This chapter contains scenes of violence, including fleeting graphical violence, death, brief suicidal ideation and extended and extreme emotional distress.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School
Aarya returned from the cafeteria carrying a stack of boxed lunches.
They were meant for the children in her charge, waiting for her in one of the second floor classrooms of Chanda’s auxiliary school building. She hurried to return to them.
Though she did not like leaving them alone, she had told them to be good while she braved the rains and winds to get them all something to fill their stomachs.
Whistling a song as she climbed the steps she wondered what mischief they must have caused while she was away. They were well-behaved, but still rambunctious.
When she arrived at her classroom she was surprised to find them all in a corner.
They hid away from the windows, their heads down and their arms over their hair.
After seeing the soldiers running hither and thither downstairs she feared the worst.
She felt her chest tighten and her knees shake. Were the imperialists this close?
She dropped the boxes on top of her desk and furtively approached the windows.
Outside she saw only the meadow’s undisturbed fields of red and yellow cosmos flowers, gently swaying and brilliantly glistening from the rain and flashes of lightning.
An exhausted sigh escaped her lips. “Children, don’t worry! I’m here now. Come here.”
Gently, with a warm smile, she urged the children to approach the windows.
Not all of them did — only a few were brave enough. Mostly the older kids. Many of the smaller children stayed in the corner, seated with their backs to the wall and their arms around their knees, looking down at the floor as if to make themselves smaller. Other kids walked a few steps but kept their heads firmly below the aperture of the windows.
“We saw a star flying across the sky Ms. Balarayu!” one girl explained.
“We thought it would fall on the town so we went to hide!” added one of the boys.
Aarya looked out the window again, this time craning her head to the rainy sky.
It might have been artillery fire from Benghu. She had been told that there was a battery stationed there. She didn’t know how many guns that was, and she didn’t know what they were capable of. She supposed if they fired skyward it would be visible on a dark day.
Aarya was not a soldier. She was a teacher. To these children, maybe even a mother.
“Follow me, back to the corner. We’ll turn it from a sad little corner to a happy one.”
She took a little girl and a little boy in hand and the rest followed her. She sat down among those children still pensive on the floor, gently wedging herself in, and extending her arms as far as she could like the wings of a mother bird. All of the children accommodated themselves near her. When everyone was settled, she cleared her throat, and sang a little la la la as if to test her voice, to excite the children. They looked at her suddenly with wide and aware eyes, and clapped their hands in anticipation. She then started to sing actual verse.
Whenever the children seemed bored or anxious, Aarya sang old songs to them.
Almost all traditionally Ayvartan songs had a religious origin. When Aarya sang she often sang the Spirit Stories, because as an Arjun it was what she knew. She sang of the beautiful Kanpa whose dancing gathered the wind and clouds and brought rain. She sang of the great calmness and patience of the hero Bakti who sat through the flame of the demon Karna and with his devotion and will survived the onslaught and turned away the beast.
Today she sang the song of Bakti again so they would endure this fire patiently.
Until she became a teacher, Aarya only sang these songs a few times a year in festivals in Benghu, where the temple chorus would open and close the festivities with song.
She never sang alone. There had always been Darshan; and her. She had been by her side too. Today when she sang, she thought she heard her voice in accompaniment.
Current events had brought that remembrance screaming back into her mind.
Of late she had been singing to the children, all by herself, every day.
For many reasons she fretted about doing so.
Innocently the children gathered around her skirt and watched with wide-drawn eyes.
She felt those little eyes and little smiles hanging on every second of her voice.
They loved the stories, and they loved her voice. They started clapping as soon as she stopped. After every song they asked questions. She answered as best as she could to maintain the innocent fancy she saw in their eyes. She answered as if there was a Bakti who withstood a demon or a Kanpa who danced for a king, in this day and age.
Aarya fretted because her singing gave them hope in completely immaterial things.
In real life they could not rely on spirits or magic to turn away Nochtish guns.
It also brought back bittersweet memories. Memories of things undone, incomplete.
But it was all she could do to make the children happy and to keep them healthy.
So she sang. She sang like a genuine prayer. She sang as if to the Spirits themselves.
Aarya had become a teacher because she loved children and loved working with them. Even as a student herself, at this very school, she always helped out with the smaller kids. It was a blessing to be able to protect and nurture them. But it also unsettled her at times.
For the past few weeks Aarya had been a surrogate mother more than a teacher to her small gaggle of kids. There were a dozen kids with different stories. Little Lakshmi had parents but they were helping evacuate industry from Shebelle. Because Shebelle was a combat zone the children were sent further north, to Benghu, to Chanda; there was the oldest boy, ten years, named Zaheer. His father was a soldier, his only parent after his mother passed a year ago. She had not heard from him recently, but she assured Zaheer he was fine.
Several of the children were orphaned, and they essentially lived in school — they slept in a tiny hostel in Benghu and spent most of their day in Chanda. Lately the hostel was requisitioned for use as a barracks for Battlegroup Rhino, and the children spent the nights with Aarya in a classroom with a view of the meadow. For fun she had everyone pitch in and put up big tents indoors. They “camped out” in the classroom with the windows open.
Two of those big tents currently took up the opposite side of the classroom.
They spent their days this way in the classrooms of the school’s auxiliary building; in the lunch room once or twice a day, and if not, then eating boxed lunches together; and in the field whenever possible, reading under the cloudy sky. Whenever the children asked about the school’s main building she gently turned away the question. Whenever they asked about the soldiers, she told them they were friends — “comrades!” — and working to help everyone.
Aarya had to be strong and gentle and almost god-like to the children. She had to be perfect for them because she was the only thing in the world that could be perfect for them.
So she sang and played and fed them, cleaned them, clothed them, taught them arithmetic and reading and as much of the curriculum as she could teach by herself — her specialty was arithmetic. There were a few other teachers with their own specialties, but nobody could handle hosting a real semester under these circumstances. Everyone was just taking care of the children as best as they could under the duress of this historical moment.
She sang for them. That was all that she could do. She was a teacher, not a soldier.
She was not their real parent either, but perhaps that was the least concern right now.
Whenever she sang, Aarya put a lot of passion into her voice. She wanted to drown out the mental voice with the physical voice. Her thoughts wavered toward those close to her.
Her fiance, Darshan; he was a teacher too and was certainly not a soldier either.
Her students, now like her children; they barely knew that there was a war. They didn’t know the scope of it. Soldiers kept information from her and when she found out things that perhaps she should not know she kept them all from the children. Perhaps in the future they might have to become soldiers. To Aarya that was the worst tragedy of them.
But Naya– Naya was apparently a soldier now. Perhaps she had been for a while.
She didn’t know how to square that with everything that was happening right now.
What should one think of a beloved friend who flitted, ghost-like, out of one’s reach?
When she heard of her again she felt a mixture of relief, hope, trepidation, bitterness–
Aarya sang, silently praying that the voice would carry away all of this evil in the world.
In the midst of singing however a soldier, weapon in hand, charged into the room.
The soldier’s eyes darted around the room then settled on the windows. She shouted.
“Please close the windows Ms. Balarayu! They’ll offer some protection from enemy fire!”
Aarya grit her teeth and gave the soldier a nasty look and hugged some of the smaller children close — everyone had been startled when she barged in. How tactless of her!
She was about to respond when Darshan followed in behind the soldier. Despite having almost a head’s worth of height over the soldier he looked demure in her presence.
“You’re scaring them.” He said softly, his hand hovering over the soldier’s shoulder.
“Apologies, but that’s not really my priority right now. Close the windows.”
At once the soldier turned around and ran out the room. They heard the door open to the adjacent classroom, and the one after that. She was checking for vulnerabilities.
Darshan looked at Aarya and gave her a helpless little shrug. Aarya smiled at him.
“Children, me and Mr. Puri have to discuss something. Why don’t you try singing the song among yourselves? You all know the words.” Aarya said. Most of the children nodded. Many of them kept their eyes on Aarya and Darshan as they left the classroom together, smiling mischievously. She had told them before that he was special to her.
They started gossiping about “Ms. Balarayu liking Mr. Puri” as soon as she left.
Out in the hall Aarya kissed Darshan briefly on the lips. He held her by the waist and then pulled her into an embrace, head over shoulder. He was so strong — she felt like she could lose herself in his arms. He had gotten big since they first met. Even dressed in his unassuming button-down shirt and tie she thought he looked big and burly.
“How are things in your class?” Darshan asked, almost whispering.
“They’re scared. They know something’s wrong, Darshan.” Aarya said.
“My kids are all still sick. They’re getting better but the weather’s not helping. I’ve done everything I could for them short of getting sick with them.” He said, his expression wan.
