This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, verging on graphic violence.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School, Field
For several breathless seconds Aarya counted and counted the children in the supply depot. She had counted and counted them every morning and every night, counted them leisurely, counted them in peace. Never had she missed one of her children.
When the soldiers led them out of the classrooms by the hands she was sure that all of her children had followed. She counted again. She knelt into their little huddle and parted them, gently nudging them apart from one another as if they might be hiding one more child among their number. But try as she might she always came up short.
Aarya had led them all from the classrooms to the supply depot. There was food and water and a little sandbag fort where all the children could be kept. A soldier told her that metal fragments wouldn’t hurt them there — all within earshot of the children. Aarya gave him an intense stare and she felt like it was necessary and that doing it put her on the side of the children; who were bewildered and scared, many already weeping silently and trying their best to stay strong. But whenever she counted she was one short.
Always short one child. One precious child that was alone in the path of the war.
A teacher short one child; one child she should have been guarding with her own life.
Because of her; because she didn’t count them as she did every morning and night that day. She had wanted so badly to shield them, to insulate them from the terror in the air.
Taken out by the hand by the soldiers, she called out, she assumed they would come, she assumed they would follow her sweet singing voice, that they’d be comforted–
She raised her hands to her mouth and she felt nauseous. Her eyes ran with tears.
“Aarya? What’s wrong? Are you feeling ill?” Darshan said. Aarya didn’t respond at first.
In her mind, in that instant, she counted them children again. One short. Impossible.
Several of the children, those who were not staring despondently at the ground or seated with their faces to the wall, trying to ignore the environment; they looked at her.
She tried to smile for them and then turned to Darshan, leading him away from them.
“Zaheer.” Aarya said, struggling for breath. “Zaheer. He is back in the classrooms.”
“Zaheer?” Darshan said in a sudden and strong whisper, as if stifling a shout.
“Yes! He’s not here!” She whispered, her voice cracking with emotion.
“What do we do?” Darshan asked. “We can’t go out there and–”
He had asked a question, but she provided no answer. In place of a response and mostly without thinking, Aarya tore away from Darshan and rushed out of the door; she rushed past the soldiers, past the tank they had parked in the field to defend the supply depot. Her feet splashed in the puddles and mud, heavy, long steps, kicking sludge up to the skirt of her dress and over her yellow sari. Cold rain poured over her head.
It was like a jug of water emptying over her head at all times; but she didn’t look back.
There was shouting, and she heard someone fall and splash in the mud behind her.
But she was thinking about nothing but Zaheer, the little brown hairless boy whose father was almost certainly gone in the savagery now unfolding across Dbagbo.
She knew where he was and she hated herself for not thinking about him, for not realizing what he would need, how she should have prioritized him to prevent this.
He looked to her; he had nobody else to look to! She couldn’t believe she left him.
Aarya thought she would feel the tug of Darshan’s arm, stopping her and taking her back to protect her over the life of one child but she felt no such thing. She had outran him; she had outran the marathon runner who was second only to Naya in her prime. In her heavy, wet dress and with her ungainly, reckless gait, pushing one leg after the other completely without grace, she had outran him. She crossed from field to school.
Her eyes sought after anyone who could help, but there were no soldiers outside. Everything was eerily quiet to her. She ran along the face of the Auxiliary building, making for the only open door and the thick-walled stairwell that was just off the landing. She set foot inside and ran up the stairs without so much as glancing down the halls.
She fought against the impulse to shout Zaheer’s name — it would frighten him worse.
Halfway to the second floor the world shivered and shrugged Aarya off the ground.
A massive explosion nearby deafened her with its roar. She felt the force of it surging along the ground, crawling up the walls and into the stairwell steps. For an instant it felt enough like everything was shaking that her feet slipped and she hit the cement. She felt heat near the left-most wall and crawled away from it, stretching her hand to the highest step she could reach and slowly laboring to her knees. She hugged herself, her stomach, her ribs, her breasts; it was like she had been stomped on. She labored for air.
When the gunfire began it sounded like nothing she had ever heard. She had imagined something much more ominous, organic, divine, like the hard steps of a tusker or the cry from a dragon of myth. But it was such a tinny, petty noise! Every report sounded eerily like a child slamming palms on a hard tabletop, and in quick succession from multiple men the gunfire seemed more an eerie, chaotic percussion than the sound of death.
This was warfare. It was not some grandiose dance performed by the gods. It was small and pathetic and close and human. It was snapping and cracking and invisible flying lead and awful smells. There was no great flashing of color, no awe-inspiring magics.
She had been exposed to it for a little over a minute and she felt her mind unraveling.
It frightened her; she felt the rattling of the guns in her chest as if the rifles were discharging right beside her. She felt a gross, primal fear that shook her more than the cold of her wet clothes. Despite her pain she bolted up to her feet and started running up the stairwell again, gasping and moaning to relieve the pressure in her chest.
At the top of the stairs she turned a corner and found the familiar hall down all of her classrooms. Every door was closed; the soldiers had shut them all when they left.
Despite all the noise, the incessant back-and-forth of the rifles, the chopping noise of the bigger, faster automatic guns; Aarya shuffled quietly to the first door and gently nudged it open. Throwing open the door, screaming, making a greater panic, would only cause Zaheer even greater distress. He was a gentle boy, who was easily overwhelmed.
