yes ma’am.” Gulab replied sourly. She closed the breech and put the round back.
“Eyes ahead, Corporal.” Chadgura said. “We may be coming up on our objective.”
They would have their answer to that soon enough; Gulab had it in her sights already.
As their half-track rounded a bend in the road toward the large tenement, Gulab saw some of the Territorial Army soldiers rushing forward. They drew up their rifles and opened fire across the green and plaza in front of the building. Passing the buildings she took in the full view of an all-out firefight. On the margins of the tenement’s grounds, squadrons of Territorial Army troops scrambled for cover in bushes and behind trees, behind playground objects and benches and fire hydrants. Positions across the street from the tenement opened machine gun fire on the building and all across the green.
Opposite these maneuvers, Nochtish soldiers ran out of the wide pass-through hallway through the front of the tenement building, pausing to take shots on the landing before hurtling forward off the steps and behind the low concrete walls of a square fountain basin just off the facade. From blown-out windows and half-collapsed fire-escape walkways machine gunners and riflemen took shots at advancing Ayvartan troops, the Norglers’ loud chopping noise dominating the atmosphere as its gunfire slashed across their ranks.
The Half-Track stopped just around the corner, taking partial cover near the dilapidated flank of a nearby civil canteen building. A soldier from the Territorial Army ran past and boarded the half-track. Gulab could hear him speaking with Chadgura about their plight in the area. “…we thought the 3rd Line Corps could contain them in the east, but there too many men slipping through our defenses. That’s how they ended up in Mulga of all places. Our strength is deployed on the main streets, so I don’t have much here–”
Chadgura interrupted the man. “Do not fear, we will help you. Corporal,” she shouted up to the turret, “the Nochtish attack may possess a greater scope than we feared. We will provide fire support for the 4th Division’s counterattack in Mulga. Fire at your discretion.”
“I’m ready if you all are.” Gulab replied. She opened her little windows and pulled out the same shell she was playing with, opened the breech, punched the shell into place and locked the breech. This action made distinctive noises – everyone below could tell what she was doing. When she was done, the gun was ready to fire at the pull of a chain.
The squadron dismounted, and at Nikka’s insistence the Svechthan soldiers took the lead. The Half-Track cruised forward out of cover and onto the street, and the Svechthans crept down the side of the half-track, opening fire on the Nochtish soldiers visible across the green with their submachine guns and rifles. As the Half-Track drove onto the street and past the benches and bushes, machine gun rounds pelted the engine block and the vehicle halted. The Svechthans ducked beside the half-track for cover against the fire.
“Devushka!” She heard Nikka shout outside. “There’s a Norgler, second floor left!”
Gulab twisted the turret clumsily around using the manual turret drive wheel. She heard gunshots from her side and checked her window briefly – Nikka and her troops had taken a pair of men apart for trying to approach and throw one of those ridiculous anti-tank canvas-winged mines the Nochtish loved so much. They fell with the bombs in hand.
Around her the Territorial Army troops held in position. Fire flew from all sides. Rifle troops took snap shots out of cover and threw themselves on the ground to buy time to aim. It was sheer volume that killed here. Men and women ran through individual bullets, each hitting the floor or a taking a chunk out of a piece of cover; but in the dozens, lucky shots were sooner scored. Even as she traversed there were casualties. She could not pay heed to every fallen comrade or enemy; her vision tunneled, and she focused on her objectives.
Gulab raised the elevation of the gun. On the second floor window she saw the Norgler shooter, his fire trailing toward the Half-Track and then across the street to ruined shop, where a woman with an LMG had been dueling with him. Gulab sighted him, waited for the flash to confirm, and then pulled the firing mechanism. She felt the breech slide, and a slight force feeding back across the turret. Her shell flew through the window and exploded.
There were no more flashes through the thin smoke left in the wake of the blast.
She had either gotten him or suppressed him.
The Half-Track started to move again, asserting its armored bulk closer into the green, all bulletproof glass and 10mm steel. Around them the Territorial Army soldiers were emboldened by the support. Two squadrons of twenty or so men and women moved forward from the playground and from the bushes, advancing across the open terrain into the firing line. They took aimed shots at the Nochtish defenses and felled a man.
There was an immediate casualty in reply – a woman was hit in the stomach as she left the cover of a bench and exposed herself. Fire from her comrades forced the attackers to duck again behind the fountain as they pulled her back into cover, likely to die. Meanwhile the Nochtish men huddled in front of the building facade and in the pass-through – a long, tall hallway leading through the tenement building and out the other end of the block.
