This scene contains violence.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe, Rangda — Rangda University, Muhimu Shimba
Twisted smoke clouds rose from the center of the University, visible from the Main Street.
Gulab felt a great sense of urgency at the sight of them and kicked the back of the turret.
“Can you go any faster? Burn some gas already!”She shouted into the radio.
In a similar tone she received quick replies from the tankers.
“No! We need to conserve track integrity for battle!” Danielle said.
“Corporal, please calm down. Trust Private Santos.” Caelia added.
“We’re almost there anyway, just keep your eyes peeled.” Danielle said.
Gulab grit her teeth and squeezed her hands against the barrel and handle of her anti-tank BKV rifle, welded to a makeshift pintle atop the turret. Beneath her feet, the tank’s engine purred softly as they charged briskly toward the battle. Harmony climbed the hill past the Research Library and drove through the winding Main Street between the main campus buildings, cutting through the center of the University toward Muhimu Shimba park.
Though she felt mild shots of pain every time the tank stirred roughly under her, Gulab forced down that weakness, and focused on the environment and the task at hand.
There were signs of battle everywhere. Medics in ambulance trucks packed in wounded and dead personnel from all sides of the battle. Gendarmes with pistols and clubs chained together long columns of healthy prisoners and drove them like cattle away from the remains of smashed sandbags, burning crates and grenade-damaged emplacements. There were holes and dents on the road and pockmarked turf along the streets and lawns of the buildings. Harmony easily drove over shell-holes and around the ruined defenses.
In the distance, Gulab could hear the violent reports of guns and the booming of mortars.
Harmony finally crested the hill overlooking Muhimu Shimba and Gulab, behind the scope of the BKV, scanned the large crowd of confused soldiers gathered at the edge of the park. Gulab had no idea what could have happened to break up the column like that — she saw what looked like shell-holes in the park green and there was residual smoke in the air, and plenty of blood on the ground. Whatever happened, it had been violent and shocking.
Gulab’s heart raced, knowing Charvi might have been at the forefront of that violence.
Her eyes teared up as she searched desperately across the sea of green uniforms.
“Charvi! It’s Charvi!”
She found that unique and unmistakably silver-white head of hair that she loved so much in the periphery of the crowd. Charvi looked worse for wear, but she was alive, and standing under her own power. Gulab toyed with the radio box stuffed in her bread bag, hoping to contact her. She finally found the correct frequency and began to call Charvi–
They were not alone. From the forest, a massive tank trundled closer.
There was the better part of a platoon accompanying the tank. Wearing yellow sashes, the Lion battalion veterans carried much better weaponry than Gulab had seen in the hands of the average 8th Division soldier. Every man had a submachine gun or a danava to help them even the odds. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the 2nd Company and Chadgura’s troops at the edge of the park, the Lion soldiers had the advantage of their weapons and the tank, and they had their enemy standing out in the open. Any charge against the tank by the 2nd Company would be very bloody even if it succeeded.
Charvi wouldn’t make it out of that mess alive. Gulab had to put a stop to it.
It was then that Gulab made her call, and then ordered the charge.
She did not care what the violence of this signified for her. Whether the killing vindicated the men of her village or even if it anointed her as one of their own– it didn’t matter!
As long as Charvi was safe, it did not matter that she had to fight and to kill for it.
“Private Suessen! Private Santos!”
“I’m on it!”
Harmony unleashed a smoke round, blinding the enemy tank, and then barreled downhill at full speed. Coming out of the hill slope with the force of gravity behind it, Harmony pushed marginally faster than its typical speed and rocketed from the street to the edge of the park and toward the column with desperate haste. Beneath its hull the tracks ground at an intense rate, and behind Gulab the engine worked up from a purr to a full-on roaring.
Gulab had her feet trapped in catches welded atop the tank, her waist tied loosely to a hand-hold on the tank’s turret, and her hands around the BKV rifle, and she still felt the power of the tank and the forces that it so easily generated. Her body was under pressure every second. Engine reverberations transferred energy into her feet, and the churning of the tank’s internal organs stirred her own gut. Air whipped her hair and rushed against her face, and her upper body and the BKV in her hands swayed with the tank’s turning.
