This scene contains violence and death.
City of Rangda, University Avenue
Orange-tinged in the morning light, the defenses at University Avenue looked static, peaceful, unprepared amid routine personnel rotation for the death swooping close.
“Hang on tight!” Danielle shouted over the radio.
Gulab could not have clung more tightly, and yet the ride was no more safe.
As the enemy line came clearly into view, Harmony sped up to its maximum speed.
At home on the roads, the Kobold accelerated to fifty kilometers per hour.
Gulab saw the faces of the enemy soldiers darken, incredulous, as they spotted the tank and trucks barreling toward their suddenly unprepared defenses. Horses stood out in the open, and there were many men and women loitering around the sandbags waiting for orders to regroup or retreat or transfer. Several guns lay abandoned during the shuffle, and when Harmony charged into combat range there were many soldiers out of cover.
The Kobold’s crew wasted no time engaging.
“Firing High Explosive!” Caelia shouted.
Gulab heard a loud report and saw the gun flash ahead.
She felt the turret shake, and it almost caused her to slip back on it. Pressing the Norgler up against the turret, she managed to hook the empty bipod mount against the handle on Caelia’s hatch, and in so doing, just barely maintained her grip on the firearm.
Some 500 meters ahead the shell slammed into the middle of the sandbag wall and displaced several layers of fortification. Alarmed, 8th Division soldiers ran every which way around the first sandbag wall. Horses fled from the flash and noise of the tank gun. Gunners rushed back to weapons that were aiming at haphazard directions or completely dismantled for transport. Caelia gave them no respite. Directly after firing its explosive shell, Harmony’s turret screeched with automatic gunfire, its coaxial Khroda machine gun spitting out thick lines of furious red tracers that crashed wildly across the sandbags.
“Corporal, you brought that thing out for a reason, open fire!” Private Suessen shouted.
“Sure thing pal! Here goes nothing!” Gulab responded.
Without any idea of what to expect, she held down the trigger on the Norgler.
Kicking and screaming were the immediate effects.
Then came a rate of fire too intense to be real.
She had never fired a Norgler; Gulab had only been on the receiving end. Shooting it felt like becoming acquainted with the monster anew. Operating the weapon felt like wrangling a thrashing boar. From the moment she held down the trigger the weapon seemed to feel compelled to drag in all of the belt on her shoulder, pushing what felt like hundreds of rounds through its barrel. Livid green tracers soared in long, horrifically quick bursts, ending only when Gulab’s finger swung off the trigger by accident and resuming immediately as she pressed down again. Smoke wafted up from the barrel’s frontal cone, and the sides of the gun flashed red through slits cut along its length.
That familiar infernal sawing noise punctuated the moment.
Gulab struggled to hold the weapon in place, and her gunfire swept and sliced from street to street and across the front and over the top of the sandbag defenses. Bullets went flying in seemingly every direction ahead of the hurtling light tank. Small traces of dust kicked up wherever she hit from the sheer velocity of the rounds; part of the sandbag wall became so saturated with her gunfire that it seemed a small cloud of smoke formed there.
She had little control, and yet, the endless screeching and the strong kick and the sheer volume of bullets produced an intoxicating effect that brought a sick grin to Gulab’s face.
Why hadn’t she stolen one of these before? They were incredible!
Like any Norgler attack the effect was immediate. Under this loud, incessant barrage and with a tank speeding toward them gaining over ten meters a second, the defenders panicked. Several fled the sandbag wall, while others hid ineffectively. Every head, every gun, every limb, hid away from the shower of lead. Resistance from the first tier of defenses ceased entirely as the tank descended on them. In seconds Harmony closed in.
“Hold on Corporal!” Danielle called again.
Gulab ducked her head behind the turret as Harmony plowed through the sandbags.
Shrugging aside the defense, sending sandbags and chunks of wooden crate and pieces of metal flying out from under and around its tracks, the tank barely slowed as it crushed a machine gun and its operator underfoot and finally penetrated inside University Avenue.
Danielle hit the brake; Gulab slammed roughly into the turret.
