This chapter contains graphic violence, death, attempted violence and endangerment of a child, psychological trauma, and emotional abuse and misgendering.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Rangda University Campus
“Lay down suppressing fire overhead! We’re storming the Research Library!”
Sergeant Chadgura shouted out to her troops, her dull voice achieving an air of strength.
Rushing up from University Avenue, she and her forces were poised to lay siege. Sniper bullets struck around their cover and stray machine gun fire swept the street, but it did not slow their advance. Smoke cover went up, elements reorganized and the attack pressed.
Machine gunners from Green and Yellow squadrons rushed uphill along the edge of the snaking road, making use of a brief smokescreen to cover their advance. Before the cloud fully thinned, they dropped on their bellies on the streetside green, using the curve of the hill to partially shield them from gunfire. Laying their Danavas down on their bipods, the gunners opened fire at angle on the upper floor windows of a massive square building overlooking the streets, raking every second floor aperture. Continuous gunfire danced between the windows, pitting the stucco exterior. Across the street an allied group of machine gunners performed the same maneuver on a second, opposite building.
Snipers and machine gunners, once commanding the terrain from inside the red brick buildings, quickly ducked away from the windows. They gave up their advantage for safety.
This was the best chance Sergeant Chadgura would get to invade the building and gain a powerful foothold in the University District. She steeled herself; she would seize it.
“Second Platoon will take the building at nine o’ clock, and we are going at three o’ clock! Move quickly; blocking group peels on contact, while the maneuver group keeps running!”
As she shouted this order, Chadgura stood up from behind a bus stop bench and rain shield and held her pistol into the air. Wind swept up her short, silver-white hair, and beads of sweat glistened over her dark skin. On her face was a stoic, unaffected expression, with easy eyes and neutral lips. She looked like a brave hero from a military poster.
Her gallantry was not lost on her troops. A group of twelve riflemen and women from her Green Squadron immediately left their cover in the vicinity of the fighting and joined her as she rushed uphill and past her deployed machine gunners. They ran without question.
Chadgura ran the fastest and hardest and it showed. She ran with abandon, her sense of pain and exhaustion and fear blunted, so that the palpitations of her heart and the raggedness of her breathing and the struggling of the muscles in her limbs felt distant and disassociated. She ran from the fog in her head and ran headlong into the fray instead.
“For Corporal Kajari! Charge!” She shouted, feeling a desperate pang in her heart.
“Oorah!” her comrades shouted back. She could almost feel their own rising spirits too.
Unbeknown to them the Sergeant was not sweating from mere heat and not screaming with h0t-blooded spirit. She was wracked with pain and stress not evident in her voice or mannerisms. She was conditioned to fight on regardless of this; and so she fought on.
Soon as her feet hit the top of the hill she aimed her pistol and laid down fire mid-run, smashing the glass panels of a long basement level window sinking into the lawn at the building’s far wall. Rifle shots rang out between the volleys of her allied machine guns. Tracers swept past her from the door to the Research Library and struck the turf.
There were riflemen stationed at the building’s ground floor doorway, leaning out of the cover of the doorway to fire on her. She felt chips of earth and concrete come flying at her legs and feet as snap shots struck the ground around her as she ran. She did not retaliate.
She was part of the maneuver group, and so she bounded forward. Others would cover her.
Behind her, three riflemen peeled from her group, took a knee atop the hill and engaged the enemy, shooting into the hallway partially concealed behind the glass panels and wooden frames of the doors. Well-timed long rifle shots on the door kept the enemy in the hallway from leaning out to fight, temporarily silencing the ground floor’s gunfire.
Machine gun fire flashed out from behind the hill and struck the second floor overhead, sending bits of the masonry and spent lead raining down over the maneuver group. Both the snipers and the ground floor defenders offered only scattered resistance, unable to deny the movements of their advancing enemies. Chadgura raised a fist in the air.
Her covering group saw the gesture and got ready for their new task.
“You saw her! We’re assaulting the front! Grenade out!” a man shouted behind her.
A safety pin clicked off. A can-shaped grenade went flying and rolling over stairway handrails in front of the building. It slipped in between half-open doors into the Library.
Chadgura heard the explosion go off to her side as she made it to the window she shot out. Six of her troops hurried past her, coming in from the hilltop she had left behind. They shouldered their rifles, stacking at the door with pistols, grenades and machetes in hand.
Half her squadron followed her to the corner of the building and crouched with her on the edge of the lawn. Chadgura and three soldiers guarded the broken basement window, while three others crouched and slid inside. From the sounds of it, they had a rough landing. It was an actual drop, from the ground roof to the floor of the basement level. Chadgura could not make out what was directly under them below, and had only a few dozen centimeters-wide glimpse at the long rows of book shelves and ceiling lights.
