Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ
Past the crack of dawn, a sleek dark figure swooped into the base.
Flying over sleeping guards in their posts, crossing over every fence and sandbag.
Through the window of an important building it blew in with the cool morning breeze.
Atop the main nest, Kali reappeared carrying a large, unmoving rat in its mouth.
Fire-Eyes, collapsed on this big wooden nest, did not notice the creature’s arrival.
Kali dropped the rat beside its sleeping friend and pushed it with its beak.
Fire-Eyes shook as Kali pushed the rat against it. Several times the morsel collided with its good arm, and Fire-Eyes swept it back mindlessly. Kali pushed it close to it again.
Obstinately, Kali continued to shove Fire-Eyes until it opened one of its eyes to see it.
It woke with a shock; these upright dragons seemed easily startled of late.
Then almost immediately it calmed, holding its hand against a mildly bulging chest.
Drawing deep breaths, Fire-Eyes picked at the straight, black follicles extending from its head to around level of its neck, and it arranged them behind one of its soft brown head-spikes. Sighing, it addressed Kali in its language, which Kali partially understood.
“Kali, you scared me. Where have you been? Just hunting rats?” It asked.
Kali turned its head to its side. It normally did this to try to catch a different view of Fire-Eyes’ aura. Unlike most upright-dragons, Fire-Eyes had a very complicated aura that was very attractive and textured and difficult to read without looking at it from various angles. Fire-Eyes seemed to try to mimic this by tilting its own head in response.
But Kali knew Fire-Eyes was probably too stupid to read Kali’s aura back.
It had never correctly ascertained anything from the aura, if it could even do so.
“Kali, I do not eat rats. Rats are not human food.” Fire-Eyes said.
From her aura, Kali could discern that she was distressed and disgusted by the rat.
Kali put on a disappointed expression, grabbed the rat, and chucked it off the nest.
It hit one of the guards resting near the door and caused it to fall down, startled.
Fire-Eyes palmed its strange, relatively flat snout and started to busy itself with the fake wood pulp leaves that upright-dragons liked to collect so much. It was a very odd trait.
To think it was trying to do all of this bizarre nest-making without eating even one rat.
Kali thought Fire-Eyes was a very stupid dragon despite its size. It desperately needed an experienced dragon like Kali to care for it. Kali was happy to oblige. Kali had taken care of many broods, mostly other upright-dragons who had complicated auras and could not take care of themselves. Of all these nestlings, Fire-Eyes was unique.
In fact, Fire-Eyes was very special.
It had found Fire, hence the name Kali gave to it, and why Kali accepted the name that it gave back. No Dragon had found Fire in a very long time, so Fire-Eyes was important. Kali’s siblings and the siblings of its elders had all passed into dust without having found the Fire again. Kali itself, accomplished as it was, could only blow Air. It was powerful and had felled many powerful foes, but it was not Fire. So Fire-Eyes was special.
But Fire-Eyes was also a very stupid dragon. It was a big and beautiful dragon but it was as stupid as it was big. It never went out to hunt. It seemed content to eat leaves and nuts and fruit all day. And it could not fly or float, which was the most puzzling thing of all. None of these dragons could fly. But Fire-Eyes had found Fire, so Kali assumed it would have been smart enough to fly. it was not and could not. It was very strange.
So Kali decided out of the infinite generosity in its lungs to find Fire-Eyes a nice rat.
Fire-Eyes reacted predictably. Upright dragons were very slow to learn to eat rats.
Some of them never quite picked up on the fact that rats were meant to be eaten.
Kali had seen many upright-dragons pass into dust without eating a single rat.
Regardless, Kali was a generous being with large lungs full of compassion and so it would wait another eternity for Fire-Eyes to learn to eat rats or to pass into dust.
Fire-Eyes paced the room, playing at nest-making with her fake leaves. On the other nests, she found Fire-Eyes’ poorly-picked nestmate, whom Kali dubbed “Dawn” because its follicles were a sort of pink-orange color to Kali’s eyes, like the dawn sky. Kali had, when Kali first saw Dawn, dubbed her “Lumps” instead because of the soft bulges on her chest and hips, but then Kali met the other important upright-dragon, who had a very large belly. That one was then dubbed Lumps instead. Dawn and Lumps had their own nests with their own bundles of fake leaves. Both were asleep. Fire-Eyes checked up on Lumps briefly and then on Dawn.
