First Blood — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

“G-1 this is Thunder actual, report.”

Behind the sandbag wall guarding the approach to the base gate, a soldier of the 8th Division’s “Lion Battalion” answered the radio. His response was swift: there had been no activity from the 1st Motor Rifles all night. He had at times seen flickers of movement, shades in the dark, but for all he knew it was his eyes tricking him. His enemy was invisible to him.

Across the street from his position there was a brick wall about five meters tall topped with metal spears. Barbed wire wound between each spear and barred entry to prospective climbers. These walls fully encircled the base save for a pair of gates: the one before him, and one facing north. They were strong steel-barred gates topped with barbed wire. Past the gate stood a pair of concrete structures for the gate guards, and then a road that wound down in the base proper. Quite distantly, if he squinted, the radio officer could see nondescript buildings, bereft of people.

“G-1, maintain a high alert. We’re reinforcing your position soon.”

With those words, the platoon commander became silent anew.

This was only the second set of orders G-1 had been given.

The radio-man felt like they were all being sacrificed to give an early warning of 1st Regiment activity. He looked around himself for support.

At his side, a young woman grabbed hold of the padded handles on the sides of a Khroda water-cooled machine gun, keeping the gun raised on the gate barring them from their old barracks. She was tense; her grip on the handles was stiff and rigid. Crouching behind the sandbags were eight riflemen, armed with a single grenade and a Bundu rifle with 100 rounds. In the middle of the night two men and two women had run in from around the corner carrying a light mortar in three pieces. It had been assembled just behind the bus bench, and they crouched around it.

“We may be getting reinforcements soon.” said the radio man.

“Thank the ancestors for that!” replied the machine gunner, exasperated.

“No matter how many reinforcements we get there’s still thousands of people in there.” one of the mortar crew said, pointing into the base.

“It’s fine, they haven’t moved.” said the radio man. “Once the governor gives the go-ahead we’ll surround them and that’ll be the end of it. They had their chance to attack and they didn’t all night. We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, these folk ain’t Nocht.” said one of the riflemen.

Everyone went silent then. The rifleman’s clumsy implication was that the 1st Regiment was full of weak Ayvartans like themselves who had been bested by Nocht before. But that was not entirely true. For one, the 1st Regiment had defeated Nocht before. And most importantly, the 8th Division was, in a way, affiliated with Nocht. They were like Nocht, now.

Like them in allegiance, in whom they fought against; not in experience or equipment or in numbers, but in the dark deeds they committed.

But the fact was that there was nowhere for them to go but that sandbag wall overlooking the gate. It was either that or a stay in a prison camp, Nochtish or Ayvartan. Or worse. They had thrown their lot in with their own comrades over comrades in the broader sense. Without the mutual support of their dire pact they were nothing, and so, they remained.

So thought the radio man, until the machine gunner stomped her boot.

“Something’s happening!” She called out, holding her gun steady.

Across the road and behind the gate, a thin white mist had begun to spread. At first it the haze was barely noticeable, as thin as a cloud of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette, blowing away in a gentle wind. Within minutes it had thickened into fog as thick as in a lowland swamp. Behind the bars there was no longer a road or gatehouses, only smoke.

“What do we do? What do we do?” shouted the machine gunner.

Forming a firing line to both sides of her, the riflemen aimed for the gate. Behind them the mortar crew scrambled to rip open the crates for their rounds, which they had not thought to unpack and lay out for use earlier. The radio officer thought his heart would climb out of his throat, so hard was it beating and thrashing in his chest. He mustered the will to speak.

“I’ll call it in.” He shouted back. “Calm down and don’t shoot.”

He lifted the handset to his mouth and switched on broadcasting–

From the speaker in his ear he heard a sharp, horrendous thrashing noise.

Wincing, he put down the handset and grabbed his head in pain.

But the noise was still there, distant, boring in his head. Was it a tinnitus?

He strained to raise eyes toward the gate, and found a black shape moving toward them within the smoke, tall as an elephant and just as broad.