After a few seconds of low mumbling and groaning the entry team regrouped.
“There’s a table down here that’ll break your fall!” one woman shouted up.
She sounded mildly irritated, and likely still in much pain.
Chadgura unceremoniously ducked under the window and rolled inside herself.
Misjudging the height, she slammed side-first into the aforementioned table.
Very real pain shot through her whole body, and she felt the wind go out of her.
Her face contorted subtly, and her movements were sluggish, shaken.
None of her own self would allow her to really emote, to cry out or gnash her teeth.
Instead, stone-faced, she struggled to her feet, silently shaking.
Partially standing from the table, she raised her hands and clapped them softly.
Behind her, the two remaining soldiers dropped clumsily inside and landed hard on the tiled floor behind the table, missing the mark altogether. Neither recovered very quickly.
They had all landed in a small reading area surrounded by the basement’s shelves.
There was little time to take in the surroundings. Becoming stuck in here would spell death. Upstairs, they heard the sounds of individual shots fired, audible beneath the cacophony of the machine guns and snipers dueling outside. That must have been the ground floor team, engaging the enemy. Chadgura had no rifle, and ordered those who did to either shoulder it or affix bayonets. One woman had a submachine gun. Everyone else switched to their pistols — the bundu was too long to wield in confined spaces.
Chadgura withdrew a machete from her belt.
She wielded it one hand with an automatic pistol in the other.
Raising it like a cavalry sword, she ordered her fire team to hug the basement wall and follow it through the shelves. Two soldiers with bayonets led the team, followed by the submachine gunner, and Chadgura near the rear with the rest of the team. On one side they had a stark white wall, and on the other the long lines of black shelves filled with labeled books. At any point an enemy with an automatic weapon could have turned that cramped lane into a killing field, but none did. Chadgura’s group followed the wall down to a corner, and turned into another reading area that was also empty. There was a recess with a staircase inside, as well as an elevator. Chadgura did not trust the latter to be safe.
“Up the stairs. Private Ngebe, you first.”
She nodded to the submachine gunner, who nodded back. Ngebe was a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl that seemed ill at ease, but she was as trained as anyone there. Despite the perplexed look on her face, Ngebe carried out her duties well. Stepping carefully toward the recess, the submachine gunner stacked against the outer wall, quickly leaned in with her weapon to scout the room, and then proceeded inside carefully. Chadgura and the rest of the team followed, keeping out of sight of the staircase steps until Private Ngebe had taken a step and raised her weapon to the next landing. She raised her hand and urged them forward. Carefully, the team ascended the steps, keeping watchful eyes overhead.
An automatic weapon was vital to command access to obstacles like staircases.
But it seemed the enemy had not thought to defend the basement at all.
No sentries, no mines or traps, not even a locked door.
At the top of the stairs, Ngebe and Chadgura simply burst through an unlocked door and immediately joined the ground floor battle from directly behind the enemy defenses.
They entered a square lobby connecting the front hallway to the building proper. Behind a desk reinforced with sandbags a Khroda machine gun blasted the hallway and forced the entry team to duck behind the narrow strip of brick supporting the interior doorway. Already the door itself had been shredded. Three enemies crouched behind the reinforced desk, and a fourth man well inside the room directed the gunfire from within a stairwell.
Chadgura raised her pistol and shot this last man first, striking the side of his head.
He had barely hit the ground dead when Private Ngebe turned her gun on the desk.
She winced anxiously as she held down the trigger and hosed the defenders down.
Nothing that could be called battle unfolded from this — stricken by a hail of automatic gunfire at their backs, circumventing all of their protections, the defenders collapsed suddenly, their bodies riddled with bullets. Blood pooled over the sandbags and splashed the interior of the Khroda’s metal shield. In an instant the room grew dead silent.
The Sergeant wasted no time contemplating the scene.
“Entry team, form up!” Chadgura ordered.
From the hallway, the entry team crossed inside over the bits of door debris.
Now Chadgura had her whole squadron back, and without casualties.
She picked out one man and urged him out the door. “Go outside and signal for the rest to move in. We’ll advance upstairs to the main library.” Nodding, the man hurried out to do as he was told. Chadgura turned her attention to the rest of the squadron. “Reserves will sweep and hold the ground floor, while we secure the rest of the building. Move out.”
Clapping her hands — for effect rather than anxiety — Chadgura and her squadron inspected the stairways up to the second floor with the same caution that they approached the ones from the basement to the ground floor. Submachine gunners approached first, poised as they were to defend themselves from ambush with automatic gunfire. There were two staircases from the lobby, on opposite sides. Chadgura split her squadron into two fire teams and then she accompanied her original team up the leftmost stairway.
Quietly and carefully as they could, the squadron climbed each step without incident.
At the top, Chadgura and Private Ngebe left the stairwell first.