Fire-Eyes stared fondly at Dawn quite a bit. Kali stuck out her tongue.
At first Kali thought Dawn was a bad influence on Fire-Eyes. Dawn had a mildly complicated aura that was made of sickly colors. Kali thought Dawn would make Fire-Eyes misbehave. But it had seen time and again upright dragons choosing terrible nestmates and Kali realized it was necessary to let them make these mistakes, perhaps forever. Now that Fire-Eyes and Dawn had noisily mated a few nights before, Kali awaited their first clutch of eggs, which it knew for some upright dragons took forever to happen. It knew not who would lay them.
It would be quite a sight, watching these very stupid upright dragons caring for eggs.
To safeguard their future nestlings, Kali was doing more lately than hunting for rats.
It was searching the city for those fake progenitors wrapped in plant skin.
When it saw one a few shadowfalls ago, Kali became quite anxious.
Kali had lived long enough that it knew the Progenitors and the hatred they had for the upright-dragons. Thankfully these were just fake Progenitors. They had nothing of the Progenitors but the body, all dried up, wrapped in plant skins and with fake faces. It knew not who dug them up from the dust and did this to them, but it knew that they could not be allowed to run rampant. One had already hurt Fire-Eyes very much.
Thinking about it made Kali’s lungs flare.
Very, very long ago, Kali had thrown its lot in with the upright dragons.
They were the only good dragons left, though they did not know it.
Kali wondered whether these fake Progenitors knew what they were doing, and whether some inkling of their past, buried in their dried-up sinews, knew that they had been wrong then and wrong now about the upright dragons. That they could have chosen to support them and in so doing perhaps extended the time of the great old power.
Kali had seen the Progenitors and their Progenitors come and go.
That was why it supported the upright dragons. Because it was in their blood now, that not only the dragon, but the Jinni, the Trull, the Dun, the Fae, the Mer, and even the Progenitors who warred with them all, now resided. They merely needed to learn this.
It knew that in the history of Aer only the upright-dragons could be united and eternal.
Only the upright-dragons could make peace happen, out of all the creatures who trod upon the land. It was only the upright-dragons who could celebrate life and avoid death.
All they had to do was to learn how. But first: rat-hunting, nest-making. Small steps.
Kali looked out the window to the wide open blue sky overhead.
There was one more of the things the upright-dragons knew as Majini out there.
Kali vowed to find it and kill it as it had many others.
For Fire-Eyes, and its great potential.
Rangda — 8th Division Base, Training Field
At the crack of dawn, the new Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion of the 1st Motor Rifles stepped out of the ordinary infantry barracks and walked to the field in their new uniforms. Gone was the battle dress and long pants of the infantry. Instead they wore tight green bodysuits that zipped down the front, along with a helmet that nobody put on. Corporal Rahani had a jacket that he wore over the suit, and it had his pins on it.
Adesh felt odd wearing the suit. It was made of a tight elastic material that Rahani described as ultra-modern, perhaps harvested from some kind of creature. It was unlike any article of clothing Adesh had ever worn, like sleek, shiny leather but much less rigid. It was soft inside, perhaps lined with cotton. It clung fairly close to the skin, markedly showing off the wearer’s limbs and figure (or lack thereof, in the case of him and his close friends).
From the long legs to the high neck, it covered all of his skin and felt very light.
Slightly thicker pads of material had been sewn in over the elbows, shoulders, knees and hips, and a belt went around the waist. An accompanying harness was worn over the chest, made up of two fairly lightweight belts, and it contained a few pockets for everyday use. Beneath all of this Adesh had been advised to wear an undershirt and soft cotton shorts.
Adesh had never seen a Goblin tanker wearing something like this.
Perhaps it was a brand new design.
