Rangda City — 8th Division Garrison, Training Field
Paperwork, simple medical exams and a few perfunctory literacy tests took up half the morning; for lack of equipment, Kimani then began to pace around the newly-minted training field and ordered the ranks to stretch, perform push-ups, and to run laps as a warm-up. This warm-up lasted over an hour while Kimani shot aggravated glances at the road.
Though most of the construction materials did not make it in time to complete the obstacle courses, mock tank models and false bunkers necessary to start infantry training in earnest, the day would not be wasted. In fact, Rangda’s garrison and its occupants new and old witnessed quite an occasion as several rarely-seen vehicles made appearances that morning.
Perhaps the most important arrival for the weary troops was a M.A.W 8-ton truck, an endangered species that had been discontinued after 2023 for its unnecessarily large and heavy build. This unit bore the symbol of the civil canteens, a loaf and a cup framed by slim bananas. The 8-ton’s bulk was used to the fullest; on its back there were scores of ration boxes, more than enough for the over one thousand occupants of the field.
Volunteers from the canteen stood at the back and cordially handed out the food.
After the morning’s grueling deliberations, the soldiers gladly stood in line. After a half-hour the truck was emptied out and a big brown box, rattling with cans and thin and small metal utensils, was put into the hands of every hungry soldier in the park. Most of them walked away thinking this gracious delivery would be the highlight of their quite long day.
Adesh Gurunath didn’t get the red curry he liked this time, but he was fine with the contents of the box. There was a lovely spread of kachumber and breads and potatoes.
His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe seemed ecstatic in their own ways about the meal.
“This makes the food on the Revenant look like gruel!” Eshe ecstatically said.
He bit down on the fresh vegetables and smiled at Adesh.
“A lot of it was gruel.” Adesh gently replied.
Nnenia expressionlessly rolled up a puri bread and stuffed it into her mouth whole.
“Ish goof.” She said through the mouthful of food. Eshe looked her way with disdain.
While everyone settled down in their little groups, remaking the squadrons with which they fought in Bada Aso as friend groups enjoying the meal together, the old M.A.W truck departed, and in its place arrived a sleek green tracked vehicle, its sloped armor and streamlined shape bearing the weight of a squat, rounded turret with a thick mantlet and a large gun. Adesh whistled and followed the vehicle as it went. It was a Hobgoblin.
Around him there were several heads turning. Not everyone got to see one of those in Bada Aso. They had a limited amount of them at the time, and the ruined state of the city made it hard for them to navigate. When one was around, however, it inspired confidence.
There was a lot of grinning and smiling from a few Bada Aso veterans, and several people sent comradely cheers the green creature’s way as it trundled toward the center of the field.
But most everyone’s attention on the training field was primarily on food and on friends. Ration boxes were cracked open, veggies and bread and yogurt were thoroughly enjoyed, and a nearby faucet, standing alone off to the side of a stamped-down building foundation, provided cool water. The fighting machine was a passing curiosity for the gathering at large.
“Those were the types that retook the Cathedral when we left, right?” Adesh asked.
“Yes.” Nnenia said tersely. She always spoke exactly as many words as she needed.
“It’s probably being mass produced; otherwise it wouldn’t visit so casually.” Eshe said.
“Probably.” Nnenia replied. She stuffed another puri into her mouth, but this one had been rolled up around vegetables and sauce too. Her cheeks bulged with food.
“Could you eat in a more civilized manner?” Eshe asked, staring glumly at her.
“No.” Nnenia brusquely said, this time through half a mouthful of chewed food.
“I’m asking politely, as a person kind of bothered by loud chewing, to please–”
Adesh sighed and averted his eyes from them. They were always finding some excuse–
A familiar gray blur flashed at the edge of his vision.
A tank; he saw a tank coming. He couldn’t believe it.
At first he thought it was another Hobgoblin tank, but he saw the grey even before the shape of the tank had become coherent to his sight, and when it did, he felt an overwhelming terror that shook him from his toes to his hips and back and up his hands.
He was bombarded with sights and sounds.
That wicked tinnitus returned to his ears, the sound of discharging rifles, screaming artillery, the weeping of the delirious wounded, and the constant booming of artillery.
Sheer reflex drew from his lips a cry he hard far too often for one fragile lifetime.
“M4 SENTINEL, 800 METERS!” He shouted. He did not shout it alone. Several men and women all around the training field had shouted the warning before and after him.
Eshe fell suddenly back; Nnenia’s hands dropped her utensils on the dust. She froze.
Men and women bolted upright, toppled over and crawled away, stood motionless.
Similar scenes of panic played out like a tidal wave of triggered emotion in every direction.
Not one grunt was prepared when the M4 Sentinel stormed in through the flag park.
Its curved body, round turret, tightly spaced track layout with multiple bogies, the way the armor sloped down from the tall, steep front plate; it was a deadly and familiar sight, burned into the mind of any soldier who had to face one with limited anti-tank weaponry.