Due to the sudden change in the country’s fortunes and in the nature of their work, Aarya only saw Darshan a few times a day. Sometimes they contrived to have their classes together, but Darshan’s children were ill and as such their interactions even more limited. They met in the mornings and they shared their nights when they could, very rarely.
“You’re doing the best you can. It’s all anyone could ask of you.” She assured him.
“I left them napping in the room. That soldier nearly woke them up. I followed her back out here hoping I could stop her from scaring every kid in the building.” Darshan said.
“What is happening with the soldiers today? Do you know anything?” She asked.
Darshan broke off their embrace. He could never quite look her in the eyes — he tried to look like he was doing so but he would always gaze just off them as if anxious to meet them. He was big and he looked tough outwardly, but Darshan was a sensitive sort.
“I asked Sharna about it; I wanted to talk with her and see how she knows Naya, but she ended up telling me not to bother with that and that we may have to evacuate soon.”
Aarya nearly winced at the mention of their old friend. It was a too-recurring subject.
“So the Nochtish soldiers are definitely coming this way.” Aarya said heavily.
“Given how all of our soldiers are acting, I think they’re around the corner.”
There was a clanging from a door behind them; the soldier from before ran out of a room and past them, charging down the hall. Holding hands, they walked down the hall and opened the door — the soldier had closed all of the metal shutters on the windows. They were intended for child safety but she supposed they could perhaps take a bullet.
“I keep thinking about her. She could be out there fighting right now.” Darshan said.
Aarya sighed a little. “I pray that she is well. But I have no hopes of meeting her.”
Darshan looked at her with surprise. “She was such a good friend to me, Aarya. I feel I’d be half the man I am without her. Ever since she left I’ve wanted her back. I felt like we could have a chance now!” He looked at the shuttered windows. “If only this wasn’t happening!”
Aarya did not like this conversation, because it was another issue that made her feel helpless and hopeless, ill equipped. She too had thought of Naya as a valuable friend and she thought Naya felt the same. But years back — spirits know how many, it was so many years, she felt — everything seemed to fall apart for Naya all at once. Aarya only pieced it together little by little from the ashes. She didn’t know the whole story. Aarya only knew that a lot of hurt had befallen Naya and it forced her away — and there had been nothing she or Darshan could do to stop it or to help her. As if dust blown by the air, she was swept away from their grasp.
Ever since Darshan got his hopes up a day ago he was obsessed with the subject.
Like her, he probably wanted to smother Naya to make up for perhaps abandoning her.
“I feel the same way Darshan. But this is happening — and we can’t affect it at all.”
“I know. It has really ruined everything, hasn’t it? All of our well laid plans.” He said.
Aarya smiled weakly in response, now averting her own eyes from him. “Someday if everything works out, I know Naya might attend our wedding and hold our crowns.”
“Spirits bless; that would be such a lovely outcome.” Darshan said. “I will pray for it.”
There was a part of Aarya that didn’t want to pray for it — that feared the distance of these intervening years. That feared how everyone had changed from her good memories.
Aarya had thought of work and marriage as the crossroads where the childish tumult of her life would be left behind, and she would finally grasp firmly at meaning, at strength, at the invisible power and certainty that supposedly defined adulthood. Now everything was in a greater disarray than it had ever been. All of the constants were thrown into chaos.
She was not a soldier or a politician or anything; all she could do was sing and pray.
That was what she told herself, because she simply didn’t know what to do anymore.
“Yes. I have to feed the children, Darshan. It was good seeing you.” Aarya said.
She leaned up and pecked him on the lips. She patted him on the chest, and walked around him and back into the classroom. He stood, diffident, back in the hallway, staring out at the shutters that closed their view of the meadow and perhaps Naya’s direction.
Naya had been so special to both of them. Nowadays the absence felt punctuated again. But Aarya feared that the two of them had broken in ways that could not mend, and that meeting again would only tear open wounds that had no chance to heal now.
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Benghu Outskirts
There was not much more finesse to muster. At some point maneuver warfare simply became warfare — once you were close enough to the target or once the terrain simply gave up on you or you on it. All that remained was to draw sword and engage in the melee.
Over six kilometers out they spotted the few buildings along the edge of Benghu.
Noel and Spoor’s mobile detachment from the 10th Panzergrenadier Regiment, consisting now of a half-dozen half-tracks, a few cars, a hundred men and a dozen tanks, had maneuvered all that they could along the eastern approach from Shebelle, steering well clear of the city’s defenses and hooking around Benghu’s southeast.
Between them and the underbelly of the town there were several km of empty field. Their column was staggered into three broad echelons — their tanks at the front, the sixty or so men and their half-tracks, and finally Panzergrenadiers lacking the Panzer part, packed into a few cars or hitching rides on the sides and back of other vehicles.
Far to the west there was a small hill and a patch of wood that was out of range of anything; straddling Benghu itself there was the cover of sparse woodland and some actual geography. But before them there was only flat, muddy earth beneath windswept grass.
When the column confirmed first visual on Benghu they stopped for reconnaissance and planning. Flushing fire was suggested but Spoor argued against it on account of their weapons lacking power for the task. A few men spread out ahead of the column, crawling along grass, running toward the hill, looking for different vantage points.
Noel stepped up and out of his turret, umbrella in one hand and binoculars in the other as he surveyed the surroundings. At full magnification he could see the buildings on the outer edge of the town as if standing several hundred meters rather than single-digit kilometers away. Because his field of view was limited however he was forced to pan around atop his turret for several minutes to get a good look past the fences and along the buildings.
“They’re all in there.” Noel said over the radio. “I know they are. They’ll crawl into any building and make an ordeal out of getting past it. But I don’t see anyone out in the open.”
Spoor was watching too, about a kilometer behind everyone in his courier car.
“There are three buildings with windows facing the field: two houses and what appears to be a wide and squat granary or storage building perhaps. They are likely fighting positions. I don’t think they are large enough to house heavy guns. We could advance.”
Noel nodded to himself as if nodding to Spoor. He kept looking, picking up more detail.
“There’s also a road cutting in from the west. It runs along just behind those fences and then curls away in two directions, one deeper into town and another out to Shebelle proper.”
“There seems to be nothing to do but to get in as fast as possible.” Spoor replied.
“I think we should avoid it entirely. Even as a target of opportunity. Let Reiniger take care of the town. Once we secure Chanda and the rail station they’ll be surrounded.” Noel said.
Spoor was no longer speaking to him in restrained tones. He had fully gone over to Noel’s side and they spoke as equals, trading opinions on the situation like any two landsers on the ground. It was rather pleasant. Noel was glad not to be stuck with someone like Reiniger.
“I don’t disagree, but with the town intact, our rear could be vulnerable as we move on Chanda. I believe at least some token attack on the town must be made to buy time.”
“So long as we leave scouts behind we’ll know if we’re in danger or not.” Noel said.
“Are you volunteering for the task, Captain Skoniec?” Spoor said in a whimsical voice.
Noel laughed. “I’m not getting closer than 2 klicks to any of those buildings–”
He started to say this — but then found ample reason to start moving closer.
Along the road straddling southeast Benghu a column of four rare Orc tanks approached. These were much more substantial tanks than Goblins, with thick, flat-topped rounded turrets balanced by a long boxy counterweight in the back, long flat-topped hulls. Leisurely they rounded the buildings, ran through the fence, and trundled out into the mud and grass. They lined up along the edge of town and nonchalantly opened fire southward.
An armor-piercing shell flew about 200 meters too wide to hit Noel and crashed into the dirt. Two others flew too far over the mechanized column and a final shell crashed almost a kilometer ahead of them, splashing mud and grass. Missing did not deter the Ayvartans — within a few seconds another salvo of four shells flew around the invaders.
When a 45mm shell finally struck the front of an M5 tank it deflected off the hull.
Though the Panzergrenadiers and tankers around them were remarkably collected in the face of continuous enemy fire, Spoor called for calm over the radio nonetheless.
“All soft units maintain formation behind the tanks. We are safe at this distance.”
Safe, yes, but Noel also knew they could not fight back effectively at this range. Neither side had the punch to harm the other at these ranges. They were over 5000 meters apart. At 500 meters, the M5 Hunter’s 37mm gun could penetrate about 30mm of armor. With the capped ballistic shell this rose to 40mm of penetration at 1000 meters — but that was only issued to Noel’s unit. All nine of their remaining tanks were issued stock AP tracer shells without the ballistic cap and improved coring. They were no good until they got close.
While the Ayvartan 45mm gun was stronger, it was not strong enough for 5000 meters. Those Orcs were taking complete pot shots. Any tank so stricken would be utterly unharmed. No gun could penetrate any tank at 5000 meters. It was not tank combat range.
“They want us to get close to them.” Noel said. “In range of their defensive line.”
“Do we take the bait then?” Spoor asked. “We have overwhelming superiority. An Orc tank is not much better armored than a Goblin — at 1000 meters you can break them.”