Soon as Chadgura set foot on the second floor landing a bullet struck the wall just a centimeter off from her cheek. She felt the force of the impact and winced. Though the mental shock was muted, the response from her body was visibly the same as anyone’s.
Chadgura ducked blindly behind the frame of stairwell opening to avoid the attack.
Several more rifle rounds flew past her. She heard a wet choking sound follow.
“Throw a grenade!” She ordered.
Some suppressed portion of her brain wanted to turn that into a visceral, echoing scream, but the words came out as a dull, slightly higher pitched cry that was still typical to her.
Nevertheless, she heard that grenade go flying out, thrown from the stairwell.
There was a deafening blast several dozen meters outside.
Chadgura waited a few seconds before leaning out and firing her pistol into the room.
Through the thinning smoke she caught a glimpse of where they were.
Ahead of them stretched a vast and broad room that seemed to encompass the entire floor. There were hundreds of shelves full of books to either side of a broad central space with tables and lamps. Many tables had been flipped over for cover. Several that had been stacked close to form a barricade in the center of the room had been blown to pieces by the grenade, killing and exposing the riflemen hidden behind them. There were men behind the tables, men hiding among the shelves, and a few men running between positions.
Behind her, one of her own men had been shot and was dragged downstairs. There was little room to hide or maneuver in the stairwell; most of her squadron was hidden down the steps. Private Ngebe was hiding behind the stairwell doorframe on the side opposite Chadgura’s own. This was the only place she could fit into and only one person could fit.
Chadgura could almost make out her remaining squadron on the far side of the room.
There were fewer positions opposing them than those opposing her.
Flipping on her radio pack, she called out, “Section, attack the central defenses!”
She waved to Private Ngebe, and reloaded her pistol.
At her signal, both of them leaned out and engaged the central defenses. Chadgura’s pistol was automatic, and the same caliber pistol round as Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, but its rate of fire was much lesser. Her fire flew in fits and starts, striking tables and floors and bookshelves inaccurately; Private Ngebe’s gunfire was continuous and accurate, fired from the shoulder, sweeping over the enemy’s cover and along its edges and forcing the defenders of the central position to cower in fear of being stricken wherever could be seen.
Cower they did, but only momentarily.
Seconds into Chadgura’s attack, from behind the defenders the second fireteam started shooting. A second submachine gun burned its ammunition, and this one had little to contend with and a likely unintruded view of the enemy’s backs. Pistols joined the volley and the volume of gunfire saturated the area. Suddenly the enemy found themselves enfiladed, caught between two pincers of brutal automatic fire. Chadgura could not see through the tables facing her, but she saw small holes punctured in the wooden cover; she heard the screams and shouts; she saw blood spatter, and saw wounded men trying to run.
Private Ngebe’s gun clicked empty, and she ducked behind the doorframe to reload.
Chadgura ducked behind as well.
Out in the library the gunfire did not abate.
Over the radio, Chadgura heard a man cry, “Grenade out! Take cover!”
This was soon followed by a blast in the middle of the room.
When Chadgura peeked out of the doorframe again, she found the barricade of upturned tables scattered in pieces, blown apart into bullet-riddled debris over isolated corpses and spreading pools of blood. There was not a living man still deluded enough to take cover in the mess. All of them had dispersed into the ranks of shelves, putting anything between themselves and the omnidirectional killing field the center of the library had become.
Chadgura grabbed hold of her microphone and shouted, as much as she could, “All units advance and clear the room! Shoot through the shelves! Don’t let them regroup!”
From behind her, the soldiers ducking down the steps came charging out.
Raising her pistol, Chadgura rushed out with them, and Ngebe followed.
Dispersing across the width of the room the column advanced. Pistols flashed repeatedly, shooting diagonally through the ranks of shelving units to avoid hitting their counterparts across the room. Lines of red tracers punched through books and wooden shelves and sent paper flying into the air. There was no resistance. Two submachine guns and a half-dozen automatic pistols systematically laid waste to the room, cutting a swathe across what seemed like a hundred rows of shelves each towering over the bloodshed. Rifle-caliber fire from the bayonet-bearing bundu punched through several shelves at once with each shot.
Within moments the last shot was fired and there were no sounds of resistance.
Checking between each row they found blood and bodies, some dead, many wounded.
Pleas of surrender went out from those still alive enough to know their plight
Papers soared and glided through the air like a cloud of white and yellow butterflies, stacking on the floor wherever they fell, turning crimson where there was blood. Several damaged shelves collapsed spontaneously as if awaiting the end of the violence. There was a partial domino effect on one end of the room, a dozen shelves falling over and crushing several men beneath their bulk; Chadgura’s forces steered clear of this as they marched.
Regrouping in the center of the room, Green Squadron exchanged clear reports.
Once sure that the situation was well in hand, Chadgura called over the radio.
