This scene contains violence and death.
City of Rangda — Ocean Road
“There they are!”
Harmony parked around the corner from the postal center. Stationed on the road straddling the long front lawn of the building were two more of those Elven paradrop tanks. Both were practically staring into space, and on one, the hatches were open for air and the tank commander was standing out of his turret. Had the other tank been less alert then it might have been possible to defeat both enemies without seeing a retaliatory shot.
“How many rounds do we have?” Danielle asked.
“Not enough.” Caelia replied.
Just marching forward would get them hurt or even killed. They needed to draw the enemy’s attention away from the road to stand a chance. Caelia had an idea. She reached for the belt-slung hip box on her bodysuit that held her radio equipment and its controls, and adjusted the volume before calling the “mouse” that they had committed to saving.
“Can you make noise for us?” She asked.
“Are you here?” the voice quickly replied.
“We’re around the corner, but the enemy is pointed right at us and we need–”
There was a shuttering noise on the other end of the line.
Danielle cried out. “Caelia, there was a shot!”
Caelia thrust forward to look through her periscope and found the enemy in disarray.
Atop one of the turrets the tank commander slumped forward, bleeding heavily.
On the lawn, Caelia spotted a mechanic that had gotten out to look at the tracks just in time for their head to burst like a fruit beneath a hammer, suffering some unknown bullet.
At once, the second tank began to turn its turret to face the postal center.
“Danielle, ram the one with the hatches up, I’ll shoot the other!”
Harmony barreled out of the corner and accelerated toward the tanks.
Danielle seemed like she put her whole weight into the sticks.
In an instant they closed the gap.
“Hold on!” Danielle shouted.
Caelia braced herself for the collision.
Before the enemy tank could get a shot off, Harmony crashed into the inert second tank, smashing the front-most road wheel off and hooking its sharp metal track guard beneath the enemy’s caterpillar. Danielle did not let up on the speed, and though the track gored itself apart, she managed to push one tank into the other, rattling both of them to shock.
“We’re detracked!” Danielle cried out.
Caelia turned the 45mm gun on the remaining enemy tank at point blank range.
Shooting over the front of the enemy tank, jamming its own gun with hers, Caelia unleashed one of their last armor-piercing rounds on the enemy’s turret. There was a second in which she feared the shell might bounce off the protruding gun mantlet; but the shell was fired so close to the target that the armor gave away like a tin lid to a can opener.
Smoke billowed from the enemy’s gun and from the hatches.
“Aaaah, they’re down!” Danielle cried. “Pray the suspensions aren’t broken!”
Danielle tugged on a stick with the tips of her fingers as if she feared it was cursed.
There was a bit of metallic creaking, but Harmony extricated itself on its one good track.
Caelia took the personal defense weapon from the stash and stood out of the turret hatch.
She remembered her foreign military language phrasebook and shouted, “Arrendersi!”
There were no elves alive outside to listen to her shouting. Instead, on the lawn of the postal center, atop a neat pile of bodies near the flagpole, sat a trio of small, pale, dull-eyed people, two with buzzed short hair and one with long, flowing ice-blue hair. They had similarly soft features and were just short of 1.5 meters in size, but fully proportioned as adults. They had a muted sky-blue uniform instead of the Ayvartan green, and they had no bodysuits, so they weren’t tankers. All of them bore similarly detached, inexpressive looks on their faces, and they all had sniper rifles of a large caliber, like BKV guns but cut down.
They were Svechthan (a word Caelia pronounced as “Sechan” but did not know the real pronounciation for), allies of the Ayvartan nation, and communists from far northeast.
All of them looked rather feminine to Caelia but the long-haired one, definitely a woman, raised a hand in salute, and spoke in the brusque accent Caelia knew from the radio.
“Greetings, comrade mouse.” She said. “This mouse’s name is Sgt. Nikayla Illynichna. And these are my subordinates, Gorchov and Fedorovich. We have gifts for you.”
She waved her hand toward the postal center’s open doors. Inside, Caelia could see crates.
