This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
After the Colonel’s speech on the loudspeakers it was clear that the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment was going to battle, and it was clear against whom it was. What was not immediately clear was how they would go about the endeavor; there had never been, in all of their training in Rangda, any focus on strategy. It had all been about real time tactics.
Tactical units and officers thus stood in quiet contemplation, waiting for the Majors.
Once the speech concluded, the Colonel summoned her battalion commanders for an emergency meeting. It was the first time they would see the Colonel since the current events. They convened in an unusual location: a curtained-off corner of the base infirmary, around Madiha Nakar’s bed. She sat against several pillows stacked in front of the raised backrest of her bed, the lower half of her body covered in a medical blanket. On her lap, a small, heavily bandaged pet drake lay, curled up and asleep, purring softly.
Before her, the recently promoted Majors arrived together. Marion Burundi stood in the middle like an obsidian pillar, dark, strong, with his face lit by a bemused grin. He positioned himself front and center. At his sides were Shayma El-Amin, a sharp-featured woman maybe a year Madiha’s junior with short cropped hair under her peaked cap and sandy skin; and Nizar Jakan, a lanky, blunt-faced man with a sleepy expression.
“Ma’am, it is good to see you back. Consider me fully at your disposal.” Burundi said first.
“All tank crews are at full combat readiness, Colonel. Just say the word.” El-Amin added.
Jakan contributed nothing to the greetings. He seemed almost to want to hide in the back.
Despite her many visibly bandaged wounds, the Colonel had a fire in her eyes and spoke with a candor unhindered by exhaustion or medication. At her side, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani had pinned a map of the city on a board. Already there were several different markings on it. Neater ones could be attributed to C.W.O Maharani’s careful writing, while the more chaotic lines and scribblings in black were likely the Colonel’s.
“I am pleased with how you have handled yourselves in my absence. It was prescient to put the base on high alert and to build up combat readiness. You have vindicated my faith in your abilities a hundredfold. But the real battle begins now.” Colonel Nakar said.
Clearly her will to fight had not been diminished by her experiences. Nobody in the room knew what thoughts were swirling in the Colonel’s head, but all of them knew, quite clearly now, that her health was deteriorated. Some among them could ignore it or brush it aside, especially hearing her speak with such force. But one among them had concerns.
“Colonel, if it’s not much to ask, I’d like to inquire as to your condition.” Burundi said.
El-Amin glared sharply at him. Jakan again made no move. Across from them, Parinita averted her eyes from the group. Burundi was friendly, outgoing — perhaps too much. Whether he was being comradely or intrusive didn’t matter to the room. It was just taboo.
His inquiry did not appear to offend the Colonel, however, and she responded neutrally.
“To call what I suffered the past night anything but torture would be putting it too lightly. I do not wish to say any more than that, Major. Despite the torment I went through, I acquired useful information. With your aid, I am ready to exploit it.” She calmly said.
“Very well. I am glad you’ve got eyes forward, Colonel.” Burundi said with a soft smile.
El-Amin spoke so quickly and with such a strong voice she almost cut off Burundi.
“Colonel, my forces stand ready to shove aside the Federation sympathizers.” She said. “Merely say the word, and the cannons of the 3rd Tank Battalion will crush them!”
Where Burundi was easygoing, El-Amin was serious and intense. She had proven herself in the forest fighting of the Kalu, where she whipped into shape meager Goblin-armed tank companies into vicious and brave ambush groups that devastated the vaunted Panzer forces of the Federation. Her spirit and focus were unmatched among their peers, and she had a particular single-minded loyalty to the Colonel that was visible and indisputable.
Madiha smiled at her and treated her like a friend.
“Your zeal is always appreciated, Shayma.” She said.
El-Amin’s cheeks turned a touch redder but her stony expression was unchanged.
The Colonel then turned her eyes toward her even more faithful, ever-present aide.
“Parinita, explain the situation on the board.”
“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said. She turned to everyone else. “As you well know, we’re going to launch offensive operations against the 8th Ram Rifle Division. Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the division, and the capitulation of Rangda’s government.”
Burundi’s eyes drew wide. El-Amin grinned with delight. Jakan nodded off a little.
“Complete destruction sounds like a bit much with our numbers.” Burundi said.
“Well I’ve crunched the numbers, and the disparity is not as great as you may believe.” Parinita said sharply. “Please allow me to explain, and have faith in the Colonel.”
Burundi frowned and shrugged but maintained his calm.
The Chief Warrant Officer picked up the corkboard map from the wall and set it on a tripod easel that was closer to the bed. Producing a telescopic pointer from her jacket, Parinita pointed at three separate locations marked with blue circles — Rangda University in the north, Ocean Road in the center, and Forest Park in the eastern city limits.
“Elements of the 8th Division in the city of Rangda number an estimated four to six thousand personnel, with the remaining quantities of their men and matériel expected to arrive between today and tomorrow. There are three key areas for the 8th Division in the city. Their strongest forces, the Lion Battalion, are located in Rangda University, and would likely make up the vanguard of any encirclement assault on our positions. Forest Park is a necessary entry point into the city for arriving forces, and Ocean Road is a necessary transportation route that bisects the city and connects all points.”
