This scene contains violence.
City of Rangda — Umaru Way, Shapur Connection
“Fire mission target rating point, over?”
A response came quickly, and would have been poorly understood by most personnel. A series of numbers with no immediately discernible pattern came flying out of the radio and Adesh turned them over in his mind for a brief instant, checking the operational map to insure he was correct. Once he had the coordinates, he turned them into degrees for Kufu to turn the tank, and Nnenia to traverse and elevate the gun. Then, Eshe helped to load the 76mm cannon, and Adesh sent the shell sailing skyward, to then hurtle down.
Two shells would follow the first, vanishing into the sky with a thin trail of smoke.
“Good kills! We’re moving to the objective. Thank you, comrades!”
Everyone on the radio seemed elated. Adesh could not see the results of his own shots, which would fly many kilometers away before landing and having an effect. He would have to take the man at his word that the shells had been effective. Sighing slightly, he pulled off his headset and sat on the side of the fighting compartment, his arms aching.
Eshe and Nnenia both reached out to pat him on the shoulder, found the other trying to do so, and stopped awkwardly mid-motion. Adesh sighed all the harder at their display.
“What is wrong with you two lately?” Adesh asked.
Neither of them seemed able to immediately answer.
Adesh was spared further aggravation when Sergeant Rahani appeared and climbed aboard their Chimera self-propelled gun. As overall platoon commander, Rahani traveled between the three tanks in his unit fairly frequently now. He was no longer exclusively at their side. However, he did come back to them eventually after making his rounds.
Something for which Adesh was extremely grateful. Rahani had a stabilizing influence.
“How are my favorite artillery crew holding up?” He asked.
“We’re holding up.” Nnenia replied dryly.
“Sir, when will we start moving again?” Eshe asked.
After the order to vacate Umaru went out, the Chimera unit had doubled back down the connecting streets to Shapur. However, once the paratroopers began to land, there were units all over requesting fire support on the radio, and their plight roused the artillery officers from their retreat. Battalion found the artillery a nice, broad, open-air Msanii square to park in, and they began to lob shells wherever asked for the better part of an hour. Everyone knew, however, that linking up with a friendly unit, like the 1st motor rifle battalion down in University, was a necessary next step that was only being delayed.
At the suggestion, Rahani smiled.
“Feeling restless? Well, you’re in luck, corporal! We’ve been tasked with opening a path for a friendly unit from University. Once we link up, we’ll oversee the transfer of the artillery battalion entirely from Umaru and Shapur and down to the safety of University Avenue. So, get that engine going, Kufu! We’re moving down south, post-haste.”
Kufu did not reply, but the Chimera started to shake as its engine came to life.
Rahani waved over the sides of the Chimera at the allied vehicles in the platoon.
Their own Chimera would be in the lead, followed by two others in a triangle formation. One other platoon of three vehicles would move ahead in a similar fashion. Behind them, a heavy truck with additional ammunition and supplies as well as security personnel (lightly armed riflemen in a slightly different uniform) would guard the rear of the convoy.
Rolling out of the square, the Chimera hit the rubble-strewn pavement and road, and with their long, widely-spaced tracks, tackled the rough terrain expertly. While they moved, Adesh surveyed the terrain ahead with his binoculars, and tried not point them at the sky. Though he had downed a bomber plane mid-flight and had given useful intelligence to the battalion regarding the disposition of the enemy aircraft, he was still unsettled by their appearance over the Rangdan skies. He recalled all too clearly what they were capable of.
So he settled his gaze over the earth instead. At their sides, seemingly around every corner and every block, there was nothing but debris and the hollowed out remains of old storefronts and houses. The 8th Division had once garrisoned this area to protect Umaru and the path farther north to the Rangdan airport. Adesh and his comrades had seen to it that the enemy be dislodged with overwhelming firepower. This ruination was the result.
As Adesh surveyed the damage he caused he felt a hurt in his heart that was hard to shake.