Noel grinned. Some people had described his grin as sinister. He enjoyed it.
“Nah. Let’s just ignore them. They can have their shitty town. Let’s go around.”
He spoke in a jesting voice and hoped Spoor would intimate his true meaning.
Without protest, Spoor issued the order to move east around Benghu’s meadows.
Noel dropped back inside the gloomy confines of the M5A2’s turret mechanisms.
“We’re moving, sweetheart!” Noel said to Ivan, shouting without the radio.
Ivan looked back at him with a smile. “Good! I was getting restless!”
Swiftly the column shifted its great bulk away from the town. Tanks at the front turned their sides to the enemy and started east within minutes; half-tracks groaned to life, their men mounted, and made their way behind them. Noel and his men played rear guard, and followed along with the stray cars and foot soldiers marching at the end of the column.
Once they were underway it took them a few minutes to clear nearly a kilometers worth of distance away from the defenses of Benghu and the haphazard fire of the enemy tanks.
Predictably the Orc tanks did not stand for this. Safe inside his turret and looking over his tank’s shoulder through his telescope, Noel watched as the tanks started after them, accelerating rapidly to their full speed and giving reckless chase to the vulnerable rear of the column, just as he planned. By ignoring Benghu he forced the Orcs to come fight him.
Lured into throwing the first thrust they could be cleanly taken out by the riposte.
In a few minutes they too would be out of the range of Benghu’s support fire.
Then it would be quite an even match between the Orcs and the M5 tanks.
Noel timed the enemy’s approach, and then he issued his orders over the radio.
“Dolph, Bartosz, charge ’em! Everyone else, enjoy a leisurely drive to Chanda!”
As one the M5A2 and Bartosz and Dolph’s M5s turned their hulls around in place, sliding over the slick mud beneath their tracks, and charged at the pursuing enemy. Already running, the Orcs started the confrontation at around 3000 meters from the M5s, but Noel’s group was making quite good on cutting that distance. They were nearly twice as fast as the Orcs, even on the soft, slick and gooey terrain of rain-swept Dbagbo.
“Dolph, Bartosz, listen up. We can breach the Orc’s front armor starting at 1000 meters, but they can do the same with their AP-HE once they reach 500. It will take about 30 seconds once we hit 1000 for that to become 500 — load APCB and shoot fast on my signal!”
Noel watched the tanks becoming larger in his sights as the two sides approached.
Shells came flying from the Orc guns starting at 2000 meters, sweeping past Bartosz, crashing around Dolph. A shell deflected right off Noel’s sloped glacis. He felt the transfer of energy, the loud THUNK as the projectile’s mass struck his armor at a poor angle and flew off. He shook, but it was no more a shaking than the recurring operation of the tank on bad terrain produced. Tanks shook. It happened. Noel kept his cool.
Ivan, too, withstood the attack bravely despite the shell crashing right before his face.
Ahead of them the four Orcs seemed implacable behemoths compared to the small Goblins that they were used to fighting. Their rank moved with metallic inevitability, like boulders rumbling down the field. Dolph and Bartosz at his sides made no move to change their trajectories. Zig-zagging would have only cost them precious speed. Trusting in their armor and guns alone the sides closed in, parallel ranks about to meet.
Two minutes in and the invisible threshold was suddenly crossed. 1000 meters distance.
Noel blew a smacking kiss into the radio as his signal to commence rapid fire.
He had only about thirty or forty seconds of shooting before the Orcs became deadly.
Fiercely the rounds flew, traded as fast as their respective crews could load them.
The Orcs had been firing the whole time; this put them at a disadvantage.
Noel’s tanks already had rounds loaded and they shot first in this crucial exchange.
Through his gun sights he put the Orc within the triangle in the middle of his reticle.
Immediately the M5A2 forced a round through the turret of an Orc in the center of the formation, causing the others to give it a wide berth in their rank. Smoke issued from inside and the hatches burst open. Noel must have hit the gun mechanisms, maybe even the breech. He quickly retrained his gun, using his foot pedals to steadily turn the turret.
Noel’s own gun was gyro-stabilized but all the other tank gunners had to deal with the shaking of their guns while firing at top speed. Projectiles flew wildly across the intervening distance, soaring past and crashing around tanks. Dolph and Bartosz were throwing a shell every five seconds but their shots failed to connect with anything but mud and air.
Fifteen seconds; 700 meters; the fourth barrage from the Nochtish half of the duel.
Noel loaded, aimed, and fired on an Orc that appeared almost as if right next to him.
An APCB shell from the M5A2 sliced through the glacis of the Orc at an angle, causing an explosion inside the tank that smashed the track mechanism on the tank’s side, sending a bogey flying and disgorging pieces of the crew compartment out the flank armor.
Two Orcs were left behind in twenty seconds as the columns hurtled ever closer.
“We’re hitting their effective range! Take them out or start evading!” Noel shouted.
He hardly saw the muzzle flash across the field from him; it seemed less than a second later the M5A2 shook suddenly and violently and he hit his eye on the periscope as an AP-HE shell struck the front plate, detonating right outside Ivan’s position in the hull.
There was no penetration; but there was a bruise. Noel pressed his hand against the side of his left eye, and winced as he raised a shell one-handed into the breech.
His next shot joined Dolph and Bartosz’s own shells and eviscerated the Orc responsible for the attack. Through the front glacis, into the gun mantlet, and in front of the track the M5s punched holes in the Orc, completely disabling the monster in one vicious salvo.
At the 500 meter point there was a single remaining Orc, and the Jadgpanzerzug broke off their formation and spread out, Dolph left, Bartosz and Noel off to the right. A 45mm shell soared between the tanks as the formation broke — the Orc missed its chance.
All at once the tank hunters launched their final salvo and cut the enemy to pieces. Two shots through the engine block from the side at an angle, one shot through the turret. There was a brilliant explosion, tongues of flame consuming the tank and regrettably anyone inside. Noel nursed his tender, injured temple as he ordered his unit back.
Sweeping through the flanks the M5s curved around the tank carcasses and turned the way they had come, watching a few Ayvartans extricating themselves from the husks, bleeding from spalled shrapnel, limping, taking meek cover near the wrecks. They would have been easy to pick off with the machine guns, but that was not Noel’s style at all.
Instead he ignored them. He defeated their tanks. He had won his points. Anything else above that was just a waste of ammunition and an act of graceless butchery.
“Noel, are you alright?” Ivan asked. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t avoid that.”
“We’re driving a tank, not an airplane. It’s quite alright. I’ve just got a little bump.”
“Sorry about our shootin’ Captain.” Dolph said. “These M5s are showing their age.”
“Your shooting was fine!” Noel said cheerfully. Speaking made his temple sting.
Forming up once more the M5s turned their backs to Benghu and headed east.
Leaving the wrecks behind they caught up with the Panzergrenadier column in motion, leaving the roads and moving up broad green meadows ringed by small hills. Noel drove up alongside Spoor’s car. He rose out of the turret hatch with his umbrella in hand and bandages and a patch around his forehead and temple, under the bouncy gold locks of his hair. Spoor rolled down the windows on the passenger seat to greet him with a smile.
“Astonishing work, Captain. I have never seen tanks charge as boldly as yours.”
“It’s a livin’,” Noel said. “How far are we from that school building and the rail station?”
“Thirty minutes to an hour at most.” Spoor replied. “I have contacted HQ to inform them of our movements. General Dreschner wants to prioritize the taking of the rail station.”
“As he well should, but the school is likely a defensive position. We’ll have to fight it.”
“Indeed. I take it that you will keep your distance from those buildings as well?”
Noel grinned. “I’m not going a klick near that school until those defenses are clear.”
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Camp Vijaya
Naya woke with the dawn on the 53rd largely because she could not sleep well.
She tossed and turned and she kept seeing intrusive images in her mind’s eye.
People and things and situations that came and went far too quickly.
She knew only that they hurt; because she felt too keenly the sting of them.
So she did not sleep very much that night.
But she endured it, stone-faced, without complaints.
Nobody could know.
Nobody should know.
When she finally crawled out of her tent, it was raining again, and she was stung by the cold. She had to dive back inside and fish her rubber cloak out of her belongings.
She was ready for another sleepy day at the camp with nothing eventful to do.
Around the camp the mood was somber and suppressed. Days and days of rainfall and dark skies had taken its toll even on the KVW folks. Though their expressions were blank as ever, she saw their waning constitution in their movements as they worked under open tents and in improvised shacks. On good days the engineers took to their tasks like machines, their focus and grace evident in each turning of steel against lathe, in each twist of a wrench, in each hot line of expert welding. They fell far short of this high watermark today.