Parinita spoke clearly and concisely, with a warm, excitable smile on her face she pointed to the three locations and to three chits stationed in their base on the map. She stretched her arm and took one from the corkboard and stuck it on Forest Park, a second on Ocean Road and a third on Rangda University. Once she had the chits in their proper places, she addressed the room again as a whole, with her pointer swiping at the chits in turns.
“These will be our initial objectives. Our attacks will benefit from surprise, but not for long. And because of our current resources, we can only black out the communications of the Lion Battalion and the Council. So the rest of the 8th Division in Ocean Road and Forest Park will be able to talk with each other, but not with them. One greater advantage that we enjoy is numerical parity — you might be skeptical, but our ability to concentrate our forces means we will outnumber the 8th Division in critical areas at the start of the battle. They have to defend all of Rangda; we’re hitting three specific locations.”
Having taken her part in the briefing, Parinita ceded the floor to the Colonel with a smile.
Madiha took up the deliberations from there. “Jakan, 2nd Battalion will attack Forest Park, avoiding Ocean Road and carving a pathway through the urban center. This will be a diversionary attack disguised as our main thrust. You will attack ahead of all other units and at first without additional support, drawing in 8th Division units from other positions. The 8th Division knows that they require the rest of their forces to decisively defeat us, and that those forces are slowly arriving. By securing Forest Park, we have a stronghold from which we can fight their arriving units piecemeal at Rangda’s city limits, negating the advantage of their numbers. They will place a lot of importance in sealing up the city limits, so you should expect heavy resistance. Your goal is to tie them up.”
Jakan nodded his head silently. Shayma and Burundi glanced sidelong at him and sighed.
“El-Amin.” Madiha continued, setting her gaze on the tank battalion commander. “Once the attack in the center is underway and we know the enemy is recommitting their forces to defend or to take back Forest Park, your 3rd Battalion will form the right wing of our attack by moving on Ocean Road. Yours will be our most decisive thrust. I want you to hit the enemy with excessive force. Your goal will be to cut the 8th Division off from Council and to divide it into two pockets of resistance, stuck on either side of Ocean Road.”
“They’ll scream under the weight of our tracks, Commander.” El-Amin said. She had a wide, vicious beaming expression as she spoke. She must have been delighted to have had the Colonel’s trust and attention and to be tasked with delivering a decisive thrust.
Madiha then turned to Burundi, who saluted amicably in response, awaiting his orders.
“Burundi, your attack starts after Jakan’s breakout to the east. You will break through to the Lion Battalion’s stronghold in Rangda University and destroy it, preventing Lion from relieving Forest Park’s defenders. Lion is the only force available that could potentially disrupt Jakan’s takeover of the Park. They threaten his flank all throughout the urban center, and they are loyal veterans of the 2026 mutiny. Right now they are likely the unit in Rangda with the best equipment and largest numbers. You must break them.”
“I like the sound of that.” Burundi replied. “Matumaini is on it, Commander.”
Of all the newly-promoted personnel, Burundi was the least officer-like of the bunch. He had started the war a platoon sergeant on the border with Cissea, and exhibited great leadership qualities throughout the retreat. He practically acted as a Captain when several went AWOL during the organization phase of the battle of Bada Aso. After great personal bravery during the Matumaini defense, his battalion was granted the street as a moniker.
“Once Lion is routed, Ocean Road is ours, and Forest Park is held, we will decapitate the government by launching an attack on Council, and force the 8th to stand down.”
Parinita crouched by the corkboard and withdrew a pen, drawing lines connecting the circles and chits and various numbers and other markings on the map. As Madiha spoke, she drew. All of them swept east and north toward the exterior of the city, and then finally slammed back onto Council. Whether with overwhelming force or as a final desperate measure it remained to be seen. Judging by the excitable look on Col. Nakar’s face as she explained her plan, she seemed confident in what the outcome could be.
Once the drawing was done, the Chief Warrant Officer stood at the Colonel’s side with a confident smile that mimicked the Commander’s own, holding a clipboard to her chest.
“Any questions?” Parinita asked warmly.
At this, Jakan raised his hand stiffly into the air.
“Go ahead.” Madiha said.
Jakan cleared his throat roughly.
“Ma’am, may I humbly suggest that the Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion and the Motorcycle Recon Company launch an attack between mine and Burundi’s thrusts? They can support a small push against displaced elements from both areas, while being available for artillery support for both of us. I would find that comforting.” He said.
His voice was nasally, froggish, and a little grim, but he made perfect sense.
Madiha smiled and nodded her head. “An excellent suggestion. I will consider it.”
Jakan bowed his head.
Unlike Shayma and Burundi, Jakan had already been a commissioned officer for a time.
He was the kind of officer who outlasted demilitarization, and he was one of the very few Captains of Battlegroup Ox who did not disappear when the going got tough. His forces held the Umaiha river with great bravery until the weather swept most of them away. His new battalion was named Umaiha in commemoration of their sacrifice. Though he was a bit of an eccentric, he had Madiha’s trust. And she had entrusted him the toughest task.
“Thank you, Commander. I will diligently seek the objective.” He said.
El-Amin gave him a look of begrudging respect. Burundi laughed.
Thus the strategy was set forth, and the seed for the battles to come planted.
