First Blood (52.4)

This scene contains violence and death.


 City of Rangda, Streets of North Rangda

The Lion battalion’s second roadblock did not surrender so easily.

Situated at an intersection between northern and eastern roads, the 8th Division had dug into every corner. Machine guns behind sandbags laid down withering fire the instant the first boots of 1st Regiment troops turned the corner from the garrison roads several hundred meters away. Remembering their training “Matumaini’s” troops dropped into cover behind hardened mail banks, inside nearby buildings and in the alleys.

Gulab saw a thick line of tracers go flying across the road ahead of her, just seconds after the first squadron charged around the corner. She and Chadgura both held up their fists to stop the column, and she sidled along the wall of a corner building and peered around. Spotting the enemy position at the end of the road she relayed everything she saw to Chadgura. Two machine guns on the ground behind a U-shaped sandbag wall, chest-high, behind which at least fifteen people also huddled.

She also spotted many of her own troops safe in scattered positions on both sides of the northern road, pinned down by the enemy. Most of the enemy presence seemed to be situated on the perpendicular eastern road. From there their Khroda machine guns laid fire down the north road.

“Any anti-tank?” Chadgura asked.

Gulab peered around the corner but quickly ducked back several steps.

She heard guns go off. Red tracers dealt heavy blows to the corner wall.

Chipped brick and dust sprayed over the street corner.

Momentarily disoriented, Gulab stumbled toward Chadgura.

Chadgura blinked hard. She reached out a hand. “Are you alright?”

There was dust in her eyes, but Gulab’s vision returned blessedly quick.

“Yeah I’m good.” She replied, dusting off her field jacket. “I didn’t see any anti-tank guns. They could have BKVs stocked somewhere though.”

“The Kobold can take those at this distance. Suessen, forward.”

“Yes ma’am!” Caelia replied.

Chadgura really was something else; Gulab was starting to shake from the interminable sound of gunfire coming down for them. She was not afraid, but she was tense and anxious. It was a natural response to battle, to stir with adrenaline. Chadgura on the other hand seemed perfectly still.

In battle Gulab’s very identity seemed to wax and wane, to waver between one world and another, one person and another. Chadgura was as stone.

Even having fought with her all of this time, and knowing that deep down inside she was a person with a mushy heart and a mushy head, it still seemed amazing how much Chadgura found her element in combat.

Gulab was proud of her own accomplishments, but she had a lot of tempering to do for her own emotions to survive combat unscathed.

Ahead of the column, “Harmony” advanced out of the corner and turned onto the street. Gunfire bounced off its side armor and then its front glacis as it reoriented itself to face the enemy defenses. Its cannon elevated a few degrees and fired. Gulab heard the report and saw the gun flash, but from her vantage could not see around the corner for the shell effect.

She heard the shell burst and then a pause in the machine gun fire.

“Move out, now!” Chadgura shouted.

Gulab raised her Rasha submachine gun and ran out into the street.

Half-turning, she fired a few volleys at the sandbags.

A thin cloud of smoke settled over the enemy defenses. Though the blast had not destroyed the wall it had smashed sand out of several bags and peeled off many others. Disoriented or scared of the shells, the machine gunners momentarily ducked behind their gun shields and ceased fire.

Gulab aimed for the guns and put down covering fire.

Several men and women ran out and joined her, shooting quick automatic bursts at the enemy defenders, while behind them the platoon’s riflemen and women ran up into positions of cover. They kicked down doors and smashed windows and dove into alleys and behind metal garbage cans.

Chadgura charged out last and hid behind a tree planted near the bottom of the street, close to Caelia’s tank. She whistled on the microphone.

Hearing the noise in her headset, Gulab peeled off her targets and rushed forward, ducking behind Caelia’s track. Two women submachine gunners charged behind and joined her in cover. Thus they completed the first bound of their attack; the platoon as a whole now occupied the bottom of the northern street and was in direct contact with the enemy.

“Good work, just like we practiced. Keep it up.” Chadgura said.

From their new positions, riflemen and women stood and put shots down on the sandbag wall from afar. Where they found an opportunity, they left cover and hurried forward. There was constant gradual movement as some soldiers fired and others moved under the fire. This was their bounding.

“Suessen, ammunition check.” Chadgura ordered.

“I’ve got 40 shells left, commander; 15 HE, 10 smokes, 15 AP.” Caelia called out. “I’ve got plenty of machine gun though. Awaiting orders.”