Aarya stifled a curse as she let the door swing gently open, stepped inside and found a classroom in disarray, and no sign of Zaheer. All of the desks had been stacked near one of the walls and away from prominent windows. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw something creep — her head turned to the open shutters and she spotted great vehicles moving along the meadow. She ducked reflexively, as if they had eyes as big as their guns that might have seen her, and she crawled out of the room.
“They can’t see me. They’re thick tractors, nothing more.” She whimpered. In the hall she stood, feeling again that she was safe and unseen, and walked to the next door.
The door slid slowly open, its hinges creaking loud. A pistol thrust toward Aarya.
She raised her hands; in control of the gun was the woman soldier from before.
“Lady, what are you doing here? It’s dangerous! You have to go!” She shouted.
She had an instrument, standing on a tripod in front of a half-open window shutter. It looked like a camera with a gauge and a ruler and a radio box all bolted together. Aarya had no idea what this was, what role it played. She was not a soldier. Soldier’s things looked ever more alien and strange to her. She stood dumbfounded in the door.
“You can’t be here!” Continued the soldier. “This area is coming under fire!”
Aarya’s lips quivered, and she muttered a few hasty little things in her defense.
At once the soldier waved her away with the pistol, irate and refusing to listen.
“I don’t care! You need to go! You will just get in the way here! Go back to–”
A distant gun howled and deafened Aarya to the woman’s final words.
Through the shutters blossomed a cloud of orange flames and black smoke.
At once the soldier was thrown forward and crushed under a mound of rubble.
A sudden push threw Aarya back meters away and slammed the door shut.
She hit the ground and slid on the floor. In front of her she saw dozens of holes on the door, and its upper hinge snapped. It hung just slightly off-frame, enough that she could see the dancing lights from the fire inside the classroom playing across the hallway wall.
Breathing hurt; the rising and falling of her chest hurt. But it didn’t hurt in her chest.
There was a slicing pain in her upper leg and hip. She slipped a finger over the wound.
Aarya bit her lip. Stinging pain shot through all the sinews in her hip. She writhed.
There was blood on her hand. She was bleeding. Something hit her, like a bullet.
She felt it embedded in her flesh. Biting her lips, she touched it, pulled it out.
A piece of jagged black metal, covered in her blood, the size of an arrowhead.
Was this the real effect of a cannon attack? Jagged metal that speared through flesh?
Her head swam. She shifted onto her back, staring at the ceiling. It looked like liquid, a puddle, rippling with a fluidity that started and ended in her eyes alone. It was unreal.
There was no sound, only a tinnitus, a muffled, continuous whistling. That too was all in her head but it was so powerfully present that she could not make out any other sound.
In a few minutes she had felt what must surely have been a lifetime’s worth of agony.
She had never felt anything like it before. A cold fear gripped her heart. It felt so easy to give up, to stop moving, to lay on the ground in the hall and just become an object.
The metal fragment slipped out of her fingers. She didn’t hear it falling on the floor.
Moving was so hard; breathing so hard. It could all stop and it would be so peaceful.
She was battered by thoughts of surrender, like hands pulling her through the floor.
Aarya was falling and falling. But there were chains keeping her from the pit. She considered them, considered all of the little innocuous things that made up her life. Over all of this time, what had she built? What kept her moving forward with her head high?
She thought of Benghu, of Chanda, and the school. All of the children. Darshan. When he confessed his love to her she didn’t know what to think. She left him in the air for days. But over time, she started painting a picture in her head. And she liked it.
Now like the blood coming out of her, she felt color draining from that picture.
Why ever did she come here? What brought her to this place? But then, she had never gone anywhere. All of her life had revolved around this little town and she liked that because it was stable, peaceful. She had dreamed of making a beautiful life here. A life full of color that would make her feel remarkable and loved and needed. She always thought — was always plagued by the thought — that she was never strong like her friends. She was never ambitious or skilled. She just wanted simple little things that felt within reach.
One boy told her once that she was precious and powerful and she loved that.
At the time her head started to swim with colorful things that she desired so much.
A little house; children; things at least some silly little girls still had in their heads.
Naya hadn’t; but that was Naya. What would Naya think? Seeing her like this?
Would she cry? Would she remember her at all? Would she act the soldier that Aarya had in her mind and think she was weak for taking a hit and falling and lying there? Had Naya gotten so strong now, in some far away exotic place, with her guns, the guns that the men outside shot; had she gotten so strong she would overlook her? Forget her?
No; Naya would definitely lend her a hand. That was Naya. War couldn’t change that.
Naya, who had her own pains and losses, would never judge one for failing or hurting.
But Naya, who set records with her feet, who trained every day, who pushed herself just to see where she could go, how far her feet would take her; Naya would stand back up.
Aarya shook her head, and she felt as if each movement of her neck was made through a puddle of mud. She turned on her side. Gritting her teeth, she struggled to rise.
Zaheer; she had to find him. He was in here, listening to this monstrous cacophony, and he was all alone. Huddling in a corner in a dark room somewhere because everything was happening too fast and nobody had reassured him. She hadn’t reassured him.
All it took was one mistake, one mistake from her. She was not a monument. She was just human. But she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. She was the only thing in the world that was still right and good for these children, that was still consistent.
Her own stability, the stability of her life, of the life around them, didn’t matter.
As long as she was there they could be okay. She had to go on for that reason.