It certainly could not take a bite of shrapnel, but then again, neither could his uniform.
To match their new attire, Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe would not be firing a static 76mm gun anymore, and would instead be crewing a Chimera EP/76 self-propelled gun. In the morning, the trio followed Rahani out to the training field, along with a handful of other crews. It was their last scheduled training for some time, according to Lt. Purana, who walked out with them to supervise. Events in Rangda meant they had to rush this one out.
In the middle of the field they found the Chimeras waiting for them in a line, with their hatches open. Every crew performed a quick checkup, and found that the vehicles had been fueled, oiled and warmed up for them by the mechanics, left ready to shoot.
“Climb aboard! Kufu, you’ll be inside as the driver. Adesh, Nnenia, Eshe and I will be up top.” Rahani cheerfully said. His own bodysuit, black and green, looked rather flattering. On his hair this morning he wore a bright chrysanthemum. “Though the tank is meant for four people, ours will have five because it is a command model. So in addition, to issuing commands to you, I’m also section leader for two other vehicles. Eshe, you’ll be gun commander for this particular tank. Oh, don’t give me that look — I’ll still be nearby!”
Eshe had pointed toward himself, incredulously, upon hearing this nonchalant promotion.
Nnenia whistled and patted him briefly on the back.
Adesh smiled. If there was anyone who should be an officer, it was Eshe.
Though this was mostly based on an unflattering conception of officers as rules sticklers.
“You’re now Corporal Eshe Chittur! I’m due for a promotion myself, but I don’t yet have my new rank insignia. I think I you will be seeing Sergeant Rahani within the week!”
Rahani handed Eshe his own pin to clip on his harness pockets for now. There was little time to celebrate. After a quick clap, both for Eshe’s odd promotion and Rahani’s expected one, they saw Lt. Purana come walking out in front of the vehicles. He blew a whistle, urging everyone to get to their vehicles and to get acquainted with their use.
Adesh dutifully climbed atop the Chimera, and found a few too many people following.
“Cramped.” Nnenia winced.
It was like sitting in the middle of a large closet with three other people.
Atop the Chimera, the space was limited enough that Corporal Rahani often sat uncomfortably atop the shell racks, or traded places with Eshe and stood on the left-rear side of the crew compartment. Though both of them could stand in the rear of the vehicle together, they would be pressed against one another in uncomfortably intimate contact. Meanwhile just centimeters away at the front of the interior gun superstructure, Adesh handled the shooting and targeting of the gun, and Nnenia picked up shells to load, and helped orient the gun and adjust its sighting equipment. They had twenty practice shells, all high-explosive, allotted to their tank and already on their racks in the back.
Inside the chassis, Kufu drove the vehicle. His compartment lay under the barrel of the gun, inside the sloping front of the tank. Because he could barely hear them when the tank was in operation, they relied on the intercomm to shout commands for him to turn this or that many degrees in a direction. In order to fire their first few practice shots against columns of cement, they first had to bark degrees at Kufu to get him to turn the gun, because the superstructure traverse was limited to a range of ten degrees.
To communicate, everyone had headsets with padded earpieces and throat microphones. It helped not only to talk, but to dull the sounds of firing around them.
Shooting was quite easy; Adesh already knew everything he needed to about the gun because almost nothing about it had changed from the ordinary, immobile model. The 76mm shells still weighed around six kilograms, but Nnenia carried most of that weight. Adesh felt a little guilty watching her exert herself, twisting around, picking shells off the rack and handing them to him to shove into the waiting breech. She wiped sweat off her brow more than once after letting go of a shell. However, he knew that in the middle of battle it was necessary to divide these responsibilities. He had to focus on shooting.
His first shot struck the ground around the column and kicked up dust. Adesh chalked it up to rust. After fighting moving targets in Bada Aso, the cement column felt like an unworthy opponent. He felt confident as Nnenia handed him his next round. On the second shell, Adesh hit the column dead-on and punched a crater into it the size of a fist. Had the shells been full charges, perhaps it would have blown the column in half. He found the learning curve on the Chimera nonexistent — the breech-locking lever and the firing pin and every other instrument was where he expected it to be on his old gun.
