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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Troubled Sky (57.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Ocean Road trembled, buckling under the fury of dozens of tanks.

Burning red tracers flew over the streets, pitting the ground, smashing windows and walls, cutting through street-lights. Commanding the northern streets were several echelons of hull down Goblin tanks, their front armor reinforced with stacks of sandbags and chained-up wooden logs and concrete blocks.  Acting as mobile pillboxes set in staggered ranks, they spat AP-HE tracers with abandon, firing as fast as their beleaguered crews could handle, barely aiming. Even as they faced an encroaching enemy, they did not maneuver for an advantage, staying as still as the stone wall they were meant to represent.

Challenging their control were the Hobgoblin tanks of Shayma El-Amin’s 3rd Tank Battalion. Against the stone wall of the enemy, the Hobgoblins danced. There was barely any fire from them at first. Moving in coordinated groups of three, the tanks advanced using the buildings for cover, the alleyways to avoid lanes of fire, weaving an intricate pattern of track marks as they swung around the unguarded connecting streets. Even as the ground detonated all around them from the saturation bombardment of dozens of tank guns firing down the street, the Hobgoblins encroached with a steeled discipline.

At first the 8th Ram’s Goblin tanks believed they were confusing the enemy with their mass attacks, and the moving pillboxes felt the rush of victory. One Hobgoblin that clumsily exposed a flank was penetrated through the side; another had its track damaged, and was stranded in the middle of the road. Fire began to concentrate upon it until, after dozens of rounds, its pitted, ruined front armor gave in, and the tank violently exploded.

Two kills! Had the radios been working correctly the 8th Ram would have been abuzz with the sound of victory. Even in the face of the enemy’s strange new tanks, the old Goblin could score a victory! Not a single Goblin had yet suffered violence. For the first fifteen minutes of battle it seemed that the unmoving pillboxes had stopped their enemy.

Then suddenly the Hobgoblins reappeared directly behind the defensive line.

No one had thought the “retreating” enemy was actually bypassing them entirely.

Coming in from the alleys and the side streets, smashing through storefronts, the Hobgoblins opened fire. Unprotected engine compartments went up in smoke. Goblins all over the defensive line started to catch fire and explode. Any single 76mm shot from a Hobgoblin sliced through the Goblin’s armor like paper, turning the engine block to slag and cooking the crews inside their compartments. All over the lower Ocean Road the light tanks went up like signal bonfires. Outmaneuvered and encircled, and encumbered by their improvised armor and tight stationary positions, the Goblins could not redeploy.

After the fifteen minutes in which they held the line, it only took Shayma El-Amin’s tanks three minutes to completely dismantle it. Almost half of Ocean Road was open country, or it would be when the wrecks and the fire was cleared out. Engineers advanced from the bottom of the road, following the lead of the tanks. The 3rd Tank Battalion set track on Ocean Road proper and once more faced the north for the next phase of their attack.

“Forward! We’re breaking through to the rally point! 3rd Company will be the speartip, and 2nd Company will follow in from behind us! 1st Company, fade to the rear as we move past you; you’ve earned your rest. See if you can find any survivors in your two wrecks!”

Major Shayma El-Amin set her radio handset back on its unit, a vicious grin on her face. She adjusted her peaked cap and laid back on the commander’s seat of her Hobgoblin. A few centimeters below her, her gunner adjusted the gun and prepared the ready rack, while farther below and to the front, their driver slowly and steadily maneuvered them toward the front of the pack. Ocean Road could hold about six Hobgoblin widths of tank before becoming too crowded. Shayma had immediately noticed this when she arrived.

Ahead of her, the eight remaining tanks of the 1st Company began to make way for her own Company. All in all her battalion had thirty-five “main” tanks, not counting support such as the Kobolds she had allowed Burundi to borrow. She had spent 1/3 of her strength to tackle the first half of the operation. She intended to finish this with the other 2/3.

Her tanks advanced in staggered, alternating triangle formations. Each formation was three tanks, two forward, one rear, and stuck to one side of the road. Behind them, with about thirty meters of distance, a second triangle would take the opposite side of the road, with only these six foremost tanks attacking, to avoid friendly fire. Swinging her periscope behind her, Shayma could see that her vanguard was adhering to this doctrine excellently.

Her own platoon, a two-tank Headquarters, followed safely farther behind, and then the reserve triangle with three more tanks spread out among the center, left and right lanes.

“Brace yourselves, here comes the enemy’s second rank!” Shayma warned her tanks.

Ahead of them the 8th Division’s remaining pillbox goblins remained dug in, while infantry began to wheel artillery and anti-tank guns closer to the front. Guns poked out from the streetside windows, and sandbag circles protected mortar pits. Ocean Road steepened, and the 8th Division started to have a marginal high ground advantage. At the peak of the city, a pair of Orc tanks aimed their short-barreled guns down on them.

“Switch to high explosive rounds and fire on the artillery positions first!”