Aarya forced herself forward, step by step, one hand on her injured hip.
She pushed open several doors, and found nothing inside. Then she saw it; the door that the soldier had shut before and that she and Darshan had opened again. It was shut. She must have returned and found it open, the only open door, and shut it again.
Aarya pushed it open. She walked inside, shuffling in carefully, making no noise.
In a corner, under a little mountain of stacked school desks, there was a little boy with his head to the floor, shaking in his tunic and pants, his cloth shoes cast aside.
“Zaheer, it’s Ms. Balarayu.” She said gently. She sang a few notes. “La la la la la.”
Slowly the boy stopped shaking. Slowly he turned his head to stare into the center of the classroom, as if he had to convince himself that there would be something there worth expending the effort to see. Aarya kept a hand over her bloody hip and the red splotch on her clothes around it. She knelt down slowly and gingerly and smiled at Zaheer.
“Everything will be fine, Zaheer. Is it alright if I give you a hug?” She asked.
She stretched out her arms. Zaheer threw himself into her chest, weeping.
“I was so scared Ms. Balaryu, there were so many people and so many people with guns and everyone was talking at the same time.” He started speaking faster. “I stopped listening to the soldiers and to you Ms. Balarayu, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I sneaked away, I wanted–”
“Shh. It’s not your fault.” She said. She stroked his hair and kissed his head. “Let’s settle down here and wait for all of this to pass, alright Zaheer? I’ll sing you a song.”
Perhaps she wasn’t strong, but maybe she had her strengths. Maybe living through this could be one of them. Looking at Zaheer’s bright eyes, thrilled for a song, perhaps uncomprehending of the magnitude of the carnage unfolding around them, she knew that surviving this had to be her strength. She couldn’t accept a world where it was not.
Dbagbo — Chanda General School, Administration
Hiding on the opposite side of the doorway, Sharna signaled for Leander to peer out.
He nodded and exposed a hint of a light brown cheek as he leaned out of the door.
A half dozen men stood several dozen meters away behind the auxiliary building.
Leander only got to glance at their position before he saw muzzles go flashing.
Several rifle bullets impacted around his head. He bolted back inside the building.
Then at once the vicious shredding noise of a Norgler sounded across the courtyard.
Chunks of wood and chipped concrete burst from the wall and frame and the floor outside. Debris and spent lead collected centimeters from his boots. Seething green tracer flashes accompanied every volley of automatic fire on the door and door-frame.
Leander saw a spark flash just out the corner of his eye, and he cringed reflexively. A rifle bullet snapped the top hinge; creaking all the way down the door dropped out onto the walkway with a loud bang. A handful of machine gun bullets ricocheted off the falling door and into the room. They bit into the ground and punched holes in the couches, casting feathered stuffing into the air. Leander saw Dr. Agrawal scramble up against a wall to avoid the sudden fire. Sharna pulled farther back from her side of the door.
“Wait for the crossfire to settle and then hit that corner!” Dr. Agrawal shouted.
As she gave the order Leander spotted several guns flashing from the Administration building. His comrades were retaliating, laying fire down the entrance to the school. Rashas and Norglers traded bullets across the courtyard from seemingly all sides. Heavy SMG fire struck against the enemy’s corners and riddled the pathway coming in from the edge of the hill. Machine gun fire from the Norglers swept the faces of the buildings, every open doorway visible from the school entrance, and the pathways.
Both sides were deadlocked; but only one side was trying to move forward.
Several men lay dead in their gray raincloaks along the courtyard and the path to the hill and along the edges of the school buildings. They had been surprised by the strength of the Ayvartan positions, and by the deadly crossfire they had set up in the courtyard. Whenever a man set foot on the stones of Chanda fire came at him from every angle.
But a rhythm had been silently agreed to after several minutes of fighting.
In a moment, the gunfire abated on all sides. Each was trying to bait the other to move.
“Now’s your chance.” Dr. Agrawal said, waving toward the doorway. She was crouched beside a radio through which no calls were currently coming, well away from the door. Her face glistened with sweat, despite the chill brought in by the incessant rain.
Across the doorframe from him, Sharna raised her head to signal for an attack.
“There’s five or six men around the corner, fifty meters or so.” Leander said.
“On ten, we peek out and shoot.” Sharna said. She raised her BKV up.
Leander nodded his head to show that he understood. Sharna nodded back, and she began to count up to ten, and as she counted the two of them crept toward the ground, held up their guns and maneuvered the long barrels slighlty out of the door-frame.
At the end of the count, Leander and Sharna dropped half-out into the walkway.
With their sides to the ground the pair opened fire on the corner. Leander pressed the trigger, waited for the kick and for the action to reset within the second, and pressed again. In quick succession they delivered six shots together; taking chunks out of the wall, a finger off a man’s hand, the bayonet off a karabiner rifle. A man fell out of cover, twitching in the throes of agony after a 14.5mm bullet flew too close his nose.
Bursts of reflexive enemy gunfire hit the concrete wall and the door, raising even more bits and splinters and fragments into the air with their wrath. All of this was soaring over their heads. Leander and Sharna rolled, pushed off the door-frame and out of the line of fire.
Covering fire from the main building started fresh and forced the Panzergrenadiers back behind the concrete again. But soon their Norglers were reloaded and returned to action, and the seething crossfire continued, long trails of SMG fire flying past green tracers.
