This scene contains violence.
City of Rangda — Shapur Way
“TANK! IT’S A TANK!”
“How? How the hell did it come out of the sky?”
“Where’s the arty detachment? Can we call them up?”
“They’re diverting course right now! We can’t count on them now!”
All around Gulab there was confusion and panic as the tank emerged from the glider.
Soon as the unpowered aircraft had landed, the nose of its massive fuselage suddenly split open sideways, revealing that it had all along been a swing door into a very large interior compartment. From within this compartment came neither enemy crew nor infantry.
Slowly, an enemy tank began to make its way out of the aircraft. Four massive wheels surrounded by caterpillar track bore a boxy hull with a slightly sloped glacis leading to a flat front plate with a hatch. Its riveted turret had slanted sides, and bore a long, thin main gun affixed to a thick mantlet and paired with what seemed like a small machine gun.
Perhaps it was a light tank, but any tank was a problem for a small gaggle of infantry.
At once, Jandi raised her BKV rifle and put rounds downrange, and several riflemen loaded armor piercing shot into their standard rifles and joined her, but there was no visible effect on the enemy tank, which was beyond any rifle’s effective distance against armor. Tracers flew by the dozens against the tank’s glacis and gun mantlet and bounced harmlessly or dissipated into the armor. From several hundred meters away but quickly closing, the tank trundled indomitably over the rubble, undeterred by the small arms.
As it entered the intersection, however, it paused as if to ponder.
The next instant its gun lit up, and a torso-sized chunk of the street went up in the air.
There was no use to standing out in the open against this beast.
“Get to cover! Move over those walls and into the lawns and gardens!” Chadgura ordered.
Alpha, Beta and Delta seemed to spread every which way without organization.
Gulab shook her head free of its shock and ran back behind the truck.
There, she found the Delta medic and Siba trying to move the injured, delirious Kalim; Gulab grabbed hold of the injured girl, and along with her crewmate and the medic, rushed her into the street, and over a wall that had been blasted open five times by the 37mm, and that had ultimately collapsed onto itself. They crossed the lawn and dashed under the leaning, damaged threshold of the house, hiding Kalim in the ruin. Gulab ran back out.
As she stepped onto the lawn again, Gulab felt a spray of flying glass cut her cheek.
Ahead of her, an armor-piercing round smashed the front of the truck and punched through the back in a single swift, brutal movement. Such was the force of the attack that it caused all of the truck’s bulletproof glass to splinter suddenly and go flying. Gulab raised her arms seconds too late, and withstood the makeshift fragmentation attack with a few cuts, and peered over her own arms at the wreck. Hanging by a single bolt, the door to the truck slipped open, and the disoriented driver fell out onto the street, bloody in the head.
Chadgura and Dabo grabbed hold of her and pulled her over the wall and into the lawn.
“It’s closing in! A hundred meters–” Chadgura began to shout–
Then the opposing garden wall buckled instantly under pressure from a shell. Chunks of brick went flying, striking men and women nearby with a force more vicious than a thrown stone, and a hunk of deformed metal embedded itself at Chadgura’s feet. She did not spring away from it; she would not have had the time. And she did not have the reflex.
Instead she looked down, appraising the shell.
She let go of the driver, and clapped her hands together.
Jandi ran in from the street, her BKV shouldered, and grabbed hold of the driver.
Chadgura simply stared out into the street, clapping.
While Dabo and Jandi pulled the barely conscious driver closer to the wall, and out of sight of the street, and the tank, Gulab rushed down from the steps to the ruined house, and she grabbed hold of Chadgura and brought her closer to the wall as well. She pulled Chadgura to the ground, and she did so with great timing — in the next instant a solid shell punched through the wall and zipped over their shoulders, and over the heads of several soldiers.
At their backs, the walls concealing them were slowly collapsing under the tank’s attacks.
“We don’t have a lot of brick left!” Gulab shouted.
She looked over her shoulder at the assembled forces for some kind of initiative.
She found none.
Everyone was busy tending to wounded comrades or to themselves or hiding.
At her side, Chadgura tugged on her arm.
Gulab turned back to her, on the floor, and stared.
“I’m better now.” Chadgura said plainly.
“You weren’t before?” Gulab said, surprised.
“I was not.”
Gulab patted her on the head.
“Well, I’m glad one of us is doing well.”
Chadgura stared up at Gulab for a moment.
She leaned up, and quickly, like a lunging viper, gave Gulab a peck on the cheek.
Gulab looked down at her, both of them on the ground with their backs to the troops.
“I wanted it to be romantic, because we’re in a stressful situation, but I was nervous and I missed, so, it was merely friendly.” Chadgura said, in an uncharacteristically quick voice.
Gulab found it a little hard to process. Her cheek felt incredibly hot.
“Excuse me?” She replied.
Directly over their heads the brickwork exploded into the lawn.
Finger-sized chunks of pulverized brick spilled over them, and they covered their heads.
On the other end of the lawn, a solid steel penetrator tumbled down a mound of debris.
It struck the pile of collapsed masonry with such force it raised a thick dust cloud.
Gulab, rubbing her cheek, stared at Chadgura, and then back at the dusty pile of debris.
“Smoke. We can use the signal smoke!”
She laid hands on Chadgura’s belt, pulling free one of the colored smoke signal grenades.
