This chapter contains numerous scenes of violence and death.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Southeast of Shebelle
As the compartment rocked around her Schicksal covered her mouth and held her stomach, as if applying pressure might soothe what ailed it. She felt something hot and terrible rise in her throat, and a sharp throbbing in her head suddenly coincided with it. Everything in the tank seemed to slant, the crew held at an angle as the Befehlspanzer’s right track hit and subsequently climbed over something in the pond. She bent forward, her forehead coming to rest against the cold steel of the radio box before her.
“Open your hatch and be more careful!” Dreschner grunted over the radio.
Ahead of her the driver opened the front hatch, letting in a little more light into the gloomy confines. She was seated just a few centimeters higher elevated than the driver and she could see right into the driving compartment from the radio operator’s seat. Were it not for her hazy vision she would have been able to see outside through the front hatch.
Instead she saw the silhouette of the driver, his hands expertly working the sticks, maneuvering the M4 Befehlspanzer off the rocks (presumably) and back into the water (she supposed) as they advanced through what was on her map a low-lying meadow surrounded by little wooded hills. This route was chosen on the assumption it could provide some measure of cover from the hostilities in Shebelle while they made their way to the 8th Panzer Division’s new Forward Operating Base southeast of the besieged city.
However due to the storm it had become a series of broad pools each over a meter deep, hiding rocky and jagged terrain. Schicksal could not have anticipated just what the grasses and flowers of Dbagbo had grown to cover over time, and what the water now covered.
She rubbed her forehead while the tank rattled, creeping forward, treading water. Everything shook when the tank climbed over a rock or rose and fell with the terrain below the surface. With every bump she felt gas and fluid dancing violently in her body.
“General, permission to take another seltzer.” Schicksal whimpered into the radio.
Dreschner sighed into the radio. “Do whatever you need before we reach the FOB.”
Immediately, Schicksal reached into her bag and seized a small carton of water. She peeled open the hole atop the waterproof cardboard, and from her breast pocket, produced a white pill, which she forced into the container. She covered the hole with her hand, shook the carton, and desperately tipped the contents into her mouth. It was hot and nasty; the bubbles and fizz made her throat feel raw. But as it went down it offered something of a relief for her nausea. One bad sensation seemed to overpower the other.
“Siren, this is Donkey-2, we just busted a leg back here, please advice, over.”
Schicksal pressed her headphones to her ears and adjusted the microphone. Donkey was one of the trucks bringing in equipment to the FOB from Silb, following about a kilometer back from the Befelhspanzer and its own distant escort tanks. Trying not to sound too tired, she responded, “Donkey-2, this is Siren, what are you carrying, over?”
“Twenty-five heads, over.” Donkey-2’s radio operator responded quickly. “We’ve got hands on, but the weather’s not nice for this kind of work. Might take a while, over.”
Donkey-2 had blown something serious in a wheel and would need to repair their truck, which was carrying twenty-five infantrymen to help guard the FOB. This personnel was not essential. Schicksal told them to take their time and do what they could, and she did not trouble Dreschner with the details. They would catch up when they could. As long as the fuel and ammo trucks were making progress then everything was on schedule.
She breathed in deep. Her head hurt, but she was at least on the ball with her work.
“Head for that slope ahead, and get us out of this mire.” Dreschner demanded.
Acknowledging, the driver pushed his left stick forward and his right back, turning the Befehlspanzer away from the rest of the pond and toward a nearby slope onto one of the surrounding hills. Once out of the muck, the ride went surprisingly smooth. Schicksal almost nodded off as they climbed the hilltops, up and down every few minutes. But she had to coordinate their maneuvers with those of their escorts, so she kept busy relaying to the tanks at their flanks, 500 meters or so apart, where they had to be going now.
Past the hills and the ponds the Befelhspanzer and its escorts hit an old wheelbarrow path that had been subsumed by the surrounding woodland over time. Here they rejoined a convoy of ten supply trucks, and together this column advanced to the gathering of half-tracks a few kilometers ahead. Covered in or acting as support pillars to camouflage nets and tents, these vehicles represented the 8th Panzer Divison’s FOB.
“How soon will the entire division have relocated along this path?” Dreschner asked.
“We should be packed between here and Benghu before sundown.” Schicksal said.
“Good. Keep tabs on the infantry divisions in Shebelle. I’m going out.” He replied.
Overhead Dreschner pushed up and out of his commander’s cupola, briefly allowing the torrent into the vehicle. She felt him stepping over the turret and then the body of the tank as he climbed down. When the driver cut the engine, everything went eerily silent and still. One really felt the absence of the tank’s vibrations and the rattling motor.
“Need anything, Miss Schicksal?” asked the driver, pushing open his hatch.
“I’m quite alright Bose.” Schicksal wearily replied. She did not even try to smile.
“Alright. I’m steppin’ out for a smoke.” Bose said. He tipped his hat and climbed out.
Schicksal bristled a little at the mention of a smoke. She sure could use a cigarette; but not only had she smoked her whole ration already, she did not want another source of suggestive sensations when she was already drunk and feeling intermittently very sick. Mustering commendable willpower, she withdrew a pack of dry biscuit, set them on the radio mount and crunched on them bit by bit while monitoring the infantry signals.