It was difficult to aim in that situation, but Gulab had little choice in the matter.
She was practically their main form of anti-tank offense, pathetic as that was.
As the tank moved quickly into the park, the allied column seemed frozen in place.
“Corporal, we don’t have radio contact with anyone here but Sergeant Chadgura!” Caelia informed her. “So if you want them to retreat you’d best start shouting orders!”
Gulab took a hand off the BKV, and drew in a deep breath.
Caelia gasped. “Oh no– wait– please take off your mic–”
Before Caelia and Danielle’s protests could even register to her, Gulab broke into shouting at the top of her lungs, screaming at the crowd as they sped by. “Find cover or retreat or something!” Gulab cried out. “Get on the floor or dig a foxhole, just don’t stand there!”
Harmony wobbled left and right for seconds before setting course for the enemy tank.
“My head exploded.” Danielle moaned over the radio.
“Rest in fucking peace.” Caelia grumbled in a labored voice.
Perhaps in response to Gulab’s screaming or because they saw a tank hurtling toward them at full speed, the column scattered away from the enemy line. Stray gunfire from within the smoke cloud sounded briefly and abated very quickly, as the enemy found themselves ineffective within the cloud. At the head of the enemy the tank trundled out.
Gulab jerked the BKV on its attached pintle. It could move, in a tortured fashion, on a pretty wide arc in front of the tank. To turn it this way, she had to turn her own body at the waist with it. Whenever she did so she felt the sting of her poorly-patched flesh wounds and cringed. It was not ideal; but it was all she had. She pulled the bolt back to load it and got ready, looking down the scope and trying to keep the tank within her sights.
She kept her shaking fingers off the trigger. Shooting the tank’s front was useless.
“Okay! So what’s the plan?” She asked over the radio.
“Um, ramming speed?” Danielle replied.
“No, definitely not!” Caelia added.
Clear of the smoke, the enemy tank appeared in front of them like an iron wall. It was nearly ten meters long and nearly four tall, and bristling with guns. Gulab had never seen so many turrets on a tank. Arrayed around a central turret with a big-bored but short-barreled gun were two turrets that looked like they had been ripped from goblins, and two drums with what looked like autocannons or machine guns jammed into the mantlets. On the front there was one short gun and one long gun, and the back was much the same. All of these guns were set atop a long chassis with flat sides and a crudely sloping front plate.
Like turning heads among a stage crowd, the turrets all began to gaze toward Harmony.
A voice projected from within the tank.
“You think a Goblin with some cosmetic improvements can challenge the Jotun?”
Gulab thought the voice was coming from her radio at first, but it was definitely coming from within the tank. She did not know how, but the commander could speak out loud.
“You should have stayed in hiding, little recon tank! Now you won’t live to tell your superiors that Lieutenant Badir the Lionheart routed your forces this day!”
Following the bloodthirsty voice of Lt. Badir was a sound much less human.
The Jotun’s central gun descended slightly, turned a few creaking centimeters and fired.
In the blink of an eye a bright red tracer launched past Gulab, trailing smoke.
Behind them the shell erupted at the foot of the hill and punched a meter-deep hole in it.
“Are you alright, Corporal?” Caelia asked.
Gulab blinked and crouched low against the turret. “No!”
“We’re running past it, brace yourselves!” Danielle shouted.
On the softer, grassy earth of the inner park, Harmony lost speed, but retained enough to hurtle past the front of the Jotun before its turrets could fully track it. Dashing past the front of the tank, the comparatively diminutive Kobold turned and made for the woods.
Caelia swung the turret around; Gulab clung as best as she could as Caelia sprayed the Lion soldiers around the tank with inaccurate machine gun fire. Hundreds of bullets seemed to fly in every direction like a gigantic spray of buckshot, and the men bolted around the tank and away from it for cover, quickly breaking up their prepared overwatch positions.
Scrambling as they were and still surrounded in part by the smoke cloud, the elite men of Lion could not effectively pick off the 2nd Company. Caelia had bought them some time.
Gulab seized the opportunity.
As the men fled and Harmony flew past, the Jotun was isolated.
Turning the BKV perpendicular to Harmony’s hull, Gulab aimed for the Jotun’s side.
