The Benghu Tank War III (31.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School

BenghuTankWar2

Water had pooled over the stones, and Elena’s footsteps splashed as she ran between the main and auxiliary buildings and followed the path out to the field. She pulled up a rain cloak over her shoulder-length red hair, and held her submachine gun close to her chest. Her skin was clammy and cold. Her pink lips quivered; her whole body seemed to shake whenever she felt a drop of water land on her. This was it; the time had again come to fight Nocht.

From the Administration building she ran through the courtyard formed by the school’s facilities. Around her the activity of the school had died down almost completely. Everyone was dug into their positions now. She didn’t see a soul running in the open at all. Only she was out of cover. From the face of the main school building, where the immobile wounded had to be kept, she saw men and women with guns hiding in every doorway, facing the stairway landing that doubled as Chanda’s open entrance.

There would be one hell of a crossfire in that direction should any gray shirts appear.

That was not her position to maintain, however.

Elena’s objective was much more precarious but all the more precious for it, too.

Chanda’s once evenly green playing pitch turned partially brown as the dirt beneath the grass soaked up the copious rains. Across the field the storage building had been reinforced with a wall of sandbags. Sandbags were even placed between some of the trees around and behind the building, affording the inhabitants a covered escape route in case of assault. As she neared, she saw Bonde and a pair of men cracking open supply crates.

It took her a few minutes to get here. She hoped to survive at least that long in the fight.

Elena stopped halfway into the field, looking about her surroundings with new eyes.

She was not in that instant a medic. Her perspective had to be different.

She did not want to admit exactly the eyes with which she now saw.

In better times the field played host to games of kickball and to track events; the feet trampling turf now would have a different purpose. Elena tried to gauge its size. She thought it must have been about 200 meters long, but only around 100 wide from the top of the slope to the edge of the track, and there were only about 20 extra meters from there to the supply depot. So they could count on about 120 meters distance in a firefight. Just about the cutoff effective distance for her submachine gun. There was cover only at the far edge of the field, where there stood two sets of solid concrete bleachers that each stretched about 30 meters long and 9 meters tall, and were maybe ten meters apart.

These structures would serve the enemy as his only source of hard cover.

In the middle of the field a tank was backing up, the short, thick gun on its round, flat-topped turret pointed down field and between the two bleachers, a likely direction for the incoming attack. It had a fairly long body, its turret mounted far forward of the engine block. This was a Gnoll, a light and fast tank that was very poorly armored. It would be their only source cover or fire support against the enemies trying to overrun the field. The Gnoll backed up near the supply shed, leaving some distance between in case it exploded.

Once it had taken its position as a metal wall before them the Gnoll cut its engines.

Elena made her way closer and met Bonde and the two other men behind the tank. Bonde was his usual self, tall and black-skinned. Hair was starting to grow back on his shaved head and there was considerable stubble around his mouth as well. He didn’t have a helmet. Nobody in Chanda seemed to have a helmet, not her, not Leander, and certainly not Bonde. Elena had not seen much of her old once-shaven friend — he had been working in the supply depot alongside Sharna since the disbandment of Lion’s rifle divisions.

Meanwhile Elena had been given a chance to pursue her original desires.

She had urged Leander along, perhaps selfishly. Now they were all back in this mess.

“It’s good to see you.” Bonde said, swiftly stretching his hand and shaking Elena’s.

“Happy to meet too.” Elena said. “Are you in command? Who are these two?”

“Hamad,” Bonde pointed to one man, “and Jaid,” he pointed to the other.

Elena shook hands with both of them. They were armed with long rifles, and their clothing, beneath their cloaks, had camouflage patterns. They were recon scouts.

“So you are calling the shots or is there a Sergeant somewhere I don’t see?”

“I’m in command.” Bonde said, sounding a little demure about it.

“Congratulations!” Elena said, jokingly patting him on the shoulder.

“Captain Agrawal put me up to it since I, well, I have experience now.” Bonde said.

He gave a modest little shrug to punctuate his words. Elena shrugged comically back.