When Dreschner returned, he banged on the cupola of the tank, which meant that Schicksal had to climb out. Leaving behind her biscuit crumbs, she climbed onto the fake gunner’s seat, over onto Dreschner’s and then up and out of the tank. To her surprise, Dreschner was shielding the aperture by holding a raincoat over it to keep her from the rain.
“We’ve got the war room tent ready. Let us relocate there.” Dreschner said.
He draped the raincoat over her, and together they dropped down from the tank and rushed across the muddy woodland to a large green tent set between two trees.
Inside a map had been laid over a plain folding table. There was a radio set along the wall, and a stack of ration boxes in a basket in the middle of the room. Drum cans of fuel oil and boxes of spare parts rounded out the disheveled, impromptu look of the gloomy tent, which was lit only by a hanging electric lamp powered by a thick lead acid battery.
There were a few orderlies, some logistics personnel, and an engineer present in the tent, though the engineer was only searching through the spare parts at the moment.
“Alright Schicksal,” Dreschner handed her a marker pen, “what is the situation?”
He looked down at the map. Schicksal slowly approached the table. She shut her eyes hard as if it would clear the colors floating around the lamp-light and the soft blur at the edges of her vision. It didn’t. She stretched out her hand and slashed around the edge of Shebelle, three sloppy lines, not quite the right size nor quite as apart as they should be. But she wasn’t an artist. She then drew a circle around the town of Benghu.
“Alright, umm, so, as of 1300 hours,” Schicksal said. She stopped and caught a breath. “Let’s see here, ok. The 17th Grenadier Division and the 12th Jager Division, with the 16th Grenadier Division behind them, have been fiercely fighting through the defenses around Shebelle. They have penetrated the visible defensive lines stretching from the jumping-off point of the attack up to the outlying habitations of Shebelle. Their closest units at the moment can be considered to be engaged inside the city proper.”
“Considered to?” Dreschner asked, looking down at the map. An orderly gave her a few aerial photographs of Shebelle, and Schicksal pulled one closer and over the map. Her movements were very sluggish and deliberate but her words came to her quick enough.
“It’s a little complicated. Let me explain.” Schicksal paused, showing him the photo.
She collected her thoughts, and with Dreschner pulling closer, began to explain.
“Shebelle is built in three echelons of habitation. Its outskirts are small hamlets with very low population density, wide roads without streets, buildings spread apart; these hamlets lead to the concrete streets and gravel roads we would associate with a city further in, but the density is still relatively controlled; and from there Shebelle expands to a much denser urban core. Shebelle University forms much of this center. Its campus housing, school buildings, and other facilities, are arrayed around a small central plaza.”
Dreschner picked up the photographs and examined them, rubbing his chin.
“I take it the infantry is still fighting over the sheep houses at the edge of the city.”
“Worse. Apparently the Ayvartans threaded an entire additional defensive line of slit trenches and camouflaged guns all through the hamlets. Those men who have made it into a sheep house and cleared it are the lucky ones.” Schicksal said. She put down a photograph and raised her hand to her temple to nurse a deep throbbing at the site.
“How are the infantry doing on casualties? And the guns that we lent them?”
“The 17th Grenadier’s 25th Grenadier Regiment is basically gone, apart from the men who have made it past and are dug in around various points of the Ayvartan defense.”
“How many of our M3s did they take with them? Do you know?” Dreschner pressed.
“Several have been abandoned that could potentially be recovered and repaired after the fighting dies down; but right now there’s about 5 M3s operational in the battle.”
Dreschner shook his head. “That’s a far worse loss than I anticipated. We will have to beat some more discipline into the heads of these crews.” He crossed his arms, looking disgusted. “Abandoned vehicles! Take a little anti-tank fire and suddenly the world’s ending.”
Schicksal nodded wearily. Her eyes were starting to shut periodically. She felt the food and drink sitting like stones in her stomach. It made her heavy to herself, bloated and tired. She fidgeted with things, photographs, the markers, her own hair, for something to do to keep active and awake. She was surprised that she even remembered all the information that she had collected over the radio — and that she hadn’t fallen asleep back then. Before speaking she had to spend some time collecting her words, going over what to say.
“To complicate matters, our breakthroughs are not definitive. All of the parts of the Ayvartan line we have not broken through specifically are still shooting. It’s difficult for me to illustrate, but if I had to draw our penetration of the Ayvartan lines I would probably be drawing something like a radio frequency, more than a coherent front line. Some men are in the first line, some in the second, some in Shebelle. It’s gotten exceedingly messy.”
“Are any Ayvartan divisions breaking off from the city assault?” Dreschner asked.
Schicksal shook her head, more to clear it than to gesture. “Not that we’ve seen.”
Dreschner smiled and clapped his hands together once, threading his fingers together.
“Good! Then the infantry is doing its job. They have eight other Regiments to throw at the city, losing one isn’t a setback right now. Is Reiniger almost ready to break off?”
