This chapter contains graphic violence and death, including death by burning.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council
Outside the Council Building the brutalized lawn, littered with spent cases, pitted by artillery fire and clouded in the smoke from mortars and guns, suffered a final indignity as an enormous gliding aircraft crashed onto its turf. Chunks of manicured green topsoil went flying as the craft dug into the earth and skidded to a stop just off the street.
Once it settled, the craft’s entire front section lifted, and from inside, a tank growled to life. It trundled gingerly off the glider and onto the Rangdan ground, and made its way toward the edge of Council street, anticipating some kind of defensive action. All around the city, in places near, far and disparate, several more gliders and their cargo would drop onto Rangda, and the crews emerging from them began their singular, vague mission to support the parachute troops. Tanks, tracked Universal Carriers, and scout cars, all landed inside the bellies of a hundred or so of the thousand aircraft cutting the skies over Rangda.
Most common among these were the 50 or so Patriarch tanks dropped in stray groups across the city, and the lone example now defending the occupied Council Building.
Owing to the strict take-off weight limits of the elven gliders, the Patriarch was a light tank weighing at just around 30 tons, boasting a compact form factor of flat, boxy surfaces. Four large road wheels turned the track, without need of a visible forward sprocket or a return roller. Mounted in front of a gently curved turret with thin, flat, slightly angled sides, was the ubiquitous 2-pounder anti-tank gun, along with a coaxial machine gun.
Von Drachen had never seen its like before, but he found it inferior to even the obsolete M5 Ranger of the Nochtish forces and as such he struck the thing from his mind.
All of this information he pieced together from both the blathering of “Lady” Arsenica but more importantly also from the radio reports frantically coming in from betrayed 8th Division forces across the city. With the capitol occupied, and several Council staff cooperating with the occupation, the invading Elven enemy had unfettered access to all 8th Division communications. The already hobbled Division was now fully and thoroughly compromised. It was only the Elves’ inability to cobble back together their distantly landed troops that gave the 8th Division any kind of lease on life. They were done for.
As he watched the tank land on the Council lawn, Von Drachen realized that the 8th Division was not the only force that was done for. There would be another casualty.
“Attention Elven forces across the target city of Rangda!”
Using the Ayvartan emergency voice-projection system, headquartered in the Council building, Knight Lady Arsenica hailed everyone in the city, though she specifically addressed only the Elves, as if she had a choice of whom to speak to. She gesticulated with sweeping motions and wore a haughty, manic grin on her face, luxuriating in her moment. Von Drachen watched her from across the communications center with a quizzical look.
“This is Paladin Arsenica Livia Varus, fourth in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Lubon!” This particular line she delivered with an almost orgasmic zeal. “I have captured the Ayvartan’s command center, and am placing myself in overall command of royal army ground operations, by virtue of my rank, noble blood and access to communications equipment! My orders to you are as follows. All Elven units are to regroup, forming battle groups around our armored vehicles, and then move westward, toward the port of Rangda, to capture its naval defenses and docking apparatus for the use of the Royal Navy!”
She then left the emergency communications system and sat down on a metal chair near a desk with a heavy-duty telephone terminus and radio system, which she could attempt to use contact those elves who had personal radios or who had stolen 8th Division radio. Von Drachen was mildly aware of such things happening. He had been listening attentively to unencrypted 8th Division communications for a while, as a personal project that he had convinced Paladin Varus was actually her own project and done for her own good.
“Drachen, I require your cooperation in contacting specific units with instructions.”
Von Drachen (though he would not labor this point again) nodded his head.
He sat down beside her, and donned a headset to assist her in radio operation.
She was not quick to broadcast any instructions. Instead, she looked at him for a moment.
“You seem a shrewd man, Drachen.” She said. “Your eyes betray hidden depths.”
Von Drachen smiled. “I am but a humble person who tries his best; mediocre of late.”
“Well, if you say so.” She frowned slightly. “This situation has been twisting and turning in inscrutable ways for the past few days, I take it. What do you think of everything?”
“You are doing everything you can to lose this battle, and it is admirable in an odd way.”
Arsenica grumbled. That was clearly not the answer she wanted. That this little dictator did not have him shot for such things spoke to the level at which she was drawn to him. Perhaps she was coming to believe he was more than he professed to be (on both occasions he professed to be something) or perhaps independently of such obvious high-minded analysis she had found him and his situation interesting. Nonethless, she was tolerating him like she tolerated nobody else. Von Drachen did not care; he treated her as he treated everybody. Few people in Von Drachen’s eyes deserved a ginger hand less than Arsenica.
“I’m not a fool Drachen. I know that this mission is incredibly risky; and that by themselves the airborne troops of the kingdom, quality as they are, may not be able to take this city outright. But the Kingdom of Lubon fights with the ancient Elven art of war. We may lose battles but we will win wars. Boldness and gallantry inevitably pay off.”
Von Drachen made no outward expression in response. He found her answer typical of the prideful Elven noble-warrior who achieved combat command through birthright.
“You can lose battles to win wars; if your logistics are much better, or if you have strong reinforcements waiting to re-engage quickly,or if an enemy’s strength could collapse from attrition, and so on. Yes, there are many scenarios where a certain loss is still the right course of action in an overall strategy, but you cannot do so here. Even if you met all of the other conditions, your strategy has a fundamental flaw. You see, there will be no battle.”
Arsenica raised her eyebrows, surprised but quickly skeptical. “What makes you say that?”
Von Drachen crossed his arms and fixed Arsenica with a suddenly serious look.
“You think because you have broken the enemy’s defenses and fomented disorganization in their ranks, that they will see it as a natural disadvantage and wish it seized from you. But Madiha Nakar will not respond to this situation by reforming her battle line for you to engage in classical pitched combat. You are probably hoping she attempts to restore her defense and regroup her forces, wasting time while you fight your losing battle against her, and therefore tying her up until your Navy wins your war. Ultimately, you are wrong.”
He raised his hands and made a cutting motion with one just in front of Arsenica.
“She will not duel you. She’ll behead you and then walk past the twitching corpse.”
Arsenica seemed taken aback, disgusted by the imagery. She embraced herself and shuddered as if the thought of her own headless body had intruded in her psyche.
“How could you know? What makes you speak so boldly and certainly?” She snapped.
Von Drachen grinned viciously. “Because it’s what I would do.”
