This scene contains violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, Council District
From the steps into the Council building a fresh unit of soldiers charged down the front green, avoiding the six dead men strewn about the lawn and rushing toward the corner of Council Street and its central block. Scouting the area, their weapons up as they ran, they joined a pair of men hiding on the edge of the green, huddled behind a pair of benches.
Though the sky was black, several powerful searchlights shone from the roof and from several windows in the council building, providing targeting capability to the infantry. Every street lamp along Council Street was set again to full power, having been previously dimmed to support the curfew.
Carefully the men behind the benches and bushes on the edge of the Council lawn peered down the street, perhaps expecting gunfire. There was no retaliation against them. They assembled and prepared quietly.
“How many?” asked the squad leader, leaning out toward the road.
One man answered in a panic. “Just one sir! But she’s strong–‘
With a grin the squadron leader cut the man off.
He stood from behind the bench and held out his arm.
“You coward! Just one shooter has forced you back? Move out and–”
From farther down the street a rifle round struck the squadron sergeant’s adam’s apple as he berated his men. His head nearly came off as he fell.
There was immediate panic. Even with a tracer, it should have been nearly impossible for a shooter in the dark to kill this accurately with one shot.
An entire squadron dove and scrambled for cover around the corpse of their officer but found little they could use. In front of the large, square, u-shaped Council Building the green was wide open. There was nothing but small manicured bushes, stray benches made of widely spaced boards and a pair of flagpoles to hide behind on the lawn, and all of these were many meters apart. There were the torches on the street, but in the dark these posts immediately marked the men they covered as obvious targets.
Snipers could have hidden inside the western arm of the Council Building, but then they would not be able to see the fugitive. Even the men at the forefront of the gun battle could hardly see their target, only thirty meters away, save for a flash of movement in dim lamplight after her every kill.
Madiha Nakar had picked her position on the connecting Council Street to shield her from the sight of the Council Building. She was deep enough into the street that the arms of the building could not shine their lights on her, and she was distant enough from a torch post to hide in the gloom.
While her enemies had trouble targeting her, Madiha’s own field of view to the lawn was wide open, and she had reasonable cover from the old, thick steel mail bank box set on the side of the road. It was akin to a wall. Stray bullets bounced off the side and top of the box. Its exterior was made of fairly thick metal, and any bullets that penetrated would be slowed or diverted by the papers and boxes inside the bank. She had her pick of targets whenever she peered beyond the bank. Over the iron sights, she led her shots on the men even as they struggled to escape.
One shot through a mouth; clack went the bolt action; one shot through an eye; clack; one through a nose. Three men dropped to the ground in quick succession. Madiha retreated behind cover and felt the force of several shots transfer through the metal into vibrations against her back.
Taking a deep breath, she produced a new stripper clip from the pilfered ammunition bang slung over her shoulder and fed it into the rifle. Sensing a long delay between rifle shots at her back, she peered around the postal box. Selectively targeting the men in green uniforms she retaliated anew.
Through the space between the boards on the bench backrest she saw one of the panicked men that was shouting before. She shot him in the chest.
Tracers soared through the gloom like flaming arrows. Madiha took note of as many of the flashes and cracks as she saw and heard while shooting and before hiding, divining enemy positions and retaliating accurately.
As the exchange of gunfire continued, she saw less and less of the panicked blue-uniformed civil police in the vicinity. She had hoped they would finally break and flee after a show of force, and she had been thankfully correct. There was only a smattering of green uniforms on the Council Building front green and soon, not a single blue police uniform.
She hid behind the post box anew and worked the bolt. Mentally she prepared herself for the next volley of rifle shots launched her way.
In place of the cracking of Bundu rifles she heard a continuous noise.
Dozens of rounds struck the back of the box, many penetrating into the interior and striking against the metal directly at Madiha’s back. Chips of hot metal flew overhead like the shavings of an electric saw. Bright green tracers raked the street and the road at her sides. A spraying cone of lead showered the surroundings in hot metal, hungry for her flesh. It was an enemy Norgler. She could tell from the noise; she couldn’t risk peering out.
Soon as she heard a lull Madiha fled from cover, ducking stray rifle fire to run into an alley. She put her back to the bricks of a shop wall, and closed her eyes. Hundreds of flashing green fragments blew in toward her from the edge of the alley wall as the automatic tracer fire chipped at the bricks. Stowing her rifle she withdrew her pistol and stuck out her hand, shooting blindly back into the road and toward the green, unable to tell the effect.
Before she could even think to peek again the Norgler fire resumed.
She was trapped in an alleyway. Everything was dark owing to the distance from the street lights. There seemed to be no civilians around, not on the street, in the alley or in these buildings. Nobody there to be hit by the shots but her. It was the only comforting thought she had the entire night.
There was scarcely a pause between volleys. Automatic gunfire perfectly sited the street. Her muscles tensed and she grit her teeth, flinching from bits of brick and lead flying sharply off the corner and stinging her cheeks.