Gulab scarcely noticed this. Her turret was still turned skyward when she fired again.
She put a shell into a fire escape, shattering the floor out from under a few grenadiers jumping out of a window. Those that did not die from the pressure or the fragments fell from the third floor to their deaths, land in the concrete with bonecrushing thuds. She put another round into the window itself; a man with a Norgler had appeared there just in time to see his allies fall. She did not see what happened to him beneath the smoke.
She heard no more machine gun fire coming from the Nochtish corner.
“Molodets!” Nikka shouted. “Put few into that pass-through in front of the building!”
“Yes ma’am!” Gulab shouted out the sliding window.
She reached out her arms and scooped several rounds from her racks, dropping them on her lap. Taking a deep breath, she punched the first shell in and fired; the spent casing crashed down the stairs as it was discarded, and Gulab quickly loaded the next round. She fired as fast as she could. Her first shot hit the corner of the building’s aperture and exploded, sending fragments flying back on the men hiding behind the fountain. Many were cut and wounded, she could see them shake and thrash around in fear and pain. Then she put the second and third rounds right into the hall. Landsers ran out under a spray of steel, ducking their heads and hurtling headfirst into the green, diving away in desperation. There was not a man without red slashes across his shoulders or back or along his arms or cheeks. Her fourth and fifth rounds hit the same places, flushing out a dozen men.
Nikka’s Strelky were more than happy to welcome them. The Svechthans rushed fearlessly ahead, even as intermittent Nochtish gunfire flew their way. Submachine gunners led the attack, rapping their fingers on the triggers and unleashing careful bursts of fire on the men as they escaped the hall. Many imperialists were stricken dead in mid-dive, falling on their faces behind cover never to get up. Nikka herself put a round through the head of a man in mid-run down the stairs, and shifted her attention to the stomach of a second man within seconds. With disciplined, agile bounds they pushed right into the enemy’s line.
Gulab traversed the cannon again as fast as she could. Her arm was starting to feel raw with the effort required to turn the gun. Her next shell fell right on the laps of several men huddling behind the stairway up into the tenement’s ground floor. Its concrete steps had defended them from the Svechthans; the 45mm shell exploded behind it in a grizzly column of smoke and steel that carried with it blood and flesh. There was little left behind.
Ayvartan Shuja and Svechthan Strelky reached the hallway and Gulab held her fire. Those with submachine guns led the way, and Gulab saw vicious flashes of automatic gunfire through the windows along the building’s facade. Sergeant Nikka ran up the steps and ducked around the corner of the hallway, peering in to take careful, practiced shots with her silenced rifle. Gulab saw a man’s head burst like a pale pustule through one of the windows. She saw various darker heads take his place indoors as her allies pushed up.
Patrolling soldiers moved on to the second floor. Gulab waited anxiously. She saw Nikka through a gaping hole in the building’s facade, walking carefully forward with her rifle up. She shouted something and ducked – from behind her several shots traced the length of the room. Nikka rose again and signaled an all-clear.
Territorial Army soldiers moved in her place.
There was no more gunfire.
A Svechthan soldier ran back to the Half-Track from the building’s front, and climbed aboard. From the opposite direction Gulab saw a platoon of Territorial Army soldiers running in from side streets, running around the sides of the parked Half-Track and stepping through the pass-through hallway, penetrating deeper into the tenement structure.
Fifty Nochtish corpses and a few dozen Avyartan ones were visible from her vantage.
Below her, Sergeant Chadgura appeared under the turret hole so Gulab could see her.
“Corporal Kajari, it appears the building’s been reclaimed for now.” Chadgura said. “Good job. Sergeant Nikka believes we should leave this to the comrades of 4th Division.”
Gulab sighed with relief. For the moment, it was over. They had won, and she thought she could feel each individual ligament in her arms throbbing and twisting. Nobody could maintain a steady rate of fire for very long, even on a light gun like the 45mm.
“Yes ma’am. I pray to the Ancestors they will be able to hold the fort there.”
“Oh, I had thought that you prayed to the Spirits.” Sergeant Chadgura asked curiously.
“Ah, my village has a strange syncretic religion. The Ancestors were seen as more war-worthy; the Diyam’s light was for healing and fertility; the Spirits took care of a lot of things. Over time, different people have ended up seeking refuge in the Kucha, you know?”
Chadgura nodded quietly, a dull expression in her eyes. Perhaps she did not understand.
