this scene contains violence and death
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda
Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.
The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.
“Lydia, watch out!”
Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.
Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.
Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.
The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.
Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.
She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.
She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.
“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”
Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.
She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.
Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.
Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.
There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.
“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.
Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.
Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.
“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.
“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.
“Orders are orders.”
Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.
Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.
Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.
She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.
Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.
“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.
“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.
They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.
Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.
“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.
“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”
Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.
In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.
It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.
Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.
Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.
“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”
“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.
She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.
“How are you holding up?” She whispered.
“I’m fine.” Gwen said.
“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”
Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.
“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”
“I know. But appearances are important.”
“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”
She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.
Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.
“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”
Lydia felt a sense of alarm.
“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”
“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”
Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.
“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.
Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.
She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.
“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.
Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.
Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.
“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.
Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.
“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”
There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.
Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.
They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.
“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”
After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.
She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.
Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.
Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.
Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.
She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.
Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.
When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.
Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.
Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.
This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.
“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.
Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.
A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.
She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.
A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.
Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.
They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.
Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.
Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.
There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.
Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.
From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.
Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.
Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”
“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.
Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!
Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.
Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.
As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.
Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.
Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.
Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.
But the world did not stop for anyone else.
From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–
Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.
Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.
Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.
“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.
She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.
Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.
Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.
Her myrta was jammed.
She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.
Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?
Arsenica had led them to this fate.
Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.
Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?
“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”
Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.
In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.
At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.
Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.
Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.
Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.
She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.
Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.
All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.
She breathed in smoke, coughed.
Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.
A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.
It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.
Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.
Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.
Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.
Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.
Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.
She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.
She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.
There was blood on her forehead.
“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”
“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”
“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.
She glanced back at the road.
Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.
“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”
She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.
Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.
“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”
Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.
Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.
Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.
She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.
“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”
Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.
There was an explosion in the near distance.
Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.
Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.
Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.
They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.
“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”
Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.
Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.
“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.
City of Rangda — Council
“Oh ho ho ho ho!”
Paladin Arsenica Varus laughed as 8th Division radio activity started to pick up.
She could only understand a smattering of words here and there.
Her cursory Ayvartan knowledge and imagination filled in the blanks how she liked them.
Engagement with a group of armor-clad female soldiers, you say?
A sniper in ambush, you say?
Deploying heavy machine gun fire, you say?
All she could ask for was for a little bit of mortar fire now, to add some drama!
She had been a sinful girl, but it was white sin, little sin. Nobody would know.
After all, what Queen rose to the top, that did not carve a bloody road behind her?
Certainly not the current, and certainly not the future. Not Arsenica Livia Varus!
She sat at the helm of the radio room in the Council building, her wooden chair like a throne, and having hurried her radio engineers and intelligence personnel to other menial tasks, she quickly issued specific instructions on her own bands while monitoring 8th Division radio traffic. Shuffling units around on the map, she found a way to easily dispatch the Vittoria kid while still keeping her units on track to their objectives.
Once she issued her orders the little Vittoria accepted them like a bleating sheep. She would charge into an enemy blocking position and be slaughtered; and then, that position would be destroyed by her more powerful units, and the invasion would proceed as if nothing had happened. It was a tree falling in forest; nobody would hear it.
Arsenica stood from the radio table, and she left the room, and allowed the translators and intelligence personnel and radio units to return from their various purgatories.
She strode across the wine-colored carpets of the Council building with her head up high.
Thanks to her leadership, the foothold into Ayvarta would be secured.
Soon the 8th Division would be neutralized. Because of their confused defensive posture and her total dominance over the airwaves, the 8th Division was slowly being encroached upon by strong groups from the Cheshire rifles and the Knights. Most of her tanks were moving toward Ocean Road and the port to secure it for the Royal Navy. Her own defenses outside the Council building were being seen to. She would use Drachen and his defectors as cannon fodder, and her elite knights would then counterattack any last-ditch attempt to breach the Council defenses. It was a perfect coup in all aspects. Arsenica had won.
Moving down the steps, Arsenica decided to head outside and inspect the defenses.
On the lawn of the Council Building, she found half-dug trenches and emptiness.