“Do you have 45mm ammunition?” Caelia asked.
“Plenty. But most pressingly, we need to take 76mm ammunition to the school. When the enemy’s airborne attack started, several tanks were undergoing resupply. Because they were caught unawares, they could not load up and had to run to defensible positions.”
“I see. So you snuck out to get ammunition for them.” Caelia said.
Illynichna nodded. She crossed her arms, and huffed a little bit, as if irritated by some injustice. “I’m a master infiltrator, but, even I cannot sneak away from two tanks standing right in front of me in fully open terrain, carrying ammunition. So I was stuck.”
“Why did they not invade the postal center?” Caelia asked. It seemed miraculous.
“Something tells me these troops are not very well-trained.” Illynichna said, snorting.
Caelia suddenly heard some increasingly loud sobs coming from below them.
She raised herself up onto the turret, dropped down to the front of the tank, and found Danielle banging her head against the bent track guard, with her tools on the side of the road, and the spare track links from the parts box laid in a stack next to her.
“What’s wrong?” Caelia asked. She grabbed hold of Danielle’s shoulder to stop her.
“I’m an idiot and a good for nothing! I tore up the drive wheel!” Danielle shouted.
She pointed to the broken track, and then down to something in her arms.
Caelia jumped down onto the street, and bent down to her knees.
Though the ramming maneuver had definitely split the track, that much was always likely to be certain, ramming the sharp end of the track into the enemy’s wheel had an additional deleterious effect, in that it deformed the forward drive sprocket, bending it just slightly enough to interfere with a fluid motion of the track. Danielle cradled the damaged sprocket in her hands like a wounded child and wept, and she savaged herself verbally for the damage done to it. There seemed to be no insult Danielle was not willing to deploy against herself for this mistake. Caelia hardly knew what to say to stop her now.
“Wait one moment,”
Instead, she doubled back to the toolbox, and procured a large bolt-driving hammer.
When Danielle spotted the hammer in her hands she cried out and dropped the sprocket.
“Excuse me,” Caelia said gently.
She then raised the hammer and pounded the sprocket with a massive overhead strike.
Behind them, the Svecthans looked on with confused expressions.
Below them all, the drive sprocket was cracked, but had a more appropriate shape again.
“Oh no!” Danielle cried out.
“Now it’s my fault that it is broken.” Caelia said.
“I guess! But–” Danielle cried out again, more helplessly this time.
“Put it back on again, it should last us a while more.” Caelia calmly interrupted.
She bent down to Danielle’s level and stared her in the eyes without expression.
“Okay.” Danielle sobbed. She seemed unable to continue her attack in Caelia’s face.
Satisfied, Caelia gently patted her on the shoulder, and climbed back into the tank.
“Load up as much ammunition as you can, and climb on.” Caelia instructed Illynichna.
The Svecthans raised their thumbs up, and began their work. One by one they seized several crates of ammunition from the postal center. While Danielle worked to repair the track, Caelia replenished her ready rack with 45mm ammunition, and the Svechthans chained up crates of 76mm ammunition to the back of the tank, using ropes and chains and spring harnesses and camouflage nets, to form a big bundle like a holiday bag.
Danielle climbed back in the tank, and gently nudged the stick corresponding to the broken track. There was a bit of worrisome mechanical noise, but the track moved.
“We should be fine for a little bit.” Danielle said.
“A little bit is all we need. Thank you. See? You’re good at this.”
Danielle sighed. “I guess. I wish I hadn’t gotten the tank busted in the first place.”
“You have to break things sometimes so you can learn how to fix them.”
On the back of the turret, they heard a banging noise.
“I guess our mice are good to go.”
Caelia raised herself out of the turret and found their Svechthan companions on the ground. Having loaded up all the crates, there seemed to be no room for them now.
“Staying behind?” Caelia asked.
Illynichna nodded her head. “We will keep an eye on things here. You girls will need eyes on the ground. Besides, we’ve ridden on enough infernal tanks for one day.”