3rd Battalion’s tanks immediately acted on Shayma’s orders. All the while moving, the Hobgoblins opened a barrage of inaccurate but powerful fire on the enemy’s foremost artillery defenses. Explosive shells 76mm in caliber flew from the Hobgoblin’s muzzles and struck the earth and sandbags surrounding dug-in 76mm howitzers and 82mm mortars. Smoke and dust and shattered concrete burst skyward in front of the defenders and obscured their sight temporarily. Within the cloud a few fires raged from burnt ammo.

The 8th Division quickly retaliated. Howitzers and mortars adjusted for close fire and attacked through the cloud, casting explosives around and over the advancing tanks. Muzzles flashed and falling shells whizzed and sang, but the payload landed harmlessly behind and around the Hobgoblins. Fragments bounced off armor and no tank caught fire.

Shayma smiled to herself, baring a flash of white fangs, protected amid the blasts.

The 8th Division was operating on experience with slower and weaker tanks than a Hobgoblin and it showed in their every decision. Her armor could more than withstand indirect fire, and her tracks would always outrun it. Their gunnery just was too weak.

Quickly closing to within a hundred meters of the enemy, the Hobgoblins switched targets. Priority went to hard targets: the Goblins and the Orcs spread around the line.

Anti-armor fire grew fiercer the closer they moved.

At such short ranges the Goblin’s gun could punch above its weight class.

It was not enough. Armor piercing shells struck the fronts of the Hobgoblins and bounced off the thick, steeply sloped armor of the glacis and the strong, hardened armor of the gun mantlet, inflicting seemingly no damage. A Goblin’s 45mm gun could not penetrate the front of a Hobgoblin; if it could not be done under 100 meters, then it was impossible.

Across the enemy line, panic visibly set in. Shayma’s tanks coolly pressed their advantage.

HE shell casings popped out of the 76mm guns, and the lead Hobgoblins reloaded AP-HE.

Turrets quickly turned, guns correct elevation, and everyone found targets.

For an instant, the 3rd Tank Company’s formation paused completely.

In the few seconds that followed they fired almost a dozen deadly accurate shots.

Goblins went up in smoke throughout the defensive line, penetrated through their improvised armor of logs and blocks and the thin flat glacis armor behind it. Atop the hill both of the defending Orcs were accurately struck on the thinner armor on the bottom of their glacis plates, and the detonations inside their turrets sent smoke and fire blowing out of their guns until they finally exploded, spraying metal over nearby infantry.

Within the smoke and dust lifted by the previous high explosive attacks Shayma’s gunner indicated several moving shadows and outlines. Once the dust started to clear more, they could see several positions abandoned. Intact anti-tank guns were left behind. Mortars were decrewed. Useless machine guns, including a few Norglers, were discarded.

Soon as the last Hobgoblin gun sounded, Shayma ordered the advance to continue.

Her 3rd Company trundled forward, and then started to split up.

Taking adjacent road connections and alleyways, they dispersed from the center and opened the way for the fresh 2nd Company to repeat the two-phase barrage: first high explosive attacks on the defensive positions, and then armor piercing attacks on any remaining or arriving armor. Meanwhile Shayma’s Headquarters platoon drove through a connecting road and hooked around the enemy defenses; much of the rest of her 3rd Company did the same, dispersing through the urban environment in the same way they had dispersed through the Kalu wood, peeling off the line and evading enemy positions.

Bypassing the enemy strong point, Shayma and her tanks pinched off the rear of the enemy’s positions. Farther down the road her 2nd Company advanced to the positions previously held by the third. Now there were 12 tanks that could fire safely on the main road, and they held positions all around the enemy. They had formed a vice, and as the gunfire began to rain from all sides, it was clear that the vice was tightening quickly.

Once more the Kalu Raiders encircled the enemy line, and this fact was not lost on the enemy. More and more 8th Division troops gave in and abandoned their positions and weapons and even their uniforms. Retreating enemies threw themselves on the ground and begged for mercy. Those still nominally fighting hunkered down in their posts and waited for the cruel fire to blow over them. Remaining Goblin pillbox tanks popped their hatches and the crew waved signal flags in surrender. Ocean Road was quickly broken.

Hull-down tactics, a porous line of thick formations with nonexistent flanks, and outdated equipment exposed completely to a technically superior enemy — it was amateur hour tanking, Shayma knew. Standing at the top of Ocean Road and looking down on Rangda and the distant ocean, Major El-Amin became the first of Colonel Madiha Nakar’s commanders to take her assigned objectives, and she did so in little over an hour’s time.

Even so, much of the 8th Division did not know that they had been split into two sections in Rangda and that neither section had the power now to unite with the other. All of them knew even less that they would soon become nearly irrelevant to the conflict entirely.


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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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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XV

50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea

Byanca could not believe how quickly everything was moving.