Hamad and Jaid bowed their heads respectfully and shook hands with Elena.

“Rhino’s recon troops have never seen a battle.” Hamad said. “We appreciate your experience. We know that you Lion guys survived a tremendous fight in Knyskna.”

“Yes– we did something like that.” Elena said, smiling. She smiled for the two men. They were older than her. She felt like a child trying to comfort the adults around her. But in war age did not seem to determine who was the child or the adult. It was a strange world.

Bonde then raised a firm hand to her shoulder and nodded his head once to her.

“We’ll get through it here just like back there.” He said. He offered her a smile and turned to face the men and to reassure them of the same. They stood in attention and nodded back.

“We’ll get through.” Elena said simply, gripping with her own hand on Bonde’s shoulder.

She was very frightened; indeed she felt a fear here, under the thrashing rain of Dbagbo, that she did not feel in the rubble of Knyskna. She was anxious in Knyskna, but she was prepared then. Everyone had prepared her to die. There was a path to follow and the promises of others to count upon. She had lived back there; now she had to survive this with no time to prepare at all and nobody like Sgt. Bahir to reassure her.

She supposed to these two men she and Bonde must have looked like a Sgt. Bahir.

Impressive; almost mythical; people who looked right at the flying bullets and lived.

She supposed that was what she had done. It was in any case what she had to do now.

“How is Leander doing?” Bonde asked. “Is he still going to be the forward sniper?”

Elena nodded her head. “He should be getting ready now. We set up all the explosives. He looked shaken up to me. He tries to hide it but I can tell he’s really anxious.”

“Has that ever actually stopped him before?” Bonde said, cocking a grin.

“No, I suppose it hasn’t.” She replied. But she was still worried about him. It worried her all the more that he hid it and repressed it now whenever he felt bad. To her, this round of acting tough was just a sign that things were worse than when he was being honest.

“And Sharna’s with him, so he won’t have a moment’s peace to think anything dire.”

Elena chuckled. At least someone was seeing the brighter side of things here.

She dropped her bag beside the tank and started filling her pouches with magazines. They had none of the sixty round drums at Chanda — it was all thirty-round magazines for their Rashas. At least the Rasha was automatic. Bundu rifles would’ve been a bleak sight.

While everyone was loading up on ammunition there was clanging of metal nearby.

In front of them opened one of the tank’s upper hatches, and an umbrella rose from inside the tank and spread to block the rain. Someone then climbed out of the turret.

Salam, comrades! I drive and shoot this old girl! Hope you find the rear hull spacious!”

Bonde and Elena turned to greet the tanker. Meanwhile she dropped onto the back of the tank, knelt and stretched out her free hand to each of them, shaking them up quite a bit with her strong, vigorous grip. Of her group she was perhaps the youngest that Elena had yet seen — though perhaps still older than her. She was a golden-brown skinned woman, dark-eyed and round faced with a soft nose, fairly tall and fairly fit in appearance.

Curiously she was not fitted with the typical tanker’s helmet, but instead wore a smooth amber-colored cloth garment covering her neck, head and ears. This garment covered all of her hair, so that they could not see its length, or discern its color or style. Owing to its length, it was wrapped around her neck and shoulders like a scarf too.

“Pleased to meet you, comrades. Corporal Arsala Mattar.” She said with a smile.

“Elena North,” in the midst of her introduction she paused, for she was about to say ‘medic’ but the thought of saying ‘machine gunner’ also came to her. Stunted by this sudden conflict she instead said nothing. Bonde introduced himself as squad leader.

Mattar turned to face Bonde, and pointed down at his side, where he and his men had amassed a few boxes of submachine gun ammo. “You got anything bigger than that?”

Bonde took up his submachine gun and showed it to her, shaking his head.

“I’m afraid not. Nothing bigger than a Rasha around here; except for the pet sniper rifles two of my friends decided to keep from our time at Knyskna. And I guess, your tanks.”

Corporal Mattar sat back on her tank. Rain trickled down the sides of her umbrella and fell over the engine block, sliding all the way down the sides of the armor in thin rivulets.

