This scene contains violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road
Harmony charged out of the alleyway to reclaim the street, and found itself alone.
At the sight of the air raid, it seemed everyone had fled into cover. And even when the guns started shooting back at the sky, no comrades emerged into the street to capitalize.
She was truly alone. And more painfully, she felt she had engineered this for herself.
Not the planes; not the fleeing; but the fact that she was alone. She shouldn’t have been.
But she couldn’t become mired in that guilt. Losing hope now would surely kill her.
Gunnerless, Harmony’s only defense was the DNV light machine gun tenuously attached by an improvised mount beneath the open front hatch. Far down the street, the remains of the elven bomber had split pilot Danielle Santos from her (beloved) partner Caelia Suessen. Rescuing her became Danielle’s singular priority as she leaped into her tank in a panic.
Seeing the hulk, however, sowed distress in Danielle’s breast. Fallen near-intact save its wings, Danielle was sure such a heavy, large bomber wouldn’t be dented by her 45mm gun.
Breathing quickly and intermittently, Danielle felt overwhelmed by the situation. She felt a tingling in the front of her head, a weight, as if a swarm of ants were crawling over her brain. Her hands were shaking wildly, one deftly twitching between the two control sticks and the other gripping handle and guiding the swivel on the removable DNV machine gun.
She leaned forward and put her head through the hatch. Gradually the sky had become a chaotic palette of red, blue, black and white. Every few seconds a shell went off, or an aircraft exploded or crashed, and the reek of smoke and metal started to fall from the heavens and come down to the city. Several aircraft seemed to deliberately be crashing into the city. There was noise and violence everywhere above — and it was spreading.
There were no enemies on the ground that she could see.
But Danielle soon found more white in the sky than just the wind-battered clouds.
Strings of parachutes started descending from the airborne no-man’s land at an alarming pace. Hundreds of troops were falling on the city. Automatic fire consumed many immediately, but more and more began to drop after them. As she leaned out of her Kobold tank she saw a dozen parachute troops coming closer to her, only a few hundred feet away, and even saw a few disappear behind distant buildings. She dove back inside.
From the pilot’s seat, she put both hands on the machine gun, and aimed high.
Drawing in a breath, putting the reticle on a cloudy white parachute, she hit the trigger.
From the front of the Kobold a stream of automatic fire launched skyward. Danielle, unable to aim for the small figures, instead aimed to clip the parachutes wherever she could get them. She could hardly see through the muzzle flash and the gun itself, blocking her hatch. But between three-shot bursts she spied parachutes precipitously dropping from holes punched in them, parachutes holding hanging men who seemed not to move.
She popped out a pan magazine from atop the gun, discarded it, attached a new one.
Rapping the trigger, pressing for a second or two and depressing for burst fire, reloading quickly from magazines she had dropped at her side, she sent hundreds of rounds sailing.
Soon she could see no more parachutes between her gunfire.
Satisfied with what little hindrance she caused the flow of men onto Rangda, Danielle pushed the control sticks forward and started Harmony down the road toward the bomber. She crossed a few blocks, and parked the tank several dozen meters from the obstacle. Now that she was closer to it, the fallen fuselage seemed ever larger and more daunting.
It had fallen in just about the worst place it could have. Rammed between opposing alleyways attached to buildings with ruined, blocked off entrances, the bomber fuselage could not be easily walked around. Previous fighting had taken its toll on Ocean Road. Caelia could have run into the alleys on her own side, but there was no telling where a parachutist had landed, or where debris, new or old, might bar the way forward again.
Danielle had no idea what Caelia might decide to do. If only she could signal her–
She remembered, from back in training camp. They had a signal. Tankers had flare guns with yellow smoke. Infantry had red smoke and white smoke. Maybe if Caelia remembered this detail she would know that Danielle was on the other side. Maybe she would hold on.
It was not just a matter of keeping her safe. To survive, both needed to be in this tank.
They had learned long ago they did exceptionally better together than apart.