Granted, Von Drachen was planning to do something very different at that moment.
But it wasn’t the same situation and though Madiha was almost as good as he was at this little game they called war, she was her own animal, and he could truly only speculate.
Still, Arsenica needed to know none of that.
“I believe I ordered you to take on a task, Von Drachen!” Arsenica cried out.
Nodding amicably, Von Drachen returned his attention to the radios.
Arsenica lashed out and seized the headset from Von Drachen, placing it on her own head.
“You and your unit will go reinforce our defense outside. I’ll take care of this personally.”
She gave Von Drachen a vulnerable, uncomfortable look. He returned a vicious grin.
“I longed for such an assignment, my liege.”
Von Drachen gave a mock bow. Arsenica seemed to feel a jolt down her body. She shook.
Before she had a chance to reconsider, if she was considering such a thing, Von Drachen stood from the chair and ambled out the door in good humor. He truly had wished to be assigned the role of cannon fodder for the Elves. He knew, if he made himself both useful and pestilent enough that they would think they were consigning him to death.
In reality, there was no bigger coffin than any Council building Arsenica hid herself in.
City of Rangda — Ocean Road
“Oh, hey, you’re whistling.”
“Hmm? Oh. I do that sometimes.”
“I’ve never heard you before!”
“The tank is too noisy for it.”
“It sounds very pretty.”
Caelia Suessen climbed back up to her seat in the turret of Harmony, the Kobold tank she shared with her co-driver, Danielle Santos. Below her, Danielle looked worse for wear. Her curly hair was even more disordered than usual, and her dark eyes and honey-brown cheeks were freshly strewn with tears. She was shaking a little still. Her grip on the tank’s sticks was unsteady. Caelia herself was doing no better. She decided to pick up her shoulder-length hair into a short ponytail. Her face was slick with sweat and tears.
Though they were together again, and that was comforting, they were alone, stranded in the middle of Rangda’s main corridors with the enemy having fallen all around them.
Caelia stepped up on her seat and pushed open the top hatch. She thought seeing the skies beginning to clear would give her hope, but instead the sight and the lack of sights made her grow anxious. Overhead the once thick formations of planes had whittled down. She could see scattered parachutes and a few gliders dropping in the distance, and the flak and smoke was thick and real as it ever was, flashing relentlessly beneath the afternoon sun. But the enemy was either largely dispersed or largely situated; and judging by what she had seen, the enemy was likely all on the ground now, and worse, hidden all around them.
She climbed back down into the turret, closed the hatch, and looked down at her partner.
“How’s the radio?”
Caelia leaned down and found Danielle tinkering with the innards of their tank radio, moving around wires, unscrewing vacuum tubes, picking out replacement parts from a metal box near her feet, holding a tool in her mouth. She seemed like she had been at this for a little while now and Caelia felt despondency creep up on her. She had assumed the radio was fine and that Danielle would be listening to it all this time for orders.
Without the radio they were well and truly stranded in enemy territory.
“How did it break?” Caelia asked.
Danielle bowed her head and seemed suddenly downcast.
Caelia blinked and felt a sense of alarm herself at her partner’s emotional turn.
“Hey, it’s fine–”
“I probably broke it when I charged the tank through the fuselage. I’m an idiot.”
Danielle started to sob.
Caelia dropped from her chair onto the lip of the turret ring and leaned down even further, nearly falling from her position entirely. She seized Danielle by the shoulders, and pressed her head against Danielle’s fluffy, curly, messy head of hair, and held her tight and close.
“Calm down. It’s not your fault.”
“Thank you. But I don’t know that I can fix it with the parts here.”
“I think there was a man outside with a radio.”
Soon as she heard this, Danielle thrust her head up.
Without another word, she gently extricated herself from Caelia’s grip, and leaped out the front hatch of the tank. Caelia spotted her running through the street and peering through the ruined buildings and over the mounds of concrete and brick and other battlefield remnants. Finally she seemed to find what she was looking for, and Danielle leaped up onto a small hill that was once a standing structure. She tugged on something, until she pulled free of the rubble a box, which she brought running back into the tank.
“Caelia, keep watch!” Danielle said. She had a smile on her face. Her tears had dried.
Smiling, Caelia returned to the commander’s seat.
She heard Danielle feverishly working below, taking a screwdriver to the radio box and popping it open, picking through the contents, taking out wires and vacuum tubes and mechanical filters. Caelia did not know what she was doing, but she knew the results soon enough. Once Danielle closed Harmony’s radio box, and threw out the hatch the remains of the Elven radio she had gutted, and turned a few knobs, Caelia heard static in her ears.
“It’s working, or at least, its picking up something.” Caelia said over the intercom.
“Yes, it is! I’m going through the frequencies now to see if we can pick up–”
Caelia heard the emergency public radio announcement repeating in her ear.
“We’ve got audio!” Danielle celebrated. “I’m switching to operational frequencies now.”
She pumped her fist up with the delight.
As she did, the tank shook, and Danielle crashed into the radio.
“Nevermind that! Get back to the sticks!”
Through the periscope, Caelia saw a long, thin metal piece vanish around a corner.
That had been a gun barrel, and the shot had grazed the track guard on their tank.
“I’m back on the sticks, sorry!”
Harmony started to move, backing away from its previous open position, but it quickly found itself backed into a corner. Most of the downed aircraft fuselage previously blocking the way between Caelia and Danielle, was still whole and still a formidable obstacle at Harmony’s back. Only the tank-shaped wedge smashed into its midsection allowed for free passage. And moving through that was asking to be shot without escape.
“The best defense is a good offense, right?” Danielle shouted.
Instead of backing away to defend herself, Danielle had backed away to gain momentum. Caelia knew this to be true when Danielle thrust forward, and the Kobold quickly began to accelerate toward the corner where they had spotted the enemy tank. Caelia had not given her this order but she trusted Danielle and knew what she had to do in response.
She loaded an armor-piercing shell and laid her hand on the turret’s traverse drive.
As they approached the corner with increasing speed the enemy tank reappeared.
Caelia had feared the worst, but the tank was not a stolen Hobgoblin or a Nochtish model, but a small tank like their own, and with visible rivets and many flat plates that made sumptuous targets. It peeked around the corner, turning its gun as much as it could to track them without exposing more of its own mass to Harmony’s own weaponry.
