First Blood (52.2)

This scene contains violence and death.


City of Rangda, 8th Division Barracks

While every soldier in the Regiment was plainly aware of the western or “front” gate into the base, fewer had chance to see the second, northern gate in the “rear” of the base. It was the only other gap in the brick wall that protected the old barracks. Farther removed from the core of the base than the “front gate,” it was intended for trucks delivering goods to the depots. Like the western gate it was composed of metal bars topped with barbed wire and spears. It exited out onto road rather than street, and the road through it was hard and dense to handle heavy loads. There were speed bumps and retractable barriers along the northern gate road.

Outside the gate, the 8th Division had constructed a roadblock. Overnight they had laid down sandbags and towed two 45mm anti-tank guns and a machine gun, aiming through the gate. Nearly thirty men and women manned the defenses, and in all likelihood that number would double.

For the operation to begin in earnest, their position had to be destroyed.

Tasked with securing the northern gate and deploying northeast through it was 1st Battalion “Matumaini,” of which Gulab Kajari was a part. She had slept relatively little, but was brimming with anxious energy. Tactical officers from every platoon gathered for a briefing around the equipment depots. There, Gulab met “Matumaini’s” commander, newly-promoted Major Marion Burundi, a black-skinned, long-limbed man with short, frizzy hair and broad facial features. Around him was a cadre of a dozen officers from the major platoons of his battalion, and Lt. Munira, the pleasant brown-haired older diyam lady Gulab had seen around the base.

“Alright, you’ve all heard the news,” Major Burundi began. “Colonel Nakar has confirmed that the 8th Division is preparing for an assault. It is our job to preempt the northern prong of their attack, and to penetrate to the Lion Battalion’s probable headquarters in Rangda University. Lion Battalion radio traffic in that area has been particularly busy, and we expect many of their officers and undeployed units to greet us there.”

Major Burundi’s aide passed around maps with marked routes, and pamphlets with detailed orders and battalion code phrases and challenges. Chadgura, standing at Gulab’s side, received their platoon’s orders. She cracked open the pamphlet and Gulab looked over her shoulder. There was a list of people and equipment associated with their particular mission. From her vantage Gulab could not read all of it.

“All units are to observe radio silence until the first objectives are secured! To that end, your initial orders and your primary organization are printed on those pamphlets. Once the situation becomes fluid, you may contact myself or Lt. Munira or Purana over the radio regarding your next move.”

There were nodding heads in the crowd, including Chadgura’s own.

“You’ve done well in your training, and right now you have the element of surprise and a technology advantage. March out to Rangda University and put down this insolent Lion. Once you get past the road blocks, keep moving! Don’t slow down. Show me your fighting spirit!” Burundi said.

He raised his fist, and in response the officers around him saluted.

“Let us depart, Gulab.” Chadgura said in a low voice.

She turned around, reading the pamphlet as she walked.

Gulab quietly followed. Though she had hoped that it would not come to this, she was ready to fight. She knew Chadgura was; so she had to be too.

In the training field, outside the visual range of the 8th Division’s roadblock, they arrived at a rallying area for their Company, the 2nd. There were a few hundred men and women waiting there, and several small tanks. Though this group seemed formidable out on the field, Gulab knew they would soon be splitting through the various streets, alleys and roads toward Rangda University. To keep the group clustered in their current fashion in Rangda’s urban confines would have been suicidal.

“I’ll gather up everyone else, you find these people, please.”

Chadgura ripped off a piece of the pamphlet and handed it to Gulab.

There was a diagram of a tank, and a pair of names and ranks.

“Oh, huh, we’re getting an escort? That’s new.” Gulab said.

Chadgura nodded. “Introduce yourself, and do what you do.”

“Do what I do?”

“Be nice, and energetic, and try to reassure them, I suppose.”

“Wait a second; do I have command over this tanker?”

“Well. To a point. You’re a Corporal. So yes. We do. Sort of.”

Chadgura clapped her hands softly.

In an instant Gulab turned on her heel and marched out with a smile on her face and her chest puffed out, the word Corporal ringing in her ears.

Rarely did she get to speak from authority to a tanker!

Gulab approached the line of Kobold tanks and sought the tank labeled “Harmony” as she had been instructed to do. Company command was giving her, Charvi, and a partial platoon detachment a very important flanking mission. “Harmony” would be their escort. Gulab expected a powerful Hobgoblin with a big gun. But she found the characters for “Harmony” painted instead on a small, stocky Kobold tank instead.