She squeezed her trigger and let off several rounds.
She watched her tracers fly into the Jotun’s side plates and disappear to no visible effect.
Gritting her teeth, Gulab reached down into a bag hung behind the turret.
Withdrawing a fresh stripper clip, Gulab began to reload the BKV.
In the second she took her eyes off it, the Jotun moved to threaten her.
“I see a rear machine gun aiming for us! Danielle!” Caelia shouted.
Gulab raised her head from behind the BKV and saw a drum turret line up with her.
Dozens of red sparks shot out of its gun.
Harmony made a hard turn.
Caelia swung the turret around just as forcefully.
Several bursts of machine gun fire deflected off the gun mantlet and barrel as the turret turned sharply to Gulab’s defense, reversing itself almost completely to cover her.
Sparks flew off the top of the turret and over Gulab’s head as the shots deflected away.
“Corporal, I’ve got one more AP-HE shell and Danielle’s lined me up a shot on those turrets. Pick a target; but remember you’re on your own after that.” Caelia said.
Gulab grit her teeth. Despite all their heroics they were unprepared to fight a battle like this one. They had come running from University Avenue in haste, the moment Gulab regained consciousness. There was a stray distress call on the radio, very quickly snuffed out, but enough to draw their attention to Muhimu Shimba. Caelia and Danielle relented quickly in the face of Gulab’s determination, but their supply situation was very bleak.
Harmony was not wanting for fuel, but they had precious little ammunition.
Welding the BKV to the turret was a quick fix that allowed them a chance to fight, but the 14.5mm rifle was no substitute for having a 45mm gun with full AP-HE ammunition.
“I’m thinking! We’ll have to make it count.” Gulab replied over the radio.
“Target the rear machine gun!” Danielle suddenly said.
“Whoa, whoa,” Gulab interrupted, “that’s no threat to the tank!”
Danielle insisted. “No, but it’s a threat to you, Corporal, and to our comrades.”
Hunkered down behind the reversed turret, Gulab saw the Jotun’s guns start moving.
“She’s right, Danielle. One shot from those big turrets will kill us.” Caelia said.
“No, I can avoid their AT fire. I’ve got this. Trust me, Caelia!” Danielle pleaded.
There was a sigh on the radio. It sounded more fond than it was angry.
“Firing Armor-Piercing, High Explosive!”
Gulab felt the energy transfer into her body as the gun released a shell.
Her headset offered mild protection, but the report of the gun sounded right next to her.
Even for a small cannon, the 45mm felt earthshaking so close.
Harmony’s barrel briefly flashed, and behind the Jotun’s main turret a fireball erupted.
One of the drum-shaped machine gun turrets on its rear went up smoke.
“Thank you! Now I’m getting us on gravel!” Danielle said. “Hang on!”
Harmony veered suddenly away from the tree line and made for the road.
Behind them the Jotun’s main turret swung toward them.
Gulab fitfully expected another shot, but the gun remained silent.
Instead the tank started turning.
Smoke from the ruined turret blocked the main gun’s vision over its own back.
Until it turned around it could not shoot them with its main gun.
“Danielle, it’s moving!” Caelia called out.
In the center of the park the Jotun completed its turn and lined the Kobold up with its main gun, forward anti-tank turret and forward machine gun. Gulab had no protection from it. It was directly behind them, and all of its ordnance would sail clear into her, or into the engine block directly beneath her feet. Or into Caelia’s back inside the turret.
“Your determination to betray your people sickens me! Die, traitors!”
Badir’s voice was quickly overpowered by the sound of his guns.
Before Badir could unleash his weapons, Harmony hit the pavement of the road and quickly accelerated into a wide, sweeping turn. When the Jotun finally threw its bite, the teeth went very wide. Machine gun fire and shells soared over the road behind the Kobold as it began to put distance between itself and the enemy tank. On the pavement, the Kobold’s speed raised by nearly ten kilometers per hour, and quickly enough to escape.
Behind them, Muhimu Shimba started to erupt into a seething exchange of automatic fire.
