Stelle Cadenti (59.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Ave.

Inside the medical tent the entry curtains stirred and spread at her behest, and behind them, Corporal Gulab Kajari found a familiar pale-haired, dark-skinned girl with a very blank expression, sitting alongside a nurse. Gulab smiled and stretched her arms wide.

“Hey! Guess who’s back? Gimme a hug!” Gulab called out amicably.

Charvi Chadgura almost leaped from atop the stretcher and seized upon Gulab, resting her head on the woman’s chest and surprising her with her energy. Despite the empty look to her eyes and the neutral setting of her lips, Charvi’s affection and relief was evident in the dead-tight grip she had on Gulab’s chest, and in her gentle, almost purr-like stirring.

“Well, it works, but it feels more like you’re clinging than hugging.” Gulab said.

“I want to cling.” Charvi replied. Her unaffected monotone remained the same too.

Gulab giggled.

She closed her arms around Charvi’s shoulders and back and nestled with her.

“See, I’m perfectly ok.” Gulab said.

“I was still worried. You nearly died.”

“Hmph! Nearly nothin’! If a Rock Bear can’t kill me, nothing can!”

“I will still worry.”

“That’s fair.”

Behind them, the nurse watched with a patient, smiling face.

Gulab caught sight of her over Charvi’s shoulder and felt self-conscious for a moment.

“Anyway, you should get yourself fixed up.”

She gently separated herself from Charvi, who looked at her in the eyes and blinked.

“Nothing is wrong with me.” Charvi said.

Interjecting, the nurse raised her hand with a concerned expression.

“Actually comrade, you have a fragment wound in your leg that should be cared for.”

Looking down, Gulab found torn cloth and seeping blood near Charvi’s knee.

“You should get that taken care of.” Gulab insisted.

“It’s fine.” Charvi said. “I don’t feel pain.”

“Infection respects no hero, comrade.” replied the nurse. “I must clean it at least.”

Gulab chuckled at Charvi’s casual obstinancy. She clearly wanted to spend time with her now that there was a hard-won instant of calm after all they had gone through. Gulab appreciated it; she wanted to be by Charvi’s side too, even if they did nothing more than sit down and sleep against each other’s shoulders in the back of a truck back to base.

“Nurse, would it be okay if I just stayed here?” Gulab asked.

“I don’t see why not!” said the nurse, smiling.

“Well then.” Gulab nodded to the nurse. “Charvi, I’ll be right here, so get patched up.”

Charvi clapped her hands gently.

“If you say so.”

The Nurse found Gulab a seat, and she sat back to watch the nurse snip away part of Charvi’s pants leg and dab her wound gently with a saline solution to clean it. Gulab watched the procedure with a placid smile, but her mind was mostly empty of thought. She was coming down from the rush and panic of the previous battle. She felt an eerie sense of satisfaction. A lot had gone wrong — she had been hurt, Charvi had been hurt, and many of their comrades suffered worse. However, they managed to pull through.

They protected so many others, and worked together to defeat an enemy that was vicious, numerous and ostensibly prepared for battle. Despite everything, they had won.

Gulab herself had hunted a giant; almost in the way that her ancestors always had.

Though she hated her interaction with that tradition, she realized that sometimes the giants were hunted because they could kill the people you love, and not for its own sake. She felt that she would fight any enemy to safeguard the people she cared about. For her comrades; for people like Adesh and the kids, or Caelia and Danielle; for Charvi. Anyone who would hurt them, who would hurt innocents; if she could hunt them then she would.

She felt a burden start to lift in that regard. Maybe even that side of her was not indelibly her father’s, not indelibly owned by men. Maybe it could be a part of her as a woman too.

Maybe it didn’t all have to end up like it did with her grandfather.

“All done! You were a swell patient, Sergeant.”

Charvi stood up from the stretcher and waved a hand at the nurse as a quiet thanks.

Her knee was wrapped in a big patch with a red blotch on it, but she could walk.

Gulab stood from her seat, and stretched her arms. She felt a hint of drowsiness.

“I think we’ve earned a bite and a long, quiet truck ride to the barracks, no?” She said.

“We have. I can go see how my stamp book is doing.” Charvi said.

“Where did you leave it?”

“I left it with the company commissary, back at the base. They have waterproof lockers.”

“Someday I’m going to make you a case for that thing.”

“A case?”

“Yup! You wouldn’t know it, but I’m pretty handy with leather.”

Chatting idly, they walked outside the tent and down the road.

The University and its surroundings felt like they had completely transformed.

After the fall of Muhimu Shimba the Lion Battalion was quickly mopped up. Lion’s remaining troops overwhelmingly surrendered outright; though they had no way of knowing their commander had been defeated, the presence of enemy forces in Muhimu Shimba was enough to break their faith. It became clear that at Lion’s last stand only a fraction of the battalion’s remaining troops were present. Had the entire battalion rallied the battle would have been bloodier; had the Jotun remained in place, it might have become a temporary rout. In the heat of the moment, everything had become hectic and improvisational but they managed to win out regardless. Now the location was theirs.

University Avenue had become the nerve center of the 2nd Battalion’s operations. Its logistics train back to Colonel Nakar’s HQ was solidified and trucks were coming and going unmolested, carrying troops and support personnel to and fro. Tents for the medics and signals personnel and computer support teams had begun to sprout, many hidden within or between buildings for some cover from enemy spotters. Burundi’s organic artillery support had begun to arrive too. Gulab spotted the light howitzers, towed in by truck, setting up in groups of three in a little sitting park along the way down from the medical tent. Broken-down buildings, damaged in the fighting, were used to conceal ammunition.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle. Not everyone could breathe as easy as she yet.

Though the battle raged on in spirit, it was no longer Gulab’s battle to fight now.

It was expected that Gulab and Charvi and their comrades would be rotated out for fresher troops. She had been given to understand that she could expect to fight much longer battles in the future, but to survive today against the 8th’s numerical advantages they needed troops to maintain a “high combat quality.” So rotations for rest were necessary. This was especially necessary for prized veterans like herself, who were invaluable.

Gulab had puffed up her chest quite a bit upon hearing such accolades.

But the promise of sleep and food was much more important at the moment.

Quietly basking in each other’s orbit, the pair sidled up to a fresh truck, newly arrived and with an empty bed, and climbed up onto the back, maneuvering around a machine gun on a mount grafted to the center of the bed, no doubt in haste. They sat with their backs to metal and their rumps on the cold floor. Gulab felt a little sleepy as soon as she took her body weight off her legs. Everything she had done in the past few hours seemed to have finally caught up to her, now that she had allowed it. She leaned against Chadgura.

“Hey, if you’re awake, lemme know when we get back to base.”

“Okay.”

“I wanna grab some hot lentils before they’re out a batch, you know?”

“I will keep my eyes open.”

“Oh no, you should sleep too! I just mean, if you happen to be awake.”

Chadgura clapped her hands softly.

They waited in the truck, while more people arrived from around the block with their weapons and remaining ammunition in tow, sitting in whatever truck was closest or fancied them best. Gulab began to nod off. Whenever she blinked, she held her eyes in darkness longer each time, and felt she could see more and more of a dream each time.

Each glimpse of the horizon, briefer and briefer, put into stark relief a group of shadows.

They could have been specks of dust, so distant were they, or mere tricks of the light and the dreaming dark upon Gulab’s eyes. But their movement was predictable and relentless in the way only physical things could achieve, utterly lacking the whimsy of a fantasy. As they came closer and closer, as the mite-like shadows gained definite form and began to issue noise and part the clouds they sailed through, the drowsy Gulab started to realize she was seeing something materially real; and that she was not the only witness.

Slowly, across one street and then another, heads began to turn, eyes began to climb.

Everyone measured the sky and found objects fast approaching.

Visions of Bada Aso returned unbidden to the collective unconscious of the Regiment.

At first stupefied, the various units around University were joined under a singular call:

“AIRCRAFT APPROACHING! Sound the air raid sirens and find shelter!”

This call came not from a Major or a Lieutenant but a Sergeant in charge of a spool of telephone wire. Nonetheless, everyone was all too eager to comply, despite the lack of an air raid siren or any formal shelter — this was not Bada Aso. Soon Gulab found the truck around her emptying suddenly, and similar trucks as well. There was a mad rush away from open space and into the buildings. Doors to places left inviolate after the fighting, were finally kicked to the floor; everyone dispersed into the shops and galleries.

Gulab finally snapped from her half-awake stupor. Aircraft. Air Raid.

“Charvi!” She cried out.

At her side, Charvi had stood upright and was looking over the walls of the truck.

“Excuse me,” she said aloud, trying to get the attention of running passersby.

Nobody answered her, and the dispersing troops made every effort to get as far away as they could from the sight of the aircraft during their brief moment of leaderlessness.

Gulab grabbed her belt and helped herself to stand.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

Charvi looked at her, blank-faced as usual.

“Wondering what our orders will be now.” She said.

To her seeming confusion, nobody appeared to have orders to give as the aircraft overflew their skies with relative impunity. Gulab watched her comrades dispersing, and having never been under the bombs in Bada Aso, she wondered what she could now do.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVIII

This chapter contains violence and death and mild misogyny.


??nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, ???? Province of — ????

Byanca Geta awakened in a thick darkness reminiscent of sleep.

She could feel the movement of her body. She was sure of her own weight in space.

Everything was so dark, however, that she felt like a mind floating in the ether. Had she been blinded? What had even happened? She felt a sharp pain in the back of her head as she tried to move, and it confirmed to her that she was awake and alive somewhere.

A cold terror swept across her body. She did not know her condition or space.

Byanca patted herself down. She felt her uniform. Her arms, her chest, her belly, her hips and legs and feet; everything was in its place and as clothed as it was before. Her pockets were empty, and she had no holsters or weapons. Her belt was still there. She was sitting, and she felt the hard, stone-like perch upon which she sat. She raised her arms, and she stretched them. She stretched her legs. She touched walls, cold walls, on all sides.

When she tried to stand, she found that she could, but she felt her ponytail brush against the ceiling when fully upright. She was in a box, a cold stone box, unmoving, with a perch to sit on and enough room that she could stand, and that her arms could just barely not outstretch, and her legs could just barely fail to draw out to their full length.