Sergeant Nikka returned shortly. She slapped her hand on the front armor of the half-track’s bed, as if to get Gulab’s attention in the turret. Gulab looked down the turret hole.
“Well met, Gulachka! You cooked those imperialist bastards medium well!”
“Do you mean dead?” Gulab asked, not quite getting the joke entangled in those words.
Nikka simply grinned, and took her seat again out of Gulab’s sight. Gulab did notice that her nickname had changed again all of a sudden with Nikka’s newfound good humor.
“Ey, Sgt. Chadgura; one of your good army men who was pushed up to Mulga from Katura just a block down, thinks we might find that artillery there.” Sgt. Nikka said. “He says the Nochtish pigs overtook him and he retreated because he only had a squadron.”
“We are only a squadron.” Sergeant Chadgura said. “How many enemies did he see?”
“Two platoons. We can take them!” Nikka replied. “Gulachka can do it!”
“I only have twenty rounds or so I think.” Gulab shouted down at them from the turret.
“You think?” Sergeant Nikka shouted.
“I know! Jeez! I can count them for you!” Gulab shouted back.
Chadgura clapped her hands loud. Everyone else quieted.
“I’m not convinced that we can fight that many.” She said.
“We won’t fight them all! We have a vehicle, tovarisch. We perform a hit and run on the artillery. A taste of their medicine. This is a scouting vehicle isn’t it? It has the speed.”
Sergeant Chadgura quieted for a moment. Gulab could imagine her fidgeting.
“Very well. But I’ll quite readily abort if we are overwhelmed.” Chadgura finally said.
The Half-Track got going again, and Gulab saw more Territorial Army folks trickling in around the tenement, remnants of squadrons that had once occupied all the periphery of the home sector and now had to plug a breach. The KVW continued their hunt by taking a tight eastward bend away from the tenement. At first they drove at a mere 30 km/h. Gulab’s eyes sought for contacts – during the first few minutes of the drive at least.
She pulled on her shirt collar. It was sweltering hot inside the turret, and very little breeze got through the windows. She looked around at the tiny wisps of heat playing over the demolished structures at their flanks, and at the clear, sunny skies. She almost preferred the storm. Her uniform felt very stifling. Around her the walls were turning hot. Even the eyepiece of her sight and the gun controls were growing hot enough to bite at her.
Sighing she continued to peer out the windows.
Something caught her attention then.
She stuck her head out the turret and shielded her eyes.
Black objects hurtling through the sky, several of them. She had a good guess about their identity from their trajectories. Low velocity shells from howitzers, lumbering across the air at high angles before coming down on some unlucky soul and completing their journey. There were dozens of them flying out toward “Home” sector.
Maybe even to Madiha’s House.
“Ma’am, I think the enemy’s artillery is definitely south of here.” Gulab shouted.
“We’ve got a map.” Chadgura said from below. “There’s an open-air Msanii lot not far from here. We can try to break through to it – it is the best spot for artillery in Katura.”
“Acknowledged!” Gulab said. She then heard noises below. “Uh, what’s happening?”
She heard the ramp drop, and all kinds of rattling behind her.
She turned around and opened the turret’s rear sliding window in confusion.
Below her, the Svechthans peeked out of the sliding windows on the metal armor bolted over the Sharabha’s sides, sticking their submachine guns out of the apertures to shoot at the street while standing on the benches. Meanwhile Chadgura, Dabo and Jande stood near the open back of the half-track’s bed and watched the rear with their weapons up. The Half-Track dragged the open ramp along, bumping and scratching on the pitch.
“Gulachka, face forward, we have got company!” Nikka shouted, raising a fist.
Gulab spun around back to her sight.
The Half-Track accelerated. On the winding street ahead she saw grey-uniformed men with rifles bounding from between buildings and through the rubble collecting on the sides of the street. The Half-Track rushed past an enemy squadron and took a corner; an anti-tank shell soared miraculously past their vehicle as it slid to a halt and missed them.
At a hastily assembled checkpoint dead ahead from the corner, a PAK 26 37mm anti-tank gun zeroed in. Three men hid behind its gun shield and hastily loaded another round.
“Not a chance!” Gulab shouted, arms growing sore as she loaded and shot.
Her turret lobbed the 45mm high-explosive shell directly against the anti-tank gun. Smoke and fire and fragments blew over the gun shield and the men fell back in pieces; those that were not left skinless by the blast were left headless and limbless by the flying shards of metal. Behind her Gulab heard rifles and submachine gun fire. The Nochtish squadron they bypassed must have been running back. She started to turn the turret around–
“Eyes forward Gulachka! We’ll handle the streets! Focus on the road!” Nikka shouted.