There was a flash from the enemy tank as its gun fired on them.
Caelia hung tight as Danielle swung the tank away at the last second.
Through the noise, Caelia imagined the sound of the sticks and gears protesting as Danielle maneuvered the tank into a clumsy, grinding slide across the mutilated gravel.
Harmony swung outside the tank’s immediate firing arc, forcing it to turn.
Sliding around the outside of the corner, Danielle exposed the enemy flank.
“Firing Armor-Piercing, High Explosive!”
Caelia exploited the opportunity, and as Harmony made it around the side of the enemy tank, she opened fire on the neck, just between the turret and the hull, where the cheek armor would be weakest at the seam. Her shell penetrated the thin armor and detonated inside. As the force of the explosion traveled through the tank its hatches burst open, and smoke billowed from the unsettled seam between the hull and the turret.
There was a fire that seemed to leap up from the grate atop the back of the tank.
“How much ammunition do we have left?” Danielle asked.
Ripping herself from the periscope, her hands shaking, her heart racing for every second she was not staring directly at the battlefield ahead, Caelia looked back at her ready rack and found a paltry four rounds of armor piercing and two of high explosive ammunition.
“Not enough!” She called back.
“Well, then we better think of something quick!”
Danielle had already seen it, and Caelia knew this from the trembling of her speech.
Once she returned to the periscope and gun sight, Caelia spotted it too.
“Danielle, stop and turn into the nearest alley!”
Ahead of them, as Harmony surged forward past the destroyed enemy tank, two additional examples of the same type began to move in obliviously from either side of an intersecting road just ahead. They might have heard the shooting from inside their tanks, or they might have not; but they should have been communicating via radio, and they should have been aware that an enemy tank had destroyed their own. But they were not alert.
Harmony quickly turned off the road and hid itself between two ruined buildings.
Caelia breathed a sigh of relief. They were away from enemy fire. For now.
They sat for a minute, listening in to the various radio frequencies, hoping to find a message from the headquarters among the set aside operational frequencies.
In each one they found nothing but vague noise or total silence.
“Do you think the headquarters could have fallen?” Danielle asked.
“I don’t know. I should hope not.” Caelia replied.
Danielle turned the dials and knobs on the radio set, switching frequencies.
A few minutes passed in relative silence.
Then Danielle seemed to linger on a channel broadcasting some subtle noise.
“Caelia, listen to this. It has sort of a beat to it, don’t you think?”
Caelia closed her eyes and laid back and concentrated on the noise.
She could hear an indistinct thumping every once in a while.
Listening long enough revealed a rhythm beneath the scratching and tearing noise.
“It’s got a pattern to it. It repeats every little while.” Caelia said.
“It’s got to be code!” Danielle replied.
She produced a piece of paper and began to record the beats in morse.
Beneath each recorded symbol she wrote it out in letters. Caelia watched, surprised. She did not know that Danielle could do this, and she felt a strange bit of pride in her partner.
“Here’s what I think it means,” Danielle finally said, “Headquarters is intact, a friendly attack on Ocean is imminent from HQ, stray units must regroup, hold position for relief.”
Danielle looked up at Caelia, who smiled at her for her accomplishment but then heaved a quick sigh in response to the actual information. She felt marked relief at the prospect of rescue, but the idea of regrouping in this situation was daunting. They were alone, low on ammunition, and none of the tankers seemed to be broadcasting for fear of triangulation.
“I wonder how many of our tankers here just fled during the airborne invasion.” She said.
That was another distinct possibility. They stuck with Harmony, because they were trapped on the periphery of events. How many tanks had been abandoned or captured? The Hobgoblin, Caelia had been given to understand, was a very advanced tank. Surely the enemy would try to employ any captured examples they could get to bolster their position.
It was all a mess, and it would be difficult to escape it.
Caelia shook her head and looked back down.
Danielle did not look so discouraged.
“There may be some congregating outside of Ocean Road. Let’s think of where.”
From a compartment in the wall below Caelia, Danielle broke out a map of Rangda and a booklet of artillery coordinates and codes, of ammunition dumps, and other operational data, and she started listing landmarks that could be useful to them, and what things might be found near them. They found their own position once they realized the building next to them was an old health center; Caelia stepped briefly out of the tank and found the caduceus sign lying around in the rubble on the street. After that, they traced routes to an old postal center in the south, and a msanii open market in the west, and a school, north.
“I think the school is our best bet. But it’s also the farthest one.” Danielle said.
“We need more information. Hmm. I wonder.”
Caelia crossed her arms and laid back in her seat. She started thinking that maybe the channels they previously thought were noise, could also be morse code signals.
She flew this idea by her companion.
“Well. You can generate radio noise by just turning your engine on and jamming the radio set under the tank.” Danielle said. “You can bang the handset to produce the thumping while picking up the noise. HQ was doing a much more sophisticated version of this. But we could do it if we wanted to. So it’s certainly possible others did.” Danielle responded.
“Ok. Listen to the radio and see if there’s anyone out there we can talk to for directions.”
Caelia sat back in her seat as Danielle leaned over to the radio, and began to tinker with the frequency again. With Harmony’s engine cut, she could hear her own labored breathing again. She resisted the urge to whistle now that she knew that Danielle knew and would listen for it. It was not out of antagonism; just a shameful sense of nakedness. That tune was something that came out of her, spontaneous, without curation.
She felt that she wanted Danielle to hear something that was for her, not just random.
She felt she had perhaps been thoughtless enough toward Danielle as it was.
She felt a combination of those things, of a lingering anxiety, and of nothing at all.
Her head felt heavy and confused. Her hands were shaking on her instruments.
It was all the stress. It had been a death-defying day. Nothing could make sense here.
There were cycles of noise and then, unbidden, a voice sounded in her head.
“–Repeat, the mouse has got the cheese, but the cats are on the prowl.”
“It’s actual voice audio.” Danielle said in surprise.
Caelia blinked. “Danielle, keep it on there.” She broadcast over that frequency to contact the person speaking in code on the other end. “Friendly mouse here, willing to hunt cats.”
There was silence on the line for a moment. Then the voice sounded again. It was a woman’s voice, a little deep, clearly a little labored, and her Ayvartan was accented.
“Head toward grid 18-40. Be prepared for a fight. I will spot for you.”
“What’s the situation?” Caelia asked.