“Thank you for your help, comrades.” Caelia said. She saluted.
Illynichna, Fedorovich and Gorchov saluted back, and then picked up their kit, and made themselves scarce, vanishing back into the urban landscape as if they had never been there. Like mice, they seemed able to scurry through any gap, out of anyone’s sight. Caelia wished them luck. She returned to her seat, took a deep breath and got ready to command.
“Forward, Danielle! We’re going to the school up north.”
Once the tank got moving, Danielle seemed to perk up slightly.
“I’m getting some instability from the repaired track, but I’m managing.”
“You can do it!” Caelia cheered.
Harmony rushed past the broken-down tanks and their stricken-out occupants and followed the road north, parallel to the main drive of Ocean Road, and accelerating constantly. Caelia and Danielle had discussed the route as one of many they could take depending on what happened at the postal center. Now that they had a clear idea of where to go, they could not sneak around anymore. Any moment wasted could be the one that allowed the enemy to destroy their comrades in need. Getting to the school was priority.
So Danielle pushed forward as fast as the tank would go.
They turned the corner up from the postal center and back onto Ocean Road, crossing through the main drive and back out onto the opposing side-street. This crossing was intended to avoid the more open, visible and likely crowded Ocean Road, but it carried with it the danger that ultimately transpired. As they turned back North, Caelia opened the hatch, glanced behind the tank, and found an enemy vehicle following behind them.
She dropped back into the turret. “Danielle, we’re being followed!”
“I’ll do my best to avoid their fire! Try to stop them!”
Harmony rattled, as Danielle started to move the tank unpredictably.
Caelia engaged the turret drive, and turned Harmony’s gun directly over the rear engine.
Looking through her sight, she found an open-topped, tracked carrier vehicle and a light tank had fallen in behind her. They were charging in at their own full speeds, and the light tank was gaining on her. Those elven airdropped lights were proving faster than Harmony on the roads — the Kobold’s real strength was its stability off-road, not its road speed.
“Keep it steady, Danielle!”
“I know you can do it!”
Caelia reached for a shell, drew back from the sight to load it, and then looked again.
She put her eyes on the sight just in time to witness the enemy tank’s gun flash.
Everything shook as the shell struck the Kobold’s gun mantlet. Caelia hit her head.
Blood started to draw from her forehead and down her nose, between her eyes.
“Firing AP-HE!” She shouted.
Harmony blasted the enemy Light Tank between turret and hull.
The shell penetrated its thin armor with seemingly no resistance.
Immediately the tank’s tracks ceased up and it gave up the chase.
Passing it, the enemy open-topped carrier began shooting what seemed like a long anti-tank rifle. Caelia saw a half-dozen bullets go flying, but felt none of the impacts.
She realized immediately why that was. It was going for the tracks, not the armor.
And with one track clearly patched up, there was an obvious weak point there.
Switching from her tank gun to the coaxial machine gun, Caelia unloaded on the carrier.
Dozens of rounds bounced off the front armor, like glowing red fireflies buzzing around the vehicle they ricocheted uselessly in every direction. Caelia aimed farther up, and held down the trigger for a second volley. She could see a driver and a gunner, and the gunner top-loading a magazine of fresh armor-piercing cartridges. She held down the trigger and fired in bursts of three on them, and the bulletproof plate absorbed barrage after barrage.
She banged her hand on metal trying to replace the emptied pan magazine.
“Danielle, brake for just a second!” Caelia commanded.
“If you say so!” Danielle replied.
For a brief instant, Harmony lost enough speed for the carrier to close some distance.
Caelia held down the trigger and unloaded the new pan magazine.
At an angle, the bullets traveled right into the forward compartment.
Hitting the driver and gunner both, Harmony accelerated and left the carrier behind.
“I got them, Danielle! Thank you! I’m turning back around–”
“We’re not out of the woods yet!”
Caelia peeked out of the top hatch again and found another light tank.
This one was directly ahead of them.
Harmony swung around the enemy tank as it exited a nearby alley.
