This scene contains graphic violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
City of Rangda — Rangda University, Main Street
After the Research Library fell into their hands, Sergeant Chadgura’s platoon finally had the chance to converge with the 2nd Company’s advance force. Thus the assault on main street and the university began in earnest. Machete raised into the air, pistol in hand, Chadgura and two dozen men and women joined over a hundred fresh troops from the barracks, who had taken the less direct route to the University. Regrouping into a three-tiered, arrow-shaped column, the force left main street and pressed their advantage.
Men and women rushed through the streets in groups of six to twelve, keeping several meters of distance between themselves and the nearest fire team. Light gunfire fell over them as the vanguard crested the hill from the Research Library to the Main Street and came into view of the enemy defenses. At the edges of the seething mass a few people peeled away, wounded, killed; but there was not near enough gunfire to stop them all.
Over the rising and falling terrain of the inner campus, built on a series of small rolling hills, the 8th Division had been in the midst of constructing a series of defenses, but they could not buy enough time to do more than raise a few tiers of waist-high sandbags. Few of the defenses had large guns and those that did could not fire them properly at the ranges they were being engaged in. A few submachine guns and a bulk of rifles provided the defense with its killing power. From afar, stray mortar rounds soared over the column and landed, sporadically, almost everywhere that there was not a mass of men to kill.
Battalion Commander Burundi’s choice of a spread formation paid dividends on Main.
Through the plumes of dust from the mortars and the beam-like lines of tracer fire the Motor Rifle Shuuja bobbed and weaved, dashing from cover to cover like a flock of mice, a sea of individual movements impossible for the defenders to accurately discern. Dashing squadrons knitted a sporadic pattern with their boots on the street and road. One squadron leaped from around the corner, to a streetlight, to a tree, to the shadow of a hill; a second and third ran across open road, then on the ditch, then behind a bus stop bench.
Meanwhile a fifth and sixth followed the first; a seventh took a different path entirely. All of these men and women ran across the same stretch of roads and streets and despite the saturation of targets, the defenders could not seem to do but the most minor damage.
Within this perfectly executed chaos Chadgura and her allies closed to less than a hundred meters within moments. Behind them, light machine gunners used the marginally higher ground on the sides of the main street and within captured buildings to pepper the defenders with covering fire for their comrades. Submachine gunners marched briskly while firing their guns. Riflemen and women ran forward, took a knee or dropped to the floor when resistance presented itself, took choice shots with their guns, and ran forward again. Chadgura took with her a core of twelve men and women from Green Squadron.
Dashing along the edge of the column, her squadron made for a sandbag defense set high up on a nearby hill, in front of a chemistry building overlooking the main street. Though the ground was only a few meters higher than the surroundings, this hilltop was long and broad and could be followed almost to the end of Main Street, giving a commanding position throughout. The 8th Division had thoroughly failed to take advantage of it.
In seconds it seemed, despite the rounds flashing past their cheeks and flanks, and the mortars falling two rounds a minute across the column, Chadgura was upon the sandbags.
She saw a wall of perplexed faces in front of her, and she vaulted over it.
One foot hit dirt and propelled the second up onto the wall, and over it. She swung her machete as she came down; her blade sliced the face of a machine gunner and threw him back in agony. Behind her, riflemen and women vaulted the wall and put bayonet and knife to the bewildered defenders, who watched the charge like lost cattle on the road.
Cries of surrender quickly followed.
Chadgura had the surrendering and wounded enemies disarmed and tied to lamp posts nearby, but she would not linger among them. Around her the column was moving, and she was compelled to move too. Her lungs were growing raw enough to feel; her heart was pumping like never before. Her mind was blissfully clear. She was fighting; and she was fighting back the tears and the anger and shock and the confusion and abandonment–
She marched on, signaling for her troops to follow her along the hill.
All of them stood in awe of her energy; clearly running ragged, they still kept up.
Across the street, along the road, the sandbag defenses were toppled one by one.
From Chadgura’s vantage, Muhimu Shimba soon became visible.
Main Street opened up into a broad, forested park. All of the streets seemed to converge on this central position. Even the hills all seemed to descend into the park. There were no more sandbag defenses, no more fortifications or even any visible combat troops. There were only desolate streets in a vaguely diamond pattern around an empty square park.
On the radio came the voice of Captain Shakti, recently arrived with the 2nd Company.
His presence meant that there was a link in the chain of commander higher than her.
“Yes sir?” She asked, awaiting orders.
“March along the hill two lengths behind the column for flank security!” He said.