“Two cats on the lookout, but unaware.” said the voice.
“What is your mission?”
“To deliver some cheese to fellow mice.”
She was still speaking in code and likely would continue to do so until they met in person. Caelia almost wanted to ask her to dispense with the operational security and speak plainly to her, but that would’ve probably been seen as suspicious, so she played along.
She switched off the radio’s broadcasting mode and returned to intercomm with Danielle.
“Did you hear all of that?” She asked.
“Yes, I did.”
She held up the map where Caelia could see, pointing at the grid point 18-40.
“It’s the postal center. We’ll have to double back.”
Having heard the voice, and with a sense of direction, Caelia felt confident again.
“Do it. Go whatever route you deem best. I trust you.”
Danielle nodded, and returned to the sticks.
Harmony’s engine growled, and the tank was soon back on the street.
“Leave it to me.” She said.
City of Rangda — Umaru-Shapur North
Amid the chaos of war-torn Rangda came a regal procession of vehicles that seemed as if on a parade march rather than a warpath. Bravely emblazoned with the insignia of some royal elven unit (the “7th Cheshire Highlanders,” though rank and file Ayvartan soldiers would not know this), the vehicles and men marched through the torn-up Rangdan pavement and into a stretch of open, undeveloped lots that were grassy and overgrown. All around the little urban prairie there were buildings, some standing but abandoned, others ruined and ghostly, encircling the procession. Despite this the elves marched onward.
There were three varieties of vehicle among them. Leading the charge, clearly driving very slowly for the benefit of the rest of the column, were two small open-topped cars. Behind them was a disparate group of infantry, some clearly parachutists, dressed and armed more heavily, and others light infantry in blue uniform, the glider-borne troops. Then there were tanks, three or four of them, clustered together, boasting a compact hull carried by a track set on four big road wheels and bearing a simple turret with a small gun. There were tracked, open-topped vehicles that looked like boxy tractors. In between each set of vehicles was another group of mixed infantry. Altogether there were maybe fifty or sixty men and ten or twelve vehicles. This equaled a small company, in pure firepower.
All of them traveled at a slow pace, carefully watching for contacts. It was an infantry combat march. These were not opponents with anywhere specific they wanted to go. They were hunting for a fight, any kind of a fight. Trying to flush out an enemy to engage.
As they made their way toward Council and Ocean Road, they were being watched.
Crouched behind the blown-out window of a distant house, Adesh Gurunath spied on them with his binoculars. Over his shoulder was the barrel of the Chimera’s 76mm gun, set to one side of the window and standing a meter back from it, taking cover in the gloom cast by the remnants of the roof. He was not alone; his comrades were all in the tank. Not only that but adjacent buildings and the spaces between housed a few more allied guns.
All of them had seen dust rising in the distance, and their column left the various side roads they had been traveling and took cover in the buildings. Had they charged out into the open themselves they would have met the enemy column and been overwhelmed.
Hiding in the ruins, they had their opponent flanked, enfiladed. Six or seven Chimeras (for the column had been moving at such pace and dispersion Adesh could not be sure of who was with them but their most immediate neighbors). Against twice as many vehicles, and a large contingent of infantry, enough to make up several vehicles more in firepower.
Adesh sighed deeply. He heard footsteps around him, as the spotters for the other tanks got up and made their way back into their vehicles. He picked up his binoculars and ran back as well, climbing onto the side of the Chimera and into the fighting compartment. Sergeant Rahani seemed fresh off a radio conference, presumably with the commanders of nearby vehicles. Eshe was asleep, seated up against the rear wall. Kufu was with them, for once, sitting atop the back wall and smoking. Nnenia was idly counting the shells.
“How’s it look out there, Adesh?” Rahani asked. His tone of voice was as gentle as always.
Though he did not feel that he deserved the kindness, after the grave mistakes he had committed today, Adesh nonetheless tried to swallow his anxieties. He delivered his report very quickly, commenting tersely on the enemy composition and speed. They were moving leisurely and would be out of sight within a few minutes if nothing was done.
“Among the commanders the prevailing sentiment is to let them go and attack them from behind when they engage another unit.” Rahani said, crossing his arms.
“That will just get more of our comrades killed!” Adesh protested.
“Adesh, you are right, but we’re in danger too. If it was only the tanks, all of us would attack without hesitation. But the fast cars and the infantry carriers are worrisome. If they cross into our minimum range we’ll be overwhelmed. You must understand.” Rahani said.
Adesh looked at Rahani, feeling tears of anxiety and passion welling up in his eyes.
“Adesh?” Nnenia asked, looking worried. For now, he ignored her.
Shaking his head to clear the fog, Adesh replied. “We can use the delay fuses alongside the incendiaries to set the cars and the men on fire. We can fire just over the tops of the cars and the backs of the tanks. Everyone lights up. That would get them all in one blast.”
Rahani sighed. “Such a thing requires complicated mathematics and coordination–”
“I can do it.” Adesh said. “I can do all the calculations. For everyone. Right now.”
He had been ignoring it all the while he spoke, but even as they stood within the fighting compartment of the tank, in his mind Adesh could see the ghostly images of the convoy moving across the open. He knew their exact speed, their direction, their position under the sun, their elevation. He knew that if he turned his gaze over his own shoulder he would see them all there, his mind’s eye would match his real ones perfectly. Adesh could predict precisely where they would be from having seen their direction just once.
And like a dozen photo-cameras shooting at different angles, Adesh could in his mind also see from different vantages, from different positions all along the flank. He could calculate the distance and the shot trajectories and everything else necessary from every vantage he had even the most fleeting access to. It was a terrifying potential; he hardly wanted to pick apart why he could do this. It felt unreal. But it was in his head, a series of intrusive thoughts where the convoy would move and be shot and be destroyed.
All of it played out in his head like a film, and begrudgingly, he trusted it.
“Adesh, I understand that you want to fight, but please be reasonable.” Rahani said. “There is more to this than killing the enemy. That’s not always winning. Please–”
Staring at his gentle and kind commander in the eyes, Adesh wept and sobbed.
“Sergeant, it isn’t about being angry, and it isn’t about wanting revenge. I don’t like that I feel those things and I can assure you I’m not feeling them now! It’s about wanting our people to stop being killed!” Adesh said, his voice broken up, pathetic. He thought about people like Miss Kajari, out there in the ruins. Those were the kinds of people whom these tanks could roll over. Good people caught unawares by treachery, given no chance to fight.
