La Battaglia Di Rangda IV (61.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Shapur Way

“Stand by.”

Gulab craned her head toward the smoking, burning, plane-ridden sky and wondered how much more of a mess, if any, would rain down on them in the intervening time. Thankfully she did not have to wait long. No sooner had their support truck come up from around the bend, that the radio on Private Dabo’s back started to stir. He passed the handsets back to her and to Chadgura, who stood on the side of the road without a weapon in hand.

“Sergeant Chadgura here. We are in position.” She said into the handset.

Gulab held the secondary handset to her ear and waited, tapping her foot.

Minutes seemed to go by. A small trickle of men and women took positions behind the truck. Gulab’s unit, the headquarters and fire support section, was small. Chadgura, herself, and the soft and round Private Dabo, and the tall, angular Private Jandi. Dabo carried the radio, Jandi carried a BKV anti-tank rifle, and Chadgura had a submachine gun hanging on her belt, but made no effort to ready it or aim it at anything. Gulab had a rifle.

Behind them, two rifle squadrons were slowly forming up. 1st Battalion was still something of a mess, with communications having been disrupted in the panic caused by the sudden appearance of hundreds of enemy bombers overhead. They wouldn’t have their full platoon available, but as far as Gulab was concerned they had everyone who wasn’t a coward right now, and that was good enough for her. Gulab recognized some of the faces, but she had not committed any names to memory. It had been a hectic day and she had been more concerned with the people in her immediate vicinity. Perhaps this made her a poor officer — she did not quite think of herself as one, despite making Corporal.

“Stand by.”

Gulab grumbled. Chadgura glanced her way and clapped her hands gently.

At their side, the support truck they had been promised was a standard M.A.W 6-ton with an open, steel-plated bed. Atop the bed, alongside a few crates of ammunition and explosives, the truck was armed with a very much non-standard swiveling platform supporting the weight of a 37mm automatic-firing anti-aircraft gun. This was a familiar and welcome cannon from the A.A.W labor and engineering union that was, as they spoke, employed across the city. Over half the shooting red stars in the sky were 37mm shells.

From inside the cab, the driver, a plump, friendly-looking lady, waved at Gulab.

Gulab waved back nonchalantly.

“Skip the stones.” said the voice on the radio.

At once, Gulab and Chadgura returned the handsets to the radio box.

“Comrades, march!” Chadgura called out aloud. “Squadron Alpha on the left, Beta on the right, and the Delta will bring up the rear of the triangle! We’re freeing up the crossroads from Shapur to Umaru and linking up with the lead elements of the artillery detachment. The 37mm will cover us in case anything nasty comes from the air — or the ground. Watch out for enemy aerial reinforcements, and keep your eyes peeled. There’s a lot of cover!”

Gulab pointed down the street as if it would motivate the troops any further.

From behind them, the rifle squadrons picked up their weapons and kit and started running down the street. They were flanked on all sides by ghastly urban debris.

Shapur Way was a tight road that divided a historic housing district, one of the few remnants of the old city. Unlike the large tenements and apartments built by Solstice, Shapur was full of small houses once meant to be personal holdings, relics from the era of private ownership. Those charming old facades and slanted roofs in the suburban Nochtish style, that had long ago survived the civil war, had now been turned mostly to rubble. Blocks and bricks pavement, regurgitated earth and piled dust, glass and doors and roofing tiles, all spilled out over the streets, rendered the road uneven, and clogged up the interiors of otherwise gutted, skeletal buildings. Walled courtyards and gardens adjacent to each ruin were hidden from sight but likely just as dilapidated as the rest. There were no alleyways. It was all open air streets and house plots cut by adjoining walls.

Shapur Way had been decimated by a massive artillery bombardment coinciding with the attack on University Avenue. This prevented the 8th Division from potentially flanking the attack. Regimental artillery from the headquarters, and the Independent Mobile Artillery, unloaded hundreds of shells, shells every few minutes, across nearly an hour, to insure nobody set foot in Shapur, and that anybody who did, would not live to set foot out of it.