“I’ve got an old snub-nose 75mm howitzer, and two Danava machine guns in there.”

Bonde nodded. Elena had noticed the curious length of the gun as she approached.

“Keep watch on those bleachers ahead. They’ll be using those heavily.” Bonde said.

“It’s as good as done, comrade.” Corporal Mattar said. “You keep those anti-tank snipers off me. I won’t have the benefit of the trees like my comrades in the hills.”

“We’ll try our best Corporal. Thank you for coming to our aid.” Bonde said.

Corporal Mattar smiled. She climbed back up on her tank, leaned inside, and withdrew a package. She cast the package down and Bonde barely managed to catch it in the air.

Inside were two pairs of earpieces, trailing cables, and each with pair of earphones and a throat microphone. Each set of earpieces was connected to a radio the size of a lunchbox that was clipped on one’s back by three belts. They would affix the sets, and connect the earpieces to the boxes, threading the wires through their clothing.

“We stripped some of my crew to fight as infantry. You can talk to me through those.”

Bonde handed one of the sets to Elena. She quickly adjusted the plastic headband over her hair, clipped the headphones over her ears and affixed the throat microphone. She clipped the box just over her back pouches. It was suspended like a strong harness.

“Can you hear me?” Corporal Mattar whispered. But Elena heard her perfectly.

Elena nodded her head. “Yes ma’am. I love your scarf, by the way.” She added.

“Thank you. It is called a Khimar, a sign of my faith.” Corporal Mattar said.

“Seems a colorful faith.” Elena said. She supposed the Corporal had her headphones and microphone under the khimar. It must have been thinner cloth than it seemed.

“The Diyam are uncommon here, our homeland being Mankara. But we serve.”

Their conversation was cut off by a terrible scream coming from the supply building.

Everyone turned around suddenly; Elena scarcely caught the blur of movement.

Behind them the door slammed open and someone stormed right out; a woman. From inside the supply depot building the children and remaining teachers watched helplessly as she fled the scene, some reaching out as though their hands might call the running woman back to her senses and to safety. Just as she got past the door a man gave chase, but he tripped in the mud and took a tremendous dive into the grass. Even as he fell he called out to her, and he crawled, shouting, throwing around mud with his hands as if trying to swim to her.

In the few seconds it took for the scene to unfold Bonde, Mattar and the infantrymen were stunned. Elena took a few sudden, futile bounds, but it was too late. She barely made it a few meters before she realized the woman was running like a devil and would not be caught.

She also recognized her — Balarayu, from a few days ago, that delicate-looking lady in the grass with the short wavy brown hair and the long dress and a big smile for the children. Elena thought she caught a flash of her anguished face as she thundered past.

Instead of chasing her Elena ran back to the fallen man and tried to help him from the mud. He was tall and heavy for her; Bonde rushed to her side to help, and with each of them heaving the man up over their shoulders they raised him up, but they quickly found that the man could not stand of his own volition. Elena looked down at his foot.

“What’s your name?” She asked, taking a knee beside him.

“Darshan,” replied the man, his voice low and strained, “I’m– I’m a teacher.”

“You can’t stand on that foot, can’t you? Does it hurt?”

“I think I twisted it when I rushed out.” whimpered the man, gritting his teeth.

Elena gingerly lifted his pants leg and felt around inside of his socks and shoes.

When she turned his foot, Darshan winced and protested. It was definitely injured.

She looked up at Bonde, incensed. “We’re supposed to keep these people safe!”

Bonde raised one of his hands in a helpless shrug, holding up Darshan while Elena checked on him. He sighed. “I told them to lock themselves up inside there and not to leave. They clearly didn’t listen.” He looked over his shoulder and into the supply depot.

“I tried to stop her, I told her that I should be the one to go,” Darshan interjected.

“Neither of you should have gone anywhere!” Elena shouted. “Where is she off to?”