“I can’t move from here right now, but I will keep an eye on your progress.” Madiha said.
One by one, the battalion commanders bowed in respect, and left the infirmary.
“With that kind of plan, they can definitely win.” Parinita said, almost as if to herself.
Madiha merely grinned, and settled back against the bed to rest.
City of Rangda, Streets of North Rangda
“Sandbags ahead, Corporal!”
Corporal Kajari quickly responded. “I see ’em, I don’t need a glass to see that close!”
Chuckling, Caelia Suessen switched from her periscope to the sighting equipment on the 45mm gun in front of her. She appreciated a little humorous color from her officers.
From within the tight interior of the Kobold light tank, she had a restricted view of the battlefield ahead of her. She could see enough to fulfill her role in the battle, however. Fighting their way through the houses and buildings that made up Rangda’s northern urbanization, Caelia’s platoon had almost fought their way to University Avenue, the main road through the campus. Only two landmarks remained that stood in their way.
First was the roadblock coming into view; second was the building it blocked off.
At the end of a long street, the enemy strongpoint stood before a block of tenements connecting to University avenue. Soon as they came into view of the strongpoint, the machine guns behind the opposing sandbag walls opened fire, their rounds bouncing off Harmony‘s frontal armor as the tank advanced ahead of the column. There were several Khroda machine guns and riflemen, but from what Caelia could see, no anti-tank weaponry. She breathed a sigh of relief — her soul had nearly departed her body when that BKV almost shot them. Against an ordinary Khroda she had far less to fear.
Her comrades were not so lucky. Running along both sides of the street and on the road around Harmony, they avoided the gunfire by sticking to the tank, or by sticking to any surface that could take a bullet. As the tank advanced, the squadrons making up the column sought any opportunity to move with it, hiding behind street-planted trees, garbage cans, mail banks, and ducking within storefronts, moving window to window between adjacent buildings as much as they could to seek respite from the gunfire.
“Private, get ready to shoot!”
Corporal Kajari called over the radio, from her position behind the engine block.
Caelia sat back from the gun sight and took in a breath.
Inside the turret, Caelia heard every impact like a series of sharp taps on the armor from an errant finger. When the machine guns were at their most fervent she could almost not hear herself think over the noise. Hundreds of bullets crashed into her armor in a long, breathless cacophony. It made it hard to focus. There was no worse noise than that of battle. Even the most amateur musician could not butcher sound like a gun could.
She could feel her skin shiver under her suit with every deflected burst.
“Load High Explosive and fire on the machine guns, Private!”
Over the intercom Caelia heard and heeded the voice of Sergeant Chadgura.
Along her left side was a line of shells for the tank gun, partially depleted from previous battles. Caelia seized a high explosive shell in one hand — 45mm ammunition was small and light enough to be easily handled — and loaded it into her breech. Cocking open the breech and closing it was as simple as the turn of a lever. Aiming was much the same. One circular wheel lever controlled elevation, and a turn-lever rotated the turret for traverse.
Turning both while staring down the sights, Caelia put the machine guns squarely within her cross-hairs. Bullets spat from the weapons as she sighted them, angry red lines traveling across her field of vision and crashing, unseen, repeatedly against her tank. Unless a burst of gunfire caught the front hatch while it was open, Harmony was safe; her allies were not. She settled for an expedient shot to silence the gun and slammed her foot.
Her electric trigger was a pedal at her feet, to conserve instrument panel space.
One good slam of the pedal and the gun ejected its killing blow.
At once, there was a sharp report inside the turret and one sharper outside.
She watched through the gun sight as a portion of sandbag wall disappeared into smoke.
From the side of the cloud, a pair of enemy soldiers ran out, abandoning their posts, visibly wounded from the shell fragmentation. One machine gun was silenced. In its absence, red tracers came flying from behind Caelia and struck the remainder of the enemy sandbag line. Without that machine gun to cover the approach, her allies now had good spots from which they could safely retaliate, and they rejoined the fight in earnest.
Having delivered a decisive blow, Caelia switched hands from the 45mm tank gun’s instruments to the coaxial Danava machine gun at its side. It was nearly impossible to aim accurately, fixed into a limited traverse beside the main gun, but she could point at the sandbags and join her attacking comrades, launching careful bursts of 7.62mm fire.
Soon as she pulled the trigger she felt the gun kicking around on its ball mount.
Press, depress, thock thock thock. It sounded like a toy compared to a Norgler.
She looked through her sight as she turned automatic fire on the enemy.
She found her tracers becoming lost in the flurry of gunfire that was saturating the target.
Everyone around her was moving up, and shooting, emboldened by Caelia’s attack.
“Danielle, keep her steady!” Caelia ordered, over the tank’s intercom. “And mind your sides, we have comrades mobile. We don’t want any road dosas on our conscience!”
“Yes ma’am! But to be honest, they should be minding me! I can’t see them well!”
Danielle’s voice was a pleasantly middling pitch in her ears, a little deep, a little affected.
“Now, now! They’re trying their best!” Caelia laughed. Her own voice was similar.
Neither of them had an uncomplicated feminine voice, but they loved their sound.
Both of them had been around many small tanks together over the year.