She had always heard tell that KVW folks received special training, that they knew no fear and would not blink before pulling the trigger. Around the camp, some of this was confirmed to her. Still Naya wondered what it must have been like to receive the gifts that they had, to be given fearlessness and a clarity of mind, and then to hit a wall anyway.
She figured it must have been much the same as how she felt. Like a bird who cut across the skies keenly aware of its own weight and of the world’s gravity pulling it down.
Seven years ago or so, she nearly set a running record! She won a regional medal!
Now she couldn’t run through the camp for fear of upsetting something inside her.
Naya ambled through the rain, feeling uncomfortably cold where exposed to the deluge and yet too warm, slick and clammy under her clothes. There was a dull aching in her joints that was getting worse the more she stayed in the cold. Rather than stand in line for breakfast she cracked open a paper bag of hard, dry plantain chips and nibbled on them under her cloak while making her way to the radio tent. Yesterday night, she had caught Captain Rajagopal outside the workshop and the tents long enough to impress upon her how much she wanted to perform the lonely, dismal tasks associated with unit signals.
Elated and proud, the Captain assured her that she would have the job tomorrow.
Outside the tent, Naya forced herself to smile and act cheerful to maintain the facade.
Inside she found Captain Rajagopal, well groomed and reasonably dry, her dark hair arranged into a ponytail coming in from just under the bottom of her politruk cap.
“Hujambo!” She mouthed. Naya thought she heard her voice whispering it.
Naya waved at her. She donned her radio headset and clipped the microphone to her jacket and slipped the accompanying microphone equipment box into her hip pouch. These were some remarkable radios — very light weight, even more so than the portable short-range “talkie” hand radios that she had seen before. However, the range was very poor.
They were really only good enough to talk to Rajagopal if she was in one’s presence or very near. Naya kept the equipment in her jacket now, having learned the lessons of the days past, but she only donned the set when she needed to talk to the Captain.
“Can you hear me?” She said. Into the microphone it was a whisper. But Naya heard it.
“Yes ma’am.” Naya said. She saluted, but the Captain waved her hand down.
She walked her quickly through her tasks in the radio tent: monitoring the frequencies in use, taking calls if necessary, and deciphering teleprinter messages. It was a very quick briefing. Rajagopal was out of the tent within ten minutes, and left behind the code book and a best practices manual that she urged Naya to read from cover to cover today.
Naya therefore spent her time reading it, fiddling with the radios, and staring dumbfounded at the code book. Though she was alone and mostly unoccupied, she felt peace. The humming and crackling of the unused radio frequencies whispering in her ears was eerie and calming. She heard no voices and felt nothing dire toward herself. It was a welcome change.
But it would not last. Sometime after noon the teleprinter started to churn.
It was so violent Naya honestly thought the machine was eating itself.
In the end however it spat out its message, and Naya picked up her code book and the best practices manual and sat down to decipher the grid marks punched into the paper. Because she was unused to decryption work, Naya did not have any concept of what the completed message might be like even as she wrote it down. She composed it letter by letter, word by word, scribbling on a piece of paper as she looked from code book to manual to message, each letter she wrote disconnected from the other as she focused on the next.
Once finished she raised the paper to her face and read the decrypted message.
“IMP MEK UNIT AGG ATK BGHU. HEAD TWRD CHND SUP SEC, HEAD TWRD RAIL YARD. NO MORE ALLY TANK UNIT 2 RES. ALL UNIT PLS BE ADV,” it roughly said.
Dumbfounded, breathing suddenly heavy, she reworded it as the manual instructed.
She read it again to herself, hands and lips quivering. “Imperialist mechanized unit aggressively attacking Benghu, headed toward Chanda supply sector, and headed toward the rail station. No more allied tank units to respond. All units please be advised.”
In her racing mind she thought that this message couldn’t be right because there was a mobile unit that could respond — her own. They had the Raktapata. It was in the shop.
Why was nobody moving if there was an attack? When Camp Vijaya could move?
And if they were attacking toward Chanda then that meant Aarya was in danger.
She swallowed and slowly, stiffly lowered her hands to the table, her breathing irregular.
Naya shoved the message into a pocket, donned her rain cloak and rushed outside.
She was running almost without thinking. Her mind had become a white hot blank.
“CHIEF! CAPTAIN! FARWAH!”
Between labored breaths Naya shouted at the top of her lungs. As the thunder crashed and the camp went about its business she ran beneath the rain, shouting and shouting. She circled the workshop, looking everywhere, and at least finding the face she wanted in the crowds. Pulling an unresisting Farwah around by the arm, she forced open the doors to the workshop and almost fell forward as she rushed inside. Bent nearly double, holding herself up with her hands on her knees, and dripping water all over the floor, she called out again.
“Chief Ravan! Please ma’am it’s really important! Where are you ma’am?”
She struggled to raise her head and gasped aloud with every ragged breath.
Her mind was working again, barely working, sorting through the situation.
In the middle of the shop the Raktapata looked pristine. It was still equipped with the 76mm KnK-3 from before, but the top-mounted machine gun was gone. Still to her eyes the tank looked fully assembled and ready to fight. Good! She would need it. But she had not seen the Captain around the camp in her mad dash; nor Chief Ravan in here!
Farwah stood stock still, looking mainly at Naya. She was sorry to have pulled him into the rain but this was too urgent. She needed him in the tank to go save Aarya. Yes, good. This was imperative for her, rooted into her mind and blocking out all other thoughts.
“Chief Ravan! Please come out if you’re working here! I need to talk urgently!”
As Naya cast eyes quickly around the workshop and started to shout again she heard a rustling from the far side of the room and a weak grunting noise in response.
Chief Ravan poked her head out from under a small tarp in a corner of the shop. Taking notice of the sudden arrivals she stepped out from under the tarp and approached them. Dressed in a rubber jumpsuit zipped up to her neck, she was dripping oil and lubricants on the floor as she walked, and she had grease on her arms and face and hair. She pulled a pair of large goggles from over her eyes, unzipped her jumpsuit to let the sweat out and looked both annoyed and exhausted as she acknowledged Naya and Farwah.
“What’s the hurry? Are you collecting more people to play games?” Ravan asked.
Farwah made no move to reply. Naya struggled to catch her breath and stand straight.
“Ma’am– we received– from Benghu–” Naya struggled to breathe and speak.
She undid the top buttons on her uniform and withdrew a piece of paper that she had safely tucked away in the inside pocket. Her fingers shook as she stretched her hand.
Chief Ravan plucked the paper from her and read it attentively.
Everything was rendered in plain, Standard Ayvartan. Naya was certain that Chief Ravan would read this message and draw the exact same conclusions as she did.
Naya heard Chief Ravan read it in whispers to herself. Soon as she was done reciting Naya forced herself upright and started desperately shambling toward the Raktapata.
Chief Ravan put down the paper and put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
“Good work, comrade.” She said. “I am sorry to ask you to strain yourself again, but you must alert the rest of the camp. We must move to evacuate from Benghu while we–”
“What?” Naya cut in suddenly, pulling the Chief’s hand roughly off her shoulder. “You want to evacuate?” She took a deep breath, staring in disbelief. “Ma’am, you read the message right? They have no support at Chanda and they’ll be under siege soon!”
She could hardly believe what she was hearing. None of it made sense, none of it was part of what was supposed to happen in her mind. She had decoded the message, run from the radio tent, grabbed Farwah and ran back here. She was supposed to leave with the tank, to go help! She did not know what she expected, but it was certainly not for Chief Ravan to advocate running away! Her heart pounding, her mind racing with a strong mixture of anxiety and anger, Naya closed her fists at her side and stepped in toward Chief Ravan, thoughtlessly challenging her personal space as well as her orders.
For her part, Chief Ravan took the slapping away of her hand quite congenially, and did not back away even as Naya closed in on her and looked up. She stood her ground calmly and looked toward Farwah for a reaction, but he had none. He stood with his head down. Naya had only shouted brief incoherent things to him — he was probably stunned.
“I understand your feelings, but we are not a combat-ready unit.” Chief Ravan said.
“You didn’t understand my feelings at all if you are saying that!” Naya shouted.
It was childish, but she had not rehearsed in her mind any response to this situation.
She felt a burgeoning anger, an ever-growing anger; she just wanted to shout at her.
Chief Ravan sighed and raised a hand to her forehead, inadvertently spreading a spot of grease on her face. She seemed to swallow her words while Naya watched with her fists clenched, coiled like a predator, waiting to spring out on the next words said to her.
“Naya, I don’t know how it is that you are used to working with others, but here we–”
Again Naya cut her off before she could speak and began shouting at her face.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m not used to a unit that stands by and lets their comrades die–”
Chief Ravan pressed a finger firmly on Naya’s lips and cut her off mid-shouting.
“Stop taking things out on me, Private Oueddai.” She said, speaking slow and firmly.