Her crazed Norgler dropped clumsily to the side of the turret, and the strap nearly pulled her shoulder out of place as she half-fell off the sloped rear of the Kobold tank.
“Hey, watch it!” Gulab cried out.
Behind her, the trucks braked harshly to a stop, and disgorged dozens of her comrades.
Submachine guns and rifles to their shoulders, they charged past her into battle.
Grumbling, Gulab tugged on her shoulder strap until it lifted from the antennae mount.
So released, she slid farther down the engine cover, almost dropping from the tank entirely. Climbing back on, she crouched around the side of the turret, atop the ventilation grating, grabbing hold of the Norgler once more. She pulled open the top, and reloaded the machine gun with one of her belts. This time she hooked herself to a turret foothold.
Before Gulab could even start her sentence Caelia was already shouting into the radio.
“There’s an engineer in that building– CABLE CHARGE! Fall back!”
Harmony reversed, turned its turret and opened machine gun fire on a distant building.
It was too late to stop the trap.
Across the road in front of them a dozen explosions went off all at once.
Gulab almost thought it was artillery. But the blasts came from underground.
Huge columns of dust and smoke blew in from cracks in the earth as the road several meters behind the first sandbag wall collapsed into the sewer below, forming a ditch almost five meters deep in an instant. The wound cut right across the front of their advance, stretching from one side of the street the other, across the road, and even collapsing the street corners around the nearest buildings on University Avenue.
Harmony was far back enough that it received only dust and chunks of hard road tar.
Red and Green squadron troops fell back from the blasts, some wounded by the shock. Gulab saw nobody fall into the ditch, but the squadrons broke up as comrades converged on the wounded and pulled them back around the tank. Nobody was attacking anymore.
Before the dust even settled there were tracer rounds flying in from behind the cloud.
“Caelia, we can’t drive over that, get around it!” Gulab shouted.
“Danielle!” Caelia shouted in turn.
“I’m on it, I’m on it!”
Harmony lurched back suddenly in reverse, swung itself around, and turned to face the glass maw of a nearby fashion boutique just a few meters back from the sandbags.
“Hold on tight!”
“You keep saying that but it never helps–”
Gulab’s shouting turned to incoherent screaming as Harmony hurtled suddenly into the street and shot its gun into the store. There were a series of rough bumping noises as the road wheels experienced the elevation shift from the road and the ditch to the street level, and then a storm of glass and soft stuccoed brick as they went crashing through the front.
Fancy lace gowns and fur scarves and silk pantyhose flew into the air as the tank ground through the mannequins, over the counter, burst through the back, the structure weakened by the high explosive shell. Out in the rear parking lot, surrounded by palm trees planted on ornate raised brick beds framing the blacktop, Harmony turned around again and ran along the back street, parallel to the road was barred to them. There were palm trees flanking them as far as the eye could see and the back street was tighter than the main road, but all the same buildings and the same destination was ahead of them.
Gulab was so in shock throughout this maneuver she forgot to call her troops.
Ducking behind the turret, with one hand on the norgler and another on mic, she hailed.
“Red Squadron!” Gulab shouted, her hair whipping in the wind as Harmony soared. “Run through the clothes shop and follow us! Green Squadron, hold the rear sandbag wall!”
“Firing Armor-Piercing High Explosive!” Caelia suddenly shouted.
Gulab peeked her head around the turret again in confusion.
In the ensuing chaos, she just barely spotted an armored car running in from around the buildings ahead, in time for the Kobold’s 45mm gun plant a shell through its top-heavy machine gun turret and burst half the vehicle open like a tin can under pressure. As if still alive under its own power the car turned clumsily toward them, catching on fire.
At seemingly a hundred kilometers per hour, screaming fast, the car rushed for them.
Danielle gasped into the radio. “Um! Hang on! We’re ramming or something!”
“Ramming?” Caelia shouted.
Gulab rushed behind the turret again with a panicked gasp.
She felt the wind rush past, and a surge of hot air.
She heard leaves rustle and brick crack and sift.
She distinctly did not feel or hear herself die screaming as a car flew over them.
