The One Who Will Die (35.2)

This scene contains violence and death. 


Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Lower Yard

“Do you see anything?”

“I’m not looking through the rear viewport, Lila.”

Lila turned her head briefly. “Oh, I see there’s shells in the way.”

She pointed behind Karima. It was indeed crowded in the turret basket.

“That’s not even it, I’m just not looking. There’s nobody behind us.” Karima replied.

Lila shrugged and returned to the vision equipment.

Owing to its enormous turret, the 152mm Mandeha Self-Propelled Gun had the dubious honor of being one of the few vehicles that the tall Private Karima Faizan could fit well inside. Even then she felt her hair brushing up against the upper turret hatch. She had an oppressive urge to duck just a little whenever she stood at attention in the turret. On the partial floor projecting from the turret ring guards she could stand somewhat straight, and through the gap she could see Isa, seated at the control sticks below.

“Do it for me, ok?” Lila said.

“Fine, fine, I’ll look, but it’s not for you, it’s so you shut up.”

She rose as much as she could, pushed the ammunition stacks out of the way and leaned into the rear viewport with a sigh. Through the hole, which was meant for a machine gun that had never been installed, she couldn’t see a thing except the train in the far distance.

Karima could scarcely hear the shots being fired outside the extra thick armor, especially over the grinding protests of the Mandeha’s over-stressed engine.

“There’s nothing but the train.” Karima said.

“That’s good, then nothing’s gotten past us.” Lila said. She tugged on her shirt collar, bringing the microphone pinned there to her lips. “How’s the evacuation going Isa?”

Over the intercomm, their driver replied, “Last ETA I got was still thirty minutes.”

Though he was directly below them, nobody could hear anybody outside the radio thanks to the ungodly noise being made by the tank. Everything rattled and ground.

Thirty minutes; how long ago had they last said thirty minutes?

“Great.” Karima said, crossing her arms and sighing loudly. “I hope the Chief at least manages to evacuate all of her trinkets safely. We’ll just wait our turn out here.”

“Shush, you! No cynicism.” Lila scolded in her chirpy voice.

Though the interior turret was large enough for multiple people to occupy when empty, when the ammunition was loaded, it became cramped again. Each shell came in two pieces, one a propellant charge and the other a warhead. There were no baskets installed, so they ran around with these charges sitting on every surface. No chairs had been installed either, but in their previous excursion, Karima had found a good place to sit in the lip of the rear turret basket, where it connected to the turret’s cylindrical neck. So there she sat.

As they guarded the tracks, Karima was surrounded on all sides by the flat-tipped explosive charges and the cylindrical propellant pieces. Together, the pieces made a shell over 60 cm long and 15 cm wide, weighing 40 kg. Every piece was labeled for charge strength from one to three, but all the charges she had available at the moment were Tier 3 low velocity propellant and Tier 3 and 4 HE warheads. Tier 4 was only a handful of powder above a training cartridge; Tier 3 was barely enough to put one-meter holes into things.

In front of her, Private Lila Bennewitz bounced around between the vision slits on the turret sides, and the rotating periscope in front. Most of the interior turret face was dominated by the massive breech of the 152mm gun, adapted directly from a heavy howitzer, and the hydraulic traverse mechanisms of the turret, controlled by a wheel. Nobody seemed able to turn turret or lift the shells except Karima. Hence why she received this assignment.

On any other occasion she would’ve been frustrated, but she had to admit riding around alone in a big turret with Lila was not such a bad deal as far as combat posts could go.

“Sorry.” Karima said.

“For what?” Lila asked.

“Being me, I guess.”

Lila chuckled. “Don’t be.”

“Me?”

“No! Don’t be sorry!”

“That’s gonna take some work.”

Lila breathed out.

Their blocking position on the eastern, “back” end of the rail yard, straddling the track, gave them a lot less insight into the battle than Karima would have thought. They had buildings obstructing all of their view to the meadow on the right, the factory areas left, and creating a tunnel of vision to the grasslands dead ahead over which the track continued east. It was the best they could do: the Mandeha couldn’t climb the ramps to get off the southern side of the rail yard and into the raised ground of the factory areas on their left.

At least, not without destroying the ramps and potentially breaking the suspension.

Standing near the tracks with their gun pointed down the length was all they could do.

“Karima, could you peek out of the hatch and listen for the enemy?” Lila asked.

“Over the sound of this monster groaning?”

“You’ll hear everything better once you’re outside.”

Shrugging, Karima pushed herself up to as much of a stand as she could manage in the turret. She stretched her hand, pushed up the hatch, and took three steps out. She kept her head low to the metal. Set atop the chassis of an early production version of the experimental Ogre heavy tank, the Mandeha was over four meters tall. Karima was still not high enough to see around the buildings, but she could hear the sounds of battle.

