DICKER MAX — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains scenes with violence and death.

47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing

“Shit! Shit! Is that an eighty-five? Messiah defend; they’re pulling up an eighty-five!”

The arriving Ayvartan gun attacked them much sooner than anyone thought.

Several hundred meters ahead a pillar of fire rose from the back of an M4 tank, its engine compartment bursting open. Fire belched out of its open hatches, and the closed top hatch slammed up and flew into the air. Rainfall turned the flames into a cloud of grey smoke that obscured the wreck. Everyone inside was still surely cooked dead.

All of its platoon mates scattered at the sight, M4 and M5 tanks veering behind trees and rocks and into bushes. The 8th Panzer Division’s breakout was instantly blunted.

“We’ve got an eighty-five! Eighty-five, it’s almost two klicks ahead, Messiah defend!”

Ayvartan Goblin tanks could hardly scratch an M4 tank except at close ranges; but the Ayvartans were far from defenseless against tanks. Their Anti-Aircraft 85mm gun could destroy an M4 tank from the front at practically any range — and much to the misfortune of Kampfgruppe R, the Ayvartans pushing against the Sandari had brought just such a weapon to bear upon their defensive lines. Soon as it was deployed, it scored a kill.

Reiniger scowled, his own tank camouflaged inside a bush just off of the river’s edge.

“Repeat distance! Accurately this time!” Reiniger shouted into his microphone.

A second 85mm shell flew in between two positions, past the camp, and struck a thick old tree ten meters behind Reiniger’s tank. Reiniger heard the dispersion of debris against the back of his turret armor when the explosives in the AP-HE shell went off.

“Gun’s 1.7 kilometers away exactly!” one of Reiniger’s observers replied on the radio.

Reiniger grit his teeth and squeezed his hands against the hand-holds on his cupola.

The 8th Panzer Division’s beachhead across the western Sandari was barely reinforced, largely because there was nothing to reinforce it with. He had the manpower but he did not have the sandbags. He had no construction materials, in fact, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a measly anti-tank gun across the river. His defensive line was a hundred men in groups of five or ten huddling in disordered foxhole trenches. All the artillery they had to count on were tanks hiding in bushes and behind rocks and trees.

Third shell; it went right through a bush, hit and exploded, lighting the vegetation on fire.

Moments later a tank frantically backed out of the bush, a sizable dent in its glacis plate. Judging by the fact that it was backing away, it must not have been severely damaged. A hit by an 85mm gun either killed an M4 or it didn’t, there was rarely anything between.

On the radio the commander of the miracle tank hyperventilated violently.

“Holy shit. Holy shit, Lieutenant; premature detonation; it– holy shit–”

Reiniger pressed on his microphone in a rage. “Shut up and get back you moron!”

As fast as the reverse gear allowed, the M4 sought another hiding spot. Backing away from the burning bush, veering to avoid the gun tracking, it slid sideways behind a nearby boulder. Only the top of the turret cupola was visible over the rock. In that position the M4 could not shoot back, only hide from fire. Reiniger grit his teeth.

“Not there! God damn it! Find a position you can fight from!” He shouted.

His own tank shook suddenly; fire flashed through the glass slits on his cupola.

Debris fell over Reiniger’s M4 as a shell hit a few meters in front of the bush.

Reiniger heard dozens of tiny clanks against the front of his turret.

“Mortars! We’ve got one-twenties deploying from the trucks!”

“Enemy riflemen moving up! Looks like a whole company, sir!”

All of Reiniger’s observers seemed to have bad news to report.

Reiniger dropped from his cupola, a small niche at the top of the turret where he could sit and look out of vision slits, as well as have quick access to the hatch. He took the gunner’s position, pushed the loader out of the way and looked down the gun sight. Unlike his vision slits, the gun sight had magnification. He spied the enemy position.

Kampfgruppe R’s portion of the Sandari battle meant holding on to a small strip of riverside land directly adjacent to a hidden pontoon bridge in a portion of the river about 3 meters deep and ten meters wide. Except for the edges of the river, delineated on both sides by meter-tall bumps of terrain, much of the ground was flat sandry brown intermittently covered in grass, sparse on vegetation, and dotted with boulders.

Several hundred meters ahead, Ayvartan trucks had arrived on one of the dirt roads from Shebelle. One of the trucks was a novel conversion — an anti-aircraft truck carrying an 85mm gun on its bed, mounted on a rotating plate. All of the other dozen trucks were loaded with men and women. Mortars deployed, the Ayvartans charged with rifles and bayonets, grouped in thick ranks as the shells began to fall over the Nochtish camp.

Norgler machine guns retaliated against the charging Ayvartans at first, claiming several victims at the start of the charge. Behind the infantry attack, rose the first mortar shells.

A dozen blasts pounded the foxholes, while 85mm shells ripped over them.

The Panzergrenadiers bowed their heads into their holes and the Ayvartans ran free.

Reiniger put the 85mm firmly in his cross-hairs. He held a breath; it felt like eternity.

Kunze had made this shot before. That rat bastard; he’d hit it from a world away.

That was what had made him. Other than that shot he had nothing going for him.

Reiniger could make this shot. He could make it right. Kunze had nothing but luck.

From behind him his nervous loader slid a shell into position.

“Firing HE!” Reiniger shouted, striking the gun’s footpad trigger.

His 50mm shell sailed out of the end of the cannon, hurtled toward the truck, and sailed on. Overflying the right side of the truck bed, it vanished from sight. Almost immediately the 85mm gun turned on its base. Smoke danced from the thick bushes around him; and the bright flash of his gun had given him away completely to the enemy.

At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.

With a roar of the engine the M4 retreated sideways from the bush.