Walking out of the convent with a firearm trained on Princess Clarissa Vittoria was a surreal experience. Byanca marched step by step with a heart squeezed by tension, as the gallant young woman three steps ahead strode past ranks of her fellow sisters frozen with terror. Any of those women could have lunged for them and set afire the whole scheme; had the whole mob managed to come together they could have killed Byanca, certainly.

Through the gardens, through the hallways, across the outer wing. Every corner, every balcony, every higher story, suddenly teemed with onlookers watching them in disbelief.

Despite their every advantage, none of them were convinced of their own power.

No woman took any step closer to the two of them. They walked as if between a fence laid down with habits and crosses and skirts, rather than amid a teeming human mass.

Clarissa had her head up high and an almost smug expression on her face.

“Mice.” She said to herself aloud, as she stared at the women and girls around her.

She was amused enough to indulge in the slightest, cruel little giggle.

Byanca pushed her gun forward like a real kidnapper would have.

They passed through the arched main gate of the convent. At the side of the cobblestone path stood the Convent Mother, her tall, gaunt, long-limbed form draped in the most covering and ornate habit Byanca had yet seen. Even in the monastery she had never seen a sister so over-dressed. All of her hair was captured in her habit, and not even a hint of neck or bare hands could be seen through her dress, which was richly embroidered. Her only visible flesh was that of her face, taut and pockmarked, void of readable emotion.

“Clarissa, if you leave with these people, you will not return. I assure you. They will use you and bury you somewhere lost and deep, and you will never see heaven.” She said.

Only threats. No greetings, no prayers, no honorifics. No respect whatsoever.

Clarissa, her hands held up in feigned captivity, scarcely spared the woman a glance.

“If you’re a keeper of heaven, no such thing can exist. Out of my way.”

She started walking again even before Byanca did.

They were no longer captive and captor; it was clear who was in control, and Byanca had lost any pretense to it, even as she held a fully-loaded, automatic firearm in her arms. Even with the ability to put a bullet through her breast and end her at any time, she felt powerless in the face of Clarissa’s strength. She was as immovable as a statue and with a similar stoic beauty. Bullets would surely ricochet against that ramrod straight stance.

Byanca contemplated pointing her gun at the Mother, but did not do so. She did not even stare at her. Like a phantom, the woman merely left the world as Byanca averted her eyes.

Past the gates, there was a long dirt road, seemingly endless, raised up with sand and stone against the shallow ditches flanking it. Dense woodlands stretched high to both sides of the road. Thick-trunked trees with great crowns formed a mantle that cast deep shadows. Compared to this gloom, the road between seemed gilded, a thread of light.

Farther down the road, a green truck lay conspicuously in wait.

And from the forest, Byanca’s subordinates soon stepped carefully into view.

Though they had only recently made her acquaintance, Byanca did not have the time to be properly paranoid of Torvald and Giuseppa. She had a good first impression of both, and they came recommended by a certain Signore Giovanni. Torvald was a stocky sort with a sharp face and overgrown, slightly unkempt blond hair; he had a twisted smile and clearly did not care for himself too much, if at all anymore. Giuseppa was a tall, long-haired, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with ears almost like a rabbit’s — an indigenous Borelian who had served with the colonial authority for a time. She had an incisive voice.

Both seemed like the sort of people unsuited to elaborate personal schemes.

Dinari and the promise of a rifle in hand was alone what sang to them.

They made good subordinates and minions were all Byanca desired at the moment.

Coming out of the wood they looked focused on their mission, dressed in camouflaged greens (a red uniform for Byanca’s redcoats seemed counterproductive for the moment) and with steel gazes that did not linger on the Princess for long. Soon as they appeared and Byanca acknowledged them, the three of them quickly headed down the road for the truck. Two more of Byanca’s cadre waited inside the truck’s cabin, and they primed the engine the moment she reappeared. Byanca led the Princess around to the vehicle’s bed.

Inside waited Terry the dog, its tail quite unwagging, and a brooding, effete young man with a delicate face and ruddy-brown hair in a short ponytail. He was the only one without military garb, dressed instead in a vest, shirt and dress pants, black tie and all. Byanca would have called him the ringleader; he looked the part. There was a glimmer in his eyes as Byanca helped Clarissa up into the bed of the truck. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he did not. On his subtly curving hip was a small Nochtish pistol.

There were more guns in the truck. They had one Contracarro Boyes rifle, a large, long piece with a thick stock and a recoil buffer; and one Myrta light machine gun, already loaded with a thick, unwieldy 30-round magazine sticking out of the gun’s side. But the centerpiece was lying on its bipod, in a corner of the bed. One Nochtish Norgler machine gun and its ammunition belts. These were rare and prized in the Kingdom of Lubon.

“My, you’re better prepared than I expected.” Clarissa said, glancing at the weapons.

“We’ve been busy.” said Sylvano D’Amore. His voice was conspicuously gentle.

“Indeed you have. I thank you for your service. It will be rewarded.” She said.

She did not mince words. There was only a limited use in saying more to commoners.