But the Kobold was their favorite; both of them agreed.
The Kobold was a small tank with a crew of two. Surrounded by the turret ring and gun mechanism, Caelia could still, if she ducked low or craned her head down, she could see the back of Danielle’s head of short, curly black hair below her, and her square shoulders, dressed green in her tanker’s bodysuit. Sometimes she would turn her head over her shoulder and their eyes would pleasantly meet, blue on one end and black on the other, both behind spectacles perched on their noses, one pearl-pink, one light bronze.
Caelia looked down from her equipment, and their eyes briefly met on that Rangdan road.
“Eyes forward, commander! This is serious!” Danielle grinned.
“I’m always serious, Private Santos!” Caelia said in a mock stern voice.
She returned to her gun sight briefly, let go of her machine gun and looked down again.
“Danielle, shift to a minimal gear, we’ve got friendlies forward!” She ordered.
“I see them!” Danielle replied, pulling back momentarily from her periscope.
Caelia lifted her head up to her own periscope again.
Perhaps inspired by Corporal Kajari’s brave (but foolhardy) tactics in the last roadblock, several submachine gunners charged along the road and then ran ahead of the tank, and quickly made it past the traverse angle of the remaining Khroda’s gunfire. Once past that point they brazenly engaged the roadblock. Hundreds of pistol caliber tracer rounds peppered the roadblock as the gunners pulled their triggers down with a fury.
Under such gunfire enemy Khroda gunners could not pull up their bipods and readjust. Suppressed behind the sandbags, their guns silenced, and a dozen more fighters soon joining that brave first squadron out in front, the roadblock defenders could do nothing but tie handkerchiefs to the barrels of their rifles and wave the white flag that way.
Harmony ground to a halt in front of a picket line of submachine gunners slowly advancing on the roadblock. There was a moment of tension as they approached, and as the defenders stood from their positions with their hands up. But there was no trick. One by one the surrendering enemy threw their weapons into the open, disabled their machine guns and gave themselves up to the custody of the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment.
This too, happened almost casually and without much incident.
Individually they were stripped of equipment, including their uniform coats, and led on a march back toward the base by some of the rear guard. It was a methodical process, and the dejected traitors stood with their heads down, patiently waiting for their turn at it.
“Finally, a breather.”
Caelia removed her headset and sighed.
She did not know what winter was like in Rangda, but the interior of a tank was always a bit sweltering in her experience. She could feel her skin going slick beneath her bodysuit, and she felt cool droplets trailing down her nose and around her cheeks. Her breaths came rapid and hot as she laid back against the turret’s single seat. She popped open the hatch but did not climb out. A brief but welcome gust of cool morning air blew in through it.
“Can you feel it down there?” Caelia asked aloud. Behind them the Kobold’s engine whirred and thrummed but it was quiet enough that they could speak over it.
“Yes, but I opened my own hatch too.” Danielle replied.
Caelia looked down, and saw that it was indeed a little brighter below.
“How are things up there?” Danielle asked.
“I’ve still got a decent bit of ammunition–”
“No, no! I mean, how are you? How are you doing?”
Caelia shrugged her shoulders. “I’m ok,” was all she found herself saying.
“Well. I’m ok too.” Danielle replied.
Both of them stared for a moment. Did they really have nothing more to say?
Awkwardly they resumed their posts.
Caelia could have been more conversational, but it was difficult in this situation, and in most situations in fact. Danielle wasn’t the only shy one in the tank, and it felt awkward to chit-chat. After all, there was still a war going on; and Caelia just wasn’t the most equipped person where it concerned making the first move outside of tank gunnery. Whether speaking plainly or speaking from the heart, Caelia was just a touch reserved.
Still, she cherished the moment, even though she did not say so aloud.
Hearing her discarded headset buzzing, she put it back on.
Raising her head out of the hatch, she saw the prisoners nearly cleared around her.
As they left, the rest of the column moved bloodlessly on.
“Danielle, start her up again.” Caelia ordered. “Keep her steady.”
“I thought you liked her fast as hell?” Danielle laughed.
“I do, but, keep her steady for now. No road dosas!” Caelia said.
At a brisk pace, Harmony started advancing behind the infantry for once.
Corporal Chadgura addressed the tank crew over the intercom. “Ahead of us is University Village, a housing complex for students and laborers. From what we can see of it, it’s not occupied by the 8th Division. Keep your eyes peeled. There may be snipers ahead.”
Past the sandbags, the road went in a rhomboid pattern around a broad, open urban block occupied by a pair of towering tenement buildings with exterior walkways connecting each visible unit on each floor. Grassy lawn surrounded each building and filled in the space between the two. Around the properties were a few trees, a playground for children, a large bus stop, a small private parking lot for those who had cars, and a few large box-shaped refrigerant and power supply units for air conditioning systems. Their ductwork and cables probably extended into the buildings from the underground.
There were a lot of places to hide. Multiple windows on each building, various obstacles in and around the tenements, and two sets of corners, as well as the connecting streets.
Harmony stuck to the road, Danielle carefully keeping the tracks on the asphalt and away from the gutter and the raised concrete street next to it. Green lawns stretched to either side of the car road. Allied infantry spread out across the street, the green and the road, arranged in individual squadrons and advancing at a walking pace, casting eyes about.