She crept farther into the alley and hid between a garbage can and a set of steps into a side door. Her original intention had been to fight until she thought she had a good chance to flee to safety. She had perhaps stuck around too long; the showers of tracers made her plans impossible.
Under the cover of the Norgler there were likely men moving in against her, combing the gloomy streets. They would find her quickly even in the dark. She would be hard-pressed to deal with a rifle squadron while cornered in an alley. All they had to do was throw grenades into the alley.
She had to take action first; she could not sit here and wait to die.
From her stolen pack she withdrew a flare gun and fired it into the sky.
A canister launched heavensward and exploded with a red flash.
Under the moonless sky the flash was enough to light the entire alley.
It was a signal for help. But it also exposed her location to the enemy.
On the street six men rushed past and stacked on both sides of the alley.
Madiha crouched behind the garbage can with her head almost in her legs.
As she feared she heard a shout. Grenades came flying into the alleyway.
Over the shouting of the men Madiha heard a high-pitched roaring.
As she hoped, the grenades flew right out as a stiff gust blew into the alleyway from above. Three grenades bounced back out into the street along the ground and detonated simultaneously on top of their owners.
Madiha felt the detonations and huddled in place until she heard the last of the spraying fragments settle. When she lifted her head again, she found Kali beside her, having descended from the heavens. Even in the dark her scales seemed to glint with their own dim luminescence.
Her little dragon looked worse for wear.
Bullets had become lodged in its scales in various locations, cracking “plates” of armor but seemingly not drawing blood. Where blood had been drawn was its underbelly and wings, where shards of glass had become embedded, and bruises and blood spots had formed wherever Brass Face had managed to strike in their combat. She was clearly quite wounded.
Kali did not seem disturbed by her wounds. It sat on all fours like a cat, with its head raised, staring blankly at Madiha in the same way as usual.
“Kali, you’re hurt!” Madiha said sadly.
No response from the little dragon. It stared expectantly.
Madiha reached out and petted it on the head as Parinita had taught her.
Kali purred and closed its eyes.
Madiha felt foolish; what she said before was obvious, but she felt strongly compelled to acknowledge it to herself. Kali had been hurt. Her actions and decisions had not just affected herself or the enemy. Her little friend had been badly beaten around. She did not even know how much Kali really understood things. Though it had the aptitude to fight, and some apparent knowledge of how its enemies were fighting her (what shooting was, and how to deflect big projectiles) she felt strange attributing that much agency to it. Madiha still thought of her as a pet that needed care.
And as far as caring for Kali went, Madiha had failed miserably.
She was about to punctuate her failure even further.
From her bag she withdrew a thick bundle of grenades.
“Kali, can you understand me?”
Kali stared at her, craning its head to one side.
Madiha reached out her hand to pet her head again.
She settled her palm over Kali’s head and projected an image.
“Can you see this man too?”
She tried to gently push into Kali’s mind the image of a male soldier with a Norgler. She focused on the size of the weapon, on the way a man would be holding it, on the noise and visual effect of the weapon. It was akin to drawing a sketch for a trainee to help them visualize an enemy target.
There was no protest to the psychic display.
She was not trying to intrude on Kali’s mind like she did to Brass Face’s. Through the tenuous connection she conveyed her non-aggression as strongly as she could. She tried to evoke a one-way conversation, a giving of information, a telling of facts. Madiha took not even a trickle of Kali’s thoughts. In turn the dragon was calm and gentle, completely trusting.
In a few seconds she was satisfied with the picture she had projected.
Madiha removed her hand from Kali’s head and smiled at her pet.
“Kali, I need you to drop this on that man. Can you do that?”
Soon as she was done speaking the exterior alley lit up with green tracers.
Kali seized the bundle of grenades from Madiha’s hands and took off.
In the preceding days Madiha had only ever really see Kali float and glide, but today she was flying as though propelled by her own little engine. She flapped her wings once and generated enough wind to lift dust from the floor and to lift her whole body into the sky. She elevated without concern, flying directly up and down as if unburdened by the physics of aviation.
She disappeared from over the alley. Madiha crouched along the edge of the wall, hurrying toward the street. She pulled on the leg of a corpse, drawing the remains into the alley and pilfering ammunition. Just a meter overhead and scarcely a meter of brick from the street, the Norgler’s fire resumed slicing the pavement and the corner of the shop. Hundreds of bullet holes had scarred the street and the lips of the alleyway walls.
Madiha sat against the wall, pistol in hand, waiting for a sign.
There came another volley of Norgler fire, chipping at the walls anew.
Then a loud blast quieted the gun mid-spray.
Madiha charged out of the alleyway, firing her pistol up the street. She found a trio of men running from the lawn and attacked them, shooting two before ducking back behind the mail bank. She spotted several more men that had been assembling on the green, and were now stumbling around wounded and dazed from the explosion. Amid a circle of burnt grass and running blood were a pair of bodies lying on a mangled pile of metal tubing and cooked ammo that had once been an automatic weapon.