“Conserve your shells, but consider the MG weapons free.” Chadgura said. “Advance steadily along with the troops, Private. Support their bounds.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Gulab heard the conversation on the radio, and peered around the tank.

Soon as she got the order, Caelia turned the coaxial 7.62mm machine gun on the enemy’s position and opened fire. Dozens of bright red tracers flew against the sandbags and ricocheted off the gun shields on the enemy’s machine guns. In turn enemy machine guns continued to fire on the Kobold to little avail. As it fired the Kobold trundled forward, and Gulab and her comrades moved with it, huddling on the edge of the tracks.

From positions of cover, their fellow rifles joined each volley of gunfire.

Almost all of their rounds were hitting sandbags, and what did not strike sand simply flew off into the distance harmlessly, but the enemy was now pinned down. “Matumaini” had stolen the offensive initiative. They had the advantage of numbers and cover now. As “Harmony” passed friendly positions, riflemen and women used it as cover and moved themselves, bounding a dozen meters forward. Building to building, alley to alley, they began to close the gap with the enemy and encroach on the eastern road.

With the tank at their side, the pace of the advance almost doubled.

“Fire a second HE shell.” Chadgura ordered from behind the tree.

“Yes ma’am!”

Gulab, following “Harmony,” braced herself as the cannon turned.

Her whole body shook from the transferred energy as the gun fired.

Fired a hundred meters closer than the previous, this HE shell collided with the sandbags directly and detonated, collapsing a portion of the wall. One machine gun was knocked off its tripod legs, and Gulab could see the gunner fall backward and be pulled out of the open and back to cover.

Because of the size of the 45mm gun on the Kobold the effect was not entirely devastating to the sandbag wall, and only the rightmost portion struck was affected; but it was still a tank shot. There were fragments flying and smoke in the air, and the detonation disoriented the enemy.

Once more the platoon started moving as the enemy was suppressed.

Gulab stood up from behind the tank and aimed just over the wall ahead.

At her side a squadron of rifles charged up the street toward an alley.

Emboldened, the women at Gulab’s side rose to join them in their charge.

Gulab urged them forward and opened fire on the sandbags to cover them.

Her submachine gun’s puttering received a loud, churning reply.

For a second Gulab expected red tracers ahead; then she saw green, above.

Automatic gunfire came down like a hailstorm from a window overlooking the intersection. It swept over the tank and struck the squadron just about to cross along the side of the road. Right in front of Gulab the blood burst from a half-dozen men and women as the bullets plunged through heads and necks, into arms, through chests. Bodies crumpled almost all at once, falling to the ground dead in a slow, ungainly and macabre fashion.

Like the slash of a green saber, the machine gun fire had taken them.

All of the women who left her side, the women she cheered on–

Gulab ducked abruptly behind the Kobold, fighting back tears and shock.

She shouted as loud as she could.

Norgler!

Soon as she did the column heard the distinctive sawing noise come from a second direction. Joining the first spray of green tracers, a second burst of gunfire bore down on targets opposite the first. The crisscrossing trails of tracers became an all-consuming spread. Thousands of rounds it seemed struck the road and the streets, rained down on the alleys and smashed the storefronts, covering every area where a comrade had tried to hide.

At once the momentum slowed to a halt. Everyone hunkered down in the last piece of cover they made it to, forced still by the infernal noise and the raining lead. Any hint of flesh in the open drew gunfire in an instant.

Caelia spoke up on the line. “Ma’am, I’m firing HE on the window!”

Elevating the cannon as far as it could rise, Caelia loosed a shell on the second floor window. Gulab watched from behind the tank as the shell smashed into the brick beside the window and punched a hole half a meter deep into the building, and shattered the top glass from the force and fragments. However it seemed to have little effect on the firing position.

In retaliation, the Norglers paused and a singular booming report sounded.

There was a brief stirring at Gulab’s side; a heavy tracer struck the tank.

“AT rifle, 250 meters! No penetration but I can’t guarantee I’ll survive any more hits of that magnitude, ma’am!”  Caelia shouted over the radio.

“Don’t worry, I got it!”

Gulab rose to her knees behind the tank, resting her submachine gun atop the hull. She found the gunner braced over the sandbag wall. Firing around the empty space next to the offset turret, Gulab unleashed a quick burst of pistol rounds at the sandbag wall. She clipped the neck of the BKV gunner as they attempted to withdraw their heavy weapon, and watched them fall with their long, unwieldy gun in tow and disappear from sight.