Old Ayvartan anti-tank guns lay in their old positions, broken by artillery attacks launched before Arsenica ever got here. Corpses were still on the ground, unclaimed. There was no barbed wire, no sandbags. Nochtish machine guns lay scattered about, abused and disused.
Arsenica had ordered a defensive line built.
Where were her laborers? Where were her defenders?
She had left explicit orders! She had trusted they would be carried out on her authority!
Arsenica ran out to the lawn, and she looked every which way.
She found tracks running along the ground.
Huffing and puffing from exertion, feeling exhausted after just a few minute’s run, Arsenica dashed around the side of the Council building, where she found a ramp sloping into a gap in the ground, to a garage below street level. It was open, and something large had clearly broken free and escaped from it. She charged down, sword drawn, and inside the garage, she found a gaggle of her knights, bruised, tied down, their equipment stolen.
She trotted angrily toward one of the girls and kicked her in the stomach.
“Wake up! What happened here? You were supposed to oversee my defenses!”
She had forgotten completely she had handed around that task like a hot potato.
And she had especially forgotten the last person she, in her fey mood, gave the task to.
So Arsenica Livia Varus, 4th (3rd?) in line to the throne of Lubon, was surprised when she heard the words of her defeated subordinate, spoken half-confused, half-fearful.
City of Rangda — Ocean Road
Radio sets started to come alive, and units began to list off their positions and readiness.
Everyone was accounted for. Code words were then dispensed with for plain language.
“The Operation is commencing! All units, radios free! We want them to hear!”
Rangda was soon buzzing with activity from the revitalized 1st Motor Rifles Regiment.
On all sides the gates to the old 8th Division barracks opened, and a small fleet of vehicles charged out into the streets of Rangda. Gbahali armored trucks and half-tracks ferried reserve rifle units, following in the wake of sloped, heavily armed Hobgoblin tanks leading the assault. Creeping through the alleyways, Kobold scout tanks ferrying sniper teams and pathfinding units and artillery spotters covered the flanks and wound around the enemy.
Deeper within Rangda other units regrouped and attacked wherever they found the enemy in sight. Rifle units once encircled near University began their breakout; artillery and tanks coming in from Umaru reestablished radio contact and began to bombard the roads and to ambush Elven convoys, preventing many from linking up to form larger threats. Throughout Ocean Road and North Rangda, tank units that had fled the aerial invasion and the capture of Shayma El-Amin and her HQ began tentative attacks toward lost positions.
Within moments of their deployment, the attacking units heard artillery going off from the Regimental Headquarters in the distance. Heavy 122mm guns opened fire into the sky, and ahead of them the attacking units saw the bursts of dirt and smoke and churned up road and street that rose pillar-like in the wake of every blast. There were shells dropping seemingly everywhere in the city but the curtain was spread thin. For a preparatory bombardment it was short and almost polite, as if a warning shot to sound the alarm.
Nobody would give the Elves time to heed the warning regardless.
As if they were being timed or racing the attacking units moved breathlessly.
Assault groups spread apart, heading in every direction from the headquarters. Northward and Northeastward small units headed for the flanks of Ocean Road and to contact other units; westward, units were sent to free civilians in Rangda Airport and at the train station and in other large public areas where Mansa had taken them, and where the Elves now threatened them; and smaller engineering units headed to the port for a special task.
Meanwhile, the spear of the assault was carried and thrust by its very architect.
One lone platoon of tanks stepped out onto the road from the main gate and stamped over the remains of a fallen 8th Division roadblock. They made for Ocean Road, to stick the knife right into the gut of the enemy resistance. They were arranged in a curious formation, a diagonal zig-zag where every tank could potentially open fire ahead.
Four of the tanks were green Hobgoblins, but the lead tank was very different.
Its model and its role and its crew were unique.