The Half-Track broke off abruptly, tearing down the road.
Gulab turned the hard turret crank again and returned the gun to the neutral position. Their driver rushed forward as fast as the truck could handle, and instead of taking the next corner he squeezed into a side street between a pair of buildings, smashed through a fence, and broke out into the next block. When their wheels hit tar again they had overtaken a Nochtish squadron – a dozen men with a machine gun, five others setting down a pair of mortars, right in the middle of the street. They looked over their shoulders in disbelief.
At Gulab’s command the turret gun bellowed, launching an explosive round.
She barely saw the resulting carnage as the high-explosive shell went off over them.
Wheels and tracks and metal screeched against the pavement.
Bursts of gunfire struck the turret and the armored bed, bouncing off with hard reports.
Shots flew everywhere from buildings and alleys and from behind rubble as the Half-Track tore past scattered enemy positions. Building speed the Half-Track took one last corner to the Katura Msanii, sliding almost entirely off the road and into the street as the tracked half of the vehicle struggled to complete the turn. Little speed was lost and the vehicle hurtled forward and downhill. The Msanii was in sight – a fenced-off area of green lot with a pair of trees and some benches, where kiosks of hand-made goods could be bartered, traded or sold as was Ayvartan tradition even before the era of the Empire.
There were no goods on sale today; everything was flying off into the sky.
Six 10.5 CM LeFH howitzers in the middle of the Msanii lobbed shells relentlessly over Katura and Mulga as if trying to shoot down the sky. A half-dozen shells soared upward and arced down onto Home sector; smoke drifted skyward from afar, thickening further with each volley. Nochtish defenders spotted the Half-Track careening toward them, but there was nowhere to take cover. Artillery crews ducked behind their guns and tried desperately to turn them toward the road, while a dozen riflemen stood stalwart in the way and shot desperately into the armored engine block and bulletproof windshield.
Gulab pulled the firing pin and put a shell several meters behind the defenders.
She did not hit, the explosion caught nobody and the fragments fell short – but the men threw themselves down on the ground to avoid the shot and lost precious time. Biting her lip, Gulab tried adjusting her gun once more, but the second round overflew the lot.
She could not keep up anymore with the vehicle’s speed.
The Sharabha hit the foot of the shallow hill down onto the msanii’s lot and bolted toward off the road heedless of the obstacles before it. Without slowing or maneuvering at all the vehicle tore through the fence and crushed three men under its wheels and tracks.
It smashed into one of the howitzers; Gulab heard a flare-up of decidedly one-sided gunfire as the vehicle’s engine cut off. She heard boots on the dirt and Nochtish screams. She undid the buckles holding her to the turret and slid down the ladder to view the result.
Outside, the Strelky coolly approached and held up the Nochtish artillery crews.
During the rush, Gulab had hardly been able to pay attention to it, but now she saw the Half-Track had taken quite a beating. Repeated bursts of machine gun fire had pitted and banged up the engine compartment. There were tongues of black smoke playing about the vehicle’s nose, not a good sign. Their driver sat dejectedly behind glass cracked so badly that it was a wonder he could see where he was going at all. There were holes in the side plates of the bed, full penetrations perhaps delivered by heavy panzerbuchse rifles.
It was a wonder any of them survived the assault at all.
“We cannot risk going back the way we came.” Chadgura said aloud as if to herself. She addressed Gulab when she saw her dismount. “We will go through the tunnels.”
There were almost 20 men on the site, quickly collected into a crowd along the green.
“Brechen!” Nikka shouted at them. She gestured toward the decrewed howitzers.
“Don’t shoot.” One man said, in incredibly poor Ayvartan. “Don’t shoot ours; please.”
“Halt die klappe! Zerstören die haubitzen!” Nikka shouted at them again.
There was abrupt movement at the back of the group; someone tried to reach for a pistol to shoot Nikka. He shoved aside another man and quickly received several more pistol bullets from the Svechthans than he would have released, and fell onto a rapidly growing pool of his own blood at the feet of his men. Judging by his lapel, he was their artillery officer, fed up with his men’s capitulation. He lay on the grass, choking, bleeding.
All the other captured men raised their hands higher in response.
Nikka approached them.