Everyone who heard the tracks thought it was another Hobgoblin; but the passing blur on the corners of their eyes was gray, not green. A color they had learned to dread, the gray caused them to glance, then stare. Dawning recognition forced their bodies stand, to draw back, to drop down in a sudden reflex. There was a communal desperation as the machine appeared, without explanation, seemingly intact, in the middle of their garrison.
Sensing the panic, staff and guards approached the soldiers and tried to calm them down. Then a woman popped out of the M4’s front hatch waving and shouting. Her Ayvartan appearance, brown skin, black hair, dark eyes, did little to induce calm by itself.
“Please relax comrades! It is a captive model, we’re using it for training purposes!”
Inspector General Kimani echoed the driver’s message over a horn. “Everybody settle down right now! This tank was liberated by our comrades in the waning days of Bada Aso! You must look at the markings on the turret and hull before panicking at the sight!”
At once, the most raucous among the troops felt foolish. On the side of the M4’s gray turret there was indeed a big, gaudy red and black hydra symbol painted onto the metal.
Adesh could not move. He was standing, but his legs were bending slightly, shaking.
He raised a hand to his mouth and felt tears go up to his eyes. Nnenia and Eshe bolted up and tried to comfort him. He was not alone; there were others succumbing to this buried pain. The sight of them did not make him feel less foolish. He let himself cry.
The M4 Sentinel’s driver apologized profusely as the evil tank followed the Hobgoblin.
Slowly the affected soldiers sat back down and returned nervously to their meals.
Once the excitement died down, and everyone had eaten, it was well past noon, and Kimani ordered everyone to attention once more. There was bitter whispering as the soldiers felt they might be scolded. Instead, Kimani bowed her head humbly to the men and women in front of her. “Comrades, henceforth, you will be notified ahead of time when enemy equipment is to be brought in for training. I apologize for our carelessness.”
Hearing this helped the overall morale recover enough to continue the day’s events.
Soldiers were afterward divided into two columns, standing in parallel lines and giving a broad field between them to the tanks. The Hobgoblin and the M4 rolled between the men and women, turning, driving at different speeds, showing off their abilities.
While the demonstration took place, Adesh watched through freshly dried eyes. He felt the rumbling of the earth just under his feet, and it took him back to the ruined city.
He was still stressed out from when the M4 ran in. It had reminded him of so many awful things. He had been insulated from the war by the retreat from Bada Aso, by the time spent at sea. But now he felt such a close proximity to the events again. He was restless, his body brimming as if with the energy he spent in Bada Aso, fighting desperately.
Their terrible adventure had begun right on the border on the very day and the very spot where the invasion began; they had fought all the way from the border, to the city of Bada Aso. There, Major Madiha Nakar, now a Colonel, had led them to victory. But Adesh always thought that, for his part, what led to his success was his little cadre, his beloved friends.
Without them he would be lost. Always together, always the three of them.
Nnenia, a slender and reserved girl with messy, dark shoulder-length hair and dark skin, her lips and eyes hardly ever bearing an expression. She stood to one side of Adesh with her hands in her pockets, her tunic half-open and her dress-shirt half-open under that. At his other side stood Eshe, a smooth-faced and tidy young man with short, dark hair combed and slicked, styled perfectly under his garrison cap. He wore his uniform buttoned to the neck.
In between these two, Adesh had fought through the entire length of this war thus far.
Adesh thought himself a much lesser sight than his friends. Others had said he was pretty, and even cute, but he had a hard time believing this. His once long, straight hair had been cut into an orderly neck-length bob, and a pair of glasses perched on his slim nose brought long overdue correction to his eyesight. Like his friends he was a brown-skinned, slender Arjun youth with soft facial features. His green army uniform was not as clean and orderly and well-ironed as Eshe’s, nor as thrown-around and messy as Nnenia’s. It was just there.
Though not a pessimist about most things, Adesh had taken to pessimism about himself.
Until midday everything had gone well. He had filled out his forms, passed his medical exam, barely managed his push-ups, and laughed and joked and played around with his friends over lunch. After that tank appeared, however, his head was full of things that had once been comfortably far away, and were now both too close and too far. His distance to Bada Aso, now that he remembered its events so painfully well, felt eerie, unreal, displaced in time.
These thoughts took him out of the world. He felt like a spectator to his own body.
A sharp cracking of metal awakened Adesh from his reverie. On the field the tanks that had been circling and turning and showing off their movements turned back toward the crowd, and they stopped in between the ranks of soldiers, and cut their engines suddenly. A hatch went up and slammed on the armor; the driver of the M4 Sentinel climbed out of the tank, walked off to the side of the field and stood with the troops.
Meanwhile the Hobgoblin drove in reverse several hundred meters away from the M4.
From the command cadre, a woman walked out to the middle of the field with the tanks.
She was a tanned-skinned woman with a pair of thin spectacles over green eyes with brightly glowing red rings around the iris. Like Kimani her build was fairly tall, long-legged, slender, but she was younger. Long gold bangs fell over her forehead, and she wiped them aside; the rest of her hair was collected into a bun. She was dressed in a secretarial sort of uniform, with an ironed skirt, and a half-open black field jacket over a collared shirt with a red tie. Her demeanor was reserved, and her face inexpressive. She was part of the KVW.
