52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda
Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.
“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.
Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.
“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.
Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.
Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.
All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.
Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.
Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.
There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.
“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.
“How many do you see?”
“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”
Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”
There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.
“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”
“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.
She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.
Humor was a balm in perilous times.
On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.
She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.
It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.
Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.
Why were they fighting her?
What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?
She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.
Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?
She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.
She could not afford to have that happen.
She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.
But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.
Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.
Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.
“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”
Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.
“Are you sure, Gulab?”
“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”
Again there was a pause on the radio.
“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.
“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.
“It could be a trap.”
“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”
Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.
Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.
This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.
Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.
“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.
Gulab hastily complied.
She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.
Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.
There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.
Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.
From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.
Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.
“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”
Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”
“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.
Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.
Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.
“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.
Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”
“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”
“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.
“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”
“Of course I can.” Gulab said.
“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”
Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.
She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.
She, Gulab, would be making a difference.
And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.
Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.
On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.
“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.
Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.
Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.
“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”
“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.
“It was all on the turret front.”
Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.
“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”
She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.
Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”
Danielle blinked. “Um–”
“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”
At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.
“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.
“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.
Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.
Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.
Gulab would count on this; she would use it.
“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.
“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.
“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”
Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.
“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”
“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.
It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.
And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.
That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.
Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.
There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.
Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.
“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.
Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.
Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.
But she ignored both those minor annoyances.
Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”
“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.
Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.
Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.
“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.
“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”
Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.
“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.
“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”
With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.
Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.
Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.
“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.
She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.
Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”
“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.
“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.
“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.
Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.
Gulab held on much more tightly.