“The–” he was choked up, and his words came slow, “the Auxiliary building. A child; we’re missing a child back here. I don’t know how it happened. She’s always so careful–”

Elena looked across the field in alarm. Any child left behind in the school facilities was in terrible danger. They would be concentrating their firepower there, not on this wide open field. Everything here was laid bare. But the campus buildings were a strongpoint.

There was nothing she could do. She could not vacate her position, not right now. She stood up from the ground and took Darshan over her shoulder again to help Bonde move him.

“Listen, we’re taking you back inside. Our army comrades in the school buildings will take care of everything. We can’t all take off running after her right now, any minute–”

Elena cut herself off and she raised her head to look toward the bleachers.

“You hear it too?” Bonde said. He was casting eyes all around the field.

Elena nodded her head, mouth hanging a little open. She stared beyond the slope.

There was a rhythmic clattering in the air that was not the rain, nor the resting Gnoll.

It was an engine struggling; and tracks scraping.

It was a mechanical sound, growing louder as something made its way nearer.

“Over there, I see it!” Darshan shouted.

There was a glint as lightning flashed overhead.

Between the bleachers Elena spotted the nose of an enemy carrier.

And with it she spotted the first grey helmets working their way up the slope.

“Brace yourselves!” Bonde shouted. “Private Kasan must be–”

At once the plastic explosive “bricks” layered along the stairway were detonated.

A geyser of flames and smoke rose from under the vehicle and the force of the blast cast the machine violently into the air, flipping it end over end. Its compliment of men were hurled every which way. Every foot soldier accompanying the vehicle seemed to slide down and out of view, while the burning husk of the half-track hit the ground and rolled downhill. After the impressive blast a series of ephemeral red and yellow wisps danced near the edge of the slope and were rapidly reduced to tiny tongues of smoke by the falling rains.

All the way across the school from them a similar scene played out. Black smoke trailed skyward until Elena could see it from her vantage, rising from behind the Auxiliary building.

Enraptured by the color and violence, Elena and Bonde stood in place, each holding Darshan. They exchanged glances. Together they started toward the safety of the tank.

“Darshan, stay put. Don’t move a millimeter in any direction!” Bonde ordered.

They laid him back down behind the tank’s engine compartment and stood, aiming their weapons over the sides of the vehicle. The tank was just tall enough to cover them up to the shoulders and wide enough for all five of them. Corporal Mattar saluted and climbed her turret and dropped back inside. Her Gnoll’s engine growled and the hull began to vibrate, transferring its energy from the steel to their own bodies and shaking them all.

Elena stared through the iron sights of her Rasha. There was a metal block in the back with high sides and a thin strip in the middle, and near the front of the barrel there was a metal ring. Elena had been told aligning the two meant it would be a good shot. She didn’t know for certain. Most of her combat experienced had been hosing down troops in tight quarters with a light machine gun, or shooting haphazardly from the shoulder.

She aligned the sights over the center of the concrete bleachers and spotted a runner.

His green uniform quickly placed him as theirs; Elena shifted her aim around him.

“It’s Private Kasan.” Bonde said. “He was in charge of the bombs. Cover him!”

Elena nodded her head slightly. She raised her eyes off the sights.

There was a look of anguish on Private Kasan’s face that she had not noticed while he was ringed by the metal of her sights; and several splashes of water around his feet.

From the edge of the slope rose the grey helmets again, three men firing their rifles as soon as they got any amount of clearance over the little hill, then bounding up.

Bullets struck the mud and water around Private Kasan as he scrambled forward.

More men then appeared, until there was a full squadron taking the top of the hill.

Elena held her breath and pressed the trigger. She hardly felt the weapon move. There was a second’s worth of tapping noise and a flash from the flared sides of the barrel. Pressing and depressing the trigger she released several bursts of three rounds. Bonde and their two recon infantry comrades joined, firing several bursts over and around the tank.

In an instant one of the men pursuing Kasan fell to his knees and then into the mud.

It had taken a dozen bullets to finally score a hit on him, but he was dead.