Moments later, the Norgler gunner was back at the window.

“Thank you for the save ma’am! Firing HE again!”

Caelia put another round on the window — this time, just short of it.

Again the shell detonated against the brick and left a large dent.

It was not enough to give the gunner pause.

Norgler fire resumed undaunted over the intersection approach.

“Private Suessen, can’t you stop them?” Gulab shouted.

“Ma’am it’s hard to aim when my optics are being shot at every second!”

Gulab grit her teeth, ducked down and put her back to the tank.

She sought out Chadgura.

She saw the tree, but no sign of her.

Then she heard the frightening sawing noise and winced.

Long bursts of gunfire converged on the tree.

Branches and leaves and bark came down in a cloud as the thick old tree absorbed the punishment. Starting from the tree the gunfire blew over a nearby mailbox and tore it to pieces, before crossing the street and hitting a storefront. From behind the mailbox a body fell out, bloody and broken.

“Charvi! Please respond!” Gulab cried out.

Behind her the norglers quickly retrained their aim and resumed fire.

Gulab felt hot metal fragments sting the back of her neck.

She ducked almost chin to ground.

“Charvi! Please!” She shouted desperately.

“It’s hard to talk over all this noise!” Chadgura replied.

Gulab looked back at the tree and saw a grenade go flying out of it.

On the side of the road the grenade burst into a thickening smoke cloud that obscured the area around the tree and mailbox and a nearby building.

“I’ll be fine Gulab, but you need to snuff those guns!” Chadgura said.

“I almost got it! We just need to draw them out!” Caelia said.

Without thinking, Gulab swallowed hard and took off running.

Caelia called out to her. “Wait I didn’t mean–”

“Gulab, no, stop!” Charvi shouted.

Gulab darted out of cover and ran up the street.

Almost immediately the Norgler was on her. She briefly saw one of the offending windows, on the leftmost building overlooking the intersection. A dark figure loomed behind the triangular shape formed by the norgler’s bipod, with the muzzle cone at the top. Smoke drifted from the window.

As she ran Gulab saw red in the window and she felt the air suck out from her lungs and her blood chill. Her eyes were locked to the window and her steps toward a nearby alley were long and slow and half-frozen in time. It felt like she was already dead and she was merely awaiting confirmation.

Seconds passed, long, agonizing seconds, a thousand heartbeats per.

Behind the gun, the shadowy figure started to move desperately.

She was seeing something red in the window, but it was not a gun flash.

It was an overheated barrel, bright red and smoking, useless.

Caelia hailed her quickly on the radio.

“You’ve done enough! Seek cover Corporal Kajari! I’m firing HE!”

The Kobold loosed a third high-explosive shell on the window.

This one seemed as if it would also hit brick or the windowsill.

There was no direct, blunt strike.

Instead the shell exploded mere centimeters in front of the window.

A cloud of smoke and a brief flash of flames obscured the thousands of fragments belched through the window and into the gunner, pulverizing the Norgler and chopping the figures in the room behind it to pieces. Cracks and sparks and fires started as the fragments penetrated the room and ricocheted across its surfaces, setting a few flammables alight.

“I altered the fuse to airburst it.” Caelia said. “One gunner down.”

Watching the blast play out in mid-run, Gulab realized that the left-most Norgler was angled on the right street, her street. She glanced at the sandbag wall and found everyone there hunkered down. Nobody was covering the blind spot of the the right-most Norgler gunner anymore.

Gulab felt herself return to time, to a life among the living. She drew in a deep breath and continued her charge, bypassing the alley and hugging the buildings as she ran. Two hundred meters, two-hundred and fifty, one-hundred; in moments she was bearing down on the sandbag wall.

Behind the defender’s wall an officer rose with a pistol.

He was too late.

With a quick pull of the trigger Gulab gunned him down with her Rasha.

Still running, she put down her gun, holding it with her trigger hand only, and reached into her satchel to draw her two hand grenades. She pulled the pins in quick succession with her teeth, threw them haphazardly behind the sandbag wall as she ran past it toward the buildings.

Several explosions went off at her back. She did not look.

Some of those must have been Caelia’s shells; or cooked off ammunition.

She thought she heard and felt the movement of her column in support behind her, but she was too focused on her own mission, on the window.