“Noel is requesting his presence in Benghu, but he has met unexpected defensive belts in seemingly random places between Shebelle and Benghu, and is being held up.”
“Impress upon him the need for haste.” Dreschner said. “He needs to break off from Shebelle and press the attack on Benghu before night, or we’ll lose initiative.”
“I will let him know sir.” Schicksal said. She was sure he knew well enough already.
“Now that Shebelle is engaged, the Ayvartans will hunker down in there to contain potential breakthroughs. They do not have the capability to handle multiple thrusts and form mobile defenses.” Dreschner said. He sounded almost triumphant now.
Schicksal would have told him not to speculate that much on any “capabilities” the Ayvartans might or might not have, but she was too tired to argue. She nodded.
“How are Noel and Spoor? Have they broken through to the train station yet?”
Dreschner seemed to jump from one thought to another very quickly. His mind must have been racing, performing whatever arcane mathematics Generals did in their heads.
Schicksal sighed audibly and rubbed her head again. “That part is complicated.”
Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School
“Can’t talk, gotta run!” was Noel’s reply when Schicksal first contacted him.
Events unfolding around him demanded his full attention.
Everything happened too quickly and everyone was in disarray.
In the meadow foregrounding Chanda General School a grievous confusion unfolded. A series of explosions along the stairways into the school had practically destroyed a whole platoon. Both stairways leading into the school had been blown to steep rubble, and the vehicles crossing them were turned to burning scrap and hurled swiftly downhill.
On the muddy slopes alongside the shattered steps dozens of men had been swept away, deafened and bodily thrown and dazed by the violence of the explosions nearby.
They had little time to recover; shelling commenced soon after the detonations.
Mid-range caliber shells crashed haphzardly over the meadow, the blasts raising columns of mud, dirt, water and grass. Every shell was high explosive fragmentation. Through each blast metal fragments cast hungrily out from the impact site, seeking flesh to bite into. Men within a few meters of each sudden blast were pushed by the force of the explosion, but it was the metal that killed, punching through them like jagged bullets.
Once the shells came flying many the men hurried to the foot of the gentle hill upon which Chanda had been built and hid in the flowers and grass and around the wrecks of the two half-tracks sent to their deaths. Though the fear of hidden explosives was all too real Chanda’s hill was the only cover they had. Behind each scattered squadron, in the muddy, waterlogged craters left all along the open meadow by the howitzer shells, there lay the corpses of men who had waited too long to move. Destroyed within the minute!
There were a dozen shots through that long minute and their accuracy was evident in the corpses floating within the wounds carved into the grass and the flower beds.
Immediately orders to hide were given. Spoor’s car and the rest of the soft vehicles turned around and headed sharply back to the slopes that bordered the entrance of the meadow, hugging them for cover. This put the vehicles at about five hundred meters distance from the nearest crater, and more importantly, out of the school’s direct sight.
Noel ordered all of the tanks to spread out along the meadow as best as they could.
Everybody got out of harm’s way with all of their might, but the shells continued to fall regardless, striking around any target that was even partially visible from around the school. Plumes of smoke burst up around running tanks and fleeing staff vehicles.
As soon as Ivan got going Noel rose out of the commander’s cupola with a pair of binoculars, his hair and back quickly drenched in the rain. He raised the binoculars to his eyes and took in the character of the attack. It was starting to become clear to him.
He watched low velocity shells come soaring over the squat school buildings, flying in from the right side, from seemingly between the visible buildings, from over the taller, main building at the rear of the school. He could not see the terrain, it was obscured by the buildings, but he knew there were hills behind the school buildings that were a meter or two higher elevated than the rest, and covered by thin columns of woodland.
There were low-velocity howitzers back there lobbing shells into the meadow.
“Dolph! Bartosz! Round the hills along the right side of the school! They must have a self-propelled gun of some kind behind the trees there, judging by the shell trajectories! And the vehicles are fast, judging by how easily they reposition. Be very careful!”
His underlings turned from their evasive trajectories and hurtled towards the slopes.
Noel dropped back inside the tank and rushed to his instruments. He looked down his periscope and sights. Ivan continued moving around the meadow, zig-zagging and looping around the open field to present a more difficult target for low velocity attacks. Noel ignored the shells falling for now. Instead he focused on the only building that he could see from the meadow — and the only building in turn that could see him.
“Ivan, please power on the Mark Sixteen Spotting Torch!” Noel said.
“Yes, Captain!” Ivan replied. “Let me just reach over here and–”
There was no immediate effect, but Noel knew that the experimental high-powered spotlight set into his gun mantlet was now on. Ivan controlled the power to it from his switchbox at the driver’s compartment. A silly arrangement that Noel didn’t understand, but no matter. His spotlight now invisibly active, Noel began to work his turret pedals, rotating the turret and adjusting the gun elevation, and in turn, the elevation of his spotlight. He knew the beam was hitting the windows of the auxiliary school building.