Touching the walls she found nothing that suggested a doorway or even a slot for food.

She drew in a deep breath. This was not a cement burial; there was too much room.

Trying not to panic, she told herself this was probably a solitary confinement and sensory deprivation box in a prison complex somewhere. If they wanted to starve her to death they would have just buried her alive. And if they wanted to kill her they would have shot her. She reasoned that they wanted her alive and just needed to keep her isolated until she cracked. It was torture, not torture to death. She had to believe that for her own sake.

For Salvatrice’s sake. The Princess was in the hands of the Legatus and his deranged conspirators and who knew what they would have her do; or what they would do to her?

Byanca breathed in deep. She did not feel light-headed, so there was enough air coming in from somewhere that it could sustain her breathing. So there had to be a gap somewhere.

She could still be blind, and that was a frightening thought. She looked around the box, trying to get a feel that she was facing where her arms were touching, and trying to find a gap anywhere that could filter in even the smallest of lights. But there was nothing. Every surface was perfectly smooth and seemed to fit perfectly well. She pulled off her gloves and started to touch, where corners met, where a lid or a door might be placed.

Overhead, she found she could slip a fingernail and a bit of the flesh of her index finger through a gap. So it was not a perfect crate. It had a lid that could come off the top.

So if there was no light coming in, then it was still night, or the lid was further covered, with a tarp or a second lid or something that blocked the outside world but not air tight.

Byanca sat back on the perch and heaved a heavy sigh.

Her head hurt. Sharply at first, but the pain dulled over an unknown length of time.

She was cold and sweating colder still.

At this point, Byanca was almost positive that she was not buried alive in cement, a torture that she greatly feared, and as such had temporarily calmed a bubbling panic in her heart. However, she was also sure she could not extricate herself from her predicament and might still in some other fashion die or be killed, either in this box or its proximity.

And any more time wasted could be horrific for Salvatrice, and for Lubon.

Knowing no other solution Byanca maneuvered her body such that she could kneel with her hands on her sitting perch. She bowed her head and entwined her fingers in prayer.

As a child she had lived in Saint Orrea’s Hope, a monastery dedicated to the Messiah, as they all were, but also to the restoration of magic. She was a choir girl, and a servant, and in her teens she had been something of a nun. During those days, she prayed; she prayed almost on reflex, in the morning, before every meal, at night. When she left St. Orrea, she stopped praying eventually. It was hard to pray while homeless on the street. It was hard to pray while fighting in the Borelian brush. It was hard to pray even here in Lubon.

Saint Orrea’s Hope was that miracles were real and the faith could be materially rewarded.

It was hard to imagine such a thing in the kind of world they inhabited now. It was hard to believe in Gods and Miracles when there was discontent, poverty, homelessness; war and death and devastation; when every authority and order that professed to give security and solace to the people preyed on and destroyed them instead. Byanca would not have called herself an atheist, but she couldn’t understand a God who would allow a world like this.

But having nothing else, knowing nothing else, Byanca prostrated herself and prayed.

Benedicite,”

In the ancient tongue of the elves, as she had been taught, she beseeched the God Of Many Names and his earth-bound martyred form, The Messiah, for succor, for strength. She extolled his virtues. Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. For he was a God who demanded acknowledgment before considering mercy. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam aelfia, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. For her was a God of many powers, and whose powers had to be respected and feared before they could ever be called upon by the humble.

Having humiliated herself as a lowly human before his great power, she could now beg.

“Please grant me the power to save her. I would die if that’s what it took.”

She craned her head skyward, at the great yawning dark she felt just overhead.

“Please. I love her; I loved her as a child, and I love her still. I know it’s stupid. She doesn’t remember me. She doesn’t remember that she promised me a pony and that I’d be a knight and that she would have big tea parties with me in the castle. But she was the light that shone on my soul in Saint Orrea; stranded in a place where I was nothing, no family, no ambitions, no future. I don’t even need to be something to her anymore; I just need her to be okay. I just want her to live and find happiness. Please, if I can do that, I will–”

Dust sifted from overhead, and a thin beam of light shone into the enclosure.

It was the dim, eerie light of a part-dawning sun as earth shifted above and unveiled a sky.

In place of an angel, however, was a short, sturdy fellow in a black uniform.

He had lifted the ceiling of the enclosure and revealed its true position in the ground.

“Geta, take my hand!” He whispered, leaning down into the cell.

Much to her surprise, Byanca found herself raising her arms to take Legionnaire Minimus’ hand, and furthermore found herself being pulled up from her prison by this man. Minimus, whom she had so often wronged before. He was the last person she had ever thought she would see. Especially not standing over her concrete grave plot.

“We have to be quick. Here, I brought you a stovepipe.” He said.

From a bag in his hands, he produced a small submachine gun and a magazine.

She took the weapon, loaded it quickly, and found it to be startlingly real.

This was not some kind of trick; Minimus was really here to help her.

“We don’t have time to be surprised. We have to move.” He said sternly.

He had not changed at all since they first met several years ago. He was a stocky and a round lad with a shaved head and big hands. He wore a white armband over his black uniform that marked him as a medic. She found herself looking for signs of the bruise she left him in their scuffle years ago, but of course, it would have long since healed by then.

Byanca shook her head and took a step back in defense.

“I need answers Minimus. What happened here and why are you helping me?”

Minimus shook his head and waved his hands.

“Listen, I need answers too, but we’ll talk while we move. It’s crucial we go now.”

Byanca cast a quick glance around herself. It just as quickly became more deliberate.

They were in the middle of a stretch of green grass out by a pair of power generating stations. There were several other concrete-lidded plots nearby. Near each of the plots there lay a grass camouflaged tarp that had been pulled aside. A line of decorative trees blocked the view of the unsightly power station from what was clearly a Legionnaire garrison’s administrative building. It was a familiar one — the headquarters of the 17th Blackshirt Legion. Byanca’s legion; Legatus Tarkus’ legion; the traitorous legion.

“What about those cells? Did a man and a woman with me get thrown in those?”

Minimus sighed. “Yes, they did. Are they as good as you? We need to travel light.”

Byanca was almost shocked to hear the casual compliment.

“They’re competent. Help me get them out. They were very expensive.”

“Mercenaries? Good lord.”

Despite his reticence, Minimus helped Byanca to slowly undo the catches holding the concrete lids in place, and lift them from two of the tombs. Inside, she found Torvald praying and Giuseppa sleeping. Both of them had been roughed about as much as she had been, and neither had trouble accepting her hand and climbing out of the enclosures.

“How are you holding up?” Byanca asked.

Giuseppa shook her head. “You did not pay me enough to be buried alive.”

“You weren’t, quit being a baby.”

Torvald crossed his arms. “I’m with her. We’re gonna unionize against this kind of shit.”

Byanca grinned. Her redcoats grinned back at her.

Minimus snorted. “We can catch up while we run away from here. Soon the next shift of guards will be headed this way, and I don’t want to start a firefight this quickly.”

“But you do want to start one.” Byanca said.

“We’ve got to. I’ll explain as we go. Follow me to the detainment building.”

Minimus bowed himself and snuck out along the row of trees.

Byanca nodded her head to her subordinates, and they followed after.

She caught up and moved with Minimus, as close and quietly as possible.

Judging by the way he moved, he had been practicing for this kind of moment.

He knew his route. He knew where to hide and from what vantages. He had a plan.

Together they stole from behind the administrative building and around a trimmed, tree-studded green grounds toward a place Byanca remembered not as a detainment facility but as the warehouses where trucks brought food and fuel and ammunition and stockpiled everything the Legion’s Headquarters staff along with its training and security garrisons would need. The Legion Headquarters was not a base for combat troops, but a logistics and training center first and foremost. They had a small brig for troublemakers but nothing worthy of being called a “detainment facility” had ever been part of the base.

Much had changed under the mysterious new administration, it seemed.

“Minimus–”

“I’m doing this because it’s right.”

As they inched toward the warehouse facilities, Minimus answered very suddenly.

“You asked why I was helping you; because it’s right. I’ve only been saving my own skin until now and I can’t live like that. I can’t keep ignoring what’s happening here. I told myself the first opportunity I get, I’m going to put a hole in their dam. And there’s no bigger hole than the one you’re capable of making, Centurion, if I sprung you out.”

“Did you know that they would be capturing me?”

“Not specifically, but they threw damn near everyone else into containment, so.”

“You sound more confident in me than even I am.”

“You throw a mean punch.”

Byanca felt a little grin forming on her lips.

“Okay. Great. So what is happening here Minimus? Who are the Illuminati?”

She remembered them all too clearly from the forest; and from her wounds.

Minimus seemed to feel a chill then in mid-run.

They paused behind a brick enclosure around an outdoor water pump. Enough distance had been put between them and the administrative building that they could make the gamble of facing its vantage to hide from their new destination. It was now in their sights.

Beyond their hiding place, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated the old warehouses from the rest of the 17th Legion’s grounds. There was a gate, guarded; several rows of tall buildings with locked shutter doors made up the fenced-in facilities. Judging by the flashlight beams in the distance there were several guards. From a distance, she spotted a literal ammunition dump. There were stacked-up crates, maybe of howitzer shells, out in the open. Likely emptied from the warehouse when it became a prison.

Minimus shook his head and sighed again.

“Hearing you say the word is a little startling, even though you had to have seen them. It’s still hard to believe this is all real. The Illuminati are a bunch of traitors. I don’t really get it; and I’m technically with them. The Legatus has some kind of influence over them.”

Byanca blinked. “You’re with them? Are they from the 17th Legion then?” She asked.

“Almost all of them. Some outside guys, but it’s mostly legionnaires that the Legatus convinced to join his coup movement. Listen: I’d suspected there was something going on but I figured the Legatus and his croneys just had a secret privileged boy’s club with a first pick of the secretaries to fuck.” His crass behavior had already earned him a strike from Byanca before, but Minimus would be Minimus regardless. Byanca contained herself as the Legionnaire continued his tale, and figured she would save the punching for peace time.

“Then a while back,” Minimus continued, with a look of dread on his face, “when they announced we’d gotten all the anarchists, which we very much did not, people started being transferred from the active Maniples to the 4th Reserve Maniple. At first this was just standard demobilization paperwork that you do when a years-long operation is ending. But then the people they targeted started being recalled here to train as part of that Reserve Maniple, which we have never done before. And then they started not being allowed back out. Those are the guys in the warehouses. Then the guys in the masks started showing up at night. And if thought they could use you, you got sent on an isolating errand, so those guys could get to you, and then you got read the ultimatum.”

