This chapter contains violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Shapur Way
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.
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.”
“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.
“I saw it!” Chadgura replied quickly. “All units take combat positions! Brace for contact!”
Gulab looked through her binoculars again.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks, Regimental HQ
At first there had been a sense of despair surrounding the capture of Shayma El-Amin by the scarcely-known elven enemies dropping from the sky. The 3rd Battalion was their most powerful combat unit, comprising almost two thirds of their armor strength and heavy combat power. But within moments after receiving and spreading the news, Madiha Nakar dispelled the encroaching fear with a resounding proclamation of her own.
“I will lead the rescue operation. Prepare the Rakshasa for me.”
There was a sense of stunned admiration that followed the Colonel’s orders as they traveled quickly down the chain of command. After all, she had issued them from a wheelchair, while still receiving periodic medical attention to recover from the torture she suffered at the hands of the vile leaders of the traitor city. Soon everyone would realize that Madiha was deadly serious. She stood from her wheelchair and walked, painstakingly, without even her cane, rebuffing the support offered by her secretary, Parinita Maharani.
“Madiha, please, you’ll make it–”
Madiha raised a finger to her own lips, and then to Parinita’s.
Parinita sighed and huffed. “You’re so stubborn!”
But she knew Madiha well enough it seemed, to know to drop the subject.
Walking was difficult, and painful. But the gunshots were healing fast, thanks to Madiha’s innate blessings, and the frayed feeling in her nerves from the drugs was also dissipating.
Every exertion hurt, but the adrenaline rush and tension of the coming fight kept her up.
Making their way down to the depots, everyone assembled in the tanker’s staging area as the engineers brought out the large and impressive Rakshasa Command Tank, newly-painted in the standard green, with a unit number, 34, in white sprayed paint on its side. While they worked on it, the commander and her staff were ushered inside a cleaned-up depot nearby for supplies. There were guns, clothes, and rations for all tankers.
Tanker suits were quickly issued. It was the first time Madiha had seen one up close.
In the privacy of a makeshift changing room, she shed her uniform, and donned the suit.
It was nearly skin-tight on Madiha’s slender, muscular form, and a touch awkward. There were pads on the chest, waist and joints that helped smooth out her form a little, but she still felt a little exposed. Over the suit, she wore a sleeveless jacket with all of her insignia, which did a little to make her feel decent. She straightened out her shoulder-length, slightly messy black hair and donned a radio headset over it, completing the tanker attire.
Stepping outside the changing room, she found Parinita waiting for her dressed in a similar garb. But her secretary’s slightly plumper and curvier form seemed starkly better suited to the design. Her wavy, strawberry hair was tied in a ponytail. She smiled and waved coquettishly upon sighting Madiha, very visibly examining her from head to toe.
“You look so dashing in that! I rescind my protests — you should command more often!”
Madiha shook her head and sighed. “Who designed this? I don’t understand it.”
Parinita twiddled her index fingers and turned beet red.
“Kimani asked me to come up with a spec for a separate tanker uniform that wouldn’t get caught on the instruments and I drew her a spec! It was just a neat little spec, you know! I’d read all about this new plastic technology that the M.A.W group developed and–”
Madiha averted her eyes, turning red in the face herself.
“You two look quite fetching in those!”
Minardo flounced into the room, conspicuously dressed in a very ordinary uniform.
“You’re not coming with us?” Madiha asked.
“Of course not.” Minardo pointed subtly at her own belly.
“Oh. Do you not fit in the tank?” Madiha asked.
Parinita elbowed Madiha in her visibly lean stomach.
Minardo stared at the two of them critically.
“Honestly do the two of you still don’t understand? Spirits defend. I guess it is true that mothers really are alone in the world. If you weren’t so charming otherwise, I’d hate you.”
Madiha and Parinita shrank away from her.
She shrugged, and picked up a headset from the table and donned the piece.
“I’ll provide support from here.” Minardo said.
She sat down behind a mess table upon which a radio unit had been laid.
Plugging herself in, she leaned back on her chair, crossing her arms.
“So, how’s the plan lookin’ at this hour, fearless leader?” Minardo asked.
Madiha did not have to think about her response too much.
“At this point the conditions for a victory, as in retaking the city completely, are slim. We can be sure that this airborne invasion is being supported by a naval thrust — that is the elven art of war. And we cannot hold off such an attack. However, the conditions for an escape are very possible. We just have to link our units back together.” Madiha said.
“An escape, huh? I can’t say I’m opposed. I’m sick to death of this city.” Minardo said.
“It’s so scenic, on the one hand. But then there’s the treason and invasion.” Parinita said.
Madiha chuckled a little. It was a healing bit of laughter. She had desperately needed it.
“Presently I am out of love with Rangda as well. But that’s neither here nor there.”
Madiha wandered over to a table nearby where grenades and pistols and flare guns were laid out for tankers and tank commanders to equip themselves. She examined the items before affixing a few to the pouches and belt over her suit. There were also boxes of dry chickpeas, water canteens, and hardtack, as emergency tanker rations. She took some.
“Parinita, you should take some food as well.”
There was no immediate response. Madiha turned over her shoulder to the mess table.
She found Minardo and Parinita both huddled around the radio all of a sudden.
Parinita waved Madiha closer.
The Colonel ambled over to the table, as ginger on her own wounds as she could be while still hurrying to her secretary’s side. She plugged her headset into the radio.
Broadcasting over every open frequency was a message, from the 8th Division.
“Attention 1st. Regiment of the Kansalite forces! This is the 8th Division’s 2nd Regiment’s Lieutenant Yassir Karak! Rangda’s Council has fallen! We have no reason to oppose you! We offer assistance against the Elven aggressors in return for clemency! Repeat–”
Madiha unplugged her headset from the radio box. Her head filled with possibilities.
Parinita and Minardo looked at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.
At this, Madiha gave an uncharacteristic grin, satisfied with the plan brewing in her mind.
“He sounds like a punctual boy. We shall make use of him.” Madiha said.