The Kobold was a light tank, perhaps intended as a substitute for the widely-hated Goblin tank. Unlike the Goblin, the Kobold was decently quick, mechanically reliable, and though it had the same 45mm gun, the barrel was lengthened a bit. Gulab had been given to understand this would improve its shooting against enemy tanks, though the capability of its high-explosive shell was unchanged. Its armor was slanted on the front and sides and its small, welded turret was off-set left for ease of production. It was not a very impressive tank to look at, compared to a Hobgoblin or Ogre; nonetheless it was a tank, better armed than Gulab.

The Corporal approached the tank with a smile and a skipping step.

Seated with her back against the offset turret was a young woman with her head behind a book that read “Holding Hands In The Garden of Lillies.”

She was so enthralled by the book that she did not notice Gulab approach.

“Hey, ms. tankie, over here,” Gulab called, snapping her fingers.

On the tank, the little pink book slid down a few millimeters.

Peering over the book were a pair of bespectacled blue eyes.

After a few seconds worth of blinking, the tanker set the book atop the turret and stood up on the tank, saluting abruptly. She was a tall young woman of average build, dressed head to toe in the green and black bodysuit befitting a new-style Ayvartan tanker, but with a vest and belts over it, and a box at her hip into which plugged a commander’s headset.

Gulab thought she looked a little northern; her skin was a light, rosey color, but her features were more rounded and less grimly sharp in the Nochtish fashion. Her short dark brown hair was straight and reached down below her ears. Perched on her nose were a pair of bright spectacles.

“Private First Class Caelia Suessen, ma’am!” She said.

She had an interesting voice; partially deep, a little nasally.

It reminded Gulab a lot of her own voice.

“Hujambo!” Gulab said, casually waving her hand.

Mid-wave, she stopped abruptly. She was being too chummy.

“Uh, I mean; I’m Corporal Gulab Kajari! You’ve been assigned to follow my platoon and shoot things that I tell you to!” Gulab quickly added.

“Yes ma’am!” Caelia replied.

“What was that you were reading?” Gulab then asked.

Caelia’s skin turned significantly rosier than before.

She fidgeted a little with her hair.

“It’s a story of a love that can only be shared between two girls, ma’am.”

“Okay. Don’t read it while we’re out on maneuvers.”

Caelia seemed relieved to hear that; Gulab didn’t understand her anxiety.

“I would never think to do that ma’am, don’t worry.” She said seriously.

“What kind of experience do you have with tanks?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put on a proud smile and raised her fist against her chest.

“I was part of the forces in the Kalu during the battle of Bada Aso. In my Goblin MP/45 mod. 2029 I destroyed three Nochtish tanks.” She said.

“Oh wow! That is amazing!” Gulab said, feeling a sudden fluttering awe.

It was a feeling she quickly stifled. She cleared her throat and tried to erect the stony facade which she thought befitted a proud, professional, strong officer like herself who had to set an example. Once recollected, she turned her gaze on Caelia and the tank once more, her arms crossed.

“Very well then, I mean. You know your way around a tank. That’s good.”

Gulab turned her gaze on the tank more specifically.

“Where is the driver?” She asked.

“Danielle is shy.” Caelia said.

From the front of the tank a hatch opened and a hand waved.

Seconds later the hatch closed again.

“She’s very reliable, don’t worry!” Caelia added.

“I’ll take your word for it.” Gulab said, blinking at the hatch. “Anyway. We’re all over there, I think,” She turned around and pointed her hand in the direction she had come from. “Please join us when the operation is underway. I’ll probably be riding on your back– well, your tank’s, back.”

Gulab scratched her hair, feeling her words lacking a certain decisiveness.

Caelia did not seem to mind. She nodded her head, took her courteous leave of the Corporal and dropped down the turret of her tank. When the tank’s engine started, it was fairly quiet — the sound of the tracks and the road wheels whining was more audible. It backed up out of the column of tanks and made its way around the infantry, joining Gulab’s column.

When Gulab returned to her unit, Chadgura was overseeing a group of men and women setting down mortar tubes and adjusting the elevation.

“How did it go?” Chadgura asked.

“The Tanker’s name is Caelia, and she’s rather neat.” Gulab replied.