“Something on your mind?” Nnenia asked, sitting on a crate of ammunition next to him.
Overhearing her, Eshe put down the maps he was looking at and turned straight to Adesh.
“It’s nothing.” Adesh replied. He did not want to become a burden to anybody. And in the middle of a battle, thinking about why one fought at all seemed the most wearying burden.
“You can tell us.” Eshe said gently. Behind him, Rahani was gabbing away on the radio.
Adesh sighed. “I knew only basic reading and arithmetic before I entered the army. I was not a very good student. I rarely turned in my home work, even. Now I know all this math. I can look at the horizon and I think of angles and degrees and velocities. Physics. It’s like a new world. And all that it’s good for is killing people. It doesn’t sit right with me is all.”
He did not want to think he was destined for a life of killing. It was naive of him, perhaps. He had joined the army after all. You joined the army to kill people. That was your job. But he had hoped there would be something else for him. Maybe driving a truck, or becoming handy with tools and wires and repairing radios and tanks. Or becoming a medical doctor. But the Ayvartan army in the midst of its Demilitarization dreams had nothing better for him than a rifle. And the Ayvartan army in the midst of Remilitarization had something better — a much bigger rifle that required fancy university math cheat sheets to shoot.
Everywhere he looked, he thought he could see the mathematics of the world. He traced the 76mm gun’s angle aligner and directional compass and elevation gauge onto all of his surroundings, noting the degree to which a ruined roof sloped (a shell that struck a flat, weak surface would penetrate more easily), or the height of an abandoned hospital as they passed (at this range, an elevation of 15 degrees would be sufficient to sail a shell over it). He noted the amount of big rooms he crossed (fragmentation was maximally lethal inside broad but enclosed spaces, like the front lobby of the abandoned Umaru Hotel in the distance). Over the course of his training in Bada Aso and Rangda, Adesh thought his head was now filled, irreparably, with far more facts about killing than about anything else.
Weeks ago, that ability almost scared him. Amid battle, it definitely did scare him.
“It’s not about killing.” Nnenia said suddenly.
She pulled her black hair behind her ears and sidled forward, looking Adesh in the eyes.
“You’re protecting people.” She said. “You’re saving them.”
She laid her hands on his own.
“Maybe.” Adesh sighed, and averted his gaze from Nnenia. “That doesn’t change the fact that I’m behind the barrel of a math-powered gun. It’s not what I think I ought to be.”
When his gaze shifted, it shifted over to Eshe, who smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“It won’t be like this forever. You can use that math however you want after the war!”
Adesh stared at him, not quite comforted by those words. Nnenia stared critically too.
“What? I’m telling the honest truth here. If we win, you don’t have to fight anymore.”
Adesh was about to say something when Rahani got off the radio and addressed them.
“Are any of you keeping an eye out for contacts?” He asked gently.
Nnenia and Eshe stared at each other and Adesh; Adesh stared between the two of them.
“Can one of you keep an eye on the–”
Rahani cut off. Everyone inside violently lurched as the Chimera braked without warning, and all of them dropped against the nearest surface. Adesh struck the firing lever, Nnenia hit the instruments, Eshe one of the side walls. Rahani fall forward between all of them.
“Well, shit. We’ve got a stopped tank ahead.” Kufu shouted from below.
“Mechanical failure, maybe?” Rahani picked himself up, and went to his radio.
Before he could confirm the situation, everyone heard the booming report of a rifle.
Then there was a scream coming from the platoon ahead of them.
“Contact, contact! On the building along the two-way ahead!”
Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe leaped to their feet and tried to get a look over the front superstructure, holding the gun, but Rahani grabbed hold of their uniforms and pulled them roughly down into the fighting compartment once more. He gestured for them to keep their heads down. “Use the instruments! You could’ve been killed just now!”
Pointing to the telescopic sight, Rahani nodded for Adesh to go look.
Ducked low, Adesh made it to the sight and put his eyes to it.