“Please trust me. Let me do this. I’ll take responsibility if I fail. In this life or the next.”
Rahani seemed both moved by the boy’s words, but also mildly exasperated with him.
“You were such a nice kid, now you’re becoming a real handful!” He said.
Holding up his radio, Rahani quickly convened the other unit commanders.
He then passed the handset insistently to Adesh. On the other end of the line were various gunners, incredulous, demanding to know how Adesh intended to coordinate their fire. Everyone hitting the same point in the line was easy, but hitting a convoy thirty meters long across every hinge point with a dozen guns in disparate angles while it was moving–
On the line, one by one, each comrade was stupefied as Adesh rattled off numbers. To each gunner he gave different instructions and each incredulous gunner passed the radio to a commander who was then equally dumbfounded by both the density of the math Adesh was doing on the fly, and by the fact that it sounded, on the face of it, plausible. Angles and azimuth and coordinates and degrees and seconds, timing data for the delay fuze, shot intervals down to the second, all synchronized to one specific triggering event.
“I’ll fire a flare into the sky. When you see the flash, you all shoot.” Adesh said.
Somehow, suddenly, the entire gun battery was united under common purpose again.
Even as they spoke the convoy had continued moving but Adesh had accounted for that.
Beneath his feet, Kufu subtly turned the Chimera and turned its gun to another window.
All of them were aiming minutes ahead. Adesh had done his math to lead into the enemy.
That added layer of complexity was all the more astonishing, but for him, it was nothing.
It was nothing, and it was scary, and it made him feel uncomfortable with his own body.
Whatever was happening to his brain, at least this time, it was being useful.
As the enemy column passed the designated point, Adesh sent Nnenia out to the window with the flare. She counted down a few seconds, as he told her, and then stood and shot.
In an instant there was a bright flash over the line of occupied buildings.
Within seconds of one another, all of the guns in the battery opened fire on the enemy.
Adesh pulled up his binoculars and leaned around the side of the Chimera, watching.
Nnenia quickly returned, and did the loading and shooting from there.
Dozens of shells exploded in a span of seconds all across the enemy column. Incendiaries soared seemingly over the heads of the clustered infantry and then detonated suddenly in the air, casting great gushing tongues of molten and crackling stuff onto soldiers that lit their blue uniforms and their belts and bags on fire. Grenades went off spontaneously, cooked off by the explosions. Machine gun belts burst and thrashed like firecrackers.
Over open vehicles the shells had a similar effect, with each detonation setting fires blazing inside the the personnel carriers and cars. Fuel lines and ammunition loads caught fire and ignited, blowing the vehicles and their occupants and anyone nearby into a horrific collection of pieces. Broken glass and metal applique armor sailed into the air and cut the men around the smitten vehicles to pieces. Tanks stalled suddenly as the carnage all around them unfolded, and as the white smoke billowed all around them.
Tank turrets began to turn to face the flank, but by then Adesh’s second volley was ready.
Once more a dozen shells went off across the column, lighting greater fires and fanning huge plumes of smoke that spread across the center of the park. There were direct hits on the tanks, and the shells lit up wooden crates stowed on the backs of the tanks, and set fires that spread down the insulated grates and into the engines. Several tanks stalled completely because of the sudden engine fires, and others, unable to operate in the thick smoke, had their hatches thrown open by the crew and were suddenly abandoned.
Just as Adesh felt his victory secure, he heard a loud crashing sound and reeled back from the side of the Chimera, avoiding chunks of rock. A shell had stricken the window frame through which his own vehicle was shooting, and sent splintered debris flying out.
Sporadic small arms fire joined the erratic two-pounder attacks striking the Ayvartans.
From the thickening smoke, there came running several sections of infantry.
Adesh’s heart skipped a beat. He withdrew his pistol and Rahani did the same.
Then through his binoculars Adesh saw the charge begin to falter.
Survivors of the attack stumbled out of the smoke, disoriented, many having lost their rifles, many wounded by burns or shrapnel. Several men tried to charge at the Ayvartan gun line and tripped over their own shoes, too unsteady on their feet to fight. Stragglers skirted the edge of the smoke, and fired snap rifle shots in front of them without aim. Every so often from inside the smoke cloud a shell would sail out and crash into the stone around the Chimeras, but inflicted no damage. Solid shot AP was unsuitable to the task.
“You’ve done it Adesh!” Rahani said, as the Elven column crumbled. He picked up his radio and signaled to the other vehicles. “Everyone fire freely now! Clean up the remains!”
Ahead of them the column was nearly annihilated, and with its cohesion broken, Adesh’s third volley was unnecessary. All of the vehicles, save a few tanks, had been destroyed. What remained of the enemy’s infantry was disoriented, spread out, disorganized, and unable to move forward effectively. That mathematical cohesion Adesh had achieved was thrown aside, and the Chimeras began to fire haphazardly and without rhythm at anything that moved within the smoke or outside it. It was fine by then. They had basically won.
Adesh breathed for what seemed like the first time in hours. He collapsed against the wall.
Tears started streaming down his face involuntarily. He was glad for the smoke covering the carnage that had unfolded. He didn’t want to see the people burning in there.
They had to burn; they had to. But he didn’t have to see it. He could rest now.
“I think after this, Lieutenant Purana will want to talk to you, Adesh.” Rahani said.
He laid a hand gently on Adesh’s shoulder, and the touch shook out another abrupt sob.
City of Rangda — Ocean Road
“There they are!”
Harmony parked around the corner from the postal center. Stationed on the road straddling the long front lawn of the building were two more of those Elven paradrop tanks. Both were practically staring into space, and on one, the hatches were open for air and the tank commander was standing out of his turret. Had the other tank been less alert then it might have been possible to defeat both enemies without seeing a retaliatory shot.
“How many rounds do we have?” Danielle asked.
“Not enough.” Caelia replied.
Just marching forward would get them hurt or even killed. They needed to draw the enemy’s attention away from the road to stand a chance. Caelia had an idea. She reached for the belt-slung hip box on her bodysuit that held her radio equipment and its controls, and adjusted the volume before calling the “mouse” that they had committed to saving.
“Can you make noise for us?” She asked.
“Are you here?” the voice quickly replied.