While Clarissa stood tall everyone else seemed to buckle.

Sylvano’s eyes shied away from contact. Torvald and Giuseppa sat on the side of the bed, while Byanca sat beside Terry, who maintained a subtle, restrained growl at the sight of Clarissa. Sylvano sat on her other side, quiet. All of them seemed beneath the notice of the confident Princess, who was already turning from thoughts of escape and to her future.

“Run your plan by me. What has been happening around here?” She asked. “How is Cesare? How are his cadres? Last I knew he was being relentlessly hunted.”

“We’re just a cell; we do not know about our counterparts.” Sylvano said.

Byanca would have rather he not say anything, but it wasn’t too damaging at least.

Clarissa did not seem to have any change in attitude.

“Princess, the Blackshirt Legion has pulled out of Palladi, but they’re still thick in Ikrea.” Byanca interjected. “For safety reasons, we will drive you to a noticeable landmark of your choice, somewhere you know you can navigate. We’ll give you civilian clothes and money and you’ll have to make it to a safe base area by yourself. Can you do this for us?”

Clarissa held a hand up to her mouth. She was still standing in the middle of the bed.

She loomed over them, like a giantess. She radiated sheer power in an eerie way.

“What will you do then?” She asked.

“We will disperse, to regroup when an opportunity presents itself.” Byanca said.

Perhaps Clarissa was asking genuinely, and perhaps she was testing their knowledge of anarchist operational art. Byanca could not be sure. She was confident that she knew enough, having destroyed several rebel cells in Borelia, to understand their tactics and organization. Even here in Lubon, they had sympathetic “base areas” in rural villages that either tolerated or outright supported them. From those areas they sewed independent “cells” like seeds cast into the wind. These were less solid formations and more fluid groupings of people aware of each other’s presence and role in an operational area. They came together when there was an opportunity, and were strangers the rest of their days.

Ikrea was the root of their strength. It was here that they had launched their deadliest attack, and it was here that they were most hunted. But knowing men like Cesare, Byanca knew that he would not abandon the site of his greatest victory. Ikrea teemed with enemies for the anarchists, but it was also confused and weak in the knees after his last blow. Palladi would mean starting all over from scratch. Cesare was still in Ikrea, because he could never abandon the irreplaceable things he built here: allies, and reputation.

And Clarissa seemed to know it as well. Her response was unsurprising to the group.

“Take me to Cuvenen Forest.” She said.

A secluded, forgotten place no soul should have been near.

There were many such places in old Ikrea, but now they had narrowed it to one.

Everyone nodded in recognition. Clarissa smiled at them.

Delicately, she lifted the hem of her skirts and sat against the side wall of the truck bed.

Byanca banged her fist on the rear of the bed, and the truck began to move.

Soon the trees were flying past them as they picked up speed.

Wind blowing through the gaps in the truck’s bed armor whipped everyone’s hair.

Sylvano had a look of disquiet on his face.

“Princess, how,” he paused for a moment, sighing slightly, “how have you been?”

“Captive.” Clarissa replied, with a small smile full of subtle viciousness.

Byanca felt a temptation to force Sylvano to shut up, but in a way that would have been incredibly cruel. This was the first time the person who was both Sylvano and Salvatrice Vittoria would meet their long-lost sibling. Byanca could not have imagined what was going on in their mind at the moment. Certainly it must have been heart-wrenching.

Despite the danger, her compassion won out. She allowed Sylvano this moment.

“I apologize, Cl– Princess. We could have attempted this much sooner.”

Clarissa’s devilish countenance softened somewhat.

“I do not need your apology.”

“I– We forgot you.”

“Rebels never forget their comrades. You were being pragmatic.”

“So you never lost hope?”

“No. I lost hope very quickly. But I adapted just quickly to losing hope. I wrote some letters that went nowhere, tried to escape a few times. I thrashed and fought and made a mess of myself, I cried copiously. Then I settled in. I’m nothing if not stout-hearted. It was fine. ”

Clarissa spoke as if merely telling a story. As if she had no connection to those events.

Sylvano looked hurt by those words.

“None of that needed to happen.” He said, his hands shaking, balled into fists.

“That’s her wretched Majesty for you.” Clarissa said, in the tone of a gossip, still smiling, still flighty in manner. “She will soon get what she deserves. I’m sure Cesare is ready.”

Sylvano lifted his eyes from the floor and locked them on Clarissa.

“I thought Cesare loved you. Shouldn’t he have done anything to free you?”

Byanca felt a growing sense of alarm, but she restrained herself. It was not as dire a situation as she feared. Clarissa did not seem offended or suspicious. She was curious, drawn in, perhaps endeared even. Her entire stance and countenance was softening, and she allowed herself more emotion toward Sylvano than she had previously shown.

“Revolution is his wife. I am only his mistress. For what he promised to do for me, that was enough. I love him, yes. But I love him in the context of this state of affairs.”