Moving faster than she was thinking, Gulab took off from the ground, pulled Jandi’s BKV free of its owner in a very unkind fashion that left her comrade on the floor, and ran right out of the lawn within which they had all been hiding, making for the back of the truck. She crouched behind it, grenade in one hand, and the heavy, unwieldy BKV held by its midsection in the other. Ahead of her, the tank was maybe a hundred meters out.
She took a deep breath and readied to run, when she felt someone bump into her.
At her back, Chadgura appeared with an oddly meek expression on her face — that is to say, meek, relatively speaking, and expression, also applied very liberally. Chadgura generally lacked in both departments, but Gulab thought she could read her face as clearly as the primary school textbooks her grandfather mentored her in. She was unarmed, save for a signal smoke grenade, and she had a hand on Gulab’s back, as if stacked in support.
“I’ll throw first.” She said. “We can move on my mark, unless–”
“You’re the boss! We move on your mark.” Gulab replied, trying to dispel the tension.
She smiled, and Chadgura nodded her head.
Glancing behind herself, Chadgura signaled a group of people assembled at the fence gate.
From around those columns, several riflemen opened fire on the tank.
In response, the tank opened fire.
One armor-piercing shot slashed the column down its midsection and caused it to topple over instantly. There were screams and groans of surprise, and the riflemen retreated.
Chadgura patted Gulab on the back and stepped around her and out of cover.
She pulled the pin and threw her instantly-smoking can grenade into the air.
Purple-blue smoke trailed the grenade as it sailed over the empty road and landed between the truck and the tank. Within seconds, a cloud began to form and rise that was growing to obscure the road almost completely. From inside the cloud, there was an audible and incessant trundling, and then, from closer still than before, a flash.
An armor-piercing shell smashed through the front of the truck and out the back.
It struck the 37mm gun’s mount and toppled over the weapon.
But Gulab was already running and would not become so easy a target.
She charged past Chadgura, patted her in the back, and threw her grenade.
Landing behind the purple-blue smokescreen, the grenade started spreading green gas.
Gulab shifted the BKV’s weight, got a proper handle on it, and ran into the cloud.
Her eyes teared up and she thought she felt her lungs shrivel.
Inside the cloud the signal smoke was an overwhelming, disgustingly false scent, like synthetic paint or diesel fuel, that seemed to force its way into her lungs. Holding her breath, struggling to see through tears and a cold burning sensation and the thick darkness of the smoke, Gulab ran along the side of the street, disoriented.
Again she saw a gun flash.
This time it was close, and it was not ahead of her. It flashed at an angle from her.
She heard the trundling, closer than ever. She felt the ground shaking.
Gulab raised her BKV, and from a tenuous standing position, opened fire.
Holding down the trigger she released five Armor-Piercing Incendiary rounds into the air.
In front of her there was a new flash, smaller than before.
It was a spark, lighting up.
Several more sparks followed.
Abruptly the trundling tracks stopped making noise.
Within ten meters, she saw a bright fire start to dance as if in mid-air.
It cast a shadow inside the smoke, a shadow of a tank with its engine ablaze.
Feeling her breath leaving her, and her head spinning, Gulab retreated.
She dropped her BKV, turned, and ran back out of the cloud of signal smoke.
Overhead, the embattled sky soon cast its light on her anew, and once out of the cloud, Gulab made a sound like an animal as she struggled to cough up gas and breathe in rejuvenating air. She leaned forward, supporting her upper body with hands on knees, and gasping and heaving for air. Tears streamed down her cheek, her eyes burning.
Through eyelids rapidly spreading and shutting, she detected a shadow over her.
Chadgura approached, and crouched down to her own knees, staring at her blankly.
She looked like she wanted to say something, but no words escaped her lips.
She merely sat there and blinked, her brown skin and pale hair darkened with soot and debris, her face glistening with sweat, smelling like the inside of an ammo crate.
Gulab looked up at her, struggling to hold in a breath.
Without warning she seized Chadgura by the collar of her shirt and pulled her closer.
Her smoke-stained lips took Chadgura’s own and took in the taste of sweat and dust.
She could have held her there forever, devoured her; a violent cough forced them apart.
Gulab gasped for air, and held on to her own throat for a brief moment.
Chadgura hovered in front of her, their lips a finger’s width apart.
“That’s how you do it!” Gulab struggled to say between breaths. “Kiss like a hero!”
Chadgura blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.
Her lips finally articulated something resembling a word.
She would not get to say it, not yet.
In the distance, the braided-haired mountain girl and her emotionless lover both heard the sounds of crashing, of sliding and skidding, of landing gear and propellers and wood snapping and hydraulics cranking. They saw them, in the sky, briefly but with an ominous presence. Gliders were falling, parachutes spreading, and the sky slowly clearing.
“More of them?” Gulab cried out.
Chadgura was still silent. She merely nodded her head.
“Shit. I wanted to kiss more.”
Gulab nervously played with her long honey-brown braid and laughed out loud, a little bitterly, the gross but delectable taste of Chadgura’s mouth still on the tip of her tongue.
At the time she did not know, could not have known, that while they silently consummated their long-held, barely-hidden feelings, the first major battle between elves and ayvartans in over a hundred years was about to be joined in earnest.
Rangda was about to see its first tank war, and it would somehow come from the sky.