Danielle breathed deep on the radio. “Phew! It missed us. Are you ok corporal?”
Gulab tentatively peeked around the turret again, and found a gap in the line of palm trees. It indicated where the armored car had veered away from them, lost control, chopped through a raised bed and slammed through the side of a nondescript building.
“No. I think I died.” Gulab said in exasperation.
“Rest in peace.” Caelia jokingly replied.
Harmony slowed to a less reckless pace, calmly bypassing several buildings, and then angled itself around a Civil Canteen. Edging around a corner and back into the main road, the tankers and Gulab caught sight of the second tier of the enemy’s defenses, slowly regrouping. Behind them, Red Squadron’s ten remaining soldiers ran through the gouged-out clothing shop and into the back street, and hurried to catch up.
Gulab waved them over. “Red, we’re about to attack, hurry.”
“Corporal, tell us when we’re formed up.” Caelia said.
“I will.” Gulab replied, keeping an eye on her troops.
Meanwhile the tankers called each other on the open line.
“Caelia, do you want to go fast or steady?” Danielle asked.
“Keep it steady this time.”
“Oh? Not fast? My my, how unlike you.”
Caelia sighed, a bit wistful. “Well. I don’t know–”
“I was just teasing! I support you wanting to go slow sometimes.”
“Thank you. It’s silly, but that means a lot to me.”
Gulab blinked at the tanker’s rapport, and crouched beside the turret.
Around the corner she saw gunfire being traded.
Tracers flew from both sides of the ditch. Green Squadron was holding down the end of University Avenue, while the 8th Division’s defenders on the second tier, in the middle of the Avenue, clustered around their sandbags for cover. There were men and women retreating from the gun battle, perhaps to organize a defense of the backstreet now that the tank had, in their eyes, disappeared from the main road. Gulab didn’t know.
She did know the defense still looked to be in disarray. There were guns abandoned along the sides of the road and left unmanned on the line itself. Defenders fought on with rifles and light Danava machine guns instead of with their Khrodas and AT guns and mortars. They were in a mind to retreat; perhaps this wasn’t a troop rotation at all. Maybe they had been getting ready to vacate the line. Maybe a little push was all they needed to rout.
Gulab was more than happy to provide that push.
Soon as her Red Squadron formed up behind the tank, Gulab nodded to them.
At once, they nodded back, submachine guns and rifles in hand.
“Tankies, get moving!”
“Yes ma’am!” Caelia and Danielle said at once.
Harmony let out a furious shout from its engine and steadily took the corner.
Gulab pointed the Norgler in the general direction of the enemy line and held it down.
She was almost on her belly and the gun was almost controllable.
From the barrel cone a shower of green tracers fell savagely on the sandbag wall. Caught unawares, a pair of machine gunners shooting over the fortifications were hit about the shoulders and face and collapsed behind the wall. Riflemen all along the line ducked for cover as Caelia joined the attack, her turret-mounted Khroda supplementing the Norgler’s gunfire. Red and green tracers flashed together in the air, laying down suppressing fire.
Around the tank’s sides, Red Squadron advanced diligently, split into five on the right and five on the left. Submachine gun fire peppered the defenders, keeping them off their machine guns. Harmony’s turret roared once more, and behind the line a mortar went up in pieces. Like an arrow plunging into a breast, they advanced from the corner, into the road, and diagonally up against the second sandbag wall. Retaliatory fire bounced off the tank. Not one grenade was thrown. More and more defenders huddled rather than fight.
It didn’t take much more of this punishment for the 8th Division to retreat.
As Gulab suspected, the defenders broke and tumbled out from behind the sandbags, amid the gunfire, unable to take any more. Several were cut down almost by accident by the sheer volume of automatic fire bearing down on their line. Dozens of people seemed to pop up as if from out of nowhere, running for their lives from behind the contested walls.
Red Squadron left the side of the tank and formed up on the opposite side of the sandbags.
Gulab dropped off the side of Harmony as it maneuvered itself behind the wall, and ran up. She slid to a crouch behind the sandbags, taking the same position as her own troops.