Sylvano shook his head. “I don’t understand at all.”

Clarissa giggled suddenly. “I’ve led many lives, peasant; of them, the life I shared with Cesare, briefly, was the one where I felt most alive. In the palace, I have always been dead. And in the nunnery, I was merely frozen, asleep. I was not suffering there, you see. I suffer only under the claws of my harpy of a mother. Elsewhere, in comparison, I am at peace.”

She leaned forward and with her fingers, pushed up Sylvano’s chin.

“Your friends have given me hope that I may yet live again. That I can be free of Lubon’s cursed crown and lead my own life. For that, I will always remember you and be grateful.”

Sylvano seemed to shiver at the touch, his eyes wide with bafflement and emotion.

“I may be only his mistress, only one of the women in his bed, but Cesare would kill a Queen for me, and that is more than he would do for any other woman.” Clarissa said.

Giuseppa and Torvald turned their eyes away. The Princess was becoming quite animate in this conversation and sounded almost like a member of a cult whenever she spoke.

Byanca wondered what Clarissa even knew about anarchist ideology to think this. In ignorance, Byanca might have accepted it too; but she knew better now what they stood for. To them, Clarissa was a visible part of the state that they hated, a prissy and privileged woman who had been pampered her whole life on the sweat of others. It might have been pretty convenient for Cesare to be able to taste royal flesh in the course of his goals, but as an organization with an ideology, anarchists would sooner flay Clarissa than free her.

Was Cesare that convincing? Was she that foolish? It was such a confusing situation.

Sylvano seemed reduced to mumbling, and any rate, Clarissa stopped paying him attention. For the rest of the ride through the countryside the truck was dead quiet. Byanca instructed the driver to stick to back roads and to keep an eye out for patrols. Whenever they entered a populated area a tarp was thrown over the back of the truck before passing through. But there were no Legion patrols, no convoy of police vehicles headed to the Convent. Byanca had the radios destroyed and phone lines cut back there.

So it gave them a pretty sizable head-start on their pursuers, if any materialized.

Ikrea was a province of mostly woodland and farmland arrayed around a few waypoints of civilization. Towns in open places served as hubs to receive the produce of the small villages in the thick woods and amid the vast fields. Ikrea’s handful of cities procured this produce from the towns in turn and delivered it to the industrial places of the north after eating their fill. Those farming the land received the least benefit of their efforts.

It was this state of affairs that led to Ikrea becoming a nest for insurgency.

Byanca could not challenge this root cause; she could only ameliorate the symptoms.

Watching the world travel past the back of the truck bed was an eerie sensation. It felt like being flung through a tunnel, like falling forwards down a stretch of trunks and green crowns and wispy white clouds of dirt. It was isolating, even with people at her side. This was a different world with different sensibilities from Palladi. It was more like Borelia.

It was like invading the villages in the Borelian outskirts all over again, trampling over grass not one’s own and waiting for the next grenade to fly out of a roadside bush.

But nothing happened. There was no antagonist; the way was open, a way to nowhere.

Between much of Palladi and Ikrea stretched a great silver lake, and it was in the southern, Ikrean portion of the lake that a stretch of woodland, seemingly no different from the rest of the great forest, was historically acknowledged to be the Cuvenen. Known by some as the First Forest, the Cuvenen was important to elven history, but only marginally important to the folklore known to most. Elves had been said to have entered the world from the Cuvenen; but that they left it behind said enough about its importance to them.

Byanca had been taught that Elves reveled in exploration and expansion. That the whole world was the forest they would chart, nurture and ultimately protect. They were destined to have an Empire, and in the Cuvenen, they would have never built one. Places like Cuvenen were meant to be forgotten, and under Vittoria’s shadow, they easily were.

The truck arrived at the Cuvenen just before sundown. Descending a shallow ditch, the Redcoats hid as best as they could from the lakeside road, and straddled the wood until they reached the maw of the woodland. Everyone vacated the truck bed to give Clarissa some privacy. When she emerged, she was dressed in a jacket, long pants, boots and a newsboy cap. Byanca was reminded of disguises she found a certain other princess wore.

“Do you know how to use this?”

Byanca approached Clarissa with a pistol in hand.

“I do not.” Clarissa replied.

Byanca put the gun in her hands and stood behind her, showing her how to use it.

“Trigger, safety, slide,” she said, showing her the parts, “pull this to get ready; bullets come out of here when you press here. Keep your finger off here until you’re ready to shoot. You’ll feel a bit of pushing force back on you each shot. Aim like this.”

While Giuseppa, Torvald and Sylvano stood guard, Byanca quickly trained Clarissa.

After a few minutes of instruction, Clarissa aimed into the wood and pulled the trigger.

When the gun went off, she let out a little screech, at first, but quickly calmed.

A little smile played about her face. “Oh, my. I think I liked that.” Clarissa said.

“It’s not a toy.” Byanca said. “Be very careful with it. Now, you should be going. We’ll wait fifteen minutes to see that nobody follows you closely and then we’ll turn around.”