Unlike his old gun, Adesh caught some nasty smelling gases leaving the breech when it opened, but the open top of the vehicle at least allowed the smell to vent skyward.
Nnenia was at the ready with another shot. Rahani called for an elevation check.
“Try to hit the top of the column, if the center is that easy!” Rahani said amicably.
Turning the elevation mechanism, Nnenia under Eshe’s supervision adjusted their aim.
Adesh fired, and the shell soared over the cement column and flew off somewhere.
All three of them stood in stunned silence. Rahani giggled.
“Keep an eye on the range instruments! It’s important not to go off instinct here. The Chimera’s traverse is limited, but you can use those few degrees to make fine corrections to Kufu’s overall direction.” Rahani advised between shots. He had on a headset connected directly to a large radio that took up their tool storage on the tank’s side.
While watching them, Rahani also coordinated with other crews via his command set.
He seemed poorly practiced in this. He definitely paid Adesh’s unit the most attention.
Meanwhile, poor Eshe just felt redundant as their new commander.
“Load HE! Target is 500 meters away! Fire when ready!”
Though he shouted orders, mimicking how Corporal Rahani conducted himself in Bada Aso, Eshe had no moving targets, and indeed, no targets other than the column at all. He had no ammunition save for HE training rounds. It was an inadequate test of any command skills he might have had. He could not properly practice target priority, tactical awareness, and shot and movement calls to the gunner and driver, not without a much more complicated training ground than what they had. He shouted just to have something to do.
“You’re doing fine, Eshe!” Rahani said. “Keep making decisions!”
Eshe smiled nervously, tugging on the neck of his suit.
There were three Chimeras in their section, though Adesh knew nothing of the crews of the other two, and he had a nagging sensation Rahani did not know them well either. Their section of three vehicles was part of a larger battery of nine vehicles. All of them fired in different intervals during the practice. Their shots went off in a rhythmic series of booms and bursts like a vivid drum concert, the worst of the noise muffled by the headsets.
After firing seven of their shells at the column, Rahani had everyone pause for a breather. Other crews seemed to have similar ideas. Lt. Purana stepped off his own Chimera at the back of the formation and signaled for every unit to cease fire at once.
“We’re going to test mobility! Make a lap around the field!” He shouted.
Lt. Purana ran back to his own vehicle, and took the lead as the Chimeras formed into a column and started to drive toward the edge of the field. At this point, Adesh and Nnenia removed their headsets and laid against the gun, sighing and sweating from their efforts. Eshe stood ramrod straight with his eyes to the fore, while Rahani spoke in choppy sentences to the other two crews. He took some time to ask for their names then.
Kufu was the one getting a workout now, but characteristic of him, he said nothing.
The Chimeras drove along the cement barrier at the edge of the field, achieving speeds of 40 kilometers per hour within thirty seconds of acceleration and maintaining that speed as they traveled. Bumps in the terrain were hardly felt by the tankers, but this was more owing to the general rattling and vibrations from the tank’s crunching engine. At the northern edge of the field the procession slowed, turned and took off again due east.
On the radio, they heard Lt. Purana. “Head toward the practice trench and cross it.”
Adesh looked over the gun mantlet and spotted the trench in the distance.
“Can we make that?” He asked.
“Tracks can do it.” Nnenia replied.
Eshe nodded. “We won’t even stumble, you’ll see. Just watch.”
Adesh nodded, and continued to peer over the gun. He saw the trench come closer and closer, and he saw the vehicles ahead almost upon it. He thought they would fall forward with their guns sticking into the dirt like stakes — that was a trench, a hole in the ground! Instead, as if moving over their own iron carpets, the Chimeras crossed the trench one by one without even shaking up. As their own Chimera neared the trenches, the long scars in the ground vanished under the bulk of their vehicle. They did not slow, and Adesh felt nothing as they crossed. It was the same as when they trod the open field.
Before he even realized it, the trenches lay behind him rather than ahead of him.
“I thought for sure we would fall inside. That trench was almost two meters wide!”
