This scene contains graphic violence and death, including death by burning.
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.