Caelia watched helplessly as the enemy gun turned on them.
Next thing she knew, Caelia nearly banged her head on the hatch.
Harmony slid aside just before the enemy could fire, and the shell went wide.
They rushed past the dumbfounded enemy tank and sped ahead.
“Shit, another one!”
Ahead, crossing an intersection, appeared a second enemy tank, its turret already turned.
Caelia could almost feel the gun about to shoot.
Harmony swung left then right in a brutal maneuver that made the track screech.
Armor piercing shot went flying both ways.
One shell grazed the tank ahead, while the second struck the ground behind Harmony.
Again the Kobold ran right past the enemy tank.
Caelia turned her gaze north and saw the school dead ahead of them.
“Danielle, we’re almost there!”
She dove back into the turret, with the gun still turned behind them.
Looking through the scope, she found the two enemy tanks still trailing them.
Both were that same type of air-dropped tank with the large wheels.
Owing to their speed, they were already catching up to Harmony.
“Firing Armor-Piercing!” Caelia shouted.
Harmony unleashed an AP-HE round down the road and struck one of the tanks in the turret cheek, punching a hole. Much to her dismay, she saw the explosion go off behind the tank rather than inside. She had overpenetrated — the round went through the weak armor in the turret cheek, and then exited the tank too quickly and detonated outside.
Gritting her teeth, Caelia reached for another round.
Her hands slipped away from the ready rack as Harmony turned sharply away.
Caelia felt something graze the turret.
Danielle had avoided another shot!
She grabbed a round off the rack, loaded it, and looked through scope.
Both of the enemy tanks were almost on top of her.
“Danielle, they’re maybe thirty meters away!”
“We’re almost there!” Danielle shouted.
Desperate for a direct hit, Caelia trained her gun sight on a tank and held her breath.
She exhaled; and the tank’s track exploded, and it swerved out of control.
A second later the remaining tank was sliced through the front hull by a shot and exploded so violently its turret went flying away from the rest of it. It left behind a burning hull.
Peering through the top hatch Caelia saw the school, ahead of them, a small compounded surrounded by a brick fence. There was an open gate, and a pair of Hobgoblins stood sentinel around it, launching shells down the road to provide cover for Harmony. They had been the ones who destroyed the pursuing enemy tanks. Harmony was home free.
“Caelia, get back in!” Danielle cried out.
At the edge of her vision Caelia saw a quick, sharp, bright flash, and heard a roar.
Smoke and sparks went up along the side of the tank.
Behind them, the immobilized tank that had once been chasing them was still shooting.
It raised its gun suddenly.
Caelia dove down just in time for the shell to overfly her, snapping the hatch away.
Overhead, the sky rushed past the top hatch, now permanently open to the air.
Had she hesitated even a second she would have been savagely decapitated.
She felt suddenly woozy with the realization. She could have died. She could have died.
A shell weighing over two Elven pounds had flown centimeters from her head.
Her whole body shook as if with the residual energy of the shot. It was terrifying.
In her previous life, the worst that had happened to her was stage fright.
In fact it was a severe case of stage fright, in part, that ended that old life.
Though the stage was hot and hard and callous, though it hated her and she hated it back, it was impossible for the stage to kill her. All it could do was make demands of her.
Demand that she wear a suit.
Demand an unchanged and unchanging voice.
Demands on her body and on her time and on her acquaintance.
Demands hurt but they didn’t kill.
This life was different. This life could end with a metal slug splattering her brains.
Why had she chosen it then? Why had she run away?
“We’re losing wheels and track! Hold on!” Danielle said.
That voice, that familiar, deep, rich voice, rich with its deepness and familiarity.
Jolted from her trance, Caelia held on tightly to her seat.
She looked down at Danielle. At first she had wanted to confess something, something important, but then those desperate thoughts were overwhelmed by one strange and curious fact. Danielle had no vision devices whatsoever. Her front hatch was open, sure, but she could not possibly avoid shots from behind without directions. And Caelia had given her none. She looked down at Danielle and at the Driver’s seat and instruments.
