Ch24

Earth Empire Front Line

Outskirts of Zaofu

Western Earth Kingdom

"Hana, diving the ship!" Yasuho informed me.

"On your mark, kommandant," Hanako replied, staying vigilant for where her commanding officer wanted to place them.

They had advanced further into the Zaofu defensive, but progress was slowing. Their support on the ground had been dwindling, and with each meter gained, their army was losing valuable men and machinery. The massive domes of Zaofu were now clearly visible, standing up and above the plains closer than the horizon. So close, but still so far.

Yasuho brought her arms in close, took a breath in, and pushed her hand downward. A dug out, wide enough to accommodate their tank depressed into the earth ahead.

Time for a bit of a breather, Hanako thought. Hulling-down meant they'd be largely stationary for a bit, meaning she could recover from straining to drive through intense combat. She hooked the tiller and made some sharp turns before the heavy tank dove slightly below the surface. Their hull was completely lowered to the degree that, if viewed from the side, their turret seemed as though it was sitting on the dirt. She gently applied the brakes and they came to a stop in their defensive position.

Yasuho dropped down into the hull and shut the hatch on top of her. For now, the enemy was directly ahead and at an arm's reach away. They didn't need to worry about troops clambering up around them and throwing grenades down the hatches.

The roar of the machine gun prevented them from having any relaxing silence, but for the first time in a long time they were still.

"Anything?" Yasuho asked her radio operator.

Maho scrolled through the operation's designated channels. "No signal to push, yet." Her fingers stopped rolling the dial. "Transmission from Major Choi."

Yasuho held one ear piece for her receiver to her ear.

"Pai-sen!" he greeted, rather casually given the circumstances. "What's your sitrep?"

Yasuho grasped the transmitter on her throat. "We're hulled down at the front, awaiting orders from top! Lieutenants Chansung and Chen as well."

"Same with us," Jiho replied. "We're about seventy meters to your left. There's a temporary order to hold positions, so first and third sectors can catch up. Turns out, we've apparently been too good and are ahead. For now, lay fire on the defensive lines and soften up their positions."

"Yes, sir," she said, hanging her headphones over her peaked cap. Fatigue was starting to set in for her too. "Eunji," she prompted, "you're off leash."

"Aye, cap'n," Eunji acknowledged. The turret swept left and right as she continued to fire streams of tracers at the enemy positions. "Tiger! Give me AP!"

As the cannon fired and the shell and breach clinked and clanked as Junko cycled the spent casing out for a fresh one, an enemy tiger tank killed with a piercing shot straight through the lower glacis plate, Yasuho poured herself a drink of still hot coffee. The pick-me-up quickly heated the metal of her stainless steel mug, but rather than drop it at the burning sensation she hovered it a centimeter off her palms. She peaked out the top of the cupola and surveyed the field ahead.

"Big concentration of tanks and field emplacements," she read, "infantry looks light, though. Sure, it could mean we've severely thinned their lines, but I don't like it."

"High explosive, up," Junko called, already readying to rip the spent shell out, and predicting what Eunji will call for in the next shot. "If it's infantry we're worried about, won't we just shred them? Bodies are weaker than steel, right?"

"Kill 'em all, sure," Eunji said, blasting apart a machine gun nest, "When they're in front of us at an arm's length away. If they're next to us, or behind us, or on top of us it's a big problem. Especially with benders."

"We should wait for our own infantry to reinforce the front line. With a second helping of reinforcements, our tanks will be well protected. It's obvious we have the better tank force," Maho added. "The order to advance will likely come shortly though…"

"If they tell us to push, the command may see a window to force through their lines. We're so close, we can just end this battle now," Junko said as she drew up the next shell. The magazine was starting to run dry, they had spent so many shells. She was right though, Zaofu seemed so close they could directly fire on the massive domes that guarded the city; not that it would do anything though.

"Fair point," Eunji said, setting another Zaofu tank in her gun sight. She didn't as much as blink as a shell touched down in the dirt just ahead of their tank, seeming to bounce right over. The crash landing, ricochet, and warbling sound that the shell made as it tumbled over head didn't phase Yasuho either, who took a sip of her coffee. "I'm fine with either or," the gunner chimed, destroying the tank that had shot at them.

"Hastiness has brought the blunder of many armies in the past," Maho advocated. "Patience is a virtue in war, even in an aggressive one."