This was the result, and now, owing to present circumstances, Gulab and Chadgura would reap what their commanders sewed. They had to traverse the worst of Shapur, and quickly.

Alpha, Beta and Delta split up, with Alpha and Beta taking the opposing streets and Delta following a hundred meters behind down the central road. Behind them, the truck started moving, and Gulab and Chadgura jumped on the platform in the back and rode with it.

“So, Delta’s bringing up the rear? And we’re bringing up, the rear-rear?” Gulab asked.

“We’re not an infantry squadron. We don’t count for their triangle.” Chadgura replied.

“So you want me to just sit here and watch them fight?” Gulab asked, frowning.

“Gulab, in a disparaging way, you have summarized what officers do, yes.”

“Bah, that’s not what I want to do as an officer!”

Gulab sighed. She looked out over the back of the truck, spotting Dabo and Jandi sitting with their backs to the cab, while she and Chadgura stood on the platform with the crew of the 37mm gun. They were nondescript youths; they reminded Gulab of “her kids,” whom she worried were now stuck in Umaru or somewhere close, surrounded by elves.

She was eager to get the action.

Chadgura shook her head and put a hand on her shoulder.

“I have a job for you.”

“I’m listening.”

“Gulab, I’m going to need you to spot targets for the 37mm gun. That means keeping an eye on the air and ground.” She said. “I’m going to focus on directing the fire of our infantry squads and artillery support. Just tell the gun what to shoot, and they’ll do it.”

Gulab’s restless faded with the flashes of flak overhead; she commanded the big gun.

“Yes ma’am, officer ma’am!” Gulab said cheerfully, saluting Chadgura with a smile.

Chadgura clapped her hands in response.

She had been as teased by this as Gulab had intended.

Leaving Chadgura’s side, she sat behind the 37mm gun’s crew and held up binoculars.

“Can this shoot over the cab?” Gulab asked.

In the next instant she looked out over the barrel and found her question answered as it poked right over the driver’s compartment. It could descend further and shoot directly into the driver, if the gunner was uniquely careless, but its neutral position was very safe.

Regardless, the young gunner and loader nodded their heads eagerly.

They were a pair of young girls, dark-skinned, one with long chestnut hair, the other with very curly black hair. Certainly younger than Gulab; possibly as young as the kids. Gulab smiled at them and tried to seem reassuring. Neither smiled back. They were consumed in their labors, greasing the gun’s traverse mount, calibrating the angle sights, and so on.

Ahead of the truck, the column moved closer to the intersection. There were no contacts yet, though the likelihood of an enemy encounter felt high. Aircraft debris littered the center of the intersection. What seemed like the fuselage of a short, stubby plane lay ripped open in the middle of a pile of upturned gravel. One old house burnt slowly, a pair of propellers and the steel skeleton of a bomber plane rammed through its center and out its doorway. A tail stuck out an an eerie angle from between that house and its neighbor.

Gulab raised a pair of binoculars to the intersection, glancing over the burning house, to the collapsed ruin across the street, opposite their column, and to the houses on the same side of the intersection as the column occupied. She saw nothing of the enemy nearby.

“Load high explosive, just in case.” Gulab ordered, binoculars still over her eyes.

At her side, she heard the thunk of the five-round magazine catching on the gun’s loader.

It was brief, satisfying, and drowned out by a sound like bellowing civilization of bees.

Gulab felt the wind blow harshly past her and lifted her binoculars skyward.

She spotted one of those engine-less planes swooping over the column.

“Open fire! Open fire!” Gulab shouted.

She put down the binoculars and turned to the gunner and loader. One slammed the wheel-shaped elevation levers in a panic, quickly raising the gun and aiming it at the sky while the gunner shouted corrections in degrees, so that the gun would be turned and turned to match the trajectory of the falling aircraft. Then a firing lever went down.