Cannons crying out in the distance, one after the other.

Shells crashing through walls, exploding; debris hitting ground, structures collapsing.

She listened to each rumbling noise, to each distant point of collapse.

It evoked little feeling in her. Guns weren’t what she was afraid of.

Karima panned her head around the static landscape, the train tracks, the brick fence sealing the factories off from the rail yard, the warehouse buildings. Despite the shelling going on in the distance it was eerily quiet, lonely. It gave her a little bump in the chest, thinking about how desolate this place was, how she could step out of this tank and just be shut off from all the humanity she could palpably interact with in a matter of minutes.

She shook her head. No good to go down that route.

Having had her fill of the outside she took a step down the ladder.

Smoke and dust blew skyward as a shell smashed a building much closer to them.

Startled, Karima slipped on a foothold.

She fell into the turret, the hatch closing and hitting her on the head on the way down.

Crashing atop Lila, the two of them ended up breast to breast on the floor.

“Ow!” they cried at once.

They locked eyes briefly, both wincing with pain, breathing ragged.

Karima averted her gaze quickly and scrambled back up the steps.

“What happened? Hey!”

Lila shouted after her, but Karima was already out of the turret.

She pulled a pair of binoculars and watched through an alley as the Raktapata tread cautiously about, trading positions with an enemy tank. Judging by their movements they were circling, trying to catch each other in the flank. She heard guns going off; when the tanks moved just so she could see the shots through the alley. It was tense.

She shouted down into the turret, “Naya needs help! Turn this thing around!”

“Isa! Turn 90 degrees!” Lila ordered.

“Roger!”

At once the Mandeha’s engine blew thin streams of black smoke, and its tracks crunched along the ground. Karima closed the hatch and returned to the gun, looking through the fixed gunnery sight as the tank turned itself to face the alleys, through none of which it would fit. Though they could traverse the turret, shooting with the turret in anything but the neutral position could ’cause some issues’ according to Chief Ravan.

“Can we do anything from here?” Lila asked.

“We can scare them.” Karima said.

She felt a sense of urgency — Naya was in danger, and Farwah too.

They could get killed.

And when you die you don’t come back.

That’s one less voice she’d never hear again. It spiraled in her brain, causing a near-panic, the idea that someone she had seen, heard, mucked about with, gone.

Forever.

Just a little bit more alone than before.

“I’ll help you with the shell!” Lila said in her bubbly voice.

“It’s fine, keep an eye out!” Karima replied, clearing her head.

She opened the breech on the 152mm gun, threw in one of the warheads and screwed in the propellant canister. All of the pieces were heavy, but she was strong enough for the task, and desperate enough for it. She didn’t want Lila exerting herself with them unless absolutely necessary. Once the shell was in, Karima closed the breech, locked it, and holding the chain in her hands she looked through the gunnery sight again.

The Raktapata started backing away, moving half out of her sight.

A shell sailed through empty space, smashing into Naya’s gun mantlet.

Retreating after the blow, the Raktapata vanished from sight.

“Firing 152mm HE!”

Karima pulled the chain.

Recoil forces shook the entire turret.

A sound like boulder falling onto hard ground issued from the gun.

Through the alleys the shell soared and hit the ground between Naya and her enemy.

Smoke and dust soared several meters high over a hole two meters wide and one deep.

“Isa, move closer to that building on the left!”

Nobody in the Mandeha questioned that they were leaving behind their blocking position. Isa started driving and Lila kept a lookout on the periscopes. This was Naya, and Farwah, their compatriots, their friends; if they were fighting like this it was because the Raktapata couldn’t win like it did before. Otherwise they would not have been retreating.

To hell with the tracks! Karima couldn’t let Naya’s voice go silent in her head.

Even if she didn’t like her all that much; she couldn’t take being left alone again.


Thanks to a well-placed HE shell, the walls before the Dicker Max collapsed, the large assault gun shoved its way through the rubble and into the open area of the machining yard in time to intervene in Noel’s duel with the new Ayvartan tank. As Reiniger thought, the fairy was making no progress against that behemoth — not even a 50mm gun could do it! At least he hadn’t gotten killed. It was time he left the job to a professional.

With a smile on his face, Reiniger lined up what he thought would be a killing shot.

Noel played a fine distraction, but this was to be Reiniger’s moment, his trophy.

Cackling, he pulled the chain and loosed a 10.5 cm APC tracer.

Frustration soon set in again.