“We’re around the corner, but the enemy is pointed right at us and we need–”
There was a shuttering noise on the other end of the line.
Danielle cried out. “Caelia, there was a shot!”
Caelia thrust forward to look through her periscope and found the enemy in disarray.
Atop one of the turrets the tank commander slumped forward, bleeding heavily.
On the lawn, Caelia spotted a mechanic that had gotten out to look at the tracks just in time for their head to burst like a fruit beneath a hammer, suffering some unknown bullet.
At once, the second tank began to turn its turret to face the postal center.
“Danielle, ram the one with the hatches up, I’ll shoot the other!”
Harmony barreled out of the corner and accelerated toward the tanks.
Danielle seemed like she put her whole weight into the sticks.
In an instant they closed the gap.
“Hold on!” Danielle shouted.
Caelia braced herself for the collision.
Before the enemy tank could get a shot off, Harmony crashed into the inert second tank, smashing the front-most road wheel off and hooking its sharp metal track guard beneath the enemy’s caterpillar. Danielle did not let up on the speed, and though the track gored itself apart, she managed to push one tank into the other, rattling both of them to shock.
“We’re detracked!” Danielle cried out.
Caelia turned the 45mm gun on the remaining enemy tank at point blank range.
Shooting over the front of the enemy tank, jamming its own gun with hers, Caelia unleashed one of their last armor-piercing rounds on the enemy’s turret. There was a second in which she feared the shell might bounce off the protruding gun mantlet; but the shell was fired so close to the target that the armor gave away like a tin lid to a can opener.
Smoke billowed from the enemy’s gun and from the hatches.
“Aaaah, they’re down!” Danielle cried. “Pray the suspensions aren’t broken!”
Danielle tugged on a stick with the tips of her fingers as if she feared it was cursed.
There was a bit of metallic creaking, but Harmony extricated itself on its one good track.
Caelia took the personal defense weapon from the stash and stood out of the turret hatch.
She remembered her foreign military language phrasebook and shouted, “Arrendersi!”
There were no elves alive outside to listen to her shouting. Instead, on the lawn of the postal center, atop a neat pile of bodies near the flagpole, sat a trio of small, pale, dull-eyed people, two with buzzed short hair and one with long, flowing ice-blue hair. They had similarly soft features and were just short of 1.5 meters in size, but fully proportioned as adults. They had a muted sky-blue uniform instead of the Ayvartan green, and they had no bodysuits, so they weren’t tankers. All of them bore similarly detached, inexpressive looks on their faces, and they all had sniper rifles of a large caliber, like BKV guns but cut down.
They were Svechthan (a word Caelia pronounced as “Sechan” but did not know the real pronounciation for), allies of the Ayvartan nation, and communists from far northeast.
All of them looked rather feminine to Caelia but the long-haired one, definitely a woman, raised a hand in salute, and spoke in the brusque accent Caelia knew from the radio.
“Greetings, comrade mouse.” She said. “This mouse’s name is Sgt. Nikayla Illynichna. And these are my subordinates, Gorchov and Fedorovich. We have gifts for you.”
She waved her hand toward the postal center’s open doors. Inside, Caelia could see crates.
“Do you have 45mm ammunition?” Caelia asked.
“Plenty. But most pressingly, we need to take 76mm ammunition to the school. When the enemy’s airborne attack started, several tanks were undergoing resupply. Because they were caught unawares, they could not load up and had to run to defensible positions.”
“I see. So you snuck out to get ammunition for them.” Caelia said.
Illynichna nodded. She crossed her arms, and huffed a little bit, as if irritated by some injustice. “I’m a master infiltrator, but, even I cannot sneak away from two tanks standing right in front of me in fully open terrain, carrying ammunition. So I was stuck.”
“Why did they not invade the postal center?” Caelia asked. It seemed miraculous.
“Something tells me these troops are not very well-trained.” Illynichna said, snorting.
Caelia suddenly heard some increasingly loud sobs coming from below them.
She raised herself up onto the turret, dropped down to the front of the tank, and found Danielle banging her head against the bent track guard, with her tools on the side of the road, and the spare track links from the parts box laid in a stack next to her.
“What’s wrong?” Caelia asked. She grabbed hold of Danielle’s shoulder to stop her.
“I’m an idiot and a good for nothing! I tore up the drive wheel!” Danielle shouted.
She pointed to the broken track, and then down to something in her arms.
Caelia jumped down onto the street, and bent down to her knees.
Though the ramming maneuver had definitely split the track, that much was always likely to be certain, ramming the sharp end of the track into the enemy’s wheel had an additional deleterious effect, in that it deformed the forward drive sprocket, bending it just slightly enough to interfere with a fluid motion of the track. Danielle cradled the damaged sprocket in her hands like a wounded child and wept, and she savaged herself verbally for the damage done to it. There seemed to be no insult Danielle was not willing to deploy against herself for this mistake. Caelia hardly knew what to say to stop her now.
“Wait one moment,”
Instead, she doubled back to the toolbox, and procured a large bolt-driving hammer.
When Danielle spotted the hammer in her hands she cried out and dropped the sprocket.
“Excuse me,” Caelia said gently.
She then raised the hammer and pounded the sprocket with a massive overhead strike.
Behind them, the Svecthans looked on with confused expressions.
Below them all, the drive sprocket was cracked, but had a more appropriate shape again.
“Oh no!” Danielle cried out.
“Now it’s my fault that it is broken.” Caelia said.
“I guess! But–” Danielle cried out again, more helplessly this time.
“Put it back on again, it should last us a while more.” Caelia calmly interrupted.
She bent down to Danielle’s level and stared her in the eyes without expression.
“Okay.” Danielle sobbed. She seemed unable to continue her attack in Caelia’s face.
Satisfied, Caelia gently patted her on the shoulder, and climbed back into the tank.
“Load up as much ammunition as you can, and climb on.” Caelia instructed Illynichna.
The Svecthans raised their thumbs up, and began their work. One by one they seized several crates of ammunition from the postal center. While Danielle worked to repair the track, Caelia replenished her ready rack with 45mm ammunition, and the Svechthans chained up crates of 76mm ammunition to the back of the tank, using ropes and chains and spring harnesses and camouflage nets, to form a big bundle like a holiday bag.
Danielle climbed back in the tank, and gently nudged the stick corresponding to the broken track. There was a bit of worrisome mechanical noise, but the track moved.