Turning a lever, Reiniger rotated the turret to match the tank’s movements.

He could make this shot; Kunze had made it, god damn it. He could make it too!

“Reload HE!”

Beside him the loader stuck a fresh round into the breech.

There was a flash far across the way.

Reiniger smashed his face on the gun sight as the tank violently rattled.

A piece of metal from the side armor snapped; like a swarm of flying razors, screws and bits of flaked metal blew inward and up from the lower left. Reiniger heard a scream and a gurgling noise, and he felt something bite into his leg. Disoriented from hitting his head on the scope, Reiniger sat, doubled over, feeling nauseous and short of breath.

He turned his head and found his loader lying dead behind him. He had fallen from his seat and came to lie face down in front of the ammo rack. The M4 Sentinel’s turret was cramped enough, and the turret floor still intact enough, that his body had nowhere to fall. It was as if someone had just shoved him off his seat on the turret’s left side.

Most of the spall that had come flying had become embedded in him.

There were holes in the turret floor, and a deformity on the side of the turret ring.

His armor had been partially cratered from an angled 85mm impact.

The enemy shell didn’t explode as it should have — it was a dud.

Reiniger tried the turret lever. He pulled on it, heard a click and a cry.

It was stuck.

He shook his head and called out on his radio as if nothing had transpired.

“I want shells on that fucking eighty-five! Everyone shoot it now! I don’t care where–”

His engine cut.

He stopped breathing. He heard it sputter and turn quiet; felt the seat shake when the tank came to a sudden stop, its injured side still fully exposed to the enemy, stranded in the middle of the camp. Looking through his sight, his gun had been frozen just a few degrees off of a possible shot at the enemy. Meanwhile the enemy gun turned, slowly, cruelly. It was going to pick him off. None of his men seemed to heed his orders.

Reiniger crouched; through the screen on the lower turret ring he saw his driver slumped over the brake lever, a bright red splotch across the small of his back.

Breathing heavily again, he rose back to his gun and spied through the sights.

The 85mm gun settled, elevated slightly. He saw movement around it.

“All guns on the eighty-five! Right fucking now!” He shouted.

Nobody took a shot.

Reiniger’s heart seemed to stop. There was no sound in his tank.

From the sky came a loud buzzing.

Something dropped onto the Ayvartan truck and engulfed it in a column of flames.

Automatic fire flew from all sides as his tanks emerged, coaxial guns blazing.

Charging Ayvartans started dropping mid-run. Mortar fire abated completely.

Reiniger stood on the turret floor, climbed onto the flip-down seat for the Commander and stood up and out of his top hatch. Overhead a dozen Archer planes cut through sky, soaring past his sector. They were dropping bombs on targets of opportunity and swooping down with their machine guns at unseen lines of infantry several kilometers away from him. He saw smoke rising in the far-away distance, and the figures of the planes turning slowly into indistinct dots against the grey, pouring heavens overhead.

It finally happened: he got to see a plane take out the enemy. Front row seats too.

He lowered his gaze from the heavens, and found a hundred corpses stretched across the suddenly quiet kilometer stretch before him. Most were Ayvartans, killed in their charge. But many were his own men, blow up in their foxholes by vicious mortar fire.

On the road, a cloud of thick smoke covered the ruined Ayvartan truck and its artillery.

To think that everything could turn so dramatically in that one fiery instant.

It was too abrupt; it felt unreal, like a jerky old movie that was missing reels.

All Reiniger felt, watching this mess unfold, was frustration.

He picked his helmet off his head and threw it on the turret floor below him.

Climbing out his turret, he spotted the closest tank, charged at it, climbed again.

He threw open the hatch and seized the commander by his jacket.

“Why the fuck did you defy my orders soldier? Why was nobody shooting!”

His face was covered in sweat and rain, contorted with his rage, his eyes twitching.

Cowering, the tank commander replied, “We received no orders sir!”

Reiniger let him go — the man dropped clumsily off his seat and onto the turret floor.

That last 85mm impact must have damaged the radio system too.

He felt momentarily foolish.

“At ease.” He said half-heartedly. He dropped down from the tank and walked away.

Everything always had to be so difficult. Nothing could go as planned for him.

Nothing could be simple and correct, no matter how hard he tried.

Everything always spiraled out of his control. No matter how much he shouted, how much he thrashed and clawed and bit and fought; it always ended up going sideways. Cissea went sideways, Knyskna went sideways. Everything he tried ended in failure where others somehow found success. What was missing from him; what did they have?

Reiniger ambled around the Sandari camp as if in a stupor. He made it to one of the blasted foxholes and sat down quietly at the edge, staring down the flat horizon.

Schicksal would be mad at him for not reporting soon. Not that it mattered.

There was nothing important to report, because he had not made the shot.

Back then, back in Cissea, Kunze had made that shot. Everyone knew he had.

When you made a shot like that, you reported immediately. That was how you got ahead. There was no reason to report a kill you didn’t make. Let the airmen report that.

Kunze reported a shot, and his loader reported with him, and his tank commander backed him up. That was how he got ahead. He had something to report. Something went right.

Not because he was good; not because he had an advantage. He just somehow did it.

And it made no sense. It had never made sense. Reiniger wanted to scream for it.

Why was it Kunze, that time? Both times? Why had he been praised, given the spotlight, and elevated to lieutenant so quickly, so easily, as if by the hand of god himself; and then why had he been smashed to pieces by that very hand so shortly thereafter? Now they buried Kunze, now they remembered him. They couldn’t praise nor berate him anymore.