Elena let go of that breath. She was in the moment again. Like back in Knyskna, where her vision tunneled and she saw the world through the sights of her Danava machine gun. Her body tensed and her awareness was different. This was a different world indeed.

She blinked as a rifle bullet hit the ground near her, and quickly resumed shooting.

Several of the remaining grey coats knelt amid the bullets. A number of rifles discharged at once; a bullet grazed Kasan in the arm. He nearly slipped on the muddy ground, but maintained his balance, clutched his wound and between the bursts of friendly gunfire he made it to the side of the tank. He rushed around the back, and took a knee behind Darshan.

“We got almost twenty of them with the bombs!” Kasan shouted.

Bonde patted him in the back. “Good job! Stay there, nurse your wound.”

Elena looked over her sights again. Her enemy was over a hundred meters away and difficult to make out in the rain. She registered only a gray raincoat over a gray combat coat topped with the distinctive Nochtish metal helmet and carrying a long wooden rifle.

At her side, Bonde raised one of his hands to his throat microphone.

“Open up on them with the machine guns!” He shouted.

At his command the Gnoll turned its turret. Machine guns set into its gun mantlet and the front of its body discharged several dozen bullets in seconds. Slow but determined automatic fire raked the enemy squadron ahead of them on the field. Every third round seemed to be a tracer, so for every few seconds Elena saw a dozen red lances flying out.

Though the men tried to disperse, the gunfire was difficult to avoid. One gun fired dead ahead, and low to the ground — the other was higher up on the turret and more mobile.

Against the tide of fire the enemy broke up and fled, but they left a man behind it seemed with every few meters they moved. At the top of the ruined stairway a man in the dead center of the formation was riddled with bullets; two more were clipped in the legs and then stricken in the torso mid-fall, dying before they hit the mud. Corporal Mattar turned her turret to follow four men while the gun on the Gnoll’s body fired on the other five or six as best as it could. Though the gunfire trailed close behind them several men managed to escape and they hid behind the concrete frames of the bleachers.

From their new positions, they peeked around the corners of the bleachers, raised their guns and fired, snapping their rifles into and out of position with incredible ease. Their movements were as if choreographed — helmets and shoulders leaned out, rifles rose, and almost exactly as bullets were cast down field the men vanished once more.

Elena crouched behind the tank, and from a kneeling position she returned fire with her submachine gun, firing short bursts at a time before ducking behind the track guards.

In hiding, she saw Darshan covering his head behind the tank, and patted his shoulder.

“You’ll be okay!” She said. He gave no response. It was like speaking to herself.

“How many have we got left down there?” Bonde said.

“There’s at least a dozen.” Corporal Mattar replied. She was incorrect.

Soon more company began to arrive. In groups of two and three the men took the top of the slope and advanced. The enemy now ignored the open terrain between the bleachers and made directly for the concrete, huddling behind the frame. Elena saw only their briefest appearance at the edge of the hill before they ducked a few token tracers from the tank and joined the rest of their men. Her own fire bit into the concrete without effect.

Bullets were exchanged almost as a formality. Rifle shots from the edge of the field bounced harmlessly off the flanks or the front of the tank, unable to zero in on the shooters from such a direct angle; while submachine gun fire harmlessly pummeled the concrete bleachers. Each position shot and ducked in turn too quickly for the other to hit.

They were building up strength; and Elena and her comrades could not do the same.

“These are Panzergrenadiers.” Corporal Mattar said over the radio. “I learned about them in tank school a year ago. They are Nocht’s most highly trained troops. Infantry that has been specially trained to support tanks by killing anti-tank hotspots in the way.”

“If the best they can do is avoid running in the open, I’m unimpressed.” Bonde said.

“Besides which we’re barely an anti-infantry hotspot.” Elena laughed morbidly.

“Put that 75mm to good use, Corporal. Shoot just off the side of the seats on the left.”

“Acknowledged!”

Corporal Mattar turned her turret. There was a sharp, quick rumbling and the vehicle shook as the howitzer unloaded a round. Elena could not discern where the shell impacted exactly — despite being a “low velocity” attack, at such close distances it was impossible to discern its trail. In the span of a second a cloud of smoke tinged with short-lived fire blossomed from the side of the left bleachers, casting concrete into the air and obscuring the enemy.