Most of the windows were shut but there were several open a crack. Standing atop the little hill and facing the meadow it was a commanding position, at least six meters tall with two floors and maybe fifty meters or so in length. Behind it the main school building was bigger, with taller floors and a wider and broader footprint. Enemy artillery could not see over, through or around these buildings. Noel scanned each open window patiently.
Looking through his periscope he suddenly spotted a brief glint in one of the windows.
Noel scowled at it. He loaded a high-explosive shell into his gun breach, rotated his turret continuously with his pedals to adjust his aim to Ivan’s movements, and locked his elevation on the wheel. He saw the glint again and hit his gun trigger. His 37mm fragmentation shell soared over the meadow and smashed into the offending window.
Inside there was a brief flash and a lot of smoke. Noel had gotten the artillery spotter.
It was not the sort of action he particularly enjoyed taking but it had to be done.
Now that their eyes on the combat site had gone, the enemy’s artillery fire on the meadow grew haphazard and sporadic, and it finally abated entirely a minute later.
“Spoor, it’s safe to come back.” Noel said. He then changed the channel. “Hi, Siren!”
Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School
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.”
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.
Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Meadows
At the edge of the wood Naya had lain in wait, having spotted the column from afar. Methodically she engaged them, never revealing her position. One shell after another she hurled across the meadow, each shredding the thin armor of the Nochtish light tanks in her path. Retaliatory fire swept past her to no effect. She was entrenched too well into the wall of vegetation, the vines and the roots and the bushes of Dbagbo, to be shot accurately.
In quick succession she scored several kills. This was nothing like firing an anti-tank gun. With every hundred meters the tanks covered she left two wrecks behind. She felt so much in control of the situation. Looking down her sight she identified each enemy vehicle, gauged the distance by herself, seized a 76mm shell and readied to load it into the breech for the killing blow. Within moments there would be a breach in the enemy armor and a smoking wreck. This was no pokey 45mm crew-served gun. It was exhilarating.
Despite the shaking and the smoke she almost didn’t feel like she was inside a turret. Surrounded by armor she felt subsumed into the machine’s skin. Her optics were eyes, her gun a limb manipulating the world around her. She was an organ, a central nervous system, her arms the sinews that pumped blood through the gun to cast fire at her foes.
It felt like running; the good kind of running, where she lost herself in the field.
She lost herself in the mechanical action and she felt power coursing through her.
“Visual on one more enemy tank, Commander.” Farwah said. With the tank stationary he acted as an extra set of eyes, staring out through the vision slit on the front glacis.
Naya turned to take a shell from her ammo rack, readying to shoot again.
She smacked away the old brass, unlocked the breech and set the shell near–
“Commander Oueddai, the enemy is turning tail.” Farwah said, interrupting her.
Naya put the shell back down and looked down her gunnery sight. She then pulled back and used her periscope. It was true through both optics. That last tank in the formation was scurrying away from them, past the burning wrecks of its allies. Running at full speed the tank doubled back in the direction of Chanda, zig-zagging over the meadow.
“Farwah, give chase!” Naya ordered. She deposited the shell back into its rack.
“Acknowledged.” Farwah dispassionately replied.
At once the Raktapata’s engine groaned as Farwah put power to the tracks, pulling the tank out of the jungle and down the meadows. Once out of the thick wood they started to pick up some speed and made it a proper chase — though a medium tank, they quickly breached 40 km/h even in the mud. She was surprisingly stable on the gunnery seat.
Though the M5 light tank had a kilometer-long head start on it, the Raktapata became well engaged in the chase and started gaining on its prey. Naya grinned, feeling a sense of catharsis for finally putting some of these gray helmets on the defensive.
Naya took with both hands the 76mm shell she had laid down and finally loaded it into her gun. She looked down her sight, hoping to see her prey dead center and awaiting death — and she found her reticule swinging a few ticks in every direction. Her target was moving as evasively as it was possible for a tank, swinging side to side. Her sense of her own tank’s movement was uncomfortably acute. Whenever she worked the traverse gear lever to move the turret, the terrain practically danced in front of her eyes.
“Farwah, can we go any faster?” Naya asked, loading a new shell.
“In this terrain this is our top speed. It’s our best ‘muddy flatland’ speed; were the terrain both complicated and also muddy we would be going nowhere at about 20 km/h.”
“Then can we go any steadier?” Naya said, fighting to adjust her sights.
Farwah had a much simpler answer for that, in his casual, unaffected tone of voice.
Naya grunted and pulled the trigger lever to discharge her gun. An APHE shell flew well past the enemy tank, hit dirt within a patch of flowers and detonated harmlessly. Ahead of her the M5 continued to move as haphazardly as it could to throw her off.
She batted away the brass casing from the breech bumper, reached for a new shell from her ready rack and loaded it. Looking down her sight she attempted to aim, but it was futile. Her single speed traverse gear routinely whipped the reticle too far to either side of the enemy tank. Half the time she had only a view of the surrounding vegetation, rolling steadily past. Gritting her teeth she pulled the firing lever again; her second shot fell beside the tank, raising a fountain of dirt; and a third shortly after soared past its turret and smashed a rock. Her enemy continued to slip out of her sight picture with infuriating success.