Inside the steeply sloping, angular turret of the heavily-armored Rakshasa Command Tank, Madiha Nakar personally charged into the fray. She had been in a tank before; never in a combat capacity against an equivalent enemy, however. Still, the confines proved very familiar. Madiha was seated in the commander/gunner’s chair, while Parinita sat in the co-commander’s/loader’s chair right next to her. Below them was Agwala, their driver.
“All units move forward at thirty kilometers per hour until engagement!” She ordered.
Rounding the corner away from the Headquarters, the platoon maintained formation and speed exactly as ordered. Their turrets sought around for targets as they moved. Their odd configuration, flaunting of radio silence and small size stood out among the attacking forces. This was just as Madiha intended. Her personal unit had a unique mission.
Having given the order, Madiha peeled her head back from the periscope and sighed.
Her bodysuit felt a little tight, and she felt it was not breathing too well.
And the confines of the turret were hot. Especially with Parinita so close nearby.
Still, Madiha was energized. Everything was moving again. This attack would be defining.
At her side, her partner drew her attention.
Parinita crossed her arms over her tightly-suited chest and looked at her seriously.
“You need to think of a one-liner.” She said.
“A what?” Madiha asked.
Parinita grinned, as if she had some incredible insight she was very satisfied to share.
“One very intense thing you say to your defeated enemies.” She said.
“Perhaps something akin to’Surrender or you will be shot’? That sounds powerful.”
“No! I mean, for example, ‘looks like your clam’s been shelled’.”
She made a little finger gun and shot it with a wink after saying her line.
Madiha burst out laughing suddenly.
“That is terrible, Parinita. Why would I say that?” She asked.
Parinita protested. “That’s just an example! It’s why you have to think of one.”
“I will think of one.” Madiha replied.
This was probably a silly film thing but Madiha would oblige if it was important to Parinita.
“You’re thinking that I’m goofing off, aren’t you?” Parinita said.
“Of course not.”
Parinita smiled. She crossed her arms again and put on a conceited smile.
“Trust me, for the part we’re playing, it will help tremendously to have a one-liner.”
“I will definitely have one when the time comes.” Madiha said.
“Oh! Check your periscope, we’re starting.”
Something must have come in over the wireless that alerted her.
Madiha flipped down the periscope sight and looked through it again.
Ahead, the street diverting into Ocean Road proper was visible.
Blocking the way was an Elven tank, painted in urban gray and black patterns.
At its side was a stolen anti-tank gun.
Madiha ordered a charge.
“A 45mm pattern is useless against us! Fire at will! All units fire HE!” She said.
Parinita reached down beneath the seat and procured a 76mm AP-HE shell.
Madiha loaded the shell into the gun, and turned a crank to move the turret.
She looked through the sight and found herself aiming in the general vicinity of the target.
For her, this was good enough.
There were muzzle flashes in response.
The Rakshasa shook from the force of two low caliber anti-tank attacks.
Every shell deflected off the strong, thick, sloped armor on the front of the body.
“Are you scared?” Madiha asked.
She hit the electric trigger on the Rakshasa’s gun and watched as the enemy tank lit up in the distance. One shot, penetrating right through the gun mantlet and setting ablaze the turret as the ammunition cooked. Around it, high-explosive shots from the Hobgoblins detonated in big, briefly flashing bursts of heat that developed into clouds of smoke and metal. Though the anti-tank gun withstood the blasts, nobody was now alive to man it.
“Absolutely not.” Parinita said, smiling. “After seeing all this movie magic?”
She pulled up another shell and dropped it with some effort onto the upper ready rack.
“There’s no place I feel safer in than at your side, Madiha.”
Madiha smiled, and pulled her head back from her sight.
“Parinita, do you think it’s appropriate to–”
Parinita cut her off, leaning in for a kiss that sealed her mouth.
Though the attack could’ve almost gone unnoticed in its initial moments, the war was once more growing heated. Over the radio, cries of “loading AP-HE!” and “unsealing guns” and “moving on the position” sounded on every conceivable band. There was an incredible racket on half the channels as if radios had been wedged under a never-ending stampede of beasts and left broadcasting the noise. Unencrypted communications detailed every shot taken by every tank and rifle unit throughout Rangda. Several were 8th Division communications, hapless and distorted; most now were Motor Rifle communications, deliberately broadcast by incredulous radio personnel still uncomprehending of the plan.