Without each other, it was doubtful they would have even gotten to where they were now.
Caelia, an exceptional gunner, but a clueless driver. Danielle, a worthless commander, but a pilot who could make a tank glide over any terrain as if centimeters above the ground. They had known something of each other before all of that, but it was in the metal confines of a tank, separated by the turret ring, blind to each other and communicating exclusively over radio, that they found each other’s true selves, and maybe even their own.
Unglamorous as it was, they had achieved this goal together. Full-fledged tankers. From out of nothing, from everything they had left behind, from everything holding them back.
Danielle grit her teeth. She couldn’t believe how easily she had let petty jealousy root itself in her heart before. She should have known better. Caelia was special to her and she was special to Caelia. They had all of this; more importantly, they had always had it together. No matter where it was, what they did, it was always a medium for them, together.
Danielle had to trust her. She would hate herself forever if she lost Caelia for lack of trust.
Seizing the flare gun from the emergency kit, she reached her arm out the front hatch.
She pulled the trigger, and the flare launched right over the bomber fuselage.
It detonated over the barrier between them in a bright yellow flash and yellow smoke.
Caelia must have seen it. She must have — and she must have understood what it meant.
Now, however, she had to get that fuselage out of the way, some way or another.
Clumsily, she left the sticks and climbed up into Caelia’s seat, a place she never had occasion to see. A tank’s gun was probably the sturdiest part of the whole design. Engines and tracks and suspensions were under constant stress and frequently wore out during operations. Correctly mounted, the gun could last extremely long, and it was the one part that Danielle was not certified to repair. It required heavy equipment and a crew.
This was Caelia’s domain, walled off during operations. Danielle had her own space.
Now, however, she was gone and the gun was needed.
She was immediately struck with something she did not expect to see.
Sitting down on Caelia’s seat, she immediately spotted two photographs clipped to the gun sight. One had a large, friendly-looking black cat, staring inquisitively at the camera.
Another was of Danielle, sitting atop their old Goblin. Caelia herself had taken that one.
Shaking her head and stifling tears, Danielle reached into the rack for a 45mm AP round.
They had hardly been restocked. There were maybe a dozen fresh rounds available and a handful of leftovers from earlier in the day. Danielle grit her teeth. Even if she could penetrate the armor on the bomber’s hull, a small round would just poke a hole through it, and would get her no closer to removing it from the way. She felt helpless and trapped.
Sighing, praying for a miracle, she closed her eyes, she loaded the round, and looked down the sights. There was no need to aim. Her target was massive and it was very close.
Remembering how the gun operated, from her short-lived career as a gunner in training camp, Danielle shouted to no one in particular that she was firing an armor piercing shell.
There was a boom and a crack and a sharp, striking ding on metal.
Looking through the sight again, she found the bomber’s armor penetrated by a fist-sized hole. Moreover, she found something rather astonishing about the hole itself.
Danielle pushed open the top hatch and leaned out to look upon the wound she inflicted.
Her eyes were not deceiving her. This was not a well-armored bomber plane.
It was a ramshackle wooden plane with a layer of silver foil on the exterior.
How it survived the fall with any remaining integrity of form, Danielle did not know.
But she felt her heart soar suddenly. She felt a combination of foolishness and euphoria.
All of this time, that great impenetrable obstacle, forever separating her from Caelia; it was all in her mind. There was no invincible steel barrier isolating her. Caelia and her were separated by little more than a dozen millimeters of wooden skin with foil glued over it. She had been drowning in a glass of water. Danielle laughed, a bit bitterly, but relieved.
Perhaps this was not the only barrier that she had completely imagined.
Climbing back down to the driver’s seat, Danielle took the Danava machine gun mount off the front, backed the tank several dozen meters more into the street and lined herself up with the side hatch on the bomber plane. She shut her own front hatch, and then thrust the sticks as far forward as she would go, accelerating downhill at the plane with abandon.
“I’m coming, Caelia!”