Below her, Danielle suddenly pushed on one stick and pulled the other, and shifted gears.
Mere meters from the gate, Harmony went into a violent, skidding spin.
Behind them came another shot.
Danielle screamed and guarded her own head. Caelia ducked almost between her own legs.
Harmony left its track and half its wheels behind as it drifted safely through the gate.
Over the slanted and gored left side of the tank flew the enemy 2-pounder shell.
It bounced uselessly off the glacis armor of one of the Hobgoblin tanks.
Both of them retaliated at once.
No more shots came from down the street and road.
Behind them, the gate closed.
Harmony’s engine finally gave out from the pressure, and shut off.
Inside the tank there was a sudden silence. Caelia felt a spotlight shining on herself from the broken hatch above. With the sounds of the tank gone, there was a tinnitus, and a steady rhythm of noises like claps or sparks. She didn’t know whether they were the claps she remembered, the deafening congratulations of the audiences on stage; or the sparks and sputters and bursts from all the ammunition she had heard discharged over time.
Those were two sounds she always heard in her ears when there was nothing else.
They were dire sounds, the sounds of the past and present.
She had lived again. This was the life she had traded the stage for.
Clapping her hand onto the side of her head, feeling a sharp pain between her eyes, Caelia tried to shake off the dizziness and weariness that had overcome her suddenly. Without the jolting and shaking of the tank, a vibration that dug up through her legs, into her gut and between her breasts, she felt sluggish like a clockwork doll whose key was slowing.
“Danielle, are you ok down here?”
She ducked, and leaned down from the top seat to get a look at Danielle.
She found her staring at the ground, sobbing lightly.
“Caelia, I could feel them, before they happened, but I couldn’t stop it!”
She turned around suddenly, and she was crying, and also bleeding lightly.
“You’re hurt!” She cried.
Caelia raised a hand to her forehead. There was still a little flowing blood.
“It’s fine.” Caelia said.
“No it’s not!”
“You were amazing.”
Danielle quieted. Her shoulders slumped a little and she sighed.
“I have a headache. My head feels really hot.” She said.
“Here, catch me.”
Caelia pushed herself down, and landed on top of Danielle.
They scrambled for space for a few moments, before cramming onto the Driver’s seat.
They were practically embracing. There was not much space between them.
Only the bodysuits kept it from being skin on skin.
The contours of their bodies fit together splendidly.
“We’re safe. Just hold me for a little bit, okay?”
Caelia sank her head into Danielle’s chest, and she traded the clapping and the bursting with the sound of Danielle’s heart, pumping so fast. And she wept, just a little bit.
Everything felt absurd and incomprehensible and she didn’t know where things could possibly go from here, having already died and lived too much for any human life to endure in a matter of hours. All of the exhaustion and weight seemed to catch up to her then, and the pain and sweat, and the blood, all of it made her want to cry suddenly.
Danielle held her tightly and quietly.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for. I’m happy to be here with you.”
She wasn’t sure what she felt in general; but she felt happy with Danielle.
At least that much was certain.
As the skies over Rangda began to clear, the ground battle began to make sense of itself again. Elves started to come together in pockets. Poorly armed, demoralized, nearly defeated 8th Division remnants made their strongholds were they could. 1st Regiment troops started digging their knives into any exposed side of the Elven drop troops that they could find. No defensive line survived the chaos, no matter who established it.
But all the troops that could drop had dropped. All the tanks that would fall had fallen.
The Elven surprise attack had succeeded in creating confusion and sewing disorder.
It was finally time for the scramble and the chaos to end.
Over the radio, the orders came.
“All reconstituted units are to attack toward Ocean Road. End radio silence.”
Soon as this order was given, a convoy of heavy tanks from Madiha Nakar’s headquarters set off, led by the Colonel herself, who was at the very speartip of the thrust. It had begun.
All of this disparate struggle would finally add up, and on the momentum gained by her plucky infantry, her courageous tankers, and her fierce artillery, Madiha Nakar attacked.