This scene contains violence and implied death.
Noel was quiet all the way from Shebelle’s outskirts, to Benghu, past Chanda, and on the approach to the rail yard. He did not feel up to speaking with Reiniger, whom he considered almost offensive to interact with now; and he disliked the interior of the M4. He could hardly see Ivan through the turret ring and floor. There was only a small gap connecting the lower turret basket with the hull front where the tank driver sat.
So in the event anything happened, Noel’s last sight would likely not be Ivan.
Perhaps it was a little romantic, to have to crouch and extend their arms through a thin gap in order to hold hands in their final moments as the tank crumbled around them.
But it didn’t appeal to him as much as a smaller, tighter tank did. He felt annoyed.
Reiniger had no words for him; only the platoon-wide radio messages, brief and perfunctory. Turn here, cling to the hill. He gave orders almost as if annoyed that he had to lead everyone, and he gave very few of them. All around him, his tanks clustered in a formless mass, with only marginally better formation discipline than the Ayvartans.
He supposed that was why his men liked him — he let them do whatever on the field.
On the approach to the rail yard, Noel waited for the Dicker Max to take its shots, but he did not open fire with the rest of the platoon. Reiniger had cleared the pillbox and the sandbags and then called no targets, so frankly Noel knew not what he was shooting at.
He seized a 50mm shell, a little bit larger than his old 37mm shells. He could not juggle these. Noel kept the shell on his lap as he waited for a target call. Meanwhile everyone else was firing in every direction. Glass shattered, buildings endured small 50mm HE detonations that barely dented the thick brick walls, and several shots fell on the slope. It was almost vexing how directionless and pointless this attack was at first.
That is, until Noel thought he saw crowds running past the alleyways.
It dawned on him that all this blind nonsense fire could be hitting civilians.
He picked up the radio and put a call through to the Dicker Max.
“Lieutenant, this is a train yard and Benghu is probably being evacuated. We should–”
Reiniger’s cruel voice answered immediately. “Nobody cares, Skonieczny.”
Noel grit his teeth and turned away from his periscope.
He was not watching the meadow when that new Ayvartan tank reared its head again.
“Shit! M3 down! Put shots on that fucking thing now!”
At once Noel returned to his gun sight, his heart skipping a beat.
That was it, the same tank from before!
Cruising along the edge of the rail yard, the tank avoided or absorbed dozens of shells worth of gunfire from the entire approaching platoon. Suddenly everyone was shooting again and everyone had a target. Some level of discipline had been returned to the fighting, but it was to little avail now. The Dicker Max hardly got off a shot, and for all their shooting no other M4 seemed to hit; only Noel managed to dent the side of the damned beast, a feat he attributed to his gyro stabilizers and to sheer dumb luck. Right before their eyes the machine had appeared, killed a tank and was now poised to vanish!
“For fuck’s sake! Get it when it turns the corner! I want it dead now!” Reiniger shouted.
Sliding their turrets several degrees ahead of the monster, the platoon readied to fire.
Then just as the machine reached the corner it gave them pause once more.
“Noel, that’s our turn! They stole our special turn!” Ivan cried out.
Right as the whole platoon was getting ready to pepper the tank’s rear as it turned the corner, it baffled them all by swinging into a wild drift. Noel was the only person not surprised by the maneuver itself; he was more surprised at who executed it.
Their turn was not perfect, but it was all they needed. No one could hit the rear now.
“These Ayvartans learn too quickly!” Noel replied.
That commie driver could not have been paying that much attention during the Chanda attack! It was only a few brief seconds of movement, seen through a glass driving slit or periscope! Noel almost felt insulted that they could perform that maneuver so suddenly.
When the enemy came to a stop, Noel quickly pounded the gun pedal.
He scored a hit right off the middle of the turret. It deflected skyward.
Green tracers converged on the tank and flew off in every conceivable direction.
From the shadow of the building a muzzle flashed back at them.
At the platoon’s far side the remaining M3 went up in flames, popping and cracking as its shells cooked off and exploded one by one and rained metal over the meadow.
That was its objective all along of course. Take out their artillery. Force them to close in.
As the tank disappeared the Dicker Max took a crack at it.
Every shot that it took caused a great roar and a massive smoke cloud.
Noel shook in his tank, feeling the rumbling of the shot in his chest.
As a gun directly ported from a long-range artillery cannon, the Dicker Max’s specialty was not just anti-tank fire, but instead its massive high-explosive shells intended for clearing bunkers. It was these that Reiniger now employed. He hit the building at the end of the row and had an impressive effect. Bricks displaced like children’s blocks, and an entire wall seemed to crumble and spill over the concrete. Shell fragments flew every which way, an unseen and quick killer that had nothing to hit. Their enemy was gone.
He had fired much too late. All of his shots had been much too late.
“God damn it! Noel, get after that thing right now!” Reiniger ordered.