As the main bulk of the column, now led by the 2nd Company, marched into Muhimu Shimba to rout the Lion Battalion, Chadgura and her troops waited for their comrades to march the two lengths ahead. Chadgura ambled carefully over the far edge of the long hilltop, standing on the descending slope and kneeling. She withdrew her binoculars.
“Sir, we should be wary of Lion reserve units. Back in the city proper they hid tanks that almost attacked our exposed rear, had we marched any faster past them.” She advised.
“Copy that. Keep an eye out for us.” Captain Shakti replied.
Chadgura raised the binoculars to her eyes. Her fingers were drumming on them and her hands as a whole were shaking. She could feel everything catching up and she did not want it. She had been running fast enough to avoid everything, but she could feel it crack.
She scanned her lenses over the forest, over the connecting roads.
Nothing. Captain Shakti’s column exited the main street.
She scanned over the buildings standing sentinel on all sides across the park.
Nothing. Captain Shakti’s column stepped into the park lands, dozens of men and women moving from an organized march to a triumphant charge, running with abandon.
She scanned beyond Muhimu Shimba, wondering what terrain lay ahead.
Before her lenses could pick it up, she felt the rumbling and saw the flashes at the edge of her physical vision. Blaring red, between where her eyes barely met the rubber padding.
Chadgura threw her binoculars down and saw the smoke and the upturned earth.
All along the edge and center of the park, a series of explosions had gone off.
Dirt and smoke hung thick in the air, obscuring half the column, while the other half stood dazed and unsure. Chadgura’s troops gasped and exchanged glances and raised weapons.
From the wood came several charging figures.
“Cavalry! Captain Shakti–”
Chadgura cried out, as much as her voice would allow.
There was no response.
Horse-mounted, metal-armored cavalry in the dozens, with thick masks and flashing sabers and pistols and dragoon rifles ran suddenly out of the forest and rushed through the column’s spearhead, trampling through the cloud and around the flanks and engaging the confused center of the mass. Two other groups emerged, bypassing the center and moving to encircle the assembled force. Warhorses pounded men away at the command of their masters, and sabers flashed and pistols blared against the column’s flanks. Shuuja fell back from the horsemen and ran into one another, confused and corralled into a tight, ineffective mass without command and without sense of the enemy’s movement.
So penned-in was the column that they dared not shoot for fear of hitting an ally.
Effective leadership could have guided a tactical retreat and then a counterattack.
It seemed all the leadership had charged into the minefield without hesitation.
Chadgura stowed her weapons, raised a fist and her squadron followed her down the hill.
She too was running without hesitation.
“Faruk, hang back and provide covering fire, everyone else, engage on signal!”
At her instructions, the Danava machine gunner attached to her squadron hung back, deployed his bipod and kept to the hill, lying on his belly. Private Ngebe, the other automatic gunner, followed Chadgura closely. Her submachine gun was no good from the hill. Everyone else ran at their sides in an indistinct mass of long bayonet rifles.
They hit the bottom of the hill running, crossed the street and ran into the park.
Chadgura signaled, focusing on the left flank cavalry nearest to her. There were at least twenty horses and as many men dead ahead harrying the 2nd Company’s central group.
All had their backs turned, too focused on kettling the disordered column.
“Attack!”She said, raising a hand as if to conduct fire like a band.
Soon as she shouted, both into the radio headset and to her surroundings, Faruk opened fire from the hill. His first volley struck a pair of horses, and they collided with one another in the throes of death, violently crushing their riders. Chadgura stopped, took a knee, and behind her, all of the rest of her squadron joined Faruk in shooting.
Over Chadgura’s head a few dozen rounds went flying into the broad heads and round rumps of a half-dozen horses, killing and crippling them and sending their riders flying and falling and rolling off their mounts. Several of the enemy cavalrymen turned their mounts around and acquired Chadgura and Green Squadron as targets, but the damage had already been done. On the left flank of 2nd Company’s column, the pressure lessened.
Like a floodgate, the men and women of the 2nd Company came rushing out of the kettle.
Once dominant in the melee, the cavalrymen found themselves now overwhelmed. Their wall along the sides of the column was broken and the kettle separated into individuals quickly overrun and isolated from the mutual support of nearby warhorses. Single riders now fended off four or five Shuuja with renewed vigor and a grave willingness to kill.
Bayonets dug into the necks and heads of horses and into the legs and guts of their riders.
Knives and machetes swung at dismounted men, whose steel armor could protect their chests from small arms fire but not from having their knees and elbows and necks cut almost off. Cavalry sabers swung back, but did little against the overwhelming tide.
Once space allowed it, gunfire resumed from the center of the column.
Riders fell clean off horses as close-range rifle shots blasted open their armor.