"Please," Eunji said, pulling her eye away from the gun sight to look down directly at Maho ahead of her, "With these odds? You really think Zaofu is going to fend off the entirety of the Earth Empire's Army? There's no way they're going to turn this around."

"No," Maho replied, "but it could be dire for us, the individual unit in the field."

The tank recoiled as the main gun fired again. Scratch another target for sure.

"Incoming!" Eunji shouted.

Maho, Junko, Yasuho, and Hanako simply closed their eyes and plugged their ears, used to the routine already. A deafening crash and ring echoed as a shell bounced off the turret mantlet.

Repainting this thing is going to be a pain, Yasuho thought, shifting her thoughts already to the upkeep and repair of her tank. Tiger 118 was practically home, for her and her crew. Suspension, gearing, supplies, all the bolts and systems, everything had to be checked. I won't get a good night's sleep for a week, she thought. And then there was the paint and markings too! She somewhat envied 1st Armored and their unique camouflaged paint scheming. Camouflaged tanks can flaunt their battle scars, she thought, ours need to be painted both for the field and for parade! Ridiculous! She sipped her coffee.

"Transmission," Maho announced.

Yasuho picked up the separate receiver to listen in.

"Pai-sen!" Major Choi playfully called. "Orders straight from General Guan and Kuvira. I'm to take 1st Armored and push the front line further in our sector!"

"Roger," she replied, "Are we trailing?"

"Negative," he replied. She could the clanging, banging, ringing, and tearing metal through the radio. It was readily apparent that he himself was actively fighting, with his bending, while relaying orders on the radio. "2nd Armored and supplementing units are to hang back and wait for another signal to advance. Get a breather, King Tigers and Mauses will push the line up!"

"Affirmative," Yasuho replied, hanging up."

Eunji paused from firing at the enemy, briefly just to reload the coaxial machine gun. "What's the news, boss?"

"We're sitting tight for a moment. First Armored is going to charge," the commander informed. Yausho leaned back in her seat and poured out the last of the readied coffee.

Eunji scoffed. "All the fun…"

Yasuho and Maho sighed. They were at least uneasy about this whole ordeal. Orders were orders, but unlike a bunch of marauders, daofei, and even further despicables…Zaofu wasn't criminal. At Least in their eyes. Many Earth Empire soldiers and officers even had served in the ranks of Zaofu's guard. For Yasuho, this didn't feel…right.

Something about this battle didn't feel quite right either. Yasuho hopped on the radio. "Chen, Chansung, spread out and formed a defensive perimeter. Tiger further up and Panther at the rear! Something doesn't feel right."

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Understood!" her two supporting tanks called back.

She peered out an observation port in the cupola, looking both right and left. The panther climbed out of its hull-down depression, and the Tiger reversed out of its. All there was to do now was wait for the signal to push.

Meanwhile, a fleet of Tiger II's and Maus tanks trundled by, advancing forth. All the heavy and super heavy tanks, the most formidably armored and armed units, pushed ahead, leaving the handful of mechanized infantry and comparatively more vulnerable tanks behind.


Zaofu

Western Earth Kingdom

The panicked screams of the remaining citizens of Zaofu were drowned out by the shrieks and thunder of artillery. The domes were cracked open at their peak to allow rockets and shells to shoot from the city center out onto the battlefield. The city was still largely intact, shielded by the large platinum dome petals that encased the city, but they wouldn't be able to keep Kuvira's Armies out of the city should they manage to come right up next to it.

Zaofu's metal bending guard was fighting back valiantly. But they were outnumbered and outgunned. Slowly but surely, they were getting pushed closer and closer to the edge of the city. And with each line Kuvira gained, the more men and equipment Suyin lost. Men and supplies were not something she could replace, unlike Kuvira. The citizens of Zaofu ran in panic through the streets, still in their elegant and flowing emerald green robes. Many had suitcases in hand and were moving to the designated evacuation points. But they had nowhere to run! The window to evacuate, given by the Earth Empire, had closed already.

"Get to the subway tunnels!" Suyin directed, joined by her family and several platoons of the guardsmen. They were trying to herd the citizens into the underground rail tunnels, shelter and a slim chance of escape. At the very least, they would be safe from falling ordnance.