“Red squadron, move into the first building. Yellow and Blue will cover the green on both sides of the road. Harmony, keep watch on the road.” Corporal Chadgura ordered.
“Yes ma’am.” Caelia replied. “Danielle, cut engine for stealth.”
“Stealth is overstating it.”
Giggling, Danielle switched Harmony off.
Caelia opened up the hatch and climbed partially out of the tank.
From the inside of the tank, even with up to date sights and periscopes, visibility was far from perfect. Even a 360 degree periscope was limited by its aperture. It was like staring into a room through a peephole. Out of the tank, with the wind blowing her hair and cooling the sweat on her face, she could naturally see everything around her.
Standing on her seat, her head and arms above the hatch, Caelia craned her head.
She watched as Red Squadron entered the tenement, smashing the glass doors to the lobby with a shovel and moving in through the ground floor, and up the stairs. They exited out into the open-air walkways across the front of the building, starting on the second floor and climbing steps on each side of the building to move to the upper floors.
Corporal Kajari was at the front of the group — she had left the tank to lead the way in. Systematically they kicked open the doors in each floor. Two people went in, two stayed out. They could clear three rooms at a time this way. Corporal Kajari stood guard.
At her flanks, soldiers from Blue and Yellow squadrons laid on the grass and behind the big cube-like power units and trees. From their bellies or behind cover they deployed each squadron’s Danava light machine gun on an overwatch position, ready to shoot if anyone came up from around the corner formed between the two buildings, or around the farthest of the two seemingly unoccupied tenements. Corporal Chadgura approached the tank while her soldiers set up, waving her hand at Caelia. She hid behind the engine block.
In her hands was a rolled piece of paper that was likely a district map.
“Private Suessen, see anything on the road?” Corporal Chadgura asked via radio.
Caelia raised a pair of binoculars to her eyes. As far as she could tell, her branch of road went off due somewhere east, going around the tenements, past their land and out into the urbanization. It was all very flat terrain, surrounded by empty green with maybe a few benches, up until it connected with the other road and met the buildings on the far eastern side of the block. That was the street intersection, where the road that ran behind the second tenement met with her own. There was nothing there too from her vantage.
“No ma’am.” Caelia said. “Danielle, see anything?”
Caelia looked down into the hatch, startled. “Wait?”
“There’s a garage three buildings to our right from the intersection, look.”
Caelia looked through her binoculars again. She fixed on the intersection. Sure enough, past a private barber shop, a civil canteen and a government-operated sundries store, there was a union repair shop with an ample garage and a fenced-off blacktop.
There was a stack of junk cars and another stack of what seemed to be parts.
Caelia adjusted her binoculars and scanned the street.
She found the garage door unbolted, and partially open.
There were lights coming from under it.
Almost as soon as she set eyes on it, she saw the garage door start to rise
It did not take long from there to catch the first glimpse of slanted tracks and a flat glacis.
“Tanks!” Caelia shouted over the platoon radio. “We have Goblins coming in east!”
“How many?” Chadgura replied.
Caelia lifted her binoculars quickly, and counted one coming out of the garage — and two others stomping in from over the fence, smashing past the stack of spare parts and rolling in from around the stack of junked cars. “Three tanks. Dunno if they’ve seen me.”
“Private, we have inadequate anti-tank weaponry on site. I’ll call for a BKV team for reinforcements, but you will have to buy time. Can you do that?” Chadgura said.
“I think I can get rid of them ma’am.”
Caelia dropped down back into the turret and set her sights on the road.
In a quick movement, as if sleight of hand, she moved a shell from wall rack to hand.
“Loading Armor-Piercing, High Explosive!”
In another fluid, almost acrobatic movement, she loaded the gun.
In any tank battle the most crucial shot was the first one, taken from a position of strength, before the engagement became fluid. It was this shot that was the safest, the most well-planned and carefully executed. An average tank battle began almost like an ambush: from a safe position, the first tank to see an enemy seized the initiative, took the opening shot, and likely, scored a kill. Her position was anything but safe. However, though the ground was relatively flat and the road open, that did not mean the enemy was aware of her. Caelia knew that if the Goblins had seen her already they would be shooting.
Since she was not dead, it meant she had the first shot on them.
The Goblin were occupied extricating themselves from their hiding places and forming up on the road. Perhaps they received orders from a retreating 8th Division unit, or perhaps they had orders to move if a certain amount of time passed without contact. Regardless of what set them moving, Caelia knew she had the initiative here. She had the first shot.
She descended her gun a few degrees, set her sights several hundred meters out on the closest Goblin, the one at the front of its column, loaded, and hit the pedal for a shot.
As the shell went flying, the turret shook. The report and flash of her gun unveiled her.
But in her mind the battle was already won.
She watched through her sight as the lead Goblin absorbed the shell through the front hatch, where the driver would be. Smoke blew from the interior, and the top hatch flew open from the pressure of the blasting charge going off inside the chassis. It was dead.
This was enough to ruin the entire column, it seemed.
Directly behind it, the second Goblin in the ranks crashed into the first, perhaps unaware that it had been stopped. At the back, the third Goblin stopped, popped its hatches open, popped them closed, and then reversed wildly, trying desperately to maneuver around the stalled column. Nobody was acting in cohesion. Killing the lead tank confused them.