Gulab had been too concerned with the Jotun to notice, but 2nd Company and the Lion veterans had lost the barrier of the smoke between them. 2nd Company opened fire into the woods, and from the woods the Lion Battalion retaliated. Machine guns and rifles cast lead over the shell-stricken park grounds while Harmony sped away from the scene.
Somewhere back there, Charvi might have still been stuck in battle.
Something crawled inside Gulab’s chest as she thought anxiously of Charvi’s fate.
“So we’re just running away?” Gulab shouted.
“No, I have an idea.” Danielle said. “The Jotun will follow us.”
“How do you know?” Gulab asked.
Caelia was silent on the frequency for a moment. She then broke into a little laugh.
“Look ahead, Corporal!”
Harmony’s turret swung around to the front, and Gulab peered over it.
Danielle had driven them through Muhimu Shimba, out into the road, around the outer edge, and toward the enemy’s rear. In a sandbag nest ahead of them, Gulab spotted Badir’s artillery. One short-barreled howitzer and several mortars had been packed behind waist-high sandbag walls fencing off a makeshift fort the size of school classroom.
Gulab blinked, and joined Caelia in laughing.
“Private Suessen, do you have any high explosive?” She asked.
“I’ve got a little left.”
“Good! Light them up!”
Gulab got behind her BKV and held on tight, in time to endure Caelia’s rumbling shot.
She saw the tracer go flying out of the gun and in a blink, it exploded over the sandbags.
Fragments and smoke and heat swept over the exposed mortar crews.
Gulab lined up the scope of her BKV with the ammunition boxes behind the crews.
Rapping the trigger, she launched several incendiary AP bullets into the stack of crates.
Startled by the attack, the artillery crews dumped their weapons and scrambled away.
Moments later the ammunition crates exploded behind them.
Chunks of metal and burning wood spread over the interior of the sandbag fort.
Several men were thrown to the floor in mid-run trying to escape, and anyone caught vaulting over a sandbag as the shells went off was perforated in mid-air by hundreds of flying fragments, all of which soared out in high arcs from the crates on the floor.
Losing no speed, Harmony ran past the emplacement and left it a smoking ruin.
“Look up in the sky, Corporal! There’s more!” Caelia shouted.
Gulab peered over her scope.
She saw trails in the sky from more howitzers and mortars, targeting the park.
“That’s why he’ll follow us!” Danielle said. “Otherwise we’ll–”
Caelia urgently interrupted. “We’ve got company!”
Behind them several guns went off in quick succession.
Gulab ducked her head as a volley of machine gun fire flew over her.
Just a few meters off the side of the tank, a shell impacted the ground.
Dust and smashed concrete burst into the air and fell over her.
Appearing hundreds of meters behind them the Jotun followed, guns blazing.
Harmony weaved from one side to the next, deftly avoiding a shot from the 45mm gun.
It hit a building off a street corner and punched through its wall.
“We’re getting seriously shot at here!” Gulab cried out.
“Danielle, plan?” Caelia shouted in distress.
“We’ll lead it back into urban terrain! We’ve got an advantage there.”
Two more shots sounded in unison as the Jotun managed to synchronize its turrets.
Ahead of them the 76mm explosive burst like a giant firecracker.
Around their side, the 45mm gun struck Harmony’s flank armor at an angle.
Gulab watched with a momentary horror as the shell bounced off a welded track link.
Any straighter trajectory could have penetrated the armor.
There was soon a respite.
Though moving at an unexpected speed for such a monstrous machine, the Jotun was still quickly falling behind. For every meter that rolled under its tracks, Harmony made good three. And as Harmony took the north-eastern corner around the park and then made for the northern campus intersection, they momentarily left Badir and his monster behind.
For a few seconds they had peace. Then they heard the shout.
“Come and face me like men, cowards!” came the voice from the tank.
Caelia grumbled on the radio.
“How is he doing that?” Gulab shouted.
Danielle piped up excitedly.
“When the Jotun prototype failed trials, it was turned into a parade vehicle!”
Gulab blinked. “How do you know that?”
“She’s amazing, is how.” Caelia said.
In a few moments the damnable gunfire resumed behind them.
The Jotun had cleared the corner and was hot on their tails again.
“Call me amazing when I get us out of this!” Danielle shouted.