Chadgura’s squadron moved ahead, helping to pick riders off from outside the throng.
The Sergeant peeled herself from the battle and switched the frequency of her radio.
“Broadcasting on the Company wave; is there an officer standing out there?”
There was no immediate response. She turned the dial to call Battalion command.
“Commander Burundi, 1st and 2nd Company’s have suffered critical–”
Chadgura looked up from the radio box at her hip in confusion.
She could hardly believe that anybody on this Aer could consider her such a thing.
Then she spotted the source of those words.
Ahead of her, a warhorse had broken suddenly from the melee.
Its rider, armored and faceless behind a gas mask, dismounted.
He flung off his very long, antiquated dragoon rifle and withdrew from his belt a saber.
Before Chadgura could raise her pistol to him the man was upon her.
Swinging his saber, he forced Chadgura back. In avoiding him, she dropped the weapon.
Carelessly her arm unplugged her radio before Command could respond.
Shouting a battle cry, the rider lifted his saber.
Chadgura pulled her machete from her belt and intercepted his next swing.
Both blades clashed and held.
Chadgura pushed back, but the rider was undaunted.
He stepped back in, swinging left and right.
Chadgura was not trained in swordfighting, not like an old style cavalry man would have been. She knew to swing and to stab to kill riflemen in close quarters, but the masked rider swung his sword with a fluidity and precision she could not match. He threw and shifted his weight expertly with every swing, like the shots of a tank seeking a weakness in the armor, forcing her to guard and driving her back step by step with every clash.
She could not think, the fighting was too close, and happening too fast.
She tried to take each blow individually but the clashes felt like a storm of metal.
Once more the saber bore down and once more she guarded.
It felt like the millionth blow they exchanged, but it was different.
She guarded too high.
There was a flash of movement from below and his boot struck her below the hip.
Chadgura staggered back. The Rider drew forward.
Private Ngebe appeared a dozen meters removed from the battle.
Her sharp little eyes flashed with recognition. She raised her submachine gun.
At once the cavalryman swung around and threw a knife from his belt.
Private Ngebe loosed a burst of shots that flew past the rider as his knife dug into her rib.
She cried out, dropped her gun, and then she fell, bleeding, sobbing, vulnerable.
Chadgura saw her hit the floor and could hardly believe the sight.
It was the final blow to her shaking edifice.
Something in her rose, hot and swelling, and it overflowed.
Her mind became a cracked mirror, reflecting a million half-thoughts.
She was the traitor?
That was what he thought — and then he did this?
All of them, the 8th Division– they had hurt her, hurt Ngebe, hurt–
She said she wouldn’t let her get in danger–
She wanted to protect her and yet–
Her eye started to twitch. She felt her eyelids forced very open, too open, more open than they had ever been, she had worn the same droopy expression on her face for years now and it was all breaking. Tears streamed down her face. Her teeth grit as if of their own accord. She could not but gnash them in her mouth. Her whole body tensed and bristled.
All of the feelings that she had never had, even before she consented to be conditioned by the KVW, all of the anger that was directed away, all of the sadness that was pushed down deep, all of the things that were a nuisance to feel, that were uncouth to feel, that were unbecoming of a girl who should have been dutiful, polite, straight-laced and perfect–
All of it exploded out of her in a scream of sorrow and anger that pushed the air.
The Rider stumbled back suddenly as if the scream had a physical force.
Chadgura grabbed hold of the machete with both hands, thrust forward and swung.
Between the mask and the man’s collar the blade struck, caught for an instant, and sliced.
The Rider’s head went tumbling backwards off his body.
Chadgura dropped her machete.
She clapped her hands fast and hard for several seconds.
She then clapped them against her own head.
Turning away from the battle, Chadgura rushed to Private Ngebe’s side. Kneeling, she lifted the little woman up into her arms and checked her wound. It was bleeding terribly.
“Gul– Ngebe, you will be fine.” Chadgura said.
Her eyes would not stop weeping. Everything she said sounded like a plea.
Ahead of her the battle died down. People stepped away from dead horses and butchered men and looked around as if in a daze. In the park the smoke had long cleared. Comrades started helping the wounded away from the front. Judging by the craters throughout the park, there were indeed mines or bombs buried there that had disrupted the attack.
It was something they should have known, but they thought the Lion Battalion beaten.
Behind her, the reserve troops started to move in, little by little.
Someone pulled her away from Private Ngebe, and pulled her away to safety, to be treated.
Chadgura sat on the ground.
She could not really conceptualize the directions so well anymore.
But she knew when she heard the noise that it was coming from deeper in the park.
It was a loud, singular report.
Followed by several smaller ones.