When Parinita and Madiha’s lips parted, the tanks were turning into Ocean Road.
“I admit, I am a little nervous.” Madiha said.
“What’s wrong? Feeling doubtful? I believe in you.” Parinita replied.
They stared fondly into each other’s eyes for a moment. Madiha broke off first.
She looked down the periscope and spotted the first Elven roadblock ahead.
“I’m afraid I might not find a one-liner that can impress my lover.” Madiha said.
There were sandbags and crates, and two light machine guns alongside a long rifleman, probably an anti-tank sniper. Madiha hardly felt the shots from the sniper inside the tank. She knew they were striking the gun mantlet, trying to shoot away her sight and periscope, but the armor shrugged them off so utterly that she only knew there was gunfire from the muzzle flashes. Both light machine gunners had rudimentary anti-tank training. They fired tracers against the tracks and against the hatches and around where the sights and vision ports would have been, hoping to frighten the tankers away.
Madiha’s men and women had more discipline than that.
“Fire at will! Load High Explosive!”
Parinita seized the shell from the ready rack and passed it along.
Madiha loaded, briefly aimed, and fired.
Her shell soared through the air and struck the crates along the edge of the sandbag emplacement, sending splinters and fragments flying in every direction. Everyone in the position must have felt the sting of some flying projectile, either metal or wood, or the force of the explosion as a concussive burst. All gunfire ceased from the roadblock.
At the sound of her lover’s excitement, Madiha pulled back from the gun.
Parinita pointed at the radio. “Strike Five has broken through to Northern Ocean Road and are working their way through anti-tank traps and enemy armor. We may be home free.”
“Good. We’ll make a little more mess here. I still have to say my line.”
Madiha pointed the formation toward the next closest roadblock.
“Enemy armor incoming!” Parinita warned.
She was receiving updates from the Kobolds and spotters; they must have seen enemy tanks moving away from other road battles and toward the confluence of the attacks at Ocean Road. This was the place with the most to lose and to gain, where any fool would have attacked and any lesser fool defended. There were Ayvartan tanks in hiding, either abandoned or captured or pinned down for the Elven taking; there was an Ayvartan commander trapped; there was Elven traffic, routing through to every part of Rangda.
It was the place where Madiha had to be the loudest.
“I’ll engage them. Strike Three, break off from me and wind around the flanks.”
Parinita nodded her head as the approving responses came flooding in through the radio.
The Rakshasa moved from the upper corner of the diagonal formation to its center.
Around it the attendant Hobgoblins split up.
Ahead, the next roadblock, built from the husk of a damaged Goblin tank, lay abandoned.
Madiha spotted Lubon’s finest fleeing at the sight of the tank.
The Rakshasa shrugged off the lesser machine and pushed into the center of Ocean Road.
Ahead of her she could see a mass of gunfire in the air. The bulk of the Elven forces had moved toward the site of their first engagement, against Strike Five. Cannons and small arms traded shots across the road bisecting key positions atop the sloping Ocean Road. As the sun traveled, the combatants cast eerie shadows, standing in the gloom of decrepit buildings and damaged pedestrian overpasses and the debris of downed planes and burnt-out tanks, painting a stark picture that was periodically lit up bright by the tracers.
“Madiha, the tanks are moving in! We’ve two– no, three small ones, one with a big gun!”
Madiha kept her eyes peeled on the road, and spotted the enemy platoon as it moved in.
All three tanks were identical to the ones before, with riveted armor and four big wheels.
One of them had a strange extension at the front of its gun.
This one was the first to open fire.
When its gun flashed the effect was diffused and abnormal.
Madiha was unprepared for the muzzle velocity; she barely registered that a gun fired.