Reiniger had struggled, had thrashed his way from a car-driving private, a nobody, to tank loader, to tank gunner, to tank commander. To Lieutenant — to one of General Dreschner’s right-hand men. And before that: from the streets of Mutz, the cold, cracked concrete of the youth hostel, to the hard-top of the training camp as soon as he was of age, to the warm dirt, bright grass and the open sky of a Cissea at war with itself.

From the child so unwanted that he was outright abandoned at the steps; to the hated, hopeless teenager who fought with everyone on the street, because fuck them that’s why; to the boot camp fuckup, shouted at in the ears by the sergeant over and over.

Every step of the way he fought. Every step of the way he fell. His face tasted the mud and pavement, sometimes so intimately that they tasted of his blood. That was his life.

Reiniger made himself in the mud and the gore. He couldn’t ever seem to escape it.

Kunze had leaped clean over the whole process with one good shot.

He wasn’t even a reliable shot like Noel! He had never replicated the feat!

He had no fundamentals. Just one measly lucky shot, a few photo opportunities.

Why did the world pick that man over him?

How? How did that skittish slab of butter manage to rise so high?

And how did he fall so hard? How did he break upon the stone without standing again?

It confounded him; it vexed him. Because even after he vanished from the face of Aer, Reiniger still could not beat him. He would never exorcise the phantom of what Kunze was, what he represented. He still couldn’t overcome the clawing, the struggle, the bestial melee of his life. Nothing ever went right. He was not Dreschner or Noel; or Kunze.

He was the mud and the gore and the screaming and the fury. It was all he had.

There would never be a hand that would pick him up. He always had to fight for it.

It became so common now that Reiniger didn’t wait to fight. He just fought always.

He wasn’t irreverent. He was at war, with everyone, with himself. For everything.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu, Northern Rail Yard

Behind the old tin warehouse, Naya set down a metal bucket under the spout of a rusty old water well pump and pushed on the handle several times. Her first few pumps drew no water, the bucket catching only a few droplets from the thinly drizzling rain. Gritting her teeth, Naya pumped harder and faster. Finally water began to slosh out of the spout. She filled her bucket halfway and dunked a towel inside. It was ice cold; she could barely stand to bring the towel to her cheeks, around her mouth and over her nose.

Rubbing the towel over her hands made her shiver. A good wash would have to wait for another time. She was not about to run that freezing towel over her back or her belly. Naya had experienced more than enough cold for the day under the afternoon rains.

She dropped the towel into the bucket and set it aside. From atop an overturned rail car nearby she withdrew a bag, and she quickly undressed and donned a fresh uniform. She was surprised to find it differed significantly from her old personnel uniform. It was not fitted: there was a flexible jacket shirt with long sleeves, that reached almost to her knees, and big loose fitting pants. A thick belt wrapped around the jacket. High black boots were included, made so that the pants legs plunged into the boot shaft.

Donning to the uniform had an eerie sense of finality to it. This was what she was now: she was a tanker. She was not a test driver in a generic personnel uniform anymore. All of her new accouterments spoke to the change. As a tanker she would not have the ammo belts and pouches of her old uniform. She had two pockets and a holster for her side-arm; her tank would contain the storage space she would depend on from now on.

Her tank, the Raktapata, that she had driven to Chanda’s defense a few hours ago.

The last item in the bag Lila had brought her was a tanker’s leather cap, with its long floppy sides containing an integrated headphone and microphone system. Naya disliked it. She felt like it sat poorly over her hair. She’d have to rip out the headset guts with a knife and throw the cap away at some point. Hopefully Rajagopal wouldn’t insist on it.

She stuffed her old wet uniform into the bag after transferring her sidearm. Grenades, spare ammunition, and other things she had brought with her from the infantry, all of it went into the bag. Into the bag, too, went her secrecy, and in some respects, her fear. Along with those old flat infantry shoes she would put away the urge to retreat.

Naya smiled as she closed the bag.

With new determination she tied the string sealing it shut.

Leaving it behind with the bucket, she walked around the front of the warehouse.

Naya watched men and women loading things into a long train, recently arrived. Tools and machines from Vijaya; boxes of ammunition and supplies from Chanda; pieces of machinery from Benghu workshops. The main platform was just over a dozen meters from the old tin warehouse, which was once used for spare parts and to house the station’s fire engine, which now resided in the town of Benghu proper. Looming farther ahead was the old rail station building, squat, broad and pragmatic in design.

Once all the machinery and sensitive equipment was loaded, the passengers could board and then they would leave Dbagbo behind. It was bittersweet. Though they were all alive, and though they had beaten back the enemy once — they couldn’t win in the long term if they stayed in Dbagbo now. Not with Shebelle about to be surrounded.

As much of her little town as the government found necessary was packed up to be moved away. Naya felt an urge to return someday. To dare to retrace those steps.

“Well, well! Someone looks dashing! Wait a moment there, Naya.”

Behind her, Lila slipped out of the warehouse from between a loose sheet of tin, which she then set back into place. She had her medical bag in hand; from it she produced a small, wide, cylindrical tin and passed the object on. Naya took it, and popped open the cap. Inside there were several little syrettes of morphine. They were like syringes, but instead of a rigid glass cylinder the syrettes resembled a toothpaste tube with a needle.

“To use them, take the pin at the end and break the seal on the tube. Then you can attach the needle. At a shallow angle, break your skin with the needle, and squeeze.”

Lila showed her the process in an abstract fashion.

Naya nodded her head. She held on to the tin.

“Thank you, Lila — for everything.”

Lila bowed her head with a beaming smile on her face.

“So, where is everybody?” Naya said.

“Farther down,” Lila said, pointing past the remains of a wooden fence toward a cluster of brick buildings, “they have a little repair area on a platform there. Since I wanted to talk to you more privately I brought you out here, with everyone’s permission.”