“Join us or die?”

“Pledge yourself to elven supremacy under the future Caesar, or stagnation in a pit.”

“Amazing. They’re quite full of themselves. But what are they exactly, Minimus?”

“Well, I don’t know everything. I joined them because I was scared, but Tarkus is a 25-karat paranoid and he and his goons won’t tell you anything going on in their heads. But if you listen for it you can learn a lot. Especially if you’re a medic who is writing their prescriptions. What I know: they’re planning a coup; and they have a puppet ruler lined up that they call The Caesar. They think this Caesar is something real special, and I can’t imagine why. All of the inner circle are from the Legatus’ signals battalion. He thinks they can control people’s minds over the radio or something. It’s insane. It’s like a cult, Geta.”

Byanca remembered how they saluted and shouted in unison in the forest.

It was indeed like a cult. But when had its dogma been laid down?

Judging by the situation, even a week ago, the Legatus already had plans for Salvatrice.

How long ago had he started to plot? Had he really groomed Salvatrice all of this time?

That was not possible; Byanca knew that was just arrogant bluster from Tarkus Marcel.

He would say anything to render Salvatrice vulnerable to his demands.

He needed to cultivate that sense of inevitability and omnipotence. All of this time he had more control over Salvatrice’s life and environment than any other person in the world. He didn’t just need her to acquiesce to being his puppet. He wanted, he needed, for her to accept the strings as a part of her. To use her as a ruler, nothing short of that would do.

Maybe that was the magic of the radio, the magic of surveillance. To scare people into believing it controlled the world around them. To make them acknowledge it as a God.

Byanca grit her teeth. Salvatrice did not deserve this abuse. It was abominable.

And to stop it she would have to depend on every ally she could immediately attain.

“Legatus Tarkus ambushed myself and the princess. He has her captive now.”

Byanca said it abruptly. Minimus suddenly looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide.

“Well, fuck. I figured it had to be something like that, but good lord.”

He then put on a little grin just as suddenly. Perhaps it was his idea of being reassuring.

“Luckily, I happen to know where the Legatus is keeping himself these days.”

Byanca gave him a critical look. “Do you know, or are you guessing?”

“I’ll tell you my evidence once we’ve got the army you’ll need to get through him.”

When Giuseppa and Torvald stacked up with them behind the brick walls, Minimus led them down a little hill into a ditch running alongside one stretch of the wall. There was loose earth beneath parts of the fence, and he pulled up a sizable chunk, creating enough space for them to crawl under. Ahead of them were the backs of several of the lower warehouse buildings and no guards in the vicinity. They rushed to the warehouse walls.

“There’s shutter doors on the other side.” Minimus said.

He opened his bag once again and withdrew a second submachine gun, for himself.

“Do you have a knife?” Byanca asked.

Minimus searched his pockets and found a scalpel and shrugged.

“I’m a doctor!” He whispered.

Byanca took the scalpel. It would do.

She handed her submachine gun to Giuseppa and crept around the corner.

Listening for footsteps, watching for the beam of light.

Moving along the side of the building and between the two rows of warehouses, she caught a glimpse of a guard, masked, with the familiar uniform from the forest. Byanca rushed him, seized him and pulled him around the corner in a lighting-quick ambush. She forced the scalpel into his throat and covered his mouth as she dragged him away, butchering his neck until his hands ceased to thrash against her own and his body went slowly limp.

Blood cascaded from the wound, staining her hands slick and dark.

She felt momentarily a little sick.

Were these the hands of a knight who rescued princesses?

In that instant the guard’s flashlight rolled off his fingers.

Byanca felt a moment of panic.

But from behind her a hand seized the flashlight. It was Legionnaire Minimus.

“Be more careful!” He whispered, his own voice growing strained with worry.

Byanca sighed deeply and nodded her head. She pulled the corpse back around the corner.

With the guard gone, there was at least one row of warehouses that could be accessed.

Everyone quickly reconvened before the series of shutter doors.

Minimus drew a lock cutter from his bag and started snapping the prisons open.

Byanca pushed open one of the shutters.

Dozens of eyes seemed to turn her direction at once.

Behind the shutter the warehouse had been emptied of goods and crammed with men, who huddled together making use of any available amount of space. They were weary, sitting back to back and side to side without even room to stretch their legs. It almost seemed like they would fall out in a cascade into the space created by opening the door. There were maybe fifty men all crammed into a storage space meant for a few crates.

“Stand up slowly, and come out.” Byanca urged them.

Incredulous at first, not one man allowed himself even to flinch in their presence.

“We’re not with the black masks. We’re here to fight them. To free you.” She added.

Given that piece of information, they were quicker to move. One by one the haggard faces lit up, and the men helped themselves to stand and walked out of the warehouse as if they were being freed from prison after years instead of days. They looked worn, but freedom seemed to urge them on. Minimus went through the shutters, unlocking each prison. Meanwhile the freed men started immediately to arm themselves. Stray bricks, drainage pipes, chains and chunks of wood. Byanca handed Torvald the pistol from the dead guard.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta.” She said aloud. “Those black masks are conspiring to–”

There were few among the crowd paying her any attention. Though they did not show her any outright hostility, it was clear that they were– they had to be– suspicious of anyone in the Legion, given their own former comrades had become their jailers. Most of the men were still disoriented. Those who were arming themselves seem to do so out of reflex. Nobody was organizing, nobody was speaking. Some part of them was spoiling for a fight, but imprisonment could beat the strategic mind out of any soldier. They were half-awake.

At this point, it struck Byanca that they were in no condition to be led except by example.

“Minimus, on me. We’re taking the remaining cells by storm.” She said.

“Well. Okay. Fine. Ugh. Geta, I expected a more measured approach.”

“Being measured right now is a half-measure. These men need to see carnage.”

Minimus raised a finger in protest but Byanca started moving, with or without him.

Minimus heaved a heavy, exasperated sigh, and he had an uneasy grip on his submachine gun as he ran, but he followed behind her nonetheless as she turned the corner around the back of the next row of warehouses. Surprisingly, a trickle of the prisoners, armed with whatever loose debris they could find, seemed to slowly follow behind her as well.

When the expected patrol rounded the corner ahead, Byanca aimed for the light.

With a strong pull of the trigger she loosed a hailstorm of automatic fire.

Through the warehouse rows there echoed the tinny rap-rap-rap-rap of the gun.

Wet gurgling and choked screams followed in its wake.

Flashlight beams that once pointed in her direction swung wildly and then rolled along the ground, falling with the crumpling, shredded bodies of the guards holding them. Their corpses made more promising sounds than simple thudding. Among their equipment was a new pair of submachine guns. Byanca handed one gun to Giuseppa, and she waved another toward the prisoners that had been aware enough to follow in her wake.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta! Follow my lead and stamp out these traitors!”

She slid the submachine gun along the ground, and one man set out a boot to catch it.

He picked up the weapon, handed it to an empty-handed prisoner, and took up a pipe club.

“We of the Maniple swore to follow the Centuria to death!” He cried out. “Forward!”

At once, the rest of the prisoners revitalized and charged suddenly past Byanca.

As another disparate group of guards arrived to survey the disturbance, they were instantly mobbed. Their black masks were ripped from their faces and they were pummeled into the ground, kicked, clubbed, stabbed with glass. More guns were freed from them and passed around. Byanca ran ahead to the group; leaning around the corner, she opened fire down the warehouse row, and forced another pair of guards into hiding.

Covering her men in this way, she gave them opportunity to run to the warehouse shutters and cut and smash free more prisoners. Giuseppa and Torvald rushed past her to the corner across from her own, and covered a different approach. Minimus seemed to stand behind her in awe, as the flashing gunfire flew over the heads of an ever-enlarging mob of angry, haggard, rampaging men hungering to mutilate anyone wearing a black mask.

“He’s taken her to Saint Orrea.” Minimus said suddenly amid the carnage.

Byanca looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous.

“How do you know?” She asked.

From around the corner a string of fiery blue tracers hurtled past, forcing her to cover.

Minimus covered his ears momentarily, but kept speaking as loud as he could muster.

“He had his medicines sent there. Morphine. Pervitin. Cholesterol Testosterone.”

 

Byanca put her back to the wall and raised her submachine gun to her chest.

“We need to hurry then.” She said. She leaned out of the corner and opened fire.

Alarms and searchlights came alive. It was starting. Now it was a fight.

But she had a swelling mass of wrathful legionnaires, and a heart lit with holy fire.

She knew no matter the odds she overcame, she could never be a Knight. Not now.

But if she was doomed to be an evil dragon, then that fire would burn her enemies away.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Operazione Millennio (58.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the hospital phone was ringing.

So sudden was the sound that it startled the nurses. Both of them gathered around the phone wondering if it should be picked up. This responsibility was soon transferred. Across the hall, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani walked out of the first extended stay suites, pushing an occupied wheelchair with a big, beaming smile on her face. She raised a hand up and shouted down the hall, in a firm but amicable tone of voice.

“Put down that phone please! We’ll take the call!”

Gently she pushed the wheelchair forward, all the while the phone rang with abandon.

From the wheelchair, Colonel Madiha Nakar picked up the telephone handset.

Hujambo.” She said. “How much coverage have we got?

On the other end of the line was Sergeant Agni. Her monotone voice sounded crisp and clear through the telephone lines, all the way across Ocean Road to the Seesea Heights in North Rangda. There was some noise, some hustle and bustle, far in the background. But for the most part Madiha could hear Agni unobstructed and that was a quiet victory.

“Most of the city.”Agni replied.

“Was it a difficult problem to fix?”

“No, the 8th Division hardly cut any lines. They occupied switchboard stations and intimidated the local operators. We didn’t have to spread much cable around.”

“Good. You’re coming in loud and clear. How’s the front?”

“Quiet. We’re the ones making all the noise. Meanwhile the enemy is timid.”

Madiha smiled to herself.