In a matter of seconds, the five shots from the magazine went sailing over the column.

Flying past the falling craft, the red tracers exploded harmlessly into fragments.

Somewhere farther ahead, behind the debris and burning houses across the intersection, the plane landed. There was no series of loud bangs as the it disintegrated upon the street. Instead there was a long, loud, consistent whining as it slid across the pavement.

Not one hit, even at this altitude. They had merely watched the enemy safely land.

“Charvi!”

“I saw it!” Chadgura replied quickly. “All units take combat positions! Brace for contact!”

Gulab looked through her binoculars again.

“Charvi!”

Chadgura looked back at her briefly. Her expressionless eyes drifted skyward.

She blinked, and withdrew her submachine gun and aimed high.

“Delta, pull back and secure the rear, now!” She called out, opening fire.

Overhead, it seemed as if a hundred flowers bloomed in the sky.

Pure white, dangling a thin blue stem of a person.

The 37mm gun elevated to meet the threat, but did not shoot. There was seemingly no place it could start shooting that would make a dent in what was unfolding overhead.

Dropping from some of the bombers circling over the city, the paratroopers vastly outnumbered the undersize, thirty-strong Ayvartan platoon. Though it looked as if all of them were ready to land right on their heads, the wind started to pull them different directions. Riflemen and women from Delta squadron opened fire on the drop troops, and Chadgura’s submachine gun spat hundreds of tracers into the air after them. But the gunfire was ineffective; the paratroopers were dispersing. They would land in adjacent streets, adjacent blocks, behind walls and on roofs and between the paths of the multi-pronged Ayvartan counteroffensive. Like spores dispersing into the air, they sewed far.

And they were not alone.

While Delta shot aimlessly into the sky overhead, enemy gunfire started to ring out closer.

Green tracer shots began to fly from behind the aircraft fuselage up ahead in their twos and threes, pausing to pull bolts and loads clips. Through the remains of the doorway and portholes, through gashes in the frame and the windows of what remained of the cockpit, the enemy garrisoned the piece of debris. Gulab ducked her head and crouched closer to the gun, trying to put the truck’s cab between herself and the open intersection.

Alpha and Beta rushed to opposing streets, taking cover behind the brick walls and the cement bases of the spear-tipped townhouse fences. Rifle shots struck the obstacles and lifted dust and cement chips into the air. Gulab peeked out briefly with her binoculars. She could see no heads on the aircraft fuselage, but she saw the muzzle flashes, some hundred odd meters forward. There were at least a dozen rifles laying bolt-action fire on them.

“HQ section, form up on the truck bed, and fight defensively!” Chadgura shouted.

Jandi and Dabo withdrew from the sides of the truck and onto the bed, pressed between the cab and the gun. Chadgura barked orders from a similar position, but Gulab was too eagerly surveying the battlefield ahead of her and did not hide with the rest of them.

Though they had the strength of numbers, their position was rotten. Alpha and Beta, crammed essentially around the corner from the enemy, could not meet it with the full strength of their rifles. Men and women traded places on the edge of their brick and cement cover, firing three or four at a time, as many as could peer safely together, and striking the thick wooden frame and the exposed steel skeleton of the enemy’s cover. Rounds that made it through windows or portholes seemed to sail past with no effect. When the enemy returned fire it was still a dozen or more shots at a time, and accurate. Everyone quickly retreated to cover, and to fight back, three or four had to scramble out of the mass again. It was disorganized compared to the enemy’s battle line, and ineffective.

Luckily, they were not alone.

Gulab peered through her binoculars, hoping to spot for the 37mm.

“Crew, site the intersection and fire high exp–”

Sharp noise and a brief sting of heat; Gulab drew back suddenly as a bullet ricocheted off the lightly-armored cab wall a hair’s breadth from her cheek. She put her back to the metal and stared her gun crew with wide, panicked eyes, breathing suddenly heavy.

“Lay down fire on that fuselage! Now! Right now!” Gulab cried out.

