This scene contains violence and death.
City of Rangda — University Avenue, Earlier
“Caelia, was that really–”
Danielle stood dumbfounded at the doorway to the squadron’s impromptu stronghold, watching as dozens of shells fell from the sky over the heads of the 8th Division’s cavalry.
She had thought she would watch a hundred men come tear her to pieces, her heart filled with regrets and desires that were so agonizingly close and so devastatingly far, and yet–
Seemingly a hundred black plumes of smoke billowed up from the earth over the course of a minute, consuming men and destroying weapons and raging with the sharp flashes of an inner fire. Horses fell forward hind over head, sent spiraling into the ground, dead and broken, by the explosions. Men fell apart and dropped on their faces and flew into the air as if attacked by an invisible reaper. Red trails came down from the sky and partitioned it a hundred ways, creating a webwork that traced each explosion to a shooter far, far away.
Of course, it was not Caelia who took these shots, but she had summoned them.
In so doing, it made Danielle ascribe that power to her, and she stood in awe of it.
“Danielle, you copy?”
Caelia’s voice sounded over the radio, cutting the silence of the pockmarked battlefield.
Danielle raised her hand to her headset, a little smile dawning on her dazed face.
“Yes ma’am. Thank you for the save there.”
“Nah, that wasn’t me. That was a comrade half a city away, I guess.”
Danielle heard the voice both through her microphone and in the vicinity.
She turned around from the door and found Caelia walking into the room with a small smile on her face and a large radio box attached to her hip belt and vest by leather straps. She unplugged herself from it and acknowledged her partner, making eye contact across a room of hunkered-down riflemen and women in mild shock. Danielle almost considered running at her and giving her a hug, but she thought that might have been too awkward.
Also, she might have had to step on some people to get to her anyway.
Instead they shared a little smile from afar, savoring at least that little bit across the personal distance they faced. Unable to cross it, and yet, Danielle thought, not alone.
For now, it was enough that they were alive and supporting one another.
Everything else could be put on a friendly hold for the moment.
With the 8th Division counter-attack on University Avenue repelled, reinforcements began to move up from the positions on the lower street. Green and Yellow Squadron arrived and personally began to aid with the wounded. There were promises of ambulances and supply trucks over the radio. Ammunition was desperately needed. Harmony was nearly out of high caliber ordnance and had gone through most of its 7.62mm rounds.
Other people were tending to the important things. Danielle felt restless.
Caelia stood off to one side and talked to various incoming squadron-level officers in turn about what happened. She looked put-upon by the attention, and Danielle wanted to say a comforting word, but she felt like she would have been nothing but a pest in this situation. She was just a driver and mechanic. She thought she could hardly be considered a soldier. She hadn’t done anything to protect anyone when the 8th Division counterattacked.
All she had done was stand around like a fool and pray everything would be fine.
Danielle did not want to intrude or become a distraction to Caelia, so she stepped out back, where Harmony had been hidden from that nasty Orc once dominating the upper street.
The Orc was now a wreck, but Harmony had not come out of it unharmed.
Throughout the day she had taken some abuse. There were pits where armor-piercing machine gun rounds had been used against it, to minimal but visible effect. There was one mean dent on Danielle’s hatch, where a BKV bullet nearly punched through. It would have turned her head to pulp on a successful penetration. On its side, Harmony had a small slash mark where an exploding penetrator had nearly hit them. It detonated prematurely.
Sighing, Danielle walked around the side of the tank and lifted open the storage space.
She withdrew her welding gas tanks and a welding torch, as well as the spare track links from inside the storage space. From her own pack she withdrew a welding mask — she often kept it handy as a makeshift helmet. Sliding the gas tanks around Harmony’s side, she connected the hose to the welding torch and climbed up onto the front of the tank.
Setting a track link up against the wound on her front hatch, Danielle started up the torch and put down her mask. She put the fire to the metal link, welding it against the hull to patch up the pockmark. Soon her hatch was more or less reliably armored again, with the metal link covering up the front-center of it, right where her face would be behind it.