A little more of a push and the 8th Division would surrender. She felt a thrill of satisfaction, realizing that her troops had won this battle. Her plans had succeeded; her theories, though only loosely applied to this battle, were shaping up. They had moved quickly, used deception of every kind in their arsenal to confuse and separate the enemy, and they rushed through the weaknesses in the enemy line to occupy their rear areas. Without their bases in Rangda University and Forest Park, without the centralized route that Ocean Road provided for them, the 8th Division was nothing but isolated, helpless pockets of worn-out, confused fighters waiting for the vice to tighten around them.

“Return to base Agni. Tell your work detachment to keep in touch from over there.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Madiha set the handset back down on the phone base.

“How was the call?” Parinita asked.

She bent over Madiha’s shoulder from behind, smiling brightly.

Madiha smiled warmly back. “Sounded perfect. Everything’s going according to plan.”

Nodding her head, Parinita wheeled her away from the nurses and back into the suite.

Throughout the morning more and more of the Colonel’s headquarters had been transported to the hospital. Next to her bed was a small desk with the radio, and a chair for Parinita. On one of the beds, Padmaja and Bhishma sat together and worked on reports and paperwork, using a large cutting board from the nearby canteen to have a hard place to write on. Minardo sat in a visitor’s couch, dragged in from the lobby, and took turns with Parinita between handling the radio traffic, updating the maps, and directing staff.

“While you were gone, the Self-Propelled Gun battalion have redeployed to the hinge position between the University and the Park.” Minardo said. She was seated on her the couch with her hands behind the back of her head. “They’re awaiting further orders.”

Parinita wheeled Madiha closer to the bed, and helped her off the wheelchair and onto the mattress. She fluffed up the pillows, and held Madiha as she adjusted herself in bed. Her wounds still hurt. Not just the gunshot, but the sites of the injections she had received. Those had turned red and the surrounding flesh felt stiff still. A lot of Madiha hurt when moved, but she grit her teeth and endured. Parinita took care to be gentle with her.

“Parinita, tell them to await fire support orders from the infantry park or university. Shayma has enough firepower already. We will not be giving them any further missions.”

“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said, saluting cheerfully.

She pushed back her chair and sat behind the radio, donning the headset.

Madiha lay back in bed and heaved a long sigh.

“Nothing else then?”

“No. We’re in the quiet period.” Minardo replied. “It was a violent enough attack.”

“No one attack is enough.” Madiha replied. Her offensive was overwhelmingly strong, she had made sure of it. But no operation could have allowed a Regiment in this situation to completely terminate a Division. The 8th would be back, and she had to be ready.

But it was not up to her alone to be ready yet. That much was out of her hands.

Once the battle went from strategic planning to tactical execution, the role of a Colonel like Madiha became both more and less active, in a strange way. She felt like she had far less sweeping control over the operation once the planning was done. Her will had been set into stone, and carrying it out made it more difficult for sweeping amendments to be made. But she was not completely out of the picture. Madiha still kept in contact with her troops as much as she could, relaying advice and orders to her three Majors, and from them to lower ranked field officers. There was still a lot of radio traffic meant for her.

Radio was an incredible blessing. She was perturbed by the distance she felt from the battle, but she was not completely disconnected, and that had been her greatest fear when she started. She knew more or less how the battlefield was shaping up. All it took was to have Parinita at her side, taking radio calls as they came. When setbacks occurred the HQ heard about them quickly and could issue new strategic orders — changing major attack routes to avoid unforeseen strongpoints and authorizing the use of extra ammunition and the deployment of greater strategic reserves, such as the regimental long-range artillery.

Outside in the training field, her 152mm howitzers had been deployed for that purpose. They were the sword that she could swing to protect her troops even from miles away.

Exactly five requests for Regimental fire missions had come to her headquarters. All of them had been swiftly authorized, and less than a hundred shells total had been fired by the battery of eleven guns. Only two major changes to the combat script had been called for. Hakan desired to split his forces and attack the park from two sides, which he felt confident he could do, and which he was allowed; Burundi partially lost control of his own attack and requested he be allowed to terminate his strategic movement at Muhimu Shimba without pressing further. Because of Lion’s surrender, this too was allowed.

Shayma executed her part of the plan flawlessly and without support or amendment.

Now everyone was regrouping, repairing damage, and waiting for the next phase.

Madiha was feeling much the same, and she had hardly moved for hours now.

“Parinita,”

She turned a soft a smile on her assistant and girlfriend, and stretched a hand over hers.

Parinita looked to the hand settled on the makeshift desktop, and looked up with a smile.

“How are you holding up?” Madiha asked.

“I’m fine. Now that you’re here I’m much more confident.” Parinita replied.

Madiha nodded her head, but she desired a deeper answer than that. She drew in a breath and thought of how to arrange her words best. “Parinita, I know for you, this must be particularly difficult; you get to hear or read first-hand about the loss of life out there. All of it is affecting our people this time. I need to know how that is affecting you.”

“Wow, you’re reminding me of myself. I thought I was the worrywart here.” Parinita said. She had an aura of ease and gentleness about her. “I’m perturbed, somewhere deep down, but, well. Madiha, I’m a soldier too. I might fight with a pen and pad most of the time, but I’m here because I wanted to do my part to defend our country. From anyone if necessary.”

“I apologize.” Madiha said. She felt a little jolt to her heart. As a person who had some difficulty gathering and formulating her emotions into thoughts and into speech, Madiha was gravely self-conscious of her social slip-ups. She was sure she had offended Parinita.

For her part, the Chief Warrant Officer showed no sign of distress. She smiled. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for, Madiha. I knew what you meant. I just wanted you to know, in no uncertain terms, that as long as you’re in command, I’ll have faith in our cause.”

“I’m glad.” Madiha said. She felt an incredible comfort having Parinita at her side.

Parinita turned fully toward Madiha on her seat, and gave her a gentle look.

“Being honest, the only anxiety I really have is that we’re advancing so fast.” Parinita said. “I hope we don’t succumb to the same hubris our enemies displayed in Adjar.”

Madiha nodded. “I understand completely. I promise to be cautious.”

“I know you will.”

“A quick response! You do have a lot of faith.”

“Well, you have an uncanny ability with war, Madiha. It’s like you’ve read the script.”

Parinita giggled with delicate fingers over her lips.

“I suppose so!” Madiha chuckled.

“I know so! You’re a regular action hero!” Parinita cheered.

“No!” Madiha replied, laughing. “I couldn’t be! You can’t have high action from a bed!”

“It’s experimental, Madiha! Experimental film!”

Both of them laughed and held hands and felt a great girlish joy in the moment.

Such giddiness was uncharacteristic of Madiha, and she loved the feeling.

They were still on the clock, so to specific, and the hand-holding was brief.

When they separated, Parinita returned with a smile to her business persona.

Madiha put on her gentlest stone-faced officer looks.

“Here’s the current situation.” Parinita said, flipping through a folder of reports. “Our tactical commands all seem to agree that the 8th Division is unlikely to mount a counterattack until outside reinforcements appear in force. Because there were so many pell-mell retreats in every front that we attacked against, the 8th Division’s reformed into something like a dozen isolated clusters instead of organizing a coherent battle line.”

Madiha nodded her head. “How strong are these units, do you think?”

Parinita stopped flipping and settled on a pair of reports clipped to a multi-cell table.

“I’ve compared some of the preliminary reports with an inventory we’re familiar with: that of an Adjar Battlegroup Ox Rifle Division. Ram shouldn’t be that much different. Judging from the captured and destroyed equipment of the Lion Battalion, the 96th Battalion, and the 69th Battalion, Ram’s losses in rifles, machine guns, mortars and tanks must mean the remaining guys and gals in those pockets are nearly unarmed.”

“Have you checked all of that math out yourself?” Madiha asked.

“Triple checked.” Parinita said, adjusting her glasses with a big smile on her face.

“I suppose their heavy artillery is still unaccounted for.” Madiha said.

“Some was captured from Lion, but Burundi, El-Amin and Hakan agree that the pocket in Council probably contains the lion’s share of remaining Howitzers. However, its share of tanks is likely small. There’s been more sightings of Goblins in the south-west pocket.”

“So then, it may be possible to launch a decapitating strike on Council.”

“Major El-Amin could launch it.”

“Has she requested permission for it?”

“No. I’m just making an observation.”

Parinita smiled and Madiha smiled back. It was an easy observation to make. El-Amin was closest to Council. But still, Madiha liked to think that something of her military acumen was rubbing off on Parinita, though her lover and secretary had already been a fairly astute military mind herself, when compared to other staffers Madiha had experience with.

“You’re correct. She could. However, it is a gamble to launch another tank-heavy operation like this. Regrouping around infantry support is better for her, for now.”

“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said, saluting amicably. “Our reserves are on their way there.”

Madha nodded. She crossed her arms and craned her head toward the ceiling, thinking aloud. “Since the 8th Division base here was stripped of equipment when we found it, for the most part, it must mean the stockpiles were moved somewhere else. And knowing the Mansas, Council district likely has much more equipment than we give it credit for.”

“Do you think? The 8th Division was deployed to fight on the front lines. Surely they would have just taken all their stockpiles with them, if the garrison was emptied?”

“Not all of them. Do you remember Gowon?”

Parinita stuck out her tongue. “How could I ever forget that scumbag?”

Madiha laughed. “Gowon, ever the greedy fool, saw the stockpiles as his own entitlement. He wanted to keep them away from the Council, so he would hold the purse strings, so to speak. But the Mansas, the Rangdan Council, are far more influential than Adjar’s Council was. I believe the Mansas probably did the opposite. Distrusting their own Gowons in their military command, they probably decided when the war broke out to keep the stockpiles closer to home and away from a potentially corrupt or disloyal military command.”

“You could be right. Gods defend. I can’t believe what a mess the South has been.”

“Solstice has always had trouble keeping tabs on things down here.” Madiha sighed.

To think that a child herself of the rebellious Ayvartan south, would be here to put it down.

Madiha shook her head. There was no time to contemplate those political failures.

They were in the past. Daksha was in control in Solstice and Nocht was largely in control in the South anyway. To preserve the bridge to Solstice, she had to act decisively now.

“I’m willing to bet Aksara Mansa will redeploy the police and the coast guard and whatever else he can get his hands on to Council district, arm them out of the stockpiles, and form a buffer of paramilitaries to slow us down or fight us off. Attacking Council will be bloody.”