“All of them suspect it, right? About me? I should just tell them.” Naya said.

Lila shook her head, still smiling. “All of them trust you, Naya. You can tell them what you told me if you want, but I don’t think any of them will demand to know it. I’m the only one who needs to know to keep renewing your morphine prescription.” She winked.

“It’s going to keep getting worse, isn’t it?”

Naya rubbed against the small of her back. It didn’t hurt anymore. Nothing hurt now. Her head was still a touch too cloudy, but the morphine made her feel like her old self again.

That did not mean that the cause of the pain was gone at all.

Only that Naya could not feel it.

It was like pouring excessive coolant into the Raktapata.

“I don’t know.” Lila said, her eyes wandering away from Naya’s gaze. “Tankers can come down with a lot of things as they get older. They develop arthritis and back pains, due to the conditions in the tank; partial deafness from all the noise; the shocks and stress can give them anxiety; and sometimes even smoker’s lung from inhaling fumes.”

“We can come down with an awful case of death, too.” Naya glibly replied.

“A common affliction in armed service.” Lila cheerfully replied. She seemed to buck up herself at the sight of Naya’s own dark humor. She spoke gently. “I’m sorry, Naya, I’m just a military medic, so I’m limited in what I can do. I only know how to treat the things that can happen to soldiers. I know that in the course of this war, you probably won’t become better. I don’t think your condition will ever go away at this point. But I think you can live your life well despite everything. Mitigating the pain is a good place to start.”

At seventeen years that might have been devastating to hear, but now, Naya already knew what it meant to have to live with the pain. At least she had morphine on hand. Now she could take the next crucial step — learning again to live without the pain.

“That’s all I need to hear.” Naya said.

Lila patted her on the back. “Maybe in Solstice City you can find a physician who could help you with it. I know there’s a lot of radical medicine happening there.”

Solstice — the capital. It was the place they were all likely retreating toward.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Naya said.

All she knew about Solstice was that her father had gone there.

Lila patted her back, noticing the somber instant in her expression.

“Let’s rejoin everyone, tank commander! Show off your new suit to them.”

Naya cracked a little smile and followed Lila down the side of the tracks. They passed the tall, open-topped train cars surrounded by rail workers and soldiers, and the platform cranes heaving machinery, and then crossed the tracks, moving toward the buildings in the distance. There was a lot of open space, occupied only by stray cars taking up disused lanes of track, between the forward platform and the new storage areas.

“You drove in that really big tank to Benghu, right?” Naya asked.

“Ah, no, Isa drove it. I helped Karima heave ammunition into the gun.”

“Karima too? Huh. You two always seem to be together.”

“We both joined Vijaya at around the same time, so we were the new kids together.”

“Back then, was she as salty, or did she calcify over time?”

“Hey!” Lila slapped her playfully in the arm. “She’s a great lass, I’ll have you know!”

“I’ll take your word on it.” Naya replied, a little skeptical. “So, the tank you all took to Chanda; it was the big thing in the workshop, under the tarp in the corner, right?”

“Yes, it’s called the 152mm Self-Propelled Gun ‘Mandeha.'” Lila replied.

Naya’s mouth hung a little open. “One hundred and fifty two?”

Lila nodded her head rapidly in response, a big smile on her face.

“It’s annoying though! The ammunition is so heavy! And it’s so noisy. You should hear the gun after it goes off.” She stretched out her arms. “It’s this earth-shattering, ka–”

In the distance something filled in Lila’s mimicry with the genuine article.

Naya snapped her head toward the warehouses and saw smoke rising.

Before she could process what was happening she heard another blast. A second plume of smoke rose from the far end of the warehouses. Naya broke into a run; Lila hung back for a moment in shock, but took off after her. They ran away from the track and into the cluster of brick warehouse buildings in their own section of the yard, projecting from the southeast.

Outlying buildings blocked their view of the meadow but Naya knew what must have been happening — Nocht had sent more tanks up through Chanda to catch up to them.

There was a third, louder blast. Smaller impacts followed much too quickly after. Between the warehouses, rising smoke and flashing fires could be seen, too fast, too close.

At once the rail yard became chaotic.

Naya saw groups of men and women come rushing toward the track and the train, followed by uniformed rail security officers. Whether trying to control them or run away with them, it was difficult to tell. A light car drove along the side of the flattened path paved between the warehouses; a territorial army officer urged calm using a megaphone, and shouted for soldiers to draw pistols and rifles and anything they had on themselves and hunker down in place. People ran forward blindly, hands on their heads, as if that would shield them.

Thankfully there was enough space, and thin enough crowds, that the warehouse area did not become an utter stampede. Families, friends, lone refugees, streamed out from the buildings, and Naya and Lila rushed through the gaps in them, straining their eyes and craning their necks to catch any glimpse of fighting deeper in the area. Flashes and columns of black smoke and skyward debris were clearly visible, but no sign of crossfire.

Together Naya and Lila cleared the first block of warehouses and most of the crowds.

“There it is!” Lila shouted. “Damn, they still haven’t gotten the turret on right!”

Following Lila’s directions, Naya finally spotted the yard’s lower loading platform with the Raktapata on it ahead of them. It was just a short dash from the road back to the track.

Coming down the road however, she spotted something else entirely as well.

Looking around in confusion amid the movement of people, a young woman with wavy brown hair, wearing a thick coat over clothes that had probably been soaked in the rain. She walked with a crutch, limping gently forward. Slim, pretty, vibrant, all too familiar.

Her eyes peered over the crowd and stopped.

Just as Naya spotted her, Aarya found her too.

They paused as the crowd fled past them, and seemed to stand alone as it thinned.

“Naya?” Aarya said, in the tone of a question. She reached out tentatively her hand.