Machine gun fire sounded overhead, but she was too close now for the upper floor window to target her. Crossing the intersection, she burst into the offending building and opened fire up the stairs. Several men fell in mid-dash and she stomped over their bodies as she cleared the first floor.

She scarcely had time to examine her surroundings. She was in some kind of small inn. On the first floor there had been a desk, nobody behind it; she ran to the second, off the stairway landing, and charged to the only half-open door in the seemingly empty building, at the end of a hall.

Slamming through the doorway, she found the Norgler gunner, framed in the light of the window. She expected to see a Nochtish man, but instead found a young woman, brown-skinned, black-haired, with a frizzy ponytail. She stepped back from the Norgler and raised her hands.

Gulab charged her and clubbed her over the head with the Rasha.

She dropped to the ground with a heavy, bloody bruise on her forehead.

Ducking near the window, Gulab pulled a flare from her pouches.

She raised it to the window, careful not to present a target for panicky rifles to shoot, and waved the flare to signal she had taken out the gunner.

“We’re moving! Watch your back!” Chadgura shouted through the radio.

Gulab nodded to herself, put her back to the window and aimed at the door to the room. She saw nobody come challenge her. Perhaps then the only occupants of the building were the three-man Norgler crew. She had been thinking so fast she had scarcely considered the possibility she was running past enemies who could capture her. Her whole body started to come down from its adrenaline high. Her breath was ragged, her legs raw.

She looked at the body of the gunner with regret. She hit her too hard; she was surrendering, she could have been tied up or held hostage or just, left alone in defeat. Gulab wiped sweat off her own brow. She had been too aggressive– she did not like it. She did not like fighting her own people.

Nocht had brought upon these reactions on themselves. It confused her why an Ayvartan was sitting behind this Norgler, killing her platoon.

What had she been promised? What world did she envision after this?

Gulab fought because she could not exist as a woman in any world but the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. She was from the Kucha; she had seen a world that meant for her to be a man and she hated it. She knew Nocht would bring that world and spread it across the corners of Ayvarta with glee. Nocht didn’t have people like Charvi; like Adesh and the kids.

What world did this woman want? How could fighting Gulab help her?

What kind of person did she see when Gulab attacked her?

“Are you alright, Gulab?” Chadgura called on the radio.

“I’m exhausted.” Gulab replied.

“That’s unlike you. I will be there shortly.”

Gulab sighed a little. She felt suddenly uncomfortable in her own skin.

“Charvi, when you look at me, do you–”

Her words were drowned out by a detonation nearby.

“Hold that thought and take cover!”

Out in the hallway the roof burst open.

For a split second Gulab saw the shell crashing through the wood.

She thought it would explode then — that it would reduce her to ash in this state of confusion that she was in, before she could fulfill any of her goals, before she could truly find a self that made her comfortable.

It crashed through the floor, and detonated below.

Smoke and fire rose up into the hallway and blew in front of her.

She felt the heat, flashing in her face, and it stung for an instant.

She was not burned. It passed quickly.

Outside she heard several explosions in quick succession.

Then, a lull. Gulab stood and looked out the window.

In a nearby alley, Caelia’s “Harmony” tank had survived the barrage. There were pits in the ground all over the intersection, but many of her comrades exited the buildings and alleys and walked out from behind bus stop benches and mail banks and other pieces of cover, alive, unscathed.

Chadgura walked out into the middle of the intersection.

She raised her hand.

“The Lion Battalion’s figured out that we’re attacking! Those shots came from Rangda University.” Chadgura shouted. “But they’re still jammed and if we blockade them they can’t contact the Council. Keep fighting! We can defeat the enemy! We are not alone and we have a plan! Fight on!”

Keep fightingFight on.

Gulab could stop and surrender to her fate and surrender to her body and surrender to how people might see her; but then nothing would change.

She snatched the Norgler from the window, threw a few belts of ammunition over her shoulder, and charged downstairs. She looked skyward as she exited the building, and saw no more shells flying or falling. Around the intersection everyone was regrouping.

“Corporal!”

Chadgura called out to her.

Gulab approached, smiling a little, norgler in tow.

Stiffly, Chadgura threw her arms around her in an awkward embrace.

“Never do that again.” She mumbled.

Gulab could not see her face over her shoulder but she imagined it was the same inexpressive glum half-frown she always wore, and giggled. She dropped the norgler and wrapped her own arms warmly around Charvi.

“Yeah, sure.”


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