Columns of dirt and broken asphalt rose up where the shells impacted.
From deep in the wood appeared trundling hulk on a set of massive tracks.
At its sides, several dozen men with yellow sashes over their uniforms and submachine guns in their hands covered the tank’s flanks. They took a knee at the edge of the wood as the machine moved ahead of them and into the open, easily crushing bushes and dislodging the trunks of years-old, fallen trees and other debris of Muhimu Shimba.
Five turrets aimed at the column, two in front, two on the rear, and one large central gun.
Facing them, the multi-turreted tank looked larger than an elephant.
Everyone in the column froze.
“Traitors to Ayvarta!” called out a voice, seemingly from inside the tank. “You struggle against the invincible Lion battalion in vain. Our conviction is iron, and we will resist the aggression of Solstice with all of our strength. Our deep reserves have you surrounded as we speak. You have fallen for our trap! Surrender now and the Jotun will spare your lives! We have artillery, we have automatic fire support, we have armor– you have nothing!”
Chadgura cast her tearful eyes around the area.
She could not see any new enemy troops moving in to surround them.
Nevertheless she saw fear building in the eyes of the people around her.
None of them understood, in the middle of this confused, exhausting battle, that there was such a thing as bluffing and that an enemy could appear to present more strength than what was actually available to them. Sporadic mortar fire, the bombs in the park, the cavalry attack, and now the tank and the elite Lion Platoon infantry group. These were just illusions of power. Inexperienced or demoralized infantry exaggerated them.
Captain Shakti would have told them to hold, that they had the true advantage.
They had reserves, they had support from Umaru and Forest Park.
They had the Right Hand of Death, Madiha Nakar.
Someone could have told them to mow down the Lions and swarm the tank.
But Captain Shakti and the other leadership seemed to be incapacitated, or dead.
And Battalion command might not yet have received a single report of what transpired.
Chadgura’s radio was still disconnected.
Perhaps that was Badir The Lionheart’s plan all along.
Perhaps those bombs were meant for reckless, glory-seeking officers of a victorious unit.
Perhaps that suicidal cavalry attack meant to decapitate their great serpent of a column.
Kill field leadership, then inflict shock. An old tactic from the days of phalanxes.
It had worked. Now Chadgura was the only officer left.
Her hand went to her radio, but she felt a deep exhaustion, a great weakness.
For the first time in her life she was overwhelmed with emotion.
Gulab had left her side, and she felt such a great sorrow it was hard to fight.
It almost felt pointless; she could not protect anyone.
All of her training and conditioning seemed to have gone away entirely.
Had she been able to see her own face she would have seen those red rings around her eyes flickering and fading and breaking like her own composure. She could feel them doing so.
Each of the turrets on the Jotun began to turn to seek a different target. It turned partially to its side, facing four of its turrets to the column and leaving one guarding its rear. Two turrets seemed to have small guns, two had 45mm cannons, and the central gun appeared to boast a short-barreled howitzer. It was much more firepower than most tanks boasted.
One volley from the Jotun could do significant damage to infantry in the open.
Several could perhaps rout the column in the state it was in.
“Traitors, you have my pity and mercy! I will give you a minute to drop your weapons–”
Chadgura reconnected her radio, and found the little strength she needed to switch waves.
She hit upon a voice suddenly.
“Firing Smoke round!”
There was a split second difference between the cry on the radio and the report.
Chadgura heard a gun go off from behind them on the hill.
A shell flew across the park and struck the Jotun dead-on, exploding in front of its turret.
Thick, white and gray smoke expanded into a cloud across the front of the tank.
“Everybody fall back somewhere safe!”
Atop the hill she had previously ran down from, Chadgura saw Harmony there.
And as the tank neared, she saw a figure standing on the tank’s engine block, with her arms over the turret, manipulating a very long rifle that seemed stuck to the turret roof.
Chadgura scrambled again for her radio.
“Gulab, no! Retreat immediately!” Chadgura cried out.
“I’m not letting anyone else die on my account, Charvi! Especially not you!”
Gulab raised a hand as Harmony rushed past the column to engage the Jotun.
“I’ll kill anyone who threatens you, who threatens us and what we stand for, and who we are!” she cried out over the radio. “I’ll trounce them! I don’t care what that makes me!”
Her voice was deeply affected, as if she had been weeping as much as Chadgura too.
Chadgura was speechless.
She could only watch as the person she loved raced into harm’s way.
Ahead of them the smoke began to disperse, and the unharmed Jotun trundled forward.
“So be it! Taste the sword of the Lionheart, faithless dogs!” Badir cried from within it.
Harmony did not break from its path.
Within an instant, they were destined to collide.