“Zerteilen!” She shouted at the men, and once again, she pointed them to the howitzers. They seemed to understand her, whatever it was she said. From their satchels the men produced small explosives, and sealed them into the breeches of each gun. After a moment they detonated inside the chambers and ruined them. Smoke and flame blew from each barrel. Instead of a battery, the howitzers were now nothing more than scrap.
Nikka shouted more Nochtish at them; while the Strelky menaced the artillerymen with their submachine guns and pistols, the captives emptied all of their pockets, dropped their belts and quickly stripped their uniforms and pouches down to their skin. Under threat of violence the naked men ran as fast as they could out of the msanii and down the street – a token burst of inaccurate gunfire gave them sound to fear as they fled.
“With a good vehicle we could have taken a few of them prisoner.” Nikka lamented.
“I was expecting you would kill them all.” Gulab said, shrugging her shoulders.
“We need to conserve ammunition.” Nikka said, waving her hand dismissively.
“If you say so. However, we should go. Please follow me.” Sergeant Chadgura said.
All the Nochtish troops they had rushed past before could not have been far; the assault squadron detonated emergency satchels under the half-track and in the turret, ruining the vehicle and its arms so that the enemy could not capture it. They handed the driver a pistol, and he followed them without a hint of mourning for his vehicle. Then they left the scene, running across the Msanii, darting over the fence. Chadgura had a map open as they ran.
“This house further south has a cellar that should have a connection to the tunnels.” She shouted. “If it’s been built over recently we can use a satchel to blow open a hole.”
They found the house, an old baked brick building. Its door had been thrown open, but there was nobody inside. They hurried in, guns pointing in every direction. A recessed stairway led into the cellar. No sooner had they begun their descent, that they heard tracks and saw the shadows of vehicles along the interior wall. They hurried down into the dark.
Moments later several men stepped inside, shouted “Klar!” and left once more.
Underground, Chadgura and Gulab traded their guns for electric torches. Damp and humid and just a little too short for her to comfortably stand in, Gulab hated every step of this tunnel. Her father had said no son of his would be anything but a hunter; despite all the firefights Gulab felt more like a beleaguered sewer crawler with every step she took, head crouched, torch forward. For once she envied the Svechthan’s smaller height.
Everyone was silent at first, but the tunnels were so featureless that they could practically feel the silence around them like a toxic fume. Nikka was the first to grow restless and speak up. Gulab thought she could hear the desperation in her first few words.
“Gulachka, I must say, I underestimated you. You have a real killer instinct.” She said. “I dare say you are a natural with weapons. You may have messed around with that tank, but you got it moving; and you handled that turret skillfully. Maybe your place is a gunner and not a driver ey? Ha ha! Do you have a secret technique you could teach us mortals?”
Gulab laughed. She took all of that as a joke and thought that Nikka could not possibly be serious, but it also tickled her ego and she quite easily played along with the flattery.
“I’ve been shooting all my life.” Gulab said. “Slingshots, hunting rifles, etc; it was not anything natural, I trained hard! I made myself into the person that I am today! Ouch!” She hit her head a loose brick in the ceiling, sticking out just a little lower than the rest.
“Be careful.” Chadgura said in a low voice. She rubbed Gulab’s head briefly.
“What brought you to the military? Part of making yourself as you say?” Nikka asked.
“I suppose; it was my father trying to stomp me into a perfect son.” Gulab said irritably. She gently took Chadgura’s hand and put it back down from her head. “It is hard to get out of a dumpy village in the middle of the mountains, until a military recruiter comes around.”
“Familial troubles? I understand. I’m the 11th of 13 children.” Nikka said. “We tend to treat boys and girls the same too in Svechtha. But my father was very old and not too strict. He worked in a collective farm. But farm work in my homeland is dreary and often fruitless, so I joined the military. Then I got sent here to melt in the hot sun, ha ha.”
“I am an only child. I joined the army foolishly.” Chadgura interjected. ”And I am frankly confused as to how anyone can have thirteen children. It seems overambitious.”
“Mother was powerful. How were your parents, Chadgura?” Nikka asked. “How would they feel about you crawling in these sewers to escape a hundred armed pursuers?”
“They would tell me my hand clapping is annoying them.” Chadgura replied. “They might also ask me if I intended to marry any of those men someday and become decent.”
Gulab patted Chadgura in the back again.
Everyone quieted for the rest of the journey. The tunnel was cramped enough as it was without their awkwardness floating in their limited air. Gulab thought that if anything this exchange just made Nikka more restless. She resorted to counting bullets for a distraction.