In a split second’s glance the radio man noticed the gate had opened.

Everyone around him was paralyzed with fear.

At the edge of the cloud the black figure paused and shifted its weight.

There was a great thunderous cry and a bright flash that parted smoke.

From the edge of the street a 152mm round cut the distance to the sandbag wall in an instant. Detonating just over the sandbag wall it sent men and sandbags alike flying every which way. Metal sprayed in the faces of the riflemen, blinding and killing them; the machine gunner was flung back from her gun and died from the shock before hitting the floor again.

Surviving the first shot with only deafness and disorientation to account for it, the mortar crew rose from the ground and abandoned the position and their weapon, holding their heads low while hurtling down the street.

Lying on the ground, his stomach speared by an enormous chunk of shell casing, the radio man watched them go. He prayed for their escape with his last breaths; but in his final moments, he saw as a massive vehicle, with a turret like a destroyer’s mounting an absolutely enormous gun.

He did not see the vehicle shoot again.

Instead, seemingly a dozen men and women clinging to the tank’s rear and turret opened fire on the retreating mortar crew and picked them off before they could escape. In his final moments the radio man witnessed the birth of a new kind of Ayvartan warfare, and realized that nobody would know of his death, and that Nakar had dealt first blood.

She was throwing her iron fist right into the gut of the Lion battalion.

On the ground, at his side, the radio was still emitting alien noise.


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 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.


 

City of Rangda, Rangda University

North of the 8th Division barracks and Ocean Road stood the campus of Rangda University, series of city blocks built on broad, flat green linked by flat concrete roads and bearing the noble old buildings of the academy. Red brick monuments of the old imperial city, they had been restored after the revolution, and many retained their austere pediments and gables, their many rows of arched windows, and their grim facades.

On any other Aster’s Gloom the University would be bustling, even at night. There were thousands of students, and plenty of canteens and restaurants and co-op bars and clubs to keep them busy. However, Rangda’s circumstances had become dramatically different. Most of the inhabitants had now been evacuated to Rangda Coliseum and Rangda International Airport; the streets were empty save for the occasional checkpoint for the venerable 8th Ram Rifle Division’s Lion Battalion.

It was familiar terrain, and they made use of its one major feature.

Surrounded by the lecture halls, laboratories, dormitories and studios was Muhimu Shamba, a large park serving the university as a place to find peace and fresh air between lectures, to eat outdoors or sleep under the shade of a tree. There were small patches of woodland, a little pond and grassy fields. Dirt paths wound through the park’s natural bounty. Amid the brick and glass, it was an authentic place, an open, organic forum.

On the 52nd, however, the picnickers ate military rations and supervised the movement of supplies to an 8th Division ammo dump in the area. The 8th Ram Rifles considered Rangda University a key feature of the urban landscape that had to be dominated. Control of it meant, essentially, blocking the entire northern approach to Rangda from entry — or exit.

And Muhimu Shamba was a crucial position within the University blocks, a central hub with clearance for howitzers, space for caches and rallying areas and field hospitals, and ready access to every wing of the campus. Soon as the Lion Battalion was assigned to the north, they made sure to put Rangda University behind their backs as they faced the enemy.

Three main roads formed a roughly t-shaped path through the campus proper. Where all three met at the park, the Lion Battalion put down its roots, and from there, expanded almost down to Ocean Road. They had a strong backbone supporting them in the center of the University campus.

Muhimu Shamba was the center of Lion’s operations. Not far from the little pond, the battalion command tent had been strung up, next to a pile of ammunition crates. Reinforced with sandbag walls, the command tent was spacious and well hidden within a small cluster of trees. Since the reports came in of a plane flying over the city, people had taken care not to visit the command tent too often. Instead the tent was hailed on radio.