Bataar, her husband, ran to her side. He had come out from the tunnels below, finally being able to weasel his way through the surging river of fleeing civilians. "It's getting packed down there," he reported.

"Are they able to move through the tunnels? Out the Zaofu Line either west or east bound?" Suyin was desperate.

Bataar grimly shook his head. "Afraid not," he answered. "We sent a search detail in each direction. The local train lines out each direction of the city had been caved in by the Earth Empire. They're dead ends. The Shinkansen tracks have also been cut. The bullet train lines haven't been cut as dramatically…there isn't a pile of rubble blocking the way…but the rails had been separated..and there may be a blockading force of Earth Empire somewhere further down the line. We didn't dare check."

Suyin clicked her teeth. Kuvira didn't destroy the bullet train line so she can easily restart and connect the city once it falls into her hands.

The couple flinched as more rockets fired from the mobile launchers set up in a nearby city square. The deafening roar of the rockets' engines bounced around in the semi-enclosed dome. At least by now, even the civilians were used to the eardrum shattering noise. A distant forbearing sound replied to the shrill cry of the rockets, booming from above. Nothing serious. It was the knock of three shells, fired from Earth Empire artillery…or a tank. The trio of shells wouldn't do anything and had no effect, they simply bounced or exploded off the sturdy platinum shields. But they warned of the, now seemingly inevitable, entrance of Earth Empire troops.

"Are the kids okay?" Suyin asked.

"Opal and Huan are directing people to squeeze in as much as possible, anywhere they possibly can, in the western parts of the city. Wei and Wing have joined the efforts in the east," her husband replied. "It's not looking good. And reports are, the Earth Empire is again making a push in Kyoshi Sector."

Maybe it wasn't a good idea to fight this out, Suyin finally began to cave. She filled with another wave of resolve. She had to protect her people. If she couldn't get them out, she had to at least shield them! "Contact Wei and Wing! Huan too! They need to carve out as many sub-level shelters as they can! Not just the underground tunnels, utilities, and rail tunnels. Fully new bomb shelters! Structurally sound ones! I know it's a lot to ask, but that's what needs to be done! Call up as many guardsmen in the city as you need. Anyone not directly crewing a cannon or a missile launcher must aid in the construction! We need to get everyone underground now!"

Just then a colonel in the guard ran up to the pair. The older officer saluted briefly before making his report. He was immediately cut off though.

"How is the counter offensive build up, colonel?" Suyin asked.

"It's nearing readiness, Miss. Beifong. With a few more-"

"No time," she cut the man off, "Move them now!"

"But Ms. Bei-"

"Colonel, I am sorry. But we are out of time! We need to buy the civilians and the workers here as much time as possible. If we wait any longer, the approaching tanks in Kyoshi Sector will cut our forces in half. We need to hurt them, and we need to hurt them now!"

The colonel came to attention and saluted. "Yes, ma'am. I'll relay the orders to the field officers."


Earth Empire Rear Lines

Outskirts of Zaofu

Western Earth Empire

Observing from high above, Kuvira watched through strong field binoculars at her attacking armies. They were making great progress at punching through the Zaofu defensive lines. The city, she knew to be tall, was tiny in the distance, the setting sun reflecting off of its platinum shields.

"I should be down there," she commented, "I should be leading, fighting alongside my soldiers as they push through what, for many of them, is their first army-to-army fight."

General Guan stood stoically next to her, arms clasped behind his back, grinning as he watched his units advance and fight through the defenses. "I understand your concern, Madam Kuvira. But in an operation like this, a separated observer comes very much in handy. There are things, critical points, that a line officer or a soldier cannot see until it is too late. From here you, as the supreme leader of the Earth Empire, and the focal point of authority for the army, are safe and can see everything that happens on the battlefield.

"Have faith. I assure you, our army is made up of the best officers, NCOs, and soldiers of this world. They are more than capable of handling this operation."

Kuvira exhaled frustratedly. This was one major thing that had changed since being appointed as the topmost authority in the country. Leading from the rear, where she instinctively led from the front.

"Before tomorrow, Zaofu will have fallen and we will have Suyin Beifong in custody. Hell, we may even have additional important figures too! Depending on how many of her United Republic cronies she managed to string along into this!" Guan exclaimed. He was very ambitious.

