This chapter contains violence and death.
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.
All around him the plan was unraveling. But Badir would not blame himself.
His troops probably thought him insane at this point.
He thought he had never been so clear on what had to be done.
He could not pause to think about what was happening and why; it was a shock of such great magnitude that it simply couldn’t register. It made no sense to him that he had lost so many troops and matériel, that under his leadership Lion could sink so quickly against a cornered enemy. He blamed everyone but himself, and he focused on killing this one tank. Then he would double back and destroy that enemy column invading his headquarters. After that he would gather whatever he could and go on the offensive toward Council.
That was a Badir the Lionheart style plan. Kill the enemy, and then go kill more.
Badir cried out and his guns cried with him shortly thereafter.
His short-barreled 76mm gun lobbed an explosive shell.
Beneath it, the anti-tank gun opened fire as well.
Ahead the enemy tank pushed to one side, barely losing speed.
Both shells flew past it and exploded harmlessly.
“God damn it! You are lions, you fools! Fire more accurately!”
He chastised his troops but not their lack of a stabilizer.
He could not fathom their performance.
Badir’s Lion Battalion was an elite force, a force of strong, able fighting men.
His was not one of the units that had gotten trapped by Nocht a week ago.
He had avoided the encirclement and continued to fight. Back then he fought because fighting was the fire in his veins and the lightning in his eyes. Nocht was something to kill to feed some blood to his decaying spirit. Nocht pushed and Battlegroup Ram could not push back. And yet Badir was the winner there, the one who decided his destiny. He was not one of the losers, who followed the plan unwillingly. He had chosen his path.
He had chosen Rangda; to fight for Mansa and for the seat of his old power.
He had chosen to defy Solstice, to defy their mediocre dogma. He chose strength!
And yet, would he be the first domino to fall now?
First to the city, and yet first to defeat?
Everything around him was crumbling, but he lashed out to pick the pieces up.
“After them! Can’t this thing go any faster?”
His driver quickly informed him that it couldn’t. Already, the Jotun was chafing against thirty kilometers per hour, against the forty or fifty the enemy Light could perform. To try to go any faster would have shattered the stressed transmission. But Badir was not about to give up the point. As if driving a horse, he continued to yell, to metaphorically whip.
Badir knew horses, but all of his horsemen, including his right-hand man, were dead.
Horses could go faster. They could push until their muscles snapped and broke.
Somewhere in his mind he realized that the Lion battalion was defeated.
He could sway the battle at Muhimu Shimba, the battle that he had taken the Jotun out of and with it his remaining command structure. He told himself that if his inexperienced artillery was spared annihilation by that meddling Kobold, he could defeat the enemy.
Even if he did, he had run clean out of effective combat power now.
Like the horse, he could push faster, but his legs would surely break now.
But he was not allowing himself to think rationally about that.
Badir the Lionheart always forged ahead on a path of blood.
In the cramped central turret of the Jotun, sealed off from the rest of the fighting compartments, and thus spared the smoke of the ruined fifth turret, Badir drummed his fingers on his lap and stared through his periscope. In front of him, his gunner, a young man chosen for his small and slender size to maximize the Jotun’s interior space, waited nervously for orders. Beneath the two of them, the driver sped the monster forward.
Jotun, the magnum opus of a disgraced genius, much like the dream of Old Rangda.
It had attracted Badir’s eye because of this.
Anything Solstice did not want had to be useful.
And yet, it could not seem to equal the playing field against these communist dogs.
“Have you got them in your sights? I can see them from here!”
Ahead of them the miserable light tank was heading deeper into the campus. It was moving faster than any Goblin. It had to be one of the KVW’s secret models. Nevertheless it was still small and that meant weak armor and pitiful weapons. Jotun, with is robust, masculine size and weaponry, had to be more than a match for it, Badir thought.
“Fire at will!”
Badir’s gunner loaded a fresh shell and fired.
He was joined shortly by the useless machine gunner and the AT cannon.
