This story segment contains violence and death.
Dbagbo — Chanda General School, Meadow
On her end of the terrain there was no transition between the Chanda and the outside, nothing like the discrete earthen passage that led the Panzergrenadiers to the school. Benghu’s meadows were vast and mostly unobstructed between the distant hills that formed makeshift walls around them and that curled around the school. Driving through, one saw grass and flowers stretch far as the eye could see until the school buildings came suddenly into view, foregrounded by the playing field seated atop Chanda’s hill.
Farwah found their first target. “Armor on the hill, heading into the playing field.”
Naya looked through the scope. Her vision was foggy, and it was not just the glass and it was not just the rain. Her eyes had difficulty focusing. Her lids felt terribly heavy.
She watched the tank, spotting it just as it finally took the muddy hill in what must have been a titanic climb. It disappeared between the bleachers too quickly for a good shot.
Naya spoke slowly through the intercom. “Keep moving Farwah, top speed. Angle east for about eight hundred meters. Then stop on my signal so I can shoot. Got it?”
“Yes ma’am.” Farwah replied.
On her lap there were already two AP shells waiting to be loaded. Farwah had helped her fill her ready rack, and these two were for the approach. These would be easiest shots as they would occur with some element of surprise. She seized one of the shells, loaded it, and turned her turret. She elevated the gun and watched the landscape go by through the sight, slowly adjusting her turret to keep the gun trained on the slope.
They rounded the edge of the meadow, getting an angle on Chanda’s hill.
“Stop!” She said.
At once the Raktapata ground to a halt.
Soon as she caught a hint of the tank’s rear in her gun sight she hit the firing lever.
A smoking hole opened on the rear of the tank. Fire blew from it. In an instant the high-explosive detonated in the crew compartment and sent the turret flying downhill.
Naya withdrew from the gun sight and turned to the radio. She adjusted the frequency, from that used by Camp Vijaya, to others that she remembered from the Captain’s list. She gave the same quick message over all of them before switching to the next.
“Hello? Is this the right frequency? I’m Private Naya Oueddai. Sorry I’m late!”
It was difficult to speak enthusiastically, but she tried her best to work up an internal smile, speak with strength, and cover up the pain and fatigue she was feeling.
All the while she struggled not to fall apart again, not to succumb and black out.
Her hands were shaking and her teeth chattering. She felt a terrible pressure along her back, as though something was sitting on her. Her whole body felt tight. Even the simple movements of setting her hand on the instruments, leaning her head into the eyepiece and orienting the periscope felt like gargantuan labors. She moved carefully, as if navigating a minefield, because any wrong movement could send up a blast of pain.
Around her the tank started to move, turning its hull toward the center of the meadow.
“Enemy sighted, two tanks guarding the approach to the school.” Farwah said.
“Got it.” Naya seized the last shell on her lap and loaded it into the gun.
Two shells smashed into the gun mantlet in quick succession, rattling the turret.
Ahead of her two Nochtish light tanks watched over the center of the meadow. One tank had gone into reverse, while the other was turning its hull around to face her with its glacis instead of its sides. Both had their turrets trained on her as they moved.
Puffs of white gas issued from both guns as the tanks launched another salvo against her. She felt one shell deflect off her turret, while the second caused a light rattling along the tank as it hit the front. She remained steady on the gunner’s seat. She opened fire.
Her shell struck true and smashed open the driver’s vision slit on the retreating tank.
It stopped moving. Smoke billowed copiously from inside the hull. There was no grim explosion this time — her AP-HE shell must have had bad filler. Nevertheless it was a kill. A 76mm shell’s worth of metal through the front of a tank was always lethal.
She took a round from her ready rack, loaded and shot at the remaining tank. At the distance they were fighting and in this kind of terrain it had nowhere to run. It finished turning, and tried to back away diagonally, but it simply couldn’t escape her. Her shell punched through the glacis plate at an angle and blew open the side of the tank.
Naya could not see the hole, but she saw the smoke escaping from the side.
“I see several potential targets of opportunity.” Farwah said.
Loading an AP shell from her ready rack, she reoriented the turret and aimed for a pair of small covered trucks, likely carrying ammunition or fuel for the tanks. She attacked; a 76mm shell punched through one of their engine blocks and smashed the truck to bits. So violent was the blast that the windows burst on the second truck, and its fuel ignited from the fragmentation of her shell. It went up, scattering pieces over the meadow.
“Naya, save your AP ammo for tanks. I can help you get an HE round.” Farwah said.
“I’ll get it myself.” She said. “Just give me a moment to get a good look around.”
Switching from gun sight to periscope Naya surveyed the meadow. At the far end near the administration building a collection of Nochtish half-tracks and trucks had gathered that was all too tempting. They were moving away after the destruction of the tanks and the stray trucks. All along Chanda’s slope there were men in grey uniforms, lying on the hill or at the bottom, sidling along the backs of the school buildings, hiding behind the bleachers, hiding in the puddles, creeping wherever they could to try to break in.
There was one remaining tank in sight. It had something written on it, and a purple stripe all around. Its turret was slightly different, a bit more robust and shapely, and its armor was better sloped than all the flat plates on the other M5s. It maneuvered back from the meadow, and found itself cover — a thick slab of rock with the school plaque on it.
“Good, get out of my way.” She murmured. She turned the gun toward the enemy rear.
Gritting her teeth, Naya leaned over the side of her chair and took a high explosive shell from her storage with both hands. Dull pain built along her hips, across her arms, all originating from her wracked spine. She thought her body would lock in that half-out position, but she managed with great care to raise herself back with her ammo.
She unlocked the breech, loaded the shell, and returned to her gun sight.
“They’re firing a mortar ahead.” Farwah said.