Noel grinned. The Lieutenant’s frustration and desperation was all too clear.
“Ivan, fire up that supercharger.” Noel said, offering Reiniger no response.
While the rest of the M4s and the Dicker Max struggled with the muddy slope, the M4A2 rocketed past and swung around the buildings. It was time for Round 2 of this match.
Throwing the Raktapata into reverse gear, Farwah and Naya retreated from the meadow, slowly clearing the length of the farthest warehouse. Soon as they reached the adjacent alleyway, an explosion rocked the building. Crumbling right in front of them, the corner they had just drifted around now blocked their view of the meadow completely. A mound of bricks collapsed around the corner, and a fire started inside the warehouse.
“Suits me!” Naya said. She switched from gun sight to periscope.
Panning around, she took in the outer meadow straddling the edge of the rail yard.
Most of it was peaceful and unmolested. Behind herself she saw the eastern length of track slicing through the upper meadow. At her side, when she turned back to the rail yard, she saw an open area between the warehouses, about two hundred meters across, used as a machining yard where trains and cars could be fixed away from the track and the platforms. As such it was big and now completely empty. A good place to run to.
She panned back out around the meadow, concerned about her flanks as they moved.
Her concerns paid off as her periscope followed the eastern length of the railroad.
Driving alongside the tracks she spotted half-track carriers trying to sneak around them.
Compared to Chanda, the infantry component of this attack was anemic.
Naya felt confident she could put a stop to them right now.
“Loading HE!” She called out. “Keep us steady Farwah!”
Reaching under the seat, Naya withdrew a high-explosive round.
On the back of the shell she adjusted the delay fuse. She punched it into the breech.
Aiming just over the half-track, she let loose the projectile. It soared right over the open-topped vehicles and detonated right on time, spraying fragments right into the men.
She adjusted the magnification on her gun sight. Two of the half-tracks stopped moving, and a third questioned its course and sharply veered away from the raised tracks.
“Farwah, scratch two–”
Her celebration was quite short-lived.
“Naya, in front!”
Clinging to her periscope, Naya endured another quaking of the turret.
Another shell scored a direct hit.
A second pinprick of light cast across turret.
She saw the armor, bulging in.
Slamming the turret gear control, she spun the gun back around.
Approaching under two hundred meters from the side, the Konnigin closed in.
Naya fired a shot but missed, hitting the ground next to the tank.
She managed to make it veer off its course and lose some of its speed.
“Farwah, back into that machining yard!” She called out.
As the Konnigin stalked closer, the Raktapata hastily retreated through another corner and pulled back into the broad and open machining yard that Naya had seen behind them.
There were no obstacles or pieces of cover save for a few stray metal crates. It was a space framed by the surrounding buildings, and there were several more alleys through which the Raktapata could retreat. Hugging the buildings, the Raktapata rounded the other end of the space. There they parked and waited with bated breath for the enemy.
Naya had no intention to retreat any further. She turned the gun where she came.
Soon as the Konnigin showed its face around the alley, the Raktapata blasted it.
A shell struck the bulging single-piece gun mantlet and exploded.
The Konnigin drove through the shot and retaliated. A thin puff of smoke and an angry green discharge followed the armor-piercing shell. Smashing into the Raktapata’s glacis plate, it shattered, pieces of it rolling down the armor and flying off the sloped plate.
“Even at this distance, damn it.” Naya said to herself. They were less than 200 meters apart and neither seemed able to shoot the other one decisively. This was no ordinary M4.
Both tanks started circling the area from opposite ends, guns turned on each other. Like maned lions sizing up their rivals, they circled slowly around the edge of the machining yard, trying to find each other’s sides. Whenever one tank moved the other mirrored.
Naya’s reticle hovered over the tank, unable to settle on any one part. She felt a tension all through her body. This tank’s crew had caused her a lot of grief. She had to kill them.
Gritting her teeth, she predicted the sway of the reticle and pulled the firing lever.
Her shot went wide, flying over the side of the Konnigin and hitting a wall as the enemy tank surged forward and came to a stop directly across from her. She grit her teeth.
At once the Konnigin answered, putting a shell right into her gun mantlet.
With a loud metallic thunk it bounced off and ricocheted through a nearby window.
Fire and smoke blew in from behind the glass, and the wall burst open.
“That was not our shell.” Noel shouted. He turned his periscope on his flank.
Suddenly the Dicker Max trundled out through the hole in the wall.
Crawling over the rubble, its long gun braced with crossbars, poised to join the melee.
“OH YEAH!” Reiniger shouted into the radio.
A grinding, shaking noise, like chains, issued from the assault gun.
The Dicker Max’s tracks spun in place, and it began an extremely belabored turn.
The enemy turned its attention to the new arrival and fired a snap shot.