At this order, the 37mm gun’s crew descended the barrel as low as it could go against the top of the truck’s cab. Bullets bounced off the barrel shroud and against the bulletproof glass on the front of the truck. Gulab raised her binoculars again and peered over the cab, standing atop an ammunition crate. Amid the telltale reports of rifles on both sides, and the swooping and falling and booming of planes above, she heard the gun load behind her.

From afar, the firing of a 37mm gun sounded like a loud, chunky, rap-rap-rap.

When the barrel was a meter away, it sounded like a lion roaring.

Gulab shook with the transfer of energy as the 37mm emptied its magazine.

She grit her teeth, but did not have time to fret; the result was instantaneous.

Across the intersection, five fist-sized holes sprouted across the plane fuselage.

Behind the hulk, Gulab saw flashes as the delayed-action high explosive went off.

Hundreds of dust-size holes opened on the fuselage, causing it to collapse partially on itself. No longer did it resemble a piece of an aircraft. Though still an obstacle, it was a mound of shredded metal and wood more than anything.  There were no more muzzle flashes coming from it. It was a miracle it had not outright caught fire from the blasts.

In a split second the intersection and the surrounding suburban blocks grew silent.

Gulab looked skyward. She saw no more of the parachutes. They had either landed or died.

“Alpha, move forward and inspect the wreckage!” Chadgura commanded.

Alpha squadron heard the call and began to move up the street to occupy the position left by the defeated enemy. They stacked behind the shapeless debris in the middle of the intersection, reloading their rifles and looking over and around the wreck. Once they made it to the obstacle, they held position and awaited orders. Gulab breathed out a long sigh.

Chadgura stood up on the bed and looked over the cab of the truck, shouting her orders. “Beta, split to cover the sides of the street. Delta, continue guarding the rear. Alpha, reconnoiter the intersection, and carefully. We will try to advance within fifteen.”

Nodding their heads, the rifle troops dispersed as Chadgura ordered. Beta took both sides of the street position, splitting to cover Alpha’s old half, hiding behind the brick divider walls and cement fence bases and keeping their guns trained on the intersection. Behind the truck, Delta stacked half behind the bed itself, and half behind rubble on the street.

Alpha split into three sections, four rifles each. One remained attached to the remains of the fuselage, while the other two split in opposite directions, running a ways down the intersection to inspect the remains of the houses on the far side and on the perpendicular paths. Gulab climbed down from the truck bed, and walked around the front of it to see.

She was distracted by the damage done to the truck’s cab. There were seemingly a hundred pits where rifle shots had struck the cab and its bulletproof glass windows. Concentric circles of bruised glass dotted the windshield, so that the driver behind could hardly be seen, and probably, could hardly see back. Along the engine housing, and the front bumper, and on the wheel guards, there were a dozen lodged rifle rounds. Without the cab and the driver in it all of that ammunition would have sailed right into Gulab and her crew.

Gulab saluted to the driver, who apparently did not see.

“All clear!”

Ahead at the intersection, Alpha squadron’s detachments returned, waving their rifles in the air to signal an all-clear while also shouting it out. Beta squadron started to emerge from their positions — without yet being prompted to do so — and Delta seemed to slacken in their vigil, as it seemed to everyone that there was no enemy among them.

“Regroup in your current formations and get ready to advance. Alpha in front, Beta guarding the flanks and Delta in the rear.” Chadgura called out. “We march in five!”

Gulab nodded her head to her commander, and obediently got back onto the bed of the truck. Chadgura had gotten quite appreciably loud. Her voice was still rather unemotive, but Gulab thought there was a greater force and confidence behind it than she had heard before. There was some new hint of resolve and passion that had awakened in Chadgura.

“Sergeant!”

She called out, and Chadgura turned her head over.

“What is it?”

“You haven’t clapped in a while.”

Gulab smiled. Chadgura blinked, and turned her head back to the intersection.

In turn, Gulab laughed.