“Green Squadron, hold fire and get ready to move up! Red Squadron, slap the abandoned Khrodas around and use them!” Gulab shouted. She was unused to giving tactical orders, but it was not a responsibility she resented. It was a natural order to give now.
All along the wall there were weapons ripe for the taking. Red Squadron fighters turned Khrodas once facing south toward the north, targeting the final line and the runners. Two intact machine guns and, surprisingly, a small mortar, were captured immediately, and soon employed in this way. Ammunition for them was plentiful on the other side of the wall, and it was all grabbed and pulled over the sandbags to their side and employed.
In less than a minute they had their own defensive line set up, and it was their turn to fight from a strongpoint. Stolen Khroda guns flashed red tracers up the streets. Light mortar shells soared overhead and fell around the third line of defense. Gulab pulled up her binoculars and saw men and horses vaulting over the final line, and others congregating behind it. There was only a third of University Avenue left to go.
She felt a surge of pride and power and accomplishment. She had helped this happen.
Absentmindedly pulling back the charging handle on the Norgler, readying to fight, Gulab found herself unfortunately dry of ammunition. No more belts, no more sawing.
“Oh shit. I’m gonna miss this stupid thing.” She lamented.
Gulab dropped the Norgler on the floor and peered over the sandbags, searching the 8th Division’s abandoned side of the wall for a familiar discarded rifle or submachine gun.
Before finding any weapons, she saw the flash, and the next instant, the fire.
She was struck by a power that took the world from her in a split second.
From across the Avenue a shell came smashing into the sandbag wall, just six or seven meters away. Gulab felt the heat, briefly, and a surge of force that pushed her back onto the road and off the sandbags. As she fell back, she saw the fragments come flying like a cloud of knives, fast, like hundreds of needle-shaped bullets from one single smoking cannon. Across her cheek, around her arms, into her hip, she felt the chunks go slicing.
She was frozen in that moment, as if she could see the individual pieces of metal go flying, and she thought to move this way or that as if that decision could affect anything, and perhaps she did; perhaps she avoided death then. It was impossible to confirm, it was a dreamlike state, a suspension of a moment that should have been imperceptible.
Then the moment passed, paradoxically long enough and much too brief.
She was no longer suspended, and time was cruelly flowing.
Gulab hit the ground hard. She found the world shaking and eerily silent, and she was deafened and numb. Her vision swam. She saw the warm yellow and blue sky swirling like the froth atop a fancy coffee drink and thought she could not move. But slowly, though she knew not the time it took, the pain started to return. Everything was hurting.
“Pull the Corporal away!” shouted a squaddie, “pull her away now! Into the building!”
A woman nearby was shouting. “Shit, it’s an Orc! We got an Orc coming!”
“Since when do Orcs have guns that big?” A man replied. Gulab felt herself dragged.
“It’s got a seventy-six, how the heck did they mount that on an Orc!”
Everyone around her was shouting. Everyone one the radio was shouting too.
Caelia’s voice on the radio was firm. “Firing Armor-Piercing High Explosive!”
Gulab thought she saw the flash of the gun at the corner of her eyes.
Then a greater flash as a larger, redder tracer that went flying past the tank.
It exploded far behind them in a plume of fire. Gulab saw it as she was taken away.
“Crap, that would’ve wrecked us. Danielle, back off! We can’t fight it head-on!”
Harmony came briefly into her field of view as it retreated quickly around the corner.
More voices on the radio, some too sharp, some too soft, she could barely register–
“Danielle, keep hidden, I’m going out–”
“Caelia, wait. What are you doing?”
“We need to call in artillery. I’ll grab the shooting table and map from Corporal Kajari. Then, I guess, I’m going to duck out of this building, and have a really terrible time.”
“Please be careful.”
“I’ll be fine, I think. I hope.”
Gulab felt all the voices starting to converge and the world go darker.
She saw a roof, sliding over her head, and a half-dozen faces.
Private Suessen was the last one before everything fell away to shadow.
“You’re going to be ok, Corporal.”