Smoke and dirt rose up from the ground where the mortars fired, giving them away.
Naya had her target of opportunity.
A pair of mortar shells fell harmlessly around the Raktapata.
Its turret turned to answer. At the sight of it the mortar teams started hitching their units back to their trucks and scrambling to get away. They were nowhere near fast enough.
With a roar from its 76mm KnK-3, the Raktapata at Naya’s direction put a high explosive shell among the mortars, the men, and their vehicles, and engulfed them in fire, smoke and scattering steel. Nobody ran out from the impact, not a soul escaped the cloud.
Naya moved her fingers from the firing lever of the tank gun and tightened them around the trigger and handle of her machine gun. Using her single-speed traverse she swung the turret across the slope, and held down the trigger. Red tracer fire swept along the hill, across the back of the Auxiliary building, between the bleachers. She could see the tracer shots, every third round, disappearing into men, plunging into puddles, ricocheting against cement. Panzergrenadiers dropped and fled and died before the onslaught.
“Flee if you know what’s good for you!” She shouted over the raging machine gun.
Her chest strained speaking; her muscles throbbed. But she felt power in her hands.
At once the Panzergrenadier’s attack on the school seemed to have had its back broken, and the sledgehammer responsible looked terribly formidable. Noel knew that he had lost the tanks that had been sent to the train station, they had reported an engagement and then failed to report back. Though it could be a radio problem, he assumed they were dead.
And though he thought this, he also expected Goblins or Orcs had done it; that they had attacked from the woods in ambush and killed his men in this way. This was perhaps the only way an Ayvartan tank had of making good on an engagement with their Panzers.
Ambush the unsuspecting column from the woods, roll down to Chanda, get killed.
That was what he expected would happen. Spoor agreed. Neither of them worried much. They had a strong position on this meadow. Goblins and Orcs had to get within 500 meters to launch frontal attacks, and they were both horribly slow, sizable tanks that made a lot of ruckus moving around. There would be no more surprises on this day.
That was what he expected would happen. He was grimly, catastrophically wrong.
He had not expected whatever it was that had closed in on them so brazenly, having absorbed several anti-tank rounds, taken out his entire blocking platoon of M5s, and parked itself within plain sight of their entire operation to shoot them at its leisure.
He had not expected a thousand-meter shot on Corporal Baudin, and successive attacks on Montague and Gerat while they sat blocking the approach to the meadow.
He had not expected it to absorb thousand meter shots from 37mm high-velocity guns.
Noel was, in an instant, down half his tank strength. And he was the next obvious target.
“Dolph, Bartosz!” He shouted into the radio.
“Almost there Captain!” Dolph answered.
Noel grit his teeth.
“Ivan, get us out of the middle of this meadow!” He called out. He stuck obsessively to his periscope, swinging his turret around. There seemed to be nowhere to hide.
“We’ll use the plaque, it can hide us from its view partially.” Ivan shouted back.
In that instant the Ayvartan tank’s muzzle flashed and a shell cut past the Konigin.
Noel heard the explosion about a hundred meters behind him.
He crawled up onto the commander’s cupola and through the rearmost vision slit saw a fire burning fiercely over a light car and the pair of mortars, hastily being hitched to it.
“Spoor, please tell me you’re not on fire right now.” Noel said.
Silence. A few panicked cries on the Panzergrenadier channel. More silence.
“I could only wish to be so lucky!” Spoor replied in foul humor.
Noel breathed a sigh of relief.
Ivan pulled them back a few dozen meters as quick as the reverse gear would allow, and the M5A2 slipped behind the school’s monument, stamped in black rock.
He had time to think now. Noel got back on the radio.
“Glad you’re alive, because I wouldn’t have even tried to take command in this sort of anarchy. Colonel you have to get your vehicles out of here before it shreds any more!”
“I’m well aware, Skoniec! Engage that tank and I may be able to make good on it.”
Noel didn’t know whether he was afraid or exhilarated to hear that kind of order.
His mouth worked itself into his little grin, almost by itself. But his laughter was hollow.
His mind was suddenly torn. This was score for him. This was how he advanced, how his prestige, his power, his liberation, would grow — shooting tanks down. More notches, more medals. And this beast would be a great score. That is, if he could kill the thing.
There was also a sense of pride. Noel had not turned down a gunfight before.
In rickety old M2s in Tukino, Noel and his men had supported the pocketing attack as part of the Weiss battalion. They had bested the Lion Tank Brigade, destroying hundreds of tanks in the process and helping seal the pocket tight. He recalled the flashes of guns and the instantaneous death and carnage that accompanied close quarters tankery.
But there was always the worry that his freedom and grace and everything he had found in this strange land could be swiped from him in one puff of smoke from one lucky gun.
“Captain, I’m ready when you are.” Ivan said. There was a trembling in his voice.
Everything Noel thought, Ivan must have been thinking as well. But Noel couldn’t go into his head. All Ivan had was ‘I’m ready when you are’. In turn, all he had for Ivan was–
“Full speed ahead, and keep an ear out for my commands.”
There was no eye contact between them but both of them knew how the other felt.
Ivan shifted gears, and backed the tank out from behind the monument.
Over the radio Dolph’s excitable voice sounded. “Captain, we’re coming!”
From the rear viewing slit Noel spotted Dolph and Bartosz’s tanks, thundering down from the wooded hills along the southern edge of the school and weaving through Spoor’s retreating vehicles and scrambling men. Noel dropped down from his cupola and took seat at the gunner’s post again. The Konigin started forward.
Noel kissed his fingers and touched the tank’s ready rack for good luck.
“1. Jagdpanzerzug is in action! Dolph, Bartosz, charge in snake formation!”