“Second floor clear. Ground team, what’s your status?”
“Ground looks clear so far Sergeant. Should we join up?” one of the men responded.
“Send four of you. Everyone else barricade the basement and guard the lobby.”
After clearing the room, Chadgura completed her picture of its layout. She found the accursed second floor windows that she was being shot from earlier, vacant, at least one abandoned machine gun left lying there. And she found the next set of stairs, and once more stacked up at the stairwell. Ngebe took the lead again, and again Chadgura followed her up. Six fresh soldiers including four from the ground team followed behind her.
This time they were more cautious, and peered into the upper floor before fully climbing up the stairs. Nobody was shooting at the landing. In fact nobody was out in the open in the third floor. There was only a long hallway with closed doors to a dozen rooms. Austere brown carpets and beige walls, windowless showed no sign of tampering. Still, Chadgura was not going to take any chances. She called the ground floor and had a package brought.
On the closest and farthest doors explosives were quietly affixed.
Wire was drawn back to the stairwell.
Chadgura and her team hid, counted, and electrically set off the bombs.
In quick succession four blasts blew through the room.
Doors blew off their hinges and walls partially crumbled. Fires danced over splintered wooden supports and burnt carpet. Smoke swept across the hallway and into the rooms. Dust sifted from the cracked roof shimmering with the rays of the rising morning sun outside, while splintered walls unveiled the clouded remains of reading rooms.
“Clear the rooms.” Chadgura ordered.
Nodding heads; her soldiers donned gas masks and quickly spread among the doors and through the holes in the walls. Chadgura donned her mask and followed Ngebe into one of the nearest doors, pistol on hand. Behind the smashed doorway she found a room full of injured men and women, their weapons discarded or broken, coughing and choking with every wound conceivable from broken bones to missing fingers and limbs and cuts and bruises of all kinds, disoriented and mildly burned and concussed and dazed by the blasts. They crawled under upturned tables, behind fallen shelves and smashed file cabinets.
Across the floor, Chadgura heard the cries of “Clear!” come echoing from every corner.
She wandered through the debris and bodies, feeling nothing for them.
Her heart was always a little dull; today it was absent entirely.
It was somewhere else, with another person, one who needed it more.
“All clear.” She called on the radio. “Send medics up. We’ve got a lot of enemy wounded in grave need of treatment. Tell the ambulance and supply trucks it’s okay to move in.”
University Avenue was conquered, and now they had a castle from which to guard the Main Street. They were only a step from Muhimu Shimba. It felt like they had been fighting for days, but in reality a handful of hours passed. It was not even the proper time for lunch.
Chadgura started out of the building posthaste.
She feared that if she stopped moving, she would have gone back to her.
And though she wanted nothing more to stare at Gulab, to see her rest angelic and to suffer with her every second that she was not awake and aware among them, Chadgura knew that Gulab would not be safe until Muhimu Shimba was taken. She had to move.
“Orange squadron and Purple squadron move up, with me. We’re on the attack.”
City of Rangda — University Avenue, Earlier
“Caelia, was that really–”
Danielle stood dumbfounded at the doorway to the squadron’s impromptu stronghold, watching as dozens of shells fell from the sky over the heads of the 8th Division’s cavalry.
She had thought she would watch a hundred men come tear her to pieces, her heart filled with regrets and desires that were so agonizingly close and so devastatingly far, and yet–
Seemingly a hundred black plumes of smoke billowed up from the earth over the course of a minute, consuming men and destroying weapons and raging with the sharp flashes of an inner fire. Horses fell forward hind over head, sent spiraling into the ground, dead and broken, by the explosions. Men fell apart and dropped on their faces and flew into the air as if attacked by an invisible reaper. Red trails came down from the sky and partitioned it a hundred ways, creating a webwork that traced each explosion to a shooter far, far away.
Of course, it was not Caelia who took these shots, but she had summoned them.
In so doing, it made Danielle ascribe that power to her, and she stood in awe of it.
“Danielle, you copy?”
Caelia’s voice sounded over the radio, cutting the silence of the pockmarked battlefield.
Danielle raised her hand to her headset, a little smile dawning on her dazed face.
“Yes ma’am. Thank you for the save there.”
“Nah, that wasn’t me. That was a comrade half a city away, I guess.”
Danielle heard the voice both through her microphone and in the vicinity.
She turned around from the door and found Caelia walking into the room with a small smile on her face and a large radio box attached to her hip belt and vest by leather straps. She unplugged herself from it and acknowledged her partner, making eye contact across a room of hunkered-down riflemen and women in mild shock. Danielle almost considered running at her and giving her a hug, but she thought that might have been too awkward.
Also, she might have had to step on some people to get to her anyway.