Automatic tracer fire flew wildly in every direction, scoring no hits even on the exposed idiot riding the back of the enemy Light; the shells both went wide, Badir’s crashing just behind the tank and exploding, and the AT shell flying in the distance and hitting ground. The Light continued to gain distance from them on the flat, even terrain of the road. Was their driver that skilled? It was almost as if they could tell where he would shoot!
No, it was not their driver, but his gunners. His gunners had to fight harder!
“Can you fools even hit the broad side of a battleship? Where is your conviction? Rangda cries out for rescue! You are soldiers of the elite Lion battalion! Destroy that tank!”
“Yes sir!” came the replies on the radio.
There was no enthusiasm. There had been none from the start.
That was why he was faltering now!
These were men and women raised by the hand of Solstice, giving them free food and shelter in exchange for their complacency. They knew not the glories of old Rangda, how full her markets were with goods, how awash in gold were its high societies, how wealthy and powerful its elite. How the strong and true led the weak and infirm, how conviction and ruthless effort was greatly rewarded. That had been a Rangda worth striving for!
A Rangda where he was on top! A Rangda where his power was truly valued!
Not this castrated husk, full of lentil-fattened stunted man-children!
Badir was a man from a cutthroat world, and he would see it restored.
‘For the glory of Mansa!’ his mind cried out, over and over like a song.
Already the muscles had snapped and the legs broken but Badir did not even know.
“Fire!” He cried out again.
Ahead of him, the light tank swung another corner, weaving through the roads with a maneuverability he and his guns simply could not match, and all of the Jotun’s ordnance crashed into buildings and streets. A sign was unearthed, a decorative tree smashed to pieces, and the machine gun failed to place more than one bullet in any given place.
“God damn it! Move faster! Shoot more!”
Not once did Badir reconcile that his enemy was fighting so vehemently and with such cunning for the system he hated and disparaged, and not once could he connect that to the weakness of his own troops in trying to tear that system down or subvert it.
He was too busy warding off the impossible thought of his own failures.
The blood of those tankers would make an excellent balm for his fracturing ego.
As he forgot to win the battle he left behind, he would remember to lose the one ahead.
Rangda University — Northern Campus
Danielle heard the detonations of a pair of shells behind Harmony. Though she could not see the shots being fired at her, and relied on Caelia for all-around vision, she could still drive defensively. There were general maneuvers she could perform that would make her a harder target for an unstabilized gun (which was most of them). Snaking cost her several kilometers off her sustained speed, but would foil all but the most expert gunners by itself. Varying her speed also allowed her to be anywhere but in the middle of the enemy’s sight.
Controlling the tank had been difficult at first. Nearly anything was difficult for Danielle to do. But after enough practice, she thought she had a good hold on the technique. In front of her there was an instrument panel with her gauges, as well as a pedal and two gigantic clutch levers. Turning both levers forward to varying degrees accelerated the tank, while turning them back reversed the track. By pulling them in opposite directions she could turn. Normally she could leave the sticks stuck forward, but in this battle she was swinging them forward and back in quick intervals, correcting, twisting, turning.
As the Jotun seethed behind her, Danielle tugged harshly on the sticks.
Harmony lurched in a chunky, ungainly movement into the corner ahead.
Disappearing into the Northern Campus intersection, Danielle knew she had lost the Jotun behind her for a crucial minute. It could not shoot her, but better yet, could not see her.
She charged through the intersection, between a pair of short, squat office buildings, and hid in a back alley formed by the tightening urban block structure of the campus proper. When the Jotun came rumbling into the intersection it would find no sign of her around.
Hidden and safe, she parked and laid back, catching her breath, wiping sweat off her face.
“Are you alright, Caelia?” She asked over the radio.
She looked up from her seat, and could see Caelia’s feet behind her.
“I’m as ok as I have been.” Caelia half-heartedly replied.
“So what happens now?” Corporal Kajari asked.
Danielle heard her drumming on the turret roof with her hands.