“Keep your eyes peeled. Those paratroopers landed somewhere.” Chadgura said seriously.

Nodding again, Gulab raised her binoculars.

She felt the world shake for a moment as the truck’s engine got started.

Slowly the column began to move, one block closer to the intersection, past the fences, past new dilapidated houses, the road ahead of them widening and opening as it met its opposites from the other important thoroughfares and joined around the disorderly wooden mass that had collected in the center of the intersection. Gulab scanned each facade, each unremarkable street corner, each fenced-off driveway around them.

There were so many hiding places, and so few opportunities to march quickly.

It was an environment that reminded her of the forest. Though there was a clear path through the woods of the Kucha, long since carved out by the mountain folk who crossed the woods every day and week, and though there were gaps between the individual trees, it felt like a very busy, crowded, thick, tight place to be nonetheless. You could not run through the forest, even on the path. You couldn’t trust it. Shapur was the same. Though there was empty visual space between each house and each street around them, there was an oppressive atmosphere, with the brick dividing walls and fence bases, the fence spears themselves, the debris spilled out onto the lawns and the streets, and the debris on the road itself and on the intersection, serving as the tightly spaced trees of their urban forest.

In short, while she was sure they could squeeze the rifle squadrons through the space as a a whole, there was still very little room to move between all the rough and ruined terrain.

Nonetheless, the platoon marched. They were now very close to their objective.

“Hey, girls,” Gulab turned to the gun crew, “stand at attention, we’re gonna need–”

Gulab’s gentle orders were overtaken by a violent cry.

Across the rubble rang the report of a single, precise rifle shot.

Falling from the 37mm, the gunner hit the truck bed, screaming and holding her side.

Her loader fell to her knees next to her.

“Kalim!” She cried. She laid hands on her crewmate for support, but found them bloody.

This realization made her even more distraught. As Kalim began to gasp for air, the loader cried and panicked seemed not to know what to do other than to press on the wound.

Gulab ducked behind the gun and turned her head to the soldiers behind her.

Chadgura looked back on the scene and finally clapped her hands once.

“Sniper! Sneak one of Delta’s medics back here!” She shouted.

“Do as she says!” Gulab added, trying to squeeze behind the gun to conceal herself.

There was a sudden ringing of metal as a bullet struck the gun’s body near Gulab’s arm.

The Corporal quickly discerned that this bullet had not come from the same direction as the one before. This one had flown past her; and had struck her in the shadow of the gun.

She turned her head to the ruins behind her.

And to the ruins ahead, and to the ruins on all sides.

“Enfilade!” Gulab shouted. “Charvi, there’s more than one!”

“Everyone fall back on the truck! Form a defensive ring!” Chadgura shouted.

Two more shots rang out, and then three, and then six. Bullets flew in livid green lines over and around the truck, striking the cab from the sides, the gun from seemingly every direction. Gulab, Jandi and Dabo dropped off the bed; Gulab pulled the wounded Kalim and her distraught companion off the bed, and quickly hid them under the truck, behind the rear wheels. A Delta medic crawled under with them, and tried to administer first aid in the cramped confines. On his belly, his kit at his side, and Kalim crying near, he labored.

Crawling under the bed herself, Gulab loaded her rifle and aimed for a fence gate.

She held her breath, praying for Kalim, and waited.

Moments later, she saw a golden-haired elf in blue uniform peer out to shoot.

From the ground Gulab shot, like a hunter hitting the briefly detected head of a deer.

She struck the elf, and they fell dead instantly, sprawled out from behind the gate column.

“They’re coming from the buildings and lawns!” Gulab shouted. “It’s the paratroopers!”

Around the bed of the truck, Gulab saw several boots and pants legs as the rifle troops formed up. She also, immediately, saw one boy fall, fatally bloody, shot in the neck.