Instead they shared a little smile from afar, savoring at least that little bit across the personal distance they faced. Unable to cross it, and yet, Danielle thought, not alone.
For now, it was enough that they were alive and supporting one another.
Everything else could be put on a friendly hold for the moment.
With the 8th Division counter-attack on University Avenue repelled, reinforcements began to move up from the positions on the lower street. Green and Yellow Squadron arrived and personally began to aid with the wounded. There were promises of ambulances and supply trucks over the radio. Ammunition was desperately needed. Harmony was nearly out of high caliber ordnance and had gone through most of its 7.62mm rounds.
Other people were tending to the important things. Danielle felt restless.
Caelia stood off to one side and talked to various incoming squadron-level officers in turn about what happened. She looked put-upon by the attention, and Danielle wanted to say a comforting word, but she felt like she would have been nothing but a pest in this situation. She was just a driver and mechanic. She thought she could hardly be considered a soldier. She hadn’t done anything to protect anyone when the 8th Division counterattacked.
All she had done was stand around like a fool and pray everything would be fine.
Danielle did not want to intrude or become a distraction to Caelia, so she stepped out back, where Harmony had been hidden from that nasty Orc once dominating the upper street.
The Orc was now a wreck, but Harmony had not come out of it unharmed.
Throughout the day she had taken some abuse. There were pits where armor-piercing machine gun rounds had been used against it, to minimal but visible effect. There was one mean dent on Danielle’s hatch, where a BKV bullet nearly punched through. It would have turned her head to pulp on a successful penetration. On its side, Harmony had a small slash mark where an exploding penetrator had nearly hit them. It detonated prematurely.
Sighing, Danielle walked around the side of the tank and lifted open the storage space.
She withdrew her welding gas tanks and a welding torch, as well as the spare track links from inside the storage space. From her own pack she withdrew a welding mask — she often kept it handy as a makeshift helmet. Sliding the gas tanks around Harmony’s side, she connected the hose to the welding torch and climbed up onto the front of the tank.
Setting a track link up against the wound on her front hatch, Danielle started up the torch and put down her mask. She put the fire to the metal link, welding it against the hull to patch up the pockmark. Soon her hatch was more or less reliably armored again, with the metal link covering up the front-center of it, right where her face would be behind it.
Satisfied with this arrangement, she picked out another track link, hopped off the side of the tank and began to weld the link to the long flank wound. Link by link, she nearly built a third makeshift track burnt flat against the side armor of the tank. In this fashion she covered up the dent and more or less restored the integrity of Harmony’s weak flank.
Mechanical work was almost soothing. Danielle was not especially good at it and she knew it. She did not consider herself especially good at anything, but in mechanics she had a very basic understanding; she could fix the tank tracks, tune-up the engine, and do simple weld jobs, but she was no engineer. However, like casual tank driving, it was something that she could become consumed by when she had to do it. When she was focused on these tasks, the world turned on its axis all around her with great ease, and time simply passed.
Two things assisted her focus. One was her fascination with tanks. Working on Harmony was a joy because Harmony was a tank. She was a new tank; a kind of tank that was not in her books. A tank built for two, with a 45mm gun, decent armor for a lightweight vehicle, decent speed, and a unique engine and turret layout. Harmony was a very novel machine. And everything Danielle did to Harmony made it more her own and less anyone else’s.
A close second, or perhaps a phantom first, was her storied, special friend, Caelia Suessen.
Danielle wanted desperately to protect Caelia, to keep her safe, to carry her through the duties both of them had, for their own reasons, taken on, and been thrust together into. She had no weapons; Caelia had all the weapons. Danielle’s weapons were her steering sticks and her mechanical tools. These track links were a weapon to protect Caelia.
With that in mind, Danielle could not help but to focus, to become consumed by work.
It was work worth doing, work that needed doing. Work that made her feel valuable.
And so it was work that she continued doing with a single-minded purpose.
Track links and torch in hand, she had one last armor vulnerability to patch.
Climbing on the tank, Danielle absentmindedly started to work on the turret.
She set a track link up against a deformed portion of the gun mantlet.
She raised her torch.
“Having fun up there?”
Startled, Danielle slashed a careless but shallow burn mark across Harmony’s mantlet.
Behind her, Caelia stood on her tiptoes with her hands over her mouth.
Danielle quickly regained control of her tools, and cursed herself for looking foolish.
She shut off the torch, pulled up her mask and smiled innocently.
“Hujambo! I’m just getting the tank ready. How did things go back there?”
Caelia shook her head, fists to her hips. “It’s a mess honestly. Sergeant Chadgura should be here soon. Now that the way is clear, we should be getting more reinforcements.”
“Will we get more ammo? Because that’s what we need.”
“I know.” Caelia shrugged. “We don’t have priority for ammo apparently. It is what it is.”