“We should be fine for a little bit.” Danielle said.
“A little bit is all we need. Thank you. See? You’re good at this.”
Danielle sighed. “I guess. I wish I hadn’t gotten the tank busted in the first place.”
“You have to break things sometimes so you can learn how to fix them.”
On the back of the turret, they heard a banging noise.
“I guess our mice are good to go.”
Caelia raised herself out of the turret and found their Svechthan companions on the ground. Having loaded up all the crates, there seemed to be no room for them now.
“Staying behind?” Caelia asked.
Illynichna nodded her head. “We will keep an eye on things here. You girls will need eyes on the ground. Besides, we’ve ridden on enough infernal tanks for one day.”
“Thank you for your help, comrades.” Caelia said. She saluted.
Illynichna, Fedorovich and Gorchov saluted back, and then picked up their kit, and made themselves scarce, vanishing back into the urban landscape as if they had never been there. Like mice, they seemed able to scurry through any gap, out of anyone’s sight. Caelia wished them luck. She returned to her seat, took a deep breath and got ready to command.
“Forward, Danielle! We’re going to the school up north.”
Once the tank got moving, Danielle seemed to perk up slightly.
“I’m getting some instability from the repaired track, but I’m managing.”
“You can do it!” Caelia cheered.
Harmony rushed past the broken-down tanks and their stricken-out occupants and followed the road north, parallel to the main drive of Ocean Road, and accelerating constantly. Caelia and Danielle had discussed the route as one of many they could take depending on what happened at the postal center. Now that they had a clear idea of where to go, they could not sneak around anymore. Any moment wasted could be the one that allowed the enemy to destroy their comrades in need. Getting to the school was priority.
So Danielle pushed forward as fast as the tank would go.
They turned the corner up from the postal center and back onto Ocean Road, crossing through the main drive and back out onto the opposing side-street. This crossing was intended to avoid the more open, visible and likely crowded Ocean Road, but it carried with it the danger that ultimately transpired. As they turned back North, Caelia opened the hatch, glanced behind the tank, and found an enemy vehicle following behind them.
She dropped back into the turret. “Danielle, we’re being followed!”
“I’ll do my best to avoid their fire! Try to stop them!”
Harmony rattled, as Danielle started to move the tank unpredictably.
Caelia engaged the turret drive, and turned Harmony’s gun directly over the rear engine.
Looking through her sight, she found an open-topped, tracked carrier vehicle and a light tank had fallen in behind her. They were charging in at their own full speeds, and the light tank was gaining on her. Those elven airdropped lights were proving faster than Harmony on the roads — the Kobold’s real strength was its stability off-road, not its road speed.
“Keep it steady, Danielle!”
“I know you can do it!”
Caelia reached for a shell, drew back from the sight to load it, and then looked again.
She put her eyes on the sight just in time to witness the enemy tank’s gun flash.
Everything shook as the shell struck the Kobold’s gun mantlet. Caelia hit her head.
Blood started to draw from her forehead and down her nose, between her eyes.
“Firing AP-HE!” She shouted.
Harmony blasted the enemy Light Tank between turret and hull.
The shell penetrated its thin armor with seemingly no resistance.
Immediately the tank’s tracks ceased up and it gave up the chase.
Passing it, the enemy open-topped carrier began shooting what seemed like a long anti-tank rifle. Caelia saw a half-dozen bullets go flying, but felt none of the impacts.
She realized immediately why that was. It was going for the tracks, not the armor.
And with one track clearly patched up, there was an obvious weak point there.
Switching from her tank gun to the coaxial machine gun, Caelia unloaded on the carrier.
Dozens of rounds bounced off the front armor, like glowing red fireflies buzzing around the vehicle they ricocheted uselessly in every direction. Caelia aimed farther up, and held down the trigger for a second volley. She could see a driver and a gunner, and the gunner top-loading a magazine of fresh armor-piercing cartridges. She held down the trigger and fired in bursts of three on them, and the bulletproof plate absorbed barrage after barrage.
She banged her hand on metal trying to replace the emptied pan magazine.
“Danielle, brake for just a second!” Caelia commanded.
“If you say so!” Danielle replied.
For a brief instant, Harmony lost enough speed for the carrier to close some distance.
Caelia held down the trigger and unloaded the new pan magazine.
At an angle, the bullets traveled right into the forward compartment.
Hitting the driver and gunner both, Harmony accelerated and left the carrier behind.
“I got them, Danielle! Thank you! I’m turning back around–”
“We’re not out of the woods yet!”
Caelia peeked out of the top hatch again and found another light tank.
This one was directly ahead of them.
Harmony swung around the enemy tank as it exited a nearby alley.
Caelia watched helplessly as the enemy gun turned on them.
Next thing she knew, Caelia nearly banged her head on the hatch.
Harmony slid aside just before the enemy could fire, and the shell went wide.
They rushed past the dumbfounded enemy tank and sped ahead.
“Shit, another one!”
Ahead, crossing an intersection, appeared a second enemy tank, its turret already turned.
Caelia could almost feel the gun about to shoot.
Harmony swung left then right in a brutal maneuver that made the track screech.
Armor piercing shot went flying both ways.
One shell grazed the tank ahead, while the second struck the ground behind Harmony.
Again the Kobold ran right past the enemy tank.
Caelia turned her gaze north and saw the school dead ahead of them.
“Danielle, we’re almost there!”
She dove back into the turret, with the gun still turned behind them.
Looking through the scope, she found the two enemy tanks still trailing them.
Both were that same type of air-dropped tank with the large wheels.
Owing to their speed, they were already catching up to Harmony.
“Firing Armor-Piercing!” Caelia shouted.
Harmony unleashed an AP-HE round down the road and struck one of the tanks in the turret cheek, punching a hole. Much to her dismay, she saw the explosion go off behind the tank rather than inside. She had overpenetrated — the round went through the weak armor in the turret cheek, and then exited the tank too quickly and detonated outside.
Gritting her teeth, Caelia reached for another round.
Her hands slipped away from the ready rack as Harmony turned sharply away.
Caelia felt something graze the turret.
Danielle had avoided another shot!
She grabbed a round off the rack, loaded it, and looked through scope.
Both of the enemy tanks were almost on top of her.
“Danielle, they’re maybe thirty meters away!”