Parinita bowed her head a little. “More comrades trapped on the wrong side of things.”

“All we can do for them is try to fight the Mansas as surgically as possible.”

“Right. Under Gowon I would have felt distraught. But I know you can do it.”

Parinita performed a cute little wink, and Madiha felt her face flush a little.

“Get a private bed you two!” Minardo shouted from across the room, grinning.

Bhishma and Padmaja stared up from the bed they were working off of.

Before Madiha could verbally retaliate, the door to the hospital suite opened.

Dragging a cord behind him, a soldier ran in with a telephone box in hand.

It was ringing intermittently as he dragged it around the room.

“Ma’am, we’ve got an urgent call from Rangda Engineering.” said the soldier.

Madiha beckoned him closer, and he set the box down on the bed. She took the call.

Hujambo, this is Colonel Nakar. Is that you, C.T.O Parambrahma?”

His voice sounded agitated on the line, but it was indeed the ARG-2 radar’s inventor.

“Doctor, now. Adjar fell, commander, and the ARG-2 returned to civilian science, alongside myself. I’m merely the only one of my colleagues who dared contact you.”

“Why is that? Have you bought into the newspaper narrative?”

“Whether or not is true, it is an intergovernmental dispute, and my fellows all believed and collectively agreed to remain neutral throughout. In the spirit of this neutrality, they attempted to contact Council with important information, but were quickly rebuffed.”

She could sense sarcasm and anger in his voice. He must have considered that a betrayal. For one who came from Adjar into Rangda in order to do important work, and who saw his former comrades vilified and agreed not to intervene, it must have felt like the basest hypocrisy to see the Rangdans all align with their own people despite a vow of neutrality.

She wondered how similarly compromised other intellectual circles in Rangda were.

“So you are contacting me? For what purpose?” Madiha asked.

“To defend Rangda. Whether you do it or the Council does makes no difference, but Colonel, this is important. We have precious little time to respond to it. The ARG-2 is picking up an unprecedented amount of airborne signals coming in from the sea!”

Madiha nearly dropped the phone. Her heart started racing.

“How many?”

“We can’t pick up an exact amount. The ARG-2’s radar picture is too saturated.”

“Could that just be a bug in the design?”

“No. Trust me, Colonel, please. There are real planes out there. Whom do they belong to?”

“Not me.”

“Then you must do something about them, because Mansa will not.”

Madiha hung up on Parambrahma without saying another word.

“Parinita, we have to go.”

“Huh?”

Mustering up her strength, Madiha pushed herself off from the bed and onto her feet.

Her boots hit the ground and her legs seemed to bend and buckle like jelly. Her flank burned, and her arms protested heavily, particularly at the sites where Mansa’s grusesome needles stuck her flesh again and again. She nearly stumbled to the floor, but Parinita practically leaped up onto her own two feet and grabbed hold of her, and righted her.

“Madiha, you can’t just jump up off the bed like that, you’ll break something!”

“Parinita, we need to sound an air raid alarm, now.”

“What?”

Every head in the room turned toward them with sudden shock.

Thankfully the Staff Sergeant wasted no time questioning it.

“You two!” Minardo shouted at Bhishma and Padmaja. “You’re young and spry! Run to the depots and alert the troops there. We have some AA deployed, but we need all of it. Now!”

Bhishma and Padmaja dropped everything and ran out the door.

The soldier with the telephone stood dumbly for a moment and then followed them.

“I’ll keep an eye on the radio. You two should go.” Minardo said.

Perhaps sensing the urgency with which Madiha wanted to leave, Parinita shouldered the weight of her, and hefted her to the wheelchair, and then quickly sped her out of the hospital and to the field. By noon the skies were largely clear and the sun had risen high over the earth. The day was warm but cool, and bright, and there was good visibility.

Nothing in the sky, not yet.

Arrayed around the base were circular defenses of sandbags around anti-tank guns and machine guns and the scattered anti-air gun, their crews relaxed now that the 8th Division seemed to be falling to pieces in the face of them. Madiha approached the closest such defense, near which there was a Goblin tank with an antennae protruding from its turret, captured from the 8th Division and used now as a command station.

Parinita climbed atop the tank in Madiha’s place.

“Commander, call in an air raid alarm across all defenses, right now!”

Without question the Goblin’s commander started to broadcast.

Swiftly as this order traveled, however, the enemy was swifter.

The ARG-2 had a range of around a hundred kilometers, give or take an extra fifty. This was a distance that even the slowest aircraft could travel in twenty or thirty minutes.

No sooner had the Regiment begun to rouse to the threat, that the horizon became spotted with black flecks moving closer and closer, gaining size and definition and form and every second becoming more obviously a threat. They were a threat in their bulk, for many of the high-flying ships seemed to be large bombers, but also a threat in their number. Before anyone knew it, before a strong reaction could be had, the sky was thick with them.

It was like a flock of birds or bats, just appearing in one’s field of vision without warning.

Madiha looked up at the sky, seated on her wheelchair in front of the hospital, and it seemed to her that a hundred ranks that could have only added up to a thousand planes, had all of a sudden taken hold of her sky. They crossed the ocean, overflew the docks, and penetrated into the urban core in a matter of moments. Many planes remained high up, others maneuvered and circled, but just as many started to descend toward the city.

Some careened so fast and far they appeared to crash.

One such plane did not just appear to crash — it slammed to earth with mad energy.

“Watch out! Everybody down!” Madiha shouted.

Parinita huddled near her and held her with both arms. Madiha crouched on her chair.

Overflying the training field, a large plane, broad-winged but without engines, without landing gear, dove from the heavens, peeling off from the larger flock along with dozens of others. Launching down at a steep angle, the plane swiped carelessly at the ground, throwing up a geyser of dirt and grass, losing its wings and flipping over on the grass.

It rolled and bounced and broke in half and scattered bodies and boxes from its bulk.

Behind it, all across the training field, debris and scattered equipment littered the earth.

Soldiers from the defensive line left their useless anti-tank guns and ran to the crash.

Madiha and Parinita, shocked to silence for a moment where they stood, watched more planes go down in the distance, falling over every sector they had mapped out in the city for their battle. Planes ferrying elven men and women and equipment to war. Planes bearing the Father-Tree of the Kingdom of Lubon and the battle standards of its Queen Passionale Vittoria. The Battle of Rangda was no longer fought largely by Ayvartans alone.

Madiha shook her head, and shouted at the radio Goblin as the scene unfolded.

“Deploy all anti-air we have. Now, right now! Open fire on anything in the sky!”

Again the order was swift, and the defense rapidly organized, but it was all desperate.

Flak started to fly, and the skies started to turn red, but the chaos was only beginning.


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JOTUN (56.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe, Rangda — Rangda University, Muhimu Shimba

Twisted smoke clouds rose from the center of the University, visible from the Main Street.

Gulab felt a great sense of urgency at the sight of them and kicked the back of the turret.

“Can you go any faster? Burn some gas already!”She shouted into the radio.

In a similar tone she received quick replies from the tankers.

“No! We need to conserve track integrity for battle!” Danielle said.

“Corporal, please calm down. Trust Private Santos.” Caelia added.

“We’re almost there anyway, just keep your eyes peeled.” Danielle said.

Gulab grit her teeth and squeezed her hands against the barrel and handle of her anti-tank BKV rifle, welded to a makeshift pintle atop the turret. Beneath her feet, the tank’s engine purred softly as they charged briskly toward the battle. Harmony climbed the hill past the Research Library and drove through the winding Main Street between the main campus buildings, cutting through the center of the University toward Muhimu Shimba park.

Though she felt mild shots of pain every time the tank stirred roughly under her, Gulab forced down that weakness, and focused on the environment and the task at hand.

There were signs of battle everywhere. Medics in ambulance trucks packed in wounded and dead personnel from all sides of the battle. Gendarmes with pistols and clubs chained together long columns of healthy prisoners and drove them like cattle away from the remains of smashed sandbags, burning crates and grenade-damaged emplacements. There were holes and dents on the road and pockmarked turf along the streets and lawns of the buildings. Harmony easily drove over shell-holes and around the ruined defenses.

In the distance, Gulab could hear the violent reports of guns and the booming of mortars.

“Charvi!”

Harmony finally crested the hill overlooking Muhimu Shimba and Gulab, behind the scope of the BKV, scanned the large crowd of confused soldiers gathered at the edge of the park. Gulab had no idea what could have happened to break up the column like that — she saw what looked like shell-holes in the park green and there was residual smoke in the air, and plenty of blood on the ground. Whatever happened, it had been violent and shocking.

Gulab’s heart raced, knowing Charvi might have been at the forefront of that violence.

Her eyes teared up as she searched desperately across the sea of green uniforms.

“Charvi! It’s Charvi!”

She found that unique and unmistakably silver-white head of hair that she loved so much in the periphery of the crowd. Charvi looked worse for wear, but she was alive, and standing under her own power. Gulab toyed with the radio box stuffed in her bread bag, hoping to contact her. She finally found the correct frequency and began to call Charvi–

They were not alone. From the forest, a massive tank trundled closer.

There was the better part of a platoon accompanying the tank. Wearing yellow sashes, the Lion battalion veterans carried much better weaponry than Gulab had seen in the hands of the average 8th Division soldier. Every man had a submachine gun or a danava to help them even the odds. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the 2nd Company and Chadgura’s troops at the edge of the park, the Lion soldiers had the advantage of their weapons and the tank, and they had their enemy standing out in the open. Any charge against the tank by the 2nd Company would be very bloody even if it succeeded.

Charvi wouldn’t make it out of that mess alive. Gulab had to put a stop to it.

It was then that Gulab made her call, and then ordered the charge.

She did not care what the violence of this signified for her. Whether the killing vindicated the men of her village or even if it anointed her as one of their own– it didn’t matter!

As long as Charvi was safe, it did not matter that she had to fight and to kill for it.

“Private Suessen! Private Santos!”

“I’m on it!”

“Yes ma’am!”

Harmony unleashed a smoke round, blinding the enemy tank, and then barreled downhill at full speed. Coming out of the hill slope with the force of gravity behind it, Harmony pushed marginally faster than its typical speed and rocketed from the street to the edge of the park and toward the column with desperate haste. Beneath its hull the tracks ground at an intense rate, and behind Gulab the engine worked up from a purr to a full-on roaring.