In front of him, one of the Chimera in the lead was leaking fuel, a hole the circumference of one’s thumb having been put into its side plain for all to see. Men and women of its crew scrambled to get out of the vehicle, covered by the commander of the tank, who fired on the intersection ahead with the crew’s self-defense submachine gun. The Commander stood from the fighting compartment, and still shooting, slowly made it onto the caterpillar and off the tank. A second Chimera started bravely shoving up against the dangerous carcass that had been abandoned, pushing it off the road. More gunfire rang out, striking holes in the pavement. Its source was a heavy rifle, an anti-tank type.
Judging by the rate of fire, and the time between shots and between shots at different targets especially, Adesh thought it had to be work of a single AT sniper in hiding.
He could not spot a muzzle flash anywhere, but the shooter had to be dead ahead.
“Corporal, we’re under fire from the intersection. One Chimera is leaking fuel and was abandoned.” Adesh said, his voice switching to the cold, official-sounding one of a gunner handing a report. “Requesting a direct fire mission. Ten shells should do it.”
“I’m making it platoon-wide.” Rahani said, and he radioed their other two vehicles.
Adesh looked to Nnenia, who in turn started to crack open one of their ammunition crates.
Eshe blinked, and raised a hand to his head.
“The barrel lock’s on. We’ve got the gun fixed to the front right now.” He said.
Nnenia and Adesh stared at him suddenly.
“It’s still in travel position?” Adesh cried out.
“We were traveling.” Nnenia said.
“I should have had that thing unlocked. Shit.” Eshe replied.
He looked at the wall of the fighting compartment, face turning pale.
“Eshe, no.” Adesh said.
Preemptively, Eshe shoved Nnenia and Adesh back to keep them from grabbing him.
While they were striking the gun and the wall, he leaped clean over the side.
“Shit!” Nnenia shouted.
Rahani looked at the whirlwind of activity suddenly at his side in disbelief.
Adesh reached around the instrument panel and pulled the self-defense weapon from free from a hidden compartment. Loading a drum onto it, he handed it to Nnenia, who rose up from the side of the fighting compartment and opened with wild automatic fire down the street. Adesh drew a pistol and joined her, suddenly rising from the Chimera’s fighting compartment, the green metal walls giving way to a view of the tight street, flanked by dilapidated buildings, and the scrambling gun crews, and the leaking tank, pushed aside.
Over a hundred and fifty meters down the street was the intersection, a two-way T-shape road, up the stem of which they currently traveled. Along the upper bend was a block of partially collapsed houses, their ground floor and second story windows still together enough to offer cover for a sniper. Adesh aimed at a window, and Nnenia aimed at several. They shot wildly over the heads of their comrades ahead of them, firing into the shadows.
In front of them, Eshe scrambled over the glacis of the Chimera, and started to unscrew the locking lever, a metal rod with a loop that affixed the gun to the tank’s front during travel to prevent its misuse and help mitigate wear and tear on the gun mantlet.
“Hurry up Eshe!” Adesh shouted.
His pistol clicked dry, and Adesh reached for a new magazine.
Suddenly he saw a muzzle flash, bright and violent, coming from down the way.
Eshe recoiled in pain as a heavy bullet severed the barrel lock. Shards of metal resulting from this collision struck him in the arm, and he began to bleed through his uniform. Adesh cried out, pushed Nnenia toward the location of the muzzle flash and held out his hand over the gun. Nnenia held down the trigger and opened fire with greater zeal.
Gasping for breath, Eshe shambled over the gun and back into the firing compartment.
“It’s free! Start shooting!” He cried out in pain.
Rahani could spare no time to chastise them. He withdrew the first aid kit and dropped to his knees beside Eshe, bandaging his bloody arm and pulling off visible shards of metal.
Nnenia and Adesh rushed to load and elevate the gun.
Once the first shell was in, no time was wasted.
In a rage, Adesh smashed the firing lever as he never had before.
“Firing High-Explosive-Incendiary!” He called out.