“Understood. Thank you for taking me this far, comrade.”

Byanca’s eyes nearly twitched hearing that word out of this woman’s mouth.

“I hope for your sake you find someone in there, or you’ll starve otherwise.”

Clarissa silently nodded her head and tipped her newsboy cap with a grin on her face.

She turned her back on the group and ambled casually toward the wood with her hands in her pockets, one bulging with the firearm inside. She moved with the confidence of one practiced in clandestine activity — it was casual to her, another escapade, another little adventure. For all of her life she had been immune to consequences for her actions. Byanca had to wonder whether the dealings with Cesare were her only past sins.

Sylvano stared helplessly into the forest, watching the Princess disappear.

Once she was far enough away, and enough time had passed, Byanca climbed into the back of the truck. There she found Clarissa’s discarded clothing in a pile. There were no extraordinary effects — just her habit, dress, and shoes, along with a crucifix she left behind. Her dress didn’t even have pockets, so she couldn’t have taken anything. Everything Clarissa carried with her now, they had given. Less unknowns to worry about.

Satisfied with her inspection, Byanca seized Clarissa’s habit and thrust it into Terry’s snout. The dog sat stoically in a corner of the truck. When given the habit she snarled for a moment before begrudgingly sniffing the piece as she had been trained to do. After sniffing the habit, Byanca let Terry loose on the pile, taking in all of Clarissa’s scent from her full attire. Steeped in the Princess’ various odors, Terry would be able to track her.

“Follow her very quietly, Terry. Attack only to defend yourself.” Byanca said.

She pointed into the forest. Terry hopped off the back of the truck, and thrust its long snout into the soft, damp dirt of the forest path. Navigating by nose more than eyes, the dog started off into the ever-darkening wood with its tail up high and its legs tense, moving with a restrained, careful gait that seemed unnatural to its species.

“So that was your plan all along? Following this dog?” Sylvano said.

His voice was struggling. It was lapsing with emotion, back to its princessly state.

“Well, we don’t really have any other choice. We can’t go in with Clarissa, because we’re not really anarchists. And if we try to make Cesare come to us, his people will have made preparations and contingencies. So we have to let her return to them alone, in their base area, and then we need a way to follow her that won’t arouse suspicion. That’s Terry.”

Byanca had gone through various possibilities in her head. This was the best way. Any rebel cell that had survived this long would have measures against bugs or spies, but nobody ever really prepared to counter dogs because the Legion never employed any. Dog tracking was an ancient, low tech solution overlooked in a high tech world. It satisfied the condition of finding the anarchists. But to truly infiltrate them, to render them vulnerable, they needed someone that the anarchists trusted or needed. Clarissa was hopefully both, but she was at least the latter. She was valued; she knew how to contact them and knew their secret base. They would accept her even if only to dispose of her or to close the informational loop. Clarissa had gone to them of her own accord in the past, if the Queen’s intelligence services could be trusted. Clarissa could therefore lead the Redcoats to Cesare.

“How do we know Clarissa can find these people?” Sylvano groaned.

“Well, she picked to come to Cuvenen of all places. There’s no reason to do that unless she wanted to die alone in the woods, or she knew that she could find help in this place.”

“What if she can’t find anything? What if she’s just trying to run away?” Sylvano said.

“Then she picked a terrible spot to run away in. Listen, if you want this to work then you have to trust me. We have no leads except this one. We will make it work somehow.”

“Somehow?” Sylvano sighed. He crossed his arms. “Fine. Just make me one promise.”

“Okay?” Byanca asked, blinking her eyes in confusion.

Sylvano rubbed his hand over his mouth and chin, and he sighed again.

“Please try to keep her safe, whatever happens.”

In Sylvano’s eyes, Byanca could see the princess that she loved so inconveniently much.

“I will keep her safe.”

To see that princess-like smile, Byanca would say even the blackest, vilest lies.

It remained to be seen whether this would be one such lie, or an honor upheld.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The Battle of Rangda I (53.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

After the Colonel’s speech on the loudspeakers it was clear that the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment was going to battle, and it was clear against whom it was. What was not immediately clear was how they would go about the endeavor; there had never been, in all of their training in Rangda, any focus on strategy. It had all been about real time tactics.

Tactical units and officers thus stood in quiet contemplation, waiting for the Majors.

Once the speech concluded, the Colonel summoned her battalion commanders for an emergency meeting. It was the first time they would see the Colonel since the current events. They convened in an unusual location: a curtained-off corner of the base infirmary, around Madiha Nakar’s bed. She sat against several pillows stacked in front of the raised backrest of her bed, the lower half of her body covered in a medical blanket. On her lap, a small, heavily bandaged pet drake lay, curled up and asleep, purring softly.