However it was still a tank, not a car, not a motorcycle; it had certain limitations.
Each zig-zagging feat of maneuver cost it some distance against the Raktapata. Unlike the M5, the Raktapata needed only to charge straight ahead. Evading held the M5 back fractions of seconds each time that its pursuer was making good on. With only seconds or minutes into the chase this was impossible to see, but soon it would become evident.
Naya would never catch up. At the closest she would be several hundred meters back.
But that was enough. She just needed to be close enough to get a good shot.
“My ready rack’s empty; I’m drawing from the reserve stowage now.” Naya said.
She bent down from her seat to reach for a shell when she heard Farwah reply.
“Commander, I advice to down periscope and brace yourself, right now.”
It was hard to tell whether he was making a suggestion or raising alarm. His voice gave no clues. Naya trusted him, however, and she acted with little hesitation; she shot back up to her seat and pulled on a wheel above her to lower the periscope lens into its armor cover.
She was just in time. Outside a gun cried and within moments the turret shook.
Naya hit her arm on the ready rack and nearly fell into the reserve basket.
“What was that?” She shouted. There was suddenly more shaking.
“Shots! The M5 turned its turret around to fire at us.” Farwah said.
A third impact rattled Naya, but she was expecting it; bracing herself, she seated upright and looked through her gunnery sight. Ahead, the M5 tank had indeed turned its gun to face her. It still zig-zagged, but between movements it spent a second firing. She saw the puff of smoke from its gun and less than a second later nearly banged her face on her gun sight. A fourth AP shell crashed into the Raktapata to no permanent effect but annoying her.
“Chief Ravan, if you are listening, please install a safey belt!” Naya said.
“Should I attempt to evade?” Farwah asked.
“No. Keep moving forward. Trust me! I’ve got it this time!”
“Those shots won’t penetrate at this distance but they can still harm you.”
“I’ll be careful!”
Naya braced herself on the breech bumper, pulling away from her gun sight. She swallowed and held her breath; moments later another direct hit to the gun mantlet shook her up but substantially less than before. She quickly swung over the side of her seat, pulled up a round from the reserve basket and loaded it into the gun. Before the M5 had a chance to shoot again she was back on her seat, bracing for impact on the breech bumper again.
She barely felt the next shot; after the rattling subsided she went to her gun sight.
Through the lens she found the M5 again, sliding about, its turret turned around so that its gun and the strongest armor on its profile, the mantlet, both faced directly toward her.
She reached one arm around the sliding block of the Raktapata’s gun, and used the other to hold on to her seat as she watched the enemy tank opening fire on her again.
Once more the turret shook, but she had them, she had them this time!
“Keep it steady, Farwah.” She said, pursuing the enemy tank with her eyes.
To fire at her accurately it had to pause, even for a little bit. She did not move her turret to aim this time. Instead she followed its movements, waiting for it to align with her–
For an instant the tank moved into the edge of her reticle. She had it this time.
At the critical second she pulled the firing lever and put a round into the air.
Downrange the M5 stalled with a hole in its engine block. Flames quickly built over the rear of its hull, dancing under the gun barrel. Ammunition cooked off; there was a noise like a firecracker amplified several orders of magnitude. Like the lid off a crushed can the top of the M5’s turret burst open, and fire and choking black smoke escaped.
“You got it.” Farwah said. “I’m going to stop for a moment Naya, my engine heat gauge is a little troubling. I’ll pour some extra coolant fluid. You can replenish your ready rack.”
Naya gave no triumphant response. She groaned something indistinct into the radio.
Doubled over on her seat, she felt a horrifying pain spreading across her back. She held her stomach feebly and felt like she would vomit. Her forehead rested on the gun’s sight eyepiece. Her teeth cringed and her mind was under a sudden and intense pressure.
She felt as though someone had taken her spine and stomped on the vertebrae.
Someone had — she had hit her back on the seat plenty of times during the drive and the ensuing battle. Her arm, that had gripped the breech bumper so valiantly to keep her steady, felt like a noodle, like a dough that had been stretched infinitely long from its socket. All of that dull aching over the past few days became intense pressure pains. Every little pang in her body seemed to have become a nail driving through her flesh.
Gasping for breath, she fell over the side of her seat and hit the floor of the tank.
She felt the impact sharply, though her body had fallen flat. Pain flared up all over.
Surrounded by a dozen shell casings, one still hot, she went fetal, weeping openly, coughing, gasping, her arms around her stomach, her legs twitching in and out.
Farwah rushed to her side, batted away the shell casings, and turned her around, laying her on her back. He checked her breathing. “Naya, can you speak? Are you responsive?”
She barely could. Her pain was obliterating, she felt as though she had to devote her brain power to keeping alive. She had to breathe in a way she did not have to breathe before; she felt as if she had to will her heart to pump, her blood to rush, air to circulate.
Farwah raised his head from her, looking around the interior of the tank.
“We’ve got nothing here.” He said aloud. Naya saw his head moving around, like a jerky blur. He was moving so quickly. He didn’t sound affected, but he was. He was scared.
She tried to speak, but nothing but a groan escaped her.