Mayhem ensued around them. Gunfire of increasing intensity bore down on the platoon from two opposing houses nearby. Around the corners and behind the fences and from the walls and gardens, the paratroopers that had survived the fall had slowly crept close to the column, and now they were attacking from seemingly every side. Blue garrison caps and sleeves and flashes of golden hair were followed by rifle fire from behind mounds of rubble, from around the columns at the sides of fence gates, from over the walls of side gardens and from within the windows of ruined buildings. Beta squadron, divided along the flanks, was hit hard with immediate loses, and many men and women around the sides of the truck fell wounded and scared, and Gulab had to pull a few under the truck.

Alpha and Delta dispersed, taking cover where they could. Two men, along with Jandi, Dabo and Chadgura, hid directly behind the truck, and Gulab saw their boots, and heard their shots sing defiantly against the enemy. Because the elves were coming from the flanks, the back of the truck provided some measure of safe cover. But the enemy gunfire was growing in strength. Soon Chadgura and her group had to duck down to avoid it.

Gulab saw Chadgura as she crouched behind the truck.

“How many?” Gulab shouted.

“At least a dozen, both sides.” Chadgura replied. “We can’t hit them well from here.”

Tiny columns of dust and pinpricks of splintered gravel followed a series of shots that fell just centimeters from Gulab, forcing her to crawl further under the shadow of the truck. She saw the offending elves briefly through the fences on the surrounding buildings.

Carelessly, she hit her head on the thick bolt under the bed that affixed the gun above.

Gritting her teeth, stifling tears; but the blow suddenly gave her an idea.

“How far can you all throw grenades?” Gulab shouted.

“Not far enough to kill, from here.” Chadgura replied.

Dabo and Jandi seemed to agree with her, while the two Delta men were busy shooting.

“Can you cook them and have them go off in the air at least?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura stared at her under the truck bed for a moment, and seemed to understand.

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I’m always stupid. Give me a moment and then count down your throws.”

“Gulab–”

“Just do it Charvi!”

Gulab started to crawl toward the edge of the truck.

She approached the distraught loader, still crawling next to the medic tending to Kalim.

“What’s your name?” She said, caressing her curly hair.

“S-S-Siba.” She moaned.

“Siba, I need your help with the gun.”

Siba tried to speak, but her words broke under the weight of a sob.

“We were gonna go back home together and we were gonna tell everyone–”

“Hey, listen.” Gulab held her hand. “Kalim is in danger right now. Not just from that one shot. To get her out of here, to save her, I need your help. You can help me; you can help her. I know you can. I know you want to. You can keep crying. But help me load the gun.”

Siba grit her teeth, closed her eyes, and nodded her head, shaking from head to toe.

“Charvi, now!” Gulab cried.

Several grenade pins hit the floor.

For a brief instant, Jandi, Dabo and Chadgura held a live grenade in each hand.

“That’s enough, throw!” Chadgura commanded.

Four grenades flew over the left-hand side of the street, and two toward the right.

All of them detonated in mid-air over the positions of the nearest elves.

“Siba, go!” Gulab shouted.

She rushed out from under the bed of the truck, and the young girl followed.

Not one bullet flew their way.

Together they climbed onto the bed of the truck. Gulab scrambled with the elevation and traversal controls, swinging the lightly dented 37mm around while Siba picked up a clip from an ammunition box and shoved it into the loading slot. Gulab trained the weapon first on the left-hand side of the street, where the sturdiest fence wall and gate columns provided ample cover for the elves, and the tight fence spears gave them free portholes to shoot from. All of the elves had gone into cover from the blasts. Cover wouldn’t matter.

“Firing high-explosive!” Gulab shouted.

She pulled down the firing lever and felt the force of the gun stir throughout her body as the barrel pushed back and recoiled forward, again, and again, five times in a row. Snap chunk snap chunk snap– followed by series of blasts that completely collapsed the walls and the gate columns, each shot striking the elves’ cover at an unfortunate angle. Fence spears fell over or snapped apart and became part of a fragment cloud that went slashing through the stacked-up enemy squadron. When the dust had settled, the lawn of the targeted house was a mess of rubble and bodies all partially buried, all partially together.