"The defenses will be the densest closest to the city," Kuvira challenged. She spoke from experience. True, Zaofu had no air cover, but the network of cannons and rockets, in addition to the network of fortifications at the edge of the metropolitan areas, would not be easy even for her army to break through. At that point it was a numbers game. And Kuvira was not content on winning by throwing bodies at the enemy. She despised such Soviet tactics and valued her servicemen. The former captain of the guard knew what her troops would inevitably have to deal with.

Kuvira turned from Guan and brought her binoculars up to once again survey the distant battlefield. From this high up off the ground, she would see everything with ease. "First and third sectors are falling behind, and second sector is very much ahead, General.

"Progress is progress, and overall it's great that they are performing excellently. But that is too fast. Second sector is at risk of being cut in half and encircled. Yet, you have not given the order to hold position."

General Guan turned on his heel. "Rest assured, Kuvira. We are prepared for both of those concerns. Have faith in our weapons development teams. Suyin and Zaofu have no idea what is bearing down on them. It seems they are also too occupied to have spotted us too.

"Very likely they will mount a counter offensive. No doubt they are panicking in the city, trying to find routes of escape. Of which, there are none. I know from intel that they have not been fielding the brunt of their heavy tanks and their troops have been gathering. Likely they will make their move with a little more pressure. Soon they'll have to reveal their final and strongest units. And that is when we really will strike. All according to plan."

"I'm not a fan of making our soldiers vulnerable just to bait the enemy into pouncing on them." Kuvira turned to a nearby sentry. "Runner!"

The soldier ran up and came to attention, awaiting her message.

"Send a message to operations. First Armored's units are to push the enemy line while Second Armored is to hold positions until the order to push. Send it!"

The soldier saluted and turned to run for the nearest way down from this massive mobile bunker.

"You've piqued my interest, General Guan. I have indeed been curious as to how this wonder weapon," she said gesturing to the very thing they were standing on, "works."

"Of course, Great Uniter," he saluted. I'll check with the crews and make final preparations for the attack."

As Guan left, Kuvira took her post at the railing once more, taking in the sight of the entire operation. Her fiance soon joined her side. She felt concern for Bataar Jr.

"How are you holding up?" she asked. Her features softening from their usual stoic structure.

"I'm fine," Bataar Jr. said, "Great, even! This will be a major victory for the Earth Empire and its people! A key victory for us! For you!"

She saw through his enthusiastic facade. "But, you're on edge a bit, aren't you? This was your home. These were your people. Your family-"

"My family made their choice. And now they stand in the way of manifest destiny and advocate for disorder. They've been warned, they've been told, over and over and now here we are. They'll reap what the sow," the son of Suyin said firmly.

Kuvira wanted to comfort her fiance, to be a rock for him to lean on in this operation. But she couldn't fix what she wasn't made aware of. If he was certain and convicted, then that's what he was. There was no problem, then.

She looked to him and they shared a grin. "Then let's finish this quickly. We've come home at last."

The super weapon rumbled as it came to life. Power surged and whirs and hums sounded one after the other as the leviathan came to life. Steam rose from the huge exhausts. It was like a battleship coming to life!

They were going to maneuver into position as the dusk set in and the sunlight was gone. One massive track at a time, the huge weapon trundled a clear firing position.


Peak of Dome One - Zaofu

Western Earth Kingdom

The whirring of the metal cables were all Specialist Shige could hear after climbing about two hundred meters into the air. He was headed for the observation post at the top of the domes that stood over the main city. It was such a long way up that special cables and spooling devices were needed to ascend to the top. The cables fixed on his utility belt were not enough to fully scale even one small skyscraper, not to mention the towering domes. Only a metal bender could do this too. While there was a service elevator for non-bending engineers to ascend the dome, in several steps, when they were upright and closed, they were inoperable when the leaves were not fully closed. And it would take too long.

Shige looked down. He hung suspended over a dizzying drop. It was definitely not a job for those that did not like heights. The people were as small as gnats, the cannons and military equipment, the stopped buses and streetcars, as small as grains of sand from this height, and he still had a little more to go.

The observation deck had taken a hit. Nothing serious, and truthfully it seemed like a stray shot from the Empire. Likely, Kuvira's armies didn't even know there was an observation point atop the domes. The small crew of men manning the platform did, however, need another spotter. And so, here was Specialist Shige from the signaling division being set up to the top to assist in calling artillery and rocket strikes.