Safe inside the administration building Leander stood up from the floor and shouldered his BKV using the cloth strap. He helped Sharna up. She kept her weapon in hand.
“Exactly how long do we have to keep this up?” Leander asked.
Sharna shook her head despondently. “As long as possible.”
He knew he wouldn’t get a number, but he still felt dejected after her response.
Back in Knyskna they had known exactly what to do, where to run.
In Chanda he knew, but didn’t want to admit, that they were holding out to the last.
Sharna nonchalantly fed a new stripper clip into her BKV, and handed another to him.
“Buck up, they are just men and vehicles, our rifles can handle both.”
Leander nodded. He took his weapon and reloaded it, held it in hand.
They started back toward the door when a mortar first hit the courtyard.
“Away from the doors!” Dr. Agrawal shouted. She threw herself on the ground.
Framed by the door, Leander helplessly brought his arms up to shield himself.
Sharna reached out, seized him, and leaped away from the aperture.
Fire and fragments blew into the room as a second shell exploded too close.
Leander felt the heat at his back as Sharna took him down on the ground.
From the force of the explosion the door frame burst completely, sending whole pieces of wood, fist-sized chunks of concrete and the remnants of the hinges flying. Hundreds of tiny holes formed in the couches; the tables shattered; fragments embedded in the opposite wall, tracing over it the pattern of the mortar’s killzone in a smokey black.
A multitude of explosions followed, sweeping across the courtyard seconds from the last. The blasts formed a sequence, like a hammer bashing into rock, lifting, bashing. A dozen blasts, fifteen, eighteen. Rumbling and booming– until they suddenly didn’t.
Leander heard the dirt cast into the air falling again, scattering. He heard the heavy air stirred up by the blasts and swept about by the rains, billowing into the room.
He lifted his head. He nudged Sharna, whose body lay heavily on him, her head over his shoulder, her breast at his back, her arms around him. She pulled slowly away. They looked around the room together. Where the door-frame once stood there was now a jagged hole punched into the wall, its dimensions slightly larger than the old door.
On the other side of the room Dr. Agrawal struggled up from the floor, her chest rising and falling with labored breathing. Debris sifted from over her shoulders and back.
They didn’t hear the guns anymore. There were no more sounds of crossfire.
Instead they heard footsteps splashing across the walkway, closing in.
“Pistols out now!” Dr. Agrawal shouted, aiming out the door.
From the floor Leander and Sharna drew their sidearms and held them shakily out.
When the first Panzergrenadier charged the room Dr. Agrawal perforated his face several times. His head was honeycombed with wounds. He fell forward, still running in death, and came to finally lie ungracefully bent against over one of the couches. Dr. Agrawal never stopped shooting. Soon as he fell, controlling her weapon with both hands, she methodically redirected her aim to the doorway and kept shooting.
Three men charged behind the first, raising their bayonets. Leander rapped the trigger on his pistol. He put two bullets through a man’s torso before he could even turn to face them; behind him a man’s knees collapsed from Agrawal’s shooting. Another lunged in with his bayonet and found Leander and Sharna on the floor along the entryway; blood burst from sudden wounds, and he cried and started to crumple. Sharna got him in his shoulder, his hand, his hip, hitting all across his body with every press of her finger.
Dr. Agrawal dropped an empty box magazine and reached for a new one.
Leander had counted in his head, he still had two left, one in the box, one in–
Something foreign entered his field of vision.
A stick with a black metal cap flew in from the outside.
It hit the ground, bounced once, in a fraction of a second.
Nobody had time to say it but everyone recognized it.
Leander dropped his pistol.
Without thinking he leaped forward from his knees.
Diving on the ground he grabbed at the handle, seized it in his hand.
He lobbed the grenade out the door off the side of a charging panzergrenadier.
Tripping over, the man’s full weight fell on Leander. His karabiner rifle rolled along the floor behind them, and his helmet fell like a can on the ground. A vicious struggle ensued. Leander kicked and flailed; the man loomed over and seized him by the neck.
Outside the grenade exploded in the courtyard. Several men screamed to a stop.
Leander choked; the man lifted him a few centimeters and battered him against the floor while squeezing his throat. He screamed when the grenade went off close behind him, the fire and smoke sweeping in over him, screamed unintelligibly, his grip tightening.
A despair-inducing click sounded from the side of the room.
Sharna was out of bullets. Leander felt everything darken.
Leander looked up at his attacker. His pale-pink skin dirtied by the mud and smoke. There were no lines over his face, no gauntness to him. He was young, fit, vibrant.
It was his first time seeing a Nochtish man so close. His blue eyes were filled with an uncomprehending fury that twisted his features. Leander’s hands grew limp against his.
Leander realized he wasn’t breathing anymore. His lungs just seemed to stop.
But his eyes were still open, locked onto the blurring face of the panzergrenadier.
They were not looking back. They danced, looking up, looking aside, moving with him.
Leander felt a sudden mix of fear and sorrow; this was a man who in the caravan would still be called a boy by his elders. Just like Leander. This man choking him could be his age. This man slamming him, killing him, who couldn’t look in his eyes, was a boy too.
Up until the end that gaze avoided his. Those blue eyes looked at anything but him.
Then they turned white; they seemed to collapse, to roll up into their own sockets.
He stopped slamming. His mouth hung, dripping with blood. His head fell over Leander.