“Yeah.” Naya said simply. She crossed her arms, almost hugging herself.

It was the first time she had seen her in years now, but her face, that soft, gentle face, that warm glow she had even when she worried or frowned, brought back a rush of dusty old sentiment. Lying together under Benghu’s trees, walking down Chanda’s halls, singing in the temple (one of the few things Naya did for her in which she never excelled). Naya felt an uncomfortable warmth in her heart, an anxious buzzing in her stomach. She felt drawn back again, too far back, to that confident, athletic girl still too shy to say I love you.

But that was not Aarya’s fault and she did not want to keep dwelling as if it was.

Naya promptly cut the meters between them, standing plaintively before her friend.

Aarya spread her arms and gave her a chaste little hug, bending forward slightly.

That they could not pull themselves chest to chest like they did as girls was emblematic of the distance that had built over the years. But they were closer than they had been for years.

Without hesitation Naya embraced her back, her head hovering over Aarya’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry we had to meet like this. I have to go again, Aarya.” Naya said.

Her friend looked her in the eyes with a soft, contented expression.

“I understand, Naya.” Aarya said simply.

They separated, each taking a single, belabored step back.

They locked eyes for a moment.

“Naya! It is you! Thank the spirits!”

Over Aarya’s shoulder, Naya spotted Darshan, hobbling slowly forward. He too had a big coat on, and he was surrounded by small children who were looking every which way.

At first he had a sort of dazed look, but when his eyes settled on Naya he lit up.

It was as if she drained all of the terror of the situation. He started toward her.

A few days ago Naya might have grumbled at his appearance, but all the children were staring at her and Lila in awe as they approached them, and Darshan himself had such a jovial look, already holding his own arms out and with his mouth wide agape.

He, too, had been a staple of her old life. Sometimes she forgot that.

When he got close enough, he threw his arms out almost as if to pick her up.

He had gotten large enough to do it too.

Naya held her fingers out like a gun and poked him in the chest, giving him pause.

“Nope, nope, nope. We don’t do that on the track, chum. Remember?”

She held out a fist. He looked at it briefly.

Then, perhaps like muscle memory, his own closed fist met hers.

That was the kind of friends they were.

“You’re still so cocky, Naya!” Darshan laughed.

Naya held her fists to her hips and stood with her chest out and a conceited grin.

He turned to the children. “Kids, this is comrade Naya Oueddai! She will keep us all safe and take care of the bad guys, just like at the school before. Right comrade Naya?”

Aarya giggled a little and stood with the children, awaiting an answer.

Inexplicably happy to oblige, Naya maintained her pose and spoke strongly.

“Kids, I don’t have a frightful bone in my body. I’ll send those imperialists packing.”

Several children clapped at her, and a few others outright cheered.

There was a metallic noise nearby as the Raktapata’s turret dropped onto its ring.

Naya pointed over her shoulder at the platform.

“That’s my ride! I’ve gotta go load up! See you all later!”

She took off running, feeling like her face would break from putting on a grin so long.

Lila waved gently at the children and ran behind her.

Perhaps it was the morphine; but though she reunited and broke again so quickly, Naya felt a warmth and gentleness, the soft light of shared old bonds, slowly mending in her.

She charged to the platform with new zeal. She had to protect everyone.

Ten vehicles approached the rail yard from the south, at first hugging the wooded hills along the western edge of the meadow to conceal themselves before turning northeast. Commanders rode with their heads outside their top hatches until they spotted the target area in the distance, and prepared for battle. Four M4 tanks, one special; two M3 Hunter assault guns; three Sd.Kfz. B Squire half-tracks, carrying ten men inside and five hanging where they could; and the Dicker Max experimental assault gun in the lead.

Several kilometers from Chanda the meadow climbed a few meters to become level with the terrain of the adjacent town of Benghu, and on this gentle rise the Benghu rail yard had been erected. It was a small, low capacity yard, with a little under a dozen buildings, many recent additions, and two platforms with small cranes. Nochtish aerial photos were grainy and taken in haste, as the weather and Ayvartan anti-air fire permitted. But they were enough for the tankers to become fairly well aware of the general layout.

From afar the tanks spotted the track, coming sharply in from the wooded east and disappearing behind a cluster of brick buildings. Set atop a flat plane of gray cement, the small warehouse area included a long row of buildings along the southern end of the rail yard and a second row behind the first, separated by concrete roads. Crates and discarded cars had been left between buildings to form a contiguous line against the meadow.

This was the first visible sign of the rail yard from the meadow. Along with the rectangular old station building, the warehouses blocked sight of the main rail platform from the meadow — and blocked the sight of the meadow from the yard itself as well.

Once the tanks drew within 2000 meters they spotted the sandbag emplacements and the guard pillbox, a cement square face with a cross-shaped slit housing an anti-tank gun. There the formation started to break up; the Panzergrenadiers in their half-tracks hooked around north, trying to find a different approach along the track itself, while the tanks rushed to the center of the meadow and moved perpendicular to the rail yard.

They did not expect to be the first to fire — they would depend on their armor to withstand long-range attacks from the common and weak Ayvartan 45mm gun in the pillbox.

Even that obstacle failed to materialize; through grass that only barely concealed them, the tanks crept to within 1500 meters and found nobody in the pillbox challenging them.

“Asleep at the wheel.” Reiniger said. He cracked a cruel grin to himself.

The Dicker Max was much more comfortable than his old M4. Thanks to the open-topped superstructure housing the gun, he could sit well, stretch his legs decently, and stand up, all without bumping into metal anywhere. His loader took seat beside him. Below them, inside the hull, was the driver. There should have been an additional loader, or so suggested that annoying computer woman — but Reiniger took only one. As an experimental tank there were all manner of oddities to it. Behind the superstructure there were armored compartments for personnel to hide in for some reason. And in the front of the tank there was a fake, enclosed driver’s compartment, symmetrical to the real one.