“Don’t make noise. Listen: when the Jotun enters the intersection, we’ll rush out of cover behind it, and run across the street, into another alley, and behind the set of buildings opposite these. We’ll use our speed and attack from multiple directions this way.”
Corporal Kajari grumbled. “So we’re exposing ourselves to it. At close range.”
“No, Danielle’s got it right here.” Caelia interrupted. “Corporal, you might not have noticed, but the Jotun’s turrets aren’t acting independently. Whenever the main gun fires the available subordinates all fire in the same direction and the rear gun remains in a neutral position. It makes sense that a tank commander just can’t effectively guide all that firepower. One person can only reliably control one gun in one direction.”
Danielle smiled inside. Caelia had put her plan in a much better light than she could have.
It made her feel almost happy to be able to be competent and valuable in front of her.
Despite the circumstances in which they found themselves.
“Corporal, those turrets were taken from Goblins. Goblin turrets have at most fifteen millimeters of armor. With your BKV, you might not be able to damage the Jotun itself, but you can destroy the turrets.” Danielle explained. “Blow up their ammo and you’ll be filling the Jotun with smoke and fire. Then its crew will either surrender or cook inside it.”
“Okay, this is sounding like a plan! So, when does it start?”
Danielle had no way to see the Jotun hiding behind this building.
But she had been keeping track of the distance in her head.
“Right about now.”
Danielle grabbed hold of the control levers, pressed the catches at the top to release them, and pulled them both toward herself while slammed the pedal with her foot. Harmony’s tracks started to spin, as did the road wheels, and the tank reversed itself. Once she was facing the direction she desired, she first pushed one lever forward to correct, and then she thrust the second as far to the fore as it would go. Harmony then thrust down the alley behind the buildings, crushing several empty garbage cans as they sped toward a corner.
“Brace yourself, Corporal!” Danielle called out.
Harmony swung around the corner and charged off the street and into the road.
Ahead of them, the Jotun trundled past and stranded itself in the intersection.
At full speed they hurtled past the monster, driving behind its engine block.
Through her periscope, Danielle watched the AT-turret closely to see if it would move.
Corporal Kajari would not give it a chance. Danielle watched as several bright red tracers split the distance between them and the Jotun in an instant, punching several holes in the rear AT turret before it could even think to get a shot off. Smoke wafted out from the perforations along the mantlet and turret front, and fires started to flare within.
Harmony hit the opposite street and dove into its own alleyway without stopping.
Soon as she hit the next corner into the back street, Danielle took her foot off the pedal to lose some speed, and jerked her clutch levers one forward and one back to take the corner. Her timing was just right; she angled easily between the back of the street buildings and the next row within the alleyway, and then just as easily she faced the next corner, and now running parallel to the unseen Jotun, Harmony sped out. This next attack run would be the trickiest. She would have to corner and then run full speed in front of the Jotun.
“Corporal, reload, and let them have it when we run by!” Danielle shouted.
“I’ll help too.” Caelia said.
Harmony’s turret turned perpendicular to its hull.
“On a Goblin turret, an HE round could still have an effect, right?” Caelia asked.
“At this point, anything helps!” Corporal Kajari said.
Danielle saw the corner ahead.
Drawing in a deep breath, she swung the sticks forward and back.
Harmony angled out of the alley, into the intersection and perpendicular to the Jotun.
She rushed down, spotting the machine moving haplessly forward.
Its turrets began to turn all at once to face the incoming Kobold.
Caelia preempted them and unloaded the main gun on the AT turret.
Though the high explosive shell did not penetrate the turret, it exploded just in front of it.
Through the smoke, the AT turret retaliated, but its shot went wide as Danielle snaked.
Corporal Kajari’s BKV opened up on the AT turret. Quick semi-automatic shots punched a half-dozen thumb-size holes into the front turret. Inside, the incendiary effects must have hit the ammunition, because without warning the turret erupted into fire and smoke, and sent pieces of shrapnel flying into the frontal machine gun turret and the mantlet of the main gun. Smoking violently from three separate orifices, the Jotun looked like the ghost of a tank as Harmony burnt track past the main gun and made for the alleyways.