Dr. Agrawal stood above, teeth grit, forcing the bayonet through the top of his head.
She pushed the corpse off Leander, and pulled him away from the door.
He felt her hands pushing into his chest, and her lips locking against his mouth.
Her breath blew through him. His lungs started pumping again. Leander gasped.
“Leander, are you conscious? Leander? Can you see me?” Dr. Agrawal said.
She patted his cheek. Leander nodded weakly. Her head dropped against his chest.
“Thank everything.” Dr. Agrawal said. She wiped her hands over her eyes.
Outside the crashing of mortar rounds into the concrete commenced anew.
Breathing hurt. His chest felt tight. Leander couldn’t speak. Dr. Agrawal sat him against the wall and gave him a water canteen. Leander drank. He coughed a little.
Between the mortar blasts Sharna crossed the hole in the doorway. She had her BKV in one hand and Leander’s in the other. She reached their side of the room and crouched.
“Is he alright?” She said. She looked at him; he tried to look back with some presence.
He could barely muster a little smile. Much of his body felt too heavy to move.
“He is alive and conscious.” Dr. Agrawal said.
Sharna looked distraught. “Not much else?”
“Give him time.”
A red blinking light on the radio alerted them to electric activity. Dr. Agrawal turned from her two protectors and picked up the handset. For almost a minute she listened without speaking, and then covered her face in her hand and released an audible groan.
She put down the handset. “That’s it for our artillery. They’ve got tanks around the rear, and they destroyed our Gnolls. One unit survived with only a loss of turret crew. Both of the tanks are apparently returning to the meadow and not attempting to surround us.”
She looked at Leander, stern in the face. Leander offered her a faint smile. He was mostly aware of his surroundings. He just found it hard to respond to them.
“What happens now?” Sharna asked.
“We can’t stay down here anymore. We’ll hide upstairs.”
Dr. Agrawal stood up from the floor and ran to the stairwell, and brought a bag back with her. Inside there were several deactivated mines from the supply depot’s small stock of strategic explosives. She slipped her arms through straps affixed to the radio box and shouldered it. She handed the bag of explosives to Sharna, and lifted Leander from the floor, pulling one of his arms over her shoulder. He tried to take some of the weight off her, but his feet could not muster any pressure on the ground to keep him standing.
“Trap the room quickly, and follow us upstairs.” Dr. Agrawal said.
Sharna nodded her head and set about her task immediately.
“We will keep you safe, Leander. You’ve done enough.” Dr. Agrawal said.
Leander nodded weakly. She started up the stairs, one foot at a time.
Behind her the mortars and the Norglers mysteriously abated all at once.
Again the red light on the radio blinked; but nobody saw it this time.
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!”
“A tank platoon is coming right at us.” Farwah said.
His voice sounded enviably calm despite the carnage around them.
Naya saw them. Three M5 lights including that strangely modified tank with the purple stripe. She could make out the words on it now. Konigin. She had no idea what it meant. Back in AT training she had been taught that the kill range of the 37mm gun on Nocht’s light tanks was a thousand meters, but that was against an unprotected anti-tank gun or against a Goblin or an Orc. Those were the known variables both sides had at the time.
Against the Raktapata they would have to come much closer. She seized a shell from her ready rack, loaded it into the breech, looked down the sight. She grit her teeth.
Pulling the lever, she felt the shell fly.
Like a red comet, the shell flew right past each one of the tanks.
“Went wide.” Naya groaned. “Loading AP!”
Her mind started to race. She thought her eyes were tricking her.
At first they had been moving in an ordinary spearhead.
Then they fell into a column, one tank in front of the other, quite neatly.
She thought she had them.
Before she could shoot they started moving.
One tank going left, one right, one left; weaving across the meadow. They were still moving in a roughly straight line at her but because they continued to alternate the direction they were zig-zagging it was hard to draw a bead on any one tank.
Naya’s eyes went out of focus watching them, her vision grew hazy. Colors started to blur together. She worked the traverse lever, and the tanks rolled into and out of her gun sight with dizzying speed. Were they really this fast or was she just disoriented?
She fired another round and it soared harmlessly between the approaching tanks.
“Farwah, move forward, low gear!” Naya said. A stabbing pain started in the back of her head, and the front, and the sides; she felt short of breath and her pain was flaring. Whenever she looked down the gunsight it was as if the world was spinning.
Each individual bullet of sweat trailing down her face felt like an icy pinprick.
It hurt. Everything was hurting. Everything hurt. She gripped; a hand on her machine gun, another on the side of her cannon, her face half-out of her eyepiece. She gasped.
Naya mustered all of her willpower, and through the pain, the exhaustion, the wild swinging of her sight; she raised herself back as straight as she could and she returned to her gun, holding in a breath, looking down the sight at the zig-zagging tanks.
The Raktapata started toward the enemy. Both sides hurtled toward a collision.
Noel’s Konigin weaved easily between his subordinate tanks, sweeping left and right like the belly of a curling snake. AP shells flew past the formation, soaring at their sides, flying between them when they separated, and it was almost as if they were actively dodging the shots, as if they were boxers dancing through a barrage of punches.
Moving as a column constantly changing its direction they made for slippery targets.
“You’re doing beautifully, Ivan!” Noel said. He juggled a 37mm round in his hands, a wild grin on his face. He felt the adrenaline rush through him, and though his arms felt tighter, and a fearful thrill shook through him whenever he moved, Noel was excited.