Pointless indulgences from the engineers; the real beauty was the tank’s long-barreled 10.5 centimeter gun. A cylindrical muzzle brake was attached at the end to help disperse the gun’s terrifying recoil force. There was no gun like it on any tank he had ever seen.

He expected great things from it; the time had come to do some experimenting.

Reiniger stood from his seat and looked over the armor. He could see the buildings, the sandbag emplacements atop the slope, the pillbox. It was all there for the taking.

“Hunters, elevate your guns and prepare to fire once the Dicker Max has taken three shots; Sentinels, start moving and join the attack then as well. Panzergrenadiers will continue east and north and attack along the track. Keep that train from going escaping.”

He received a few acknowledgments, the most half-hearted coming from a certain fairy. Reiniger fleetingly thought to give him a special assignment, but in this operation he was nobody. Just another tank. He could approach and attack in a line with the rest of them.

Almost breathless, as if in reverence, Reiniger approached the gun.

Looking down the gun sight, Reiniger aligned the pillbox on the tip of the triangle.

His loader picked up the heavy 10.5 cm shell and slid it into the breech.

Unlike his M4, there was no foot pedal for shooting. Just a good old fashioned chain.

With a glint in his eyes, Reiniger pulled the chain and watched the shell fly. He heard the muzzle blast clear as day even with the brake, and felt the recoil dispersing into the superstructure. However he could not see his shot at first — the Dicker Max raised such a large cloud of dust in front of the tank that nothing could be seen of the impact.

Across the meadow and atop the slope the pillbox went up in pieces, the large high-explosive shell almost causing the cement face to topple over completely. When Reiniger finally got a look at it, he found crumbled cement, a gun turned to slag, and fire and carnage behind the remains as the ammunition stored in the pillbox cooked off.

Around him the M4 tanks started to trundle slowly forward.

At his side the loader withdrew a shell from the rear storage and loaded the gun.

Reiniger traversed the weapon a few degrees to the left and raised the elevation.

“Fire on my signal.” He shouted to the loader.

Abruptly, he climbed out of the tank’s side and stood on the track, extending the radio cables almost as far as they could go out of the tank. He raised binoculars to his eyes with one hand and held on to the hull with the other. It was the only way he could observe the firing of the gun due to the amount of smoke clouding the sights and slits.

“Shoot now!” He ordered.

Inside, his loader pulled the chain.

Reiniger was almost knocked clean off the tank, to hang by the radio cord.

It took all his strength to stay in place as the shell soared over the sandbags.

There was a bright flash accompanying the eruption of the shell as it struck the building behind the emplacements. Chunks of brick and shell fragments filleted the defenders, and sandbags went flying from the force of the blast pushing out from behind them.

Almost the whole wall crumbled under the force of his attack.

Reiniger slapped the hull in celebration, overcome with child-like glee.

“This shit’s too good!” He shouted to himself, cackling. “It’s too fuckin’ good!”

Now this was what he needed all along; what was missing. It wasn’t him, it wasn’t his luck, it wasn’t that he struggled; all he needed was power, the right kind of power. Just as he crushed the anarchists in their holes in Cissea with the advent of the M3 Hunter, now the Dicker Max put him over the Ayvartan commies. He knew this to be true when he felt the force of the recoil shaking up the tank, smelled the smoke, and saw the havoc.

To think that Noel would give this up! Reiniger was ecstatic. This was a war-winner!

Finally the hand had come, the hand to lift him; and the hand offered a gun!

On the lower platform, the Vijaya team was scrambling to put all their secret weapons back together. Engineers hauled ammunition out from test stocks, and funneled fuel into the tanks. Captain Rajagopal hid behind a light car, parked alongside a small tractor as a makeshift barrier, murmuring things into the radio. In the distance the shells fell closer and farther. Team Vijaya was making good progress — the Raktapata had its turret set back into its ring with a crane, and the Mandeha’s engine hatch was quickly and decisively shut.

As Naya arrived, Chief Ravan was diving into the Raktapata’s turret to make the final adjustments and ensure everything was done properly. Farwah was standing beside the tank with a flat look on his face, while behind him a few engineers cleared the Mandeha for operations. A sharp metal thrumming signaled the engine starting; the tank turned around in place. Isa sat at the controls with his head partially out of the front hatch.

Lila rejoined Karima at the side of the much larger self-propelled gun. With a final little wave at Naya, she climbed the massive turret using steps bolted onto the rear.

“Alright, everything is ready!” Chief Ravan said, her voice echoing in the tank.

She climbed out, threw a few tools on the ground, and approached.

Suddenly she took Naya’s hands in hers with a gentle look in her eyes.

“Are you feeling up to one last test, dear?” She asked. Several grease stains marred her face, and her hair too. Somehow she managed to appear strangely graceful regardless.

In the distance, a column of smoke rose as a shell hit between empty warehouses.

Everyone stared at it for a moment and then turned again toward each other.

“More than ready, ma’am!” Naya energetically replied.

Chief Ravan nodded her head, smiling at the private’s vigor. “Good! I fixed the turret ring problem and the engine overheating, so you should be good for this operation!”

“‘Fixed.'” Behind her, Farwah raised his hands and made little air quotes.

“Hmph!” Chief Ravan glared at him. “I ameliorated them! I did all I could right now!”

“I appreciate it.” Naya said. She turned to Farwah. “Ready to go, driver?”

Farwah nodded once. He gave a parting glance at the Mandeha before moving.