“Danielle, it’s going to shoot!”
Above, Caelia must have been looking through her periscope.
Danielle quickly adjusted the levers and started to snake.
To squeeze between the alleyway buildings, however, she would have to stop.
She could not see behind the tank. Danielle was operating with no information.
One shot from that 76mm to the back of the Kobold would set the tank ablaze.
Even if it didn’t penetrate, the concussive force would have killed Corporal Kajari and damaged if not outright exploded the engine. Caelia would be hit by fragments or burned or concussed. And Danielle would be helpless to stop any of it. She played out the scenario in her mind, weighing in everything she knew about their two tanks in a split second.
Gritting her teeth, she made a snap decision.
“Everyone hold on and keep your weapons on that main gun!”
Danielle punched the right lever forward and the left one back.
Harmony began to swing into a left turn.
Then she pulled back on the right lever and thrust the left forward.
Without losing speed, Harmony entered a short half-spin.
The turret and front glacis faced the Jotun in time for the tank’s shot.
Danielle wanted to close her eyes, but she stood stalwart.
Punching both levers forward, she charged into the shot.
Everything shook violently in front of her, and she jerked forward and back as sharp-headed anti-tank shell dropped against the sloped front plate at an angle and deflected with its point broken but its internals unexploded. Ricocheting in a violent arc, the enemy shell bounced away from them. Its attack uselessly spent, the Jotun was vulnerable.
In front of her, Danielle could see a dent where the shell had stricken.
Had there not been a track link welded to her hatch, she might not have survived.
“Shoot it now!” Danielle shouted over the radio.
“Roger!” Caelia and Corporal Kajari replied, as if Danielle had the authority.
Stopped less than a hundred meters from the Jotun, Harmony unloaded its own weapons.
Caelia’s main gun unleashed a high-explosive shell that exploded against the side armor of the main gun, and Corporal Kajari rapped the trigger on her anti-tank rifle and scored several penetrating hits under the thick gun mantlet where the armor was vulnerable. There were flashes accompanying the penetrations; the BKV shots were incendiary, and the little rounds exploded with sharp, burning bangs inside of the enemy tank.
Smoke started to waft out of the holes.
Atop the Jotun’s main turret a hatch went up.
From inside the turret they saw a man climb out, holding a rifle with a grenade affixed to the front. It was an old anti-tank grenade mount, a rarity now after the development of the BKV gun two years ago. Despite its status as a relic it packed a terrible punch.
Aiming just over the turret, the man intended to shoot Corporal Kajari.
“You will have to kill me to stop me! I will see you all in hell!” He cackled madly.
Danielle grabbed hold of the sticks in a sudden panic; overhead there was a tinkling sound as Caelia struggled to reload the machine gun in time to dispatch the surprise attacker.
“I am Badir The Lionheart! I have clawed and killed and survived gangs and wars and purges! I am the Lion, the apex predator, the king of the pride! Bow before me!”
Before anyone could do anything more a shot suddenly rang out.
Lieutenant Badir, “The Lionheart,” stumbled over the Jotun’s ruined main gun.
Bleeding profusely from the head, his corpse landed atop one of the burning turrets.
Another figure rose sheepishly from the turret.
“We surrender! We surrender! Please stop!”
For an instant he had a pistol in his hand, but then he dropped it and waved a white cloth.
Judging by his helmet, he was the Jotun’s gunner.
Two more hatches flipped up, and surviving crew stepped slowly out with their hands up.
Carefully and peacefully, they left the Jotun behind to burn and surrendered themselves.
Caelia sighed with relief over the radio. Danielled slumped against her instrument panel.
“Whoa, what just happened?” Corporal Kajari asked over the radio.
Somehow, they had won. Unbeknown to them, the Lion Battalion was fully defeated.