“Naya this can’t– I am going to abort, Naya. You are hurt, you cannot keep–”
Naya reached out a hand. She could see it above her, one of the supporting rods for the gunner’s station. She stretched out her hand, and was quite short of it. Her right elbow; she pushed it onto the ground. Gritting her teeth, nose and eyes and mouth running, she forced herself seated, and grabbed hold of the rod. Farwah sat speechless beside.
She pulled herself up to a stand on shaking knees, breathing heavily.
“We’re going. Pour your coolant.” She moaned.
Farwah stared at her. He looked askance at the floor of the tank.
“Do you trust me?” She said. Her breathing barely allowed it.
Farwah nodded his head immediately, avoiding eye contact with her.
Naya worked with all of her might to put up a smile. She had gone too far for this. She couldn’t let the pain rule her, stop her. It was a fact of her life and she had to bear it. To beat it. To do everything she could despite it. She wouldn’t run from this. Not now.
“See this through to the end.” She pleaded. To Farwah; and to her own body.
Captain Rajagopal’s voice interrupted over the radio.
“Comm lines are growing strained I’m afraid. We got a lot of static and a few odd statements from the two of you. Please report on your status, Raktapata.”
Naya started to answer, but Farwah replied first in his usual deadpan way.
“Naya fell and acted dramatic for a moment. A seat belt may be warranted.” He said.
Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School
Automatic fire raged across the school, the Norglers and Rashas competing to drown out the pattering of the rain and the roaring thunder. Green tracers from the Nochtish machine guns swung across the courtyard like rays from a science-fiction book, lighting up the gloom; invisible bursts of gunfire from Ayvarta submachine guns swung back the other way, cutting trails across the concrete paths, keeping men behind corner walls and taking to the floor any men who charged into the crossfire between the buildings.
At the foot of the hill, Noel’s M5A2 Strike Ranger charged up the slope, and quickly dug itself into mud. His hull was barely half on the slope, before the ends of his tracks collapsed into the soft terrain and kicked up a shower of mud. Noel left his cupola and demanded he be extricated from the mess immediately. A dozen Panzergrenadiers pushed on the track guards; after several minutes Ivan finally reversed out of the hill.
From his open hatch, Noel shook his head vigorously at Colonel Spoor, and signed with his hands across his own throat, implying this climb would be the death of him.
Colonel Spoor shook his head from inside his staff car and rubbed his temples.
Noel looked miserably down into his hatch. Water was collecting on the tank’s floor.
“Ivan, back us out into the meadow. We’ll try something the slope to the field.”
Colonel Spoor interrupted. “No. Stay here. We can spare another tank there.”
“How bad are your losses so far, Colonel?” Noel replied. He raised his binoculars to look out at the field, where smoke and fire from what seemed to be a high caliber gun flashed intermittently along with the green tracers of a Norgler, and the flashes of karabiners. He panned around his own sector near the school proper, and spotted the Panzergrenadiers ripping metal armor from the Sd.Kfz vehicle wreck to use as shields.
“We have about eighty combat personnel left.” Spoor said. He was surprisingly calm.
Noel turned his binoculars on the commander in his car, smiling and waving from his cupola in a bit of out-of-place humor. He had zoomed in on the Colonel in time to see him turn his head over his shoulder, staring at something through his other window. The Captain curiously followed his Colonel’s line of sight and saw a pair of light cars like Spoor’s own, moving in from around the bend at the entrance to the meadow.
Towed behind the cars were two mortars in their wheeled travelling gear.
“There are always reserves, Captain Skoniec.” Spoor said.
When Noel zoomed back in on his car, Spoor waved at him and left the back seat. He walked out to the arriving mortars and urged their crew to take up positions quickly.
“Well, that’s one way to do it.” Noel said. He dove back inside of his turret.
The M5A2 backed away from the hill. At his gunner’s seat, Noel traded one pair of lenses for another, dropping his binoculars in the equipment box on the wall and looking through his periscope instead. He turned the turret around as Ivan reversed them into the meadow, and watched as the first rounds from the Granatwerfers went off under Spoor’s direction.
He reached for the radio box and switched to the Jadgzug’s dedicated frequency.
“Dolph, Bartosz, we’ve got artillery up, please tell me the Ayvartans won’t be able to counter-battery.” Noel shouted. He was keeping an eye out for spotters as much as he could on the meadow, but those Howitzers could decide again to be trouble any moment.
“We’ve taken care of it Captain. Should we help shell the school?” Dolph asked.
“Nah, there’s not much we can do with our pokey 37-mils. Come back.”
Noel switched channels again, and almost immediately he received a new order.
“Captain Skoniec, Sergeant Bialik is requesting a wall breach.” Colonel Spoor said.
He rolled his eyes and sighed loudly into the radio. “Position?”
Colonel Spoor ignored his theatrics and nonchalantly laid out the terms.
“On the meadow-facing wall of that building. Hit one of the center walls.”
“You know I don’t pack a lot of HE? I’m a tank hunter. I have maybe ten shells.”
“Ten is more than enough, Captain Skoniec.”