“There it goes. Hopefully the fragmentation got some of them.” Bonde said.

Elena took this opportunity to load a fresh magazine. It had only been a few minutes since the attack began, and it was an attack that could potentially last for hours.

“How much ammunition do we even have?” Elena asked. This would go unanswered.

Before the smoke had even cleared a hellish sawing noise sounded from afar.

A hail of gunfire bounced around the top and sides of the tank and crept forward. Green tracer rounds fell over them like a cloud of hornets, crashing into the mud and steel, flashing past their position, raising dozens of miniature geysers in the puddles.

Darshan cried out and covered his ears. Bullets started to hit dirt past their cover!

Elena felt several large rounds zipping past her ear like buzzing hornets and she ducked her head reflexively. She hid behind the tank and pressed her legs against her chest to hide from the relentless gunfire. All around her lead hit metal and mud kicked up and spent, red-hot lead bounced over her, ricocheting from the tank. She saw the green tracer flashes reflected on the puddle and it felt like a sky full of fireflies coming down.

Coming down; angled none of this gunfire was direct. It was flying down at her.

“Where the hell is that coming from?” Bonde shouted, pressed low against the right half of the tank’s rear, his submachine gun in hand. Everyone crowded behind the tank. Both of the Gnoll’s machine guns continued to cover the central approach but to no avail.

“They might have climbed the bleachers!” Elena said, airing a sudden fearful thought.

She stuck her gun out of cover and used it to point at the suspected firing position.

“Corporal Mattar, turn your sights on the left-side bleachers, look top to bottom!” Bonde said. He could not risk even a fraction of his skin exposed from cover, but he nodded to Elena and seemed to trust her snap judgment. They felt the tank’s turret turning around.

“I see them!” Corporal Mattar said. “They’re at the top seats. I’ll take care of it!”

The Gnoll’s turret shifted left, and the gun elevated. Everything shook — Elena was close to the tank and the violence of its shot went right through her. She heard the explosion and saw the smoke trailing up. No more sawing noise; Elena peeked her head over the side of the track guard and saw a bloody crater punched into the top seats. With the smoke from before fully cleared she also spotted a dead man at the side of the bleachers, and a large semi-circular and jagged wound stricken into the concrete corner.

“Kill confirmed!” Elena said. She turned around to point Bonde toward the right spot.

As her eyes scrolled toward her squad leader there was a red flash.

It was not fire or lead but blood, splashing at her cheek.

A red splash from beside her — as a bullet pierced through Private Kasan.

He gulped, disbelieving. He looked down at himself.

A roll of bandages he had been gripping slipped out of his hands.

He held his stomach and knelt down, in front of Elena and Darshan.

Two more shots splashed mud and water dangerously close.

Elena stared for a moment in disbelief. Her submachine gun shook in her hands.

Hamad raised his weapon and shouted, “Flankers, moving around 9 o clock!”

Bonde realized it too. “The Norgler was a distraction! They’re trying to get around us!”

Peeking out from cover Elena saw six or seven men moving in — one jaw in the trap.

“I’ve still got men coming out front!” Corporal Mattar said. “I can’t shoot everybody!”

“Keep the bleachers covered Corporal, we’ll handle the flanks!” Bonde said.

Hamad and Jaid turned their guns left and fired past Elena’s side of the tank. In the distance the grey raincoats swept desperately across the edge of the field, running in from the sides of the bleachers in a bid to outflank the defenders. Two Panzergrenadiers would move, two behind them would shoot, and their column took turns in this way. Hamad and Jaid fired relentlessly at the runners. With every bound the grays exchanged rifle fire, and the bullets struck the tank and flew overhead and made a cacophony of tinny noises as lead struck metal. Several better-aimed shots hit just short of flesh, having achieved an angle past the metal. Despite the defender’s gunfire the enemy crept boldly closer and closer.