Danielle shook her head. “I guess the tank battalion’s getting it all.”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
Caelia’s head dipped a little. Danielle felt a strong urge to lift her chin up.
Had she been anywhere near her, she would have — and called her cute, too!
In her dreams anyway — she hadn’t the courage for it.
Instead she rubbed her hands awkwardly on her welding torch.
Both of them grew quiet for a moment.
“Um, need any help?” Caelia asked.
Danielle blinked. Usually it was she who broke the awkward silence first.
Taking this as a sign of enthusiasm from Caelia, Danielled perked up.
“Yes! Hand me those track links when I tell you!”
Caelia nodded, and approached the pile of track links Danielled had left on the hull.
“Do these help stop penetrations at all?” She asked.
“They’re one centimeter thick, and our glacis armor is 3.5 centimeters thick. So if you think about it we’re adding an extra quarter armor in patches.” Danielle said excitedly.
Caelia whistled and smiled. “You’re really into these things aren’t you?”
“Well, you know.” Danielle scratched her curly black hair awkwardly.
“Yes, I do know!” Caelia replied, sweeping a bit of her own loose hair behind her ear.
They stared for a moment with little awkward smiles.
Caelia then quietly picked up one of the links and handed it to Danielle.
Danielle reached down to pick it up, and as her fingers entwined around the metal link she found the hand coming closer, and the attached young woman closer still.
Caelia climbed up atop the tank’s front and held the link in place.
She was standing right beside Danielle. They were so close!
Danielle felt the cloth strap on one of her partner’s belt pouches brush against her.
Her face grew a little hot.
“It’s easier this way. Weld it tight now.” Caelia said.
Caelia pressed a little against her. Her warmth could be felt through her bodysuit.
Danielle purged her thoughts and forced herself stiffly toward the turret.
She started the torch, her neck and back tingling with an awkward, delicious sensation.
She put the fire to the metal, and before the first sparks flew by she was startled again.
This time it was by an odd sound at a strange pitch, deep and disaffected but oddly loud.
Caelia turned over her shoulder. Danielle shut off and set down her torch.
Sergeant Chadgura arrived at Red Squadron’s impromptu FOB and immediately fixated on the row of wounded lying wrapped in green blankets in the back of the room. Healthy soldiers made way for her as she rushed across the room and knelt next to the gently groaning body of the Corporal, eyes shut, lying against a corner of the room, breathing roughly. One of the medics in attendance stood just off to the side, averting his eyes.
“We should go in.” Danielle said, putting down her torch.
“I guess.” Caelia replied, dipping her head down again.
Together they climbed down from the tank and headed back inside the building.
Sergeant Chadgura stood over the unconscious Corporal Kajari without expression in her face. She mumbled something. She was staring intently, her hand was subtly shaking, and her movements were very stiff and labored. Danielle found it plain to see that she was agitated, though she knew Sergeant Chadgura was not one to allow such things to show.
When she turned around to face Caelia, Danielle thought she saw a flash of anguish, as though there were a second face beneath the Sergeant’s skin that cried out for release.
“What happened?” She asked.
Her tone of voice was a touch louder than normal, but sounded as unaffected as ever.
Caelia shook her head and sighed. “Red Squadron took a barricade and a tank shot it out from up the street. She got hit by fragments. All her wounds are surface level and the medic removed the shards, but the shock might’ve concussed her. We don’t know.”
Chadgura held her hands vaguely in front of her but no further.
“How long has she been like this?”
“Minutes, really. Maybe a half hour.” Caelia said. She turned to the medic.
At their side, a man with a red cross armband on his uniform cowered.
“Sorry ma’am.” the medic said sheepishly. “There’s not much I or anyone can do for her right now, but it’s also not safe to transport her either. Shaking her up too much might upset her condition. She’s not going to bleed out and her breathing is stable, so she is well alive. Whether she’ll wake up in the same condition as before is too early to tell.”
Chadgura quickly replied. “Will she wake up?”
Both Caelia and the medic cowered further.
“I,” the medic stammered, “I’m sorry, I should rephrase, I don’t know if she will–”
Chadgura turned around and walked out of the door without another word to the medic.
At the doorway into the FOB Chadgura spoke loudly and forcefully, as much as her demeanor would allow and as if to the room and not to any individual soldier in it.
“Red Squadron will enter reserve. I will advance with the rest.”
She stepped past the threshold of the door and disappeared behind the exterior walls.
Danielle, Caelia and the medic stood in place, still frozen by the Sergeant’s departure.
Everyone watched the door as if anything more would come through it.
Danielle broke free of her trance and sidled up to Caelia, resting her head against her.
Caelia made no movement but to sigh and stare at the door wistfully.
Behind them, Corporal Kajari moaned, trapped in some agony unknown to all of them.