Using a step-ladder on the side of the platform, Naya and Farwah climbed onto the Raktapata. Dropping down the hatch, Naya caught the a strong whiff of chemical lubricants, somewhere between burnt plastic and fresh gasoline. Seemingly every surface was slick with lubricants and degreaser. Naya was forced to don gloves to touch her instruments.

As soon as she settled on the gunner’s seat, she hooked herself into the radio.

“I’m at my station and ready to go.” She said, broadcasting to all of ‘Camp Vijaya’.

When the engine started below and behind her it drowned out the distant explosions.

She stretched her hand back, touching the ammunition rack. She ran her fingers across the length of the gunnery lever, and the turret gear, and the breech lock. She looked down the gunnery sights. In front of her the Mandeha was moving out along the road.

On the periscope, she panned around. Chief Ravan joined Captain Rajagopal behind the light car, and donned her own radio headset. Naya saw them holding hands and smiled.

She felt no pain. She felt energy, vigor, rushing through her muscles and sinews, down her back, across her arms, brimming at the tips of her fingers. She felt strong; ready.

It wasn’t just the medicine. It was the unburdening; the acceptance; the resolution.

Naya Oueddai had found the legs with which she could run forward again as she used to. They happened to be tracks this time, perhaps, and surrounded by thick metal.

But they ran forward all the same. She knew it even without the wind directly in her face.

“Raktapata, are you ready for your mission?” Captain Rajagopal asked.

“Yes ma’am!” Naya replied. “Let’s teach them not to stalk behind Camp Vijaya!”

“Good! You’re full of spirit.” Captain Rajagopal said. “Here’s the situation: a detachment of Nochtish armor has been hellbent on following us from Chanda. They’ve snuck in from the meadows, and unfortunately our rear guard was dozing off despite orders to maintain a high alert. Reports are coming in of six or seven tanks, including a large, self-propelled gun type tank we have never seen before. Most of them are M4 mediums.”

“Can the KnK-3 gun deal with them?” Naya asked.

“We’re not sure.” Chief Ravan interjected. “I think you should be able to penetrate the sides on any of those tanks from 1500 to 2000 meters with your 76mm, but you won’t have the benefit of getting a well angled shot unless you break out into the meadow.”

“Which you won’t be doing.” Cpt. Rajagopal said. “Naya: You will appear along the edge of the rail yard and meadow, taking what shots you can and then retreating. Our objective is not the total defeat of the enemy, but to buy time and create the condition for a retreat. Lure the enemy into the first warehouse row and trade shots with them. The Mandeha will stay near the track along the second warehouse row to block the way to the train.”

On the radio, a fourth voice, Karima’s, broadcast into the same conversation.

“Ma’am, if the Mandeha catches sight of any of those tanks, it can kill them, right?”

“With a 152mm gun, I should hope so!” Naya said.

“The Mandeha is only loaded with high explosive ammunition, not armor piercing.” Chief Ravan said. “However, factoring in the sheer size of the gun, a direct hit on the armor from a high explosive shell would likely cause fatal spalling or knock out the crew.”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you ma’am!” Karima said. She was all business.

“Alright then.” Captain Rajagopal cleared her throat and put on her most authoritative voice. “Raktapata, deploy and advance! You are free to fire at your own discretion!”

Naya grinned. She leaned under the gunner’s seat, procuring a 76mm AP-HE shell from the rack on the lower underside wall and lifting it effortlessly back up onto her lap.

“You heard the Captain, Farwah! Move out at full gear, and watch out for corners!”

“Yes ma’am!” Farwah replied. Even he sounded faintly energetic.

Drive wheels spinning relentlessly, the Raktapata dropped down the platform ramp and rushed down the paved road between the first and second rows of buildings. The Mandeha followed slowly behind them for a short distance before separating from the Raktapata and running between the track and the second row of new warehouse buildings.

Now split up, the two elements of Camp Vijaya were fully underway.

After crossing one block Naya scanned along her right flank using her periscope and caught the first hint of green from the meadow, though the way was barred by a discarded rail car. There was lingering smoke everywhere and several shell craters all along paths between the parallel warehouse rows and the alleys between each perpendicular block of buildings.

There was enough space between the rows of buildings to turn around, and some of the warehouses had open shutters through which a tank could fight. She had sightline about about eight hundred meters long from one end of a row to the other. However, she expected that combat maneuver would be limited to shooting around the corners.

As they passed another alley, Naya found it closed off only by a metal crate.

“Farwah, reverse and turn into that alley! I need to see into the meadow.”

The Raktapata braked, retraced its steps, and swung backward and left, turning to face the alleyway. Pushing through the crate and knocking it out into the connecting meadow-facing street, the tank moved clumsily out onto the concrete path encircling the outer edge of the rail yard, free from the corridors of buildings and paths within the rows and alleys.

Naya made contact with the enemy as soon as the front hull left the alleyway.

Under the reddening early evening sky, partially obscured by grass, seven of the enemy’s tanks crept closer to the rail yard. They were less than 500 meters away and moving in an amorphous formation, slowed down by the mud and puddles underfoot. As she watched them, Naya felt her eyes drawn toward a specific, glinting stretch of metal.

Two of the tanks were lagging behind the formation by a dozen meters. They stopped, raised their guns, and fired on the rail yard — self-propelled artillery. Isolated.

In the next instant Naya pushed the shell on her lap into the gun and aimed.

The Raktapata had a clear shot at the exposed side armor of an M3 Hunter.

She centered the markings on the lens around the side of the vehicle.