Short of breath, Elena dropped down near Private Kasan. He was barely conscious — his breathing was irregular, hyperventilating one moment and choking up the next as he clutched the wound. Elena laid him down and then immediately felt at a loss for what else to do. She put her hands down on the ground and felt the cold mud on them.

She realized she was not a medic here. She had no tools or knowledge or guidance. She couldn’t save anyone. Private Kasan needed an air bag, an incision, stitches–

“Elena, pick up your gun, I need help!” Bonde shouted.

Rattled out of her confusion Elena snapped her head up; she saw something like a red spark flying. A rifle bullet struck right next to Bonde’s face, hitting the tank, flying off and bumping the side of his head while still hot. He ducked down reflexively, holding the wound.

“Are you hurt?” Elena asked, reaching out shaking hands.

“It’s just hot, it’s just hot harmless metal.” Bonde whimpered.

There was a disturbing, guttural noise beside them.

Private Kasan was dead. His blood pooled with the water and mud.

Elena raised a hand to her mouth. Her fingers twitched over her skin.

“I’m sorry.” She mouthed. She could barely say it out loud.

Bonde reached out behind him and quickly closed Private Kasan’s eyes.

He looked up from the corpse’s eyes to her own with a grave expression.

“Keep shooting. Not for him; for them.” He nodded to the supply depot.

Elena stared down at Darshan, who nearly had his head in the mud trying to hide. He was unresponsive, perhaps suffering a panic. She looked behind them, at the supply depot, the door firmly closed. Rifle fire that flew past them had hit the tin walls in places. She could see tiny holes. Any one of those holes could have been another casualty.

She took a deep breath. It felt like it cut coming in, her throat was so sore and hot.

Her senses started come back. She felt the rain. Her vision opened up.

Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, but that was the least of things on her mind.

She could not be a medic nor a machine gunner. But she had to protect these people.

Elena picked her submachine gun from the floor, shook it up and wiped away the mud.

She attached a fresh magazine, pulled the bolt back, and lifted her gun over Bonde’s shoulder. With the world once again framed by the iron sights, Elena opened fire.

Her bursts were longer and less controlled but this was by design. She saw six men coming in from the right, having crept out from the bleachers. Aiming ahead of them she sent sprays of gunfire their way. Bonde quickly joined her. Each Rasha shot faster than the Danava guns on the tank — each burst of 3-5 rounds took less than a second. Together Elena and Bonde hurled dozens of bullets downrange with each trigger pull, a whole magazine in ten seconds.

Having no tracers they could not see their bullet trajectories, but there was visible effect.

Six Panzergrenadiers rushed down the right flank, having worn a circumspect path to within 60 meters of the depot. There was soon such a volume of gunfire that the two men at the lead both seemed to run into a wall, slipping and collapsing on the ground, stricken by stray rounds. Two men at the back of the little column dropped to their bellies in their own defense, while the two men in the middle, suddenly finding themselves made the lead element, took a knee, worked their bolts and retaliated, aiming and firing.

A projectile soared by Elena’s head but it did not deter her. She loaded a fresh magazine, aligned the sights over the two men, and resumed shooting in seconds. Her enemy was still on the ground by then, and between bursts she spotted a Panzergrenadier grabbing at his arm, and he knelt and dropped his gun on the floor. With one hand he produced a pistol, and with that very hand he fired repeatedly and desperately at tank’s rear.

Under the rain and with several dozen meters between them the shots dropped too low, striking the metal just in front of Elena and Bonde’s bodies. They awaited their turn, loaded fresh magazines once more and then stood, ready to cast fire at their enemy anew.

There was a sudden rumbling; the Gnoll shook back under the force of its own gun.

A 75mm howitzer shell crashed in the middle of the open field, kicking up a prodigious column of mud and water. Before the smoke settled the Gnoll turned its turret.

“I’m out of targets ahead. Engaging the flanks.” Corporal Mattar said.

A second rumbling and a metallic cry; a howitzer shell soared over the Panzergrenadiers and smashed a lone tree on the far flung side of the field, smashing it clean in half.