In the next instant the shell struck the gun mantlet, and the turret shook.
She did not hear the tell-tale clanking of the shell’s deflected remains coming back down.
It must have shattered from the sheer brute force of the attack.
“It’s a squeeze-bore.” Madiha said.
She couldn’t see it on the periscope; switching to the gun sight and adjusting the magnification allowed her to spot the tell-tale barrel extender on the enemy’s 2-pounder.
“Can it penetrate?” Parinita said, betraying a hint of anxiety as she passed on a shell.
Madiha would never know definitively; she said no because she would not allow it.
Loading a shell, she targeted the tank with the extension first.
Her own muzzle velocity was not as explosive as that of a squeeze bore; but by her hand the shell easily cut the distance and struck the enemy tank, setting alight the turret.
Covering the flanks of the defeated tank, the other elven lights opened fire with their stock, unmodified 2-pounder guns. Sans the squeeze-bore, the shots deflected off the Rakshasa’s body with such silken ease that Madiha hardly felt them. She casually turned her turret to meet them, and systematically fired one shot, turned, and fired the next.
Both machines went up in flames.
“I think this is it.” Madiha said. “Send the signal.”
She stood up on her seat, and struck a trigger on the side of the turret.
Outside, a smoke launcher popped.
Instead of a smoke charge, however, it shot a flare.
Madiha felt her heartbeat quicken. It was time to put the plan into action.
“Will you be ok?” She asked her partner.
In response, Parinita leaned closer and drew her lips into a sudden kiss again.
Feeling the moist warmth of her lover’s lips, pulling her own, and the forwardness with which she sought the touch, Madiha yielded. For a moment, inside the sweltering turret, rattling and smelling of smoke, the two were locked together in a utopia of their own ardor. Neither moved their hands. It was all lips, tongue, a mischievous hint of teeth.
When they parted, Parinita winked coquettishly.
“I’m a very distracting person, I’ll have you know.” She said.
Madiha’s eyes lingered on her lover, and she silently agreed.
“Go be a hero.” Parinita smiled.
She pulled up the radio handset, and configured the set to broadcast over the Elven bands.
After a few moments of broadcasting alert and attention, she turned the handset over.
Madiha tapped on the handset microphone, smiled, and spoke into it in perfect Elvish.
“Is that iron I smell, Paladin, or your army’s blood becoming mist?”
Parinita covered her mouth, trying not to burst out laughing.
“I must have missed the mark, I take it?” Madiha said.
“You never miss.” Parinita replied.
Nodding, Madiha climbed up onto her seat and pushed the hatch up, and left the tank.
Watching her go, Parinita felt a sense of anxiety, true; but also a deep satisfaction.
Madiha looked so gallant in that bodysuit, it truly captured her features well, and tightly.
Even the vest seemed to compliment her perfectly.
Riding off to battle, first on the modern world’s steed, and now, in another.
Parinita was once upset to see her on the front lines.
Truly what she wanted was to be there with her. To be where she was.
Now she had that chance, to fight alongside her, to fight with her, to fighter for her.
She felt exquisite! For someone like her, who struggled to find value, this was amazing.
It gave her hope that she and Madiha could do anything, survive anything.
She shifted from the radio operator/loader’s seat to the gunner/commander’s seat.
Parinita looked through the periscope and found more enemies coming in from the side streets. They had likely been redeployed from ongoing elven attacks to try to patch up the situation in Ocean Road. Because of the relatively small number of tanks and infantry participating in Madiha’s attack, they likely believed they could fend it off easily.
Now that the Hobgoblin and Rakshasa had shown their capabilities, the Elves must have been panicking. Everything had to be rushing down to Ocean Road at top speed.
Just as Madiha wanted it. All they had to do now was keep up the carnage.
There was a bang and a rumble that Parinita felt even in her gut.
She heard a sequence of rhythmic thumps as upturned concrete flew up and came down over her turret in chunks. Through the periscope, she spotted two enemy tracked vehicles, squat and open-topped, carrying what seemed like small, short-barreled portable howitzers. They approached from behind the wrecks of the previous wave of doomed enemy armor, keeping their distance and attacking directly with their explosive shells.