Rangda University — Muhimu Shimba
Soon as the Jotun left the park the tide began to turn against Lion.
The 2nd Company held their ground, and though they took losses, they inflicted enough gunfire on the forest to pin down the Lion elite within the wood. Machine gun fire was viciously exchanged over the park ground. Amorphous at first, the column of Motor Rifle infantry began to reorganize and to fight back effectively, lead by one loud, central voice.
“Use the shell holes! Dig yourself in and fight!”
Charvi Chadgura returned to the fore and dropped into one of the holes blown open by the explosives that had claimed her company’s officers. She took Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, laid it against the dirt outside her makeshift foxhole, and shot back at the Lion veterans in short bursts. Her gunfire disappeared into the wood, but it was the effect that mattered most. More of her infantry started to drop into the holes and to fight back.
They might not dislodge the enemy, but they could hold the ground for now. There was resistance. Lion was forced to hide as well, and they could not just throw her back now.
And that was key; because the Motor Rifles would soon be living up to their namesake.
With the conquering of University Avenue and Main Street, the roads were open for vehicles, and vehicles soon started to arrive. High explosive rounds and heavy machine gun fire soared suddenly over the park and shredded the woodland cover of the defenders and saturated their positions with lead and fire and smoke. Chadgura watched in awe as a pair of Kobold tanks and Half-Tracks arrived to support the offensive, coming down the hill and through the main road. Their arrival fully restored the morale of her allies.
Suddenly it was not just the people in the foxholes fighting back, but the entire column.
Overwhelmed, the Lion Battalion began to lose ground as the 2nd Company left the foxholes and started to push, under cover of their vehicle’s high caliber gunfire.
Moments later the white flags went up in the wood. The Lion Battalion was defeated.
Men ripped the yellow sashes from their uniforms and shambled out of the park.
More trucks and vehicles started to arrive. Medics ran through the column, treating and reassuring the fatigued and wounded of the 2nd Company. Gendarmes arrived to control the prisoners and take them back to the base to be processed. And behind the convoys, a grandiose Hobgoblin with a purple Hydra painted on its turret side and a large radio antennae appeared and trundled into the park. Its hatches went up near Chadgura.
Major Burundi dropped from atop the turret, pulling off his headset.
He smiled and stretched out a hand to Chadgura.
Chadgura looked at it with a numb expression. She clapped her hands softly.
“Ah, sorry. You’ve been through a lot, I know.”
Major Burundi retracted his hand, and used the other to pat Chadgura in the shoulder.
His expression darkened as he surveyed the area.
“We should’ve committed more equipment faster here. I was too focused on conserving our initial strength. All of this is on me. I cannot apologize enough, Sergeant. Officers like me fuck everything up, and field leaders like yourself make the mess work out.”
Chadgura shook her head. “It was not on you. We didn’t know our enemy well enough.”
“That, too, was on me. But I’ll treasure your sympathy. You’re a hero, Sergeant.”
Chadgura clapped her hands again at the notion. She found it hard to cry again, and she could feel her voice going back to its dull, ordinary tone. It felt strange but almost comforting, too, to return to that mode, to that way of being. She was back to normal.
But it still gnawed at her. Gulab had come to save her, even though she herself did not save Gulab before. Even though she had endangered her. It felt like she had been taking from Gulab and not giving anything back. And now she did not even know what–
“Well, I’ll be!” Major Burundi laughed heartily. “Sergeant, look!”
He pointed over her shoulder, and Chadgura turned.
Coming down around northeastern corner of Muhimu Shimba were a pair of tanks.
One enormous tank looked worse for wear, its many turrets charred to bits and still smoking and blackened, looking like they had been hosed down with an extinguisher.
Near this tank, with a gun pointed at it like a knife to a prisoner’s throat, was Harmony.
And atop Harmony, Gulab Kajari smiled and waved victoriously.
Had Chadgura’s old senses not fully returned, she knew she would have cried.
Instead, a very, very small smile appeared spontaneously on her face.