Colonel Spoor cut out.
Noel sighed, this time to himself; he picked up one of his HE rounds from the ready rack and kept it on hand as he scanned around the meadow with his periscope, and then through his gunnery sight. A 37mm HE shell was light enough that he could have held one in each hand and used them as work-out dumbbells, if he worked out at all.
Along the wall of the school’s Auxiliary building Noel found the Sergeant, Bialik, a tall, thin man waving his hands over his head. He pointed at a wall, near the center of the building’s ground story, made the hold fire hand sign, and backed away from the impact area. He and four other men lay on their bellies from safety and awaited the shot.
“I’d love to see that pouty expression of yours right now.” Ivan said.
Noel was indeed pouting. Ivan knew his idiosyncrasies better than anyone.
“This is a waste of rounds.” Noel replied. He hated demolition jobs.
Aiming for the wall as ordered, he dropped the 37mm HE round into the feed slide, pushed it into the gun, locked the breech and then his electric trigger. He punched a hole into the structure just under the windowsill. Pieces of tin and chunks of cement went flying.
Before the smoke cleared, Noel seized a canister shell from his reserve storage, loaded it, raised the elevation just a tick and shot that round into the wall as well.
Striking the upper half of the first story wall, the canister burst into hundreds of steel balls propelled by a small explosive blast. These fragments smashed their way through the remains of the window and wall, punching through the thin concrete and the leftover tin and leaving a jagged but comfortable hole through which the men could easily enter.
Sergeant Bialik and his men stood, waved their thanks at the M5A2 and charged in.
Noel waved back half-heartedly inside his turret, as if the Panzergrenadiers outside could see him. Another fire mission cared for, but no points scored for the Captain.
On Chanda’s field the Gnoll had been almost backed into the trees around the supply depot. Dozens of holes littered the green turf, and sporadic mortar fire continued to pound the area. Elena peered from between the track and its metal guard, using the thin aperture like a vision slit; she saw dirt burst into the air and water immediately collect in the holes, and smoke pillars rolling across the field, creeping closer and closer.
She clung to the tank and covered her head as a round exploded close beside them.
Mud flung into the air and rained over them, and she heard metal scraping as the tank tried to move a few steps back. Something snapped; Elena heard a whipping noise.
“Light defend us, that’s my track gone!” Corporal Mattar shouted.
“Hold your ground, we have to warn everyone in the depot. We’ll be right back.”
Bonde took Elena’s hand and pulled her away from the tank and toward the depot.
They crept along the side, and around the back. Bonde pounded on the door.
Slowly a teacher opened the depot door. She looked at them with tears in her eyes. Their faces, and Elena’s hair, were dripping wet and filthy, and their hands bloody.
Inside, the children were all huddled in a little nest of sandbags.
“It’s not safe, you have to run.” Bonde said. “Go into the woods. Try to make it–”
Elena found it strange that their words were uninterrupted by mortar rounds.
There was a lull in the attack.
“Get back here right now!” Corporal Mattar said on the radio.
The Civilians and children stared incredulously around the empty depot.
Elena then heard the Danava machine guns on the Gnoll going off, and the boom of the 75mm howitzer. She and BOnde turned and ran back around the side of the depot and took up positions beside the snapped track on the right side of the tank. Considerable damage had been done to it — fragmentation from the mortar rounds had broken one of the road wheels, and cut apart several links, separating the track over the bogeys.
Elena stood, raised her submachine gun and opened fire over the top of the tank as a dozen Panzergrenadiers hurtled down the field from the bleachers. In their hands were pistols, and as they charged they opened fire with them, delivering a far greater bulk of shots than their rifles were capable of. Elena was forced to hide as the volleys of gunfire pounded the face of the tank. Corporal Mattar responded with her machine guns.
From across the field and low to the ground a muzzle flashed, brighter than before.
A larger green tracer cut the distance to the tank in an instant.
It impacted the front of the tank with a solid thunk.
Corporal Mattar shouted into the radio.
“Anti-tank rifle! It pierced the front of my turret!”
“Are you hurt?” Bonde asked.
“Just grazed! But I don’t know how many times he’ll miss!”
Elena peered over the tank.
She saw it, from the edge of the hill, from the ground.
A second, bright-green anti-tank tracer flew from the edge of the slope.
“One more through my mantlet! It’s taken out my gun sight!”
Elena gulped. She looked out over the field.
“Cover me.” She said.
Bonde blinked. He sounded almost outraged. “Cover you?”
Without warning Elena dashed out into the middle of the field, dropping her submachine gun on the ground. She ran with all of her might. Gunfire from the Danava flew through and past the men charging them, and in turn their pistol fire flew all around her. In the midst of the rain she thought she could see it. It was like running through hail, she thought she could see the pistol rounds thread through the rain, cut through the air.
She felt a slash across her back, a bump along the back of her shoulderblade.
A solid lead fist right into her deltoid. She nearly slipped on the mud.
She screamed, grit her teeth and kept running. She held one arm with the other.
Elena made desperately for the corpses of the Panzergrenadiers.