Rahani chuckled. “A continuous track wouldn’t fall into a trench like that!”
Having traveled the trenches, the Chimeras ran three laps around the field. Once the drivers had gotten some time to be used to the turn speed and acceleration, the procession doubled back toward the barracks. By then, more men and women had arrived on the training field to commence their own practice drills. On the opposite side of the field from them, the practice stronghold was once again falling under infantry assault. Near the southern edge of the field, troops started bounding through cover once more.
“We’re going to practice some rudimentary tank-infantry cooperation!” Lt. Purana said over the radio. “Rifle-armed comrades will be riding on your vehicle! Mind them as you go!”
In the distance, six trucks arrived on their side of the field to meet the Chimeras.
Several fully-kitted infantry squadrons dismounted and ran toward the tanks.
Vaulting over the tracks, the troops quickly climbed and clung on to the Chimeras wherever they could. Men and women sat around the gun mantlet and atop the front hatch. Others stood on the track guards while hanging on to the fighting compartment.
“Hey kids! Did you miss me?”
On their Chimera, Adesh and Nnenia were happy to find Corporal Gulab Kajari sitting just in front of the gun mantlet, along with her usual companion Sergeant Charvi Chadgura. Corporal Kajari turned around and looked into the gun structure, smiling at the crew she routinely called “her kids.” She was looking quite radiant, with her honey-brown braided tail swinging in the strong morning breeze, and a friendly, pretty face.
“How’s this big lump treating you?” She asked.
“It’s a proud fighting vehicle, I’ll have you know.” Eshe replied in a huff.
Corporal Kajari stared at him for a moment.
Eshe crossed his arms.
“It’s been reliable.” Adesh said, trying to dispel the tension.
“And smelly.” Nnenia added.
“Ah.” Corporal Kajari playfully sniffed the air. “Yep, I can smell it.”
From the back of the tank, Rahani noticed the girl hanging over the gun.
“Hello, Corporal!” Rahani said. “In combat, your position would be very precarious! Perhaps you should return to the front of the tank where you do not risk falling!”
Though he said it sweetly, Rahani clearly wanted everyone to refocus.
Corporal Kajari nodded. “Yes Corporal! I just wanted to give the kids something.”
She reached into her bag and produced a newspaper she dropped on the gun.
“You’ve all been here through the morning, so you probably haven’t seen this.”
Adesh took the newspaper and unfolded it, staring at the front page.
There was an old photograph of Colonel Nakar, dated back to 2025 when she was only Lieutenant Nakar. She had longer hair, and looked a touch less mature, with a slightly rounder-seeming face and a petulant expression. Her gentle features were distorted by shadows — it was not a flattering photograph. Above the photograph was the headline, “Akjer extremist draws ire in Rangda.” Adesh found it terribly confusing. He skimmed some of the leading paragraphs with Nnenia and Eshe looking over his shoulder.
“Harsh.” Nnenia said. Eshe shook his head as they took in the story.
Judging by this paper, Colonel Nakar was being eviscerated in the press.
While the thrust of the story was the confrontation with the police yesterday, of which Adesh had heard much about from the returning troops at the barracks and the canteens, the framing was very hostile. There was a collection of quotes from various persons who called the Colonel an extremist, rabble-rouser, tinpot tyrant, and worse.
She was being attacked; in turn Adesh felt himself being attacked too.
After all, Colonel Nakar was a hero! Their hero; she saved them all at the border!
Just one page later the editor was calling for the 1st Regiment to leave Rangda.
It was almost too much to bear. Nobody in the tank knew what to make of this.
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I just thought you ought to know. I was part of the scuffle at the police station yesterday. That didn’t get ugly, but it’s going to get worse.”
Corporal Kajari waved her hand and then sank sadly back in front of the gun mantlet.
The Chimeras then started moving, each vehicle over-loaded with infantry.
Adesh passed the paper around. Eshe crumpled it up and discarded it in anger.
No wonder then that this was their last scheduled training for a while.
It was the first time they had gotten to acquaint themselves with the Chimera.
And it might even be their last within this training field.