In the next irrational instant all of Naya’s built-up fury seemed to deflate as suddenly as it appeared. Her manic energy, her fighting spirit, her bravado, all of it was annihilated.
Naya’s eyes drew wide and she came crashing down from her soaring fierceness.
That finger on her lip and the stern words made her feel too much like a child.
Just a child shouting and shouting to run away from responsibility, to try to hide behind a tough facade. A child throwing herself up against adults to conceal her weakness.
To conceal that she was scared and confused and reacting on a panicked instinct.
To conceal that she was not thinking, that she was afraid to think, afraid of her mind.
Afraid of the weight of emotion that came with the idea of Aarya in danger right now.
All of her anxiety seemed to pile back on all at once and weigh her down. She felt suddenly ashamed; she started to sob and to weep, and her lip quivered under Chief Ravan’s finger, overwhelmed with shame. Ashamed of shouting at Chief Ravan, of clenching her fists at her and stepping in to threaten her; ashamed of her helplessness; ashamed suddenly of every decision she had made that had landed her before this woman, soaking wet and quivering, while Aarya was out there in the path of the monsters for no sin but a love of children.
Floodgates that had been holding back so much grief suddenly burst open.
All it took was that finger on her lips, those stern eyes. But they were not alone.
Little by little everything had been chipping away and now she was left bare.
She had abandoned her; she abandoned everything and escaped to the one place where she thought she would be kept away from the world so that she wouldn’t have to face it.
Darshan too; she abandoned him even more, because she hated him now!
When the world pushed too hard Naya fled, acting without thinking, acting out of panic.
Once upon a time she ran forward to show her strength, her fierceness, her gallant competitive spirit. She ran beside her friends, she ran for her family, she ran with a body that she knew and loved. But all of a sudden running became an evil. She ran back from everything. She ran without thought. She ran from friends, family, home and herself.
And when she ran too much, there came the pain to remind of her the changes.
She ran because she couldn’t stand how her old world had changed against her consent, how its rules had been bent against her, how everything had become so brutal and unfair to her. Aarya and Darshan had changed; Mother and Father had changed; even her own relationship to her body suddenly changed, this the most bitter, ruthless change of all.
Even her own mind seemed to alter as the rest of her landscape did. Over time it became fragile, caustic, a chorus of whispering voices that chipped at her and chipped at her.
Naya could not contain it anymore. She raised her hands to her head and cried. She wept and she sobbed violently and she pressed her fists against her head, applying pressure. She felt like she wanted to take her own head off, to crush it off her neck like a grape.
“Naya stop!” Farwah cried out. His voice sounded almost emotive.
Chief Ravan was stunned. She stood dumbfounded for a moment before reaching out her hand and trying to take hold of Naya, who was near to falling over on quivering knees. Farwah stepped up to hold her up by the waist, his own breathing disturbed.
“Naya, what happened? Are you hurt? Naya please calm down.” Ravan cooed softly. “Naya you are having some kind of attack, time your breathing in your head for me.”
Naya knew she was being held but otherwise felt like she had lost control of her body. Her mind was a chaos that she could only describe to herself as a black boiling cauldron, stirring and stirring and giving off foul fumes, wretched heat, its contents featureless in the roiling mess. Sounds were dull, sights were a blur and she felt pounding and aching in her chest with every labored, gasping, screaming breath. She felt trapped in a cage of her own flesh.
Footsteps echoed in the workshop and resounded within her reeling mind.
She looked over her shoulder at the figure of Captain Rajagopal, framed by the door.
“Is she hurt?” Captain Rajagopal mouthed and signed all at once.
A light seemed to shine over her in Naya’s mind and the roiling ceased.
Naya pulled suddenly away from Farwah and Ravan with a last burst of strength.
She threw herself in front of the Captain and bowed her head to the floor.
“Captain please let me sortie in the Raktapata! I can’t just sit here while my friends suffer! I’m a coward and I’m scared to death but I can’t just sit here, Captain! Please!”
But Captain Rajagopal was largely deaf. Naya had forgotten to put her radio set back on after she took it off in the radio tent. She constantly forgot to wear it outside tank tests.
The Captain could not see Naya’s lips and as such did not hear her impassioned words.
Or did she? Naya looked up at her when she realized her mistake, and found the Captain kneeling beside her with a soft smile on her face. She helped Naya to stand.
Behind her own back Naya saw Chief Ravan signing what she had been saying.
“After what I have seen I cannot recommend it, but it’s up to you Dhorsha.” Chief Ravan said. She was also presumably signing it — she was signing constantly throughout.
Captain Rajagopal helped Naya to don her radio equipment again.
“Can you hear me?” Captain Rajagopal said gently.
Naya nodded. Her eyes were red and puffy with tears. Her head hurt badly.
“As the Chief said, we are not a combat unit.” Captain Rajagopal said calmly. “The Raktapata is not a combat-ready vehicle. We don’t know how far it can realistically go without breaking down. We don’t really know how much punishment the armor plates can take in the field. We don’t know how reliable the engine will be under the sustained duress of a battle. We haven’t identified if the KnK-3 has serious problems with, for example, moving fires. In theory we know that it is strong, but this has never been proven in real combat, Naya.”
“Ma’am,” Naya’s lips quivered, and her heart shuddered, “it is just like me then!”
Naya looked back past Ravan and Farwah and pointed at the sitting Raktapata.
Out spilled the cauldron and out went an alphabet soup of words and emotions.
“It’s a huge mess, and things aren’t working out perfectly for it. It’s broken in a lot of small places under the armor where nobody can see. I’ve been under it’s skin, I know! I know that the seat is uncomfortable! I know that the optics are bad and make it hard to see what you’re shooting! Whenever the gun goes off smoke collects in the turret. Sometimes it hitches for less than a second at a time when it is running, I know, I felt it.”
Naya choked up a little. It started to blend in her mind whether she was talking about the machine anymore or about herself. She saw so much of herself in that unfinished machine.
“But it’s really strong! It wants to make things right!” She shouted. Then she whimpered. “But you need to give it a chance Captain! Please! I don’t want to run away anymore, ma’am. I want to run forward like I used to. It needs to fight ma’am, sometime in its life, it has got to fight, but if nobody gives it a chance then how will it ever prove anything?”
A sense of trepidation overcame her — she was confusing the tank with herself.
She thought that nothing she was saying made sense, that it was all irrational.
“Chanda needs us. We can’t abandon them! Not when there’s something we can do!”
This did not sound convincing. It still sounded to her like a child screaming nonsense. Naya had lost all trust in herself and her own abilities. But she couldn’t run away from this.
She owed Aarya this; and she owed herself. Naya wanted to run proudly forward.
Even if she was not anymore the person who effortlessly cut across the track.
Farwah and Ravan said nothing, at least not with voice. Ravan continued to sign.
The Captain never looked like she was judging Naya. She continued to speak softly.
“So you think the Raktapata could use a combat trial, and you volunteer for it?”
Naya blinked. She stood stock still, unable to reply but with a shameful nod of the head.
Chief Ravan shook her own head. “I strongly disapprove of that tank going anywhere.”
Captain Rajagopal smiled. “What if I go with her? I can command the tank then.”
Chief Ravan thrust her fists down. “Well now I approve even less, Dhorsha!”
Naya looked helplessly between the two women, her throat feeling ragged.
“Well then. Hmm. Farwah, what do you think?” Captain Rajagopal said.
“I support comrade Naya.” He said, swiftly and simply. It took him no time to reply.
“Did you two agree to anything? Did she strong-arm you?” The Captain asked.
Naya looked at him, her arms hanging limp at her side, her face expressionless.
Farwah nodded at her and almost smiled — his lips turned just a tiny bit.
“She did no such thing. On my own I arrive at the conclusion that Private Oueddai is a good person and I want to help her. And I want to help my comrades at Chanda too.”
“Facts are important.” Captain Rajagopal said. She gave Naya a sidelong glance.
“I have driven the Raktapata all of its assembled life. I believe it and Naya are ready.”
Naya stood speechless and dazed. Looking at Farwah she wanted to cry again.
Captain Rajagopal nodded her head. She stood up straighter and crossed her arms.
When her eyes turned suddenly Naya’s way the girl nearly fell over with surprise.
Her gentle voice transmitted through the radio with a new vigor and conviction.
“Naya, I empathize strongly with the desire to be given a chance. Once upon a time I was in a position very similar to your own. I laid my feelings bare hoping to be understood. My character inspired a comrade to stand up for me; and I was as surprised back then as you must be now. I thought to myself that I was very lacking and that surely a deaf and half-blind girl would be passed over. But my comrade saw in me what I did not see.”
She approached Naya and put both her hands on Naya’s shoulders. They locked eyes.
“As such, Private Oueddai, it would not be fair then for me to say anything right now but this: be ready to deploy the Raktapata within 15 minutes. I’ll take responsibility.”