“Danielle, get ready to back us up!”
“I’m on it!”
Harmony’s engine fired. Caelia’s sight shook, but she reacquired the targets quickly.
Reaching for another shell, she loaded the gun, and turned the turret a few degrees right.
As the third Goblin showed its sides to try to escape, Caelia put a round through it.
She blasted through the engine block and set the rear of the tank ablaze.
Now the second Goblin was trapped between two hulks. It could escape, but it would have to maneuver in a much more confined space. Within seconds, its crew opted not to — Caelia watched hatches go up from the front and turret roof, and the tankers bailed from their perfectly unscratched tank and ran past the intersection and away from battle.
“All sighted hostiles have been eliminated, ma’am.” Caelia called on the radio.
She heard a flat, monotone sigh of relief. “Good job, Private.” Chadgura said.
Danielle was back on the intercomm. Caelia was startled again.
“Are there any other garages around here? Are there any garages on the northern side of this street from University? They could be hiding Goblins there too!” Danielle said.
Caelia lifted the hatch, hoping to ask Sergeant Chadgura.
She lifted it in time to hear a blast in the distance.
Caelia barely had her head out of the hatch when she saw smoke behind the tenements.
“Shit.” Caelia exclaimed. She dove back inside the turret immediately.
Corporal Kajari was on the radio in clear distress.
“We just got to the top floor of this tenement and something shot at one of the rooms! I think you’ve got tanks headed around the tenements from the north! Watch out!”
“Private Suessen, move in support of Red Squadron, now!” Sgt. Chadgura shouted.
Whenever it came to Corporal Kajari, Sgt. Chadgura always got a touch alarmed.
Caelia could relate; she felt a bit similarly about Danielle. She called her quickly.
“Danielle, I’m going to need that prodigal driving of yours!”
She looked down from the turret seat, and found Danielle grinning up at her.
“I’ll make it go fast! Just stay on that gun.” She said.
Harmony’s engine roared to life.
Caelia’s heart thrashed like the festival drums.
This was a tank battle, like in the jungle, like in Bada Aso.
They could die.
She nearly whispered Danielle’s name into the microphone, but something stopped her.
She always found it hard to say much — maybe to say enough.
Perhaps she picked the wrong times to say anything.
Over the gutters and the street, the tank accelerated into the green, and doubled back around the face of the lower tenements and toward the lower connecting road. Danielle did not take that road. Instead she swept around the northern side of the tenement, keeping to the green, moving with the playground between herself and the road approach.
Caelia swept across the landscape with her periscope.
She focused on the battle, on survival.
“Target acquired! On the road!” She shouted.
Three more Goblins, moving in an arrowhead formation toward the tenement.
They had clearly moved in from University avenue, the main road leading farther north, and were headed into the green. Two had their barrels down, but the head Goblin was turning its fully-elevated gun on the tenement’s top floor, and it unleashed a second high-explosive shell just as Caelia acquired its location. Caelia did not see the effect.
Instead she heard it on the radio as Corporal Kajari screamed.
Her status could not be confirmed from Harmony. Visibility was too limited.
It was like being stuck in one’s own little world, trapped amid the larger battle.
Just the walls of this tank. Even Danielle was hard to see.
Gritting her teeth, Caelia laid her sights on that aggressive lead tank.
She hit her pedal just as Danielle hit a bump in the terrain.
Her sight swung up, and her shell flew just over the Goblin’s engine block.
“Danielle, keep it steady!” She shouted.
At once, the turrets on the Goblins started to turn toward them.
Caelia gasped. “Okay, forget steady; evasive maneuvers!”
Harmony jerked sideways to face its glacis toward the opponents.
Two barrels flashed in their direction.
Caelia braced herself and the words escaped her lips despite her prior reticence.
In the face of death she felt compelled to try–
One shell flew just over the engine block before Harmony could fully turn; the other crashed into the gun mantlet and deflected. Inside the turret Caelia felt the deafening clang of the shot impact and all of her instruments shook violently. Her head blared; she felt like the shell had gone off inside her skull instead of bouncing off. She nearly collided with the gun sight in a daze, but managed to hold her ammo rack and jerk herself back.
Had anything struck her head it might have knocked her out and doomed Danielle.
Caelia regained her bearings quickly. She lifted the hand she had on the ammo rack and used it for a more pressing concern: seizing a shell and loading the main gun.
“Caelia, are you alright?” Danielle shouted.
She felt immediate relief hearing her driver’s voice.
“Yes! Are you?” Caelia asked.
“Don’t worry about me!” Danielle replied.
Harmony barreled through the green, building speed on the rough ground.
The Goblins’ turrets tracked them as they moved.
Danielle counted down for something and then hit the brake.
Harmony ground to a halt with a cubic power generator unit between it and the enemy.
Caelia barely registered this maneuver; she flinched at the sight of the barrel flashes.
Two more shells hurtled toward them.
Both struck the power generator and punched deep holes in the unit.
Fire started to dance atop the generator and smoke blew out.
Harmony quickly resumed running.
Soon as the Kobold left the side of the power generator, the damaged unit burst.