Her gun sight rocked from the recoil action; when her reticle finally settled, the target was obscured with smoke. She perforated the 38mm armor and the shell erupted inside, causing every slit and hatch on the tank to force open and flash red. Smoke blew from the gun and the engine ventilation, and flames played atop the engine compartment.

Several guns peering over the tall grasses swung sharply around to face her.

Naya spotted puffs of smoke and bright muzzle flashes in the meadow.

Green tracers soared over the hill and the turret shook violently.

A shell slammed the front of the gun mantlet and nearly threw Naya off her seat with its violence. Two shells flew past the tank and punched into the corner and wall of the adjacent building. A fourth shell crashed in front of the tank and put a hole in the floor.

“Farwah, move as fast as you can to the other end of the row!” Naya shouted.

Screeching to full speed, the Raktapata charged atop the slope, rushing along the rail yard’s outer road. Enemy guns harassed them every meter. Green tracers lit up the air around the tank, their trails rising over its turret, behind its engine, in front of the track guard. Chipped cement, flying brick, broken glass and pillars of smoke discharged in their wake.

Naya spun the turret gear and whipped the gun around trying to put the other M3 in her sights — she had to stop that artillery from shooting into the rail yard and endangering the train. Doing that might force the rest of those tanks to hurry into the buildings.

Front and center among the enemy however she spotted that large new tank.

She found herself drawn to the immense size of its gun.

And as she did she saw it traverse and elevate.

A sizable flash, an ominous boom and a thick cloud of dust accompanied its shot.

In front of her a building wall burst open from the impact.

Debris cast a shadow over them as if the whole building was falling.

Much of it was.

Dozens of bricks launched off the wall and this debris bounced off the Raktapata’s turret armor and crunched under the drive wheels. Like a smothering hand the roof and wall of the building swayed and toppled over the tank. Naya felt everything shaking as the ruin smashed them over them, tin and brick and wood coming to lie over the turret and hull.

Accelerating, the Raktapata smashed through the falling debris and escaped.

Behind them a salvo of green tracers chopped through the remains.

Naya almost felt her foot touch the grave from that attack.

“One direct hit from that and we’re dead! Farwah, don’t stop for anything!”

“I need to slow down to take the corner ahead.” Farwah said calmly.

“Figure something out!” Naya cried at him.

Accompanying the new tank, the four M4 Sentinel mediums moved toward the slope with their guns raised and firing every few seconds. Despite the prodigious amount of steel flying her way the Raktapata was moving at a good enough clip to avoid the shots.

Hoping to stem the tide, Naya launched her own attack.

A red tracer discharged from the Raktapata’s gun and soared right past the enemy.

It overflew the new tank, causing no effect.

“Too unstable.” Naya grit her teeth. Her gun was shaking too much while on the move.

From the field a concerted salvo launched in response to her attack.

Several AP shots dug into the road and the slope once more; well behind her a second building was smashed open by the large gun, and she barely felt the shot this time.

Was she somehow leaving its aim behind?

Everything rocked suddenly as a shell slammed hard into the side armor.

A dent formed on lower hull superstructure through which a pinprick of light entered.

Naya glanced at it briefly. She swallowed a lump in her throat.

Turning back to her shaking gun sight she just barely managed to spot the culprit.

It was that tank; purple stripe, with the letters on it. Only now, it was an M4 Sentinel.

“Farwah, that damn tank from before got bigger somehow.” Naya shouted.

“That’s not possible.” Farwah tonelessly said.

She transferred over to her periscope, which she kept parallel to the road.

They were almost to the corner around the eastern edge of the rail yard.

That was the end of the road for them.

“Farwah, I’m going to need to stop for the briefest second to shoot.” Naya said.

“I have a better idea.” Farwah replied. “Move your gun parallel to the hull again.”

“What? What kind of idea is this?”

Cryptically, Farwah replied, “Naya, the ground here is wet.”

Raising her brows in confusion, Naya obliged him and swung the turret back.

“Hang on.”

Barely had he given the warning when the Raktapata veered sharply.

Naya almost hit the turret wall.

Seconds before reaching the edge of the cement path the tank jerked toward the interior of the turn. Its right track stopped completely; the mechanical vibrations of the tank, felt acutely inside the turret, now concentrated on its left side. Displacing water, the tracks slid over the slippery cement even when power was cut. The Raktapata’s rear swung suddenly out toward the enemy’s approach while the hull front turned into the corner.

They were hydroplaning on the wet concrete.

Power cut from the left track and intermittently returned to the right, then left again.

Farwah was correcting and correcting the course, working the sticks feverishly.

Completing a wild spin, the tank’s rear crossed the outer corner, swung inside and hit the building wall. The Raktapata came to a stop with its glacis plate facing the meadow.

“Shoot now!” Farwah called out.

Though it lacked grace, the result was inarguable.

Just like they had seen it before — a tank sliding over the open ground.

Naya would have to congratulate him later.

She returned to her gun sight, sighted the M3 and opened fire.

Her 76mm shell crossed several 50mm shots from the M4s in the field.

All of the enemy’s attacks impacted the Raktapata.

Seconds earlier they would have hit the exposed rear.

Now they hit only the thick front.

She clung on as the gun mantlet and glacis plate deflected the shots. In quick succession the turret banged and shook as each shell smashed apart in front of her.

Her own shot was much more decisive.

Striking the left of the M3’s gun mantlet, her own shot penetrated into the interior.

Inside the tank the ammunition cooked off, turning the vehicle into a fireworks display.

“Alright! Draw back into the buildings!” Naya said.

Having pounced on the artillery, the Raktapata backed away into the shadows.

Nocht would not give up, however. One particular tank was poised to follow.

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.

“Got it!”

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.

“Firing smoke!”

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 the meters of 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.

Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — The One Who Will Die (4/16/2015)

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