It took a moment for Naya to come to terms with what she had heard. Her mouth hung.
Captain Rajagopal meanwhile turned her head nonchalantly to face Chief Ravan.
In turn Chief Ravan sighed audibly. “Well, when you say it like that I can’t disagree.”
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Chanda General School
Elena whistled as she pulled something out of her bag. She balanced the object in her hands, waved it a little, judging its weight. Gray and smooth, it looked as if made of clay. Inside the bag there were five other bricks and a tangle of copper cables and contact points.
“It looks just like a brick doesn’t it?” She said.
Leander nodded. It did look uncannily like a brick, but that whimsical fact competed with more pressing matters in his head. Gripping his rifle against his chest, he looked over his shoulder periodically. They would come from around around the projected western edge of the long hill that ringed Chanda, and they would cut across the flowers.
Anyone out here would be the first to see the enemy and the first to the fight.
Elena laid down the bag, and withdrew the first brick and its cables.
“Will it really detonate under this much rain?” Leander asked.
“Dr. Agrawal says it will. She’d know more about it than me.” Elena said.
“I suppose so. She came up with this awful quick didn’t she?” Leander replied.
He put down his rifle and withdrew his entrenching shovel. Gathering his strength, he drove the sharpened edge of the shovel between the old bricks on the steps leading from the meadow and up the little slope to Chanda’s buildings. Though gentle, the slope toward the school had become a mudslide — climbing up would be quite tedious without the steps.
It took little force to budge one of the bricks and pull it out. Leander removed a few in quick succession. Elena attached the cables to the back of the first fake brick, wedged it in, and then they arranged the remaining bricks to cover the cables. Two steps above, they repeated the process, until several bricks had been replaced with fakes. They were slightly different from the ordinary bricks, but threaded in a pattern that made them seem like a deliberate addition to the stairway. To hide the cables they ran them behind bricks and around the stairway, out to big tree thirty meters away. They laid down rocks over sections of the cable to keep them low on the ground, blending in with the mud.
Behind the tree, they connected the cables to the lunch-box sized detonator and entrusted this instrument to an older man in a camouflage rain cloak from the recon troops.
“Thank you, comrades.” He said simply. He tipped his helmet over his eyes, and leaned back into the knothole of the tree. He had nothing on him but a pistol and the detonator.
Leander’s lips quivered. “After the explosion, I’ll cover you as best as I can from that window up there.” He turned and pointed toward the second floor of the administration building. There was one small window in a small unisex bathroom on the side of the building that had a view to the meadow and the approach to the school stairway.
In response the recon soldier stretched his arm and shook Leander’s hand.
“Whatever happens, you keep fighting, comrade.” He said. “I am thirty-five years old and I have led my life. I volunteered for this. We’re going to save these kids. You included.”
He tapped Leander in the center of the chest, smiling cheekily. Leander felt a quick rise of panic, but it subsided just as quickly. It was merely a playful or dismissive gesture.
“Doorway’ll be open.” Elena said. “It’s made of metal so it can take a shot. You run as fast as you can and get behind it and you’ll be safe. Then you can lock the room up.”
“I got it, I got it. You two worry too much.” He produced a little flask from his rain cloak, and drank from it. Reclining as he was, the soldier looked like he was napping under the rain.
Leander stared out into the field and then back at the soldier, sad and pensive.
Elena took him by the hand and urged him out of the soldier’s orbit. Together they walked back toward the administration building. Chanda was laid out fairly tightly.
Just a dozen meters separated the little administration building from the second classroom building situated to its left across the stairway landing. There was even less space between the administration building and the large building housing the cafeteria and auditorium directly to the north. From there the main classroom building ran parallel to the squat secondary classroom building, and there were maybe a dozen to fifteen meters of space between those two, taken up by the path that led out to the big field.
Leander spotted several people armed and waiting at the doors of the main building and auditorium, automatic weapons in hand. Mostly Rasha SMGs; one person had an LMG. Together they could cover the little courtyard and pathway between the buildings.
Inside the small reception area in the administration building Elena and Leander reunited with Dr. Agrawal, who had discarded her white coat and was wearing a green uniform jacket instead. She had a rifle slung around her back, and was seated in one of the couches, holding a portable radio almost the size of one of the bricks they replaced.
Elena and Leander waited in her presence while she finished handing out orders.
“–hold your fire until you see the detonations. I don’t care what the enemy does, do not expose yourself prematurely. After the blasts, whatever the result, take the best shots you can at the enemy with all of your weapons. Stay in that wooded hill, and if you run out of ammunition or suffer damage, abandon the tanks and make your escape.”
She received a response, but Leander could not make out the crackling little voice. Dr. Agrawal had the radio to her ear like a handset telephone. She nodded her head to herself, pulled down the little antennae, and flicked a switch on the side.
Turning to her pupils, she smiled a little at them and tried to look confident.
“We’ve only got three tanks, so we won’t be maneuvering much.” She said.
Elena and Leander nodded their heads solemnly. Dr. Agrawal crossed her arms.
“Is Corporal Jasim now equipped and ready for his mission?” She asked.
“Looks like it. He’s behind the tree. We put in the false bricks.” Elena said.
“Good.” Dr. Agrawal replied. “Elena, go to the supply depot. We’re keeping the kids and some of the teachers there. You and Bonde will guard them come hell or high water.”
“I’m not sure how much good I can do back there ma’am.” Elena replied.
Dr. Agrawal patted her on the arm. “You’ll have a Gnoll tank from the recon troops with you. Just keep it alive. I know the enemy will try to climb the slope and get on the field. It’s open terrain, and if we have it covered then we can use its openness to our advantage.”
The Doctor picked up a backpack from the table and handed it to Elena. The girl pulled open the flap. Inside the pack she produced a submachine gun and there were a few thirty-round stick magazines with it. Elena loaded the weapon, shouldered the pack, and saluted to the Doctor. She then turned to Leander, took his hands and smiled at him.
“We’ll be fine, Leander. We survived worse; Knyskna was only a few days ago! We got away from a pair of tanks there! These men are nowhere near as scary as that, right?”
Leander smiled back and squeezed her hands. “Nowhere near as scary.” He said.
Elena nodded her head. She slowly let go of him and ran out the door, gun in hand.
“Hopefully she won’t have to shoot. She’s meant for better than this.” Dr. Agrawal said.
Leander watched her go; he then took his BKV from a corner of the room and sat down on the couch laid opposite Dr. Agrawal, across a glass table. Leander pulled back the bolt, checked the chamber. He rapped the trigger on the empty weapon. It had not been only a few days ago. It had been nearly thirty days since he last fired this weapon or one like it.
Nothing had substantially changed since then. His BKV anti-tank rifle still weighed almost twenty kg, and when laid on the floor the whole gun was taller than he was. Its 14.5mm rounds could do nothing to a tank except between ranges of 100 to 300 meters. Humans had no such luck; a shot anywhere from within 2000 meters could tear limbs, splatter heads, or cause enough trauma entering and exiting the center of mass to insure a kill.
The BKV still felt natural in his hands. He remembered looking down from that ruined second floor and over the advancing tanks, putting holes through their engines, lighting gasoline ablaze, tearing pistons apart, slowing the advance. That had been scary.
For one reason or another he hadn’t occasion to think about it in the intervening days.
It was just coming back now when he had the weapon in his hands and a target in mind.
Leander’s eyes moistened; he wanted to cry. He felt a light shuddering just under his skin, an urge to release all of his emotions. He remember how the doctor’s tools felt in his hands. They were so thin and insubstantial, so lightweight. Clumsily he handled them as best as he could for the doctor. But he was coming to realize healing wasn’t for him.
As the tears started flowing he felt hands curl over his own. Dr. Agrawal sat beside him.
“Leander, you do not have to do this. You do not have to prove anything to me or to anyone. Sharna can cover the approach. She’s even upstairs already.” She said.
He had almost forgotten she was in the room. Leander wiped his tears quickly.
“Sharna’s really big. She might get hit through the window. I’m more weedy.”
Dr. Agrawal looked at him with eyes full of concern and sympathy. She almost seemed like she would weep. There was no glistening in her eyes but the way her brows turned down and her eyes narrow, the way her lip curled, she appeared to witness a tragedy.
Leander refused to see it that way. He was a soldier now. He wanted to protect people.
Corporal Jasim was out there talking about having led his life well. He was ready to die.
How could Leander look at that and then go hide in the infirmary? He couldn’t stand it.
“Ma’am, I’m a soldier and I don’t want to be coddled.” He said weakly. His tone of voice was affected and nasal and tiny rivulets of tears wound their way down his cheeks.
“It’s not about coddling you.” Dr. Agrawal said. But she couldn’t seem to follow it up with an explanation about what it actually was about other than coddling him.