“My name is Eligia Jaja, assistant to the Inspector General.” She said. She turned her head from one side to the other, glancing over the two columns of troops around her. “My focus is information and signals warfare, but today, I hope to instill in you a sense of confidence in our ability to fight. Judging by previous events, I think you will appreciate it.”
Adesh watched her closely. Eshe and Nnenia stood quietly at his sides, watching too.
She half-turned and stretched an arm out to emphasize the Hobgoblin, parked near her.
“This is our Hobgoblin model tank. It will soon be entering mass production. Also present is a Nochtish M4 Sentinel. Have you been watching them closely? As they paraded before you, did you notice the Hobgoblin’s superior speed and handling? Perhaps not. Did you notice its greater armor coverage, compared to the Sentinel? Perhaps not. I’ll demonstrate.”
From the command cadre, arrived a young woman with long, dark hair that Adesh had thought he had seen before in Bada Aso. She carried a piece of equipment that reminded him of the control console used to fly training targets for anti-aircraft guns. He had shot at several of those remote control plane dummies that flew when commanded by a radio box.
Ms. Jaja stepped aside, and the engineer with the console stood beside the tank. Her fingers played over the box, turning knobs and moving switches. She then pressed a button.
As if alive the M4 Sentinel began to turn its turret. It pointed its gun on the Hobgoblin.
“Everyone brace yourselves, and take care.” Ms. Jaja shouted out. “Fire!”
Gasps drew from the crowd as the seemingly empty M4 opened fire on the Hobgoblin.
One armor-piercing shell blew from the gun barrel and cut the distance in an instant.
Before heads could turn to fix on the Hobgoblin several hundred meters away, it was over.
The M4’s shell had struck, bounced off the gun mantlet and flown away out of sight.
Those who had not been staring at the Hobgoblin all along would find no evidence that it had even been attacked. It was unharmed, and the shooting had happened too quickly.
“Keep your eyes on the Hobgoblin, and witness its strength!” Ms. Jaja shouted. “Fire!”
Again the engineer worked the console, and again the enslaved M4 Sentinel opened fire.
Now Adesh and everyone else was watching, and everyone saw the shot, a green tracer like every other shot fired by the Nochtish tanks, hit the Hobgoblin dead on, and trail up toward the sky. Having stricken sloped armor, too thick to be penetrated and too well-angled to burst against, the shell deflected entirely and continued on a harmless trajectory overhead.
Over the awed collective whispering of the troops, Ms. Jaja spoke once again.
“Our Hobgoblins possess an effective thickness of 81 millimeters of armor on the front, and over 50 millimeters of armor on the sides and back. Though the metal itself is only around 50 millimeters thick at best, the careful design of the armor makes it much more potent. Meanwhile, the M4 Sentinel has an effective thickness of 60mm in front. Watch.”
Across the field from the M4, the Hobgoblin’s engine roared to life. It moved back several meters, adjusted its turret, and took aim for the M4 Sentinal. Ms. Jaja and the engineer gave the M4 a wide berth, and staff waved the crowd a safer distance from the targeted tank. Once everyone had cleared the way, the tanks had 800 meters of distance from each other and around 300 meters of distance to the nearest human being, safe enough to shoot.
Ms. Jaja waved her hand up at the Hobgoblin. A second later, its muzzle flashed red.
An inert armor piercing shell fired from the Hobgoblin’s gun. To the casual eye it seemed like nothing happened: there was no big explosion. The M4 shook up and then lay silent.
But those positioned to see the M4’s front, like Adesh, witnessed a hole the size of a person’s head sprouting as if spontaneously between the driver’s slit and the frontal machine gun. Metal shavings sprayed out of the hole as the shell connected with the armor and sliced into the tank’s interior. There was a sound like a hammer striking a wall.
Ms. Jaja urged everyone to come closer. Dozens of curious trainees approached the tank, and took turns inspecting the hole, poking their head inside, surveying the damage.
“As you can clearly see, Nocht’s equipment is not invincible. There is no gulf between us. Nocht are mortals; they can be defeated. We are building weapons now that will challenge them and bring us victory. But those weapons require you to wield them.” said Ms. Jaja.
Adesh stood in silent reverence of the Hobgoblin and its potential. Inspired by his awe, all of the tumult in his mind seemed to clear. The sight of the dead M4 was eerily cathartic, cut fully down in front of them after inspiring such terror with its very appearance.
In Bada Aso they had struggled so much against Nocht and its weapons. Here, in the sterile and peaceful environment of the training field, the vulnerability of the enemy was finally laid bare in a way that everyone could see and understand. It was heartening.
“Our greatest weapon in this fight is you all. Without you, the tanks do not move and the guns do not shoot. Nocht is human and fallible. You’ve nothing to fear.” Ms. Jaja said.
Her words brought about a revolution in Adesh’s heart and soul. He believed her.
Across the field, hands went up in salute. Once laggard soldiers stood fully in attention.
After what they had seen, the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment as a whole believed her now.