“We’re almost there!” Danielle shouted.
Desperate for a direct hit, Caelia trained her gun sight on a tank and held her breath.
She exhaled; and the tank’s track exploded, and it swerved out of control.
A second later the remaining tank was sliced through the front hull by a shot and exploded so violently its turret went flying away from the rest of it. It left behind a burning hull.
Peering through the top hatch Caelia saw the school, ahead of them, a small compounded surrounded by a brick fence. There was an open gate, and a pair of Hobgoblins stood sentinel around it, launching shells down the road to provide cover for Harmony. They had been the ones who destroyed the pursuing enemy tanks. Harmony was home free.
“Caelia, get back in!” Danielle cried out.
At the edge of her vision Caelia saw a quick, sharp, bright flash, and heard a roar.
Smoke and sparks went up along the side of the tank.
Behind them, the immobilized tank that had once been chasing them was still shooting.
It raised its gun suddenly.
Caelia dove down just in time for the shell to overfly her, snapping the hatch away.
Overhead, the sky rushed past the top hatch, now permanently open to the air.
Had she hesitated even a second she would have been savagely decapitated.
She felt suddenly woozy with the realization. She could have died. She could have died.
A shell weighing over two Elven pounds had flown centimeters from her head.
Her whole body shook as if with the residual energy of the shot. It was terrifying.
In her previous life, the worst that had happened to her was stage fright.
In fact it was a severe case of stage fright, in part, that ended that old life.
Though the stage was hot and hard and callous, though it hated her and she hated it back, it was impossible for the stage to kill her. All it could do was make demands of her.
Demand that she wear a suit.
Demand an unchanged and unchanging voice.
Demands on her body and on her time and on her acquaintance.
Demands hurt but they didn’t kill.
This life was different. This life could end with a metal slug splattering her brains.
Why had she chosen it then? Why had she run away?
“We’re losing wheels and track! Hold on!” Danielle said.
That voice, that familiar, deep, rich voice, rich with its deepness and familiarity.
Jolted from her trance, Caelia held on tightly to her seat.
She looked down at Danielle. At first she had wanted to confess something, something important, but then those desperate thoughts were overwhelmed by one strange and curious fact. Danielle had no vision devices whatsoever. Her front hatch was open, sure, but she could not possibly avoid shots from behind without directions. And Caelia had given her none. She looked down at Danielle and at the Driver’s seat and instruments.
Below her, Danielle suddenly pushed on one stick and pulled the other, and shifted gears.
Mere meters from the gate, Harmony went into a violent, skidding spin.
Behind them came another shot.
Danielle screamed and guarded her own head. Caelia ducked almost between her own legs.
Harmony left its track and half its wheels behind as it drifted safely through the gate.
Over the slanted and gored left side of the tank flew the enemy 2-pounder shell.
It bounced uselessly off the glacis armor of one of the Hobgoblin tanks.
Both of them retaliated at once.
No more shots came from down the street and road.
Behind them, the gate closed.
Harmony’s engine finally gave out from the pressure, and shut off.
Inside the tank there was a sudden silence. Caelia felt a spotlight shining on herself from the broken hatch above. With the sounds of the tank gone, there was a tinnitus, and a steady rhythm of noises like claps or sparks. She didn’t know whether they were the claps she remembered, the deafening congratulations of the audiences on stage; or the sparks and sputters and bursts from all the ammunition she had heard discharged over time.
Those were two sounds she always heard in her ears when there was nothing else.
They were dire sounds, the sounds of the past and present.
She had lived again. This was the life she had traded the stage for.
Clapping her hand onto the side of her head, feeling a sharp pain between her eyes, Caelia tried to shake off the dizziness and weariness that had overcome her suddenly. Without the jolting and shaking of the tank, a vibration that dug up through her legs, into her gut and between her breasts, she felt sluggish like a clockwork doll whose key was slowing.
“Danielle, are you ok down here?”
She ducked, and leaned down from the top seat to get a look at Danielle.
She found her staring at the ground, sobbing lightly.
“Caelia, I could feel them, before they happened, but I couldn’t stop it!”
She turned around suddenly, and she was crying, and also bleeding lightly.
“You’re hurt!” She cried.
Caelia raised a hand to her forehead. There was still a little flowing blood.
“It’s fine.” Caelia said.
“No it’s not!”
“You were amazing.”
Danielle quieted. Her shoulders slumped a little and she sighed.
“I have a headache. My head feels really hot.” She said.
“Here, catch me.”
Caelia pushed herself down, and landed on top of Danielle.
They scrambled for space for a few moments, before cramming onto the Driver’s seat.
They were practically embracing. There was not much space between them.
Only the bodysuits kept it from being skin on skin.
The contours of their bodies fit together splendidly.
“We’re safe. Just hold me for a little bit, okay?”
Caelia sank her head into Danielle’s chest, and she traded the clapping and the bursting with the sound of Danielle’s heart, pumping so fast. And she wept, just a little bit.
Everything felt absurd and incomprehensible and she didn’t know where things could possibly go from here, having already died and lived too much for any human life to endure in a matter of hours. All of the exhaustion and weight seemed to catch up to her then, and the pain and sweat, and the blood, all of it made her want to cry suddenly.
Danielle held her tightly and quietly.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for. I’m happy to be here with you.”
She wasn’t sure what she felt in general; but she felt happy with Danielle.
At least that much was certain.
As the skies over Rangda began to clear, the ground battle began to make sense of itself again. Elves started to come together in pockets. Poorly armed, demoralized, nearly defeated 8th Division remnants made their strongholds were they could. 1st Regiment troops started digging their knives into any exposed side of the Elven drop troops that they could find. No defensive line survived the chaos, no matter who established it.
But all the troops that could drop had dropped. All the tanks that would fall had fallen.
The Elven surprise attack had succeeded in creating confusion and sewing disorder.
It was finally time for the scramble and the chaos to end.
Over the radio, the orders came.
“All reconstituted units are to attack toward Ocean Road. End radio silence.”
Soon as this order was given, a convoy of heavy tanks from Madiha Nakar’s headquarters set off, led by the Colonel herself, who was at the very speartip of the thrust. It had begun.
All of this disparate struggle would finally add up, and on the momentum gained by her plucky infantry, her courageous tankers, and her fierce artillery, Madiha Nakar attacked.