One of the few men inside the command tent was Lieutenant Badir “The Lionheart.” He loomed over a map of the city on a fold-out portable table and scratched the fuzz on his chin. In conjunction with the 4th Battalion, Lion had been tasked with creating roadblocks and checkpoints to start boxing the 1st Regiment inside of their base. His map had them marked.

Roadblocks flagrantly disagreed with his preferred methods.

His Lion Battalion were warriors who faced their enemies head-on.

All of the confusion in Rangda ill-suited him.

He looked at his old base with disdain. Ever since he heard of the plan for the 1st Regiment to rest and rebuild within Rangda he had been skeptical. Had not the KVW just recently gotten done stealing Battlegroup Ox and overthrowing a regional council? Were they not terrorizing the territorial army with their inspections? And yet, that Nakar’s victory at Bada Aso was hailed as such a miracle that Rangda could not refuse to host them.

Nakar’s victory had been a defensive one. It was measured in its ability to harm and delay the enemy. That, Badir thought, was no true victory.

In his mind, anything but an offensive victory belied craven cowardice.

Combined with his disdain for the KVW, he marked Nakar as unworthy.

There were at least 3000 men and women and maybe a hundred tanks at the old base, and probably around 500 trucks and similar transports. The 1st Regiment was “motorized,” something uncommon in Ayvartan infantry units owing to a lack of available vehicles. Outwardly, Badir had scoffed at the notion; inwardly he was jealous of the KVW’s ability to procure transport and to become Ayvarta’s largest motorized force.

He had orders to set roadblocks, so he set roadblocks. But he hungered to fight Nakar and overcome that legendary defense that “won” Bada Aso.

For Badir, his allegiance was to the Lion Battalion, to the mutineers of ’26, to the Mansas who supported them and won their heroes freedom. To a free Rangda, a Rangda that enriched itself from every corner of the world.

Defeating Col. Nakar would show the world such a Rangda was possible.

He would get his throw of the dice sooner than expected.

Lt. Badir took notice of the morning sun perhaps an hour after the dawn. It was at that time that he was pulled from his strategizing by the arrival of a group of men carrying large radios on wheeled carts. They brazenly charged into the woodland surrounding the tent and burst suddenly in.

“You utter baboons, I told you explicitly not to come here without calling!” Badir shouted. He glanced sidelong with anger at his own radio personnel.

At the door to the tent, the arriving men bowed their heads.

“Apologies, lieutenant, but the radios at our university checkpoints are having audio issues sir. We were hoping the signals chief could check them. Every frequency we’ve been tracking has turned to noise.”

One man stood forward, holding a radio box in his hand.

Lt. Badir nodded his head toward one of his radio officers. She stood from the radio table at the back of the tent and took the radio from the man offering. They set the radio down, plugged it into power, and checked each frequency. She looked up from the ground at Lt. Badir with a glum nod.

“Crack it open, see what you can do.” Lt. Badir ordered.

From her jacket the woman withdrew a small toolkit. She opened the green metal enclosure around the radio’s guts and checked the vacuum tubes, the cabling, the headset plug. She did not remove or substitute any parts, or even poke at them for too long. It appeared the radio was fine.

Lt. Badir felt a shot of electricity down his spine and into his stomach.

He looked down at her and she up at him. They both had the same idea.

“Signals warfare. Our radios are fine; they’re being jammed.” She said.

Badir ran back to the table with the map of Rangda.

“Send troops out to the roadblocks immediately! Keep trying to contact the other units and if you can get through, tell them to attack!” He said.

Lt. Badir withdrew his scimitar from the side of the table and clipped it to his belt. He rolled up the map of Rangda and stuffed it in his bag, and started out the door. All around him, the men and women of the HQ staff stared in bewilderment. He was nearly out the door when he noticed.

“What are you waiting for?” He shouted at them. “We’re under attack!”

All of them seemed to lack his enthusiasm toward bloodshed.

But whether they knew it or not, the elite Lion battalion was at war again.

As they watched the lieutenant charge out with a sword and a map, they wondered what era of warfare he ran to, and whether they could follow.


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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