Gulab had her feet trapped in catches welded atop the tank, her waist tied loosely to a hand-hold on the tank’s turret, and her hands around the BKV rifle, and she still felt the power of the tank and the forces that it so easily generated. Her body was under pressure every second. Engine reverberations transferred energy into her feet, and the churning of the tank’s internal organs stirred her own gut. Air whipped her hair and rushed against her face, and her upper body and the BKV in her hands swayed with the tank’s turning.

It was difficult to aim in that situation, but Gulab had little choice in the matter.

She was practically their main form of anti-tank offense, pathetic as that was.

As the tank moved quickly into the park, the allied column seemed frozen in place.

“Corporal, we don’t have radio contact with anyone here but Sergeant Chadgura!” Caelia informed her. “So if you want them to retreat you’d best start shouting orders!”

Gulab took a hand off the BKV, and drew in a deep breath.

Caelia gasped. “Oh no– wait– please take off your mic–”

Before Caelia and Danielle’s protests could even register to her, Gulab broke into shouting at the top of her lungs, screaming at the crowd as they sped by. “Find cover or retreat or something!” Gulab cried out. “Get on the floor or dig a foxhole, just don’t stand there!”

Harmony wobbled left and right for seconds before setting course for the enemy tank.

“My head exploded.” Danielle moaned over the radio.

“Rest in fucking peace.” Caelia grumbled in a labored voice.

Perhaps in response to Gulab’s screaming or because they saw a tank hurtling toward them at full speed, the column scattered away from the enemy line. Stray gunfire from within the smoke cloud sounded briefly and abated very quickly, as the enemy found themselves ineffective within the cloud. At the head of the enemy the tank trundled out.

Gulab jerked the BKV on its attached pintle. It could move, in a tortured fashion, on a pretty wide arc in front of the tank. To turn it this way, she had to turn her own body at the waist with it. Whenever she did so she felt the sting of her poorly-patched flesh wounds and cringed. It was not ideal; but it was all she had. She pulled the bolt back to load it and got ready, looking down the scope and trying to keep the tank within her sights.

She kept her shaking fingers off the trigger. Shooting the tank’s front was useless.

“Okay! So what’s the plan?” She asked over the radio.

“Um, ramming speed?” Danielle replied.

“No, definitely not!” Caelia added.

Clear of the smoke, the enemy tank appeared in front of them like an iron wall. It was nearly ten meters long and nearly four tall, and bristling with guns. Gulab had never seen so many turrets on a tank. Arrayed around a central turret with a big-bored but short-barreled gun were two turrets that looked like they had been ripped from goblins, and two drums with what looked like autocannons or machine guns jammed into the mantlets. On the front there was one short gun and one long gun, and the back was much the same. All of these guns were set atop a long chassis with flat sides and a crudely sloping front plate.

Like turning heads among a stage crowd, the turrets all began to gaze toward Harmony.

A voice projected from within the tank.

“You think a Goblin with some cosmetic improvements can challenge the Jotun?”

Gulab thought the voice was coming from her radio at first, but it was definitely coming from within the tank. She did not know how, but the commander could speak out loud.

“You should have stayed in hiding, little recon tank! Now you won’t live to tell your superiors that Lieutenant Badir the Lionheart routed your forces this day!”

Following the bloodthirsty voice of Lt. Badir was a sound much less human.

The Jotun’s central gun descended slightly, turned a few creaking centimeters and fired.

In the blink of an eye a bright red tracer launched past Gulab, trailing smoke.

Behind them the shell erupted at the foot of the hill and punched a meter-deep hole in it.

“Are you alright, Corporal?” Caelia asked.

Gulab blinked and crouched low against the turret. “No!”

“We’re running past it, brace yourselves!” Danielle shouted.

On the softer, grassy earth of the inner park, Harmony lost speed, but retained enough to hurtle past the front of the Jotun before its turrets could fully track it. Dashing past the front of the tank, the comparatively diminutive Kobold turned and made for the woods.

Caelia swung the turret around; Gulab clung as best as she could as Caelia sprayed the Lion soldiers around the tank with inaccurate machine gun fire. Hundreds of bullets seemed to fly in every direction like a gigantic spray of buckshot, and the men bolted around the tank and away from it for cover, quickly breaking up their prepared overwatch positions.

Scrambling as they were and still surrounded in part by the smoke cloud, the elite men of Lion could not effectively pick off the 2nd Company. Caelia had bought them some time.

Gulab seized the opportunity.

As the men fled and Harmony flew past, the Jotun was isolated.

Turning the BKV perpendicular to Harmony’s hull, Gulab aimed for the Jotun’s side.

She squeezed her trigger and let off several rounds.

She watched her tracers fly into the Jotun’s side plates and disappear to no visible effect.

Gritting her teeth, Gulab reached down into a bag hung behind the turret.

Withdrawing a fresh stripper clip, Gulab began to reload the BKV.

In the second she took her eyes off it, the Jotun moved to threaten her.

“I see a rear machine gun aiming for us! Danielle!” Caelia shouted.

“Got it!”

Gulab raised her head from behind the BKV and saw a drum turret line up with her.

Dozens of red sparks shot out of its gun.

Harmony made a hard turn.

Caelia swung the turret around just as forcefully.

Several bursts of machine gun fire deflected off the gun mantlet and barrel as the turret turned sharply to Gulab’s defense, reversing itself almost completely to cover her.

Sparks flew off the top of the turret and over Gulab’s head as the shots deflected away.

“Corporal, I’ve got one more AP-HE shell and Danielle’s lined me up a shot on those turrets. Pick a target; but remember you’re on your own after that.” Caelia said.

Gulab grit her teeth. Despite all their heroics they were unprepared to fight a battle like this one. They had come running from University Avenue in haste, the moment Gulab regained consciousness. There was a stray distress call on the radio, very quickly snuffed out, but enough to draw their attention to Muhimu Shimba. Caelia and Danielle relented quickly in the face of Gulab’s determination, but their supply situation was very bleak.

Harmony was not wanting for fuel, but they had precious little ammunition.

Welding the BKV to the turret was a quick fix that allowed them a chance to fight, but the 14.5mm rifle was no substitute for having a 45mm gun with full AP-HE ammunition.

“Corporal?”

“I’m thinking! We’ll have to make it count.” Gulab replied over the radio.

“Target the rear machine gun!” Danielle suddenly said.

“Whoa, whoa,” Gulab interrupted, “that’s no threat to the tank!”

Danielle insisted. “No, but it’s a threat to you, Corporal, and to our comrades.”

Hunkered down behind the reversed turret, Gulab saw the Jotun’s guns start moving.

“She’s right, Danielle. One shot from those big turrets will kill us.” Caelia said.

“No, I can avoid their AT fire. I’ve got this. Trust me, Caelia!” Danielle pleaded.

There was a sigh on the radio. It sounded more fond than it was angry.

“Firing Armor-Piercing, High Explosive!”

Gulab felt the energy transfer into her body as the gun released a shell.

Her headset offered mild protection, but the report of the gun sounded right next to her.

Even for a small cannon, the 45mm felt earthshaking so close.

Harmony’s barrel briefly flashed, and behind the Jotun’s main turret a fireball erupted.

One of the drum-shaped machine gun turrets on its rear went up smoke.

“Thank you! Now I’m getting us on gravel!” Danielle said. “Hang on!”

Harmony veered suddenly away from the tree line and made for the road.

Behind them the Jotun’s main turret swung toward them.

Gulab fitfully expected another shot, but the gun remained silent.

Instead the tank started turning.

Smoke from the ruined turret blocked the main gun’s vision over its own back.

Until it turned around it could not shoot them with its main gun.

“Danielle, it’s moving!” Caelia called out.

“Trust me!”

In the center of the park the Jotun completed its turn and lined the Kobold up with its main gun, forward anti-tank turret and forward machine gun. Gulab had no protection from it. It was directly behind them, and all of its ordnance would sail clear into her, or into the engine block directly beneath her feet. Or into Caelia’s back inside the turret.

“Your determination to betray your people sickens me! Die, traitors!”

Badir’s voice was quickly overpowered by the sound of his guns.

“Hang on!”

Before Badir could unleash his weapons, Harmony hit the pavement of the road and quickly accelerated into a wide, sweeping turn. When the Jotun finally threw its bite, the teeth went very wide. Machine gun fire and shells soared over the road behind the Kobold as it began to put distance between itself and the enemy tank. On the pavement, the Kobold’s speed raised by nearly ten kilometers per hour, and quickly enough to escape.

Behind them, Muhimu Shimba started to erupt into a seething exchange of automatic fire.

Gulab had been too concerned with the Jotun to notice, but 2nd Company and the Lion veterans had lost the barrier of the smoke between them. 2nd Company opened fire into the woods, and from the woods the Lion Battalion retaliated. Machine guns and rifles cast lead over the shell-stricken park grounds while Harmony sped away from the scene.

Somewhere back there, Charvi might have still been stuck in battle.

Something crawled inside Gulab’s chest as she thought anxiously of Charvi’s fate.

“So we’re just running away?” Gulab shouted.

“No, I have an idea.” Danielle said. “The Jotun will follow us.”

“How do you know?” Gulab asked.

Caelia was silent on the frequency for a moment. She then broke into a little laugh.

“Look ahead, Corporal!”

Harmony’s turret swung around to the front, and Gulab peered over it.

Danielle had driven them through Muhimu Shimba, out into the road, around the outer edge, and toward the enemy’s rear. In a sandbag nest ahead of them, Gulab spotted Badir’s artillery. One short-barreled howitzer and several mortars had been packed behind waist-high sandbag walls fencing off a makeshift fort the size of school classroom.

Gulab blinked, and joined Caelia in laughing.

“Private Suessen, do you have any high explosive?” She asked.

“I’ve got a little left.”

“Good! Light them up!”

Gulab got behind her BKV and held on tight, in time to endure Caelia’s rumbling shot.

She saw the tracer go flying out of the gun and in a blink, it exploded over the sandbags.

Fragments and smoke and heat swept over the exposed mortar crews.

Gulab lined up the scope of her BKV with the ammunition boxes behind the crews.