Those karabiner rifles on them could hit the hill. Her submachine gun couldn’t.
Behind her the desperate clunking noises of the Danava and of Bonde’s Rasha joined the snapping of the Nochtish pistols, the booming of mortar shells hitting the school courtyard, the crash of thunder, the cracking of rain as hit the puddles and mud.
A pistol round swept in front of her face.
Elena ducked, rolled, threw herself forward. She fell onto the nearest corpse.
She took his rifle, set it on his chest and turned it away from his corpse.
Again there was only a ring of iron, with a single, tiny metal triangle in the center.
From the edge of the hill another green lance flew toward the Gnoll.
Elena aligned the sights and pressed the hard trigger.
Pistol rounds swept over her; her shot flew past the Panzergrenadiers.
Over a hundred meters away a helmet flew up from the head of an anti-tank sniper.
There were no more green AP tracers after that.
She was dead for sure now.
She collapsed over the corpse, his rifle still in her hand.
She felt the pain shoot through her arm, the blood trickling out.
Her head came to rest on the Panzergrenadier’s coat.
She felt her body heat acutely; she felt the pumping of blood through her.
There was a deafening boom.
Her breathing sped as she felt a wave of heat rolling over her.
Turning her head, she witnessed the bright, fleeting burst of fire and smoke as a 75mm Howitzer round from the Gnoll exploded in the midst of the Panzergrenadiers.
At once six or seven men dropped to the ground, writhing in pain.
“Elena, are you alright?” Bonde shouted through the radio.
There was no other sound but his voice, the sifting dust from the blast, and the rain.
Elena pressed on her throat microphone. “I’m a proper mess.”
“Ancestors defend! Never do that again!” Bonde shouted.
Elena laughed into the radio. In the haze she could barely understand what she did or even what had prompted her to do so. She could barely believed she was halfway across the field from the tank, that she was in the open and on the ground and alive.
“Just so you know, with my sights shattered I will not be able to replicate that miracle I just pulled off. Thank the light I managed it, but don’t rely on it again.” Mattar said.
“Elena, can you get up? If they organize again, I can’t–”
She was close enough to the ground to feel the rumbling along the water.
“Oh no.” Bonde said. “Elena, stand up! Come back now!”
First thing they saw come over the hill was the gun.
It took the machine some doing, but the M5 Ranger was soon level atop the hill.
Even from afar Elena could see its gun adjusting, like the trunk on a curious elephant.
“I won’t be able to hit it! I’m abandoning the tank!” Corporal Mattar said.
“Get Darshan out too! Get him out first, he’s a civilian!” Bonde said.
Implacable, like a god of gray iron, the M5 tank began to move on them.
Elena threw her rifle on the ground, and seized the pouch off the Panzergrenadier.
Inside she found a strange object with canvas fins and a round head.
She had no idea what it could possibly be but she knew it was useless.
Once it cleared the bleachers, the M5 Ranger paused. Its turret and gun turned.
Perhaps offended by her little feat of graverobbing, the tank aimed at her instead of the crippled Gnoll. Anything it turned its gun to, the tank was certain to hit at this distance.
It was useless. She couldn’t stop it. All her gargantuan effort was for nothing.
Elena saw the bright flash from the 37mm gun. Her last sight on the earth.
A tongue of flame blew out from the M5’s gun, flame and gas as if through a straw.
It would have been instant; but it wasn’t. There was no shell flying at her.
All of that fire was dispersing from inside the turret. The M5 had not fired its gun at all.
Seconds later the top hatch blew skyward.
Then the entire turret exploded right off the hull of the tank and went flying.
Everyone in the field and around the supply depot was speechless.
An unfamiliar voice called over the radio, breaking the silence.
“Hello? Is this the right frequency? I’m Private Naya Oueddai. Sorry I’m late!”
Corporal Baudin cheerfully called, “Captain, taking the shot–”
And much less cheerfully his voice cut out entirely.
“Yes? Kill confirmed? Hello~?”
Noel patted the side of his headphones, wondering why the Corporal stopped talking.
“Ivan, turn us around, quickly.”
He turned the M5A2’s turret toward the slope to the field and looked around.
One did not have to look far to see the carnage.
There was a spreading fire between the bleachers; perhaps fuel or ammo, cooking.
Much more distressingly, there was a tank turret rolling down the hill.
“Heads up! Eyes down the meadow! Spoor, we’ve got something–”
A round flew from over a thousand meters away.
Behind Noel a truck went up in flames. He heard pieces of it fall over his turret.
“Ten o’ clock, Noel!” Spoor shouted into the radio.
“Ivan, start moving back!” Noel ordered.
Ivan pulled the M5A2 back; Noel stuck to his periscope.
He saw the enemy down the meadow. One tank, painted green. Vaguely hexagonal turret centered on the hull, a streamlined body, wide-spaced tracks, and a big gun.
Noel switched between his gun sight and periscope as if it would look different.
His face twisted into an anxious, twitching little grin.
“Spoor, that is definitely not a Goblin.” He said into the radio.
Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice: The Benghu Tank War IV (2/28/15)