The two Panzergrenadiers in the rear crawled forward on their bellies, raised their hands and threw a pair of grenades, one over themselves and another at their own men ahead.

There was no blast, but a column of smoke. Elena braced the Rasha submachine gun to her shoulder and fired into the cloud, uncertain of what she was hitting or where.

With each flash of lightning Elena thought she saw figures in the smoke, running away.

“They’re retreating! They’re running back to the bleachers!” Jaid shouted, between his own vicious bursts of gunfire. Everything happening in the right flank he and Hamad repeated on the left. Two corpses sixty meters away bore eternal witness to this.

“Our friends ahead have given up on the bleachers it seems.” Corporal Mattar said.

For a minute everyone remained in the last position their bodies had taken, guns up and waiting for the enemy. There was smoke blowing away with the wind, and the rain showed no signs of abating. Elena couldn’t tell if she was shivering from the cold or if her hands were still shaking with anxiety. She cast eyes at both her flanks, and found nothing but the corpses of the men who had last tried to run past. She raised her head over the track guards and saw the holes punched into the bleachers by the howitzer.

“I don’t see a single soul out there. It’s like they decided to go home.” She said feebly.

She didn’t hear anything but the low creaking noises issuing from the Gnoll’s engine.

“We aren’t so lucky.” Bonde said. He knelt down behind the tank and shook up Darshan. “Are you alright? Are you hurt? We might be able to get you back into the depot now.”

Darshan was on his knees, with his heads over his head. He shook up in response

“No,” he stammered, “we can’t open the door. We might endanger the children.”

“We really cannot protect you out here.” Elena said. Her rebellious eyes wanted to glance aside and catch another glimpse of Private Kasan’s body, laying behind them all. Looking at Darshan was all she could do to keep her mind from punishing her more.

“I’ll be fine. Please, just keep fighting. I’ll stay here.” Darshan said.

“We can drop him in the tank.” Corporal Mattar offered.

“Good idea.” Bonde said. He turned to Hamad and Jaid. “Help him up.”

Nodding, the two men picked Darshan and helped him onto the engine block. He raised himself up with his own hands — Hamad helped him lift his bad foot, while Jaid crouched atop the engine block and lifted him by the shoulders. Once they had him behind the turret, Corporal Mattar opened the top hatch. Elena and Bonde each kept a close eye and a loaded gun on the surroundings as Darshan climbed down into the turret.

“He’s got himself onto the radio operator’s seat. He’s fine.” Corporal Mattar said.

Hamad and Jaid jumped back down the side of the tank. Weapons raised, they looked back toward the bleachers in case of an enemy incursion, and crept backward.

In the next instant something far away made an ominous sound.

No one was looking up, and even if they were they would not have seen it coming.

Behind Hamad and Jaid a mortar shell slammed down from the sky.

A few meters from the tank the blast riddled the men with red-hot fragments.

Steel bounced from the tank’s armor before it could hit Elena or Bonde, but Hamad and Jaid had no cover. They were directly in the path of hundreds of small fragments. For a second they stood unsteadily, before their feet faltered and they collapsed into the mud. Blood trailed from their bodies through the puddled water, copiously spreading.

Elena’s heart skipped a beat as the next shell came whirling down.

Several meters opposite the last projectile, a shell fell on the left side, just off of the tank. Elena felt its power rumbling through the earth, shaking its way through her insides.

“Artillery!” Corporal Mattar shouted. “I’m backing up, move with me!”

Elena and Bonde seized one of the ammunition crates, and crouched behind the tank, walking with it as it gingerly crept back from the field. Ahead of them on the field two shells exploded, and then a third a dozen meters from the supply depot. Any moment now they could be crushed by a stray shell — they were like insects awaiting a boot.

Short of a miracle she did not see how she would last the day. Neither medic nor machine gunner nor defender could last through this, not as ill equipped as they were.

It had only been perhaps thirty minutes, all of this battle, all of this death.

As they retreated from their fallen comrades, Elena bowed her head in silence.


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