Chunks of metal, tongues of flame and a copious cloud of smoke blew from the unit as its engine and fuel violently went up. Caelia felt a dozen tiny impacts on Harmony’s armor from the remains of the unit. Her sights were suddenly obscured by the spreading smoke and the flames, trailing across the dry off-green grass of the tenement lawns.
“I’m hooking around their backs Caelia, can you put shells on them?”
“I can certainly try!”
Caelia glued her eyes to the sights, and turned the turret, looking into the fog of war.
She spotted two violently red trails plowing through the cloud of smoke.
Caelia flinched, bracing for the impact.
Both shells flew past Harmony as it hurtled away from the green.
The Goblins did not know their exact position anymore.
And judging by the flashes shining through the smoke, the Goblins had not moved at all.
It was the most common mistake of inexperienced tankers: to stand in one place and shoot repeatedly without moving the tank, hoping to land killing blows before having to turn the tank. Reacquiring a target on the gun sight took time, and it had to be done whenever the tank moved too violently. But the gunnery time saved by remaining stationary was a very minimal advantage compared to the safety of a new firing position.
Even Caelia fell into this trap, but not to this extent. Not against a moving enemy.
These tankers were rookies, and it was the gulf in experience that had saved her.
Soon as Harmony hit the road and charged up the rear of the tenement buildings, Caelia spotted the enemy again, still in an arrowhead formation, still parked on the green near the lower tenement, their turrets still turned on the smoking, burning power unit.
Caelia spun the turret lever and turned her gun on the farthest of the tanks.
Despite Harmony’s speed, she corrected quickly enough to get the enemy lined up.
Soon as the first shell went out, she reached out for a second, and punched it through.
She glanced through the sight, saw smoke, and reached for a third shell.
This one she did not call out before firing. It simply went with the rest.
Through the noise of the gun and the tank she heard the sound of fire and damage.
When she looked through the glass again, she found one Goblin burning from a shell exploding in its high-necked turret ring and setting ablaze its ammunition. Another Goblin had its tracks torn in half, and its turret scanned the environment in confusion while the driver and radio operator struggled to escape, having given up on the tank.
But the third Goblin was turning in place to face them. Its turret aligned with them.
It had to be mere seconds away from shooting, and Harmony was not facing it.
One good shot through the side armor would kill them both.
Again the word escaped her lips, but Danielle was quick to allay her fears.
Danielle suddenly hit the brakes again. Harmony came to a screeching stop.
This time it was completely exposed, out of cover.
But the enemy Goblin’s turret kept going. It moved past them.
It was trying to lead the shot, and over-corrected.
Caelia seized her advantage and quickly aligned a stable shot.
She hit the pedal and flinched at the gun’s recoil.
A shell speared the aggressive Goblin right through the gun mantlet.
In the blink of an eye the turret burst open and disgorged its gun onto the ground.
Without waiting, Caelia reloaded the gun and turned it on the remaining Goblin.
She then unlocked the breech again with a deep sigh of relief.
Surrounding the enemy tank, Blue Squadron arrived, led by Sergeant Chadgura. In their hands were AT grenades and pistols. They caught the half of the tank crew that had bailed out before, and threatened the tank commander and gunner still in the vehicle. From the hatches, a pair of hands soon appeared — the Goblin surrendered to them.
“Hey, tank girl, the area’s secure, you can rest easy.”
Caelia felt a little relief hearing Corporal Kajari on the radio, alive.
“Are you unscathed, Corporal?’ Caelia asked.
“Turns out these tenements have pretty sturdy walls. I’m doin’ alright.”
“Do you have overwatch then?”
“Yeah, yeah. I told you not to worry, right? We’ve got BKVs on the approaches now. Any Goblin tank that approaches these tenements is getting some lead in the eyes.”
Caelia nodded to herself in her seat, and pulled off her headset.
She laid back and felt the sweat dripping down her brow again.
Harmony’s engine shut off once more. Everything was eerily quiet.
They had survived another tank battle, destroyed four tanks, forced two to surrender.
Likely, they had killed several people. Or at least, Caelia’s gunnery had.
Though of course, Danielle’s driving was instrumental.
Perhaps ‘they’ was indeed warranted.
Everything was quiet, and the adrenaline subsided slowly.
Nevertheless, Caelia always felt a little eerie right after the battle. It felt as if there was a hole that should have been naturally filled, and yet, nothing was happening to close the gap. There was no sound. In the blink of an eye the heated violence of the past few minutes had simply stopped. Absent battle, the battlefield caused her a hint of anxiety.
She always felt as if there should have been a gentler transition after battle.
Instead, the high to which her heart and soul had been pushed dropped inadvertently.
It reminded her of playing an instrument. Such a rapid transition from sound to quiet.
Just a breath between life and death. One pull of the lungs between song and silence.
Silence was troublesome. When the world was silent, the mind started to speak.
“Caelia, how’s everything up there? You look dazed.”
Danielle peeked into the turret ring from below.
“It’s ok.” Caelia said, smiling slightly. She didn’t want her companion to worry.
“Hah. It’s always just ‘ok’ with you!” Danielle said.
Caelia smiled. “Well, how are you then?”
“I’m ok.” Danielle mimed.