“I see. I’m glad you think so.”

Chadgura seemed unconcerned with hearing any more about it.

Perhaps she really did trust Gulab a lot, after all.

Soon the platoon was ready to crash the gate.

“Harmony” got into position ahead of the column. Gulab and Chadgura climbed atop the back of the tank and crouched behind the turret. There was much less space to cling than on an Ogre, but the engine hatch was less hot and there was much less rattling and smoke to contend with.

Chadgura withdrew a pair of rare portable radios from her pack.

She handed Gulab one unit, which consisted of a box about the size of a ration pack with a connected headset. In with the rations it went, where it was at home, and the wire for the headset Gulab threaded through a gap in her bread bag, and threaded the antenna through a button hole that had been worn out. She donned the headset, as did Chadgura. The Sergeant tonelessly shouted into the microphone extending from out her ear.

“Private Suessen, can you hear me?”

There was a firm, clear and quick reply. “Yes ma’am!”

Ahead of the column, two pairs of sappers moved along the shallow ditches on the side of the road, using the road barriers and guard houses as cover and crawling on their bellies at the end to keep out of sight of the roadblock. They carried bags full of gas canister grenades, and once in position, and ready to begin the operation, the sappers pulled the pins on the grenades and rolled them down the ditch. Because they did not burst, and because the sappers were well-trained, the smoke canisters were safe.

Smoke steadily drifted from the grenades and spread across the gate road.

Each sapper deployed a canister in turn, waiting until one grenade was exhausted before rolling down another. Slowly and somewhat innocuously they built a cloud that at first seemed a harmless morning haze, but soon fully obscured the gate. Under the cover of the smoke, the sappers would then retract the gate and allow the column passage through to the road.

“On my mark, all mortars fire for effect.” Chadgura said into her mic.

Behind the column the mortar crews had been given ample time to site the immobile roadblock ahead. Once the smoke was thick and the unit ready to move, Chadgura raised her fist, signaling the infantry to move quickly into the cloud. Then she called the mortar crew one final time.

“Mark.”

Working in pairs, the mortar teams began a concerted barrage, dropping shells into a trio of tubes. One soldier handed another the shell, the second dropped it and then ducked clear, and after a few seconds, the process was repeated. Each shell descended the tube, where its primer met a firing pin and shot it skyward with a thunk as it exited the barrel.

“Caelia, move forward slowly.” Chadgura ordered.

As the Kobold tank started to grind forth, the first shell detonations sounded across from the gate. Flashes from the explosions were visible through the smoke, like short-lived fireworks in the distance. There were a dozen such blasts in quick succession. Gulab clung to the tank and squinted her eyes, trying to see through the smokescreen. At her side men and women ran past the tank, with submachine guns at the ready.

Several moments went by without another flash as the barrage paused.

Gulab experienced a rough bump as the Kobold navigated a speed trap.

Over the tiny yellow hill and through the gate, the tank left the smoke.

Across the street they found the enemy position in ruins. There was sand and blood and slag spilled and scattered everywhere. Both anti-tank guns had been ripped to pieces and set alight by their own ammunition. Though the machine gun was not destroyed, it lay on its side and was clearly abandoned. There were at least a dozen corpses on the ground and no one living had stuck around to become another. The enemy was on the run.

“Their radios will be jammed, but we must prevent stragglers from linking up with any main units.” Chadgura called out. Her droning toneless voice carried quite the force when she shouted. “Everyone move out! We’re engaging fully in urban warfare. Watch your corners and all apertures!”

Gulab dropped from the back of the tank. She loaded a new drum on her submachine gun, switched it to active, and got ready. Though they had easily broken out of the base, that was only the prerequisite to battle, she knew. Now came the actual fight, on the 8th Division’s own turf.

“We head north, to Rangda University!” Chadgura said.

She dropped from the tank herself, and joined Gulab on the road.

“Want me to watch your back?” Gulab asked her, a smile on her face.

Chadgura blinked. “I thought it was implicit.”

“Sometimes I like to hear it, you know?”

“I see. Okay. Gulab, I would feel safer knowing I have your support.”

Gulab smiled. “I’m glad. I trust you with my back too.”

“That too, was implicit.” Chadgura said, clapping softly.

“But you like to hear it, don’t you?” Gulab said.

Chadgura averted her eyes awkwardly and started down the road.


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