Blinded by the smoke and dust blown everywhere by the muzzle brake, Reiniger failed to see where his shot had gone at all. Owing to his slow traverse and the maneuvering of the duelists, his aim was put extremely off. He took out nothing of his enemy, merely punching a hole in a wall several dozen meters across from the two combatants.

“Turn 20 degrees left, now!”

To make matters worse the Dicker Max traversed so slowly that it was impossible to realign before the enemy escaped. Reiniger shouted for Noel to go after it–

Then with a roar of its heavy gun, a new contender entered the fray.

“God damn it! God, fucking, damn it!”

Reiniger shouted at the top of his lungs, flailing his fists around in a fury.

Smoke started to clear around the machining yard; and it was like seeing a giant peer its eyes through a window. There was nothing but green metal to be seen through the hole his shell had made in the wall. The Ayvartans had made a tank that was at least three meters tall and nearly as much wide, and what Reiniger could see of the gun through the debris was massive. Gargantuan even compared to the other new type.

And it was hiding behind a building, its turret seams stuck with rivets.

So its armor must have been trash.

His loader pushed another shell into the breech, and Reiniger shouted into the radio.

“Turn 10 degrees right!”

Owing to its limited traverse, every shot from the Dicker Max was a collaboration between the driver and the gun crew. This was perhaps the most annoying aspect of it.

Thankfully, the giant size of this new enemy tank meant that it was a massive target.

The Dicker Max turned on its tracks and aimed through the hole in the wall.

At once the Ayvartan tank pulled away from the aperture.

Reiniger’s shell launched and he saw nothing of it through his own smoke.

“Pursue! Pursue! Run through this infernal smoke cloud!”

“Where sir?”

“Into the building you moron!”

His M4s would be circling around the rail yard, Noel would be chasing the other tank; this one had to be his kill, otherwise all he accomplished in this attack was biting walls!

The Dicker Max pushed out into the machining yard, past the open space and into the building. Through the hole in the back wall the assault gun pushed up, running over debris and peering through. Reiniger reacquired the Ayvartan tank, backpedaling along the tracks and around the corner of another building. He quickly traversed and fired.

Once more the Dicker Max smashed clean into a wall and took it out. One hole through the corner, and then the detonation, collapsing two brick walls for the price of one. A quarter of the building became a mound of bricks, tin and glass, behind which the Ayvartan tank must have been hiding. He could see no green around the rubble.

“They’ll have to come out if they want to fight back. They’re fucked now.”

The Dicker Max had no traverse and Reiniger knew it would be the same for that gigantic tank. It must have been an Ayvartan assault gun. Only an assault gun could mount a gun like that. In so doing, it gave up its turret completely. Reiniger’s mind was racing, his heart beating fast, but he knew that he had them. They would have to slip out from beside the building and turn their whole tank around to meet his own and fire.

In that span of time the Dicker Max would put a 10.5 cm shell right through them.

They were separated by less than 100 meters of clear space along the track.

Reiniger was sure the Dicker Max would get through its armor. He just had to be patient.

“Correct five degrees left.” Reiniger ordered.

“Roger sir,” his driver replied. The Dicker Max gently shifted.

Reiniger waved his hand in the air. “Can we do something about this smoke?”

Without warning he heard a deep, booming crash as a wall collapsed.

“What was that?” Reiniger asked. “Everyone pull up, take a look around.”

Reiniger looked around over the superstructure and saw nothing the matter. Half-inside the building and half-out, the Dicker Max had a good view of the track, of the open space in front of them, of the buildings on either side. There was nothing to see.

“I don’t see anything sir, but we should turn left, toward the sound.” said his driver.

“Finally a good idea. Turn us 50 degrees left.”

The Dicker Max once again undertook the laborious process of shifting its weight.

Only a few degrees into the turn Reiniger heard a second explosion, closer.

In a flash the green metal hulk appeared at the edge of his vision.

They had not gone around the corner at all.

“Fuckers blew through the wall, shit! Traverse, traverse!”

Reiniger threw his arm back in a panic, pulling his gun chain and loosing a shell.

Smoke, dust, blindness. No idea what he hit.

“God damn it, forward, forward, turn faster–”

There was a flash through the gloom.

Overhead a shell struck the building, disgorging bricks into the Dicker Max.

In an instant much of the building came down with those bricks.


“Isa, back away now!”

That huge assault gun had them in its sights, and with Naya gone there was no more reason to stick around for it to target. The Mandeha backed away from the building it had once thought was safe, its crew quickly learning that nothing was cover when faced with a 10.5 cm gun. Hitting the second reverse gear, Isa took them as fast as the tank could move backward around a building corner straddling the side of the tracks.

Through the aperture created by its own shot the enemy assault gun rumbled out.