Caelia scoffed jokingly. “Hey, listen: my ‘ok’ is pretty ‘ok’, I’ll have you know.”
Remembering one of their good-luck rituals, Caelia reached into her bodysuit’s belt pouches and withdrew a small harmonica. She wiped it quickly with a little cloth.
“Oh!” Danielle said in recognition.
Caelia nodded. “A few notes for the departed.” She said.
She raised the harmonica to her lips, and started to play.
Danielle quieted expectantly, and she smiled too.
From within Harmony, a somber little tune could be heard, muffled, in the surroundings.
Until it was time to move again, Caelia gently played, and Danielle quietly listened.
What she could not say with words, Caelia tried to convey with the song.
Her quiet tension and anxiety with the instrument she was now called on to wield.
And a newfound love within the bowels of this instrument.
Even if she could not say it yet. Even if the right words couldn’t yet beat the silence.
Trapped within the world of the tank. Visibility was bad; but she could see what mattered.
Rangda University — Muhimu Shimba, Lion Battalion HQ
Confusion reigned over the Lion Battalion fighters and planners at Rangda University.
Far as they knew, the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment should have remained contained to their base in southern Rangda, but all communications other than foot traffic had been lost to the rest of the 8th Division and to the military command in Council. So there was no way to confirm or broadcast the locations of the enemy’s units. Through foot traffic, they had hoped to link their forces to begin a counteroffensive. This had proven useless, and despite sending dozens of horses out, they had no intelligence. There were maps, but nobody was certain whether anything being pinned to them reflected the real situation.
Everyone suspected it was the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment — who else could it be? — but without visual, without radio, without active confirmation of the enemy, and without any connection to command or to units suspicions were worthless. They could not be acted on.
Lt. “Lionheart” Badir knew only that most of his couriers were not coming back, and that those who did were the ones who did not travel far and did not see enemy movement, and therefore could not organize any sort of attack in any useful direction. At best they heard gunfire somewhere in the distance, but that too was useless. He had attempted to launch artillery on areas thought to be threatened by an enemy advance, based on perceptions of gunfire direction and trails in the sky and other similar forms of divination, but he had no way of knowing the effects or correct his fire, so the impetus to shoot was utterly lost.
Instead of using them as artillery, he had his 122mm guns latched onto horses and readied to drive out to meet the enemy. Fortresses were worthless — this was the era of the assault troops! Liuetenant Badir hoped to gather all of his remaining forces and launch a bold counterattack through University and down the Northern roads.
His preparations for battle were slow, tentative; until one particular horseman returned.
Arriving at the edge of Muhimu Shimba in a stout cavalry horse of old, 1st Sergeant Arando swung his steed around a line of parked artillery guns and dismounted swiftly. He saluted. He was the kind of man Badir appreciated. Tall, gallant, with a thick beard and cropped head, large arms and long legs, black as the night. Like Badir, he had taken up his sabre in mutiny against Solstice in 2026. He was the courier Badir knew to expect back.
“At ease, Sergeant.” Badir said. He smiled, and approached for a shake of the hand.
Arando did not move. He cast eyes aside and heaved a sigh.
He was not alone in Muhimu Shimba.
Behind his horse, Badir spotted a second rider, and farther behind, a line of men and women arriving, many wounded, most disarmed. At first, Badir wanted to think that Arando had defeated a column and caught prisoners. But he knew these were his men and women. They all shared the same uniform with the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment, and Arando, despite his bravery, lacked the combat power to defeat any enemy unit alone.
Badir did not ask from where they came. It could only mean that several of his roadblocks had been broken, and the platoon-level unit of disparate soldiers arriving at the park were all the remained of these fortifications. They made their way back, having discarded their weapons and vanished into the urban thickets, dispersing into alleyways to hurry north.
“Sir, we have at least sixty survivors from battle with the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment. They are still able and willing to fight, but they are shaken. I advise we have them build–”
Badir raised his hand to quiet Arando.
“Rearm them. We’re not building more fucking forts.” He interjected.
“Sir?” Arando asked.
Badir turned around and moved deeper into the park woodland without answer.
Arando followed him.
Several dozen meters into the treeline, Badir arrived at a massive object beneath a tarp bound to the floor by poles. It was over nine meters long and four meters tall, dwarfing the men in stature. Badir beheld it with a grin. He had been hiding it, in case the enemy had an air force to speak of. Air attack was the only weakness of his great weapon.
Beneath that tarp was a tank with more firepower than any Ayvarta had ever seen.
“To think, Arando, that they chose that little girl Ravan’s tank design over Orabe’s!”
Arando stroked his own beard in confusion.
“Orabe? Sir, you have a tank designed by Orabe? I thought he was–”
“Disgraced? Yes. But still a genius. He gave us an invaluable tool.”
Badir turned over his shoulder, casting an intense look at his subordinate.
“Will you gather your cavalry and join me on the assault, my friend?” He asked.
Arando had a dark look on his face, but he did not immediately deny him.
That was enough for Badir.
He turned back around and began to extricate his ultimate weapon from its bonds.
Soon the Yotun would roar to life and his enemy would be crushed under its treads.
Badir The Lionheart would cower in Rangda University no longer.