In the distance the Ayvartan tank grew closer and larger. At first stationary, its tracks soon started churning mud and it accelerated toward them. This did not matter.
In a few moments it would have the honor of being the next notch, the next medal.
Counting the distance in his head, Noel sought a critical moment. No tank in the Ayvartan arsenal had the armor to survive an anti-tank attack at close quarters.
He waited until they were within several hundred meters of the monster.
“Separate!” He called out.
His tanks expertly split from the formation in several directions.
Dolph and Bartosz hooked right in different angles and at different speeds.
Ivan pushed the M5A2 a hard left as fast as the motor allowed.
Speeding forward with abandon, the Ayvartan tank rushed to its own cage.
The Jagdpanzerzug traced a triangle around their prey, exposing all its weak points.
Noel’s tank curled around the enemy’s left side, Dolph pulled quickly away as if toward the hillsides to cover its right and Bartosz rushed past the tank and around its rear.
Not once did it shoot. Their movements were too quick for its gunner.
Maneuvering this way they had guns on all sides of it and all within 300 meters.
Lumbering forward the mysterious tank could not escape their line of fire.
“Go hot!” Noel ordered. He caught the shell he was juggling and loaded it.
He hit his gun’s electric trigger with one hand and reached for a shell with the other.
Dolph, Bartosz and Noel unleashed their 37mm guns with practiced synchronicity.
In a second the grey puddles across the meadow lit up with punishing shellfire.
Achieving over 800 meters per second the impacts seemed instantaneous.
A sharp bounce off the gun mantlet on the right side.
A ricochet off the edge of left track guard at a sharp angle.
Disintegration on contact with the rear turret armor.
Several shots flew right over the hull, flatter than it seemed from afar.
Shots that practically slid off the glacis with the rain water.
Green tracers that soared skyward harmlessly after finding the armor too resistant.
Other than a few dents and dings and some smoke staining they had done nothing.
Unharmed the juggernaut charged through, crossing Noel’s gun sight. Absorbing their gunfire the tank sped up, as if all this time it had been running on a lower gear. It hurtled full bore away from Bartosz and Noel, its gun trained forward but breathing no flame.
Noel rammed the traverse pedals, trying desperately to track it with his turret.
“Dolph, it’s coming right at you!” Noel shouted into the radio.
Dolph’s driver swerved away but the Ayvartan tank shifted and threw its weight forth.
Metal still met metal, track against track.
Yet it was less a hard impact and more like a saber slash from passing cavalry.
At its top speed the Ayvartan tank swiped Dolph’s track near the front, bringing the weight of its left track guard against the raised drive sprocket and crushing it, cutting the track in the process. Barely slowed, the monster seemed to shrug the M5 off its space, tearing past Dolph’s track guard, shoving against the corner of the glacis plate and pushing the tank almost a meter back over the mud. Turning its hull the tank doubled back in a shallow turn.
Along with the hull the tank’s turret also turned. Finding a target the gun depressed.
“Ivan, Bartosz, move, now!” Noel shouted.
Bartosz’ tank swung violently from its previous course.
When the Ayvartan tank shot it really was as if it breathed fire.
A bright red flash propelled a wrathful red tracer.
Noel watched as the red line met Bartosz’s engine compartment.
It flew with such speed and power it punched through to the other side.
Up the field a geyser of mud, grass and rainwater rose where the shell detonated.
“Bartosz! Evacuate the tank right now! Bartosz!”
“We are unharmed Captain! Evacuating now!” Bartosz replied.
On the side of Bartosz’s engine a hole the size of a fist had been bored through.
Had the enemy’s gun been any less powerful that shell would have stopped and detonated inside the compartment, immolating everyone trapped in the tank.
Only the Konigin was left moving. As his subordinates escaped from their tanks, Noel quickly loaded and shot at the Ayvartan tank, hoping to draw its attention.
“Head for the hills, quickly! I’ll take care of this!” Noel said.
For a second he turned over those words in his own head.
Something that was half a sigh and half a laugh escaped his lips.
“What’s the plan?” Ivan asked. His voice trembled.
Noel fixed his gun sight on the Ayvartan tank as the Konigin turned around.
“Spotting torch and supercharger, now.”
Noel shut off the radio for a moment, and shouted down into the tank’s lower hull.
“I love you. We’ll get through this.”
“Full speed Farwah! Ram that guy’s side! I want to see his track fly!”
The Raktapata rumbled past the enemy light tanks hoping to ensnare it.
They had made too small a cage and used too few arrows to bring it down.
Like a predator the Raktapata pounced and swiped at the exposed flank of its isolated prey — in this case one of the unmodified M5s that had been moving at a shallow enough angle, far enough away for Farwah to hit. They tore past the tank, swung around, and Naya saw her opportunity to clear the tanks to her rear.
Her target tried to tear away. Her vision swam, but the adrenaline, the excited state of her breathing, the brimming she felt under the skin, all seemed to work to suppress the pain and anxiety. Her head was a blank, save for the fighting. And though her hands shook, she could control the shaking, anticipate the turmoil of her body, work with it.
It was like the last mile of a good run, when her body screamed to her that she was human, and she pushed and pushed beyond the brink until she felt numb for it.
She held her breath, spun her clumsy turret around just right, and hit her lever.
With a rumble and a puff of smoke the 76mm KnK-3 unleashed a fresh AP-HE shell.