“Doctor, I fought in Knyskna already. I’m not scared.” Leander said, as forcefully as he could muster under the circumstances. He was lying. He was scared. But he had to hear it, as much for himself as for her. Nobody would benefit from seeing him scared.
Dr. Agrawal sidled closer and took one of his shaking hands off the BKV rifle.
“It’s not about being scared either, Leander. It’s about what fighting does to you. Before you had no choice but to fight. This country has been historically good at putting people into positions where they have no choice but to fight. You don’t — you, and Elena can take off your uniforms and join the civilians without worry. No matter what happens you can pretend to be people who got stuck in the middle of things. You can survive this.”
“I can’t believe you’re suggesting that!” Leander said. “It’s the absolute worst plan!”
Dr. Agrawal shook her head. “I don’t say this lightly! I say it because I care about you, Leander. You deserve better than to wallow in this blood! You have a choice!”
“Yes, but I choose to fight anyway! I’ll stand and fight like a man!” He snapped.
“Do you think acting mindlessly tough is all there is to men?” Dr. Agrawal said.
Leander paused, frowned, bit his lip. In his head he was still sorting things out.
“I didn’t say that at all.” He said. “I know it’s no good to just act like a tough guy — but I don’t want to be a coward! I don’t want to run. I left home because I didn’t want other people to always choose what happened to me or what I did! It doesn’t matter now that I don’t know what to do or that I’m scared! No matter what at least I’m doing it for myself!”
Doctor Agrawal put her hands gently on his shoulders and looked him deep in the eyes. He saw the lines around hers. They looked more pronounced than before. She looked weary.
“Leander, I want you to think very hard about whether you really want to commit to this violence or not. Once you are in it you cannot easily escape it.” Dr. Agrawal said.
“That didn’t matter to you.” Leander said. “You used to be a soldier; you are a soldier.”
Dr. Agrawal winced. She closed her eyes. “To my great shame, yes. But that is because I have to be. You can still leave this behind and lead a normal, safe life as anyone you want to be!”
His eyes did not waver from hers as she spoke. He looked at her with his own intensity.
“Doctor Agrawal, I’m staying here then, because I want to be like you. You’re still the kindest and most responsible, gentle person that I know right now.” Leander said.
Dr. Agrawal blinked and stared at him in disbelief. She turned over his words in surprise.
“It’s because you’re still this good and strong, that I can keep going.” He continued. He wiped a fresh round of tears with his forearm. “That’s how I know this is all okay.”
Now there were tears starting to form in her eyes. He didn’t want that; he hated that he had made her cry. However he had to speak from his heart. For himself and for her.
That contradictory space between healer and soldier still tore her up inside. He knew it. He intimated as such every day, with every wound she stitched, every operation. When she read the first aid reports before each operation; even as she watched patients unloading from the trucks. He could feel it in all those interactions. Dr. Agrawal was always trying to make up for something. Leander didn’t know what it was exactly — not until just then. Now all of the things he had observed seemed to intersect plainly with ‘Agrawal-The-Soldier.’
But he didn’t care what she had done in the past as a soldier, and he thought that what she did today as a soldier would not taint her forever as a doctor or a woman or a person.
He knew she needed to hear that, and he knew he, too, needed to hear it right now.
“My uncle was the only one who would teach me things in the caravan because my father was an asshole who thought I was rubbish and my mother was always drunk.” Leander said plainly. Dr. Agrawal drew herself up in surprise, sobbing. He continued to speak.
“One time he told me a really important thing. You can’t just add up or subtract from everything a person does like if you were bartering with the price of their life. Because people do things that are too important to count as one coin or two coins. He was trying to get me to forgive my dad; but I’m not going to forgive him. Instead, I want to think that he was telling me about you. No matter how many people you killed before, you’re saving people now and that is important to me. Maybe I’m stupid. But that’s how I think.”
Dr. Agrawal smiled a little. She wiped her sleeve over her eyes. “I see.” She said.
“I really appreciate you Doctor. Please don’t hate yourself for any of this.” He said. “And please don’t hate me, because I keep picking up this gun. I want us to live past this.”
Without another word, Leander picked up his BKV and started upstairs, making his decision quite obvious. Dr. Agrawal did not stop him. He delayed after vanishing from her sight up the first few steps. He waited, standing still with his back against the wall of the boxed-in stairwell. He heard a little pronounced sobbing, a few moist intakes of breath.
Once he heard the doctor get back on the radio and give orders, he resumed walking.
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Benghu Meadows
There was no road along the meadow stretching before Chanda General School. There was a subtle path where the flowers and grass did not grow — trod on by generations of horses it was a muddy, flat stretch a few centimeters deeper than the surroundings, thoroughly covered in water. As the rain and the wind blew the natural rippling of the water and the quaking caused by armored vehicles became one and the same.
Soon as they appeared around the hills and soon as they drove into the meadow the Panzergrenadiers turned from this path and moved up through the fields of flowers. Sd.Kfz. B Squire half-tracks led the advance, long-nosed, lightly armored, open-topped carriers each ferrying ten men, a driver and a gunner standing behind a Norgler machine gun.
Three Squire carriers moved sharply due east toward the stairway up into the school courtyard, between the buildings, while the remaining three followed the road a little further and then drove several hundred meters due north toward the school field.
Five hundred meters behind the half-tracks, Spoor’s private car pulled up along the edge of the flowers. Safe behind bulletproof glass, he commanded via binoculars and radio while the remaining cars lined the sides of the road. Squadrons of foot soldiers following behind the vehicles ran up closer and took up positions in the flower beds and around the grass.
The Colonel was focused on his spearhead, six squadrons of Panzergrenadiers on their half-tracks. Driven into the little campus, he hoped they could dominate the tight space.
“One vehicle at the head, two behind. Supporting vehicles dismount your men; lead vehicles, your men shall fight from inside. Stand, draw your pistols and keep a lookout,” Colonel Spoor said. “One vehicle climbs while the others watch carefully.”
“Do we take the steps?” asked one of the the half-track drivers.
“Give it a shot. I’d like to have your armor right on the landing.” Spoor said.
Behind them the tanks arrived and advanced past the men, six of them speeding north along the path. They were an advance team meant to put eyes and guns on the rail station as fast as possible. After them arrived the remaining six tanks. Three of them stood along the center of the muddy path, and three others took up the rear. Among this final group was an M5 with a curious sloped hull and a purple stripe, labeled Konigin.
“It’s gonna be tight in there.” Captain Skoniec said. “I don’t envy them one bit.”
“I would not think to endanger your tank in such tight quarters.” Spoor replied.
“Well, thank you. I am glad somebody is considerate of my needs here.”
“I do ask that you survey the proceedings and offer what support you can.”
Captain Skoniec giggled. “I can afford to stop and smell these roses for a bit.”
“Save the smelling for later. And I believe they are actually Cosmos, good man.”
“Oh ho ho ho! Do you also happen to be a flower kind of man, Spoor?”
This question went unanswered save for a jovial clearing of the throat.
Along the slope to Chanda’s main buildings the lead half-track approached the steps. Its contingent of ten men stood up on the bed, supporting themselves with the hand rails while holding their pistols in hand for close fighting. The gunner behind the automatic Norgler, mounted just above the driving compartment, scanned around for contacts. The wheels at the front of the vehicle did most of the work — they were taller than the steps, and there was enough room to grip and climb. Once the wheels had taken enough steps in succession the front and back of the track angled against the steps.
“Hmm, with better track grip this could be less embarrassing.” Skoniec said, amused.
Men from the supporting half-tracks dismounted and started to follow behind the lead half-track as it steadily climbed the steps. They took to the mud on either side of the stairway, digging their feet into the slope before taking careful steps up. A few slipped and fell face first into the mud. They were almost as slow and sloppy climbing as the Squire.
“Spoor, tell them to stop messin’ around and get up there, this is just sad–”
Something flashed from the other side of the school, drawing everyone’s attention.
Soon as they cast eyes toward the playing field there was a similar shock ahead.
Under the Squire the steps exploded from first to last with enough force to punch through the vehicle and flip it over, sending it crashing back down the slope. Pillars of dust, rock and smoke lanced through the machine and spilled its contents across the air. Broken, burning men fell from above whole or not, and they crashed around the grass at the foot of the slope with sickening thuds and crunches, while shrapnel from the car scattered in every direction and lanced through several of the other climbers. A flying hunk of door battered a man into the mud; another three were crushed under the rest of the wreck as it fell.
Smoke rose from across the school, along the slope leading to the playing field.
“Pull back from the steps!” Spoor shouted. Through the rain and the spreading smoke he could hardly see what the rest of his men were doing. “Engage all contacts!”
Huddled behind the bathroom window Leander had a good view of the explosion.