Before her, the recently promoted Majors arrived together. Marion Burundi stood in the middle like an obsidian pillar, dark, strong, with his face lit by a bemused grin. He positioned himself front and center. At his sides were Shayma El-Amin, a sharp-featured woman maybe a year Madiha’s junior with short cropped hair under her peaked cap and sandy skin; and Nizar Jakan, a lanky, blunt-faced man with a sleepy expression.

“Ma’am, it is good to see you back. Consider me fully at your disposal.” Burundi said first.

“All tank crews are at full combat readiness, Colonel. Just say the word.” El-Amin added.

Jakan contributed nothing to the greetings. He seemed almost to want to hide in the back.

Despite her many visibly bandaged wounds, the Colonel had a fire in her eyes and spoke with a candor unhindered by exhaustion or medication. At her side, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani had pinned a map of the city on a board. Already there were several different markings on it. Neater ones could be attributed to C.W.O Maharani’s careful writing, while the more chaotic lines and scribblings in black were likely the Colonel’s.

“I am pleased with how you have handled yourselves in my absence. It was prescient to put the base on high alert and to build up combat readiness. You have vindicated my faith in your abilities a hundredfold. But the real battle begins now.” Colonel Nakar said.

Clearly her will to fight had not been diminished by her experiences. Nobody in the room knew what thoughts were swirling in the Colonel’s head, but all of them knew, quite clearly now, that her health was deteriorated. Some among them could ignore it or brush it aside, especially hearing her speak with such force. But one among them had concerns.

“Colonel, if it’s not much to ask, I’d like to inquire as to your condition.” Burundi said.

El-Amin glared sharply at him. Jakan again made no move. Across from them, Parinita averted her eyes from the group. Burundi was friendly, outgoing — perhaps too much. Whether he was being comradely or intrusive didn’t matter to the room. It was just taboo.

His inquiry did not appear to offend the Colonel, however, and she responded neutrally.

“To call what I suffered the past night anything but torture would be putting it too lightly. I do not wish to say any more than that, Major. Despite the torment I went through, I acquired useful information. With your aid, I am ready to exploit it.” She calmly said.

“Very well. I am glad you’ve got eyes forward, Colonel.” Burundi said with a soft smile.

El-Amin spoke so quickly and with such a strong voice she almost cut off Burundi.

“Colonel, my forces stand ready to shove aside the Federation sympathizers.” She said. “Merely say the word, and the cannons of the 3rd Tank Battalion will crush them!”

Where Burundi was easygoing, El-Amin was serious and intense. She had proven herself in the forest fighting of the Kalu, where she whipped into shape meager Goblin-armed tank companies into vicious and brave ambush groups that devastated the vaunted Panzer forces of the Federation. Her spirit and focus were unmatched among their peers, and she had a particular single-minded loyalty to the Colonel that was visible and indisputable.

Madiha smiled at her and treated her like a friend.

“Your zeal is always appreciated, Shayma.” She said.

El-Amin’s cheeks turned a touch redder but her stony expression was unchanged.

The Colonel then turned her eyes toward her even more faithful, ever-present aide.

“Parinita, explain the situation on the board.”

“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said. She turned to everyone else. “As you well know, we’re going to launch offensive operations against the 8th Ram Rifle Division. Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the division, and the capitulation of Rangda’s government.”

Burundi’s eyes drew wide. El-Amin grinned with delight. Jakan nodded off a little.

“Complete destruction sounds like a bit much with our numbers.” Burundi said.

“Well I’ve crunched the numbers, and the disparity is not as great as you may believe.” Parinita said sharply. “Please allow me to explain, and have faith in the Colonel.”

Burundi frowned and shrugged but maintained his calm.

The Chief Warrant Officer picked up the corkboard map from the wall and set it on a tripod easel that was closer to the bed. Producing a telescopic pointer from her jacket, Parinita pointed at three separate locations marked with blue circles — Rangda University in the north, Ocean Road in the center, and Forest Park in the eastern city limits.

“Elements of the 8th Division in the city of Rangda number an estimated four to six thousand personnel, with the remaining quantities of their men and matériel expected to arrive between today and tomorrow. There are three key areas for the 8th Division in the city. Their strongest forces, the Lion Battalion, are located in Rangda University, and would likely make up the vanguard of any encirclement assault on our positions. Forest Park is a necessary entry point into the city for arriving forces, and Ocean Road is a necessary transportation route that bisects the city and connects all points.”

Parinita spoke clearly and concisely, with a warm, excitable smile on her face she pointed to the three locations and to three chits stationed in their base on the map. She stretched her arm and took one from the corkboard and stuck it on Forest Park, a second on Ocean Road and a third on Rangda University. Once she had the chits in their proper places, she addressed the room again as a whole, with her pointer swiping at the chits in turns.

“These will be our initial objectives. Our attacks will benefit from surprise, but not for long. And because of our current resources, we can only black out the communications of the Lion Battalion and the Council. So the rest of the 8th Division in Ocean Road and Forest Park will be able to talk with each other, but not with them. One greater advantage that we enjoy is numerical parity — you might be skeptical, but our ability to concentrate our forces means we will outnumber the 8th Division in critical areas at the start of the battle. They have to defend all of Rangda; we’re hitting three specific locations.”