Overhead Kali circled like a vulture smelling carrion in the air.
With the Norgler suppressed and the men scattered, now was the time to flee. Madiha withdrew her flare gun, popped a new canister into the weapon and aimed further down the street. She unloaded a flare, set her sights on Ocean Road at the end of the block, perhaps a kilometer away, and took off under the red flash, hoping that Kali would see it and follow.
As she left cover and ran Madiha felt a closer, hotter flash behind her.
Chunks of metal flew past her as the box exploded a dozen meters back.
Eyes drawn wide with terror, Madiha looked over her shoulder mid-run.
She found herself suddenly turning gold under a pair of bright lights.
Blinded at first, she caught a glimpse of her aggressor when the lights moved from over her body and instead illuminated the road ahead.
Moving into the green from beyond Council Street was a Goblin light tank, the ubiquitous main tank of the Territorial Army. Characteristically angled tracks bore it forward, its three-section glacis with a flat front plate facing Madiha. Atop its thinly armored, riveted hull was an off-center turret with a thin gun and a linked machine gun, and atop that was a pintle-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun, rarely seen equipped.
One 45mm high-explosive shell was all it took to smash the mail bank.
Against other tanks it was lacking, but a Goblin was deadly to infantry.
Madiha saw the gun barrel light up as she glanced again over her shoulder.
In an instant a second shell flew past, infinitely faster than she could run.
Had it deviated a meter toward her it would have struck Madiha directly.
Instead thirty meters ahead it exploded on the road, scattering fragments.
Madiha shielded her face with her arms, turned on her heels and dove blindly into the nearest alleyway. She felt a sting on her flank; a fragment must have bitten into the back of her ribs somewhere. Flinching from the new pain, she found herself scarcely a few dozen meters from where she had started, stranded in a wide alley mostly adjacent to her last refuge.
Behind her she heard the loud whining of the tracks as the Goblin neared.
The Cisseans must have cried out for help to the rogue 8th Division.
Or perhaps they had just pressed a captured Goblin into their own service.
Regardless Madiha now had to contend with a tank.
She cast wild eyes around the alley and found a large dumpster belonging to the shops on this block. She put down the lid and climbed atop, and leaped up. Her hands barely seized a second-story windowsill, and she pulled herself up. Over the smaller building at her other side she could see the tank coming closer. It thankfully could not see her, not with its optics.
Pressed precariously against the shop window, Madiha withdrew her pistol and shot the glass, creating an opening. Using her knife she smashed off as much of the sharp glass as she could from the bottom half of the window and slid herself inside. She found herself in a dark storage room that seemed empty, dusty and cobwebbed. There were windows on the other end of the room, and she rushed toward them and crouched.
On the street below she heard the tracks and the engine come closer.
She heard the road wheels, characteristically slamming in protest as the Goblin tank tried to navigate the ten centimeter step up from the flat road to the alley street. Goblin road wheels were quite poorly arranged and any change in elevation caused them to lift violently and issue a harsh noise.
It was likely trying to turn into the alleyway below to corner her.
Giving chase in such a way was quite an amateurish mistake.
In such a tight melee the tank was under as much danger as its prey.
Madiha stood up against the corner of the room, between windows.
She peeked outside and confirmed her suspicions.
The Goblin had turned into the alley to search for her.
Madiha withdrew a lone anti-tank grenade from her ammunition bag.
She cracked open the window, primed the grenade and threw it.
Landing atop the engine compartment, the grenade’s cylindrical explosive head detonated violently. A cloud of smoke billowed from the back of the tank as the roof of the rear hull practically melted. Immediately the Goblin’s tracks ceased to whine and the engine ceased to rumble.
Fires burst from within the ruined grates once covering the engine.
There was no movement from within the tank. Had anyone survived they would have bolted out of the hatches. But judging by the detonation and the fires, and the slag that had become of the rear hull roof, it was likely that a shower of metal spall had killed everyone inside, if not the heat of the initial detonation. The Goblin tank was completely paralyzed.
Soon the fire would reach the ammunition and explode a final time.
Madiha pulled the window open the whole way. Enduring the stinging at her side, she gingerly leaped onto the Goblin’s turret. She misjudged the jump; she hit the turret roof hard, and nearly slid off with her momentum. Groaning, she sat up and began to pull free her prize. Madiha took the Danava machine gun from the simple mounting atop the turret.
Now she had a real weapon on her hands.
Faint and distant, she heard the trampling of boots over the hissing fires from the tank’s engine. Madiha cast a quick glance overhead, making sure that Kali was still airborne. Finding her dragon flying over the alleys, Madiha signaled to her, leaped down from the tank and ran further into the dark alleys and around the backs of the shops on Council Street.
She had a good weapon, a head start and the night.
She was sure she could get away now.