She spotted the impact, the smoke; the enemy tank stopped in place.
Her shell flew right through the engine compartment and exploded outside the tank.
Naya grit her teeth. She would have to complain about all of this to Chief Ravan.
Regardless there were only two active tanks left in the struggle for the meadow.
The Konigin and Raktapata faced each other like two bulls about to clash horns.
Several hundred meters of distance now separated the combatants.
At once the Konigin’s tracks spun to life. It was bearing its own horns.
“Don’t charge, let him get close if he wants!” Naya shouted.
She was not a bull with horns to lock and she had charged enough for one day; she loaded a shell and opened fire without hesitation, hoping to catch her opponent–
It flew quite wide, crossing the field and exploding somewhere far. The Konigin accelerated toward her in that same tricky zig-zagging from before. It looked much less impressive when a single tank did it. Naya was suddenly confident in her chances.
She reloaded. Face glued to her gun sight she obsessively corrected and corrected, her reticle inching over the tank as it closed in. She reached out to grab the firing lever.
A sudden glare drew her away from the lens.
She shook her head, rubbed her eyes. Tears drew from them.
Looking back down her sight she spotted the same infernal glare.
“Farwah, open up with the machine gun, spray over the gun mantlet!”
Naya seized the trigger of her own machine gun and held it down.
She raised her head to the periscope to witness her handiwork.
Red machine gun tracers sprayed across the face of the Konigin, peppering every centimeter of the gun mantlet with dozens of rounds per second. Vision slits closed up quickly; at this distance Naya could see it buttoning up. There was a short-lived sparking from the tank’s face as the light it was shining burst in its little socket.
Satisfied she returned to her gun sight and found herself able to see again.
At under 300 meters the Konigin stopped zig-zagging.
It accelerated, hurtling toward the Raktapata like a bullet.
Naya had never seen an armored vehicle go that fast.
She reached for the firing lever and pulled it. Her gun sight shook with the force of her attack, but the shell soared across the field once again as the Konigin slipped past her.
Such was its speed that it cleared her gun sight entirely and vanished.
Dumbfounded, she rose to her periscope.
“It’s sliding? Skidding? How is that possible?” Naya shouted.
“It’s hydroplaning I think.” Farwah said matter-of-factly.
She hit the turret traverse, but found it suddenly unresponsive. There was a hitching noise from the hydraulics. Her traverse gear lever felt light, and she pulled it back and forward without seemingly any effect on the turret. It was completely stuck now.
At her side she heard mud and water splashing over the hull.
The Konigin drifted right behind her tank.
Noel could feel the tank hitch a little as it switched to its top gear and the supercharging solution made its way into the engine. Wa Pruf 6’s supercharger technology injected a fluid into the motor to burn more fuel and draw more power. There was a danger of burn-out but Noel did not consider it. As the Konigin sped up he focused on his target.
Their Monster remained rooted in place and started lobbing shells their way.
Any hit from that gun meant death, at any range. They could not be hit.
Meanwhile there was only one range in which their gun was effective.
The Konigin hurtled toward the enemy, picking up substantially more speed as another shell flew past. Noel felt the movement of the tank as if there was wind going by.
“Cut track power intermittently on my signal.” Noel said.
Ivan hardly needed a signal. Airing the intention was enough to start the maneuver.
At full speed the Konigin gently started a turn.
Noel gave the signal; a kiss into the mic once again.
Expertly handling the sticks, Ivan cut track power and led the tank into a skid.
Though muddy, the meadow earth was not soft nor was it sinking like the softer earth closer to the river. Over fairly hard ground the slick coating of mud and water acted as a layer between the tracks that could be troublesome for amateurs — or an asset for aces.
Swinging in a close circle around the enemy tank, the Konigin overtook its sides. They brushed close enough that the sweeping mud and water from the tank’s dramatic slide splashed all over the enemy’s green hull. Their enemy’s turret was motionless.
Noel took his first shot against the side of the tank and smashed one of the wheels off the track. Now this monster would be down a foot and unable to respond to the chase.
Seconds later the vehicle cleared the length of the hull and started closing the circle.
Ivan hit the brake and they came to a stop within 10 meters of the tank.
They were almost close enough to see the numbers on the back of the engine.
Now the Konigin was directly behind its prey and poised to bite the jugular.
Noel depressed the gun, aiming straight through the engine block.
A wicked grin on his face, he loaded an armor piercing shell and clicked his trigger.
They were so close that there was no flight, no shell trajectory, just a steel fist striking.
A loud, pathetic clank issued as the 37mm APCB shell spun off the tank’s rear.
“Hashem defend us.” Noel said, the uncharacteristic words slipping through his cold-feeling lips. His fingers shook. It was all-around armored, too much for his gun.
There was a terrible noise like steel grinding.
Swinging unnaturally quick the enemy’s turret completed a turn.
It pointed the gun directly at him.
Noel dropped down from his chair to the hull floor.
Overhead a red tracer punched through his gun and out the back of the turret.
Metal sprayed everywhere; sparks flew as the electrical equipment for the turret traverse was pierced by fragments. Shells fell off the ready rack one by one and he waited for each to explode upon him, cringing and crying out with every round that hit the floor.
None of them did. He looked to his side and saw Ivan pulling back the sticks.
“Noel!” He cried out. The Konigin groaned to life, backing slowly away.