She was visibly in a bad way. Her honey-brown skin was slightly discolored. Her long hair, once wrapped in a neat braid, was disheveled. Her soft, slender face was in turmoil, her jaw set, her eyes shut hard, sweat rolling down her brow and cheeks.
Danielle wondered whether she felt anything in that sleep.
She hoped that Sergeant Chadgura could at least be close to her in those fitful dreams.
Xxnd of the Hazel’s Frost, 20xx D.C.E
Kucha Mountain Range — Dhoruba Peak
In their ignorance they called them Rock Bears. There was precious little bear to them.
What the people of the Kucha hunted was a monster. Veins full of cold blood that cared not for the cold, hidden under hard, jagged skin like a coat of organic stone. When infuriated the veins pumped red with some ethereal force, some leftover magic from the ancient times that still sparked in their dense bodies. Long, slitted eyes appraised prey from the side of a wide, tapered head. Long, tough forearms supported a broad trunk and thick, powerful hind legs perpetually curled as if to spring. And spring it did; launching itself from its hind legs, kicking behind it a storm of snow, the Rock Bear took off into the air.
Catching a tree with its long arms, it spun over the hunters, avoiding several gunshots.
Coming out of the spin, the beast pounced upon a man hind legs first and crushed him.
Cruel claws unfurled from its thick, boulder-like fists and sliced the corpse viciously.
Rifle bullets and shotgun shells rang out within the mountain forest of Dhoruba.
Flat-headed slugs bounced off the armor of the beast, but the sharp 7.62 mm rounds of the bundu rifle penetrated at close range. Blood spurted from wounds on the monster’s shoulder, blooming wherever a bullet caught. Across its body the patchwork of glowing veins flashed, severed in places where wounds and blood obscured the luminescent shell.
Setting its fists back on the ground, the Rock Bear leaped into the middle of the hunters.
Enduring a second volley from a half-dozen guns, the monster seized a man each in its fists, lifted them into the air with ease and bashed them together like the toys of a callous child, beating and beating them to twisted mush. Its perpetually crooked mouth slipped a few centimeters to bare teeth, giving the monster the appearance of a malevolent grin.
There was too much blood flying in the buffeting, snowy wind, too many cries echoing through the wood, and too much of a beast in sight, for the child to have remained calm.
From the child’s mouth came a primal screech. Legs pounded and feet rushed with sudden abandon. Into the wood the child fled. There was no sense of direction, no purpose to the flight, save to escape, save not to see. Callously the men had brought the child to become one of their own, to see the horrors that lay in the dark corners of the world. At the sight of the beast that had become the eternal enemy of their tribe, the Child now refused.
Tears streamed down the Child’s face, nearly freezing in the cold. Behind their back the bear-headed hood of their cloak flapped. Wind that had seemed such an impediment to the climb to Dhobura now offered no resistance to the Child’s flight. There were screams, left behind, but they could sound no louder than the screams in the child’s own head.
“Come back, Gulab!” shouted a familiar voice. Another set of running footsteps.
Gulab could not stop. Her body would not allow it. As if in response she screamed again.
At once the Rock Bear’s head turned deep into the woods where the child had fled.
Its killer instinct piqued by the unmistakable sound of prey, it charged after the child.
Forelegs sprang, and the long forearms struck the ground knuckles first, carving up the snow and pulling the body forward. Its running gait was streamlined despite its ungainly assortment of limbs. Faster than any being its size had a right to be, the Rock Bear leaped over ditches, kicked off trees, swung from branches and navigated jagged rock and ice.
Within seconds it was clearing enough forest to make up for the minutes Gulab had run.
Gulab felt the monster bearing down on her, felt the stomping steps, the shattering of trees, the disruption of the incoming winds, blocked as they were by the fleshy hulk.
She turned her head over her shoulder, grit her teeth, and saw the shadow near.
Crying and screaming for help she dropped to the ground and the beast swept over.
The Rock Bear struck clean through a nearby tree.
Blood from the monster’s seeping wounds rained over Gulab as the beast passed her.
From her coat, she withdrew a small revolver pistol and raised it in shaking hands.
She sat up, pushing herself back on the snow and kicking her legs frantically to try to escape, while keeping her wildly shaking weapon arm trained on the monster ahead.
In her mind her father’s words struck blows that shook her to her core.
“Man up already! Stop crying so much! Stop complaining! Do as you’re told!”
She felt him chastising her even as the monster hit the forest floor, as it turned around to face her, as it neared, as its jaw unhinged and its long, forked tongue snaked in and out.
“Aren’t you strong? You’re a son of the Chief! You rule over this mountain!”
His voice continued to yell at her. She saw his face contorted in disgust at the state of her.
In the small, hatefully glowing eyes of the monster, Gulab saw her fate.
Her death would be her own fault.
It would not even be her death, it would be his, but it would still be her fault.