A sharp flash and a thick cloud of smoke accompanied its next attack.

As the Mandeha slipped behind the building the heavy shell smashed the wall flat. A pile of debris accumulated where the corner once was, but the Mandeha avoided any harm.

“It’s going to be gunning for us now, we can’t go back out in the open.” Isa said.

“But we have to stop it, we can’t let it turn tail and run for the train.” Karima replied.

Lila stepped toward the right-hand side of the turret. There was a small viewing slit with thick, yellowed glass there that was obstructed by the wall at their side, so she couldn’t actually see anything through it. Still she gazed ponderously through the glass, rubbing her chin and bouncing up and down from one foot to the other. She crossed her arms.

She turned her head over her shoulder toward Karima, beaming brightly to herself.

“I only got a little glimpse of it, but the gun doesn’t look like it can turn, right?” Lila said.

“It doesn’t have a turret, I don’t think. The gun just looks stuck there.” Karima replied.

Lila grinned. “So if we come at it from the side, it won’t be able to target us quickly.”

It dawned upon Karima just what Lila’s plan was, and she was immediately satisfied.

“Isa, back us out, we’re gonna punch a hole in the wall for you.” Karima said.

“Use the weaker heads for that, otherwise the whole building will come down.” Isa said.

Retreating along the side of the building, the Mandeha cleared the back wall, turned sideways enough to give its gun some clearance. Inside the turret, Karima rooted around the charges, found a Tier 4, and made to pick it up. Lila’s hand then laid on it.

Karima looked up. “What is it?”

Looking pensive, Lila stood just beside the charge, rubbing her hands atop the thing.

“I want to help you with it.” Lila said.

“No! It’s not necessary!” Karima said. “I’ll do it. Don’t sully your hands.”

Lila smiled. She raised her hands as though to say, ‘they’re not on it now.’

Karima smiled back.

She loaded the Tier 4 warhead into the breech after pulling out the old brass. She screwed in the low-velocity propellant, sealed the breech, and pulled the chain.

“Firing–”

Though the charge was weaker, the gun’s deafening roar and intimidating recoil were largely unchanged. Karima reflexively moved back a step, as if she feared the howitzer would launch back into her. The 152mm barrel and breech pushed back over the slide and easily buffered back into position. Karima looked through the gunnery sight and found a nice hole in the wall. The Mandeha started moving. Isa took them inside the building.

In the warehouse building, the Mandeha started to turn again, this time toward the side.

Karima loaded another Tier 4 head and a Tier 3 propellant.

She pulled the chain; the Mandeha’s gun smashed through the side wall and revealed the the broad side of the enemy assault gun, standing on a pile of rubble, half inside the building’s shadow, and laboring to turn its massive gun around to face them.

That flank armor was not vulnerable for long, however.

In seconds the gun mantlet was coming into view.

Karima grit her teeth and quickly assembled a new shell.

“I don’t know how much even the Tier 3 will do, it’s not an armor-piercing shell.”

“We’ll aim up!” Lila said. She took a wheel next to the gun and started to turn it.

Clicking noises issued as the gun barrel elevated.

Lila then laid a hand on Karima’s; their fingers locked over the trigger chain.

“Go!” Lila shouted.

Karima nodded and locked the breech.

They pulled the chain together.

Before the enemy could shoot, the Mandeha lobbed a shell over the enemy.

Smashing through brick and wood it entered the building.

A wild detonation vaporized the interior supports.

In an instant it seemed an avalanche of bricks, wood and tin disgorged over the enemy, falling right into the open canopy. Debris topped off the canopy and spilled around the sides of the vehicle, burying it up to its tracks. Collecting into a mound, more and more chunks of the building toppled over the tank in progression, until it appeared as if half the structure had leaned forward to vomit its contents into the assault gun’s crew compartment. Pieces of tin went flying, and one by one every standing surface toppled.

Smoke and dust blew from the gun when the violence settled.

All that remained unburied was one enormous muzzle brake.

It was pointed straight into the Mandeha’s armor on the lower turret front.

A stream of dust blew from it.

Karima could feel her own heart beating much too fast. She was short of breath.

“Did we get it?” Isa asked over the intercomm.

“Kill confirmed, I think.” Lila said, wiping sweat and smoke dust from her face.

“I’ll– I’ll call it in.” Karima said. Her body shook with the residual thrill of the fight.

She pulled back the turret floor hatch, and crouched into the gloomy niche below. At her back, Isa worked the two control sticks, turning the tank around again. On the wall, she found the radio unit, an old model furnished for the prototype tank so it would possess some perfunctory communications functions. She started working the dials.

Nothing but static on everything but the intercomm. Of course.


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