Noel wanted to cry out to him but an explosion silenced him.
There was a blast nearby and a fizzing sound.
He could have sworn it was his fuel burning, but that was not the noise.
He rushed to the front of the tank and looked out the vision slit.
A cloud of smoke covered the front of the monster tank.
Dolph’s voice sounded suddenly. “We will not desert you, Captain!”
“Take this opportunity and run!” Colonel Spoor shouted on the radio.
Noel popped open the front hatch entirely, looking out into the rain.
Crouched at the tank’s sides, Dolph and Bartosz threw smoke grenades and Panzerwurfmines with all their strength, all of which bounced off the tank to little avail or did not even connect with it, but many of which seemed at least to blind and confuse the beast. Rifle rounds flew suddenly off the turret sides as the Panzergrenadiers left over took shots at it while retreating. More smoke shells started to fall; Spoor had set another mortar to help cover their escape. Everything the Panzergrenadiers had left they were throwing at the tank in the hope that Noel could escape. He was speechless.
“Get on top, we’ve still got some engine!” Ivan shouted at Dolph and Bartosz. They had their crews with them — drivers and radio operators. All six of them climbed on.
Under the cover of the thick smoke and random fire the Konigin reversed.
“Captain Skoniec, we are retreating! We must regroup and await reinforcement.”
Noel barely heard Spoor’s voice on the radio. Everything that happened was catching up to him as the Ayvartan monster became smaller in the Konigin’s front vision slit.
He had been defeated. Perhaps not by the enemy tanker, but he had been defeated.
“One more mortar barrage–”
Colonel Spoor cut out suddenly on the radio. Noel heard a sharp noise.
There was a massive explosion in the Panzergrenadier’s rear area.
Noel, staring out into the smoke, saw another monstrous outline.
“Track’s out! We can’t move!”
Almost as soon as Farwah reported this the enemy tank got around their rear.
Naya slammed the single-speed traverse lever, desperately tugging on it.
There was nothing, her turret refused to move.
She felt something slam the back of the tank.
But she was not dead yet — that was a good sign at least.
Naya threw all her weight onto the lever.
Crunching noises issued from all around her — turret finally spun around.
Once again the Konigin appeared in her sights, larger than ever before.
Muttering a prayer she loaded the gun and fired.
A hole the size of her head opened front to back on the enemy turret.
No explosion inside the tank, nor out of it. A dud round. It hadn’t even ignited the enemy’s ammunition for a kill. She reached out her hand for a new shell–
Her back locked up suddenly. A piercing agony spread through her sinews as if her very blood was covered in thorns, lashing under her skin. She bent forward over her gun, gasping for air, feeling her stomach acutely as she embraced herself. She dug her fingers into her upper arms and felt like she had been pressed into an iron maiden.
Several objects hit the turret around her. Naya rocked back and forth on her chair.
Below her the front hatch opened. Farwah cut the engine and peered out.
He rushed back inside the tank, coughing, and crawled out to the floor under the turret.
He stood beside her and said, “Smokescreen. Naya we’re sitting ducks.”
“I’m sorry.” Naya said. Her eyes welled up with tears. She grit her teeth.
“I’ll help you shoot.” Farwah said.
Naya nodded her head. She tried to pull her arms from her body, to straighten out.
It hurt, like nothing had ever hurt. All feeling was obliterated by the pain.
She had reached her limit. She felt like she would never move again. She wept.
Farwah clumsily tried to take a shell but he could not seem to get it between the breech bumper and the feeding tray. He fumbled, sliding it in at poor angles several times.
He dropped the shell entirely when a loud explosion went off down the meadow.
“Naya! Hold on, we’re here to help too!”
Naya looked up in disbelief at the voice she heard on the radio.
It was Lila, the medic girl, the food serving girl. Lila Bennewitz.
“The 152mm Mandeha self-propelled gun is at your disposal!”
That voice was Isa. Farwah raised his own head, his eyes lighting up.
Something rather large trundled past them on the meadow.
“Monster!” screamed the Panzergrenadiers. “Monster! Retreat! We can’t stop it!”
Men charged down the meadow as fast as their legs could carry them. Vehicles took off the very second the last leg of the last man that fit inside them touched the cargo beds.
In the middle of the retreat area a massive shell hit the ground and erupted.
A truck went up in flames despite being several meters from the impact.
From the smoke emerged a massive tank, with a gun thicker than any the Panzergrenadiers had seen. Atop a heavy, flat body, the tank boasted a gargantuan box of a turret, a comical discrepancy in pictures but horrific to witness in the steel flesh. Nearly four meters tall it dwarfed even the beast that the reliable Captain Skoniec had fallen to, and they could not hope to challenge it. Every man that could made his speedy retreat.
In the middle of the meadow, the newly arrived monster tank took several pot shots at the retreating vehicles. A Sd.Fkz. Squire carrier went up in flames despite a wide miss from the 152mm shell; a motorcycle got stuck in the mud and was abandoned, the men choosing instead to run on foot for their very lives. Captain Skoniec’s Konigin bolted away. An unconscious Colonel Spoor was dragged into his staff car and escaped.
When the smoke cleared, under the unceasing rain, the two monsters of Camp Vijaya stood sentinel in the middle of the rain, having now driven back the assault.
For the moment, Chanda General School was safe from the enemy.
Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — Pebbles In The Path