Even at her age Gulab painfully understood this.
She could win at chess all she wanted. She could boast all she wanted. She could make up any amount of tall tales for the village girls. She could grow and braid her hair all she wanted. She could play dress up and cry and practice her high voice all she wanted. But this was what she would be judged for, what was real. Everything else was fake.
Her finger could not pull the trigger. Slowly the monster advanced.
The Rock Bear did not understand how much Gulab wished nobody had to kill it.
How much the men of the village fighting it was pointless, wasteful, a shameful act of violence as much upon themselves as against the beast. She wished she had the words to say that, she wished he had the words to say that, maybe they would listen if he said it. They wanted her to be him but even when she tried to speak as him none of it mattered.
At first she was the little child without a hair on her face who talked big about hunting and fighting and chess to make up for a difference in size, in conviction, in capacity for the casual violence of men and lacking the signifiers of their strength and dominance.
Now she was a nuisance, a shame. Now the gods frowned on her transgressions.
And maybe when this creature ate her they would all cheer instead of mourn.
Her eyes fixed upon the monster’s eyes.
One big, grey and brown, heavily bloodied fist curled to strike.
Gulab did not wince. Perhaps her tears had frozen her eyes open.
Down came the hand, launching both a punch and a swipe at once.
From behind her, a shotgun slug severed one of the digits as it closed.
The Rock Bear cried out and swung its arm into the air in pain.
Gulab felt an arm scoop her up.
“You’ll be alright Gulab! I’ve got you!”
Grandfather, shotgun in one hand, child in the other. Gulab was speechless.
The Rock Bear set its hateful slitted eyes on him and swept its arm.
Gulab screamed. Grandfather leaped.
His feet went clean over the monster’s arm.
Grandfather flicked his arm, popping open the breech of his shotgun.
“Gulab, load it!”
They hit the ground again.
Gulab seized a shell from his pocket and pressed it into position.
Grandfather flicked his wrist again, closing the gun. Gulab cocked it.
The Rock Bear roared. Grandfather aimed and fired with one hand.
From the end of the barrel came a spray of buckshot.
On the exposed red flesh of the inside of its mouth erupted a dozen gushing wounds.
Grandfather flicked again.
Nodding, she grabbed another shell–
Out of nowhere came that bloody, flying fist, faster than ever.
Grandfather went flying. Gulab fell from his protective embrace and hit the snow again.
“Grandpa!” she cried.
The Rock Bear turned into its swing, putting the bulk of its scaly back to her.
Somewhere in front, obscured by the pouncing beast, Grandfather cried and squirmed.
She saw the monster’s arms go up, and down, and she saw blood splashing but not the whole of what was happening. She felt a sense of alarm that made her arms move quickly.
From the floor she seized her revolver.
Without thinking she pulled the trigger once, twice.
“Stop it! Leave him alone!”
Sparks flew off the monster’s back as the bullets struck it. It was like shooting metal.
“Stop it! Just die! Just die!”
Gulab cried out viciously, shooting and shooting. She went through her whole revolver, effortlessly reloaded it from a prepared cylinder, snapped it closed and raised it again.
This fight was no longer wasteful, and the creature was no longer harmless and invaded. It was the aggressor, it was the monster, and she had to kill it. She had to kill it because it was killing grandfather and she could not allow that, she would not allow that. Nobody in her village had to die, nobody had to hurt, and she felt then she would kill anyone, destroy anything, maim and torture and burn and rip apart alive any creature to save–
At that instant, she felt something snap in the environment, snap in her weapon.
Her last bullet exploded out of the gun as if pushed out of it.
There was a surreal cry that exploded from her mouth along with the bullet.
Through the monster’s neck, into its brain and out into the heavens went the lead.
The Rock Bear’s violence left it completely. Its arms went limp. Its legs buckled.
Finally given peace, the beast ceased to glow and to scream and to thrash.
All of its mass fell forward like a tree snapped at the trunk.
It fell, bloody and maimed and lifeless, over Grandfather.
Gulab fell too. She fell back, eyes full of tears, uncomprehending of everything.
What had happened?
Where had all of that come from?
Where was Grandfather? She did not understand. Her little heart beat fiercely.
She searched herself for answers, curled up in a little ball in the snow.
In her mind those final few moments would play out over and over, perhaps forever.
Grandfather, the only person who believed her, who believed in her. In her.
Where was he? Who had made him leave?
Was it her?
She did not know then that the Chief’s answer, her father’s answer would be–
“Grandfather died because he was a weak man. But you were strong, Gulab.”
She would never believe that. That her tall tales were simultaneously true and false.
It simply could not be. Whatever had happened on that peak, nobody understood it.
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 Bahir 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!” Bahir cried from within it.
Harmony did not break from its path.
Within an instant, they were destined to collide.