Satisfied with this arrangement, she picked out another track link, hopped off the side of the tank and began to weld the link to the long flank wound. Link by link, she nearly built a third makeshift track burnt flat against the side armor of the tank. In this fashion she covered up the dent and more or less restored the integrity of Harmony’s weak flank.
Mechanical work was almost soothing. Danielle was not especially good at it and she knew it. She did not consider herself especially good at anything, but in mechanics she had a very basic understanding; she could fix the tank tracks, tune-up the engine, and do simple weld jobs, but she was no engineer. However, like casual tank driving, it was something that she could become consumed by when she had to do it. When she was focused on these tasks, the world turned on its axis all around her with great ease, and time simply passed.
Two things assisted her focus. One was her fascination with tanks. Working on Harmony was a joy because Harmony was a tank. She was a new tank; a kind of tank that was not in her books. A tank built for two, with a 45mm gun, decent armor for a lightweight vehicle, decent speed, and a unique engine and turret layout. Harmony was a very novel machine. And everything Danielle did to Harmony made it more her own and less anyone else’s.
A close second, or perhaps a phantom first, was her storied, special friend, Caelia Suessen.
Danielle wanted desperately to protect Caelia, to keep her safe, to carry her through the duties both of them had, for their own reasons, taken on, and been thrust together into. She had no weapons; Caelia had all the weapons. Danielle’s weapons were her steering sticks and her mechanical tools. These track links were a weapon to protect Caelia.
With that in mind, Danielle could not help but to focus, to become consumed by work.
It was work worth doing, work that needed doing. Work that made her feel valuable.
And so it was work that she continued doing with a single-minded purpose.
Track links and torch in hand, she had one last armor vulnerability to patch.
Climbing on the tank, Danielle absentmindedly started to work on the turret.
She set a track link up against a deformed portion of the gun mantlet.
She raised her torch.
“Having fun up there?”
Startled, Danielle slashed a careless but shallow burn mark across Harmony’s mantlet.
Behind her, Caelia stood on her tiptoes with her hands over her mouth.
Danielle quickly regained control of her tools, and cursed herself for looking foolish.
She shut off the torch, pulled up her mask and smiled innocently.
“Hujambo! I’m just getting the tank ready. How did things go back there?”
Caelia shook her head, fists to her hips. “It’s a mess honestly. Sergeant Chadgura should be here soon. Now that the way is clear, we should be getting more reinforcements.”
“Will we get more ammo? Because that’s what we need.”
“I know.” Caelia shrugged. “We don’t have priority for ammo apparently. It is what it is.”
Danielle shook her head. “I guess the tank battalion’s getting it all.”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
Caelia’s head dipped a little. Danielle felt a strong urge to lift her chin up.
Had she been anywhere near her, she would have — and called her cute, too!
In her dreams anyway — she hadn’t the courage for it.
Instead she rubbed her hands awkwardly on her welding torch.
Both of them grew quiet for a moment.
“Um, need any help?” Caelia asked.
Danielle blinked. Usually it was she who broke the awkward silence first.
Taking this as a sign of enthusiasm from Caelia, Danielled perked up.
“Yes! Hand me those track links when I tell you!”
Caelia nodded, and approached the pile of track links Danielled had left on the hull.
“Do these help stop penetrations at all?” She asked.
“They’re one centimeter thick, and our glacis armor is 3.5 centimeters thick. So if you think about it we’re adding an extra quarter armor in patches.” Danielle said excitedly.
Caelia whistled and smiled. “You’re really into these things aren’t you?”
“Well, you know.” Danielle scratched her curly black hair awkwardly.
“Yes, I do know!” Caelia replied, sweeping a bit of her own loose hair behind her ear.
They stared for a moment with little awkward smiles.
Caelia then quietly picked up one of the links and handed it to Danielle.