Caelia Suessen found herself whistling, alone in the middle of the street.
Around her there was an uproarious battle happening between sky and earth.
She did not think about it, not at first. She was fixated on the way forward.
In front of her, in a scene that seemed fake, as if it had been staged for a production, stood the fuselage of a bomber plane. It had fallen from the sky, and in an instant, barred the way higher up Ocean Road. Behind her, a similar hulk had also fallen out of the sky, trapping her in a block of ruined buildings. Danielle was somewhere on the other side; she had ran out of their meeting in clear distress, and Caelia, deeply worried, had ran after.
But she was too late running, and not fast enough to make up the difference.
Danielle had been offended or hurt, that much she knew. Whether it had been Shayma’s effusive praise, or her own fault in overlooking Danielle, or something else entirely. Those were not the steps of an unwounded woman. She could imagine what happened, though she did not want to presume, lest she risk hurting her feelings even more. Danielle was soft in ways Caelia was not as much; or at least in ways Caelia did not let on as readily.
Now, though, they were in a situation where she could be killed.
Losing Danielle, never again having her in her life–
Caelia was not fond of mental time travel, but that was a future she had to prevent.
She was still processing what would happen next, and what to do.
She spontaneously whistled a song from a play. It was near and dear to her.
Though it was not necessarily calming, it was an outlet for her nerves.
Mustering her resolve, and shaking her head hard to relieve the dazedness she felt, Caelia started searching her surroundings. There seemed to be nobody around. Most of the buildings around her had collapsed, either in earlier fighting or because of the falling aircraft and aircraft debris. She was blocked off on all sides it seemed. She had her pistol in her possession, and she drew it and made sure it was loaded. She had no other weapons, no grenades, not even a knife. She had left much of her kit behind with the tank.
Any kind of fighting in this state would be pointless. She didn’t even have spare ammo.
Caelia thought of trying to climb the unsteady rubble and jump over the plane.
Suddenly she heard a loud buzzing overhead and raised her eyes to the sky.
She was ripped from her reverie, and forced to confront the wider world.
Flying low, a plane with a long and rounded fuselage, trailing smoke from its twin engines, swooped over Caelia, over Ocean Road, and crashed somewhere close by. Caelia could feel the impact, diffusing through the earth itself, and the vibration in her gut unsettled her.
But the plane mattered less than what followed it. High in the sky, and descending much more gently than their transport, a line of parachutes blossomed on high, popping from their packs and spreading like hard clouds against the smoke and fire in the blue.
Everywhere, it seemed, there were parachutes dropping, and planes falling.
One pack was closest and closing in. Any kind of wind would drop them right on her head.
“Almost a full platoon.” She whispered to herself. She immediately began to whistle.
There was nowhere really to hide, and if they landed close enough, they could dispatch her easily. They had rifles, numbers, and time was on their side. She had a pistol and music.
And she barely had music, and barely had a pistol in any way that counted.
Her hands shook with the futility of it, but she raised her pistol to the sky to fight back–
Soon as she pulled the trigger, a stream of tracers went flying overhead into the enemy.
Caelia watched as a succession of quick, bright red volleys went flying into the platoon, cutting parachutes, striking men. There were dozens of rounds going out in practiced bursts, and anywhere they struck would be tragic for the vulnerable paratroopers. Parachutes with holes in them or missing strings struggled to stay aloft but quickly and ultimately collapsed and sent the wearers plummeting to their deaths. Several surviving parachutes spilled blood onto the ground, carrying corpses. All the remaining living Parachutists struggled to influence the direction of their drop away from the gunfire.
Then, coming from behind her, Caelia saw the yellow flare and the smoke.
She knew immediately who it was. Danielle had come to her defense, to pick her up.