Striking the lower hull, the AP-HE shell detonated prematurely against the Dicker Max’s sharp plate seam, unable to penetrate. The Dicker Max had as much armor there as the M4A2, and even at around 100 meters distance the gun on that tank wasn’t cutting it at that angle. This meant that Noel’s M4A2 and the new Ayvartan tank were effectively immune to each other’s guns except at point blank — but not to the Dicker Max’s.
However the smoke from the blast blinded the already vision-impaired tank, and when the Dicker Max took its shot it flew through open space right in between the combatants, hurtling into the open shutter doors of a workshop and blowing open a hole in its back wall. Unable to traverse the gun to follow its target, the Dicker Max was again forced to turn the entire hull. Noel spotted Reiniger rising out of the superstructure to see better.
“God damn it!” Reiniger cried. “It traverses so fucking slow! Noel, get them!”
Sensing its opportunity the Ayvartan tank retreated through the nearest alley.
There was no way the Dicker Max would have been able to attack it.
“We’re giving chase!” Noel called out.
The Konnigin started after the Ayvartan monster.
Meters ahead a plume of fire blossomed from the ground and gave Noel pause.
A massive explosion covered the escape of the Ayvartan tank.
In its wake, a crater over a meter deep was punched into the earth.
Had the trajectory of the shot not been so flat Noel would have guessed that heavy ayvartan artillery must have had them ranged. But that shot had been from a tank.
The Dicker Max suddenly started turning another direction.
“Shit! Shit!” Reiniger shouted.
Shifting his periscope Noel spotted another vehicle through the hole in the workshop wall that the Dicker Max had bored a few moments before. He couldn’t see the hull but the turret and gun were framed by the ruins, and looked absolutely gargantuan. All he could see through the aperture was a massive gun and a thick mantlet protecting it.
“Fuck! Another new tank! God damn it!” Reiniger screamed.
Thinking quickly, Noel reached for the specialty shell stowage.
Before this new monster could shoot again, Noel threw a jab its gun mantlet. Though his shell plinked harmlessly off the armor, it instantly burst into a thick cloud of grey smoke.
“Ivan, full speed ahead!”
Leaving the Dicker Max to deal with this new threat the Konnigin hurtled into the alleys.
Running down the alleys, the Raktapata made as much distance as it could while its enemy was distracted, but the Konnigin was soon giving chase. Charging down the open road between the warehouse rows, the Raktapata managed to make 300 or 400 meters from its enemy, but quickly their vision instruments acquired each other again.
Amid the warehouses, turrets turned and shells were viciously traded.
Whether there was still a battle happening around them, it was as if the tankers couldn’t know, as if it was happening in another world. Guns locked to each other, all sights aimed only toward the opponent, the tanks were trapped in their whirlwind of violence.
Red flying from the west, Green launching from the east.
An AP-HE from the Raktapata hit a building corner and smashed bricks onto the Konnigin. Noel’s aim was the better of the two, however, and an APCB fired from the Konnigin smashed into the Raktapata blew off its night fighting yellow searchlight.
Retaliating, the Raktapata turned its aim a few degrees lower and struck the lower machine gun housing, caving in the bulb with blunt trauma. No penetration. Ivan was safe. In anger, Noel shot back, but his own shell overflew the Raktapata’s tracks.
Red lights, green lights, smoke, fire, no killing blows in the struggle.
Farwah and Ivan clung on to the sticks, trying to move in whatever way would throw off fire, but the tanks remained essentially in place, facing each other. It was a fist-fight from several soccer fields away, punch, counterpunch — APCB, AP-HE, green and red tracers.
Colored lights soaring between the enemies, linking them for fleeting instants.
Bounces, deflections, shells shattered on armor. Blunt dents, small cuts on steel.
No two shells hit the same place. No attack was decisive. They were evenly matched.
It would come down to the crews, and to tactics chosen on instinct, within seconds.
Naya came to her own decision and without thinking she already made peace with it.
“Farwah, charge them! We’re not going to get them from here!” Naya commanded.
The Raktapata moved first and hurtled forward to ramming speed, its gun going silent.
“Two can play at this game!” Noel cried out. “Ivan, lets give them a final show!”
Mimicking its opponent the Konnigin supercharged down the road at top speed.
Moving like boulders down a hill, the two tanks rushed to a collision course.
Both crews felt the seconds ticking down, the opponent coming closer, timing the quick beats of their own hearts, and the pulse of the machinery in which they were encased.
Two hundred meters, one hundred meters, fifty meters, twenty-five meters–
“Ivan, strike left!”
“Farwah, go past!”
Taking the last opportunity to shift course, the tanks cruised past each other.
Turrets whipped violently around to put guns on each other’s vulnerable rear hulls.
Shells loaded; drivers kept the vehicles steady.
Naya and Noel gave firing orders to themselves.
Their cries cut through meters distance and the millimeters of armor.
All at once, down to the second: “Firing AP-HE!” “Firing APCB!”
Cannons sounded, muzzles smoked, and shells rent apart the air.