Having taken her part in the briefing, Parinita ceded the floor to the Colonel with a smile.

Madiha took up the deliberations from there. “Jakan, 2nd Battalion will attack Forest Park, avoiding Ocean Road and carving a pathway through the urban center. This will be a diversionary attack disguised as our main thrust. You will attack ahead of all other units and at first without additional support, drawing in 8th Division units from other positions. The 8th Division knows that they require the rest of their forces to decisively defeat us, and that those forces are slowly arriving. By securing Forest Park, we have a stronghold from which we can fight their arriving units piecemeal at Rangda’s city limits, negating the advantage of their numbers. They will place a lot of importance in sealing up the city limits, so you should expect heavy resistance. Your goal is to tie them up.”

Jakan nodded his head silently. Shayma and Burundi glanced sidelong at him and sighed.

“El-Amin.” Madiha continued, setting her gaze on the tank battalion commander. “Once the attack in the center is underway and we know the enemy is recommitting their forces to defend or to take back Forest Park, your 3rd Battalion will form the right wing of our attack by moving on Ocean Road. Yours will be our most decisive thrust. I want you to hit the enemy with excessive force. Your goal will be to cut the 8th Division off from Council and to divide it into two pockets of resistance, stuck on either side of Ocean Road.”

“They’ll scream under the weight of our tracks, Commander.” El-Amin said. She had a wide, vicious beaming expression as she spoke. She must have been delighted to have had the Colonel’s trust and attention and to be tasked with delivering a decisive thrust.

Madiha then turned to Burundi, who saluted amicably in response, awaiting his orders.

“Burundi, your attack starts after Jakan’s breakout to the east. You will break through to the Lion Battalion’s stronghold in Rangda University and destroy it, preventing Lion from relieving Forest Park’s defenders. Lion is the only force available that could potentially disrupt Jakan’s takeover of the Park. They threaten his flank all throughout the urban center, and they are loyal veterans of the 2026 mutiny. Right now they are likely the unit in Rangda with the best equipment and largest numbers. You must break them.”

“I like the sound of that.” Burundi replied. “Matumaini is on it, Commander.”

Of all the newly-promoted personnel, Burundi was the least officer-like of the bunch. He had started the war a platoon sergeant on the border with Cissea, and exhibited great leadership qualities throughout the retreat. He practically acted as a Captain when several went AWOL during the organization phase of the battle of Bada Aso. After great personal bravery during the Matumaini defense, his battalion was granted the street as a moniker.

“Once Lion is routed, Ocean Road is ours, and Forest Park is held, we will decapitate the government by launching an attack on Council, and force the 8th to stand down.”

Parinita crouched by the corkboard and withdrew a pen, drawing lines connecting the circles and chits and various numbers and other markings on the map. As Madiha spoke, she drew. All of them swept east and north toward the exterior of the city, and then finally slammed back onto Council. Whether with overwhelming force or as a final desperate measure it remained to be seen. Judging by the excitable look on Col. Nakar’s face as she explained her plan, she seemed confident in what the outcome could be.

Once the drawing was done, the Chief Warrant Officer stood at the Colonel’s side with a confident smile that mimicked the Commander’s own, holding a clipboard to her chest.

“Any questions?” Parinita asked warmly.

At this, Jakan raised his hand stiffly into the air.

“Go ahead.” Madiha said.

Jakan cleared his throat roughly.

“Ma’am, may I humbly suggest that the Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion and the Motorcycle Recon Company launch an attack between mine and Burundi’s thrusts? They can support a small push against displaced elements from both areas, while being available for artillery support for both of us. I would find that comforting.” He said.

His voice was nasally, froggish, and a little grim, but he made perfect sense.

Madiha smiled and nodded her head. “An excellent suggestion. I will consider it.”

Jakan bowed his head.

Unlike Shayma and Burundi, Jakan had already been a commissioned officer for a time.

He was the kind of officer who outlasted demilitarization, and he was one of the very few Captains of Battlegroup Ox who did not disappear when the going got tough. His forces held the Umaiha river with great bravery until the weather swept most of them away. His new battalion was named Umaiha in commemoration of their sacrifice. Though he was a bit of an eccentric, he had Madiha’s trust. And she had entrusted him the toughest task.

“Thank you, Commander. I will diligently seek the objective.” He said.

El-Amin gave him a look of begrudging respect. Burundi laughed.

Thus the strategy was set forth, and the seed for the battles to come planted.

“I can’t move from here right now, but I will keep an eye on your progress.” Madiha said.

One by one, the battalion commanders bowed in respect, and left the infirmary.

“With that kind of plan, they can definitely win.” Parinita said, almost as if to herself.

Madiha merely grinned, and settled back against the bed to rest.


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