Rapping the trigger, she launched several incendiary AP bullets into the stack of crates.

Startled by the attack, the artillery crews dumped their weapons and scrambled away.

Moments later the ammunition crates exploded behind them.

Chunks of metal and burning wood spread over the interior of the sandbag fort.

Several men were thrown to the floor in mid-run trying to escape, and anyone caught vaulting over a sandbag as the shells went off was perforated in mid-air by hundreds of flying fragments, all of which soared out in high arcs from the crates on the floor.

Losing no speed, Harmony ran past the emplacement and left it a smoking ruin.

“Look up in the sky, Corporal! There’s more!” Caelia shouted.

Gulab peered over her scope.

She saw trails in the sky from more howitzers and mortars, targeting the park.

“That’s why he’ll follow us!” Danielle said. “Otherwise we’ll–”

Caelia urgently interrupted. “We’ve got company!”

Behind them several guns went off in quick succession.

Gulab ducked her head as a volley of machine gun fire flew over her.

Just a few meters off the side of the tank, a shell impacted the ground.

Dust and smashed concrete burst into the air and fell over her.

Appearing hundreds of meters behind them the Jotun followed, guns blazing.

Harmony weaved from one side to the next, deftly avoiding a shot from the 45mm gun.

It hit a building off a street corner and punched through its wall.

“We’re getting seriously shot at here!” Gulab cried out.

“Danielle, plan?” Caelia shouted in distress.

“We’ll lead it back into urban terrain! We’ve got an advantage there.”

Two more shots sounded in unison as the Jotun managed to synchronize its turrets.

Ahead of them the 76mm explosive burst like a giant firecracker.

Around their side, the 45mm gun struck Harmony’s flank armor at an angle.

Gulab watched with a momentary horror as the shell bounced off a welded track link.

Any straighter trajectory could have penetrated the armor.

There was soon a respite.

Though moving at an unexpected speed for such a monstrous machine, the Jotun was still quickly falling behind. For every meter that rolled under its tracks, Harmony made good three. And as Harmony took the north-eastern corner around the park and then made for the northern campus intersection, they momentarily left Badir and his monster behind.

For a few seconds they had peace. Then they heard the shout.

“Come and face me like men, cowards!” came the voice from the tank.

Caelia grumbled on the radio.

“How is he doing that?” Gulab shouted.

Danielle piped up excitedly.

“When the Jotun prototype failed trials, it was turned into a parade vehicle!”

Gulab blinked. “How do you know that?”

“Um.”

“She’s amazing, is how.” Caelia said.

In a few moments the damnable gunfire resumed behind them.

The Jotun had cleared the corner and was hot on their tails again.

“Call me amazing when I get us out of this!” Danielle shouted.


 

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The Battle of Rangda III (55.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Rangda University Campus

“Lay down suppressing fire overhead! We’re storming the Research Library!”

Sergeant Chadgura shouted out to her troops, her dull voice achieving an air of strength.

Rushing up from University Avenue, she and her forces were poised to lay siege. Sniper bullets struck around their cover and stray machine gun fire swept the street, but it did not slow their advance. Smoke cover went up, elements reorganized and the attack pressed.

Machine gunners from Green and Yellow squadrons rushed uphill along the edge of the snaking road, making use of a brief smokescreen to cover their advance. Before the cloud fully thinned, they dropped on their bellies on the streetside green, using the curve of the hill to partially shield them from gunfire. Laying their Danavas down on their bipods, the gunners opened fire at angle on the upper floor windows of a massive square building overlooking the streets, raking every second floor aperture. Continuous gunfire danced between the windows, pitting the stucco exterior. Across the street an allied group of machine gunners performed the same maneuver on a second, opposite building.

Snipers and machine gunners, once commanding the terrain from inside the red brick buildings, quickly ducked away from the windows. They gave up their advantage for safety.

This was the best chance Sergeant Chadgura would get to invade the building and gain a powerful foothold in the University District. She steeled herself; she would seize it.

“Second Platoon will take the building at nine o’ clock, and we are going at three o’ clock! Move quickly; blocking group peels on contact, while the maneuver group keeps running!”

As she shouted this order, Chadgura stood up from behind a bus stop bench and rain shield and held her pistol into the air. Wind swept up her short, silver-white hair, and beads of sweat glistened over her dark skin. On her face was a stoic, unaffected expression, with easy eyes and neutral lips. She looked like a brave hero from a military poster.

Her gallantry was not lost on her troops. A group of twelve riflemen and women from her Green Squadron immediately left their cover in the vicinity of the fighting and joined her as she rushed uphill and past her deployed machine gunners. They ran without question.

Chadgura ran the fastest and hardest and it showed. She ran with abandon, her sense of pain and exhaustion and fear blunted, so that the palpitations of her heart and the raggedness of her breathing and the struggling of the muscles in her limbs felt distant and disassociated. She ran from the fog in her head and ran headlong into the fray instead.

“For Corporal Kajari! Charge!” She shouted, feeling a desperate pang in her heart.

“Oorah!” her comrades shouted back. She could almost feel their own rising spirits too.

Unbeknown to them the Sergeant was not sweating from mere heat and not screaming with h0t-blooded spirit. She was wracked with pain and stress not evident in her voice or mannerisms. She was conditioned to fight on regardless of this; and so she fought on.

Soon as her feet hit the top of the hill she aimed her pistol and laid down fire mid-run, smashing the glass panels of a long basement level window sinking into the lawn at the building’s far wall. Rifle shots rang out between the volleys of her allied machine guns. Tracers swept past her from the door to the Research Library and struck the turf.

There were riflemen stationed at the building’s ground floor doorway, leaning out of the cover of the doorway to fire on her. She felt chips of earth and concrete come flying at her legs and feet as snap shots struck the ground around her as she ran. She did not retaliate.

She was part of the maneuver group, and so she bounded forward. Others would cover her.

Behind her, three riflemen peeled from her group, took a knee atop the hill and engaged the enemy, shooting into the hallway partially concealed behind the glass panels and wooden frames of the doors. Well-timed long rifle shots on the door kept the enemy in the hallway from leaning out to fight, temporarily silencing the ground floor’s gunfire.

Machine gun fire flashed out from behind the hill and struck the second floor overhead, sending bits of the masonry and spent lead raining down over the maneuver group. Both the snipers and the ground floor defenders offered only scattered resistance, unable to deny the movements of their advancing enemies. Chadgura raised a fist in the air.

Her covering group saw the gesture and got ready for their new task.

“You saw her! We’re assaulting the front! Grenade out!” a man shouted behind her.

A safety pin clicked off. A can-shaped grenade went flying and rolling over stairway handrails in front of the building. It slipped in between half-open doors into the Library.

Chadgura heard the explosion go off to her side as she made it to the window she shot out. Six of her troops hurried past her, coming in from the hilltop she had left behind. They shouldered their rifles, stacking at the door with pistols, grenades and machetes in hand.

Half her squadron followed her to the corner of the building and crouched with her on the edge of the lawn. Chadgura and three soldiers guarded the broken basement window, while three others crouched and slid inside. From the sounds of it, they had a rough landing. It was an actual drop, from the ground roof to the floor of the basement level. Chadgura could not make out what was directly under them below, and had only a few dozen centimeters-wide glimpse at the long rows of book shelves and ceiling lights.

After a few seconds of low mumbling and groaning the entry team regrouped.

“There’s a table down here that’ll break your fall!” one woman shouted up.

She sounded mildly irritated, and likely still in much pain.

Chadgura unceremoniously ducked under the window and rolled inside herself.

Misjudging the height, she slammed side-first into the aforementioned table.

Very real pain shot through her whole body, and she felt the wind go out of her.

Her face contorted subtly, and her movements were sluggish, shaken.

None of her own self would allow her to really emote, to cry out or gnash her teeth.

Instead, stone-faced, she struggled to her feet, silently shaking.

Partially standing from the table, she raised her hands and clapped them softly.

Behind her, the two remaining soldiers dropped clumsily inside and landed hard on the tiled floor behind the table, missing the mark altogether. Neither recovered very quickly.

They had all landed in a small reading area surrounded by the basement’s shelves.

There was little time to take in the surroundings. Becoming stuck in here would spell death. Upstairs, they heard the sounds of individual shots fired, audible beneath the cacophony of the machine guns and snipers dueling outside. That must have been the ground floor team, engaging the enemy. Chadgura had no rifle, and ordered those who did to either shoulder it or affix bayonets. One woman had a submachine gun. Everyone else switched to their pistols — the bundu was too long to wield in confined spaces.

Chadgura withdrew a machete from her belt.

She wielded it one hand with an automatic pistol in the other.

Raising it like a cavalry sword, she ordered her fire team to hug the basement wall and follow it through the shelves. Two soldiers with bayonets led the team, followed by the submachine gunner, and Chadgura near the rear with the rest of the team. On one side they had a stark white wall, and on the other the long lines of black shelves filled with labeled books. At any point an enemy with an automatic weapon could have turned that cramped lane into a killing field, but none did. Chadgura’s group followed the wall down to a corner, and turned into another reading area that was also empty. There was a recess with a staircase inside, as well as an elevator. Chadgura did not trust the latter to be safe.

“Up the stairs. Private Ngebe, you first.”

She nodded to the submachine gunner, who nodded back. Ngebe was a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl that seemed ill at ease, but she was as trained as anyone there. Despite the perplexed look on her face, Ngebe carried out her duties well. Stepping carefully toward the recess, the submachine gunner stacked against the outer wall, quickly leaned in with her weapon to scout the room, and then proceeded inside carefully. Chadgura and the rest of the team followed, keeping out of sight of the staircase steps until Private Ngebe had taken a step and raised her weapon to the next landing. She raised her hand and urged them forward. Carefully, the team ascended the steps, keeping watchful eyes overhead.

An automatic weapon was vital to command access to obstacles like staircases.

But it seemed the enemy had not thought to defend the basement at all.

No sentries, no mines or traps, not even a locked door.

At the top of the stairs, Ngebe and Chadgura simply burst through an unlocked door and immediately joined the ground floor battle from directly behind the enemy defenses.

They entered a square lobby connecting the front hallway to the building proper. Behind a desk reinforced with sandbags a Khroda machine gun blasted the hallway and forced the entry team to duck behind the narrow strip of brick supporting the interior doorway. Already the door itself had been shredded. Three enemies crouched behind the reinforced desk, and a fourth man well inside the room directed the gunfire from within a stairwell.