Her vision was momentarily obscured when a shell detonated against the glacis plate.
There was again a cacophony of short-lived dings and bangs as fragments bounced off the armor. Parinita had learned from experience and from her girlfriend that explosive shells could inflict some damage to heavy tanks, but they had to be powerful enough to dislodge or cave-in the armor. This required monstrously large guns. No pack howitzer could do it.
Parinita flipped her hair haughtily, and laughed.
“Hah! I’ll show you the power of radio personnel!”
She reached for where the top shell rack was, but her arm settled instead on the radio.
“This is Strike Three Actual! Fire Mission Request, TRP Six, Six, Five, Four, Azimuth–”
As she began to give her artillery orders, the Rakshasa backed slowly away.
“–This is Adesh Gurunath! Order received! Commencing fire mission!”
“Don’t range it! Saturation on point. Mark!” Parinita replied.
Moments later, a shell fell among the two artillery tractors, and a pillar of dust blew up.
Behind the cloud a dozen shells followed, and a dozen more.
Churned concrete, dust, burning gasoline; deep flashes rose and fell away in intensity within the ever-expanding cloud as the shellfire pulverized the artillery tractors and smashed up the street up and down and around the coordinates Parinita had given. Without a ranging shot the artillery was wildly inaccurate, but there was so much fire that the tractors were ground to pieces from the sheer volume. Everyone on Ocean Road must have heard and seen the explosions, so many and so fierce they were. Parinita grinned.
She stuck out her chest and saluted, feeling proud of herself.
“Driver, bring me closer! I want to be so close I can hit them with my machete!”
Playing the part of the distraction was perhaps getting to her head.
But being able to take part in the battle, supporting Madiha at her side–
It was exhilarating!
With the driver’s silent compliance, the Rakshasa began to move.
Ahead, the battle raged on. Shells exchanged, machine guns blaring, and troops moving.
Elven forces from all over were retreating back to Ocean Road.
That focal point would be their undoing.
Everything was happening as Madiha had planned and Parinita had statted out.
In a dusty alleyway off of Ocean Road, Colonel Madiha Nakar vanished wraithlike from the distance battle of Ocean Road. She was met along a side-street by a small cadre of soldiers all saluting her at once. She nodded her head, crossed her arms, and a pair of them broke the lock to a nearby shutter door into a small garage. It had been a family owned place, promising custom work and difficult repairs done with a gentle hand. A vehicle shop.
Now the owners were gone, and the machinery replaced. When they raised the shutter, the secret cadre instead found Sergeant Agni, slick with oil and grease, holding a wrench. She was surrounded by spare parts, puddles of nondescript fluid, and piles of various tools.
She stood, half-undressed, her exposed belly and shoulders grimy, her hair wet.
Her face was inexpressive when she met them.
Madiha averted her eyes slightly, as she felt a modest, spoken-for woman should.
Agni picked up her jacket from the floor and started buttoning it up.
“How went the special mission?” Madiha asked, a grin on her face.
“When you told me to veer right back around and find a workshop I was skeptical.”
Agni turned around, and suddenly pulled the tarp off a series of objects in the garage.
Beneath the tarps were several motorcycles, one with an armed sidecar.
There was a glint of something in Agni’s eyes as she beheld them.
“I must admit, however, that the project was challenging and kept me engaged for the few desperate, hurried hours I had to complete it before potential discovery and death.”
“I apologize for the suddenness of my request. But you appear to have succeeded.”
Agni crossed her arms, staring at her handiwork. Though she bore no smile or frown, her body language and demeanor subtly communicated what must have been swelling pride.
“Your service has been extraordinary, Agni. Have you any reward in mind?” Madiha asked.
“May I drive you?” Agni quickly asked.
Madiha smiled. “That can’t be your reward! It’s what I always had planned.”