“Siba, reload, I’m turning it around!” Gulab shouted.

There was a familiar sound as a pair of bullets struck the ammunition crates on the bed.

Two rounds sailed just over Gulab’s head from down the street.

Siba screeched and stepped back from the ammunition.

“Shit!” Gulab cried out, getting ready to duck behind the gun.

“Keep going!”

From behind the truck bed Chadgura, submachine gun in hand, and stepped out of cover.

Holding down the trigger, she sent dozens of rounds down the street against the elves.

She struck the edge of their cover and forced them temporarily back.

“Gulab, traverse the gun now!” She shouted.

Gulab practically leaped back to the gun’s controls and began to turn it.

Chadgura continued to fire in quick bursts.

Click.

Smoke billowed from the end of her superheated barrel.

She was dry.

Chadgura quickly withdrew a new drum to reload.

In the sudden lull the elves drew forth out of cover once more.

“Siba!” Gulab shouted.

Almost as she did, the young loader shoved a new magazine into the 37mm.

“Shoot, please!” Siba shouted back.

No more prompting was necessary.

Gulab slammed down the firing lever.

Five more 37mm high-explosive shots sailed like comets from the bed of the truck.

Chadgura’s face was lit briefly by the flash of wrathful red tracers.

Five nearly concurrent explosions followed, down the street.

In the wake of the high-explosive blasts, the enemy squadron disappeared beneath the rubble as the protective wall collapsed over them. So much damage had been done that when the Rangdan winds swept the smoke and dust off the impact areas, there was a clear view of the bright green grass on the house’s lawn, its fence having been wiped out.

Gulab stepped back from the gun.

“Siba, are you alright?” She asked.

Slumped over an ammunition crate, Siba was crying her heart out with fear and shock.

Gulab left her bed, and jumped down to Chadgura’s side.

“So much for not doing anything stupid!” She said.

Chadgura nonchalantly reloaded her submachine gun. “I saved your foolish plan.”

“You did, but it was still stupid.”

Chadgura raised her hands in front of Gulab’s face and clapped.

“Hey!”

“You made me clap. Congratulations.”

Chadgura stared at her without expression.

Gulab knew her enough to see a smile where there wasn’t one, and smiled back.

From under the bed of the truck, the Delta medic peered out, triumphantly.

“She’s stable! Gunner girl is stable! We can call her an ambulance, and she’ll be ok!”

Hearing this, Siba, atop the truck bed, burst out crying and screaming again.

This time perhaps a little less suffered, and more elated.

“Dabo, radio for a ambulance.” Chadgura ordered. “Everyone else, regroup in–”

Nobody would know whether it was fifteen or twenty or more minutes.

As Chadgura spoke, a swooping noise, loud as the stride of a giant, drowned her out.

A shadow passed briefly but ominously over the platoon.

Overhead, an enemy aircraft vacated a sky thinning of allies and thickening with fire.

It made for the intersection just ahead.

At such close a range, it seemed unearthly huge.

Far in the sky the aircraft looked like flies. This one was massive, rotund, solid.

Onto the intersection it descended, crushing the remains of the discarded fuselage that the platoon had been fighting for and striking the ground running. Conspicuously lacking engines, the craft glided earthward, dashed its landing gear to pieces, skid, and swung around. Wings flew off it and bounced like skipped stones, striking nearby buildings.

Crucially, the fuselage was battered, but did not collapse.

Across dozens of meters of now-opened road it skidded and slid without control.

Over a chunk of upturned cement its right side lifted, and its tail swung.

Slowing down, the craft fully turned before coming to an abrupt halt.

Where it stopped, the glider faced the platoon.

Transfixed, they watched as the aircraft’s nose split suddenly open.

Inside its shadowed fuselage, a pair of headlights shone.

Over the silence left in the wake of the crash, Gulab heard an engine, and worse, tracks.


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