She had no way to signal back, but she knew it was a tanker, a tanker who was stuck on the other side of this fuselage. A tanker who was trying to get to this side. It had to be Danielle. She was trying to find a way through. Despite everything, she had turned around and sought her out. Caelia, briefly elated, moved to the side of the street, hiding behind a pile of rubble, and she drew in a breath. She heard shots, sounds of struggle. She felt the fuselage shake. But nobody was coming through yet. She still had some time to wait.
Caelia started to whistle again. She thought of what she could even say to Danielle now.
Whistling, music; though she had given them up, those were things she was good at.
Being forward with her partner was not something that came as naturally to her.
I love you, was a set of words that eluded her tongue. For one reason or another.
Even then, they were perhaps not fitting for their situation anyway.
She felt her heat beat faster as she thought of Danielle, of how to mend things.
If things needed mending; if they could be mended at all.
Caelia drew in a breath. She began to whistle again–
Soon as the first notes drew from her lips, she was interrupted.
A rifle bullet struck the fuselage near to her, forcing her to duck farther behind the rubble.
She peered briefly into the street, just in time for a handful of paratroopers to drop from out of nowhere, silently yet solidly. Blue-uniformed elves with sharp ears, long, blond hair, and piercing green eyes. They dropped, stumbling onto the pavement and quickly rising, and threw off the bulk of their parachutes. Four rifles pointed her way.
She had been concentrating on hiding and waiting, and Danielle had probably been concentrating on trying to break through to her. Neither of them realized that the parachutes were still dropping. That they would continue dropping, for who knew how long. Rangda was under siege from the sky. Caelia felt foolish for feeling a little safe.
“Desistere!” they shouted, jabbing their bayonets into the air in front of them.
Her song wouldn’t last many more notes. Caelia paused to sigh and breathe.
Across from her the elves responded to the lack of compliance by opening fire.
Caelia crawled tighter behind the rubble. She heard the bullets striking the fuselage, and felt the hot lead bouncing off the surface and coming suddenly down on her back.
All they had to do was run forward and stab. Caelia wanted to cry. Though she had a hard time grappling with emotion, Caelia knew then and there who’s name she would cry.
Behind her the fuselage gave a great shudder that no rifle could have caused.
Chunks of wood burst from it, and a great metal thing thundered past as if through a door.
Caelia watched as Harmony hurtled through the fuselage toward the riflemen.
Surprised and speechless, the men did not move fast enough to avoid their fate.
Harmony trundled through them, crushing whatever of them it caught underfoot.
Two men it mashed to bits beneath its tracks. One man rolled out of the way, and a second attempted to evade far too late, and he dropped to the floor and lost his legs to the tank.
Harmony ground to a halt.
Caelia drew in a breath and stepped out from cover.
Standing to full height, she held her pistol up.
Across from her, the man with the rifle dropped his weapon, broke, and ran.
She did not fire after him. He disappeared, panicked, into the buildings.
Was this their foe?
Caelia shook her head. It didn’t matter. Not now. There was someone more important.
Whistling again, scarcely believing all that transpired, she ran swiftly past the corpses and around to the front hatch of the tank, where Danielle sat, stupefied, with her front hatch swung open. She was the same Danielle, with her brown skin and messy, curly black hair and her glasses, unharmed, just as she had been left. Her Danielle; her Danielle.
“Hey,” Caelia said, leaning into the hatch. She stifled a hint of tears of her own.
Inside, Danielle was shaking, and weeping, holding the tank’s sticks with a deathly grip.
“H-Hello.” Danielle said.
They looked into each other’s eyes, both shaking from toe to top, teeth slightly chattering, hair on end, sweating, breathing heavily. Exhausted; having both fought, both killed, and yet, both still surrounded by the enemy nonetheless. Both having suffered some shocks. Caelia’s eyes began to water as she reached a hand down to Danielle and wiped the tears from her partner’s eyes. A little sob escaped her, and briefly interrupted her whistling.
“I’m sorry I made such a big show in the tent. I was an idiot.” Danielle stammered.
“It’s okay.” Caelia said simply.
And for the moment, perhaps everything was simply okay for them.