Through the sighting scope, Adesh watched the shell sail into the house and explode into a fireball that set the building alight like a tinderbox. He paid little heed to the effect, he was already loading the next incendiary before the fire had much time to spread. Nnenia loaded the second shell, and almost as quickly as it locked inside, Adesh released it.
Seemingly following his lead, and with no countermanding orders, the two other Chimeras in their unit opened fire the same as Adesh had, sending three shells each flying down the road and striking nearby buildings with incendiary rounds, lighting the block across the intersection on slowly spreading fire. Walls and windows burnt up, and collapsed. Roofs tumbled into the bonfires cooking in their ground floors and refreshed the blaze.
Great dancing flames consumed the street. Foul black smoke blew in a great billowing cloud across the intersection, obscuring the flames and the ruins and the way forward.
There was no more enemy gunfire heard or felt. Aside from the sounds of the rushing flames and the slow collapse of the buildings in those flames, the road was starkly quiet.
On the floor of the Chimera, Rahani looked up from the quivering, wounded Eshe.
“Adesh, I did not authorize incendiary fire!” He said.
“We can’t afford not to use it!” He shouted back suddenly. “We don’t know exactly how many or where they’re hiding! High explosive won’t cut it in this situation!”
Nnenia raised her head from the ammunition crates, stunned.
Eshe, wincing with pain, cowered away from the sight.
Rahani frowned and bowed his head slightly.
Adesh realized he had crossed a line.
He felt his heart tremble. His lips quivered.
“I’m sorry.” He said.
That anger of his had risen again. And it was not fielded on his enemies this time.
Rahani looked utterly disappointed.
Outside the Chimeras, someone could be heard asking ‘who the hell shot that HE-I?'”
Rahani sighed deeply, and stood up from inside the Chimera.
He looked down at Adesh, who was still crouched near the gun.
“Adesh I understand that you’re upset. But you cannot protect Eshe and Nnenia like this. Doing these impulsive things only endangers us. Please. I want to believe in you.”
He then looked over the side of the Chimera and waved.
“Sir, forgive me! I panicked when one of my crew was wounded.”
Adesh gasped. He wanted to say something, but Nnenia put a hand over his mouth.
“No. You’ll make it worse.” She said.
Rahani smiled and waved and played it off casual while speaking to someone Adesh couldn’t see, outside the Chimera. Adesh could hear his voice, however, when he shouted.
“Rahani? You? Jeez, man, keep it together will you? What the hell happened? Now we’ll have to divert through an alleyway. It’ll take us even longer to make it to University now, if we can get there at all. One more like this and I’m going to have to report it.”
“I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.” Rahani said, playing off his cutesy charm.
He nodded his head, waved again, and then sat back down near the radio, sighing.
He looked at Adesh with that familiar charm of his.
“Next time, you’ll be explaining that yourself.” He said, a little coldly.
Adesh nodded, feeling deeply ashamed of what had transpired, but also, helpless.
He laid down on the floor of the Chimera. Rahani leaped out of the vehicle and joined the other commanders in deciding which way to move now. Linking up with the 1st motor rifle battalion was essential to Colonel Nakar’s new plans. Now because of one impulsive gun crew that whole plan was being thrown for loop. In an army that valued the following of plans as closely as possible to achieve success, it was a wonder Rahani wasn’t punished.
Perhaps everyone understood it couldn’t have been Rahani. Perhaps everyone knew.
It was a stupid little gunner like Adesh, who let the blood run away with him.
“I’m sorry Adesh. It’s my fault.” Eshe replied, breathing heavily.
“No, it wasn’t.” Nnenia said.
Somehow, Nnenia always found it in her to disagree with Eshe.
Adesh sank his head against his knees. “She’s right.” He said.
Both of his friends quieted.
As the Chimeras got moving again, Adesh saw the numbers dancing around in front his eyes, and he closed them, and the doubt in his head grew greater and heavier than ever.