Soon as the half-track went up in pieces he knelt on the toilet with his gun braced on the little windowsill behind it and started taking shots. None of the men had noticed Corporal Jasim just yet. After the wreck had settled and the shrapnel flown there were a dozen men on the slope that looked like targets to him. Some looked whole of body but were actually dead, while others were merely wounded and dazed, struggling on the mud.
He saw one man coming to a stand and stepping up, working the bolt on his rifle.
Leander shot him in the belly, causing him to tumble back down the slope. His spent casing hit a flower pot on a nearby shelf and knocked it over. Leander winced.
“Run you fool!” He thought. He saw him huddled behind the tree and knew not what he was thinking. More men were starting to stand up. Leander started to turn his sights–
Corporal Jasim did not run. Leander saw him cock his pistol and step out of cover.
“Oh myriad gods defend you.” Leander whispered, his eyes drawn wide over his scope.
Standing atop the slope Jasim opened fire on the men. He killed a man and then another, both barely standing. He turned his gun on a third on the floor and insured he laid in the mud for good. Then he started walking downhill. Fool! They were dazed! This was your chance to run! Leander screamed in his own mind. He didn’t understand.
Turning his scope farther afield he saw the two remaining half-tracks and the Nochtish tanks turning their guns. Corporal Jasim raised his arms in challenge, laughing, cursing them. Was he drunk? Was this his idea of vengeance? Leander trained his sights on the nearest half-track, at the men huddled around it, at the gunner atop. He aimed over the gun mount, took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. His shot punched through the mouth of the machine gunner behind the Norgler and pushed his corpse back onto the bed.
Suddenly from the hill to the south there was a flash; a round hurtled out from between the trees. At a low velocity the shell impacted the side of a tank further up the road. An explosion rocked the vehicle and the side armor collapsed under the violence, scattering chunks of track and sheared bits of metal and leaving a monstrous hole.
Enemy soldiers looked over their shoulders in stunned surprise. Another shot followed soon after, this one hitting near a tank to no effect; and this worked up into a slow volley, a round coming every five or six seconds from the hill and falling on the field somewhere.
Jasim laughed so loudly Leander could hear it. He raised his pistol and fought on.
Leander quickly adjusted his aim, swinging his weapon around, sidling desperately atop the toilet to position himself for a better shot. He aimed for the remaining Norgler shooter, pulled the trigger and sent his trigger arm flying off at the shoulder. Screams, blood; the man fell back. Leander breathed deep, and swung his scope around again, laying the target lines etched into the glass over several men, scanning around the battlefield as the shells crashed. If he could just take out the machine guns in the ensuing chaos then–
There was fire, too much. No amount of haste would allow one sniper to save a man from the fate that Corporal Jasim had chosen for himself. Despite the crashing of the shells around their positions the Panzergrenadiers swung back into the fight. They charged through wildly rising plumes of artillery fire with a sudden fury. In the instant after his last kill Leander saw the field come alive with the sawing noises of several Norgler machine guns. A great volley of angry green tracer fire sprouting from beneath the flowers, from behind half-tracks, from the bodies of the remaining tanks, from seemingly every gun.
Like locusts the bullets seemed to swarm over every part of the man they could.
Corporal Jasim fell to his knees and then buckled forward as if in prayer, taking seemingly hundreds of rounds in a moment. His body remained in that position.
As if he was nothing, men coming in from the ground ran past him and started shooting at the window. Leander had been spotted! He heard the rounds striking concrete around him.
He pulled back from his gun and looked out over the field at the enemy tanks.
One tank with a purple stripe on its body was turning its turret toward him.
Quickly he picked up his BKV and fled from the bathroom, throwing the door closed behind him. He dropped on the ground a few meters from the door and covered his head.
There was a loud bang behind him, and the door fell off its hinges and flew on him.
“Leander!” Someone shouted ahead. He groaned in weary reply.
Sharna charged in from across the hall and pulled him out from under the door. Blearily he looked over his shoulder and found the bathroom covered in smoke, and through the smoke he saw holes everywhere, round holes, as if a hundred steel balls had gone through the windowsill, the toilet, the walls and the shelves, it was all in pieces.
“Leander, are you hurt? Are you alright? Did the shrapnel hit you?”
Leander looked her in the eyes with sudden urgency.
“Jasim’s dead. Get the door. I’m ok.” He said weakly, reaching for his BKV.
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Upper Benghu Meadows
“Six klicks back, they’re going hot I think.”
“Doesn’t matter. We keep going. Take that position.”
“Spread out, we don’t want to get caught all at once.”
“We moving up?”
“We’re moving up. Keep AP ready. Cap says there’s cans out still.”
“You guys hearing this shit?”
“It’s a mess on the radio. They’re in the shit back there.”
“In the shit.”
“That’s back there. We might not see any here.”
“Kinda want to turn around and help. Shit sounds bad Sarge.”
“We got our mission. Take it, Benghu folds. Trust the guys back there.”
Two 3-tank Platoons once following the Panzergrenadiers had now gotten well ahead of them. They ran along the fields of Benghu, having put Chanda behind them. At their right flank there was only green tangle, and far to the left there was the dense, wooded hills that cut Benghu’s meadows into two. They kept a distance of thirty meters between each Platoon, and ten meters between each of the tanks, providing space to maneuver.
“They got Skoniec and his guys back there; it’ll be okay.”
“Skoniec’s a weird em-effer, I’m not convinced.”
“You shut the fuck up. He landed a kill on a command tank from a klick away. What have you done lately Corporal? Sit your ass down in your cupola and eyes forward.”
“Jeez! Sorry Sarge. Didn’t mean to–”
Over the sound of the engine he heard a blast. Smoke blew into the periscope’s field of vision from the far side. Sarge lifted himself up to his own cupola and looked through his vision slits, and found the Corporal’s M5 shrouded in smoke, its turret blown open like a can. Smoke came out of the hatches and tongues of flame played over the engine.
Nobody had survived inside there. That was not a shot from an Ayvartan 45-mil AT.
“Contact! Contact!” Sarge shouted. His helmet mic broadcast everything to the other tanks. “Six o’ clock! Turn to face it and look for flashes, that’s a fuckin’ tank round.”
The M5s stopped moving and turned their tanks around to face the new threat.
Before them along their new direction there was only the implacable wood.
“Can’t see anything. Woods are almost two klicks out Sarge.”
Sarge kept his eyes down his sight.
He saw the muzzle flash and he heard the blast again much closer.
He knew where the enemy tank was. And there was only one.
But it was powerful.
At his flank another M5 was penetrated right through the driver’s hatch.
“Calm the fuck down!” Sarge shouted. “Everyone alive move now!”
Four remaining M5s rushed toward the wood at full speed.
Soon as they started moving they left a third tank behind. Like a red spear the shell punched through the gun mantlet and flew out the counterweight in the back.
It wasn’t two klicks out. The wood was 1.2 klick when they started — then 1.0.
“Load AP and fire!” Sarge shouted.
Three shells sped over the meadow and into the inscrutable face of the wood.
In retaliation the wood returned a much larger shell and smashed apart the entire track from one his remaining tanks, leaving it stranded in the middle of the meadow.
“We’re bailin’ out!”
“The fuck you are! Stay in that tank and cover–”
A second shot from the wood made up for the first. Through the upper turret front on the stranded tank the shell penetrated, and sent the commander flying out of his cupola.
Sarge hadn’t seen it, but it was all his remaining tank was talking about on radio.
“Stay focused! Open fire! Open–”
Conviction did not harden steel. Again through the hull front a hit was scored.
Sarge and his tank went up in smoke.
Alone, the remaining tank swerved away and attempted to speed down the road.
From inside the wood, the Raktapata gave chase.
“She got a surprise attack. It won’t happen again now.” Chief Ravan said.
Outside the workshop the Sharabha command-variant half-track was parked, its ramp open. Captain Rajagopal was seated in the back, surrounded by radio equipment. She had a constant line of communication to the Raktapata. Chief Ravan paced around the interior of the workshop, one hand behind her back and another at her lips where she could nibble on the flesh of her thumb nervously. She almost wore a little circle on the floor.
“Why don’t we offer a little more help then to secure her chances?” said the Captain.
“How do you figure?” Chief Ravan wearily asked.
Captain Rajagopal leaned out of the half-track and pointed at the remaining large object on the far left side of the workshop, wedged into a corner and covered in a green tarp.
“We could sortie the Mandeha behind her for support.” Captain Rajagopal said.
“With what crew?” Chief Ravan said. “It’s a very unwieldy vehicle.”
“I’ve got people in mind.” Captain Rajagopal said. “Prepare the Mandeha.”
“You’re pushing my anxiety to its breaking point with this.” Chief Ravan said.
Captain Rajagopal smiled gently. “Consider it a scientific test, for our very lives.”
Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — The Benghu Tank War III