Danielle reached down to pick it up, and as her fingers entwined around the metal link she found the hand coming closer, and the attached young woman closer still.
Caelia climbed up atop the tank’s front and held the link in place.
She was standing right beside Danielle. They were so close!
Danielle felt the cloth strap on one of her partner’s belt pouches brush against her.
Her face grew a little hot.
“It’s easier this way. Weld it tight now.” Caelia said.
Caelia pressed a little against her. Her warmth could be felt through her bodysuit.
Danielle purged her thoughts and forced herself stiffly toward the turret.
She started the torch, her neck and back tingling with an awkward, delicious sensation.
She put the fire to the metal, and before the first sparks flew by she was startled again.
This time it was by an odd sound at a strange pitch, deep and disaffected but oddly loud.
Caelia turned over her shoulder. Danielle shut off and set down her torch.
Sergeant Chadgura arrived at Red Squadron’s impromptu FOB and immediately fixated on the row of wounded lying wrapped in green blankets in the back of the room. Healthy soldiers made way for her as she rushed across the room and knelt next to the gently groaning body of the Corporal, eyes shut, lying against a corner of the room, breathing roughly. One of the medics in attendance stood just off to the side, averting his eyes.
“We should go in.” Danielle said, putting down her torch.
“I guess.” Caelia replied, dipping her head down again.
Together they climbed down from the tank and headed back inside the building.
Sergeant Chadgura stood over the unconscious Corporal Kajari without expression in her face. She mumbled something. She was staring intently, her hand was subtly shaking, and her movements were very stiff and labored. Danielle found it plain to see that she was agitated, though she knew Sergeant Chadgura was not one to allow such things to show.
When she turned around to face Caelia, Danielle thought she saw a flash of anguish, as though there were a second face beneath the Sergeant’s skin that cried out for release.
“What happened?” She asked.
Her tone of voice was a touch louder than normal, but sounded as unaffected as ever.
Caelia shook her head and sighed. “Red Squadron took a barricade and a tank shot it out from up the street. She got hit by fragments. All her wounds are surface level and the medic removed the shards, but the shock might’ve concussed her. We don’t know.”
Chadgura held her hands vaguely in front of her but no further.
“How long has she been like this?”
“Minutes, really. Maybe a half hour.” Caelia said. She turned to the medic.
At their side, a man with a red cross armband on his uniform cowered.
“Sorry ma’am.” the medic said sheepishly. “There’s not much I or anyone can do for her right now, but it’s also not safe to transport her either. Shaking her up too much might upset her condition. She’s not going to bleed out and her breathing is stable, so she is well alive. Whether she’ll wake up in the same condition as before is too early to tell.”
Chadgura quickly replied. “Will she wake up?”
Both Caelia and the medic cowered further.
“I,” the medic stammered, “I’m sorry, I should rephrase, I don’t know if she will–”
Chadgura turned around and walked out of the door without another word to the medic.
At the doorway into the FOB Chadgura spoke loudly and forcefully, as much as her demeanor would allow and as if to the room and not to any individual soldier in it.
“Red Squadron will enter reserve. I will advance with the rest.”
She stepped past the threshold of the door and disappeared behind the exterior walls.
Danielle, Caelia and the medic stood in place, still frozen by the Sergeant’s departure.
Everyone watched the door as if anything more would come through it.
Danielle broke free of her trance and sidled up to Caelia, resting her head against her.
Caelia made no movement but to sigh and stare at the door wistfully.
Behind them, Corporal Kajari moaned, trapped in some agony unknown to all of them.
She was visibly in a bad way. Her honey-brown skin was slightly discolored. Her long hair, once wrapped in a neat braid, was disheveled. Her soft, slender face was in turmoil, her jaw set, her eyes shut hard, sweat rolling down her brow and cheeks.
Danielle wondered whether she felt anything in that sleep.
She hoped that Sergeant Chadgura could at least be close to her in those fitful dreams.