This scene contains violence and death.
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.