Chadgura raised her pistol and shot this last man first, striking the side of his head.

He had barely hit the ground dead when Private Ngebe turned her gun on the desk.

She winced anxiously as she held down the trigger and hosed the defenders down.

Nothing that could be called battle unfolded from this — stricken by a hail of automatic gunfire at their backs, circumventing all of their protections, the defenders collapsed suddenly, their bodies riddled with bullets. Blood pooled over the sandbags and splashed the interior of the Khroda’s metal shield. In an instant the room grew dead silent.

The Sergeant wasted no time contemplating the scene.

“Entry team, form up!” Chadgura ordered.

From the hallway, the entry team crossed inside over the bits of door debris.

Now Chadgura had her whole squadron back, and without casualties.

She picked out one man and urged him out the door. “Go outside and signal for the rest to move in. We’ll advance upstairs to the main library.” Nodding, the man hurried out to do as he was told. Chadgura turned her attention to the rest of the squadron. “Reserves will sweep and hold the ground floor, while we secure the rest of the building. Move out.”

Clapping her hands — for effect rather than anxiety — Chadgura and her squadron inspected the stairways up to the second floor with the same caution that they approached the ones from the basement to the ground floor. Submachine gunners approached first, poised as they were to defend themselves from ambush with automatic gunfire. There were two staircases from the lobby, on opposite sides. Chadgura split her squadron into two fire teams and then she accompanied her original team up the leftmost stairway.

Quietly and carefully as they could, the squadron climbed each step without incident.

At the top, Chadgura and Private Ngebe left the stairwell first.

Soon as Chadgura set foot on the second floor landing a bullet struck the wall just a centimeter off from her cheek. She felt the force of the impact and winced. Though the mental shock was muted, the response from her body was visibly the same as anyone’s.

Chadgura ducked blindly behind the frame of stairwell opening to avoid the attack.

Several more rifle rounds flew past her. She heard a wet choking sound follow.

“Throw a grenade!” She ordered.

Some suppressed portion of her brain wanted to turn that into a visceral, echoing scream, but the words came out as a dull, slightly higher pitched cry that was still typical to her.

Nevertheless, she heard that grenade go flying out, thrown from the stairwell.

There was a deafening blast several dozen meters outside.

Chadgura waited a few seconds before leaning out and firing her pistol into the room.

Through the thinning smoke she caught a glimpse of where they were.

Ahead of them stretched a vast and broad room that seemed to encompass the entire floor. There were hundreds of shelves full of books to either side of a broad central space with tables and lamps. Many tables had been flipped over for cover. Several that had been stacked close to form a barricade in the center of the room had been blown to pieces by the grenade, killing and exposing the riflemen hidden behind them. There were men behind the tables, men hiding among the shelves, and a few men running between positions.

Behind her, one of her own men had been shot and was dragged downstairs. There was little room to hide or maneuver in the stairwell; most of her squadron was hidden down the steps. Private Ngebe was hiding behind the stairwell doorframe on the side opposite Chadgura’s own. This was the only place she could fit into and only one person could fit.

Chadgura could almost make out her remaining squadron on the far side of the room.

There were fewer positions opposing them than those opposing her.

Flipping on her radio pack, she called out, “Section, attack the central defenses!”

She waved to Private Ngebe, and reloaded her pistol.

At her signal, both of them leaned out and engaged the central defenses. Chadgura’s pistol was automatic, and the same caliber pistol round as Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, but its rate of fire was much lesser. Her fire flew in fits and starts, striking tables and floors and bookshelves inaccurately; Private Ngebe’s gunfire was continuous and accurate, fired from the shoulder, sweeping over the enemy’s cover and along its edges and forcing the defenders of the central position to cower in fear of being stricken wherever could be seen.

Cower they did, but only momentarily.

Seconds into Chadgura’s attack, from behind the defenders the second fireteam started shooting. A second submachine gun burned its ammunition, and this one had little to contend with and a likely unintruded view of the enemy’s backs. Pistols joined the volley and the volume of gunfire saturated the area. Suddenly the enemy found themselves enfiladed, caught between two pincers of brutal automatic fire. Chadgura could not see through the tables facing her, but she saw small holes punctured in the wooden cover; she heard the screams and shouts; she saw blood spatter, and saw wounded men trying to run.

Private Ngebe’s gun clicked empty, and she ducked behind the doorframe to reload.

Chadgura ducked behind as well.

Out in the library the gunfire did not abate.

Over the radio, Chadgura heard a man cry, “Grenade out! Take cover!”

This was soon followed by a blast in the middle of the room.

When Chadgura peeked out of the doorframe again, she found the barricade of upturned tables scattered in pieces, blown apart into bullet-riddled debris over isolated corpses and spreading pools of blood. There was not a living man still deluded enough to take cover in the mess. All of them had dispersed into the ranks of shelves, putting anything between themselves and the omnidirectional killing field the center of the library had become.

Chadgura grabbed hold of her microphone and shouted, as much as she could, “All units advance and clear the room! Shoot through the shelves! Don’t let them regroup!”

From behind her, the soldiers ducking down the steps came charging out.

Raising her pistol, Chadgura rushed out with them, and Ngebe followed.

Dispersing across the width of the room the column advanced. Pistols flashed repeatedly, shooting diagonally through the ranks of shelving units to avoid hitting their counterparts across the room. Lines of red tracers punched through books and wooden shelves and sent paper flying into the air. There was no resistance. Two submachine guns and a half-dozen automatic pistols systematically laid waste to the room, cutting a swathe across what seemed like a hundred rows of shelves each towering over the bloodshed. Rifle-caliber fire from the bayonet-bearing bundu punched through several shelves at once with each shot.

Within moments the last shot was fired and there were no sounds of resistance.

Checking between each row they found blood and bodies, some dead, many wounded.

Pleas of surrender went out from those still alive enough to know their plight

Papers soared and glided through the air like a cloud of white and yellow butterflies, stacking on the floor wherever they fell, turning crimson where there was blood. Several damaged shelves collapsed spontaneously as if awaiting the end of the violence. There was a partial domino effect on one end of the room, a dozen shelves falling over and crushing several men beneath their bulk; Chadgura’s forces steered clear of this as they marched.

Regrouping in the center of the room, Green Squadron exchanged clear reports.

Once sure that the situation was well in hand, Chadgura called over the radio.

“Second floor clear. Ground team, what’s your status?”

“Ground looks clear so far Sergeant. Should we join up?” one of the men responded.

“Send four of you. Everyone else barricade the basement and guard the lobby.”

After clearing the room, Chadgura completed her picture of its layout. She found the accursed second floor windows that she was being shot from earlier, vacant, at least one abandoned machine gun left lying there. And she found the next set of stairs, and once more stacked up at the stairwell. Ngebe took the lead again, and again Chadgura followed her up. Six fresh soldiers including four from the ground team followed behind her.

This time they were more cautious, and peered into the upper floor before fully climbing up the stairs. Nobody was shooting at the landing. In fact nobody was out in the open in the third floor. There was only a long hallway with closed doors to a dozen rooms. Austere brown carpets and beige walls, windowless showed no sign of tampering. Still, Chadgura was not going to take any chances. She called the ground floor and had a package brought.

On the closest and farthest doors explosives were quietly affixed.

Wire was drawn back to the stairwell.

Chadgura and her team hid, counted, and electrically set off the bombs.

In quick succession four blasts blew through the room.

Doors blew off their hinges and walls partially crumbled. Fires danced over splintered wooden supports and burnt carpet. Smoke swept across the hallway and into the rooms. Dust sifted from the cracked roof shimmering with the rays of the rising morning sun outside, while splintered walls unveiled the clouded remains of reading rooms.

“Clear the rooms.” Chadgura ordered.

Nodding heads; her soldiers donned gas masks and quickly spread among the doors and through the holes in the walls. Chadgura donned her mask and followed Ngebe into one of the nearest doors, pistol on hand. Behind the smashed doorway she found a room full of injured men and women, their weapons discarded or broken, coughing and choking with every wound conceivable from broken bones to missing fingers and limbs and cuts and bruises of all kinds, disoriented and mildly burned and concussed and dazed by the blasts. They crawled under upturned tables, behind fallen shelves and smashed file cabinets.

Across the floor, Chadgura heard the cries of “Clear!” come echoing from every corner.

She wandered through the debris and bodies, feeling nothing for them.

Her heart was always a little dull; today it was absent entirely.

It was somewhere else, with another person, one who needed it more.

“All clear.” She called on the radio. “Send medics up. We’ve got a lot of enemy wounded in grave need of treatment. Tell the ambulance and supply trucks it’s okay to move in.”

University Avenue was conquered, and now they had a castle from which to guard the Main Street. They were only a step from Muhimu Shimba. It felt like they had been fighting for days, but in reality a handful of hours passed. It was not even the proper time for lunch.

Chadgura started out of the building posthaste.

She feared that if she stopped moving, she would have gone back to her.

And though she wanted nothing more to stare at Gulab, to see her rest angelic and to suffer with her every second that she was not awake and aware among them, Chadgura knew that Gulab would not be safe until Muhimu Shimba was taken. She had to move.

“Orange squadron and Purple squadron move up, with me. We’re on the attack.”


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The Battle of Rangda II (54.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda

Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.

“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.

Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.

Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.

All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.

Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.

Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.

There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.

“How many do you see?”

“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”

“Okay. Estimate.”

Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.

“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”

“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.

Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.

Why were they fighting her?

What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?

She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.

Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?

She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.

She could not afford to have that happen.

She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.

But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.

Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”

Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”

Again there was a pause on the radio.

“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.

“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.

“It could be a trap.”

“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.

This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.

Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.

Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.

There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.

Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.

From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.

Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.

“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”

Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”

“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.

Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.

Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”

“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”

“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.

“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”

Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.

She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.

Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.

On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.

“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.

Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.

“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”

“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.

“It was all on the turret front.”

Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.

“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”

She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.

Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”

“One second.”

At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.

“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.

“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.

Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.

Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.

“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.

“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”

“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.

It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.

And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.

That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.

Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.

There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.

Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.

“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”

Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.

Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.

“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.

She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.

Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”

“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.

Gulab held on much more tightly.


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