He shivered a little, from fear, he in fact was not a fan of heights, and from actual cold. Going from low altitudes, in a shielded and encapsulated city, to the open air at the top of a gigantic metal egg definitely had a sudden stark change in climate. He looked down once more, at the sounding of distant thunder, just in time to see the vapor trails of a barrage of artillery flying through the gap made between two open leaves. Looking up, he saw two awaiting men marshaling him up to the platform.

The whirring of the cables increased in pitch and it felt like he was moving faster until, clank, the spool suddenly stopped. Shige flew upward, carried on my the momentum, into the air. He squirmed in panic until coming back down and landing squarely on the grated observation post floor, caught by two men. He had, for a terrifying moment, thought he was about to fly off and slide down the towering shield.

"Usually people slow down on approach," the sergeant greeted.

"First time mistake, everyone's done it. Don't mind," a corporal followed up.

"Thanks for the heads up," Shige said, nervous now that he was taking in the surroundings. He had toughed it up during the ascent, but now that he had arrived he truly was seeing how high up he was. And how long of a way down from here they were. To the right were the ruins of what obviously was an extension of this observation post, surrounded by three scorch marks. That's where three artillery shells had impacted.

"Did the previous guy-?" Shige asked the other specialist next to him.

"...get blown up by those stray shells?" the other guardsman finished the question. No. Truth be told we don't really know if it was the blasts and/or the shrapnel that killed him."

"Why?"

"Because he was blown off," the specialist called. "He wasn't a bender of any sort either. That's why we specifically asked for a metal bender this time. Maybe you can catch yourself, should it happen again."

Shige gulped.

"Don't worry about that. Just start spotting targets for the fire director. Be loud about it," his partner instructed, "we're all calling targets and he's queuing them up on paper and mentally."

"Got it," Shige replied.

There was a dreadful beauty to the scenery though. Night was falling. The air had become cool and the skies were now a deep shade of blue, almost a dark dark indigo-violet. The ground below was cast in the dark shades of purple, with the bursts of orange from tanks and field guns, and the streaks and lines of tracers accentuating the landscape with bright oranges and greens.

Twilight soon passed and the landscape went even darker. "Grouping of Tiger II's and three siege tanks heading up Yangchen Sector," Shige shouted over his shoulder at the fire director. "Tiger I's entrenched just behind the front line In Kyoshi Sector as well."

Shige scanned the battlefield. Mechs, half tracks, machine gun squads, and entire divisions' worth of mechanized troops festered throughout the combat zone. It was overwhelming odds. He railed back, frustrated at the sheer size of the oncoming enemy forces. "AHH! This is hopeless!" he shouted.

"Keep at it, man! We need to buy time!"

"Time for what?! The more we fight, the worse it's going to be for us when they break through!"

The sergeant ran over and slapped Shige on the back of his head hard. "Get a hold of it, you defeatist bastard! It's fight or submit to a tyrannical empire! You have to stand for something, and this is the hill we will fight to the end on. Else you can get over to the Earth Empire and try to reason with them before I throw you off this dome myself! You understand?!"

"Yes, sarge," Shige grumbled.

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, sergeant!" he replied even louder, picking up his binoculars to return to his duties. Buy time, Shige thought, buy time! That was right. They may regroup and escape into the mountains or something. Suyin Beifong surely had to have an alternative back up plan. He had to have faith.

Getting to the mountains would be quite difficult though, he thought. To satisfy his interest, Shige took a moment to scan the mountains outside the city. They seemed unreachable given the current battle. How Suyin would plan such a thing…he didn't know. As he scanned the mountains though, something caught his attention. He couldn't make it out in the dark, but it was definitely…something.

"Sergeant," Shige called, motioning the NCO over. He lowered his binoculars to pass over to his superior. "There's something big moving out there."


Earth Empire Front Line - Second Sector

Outskirts of Zaofu

Western Earth Empire

Tiger 118 and her accompanying tanks had not moved. As their magazines depleted, the heavy tanks and panzers of the 2nd Armored Division were still hulled down and entrenched at the rear echelon. Troops, mechs, tanks, and transports, all with idling engines raring to go. Yasuho didn't like it. Not one bit. Especially in tank warfare, a stationary target was a dead one.

At this rate, we're going to burn off all our fuel idling, Hanako thought.

Still waiting for the order to push and flood through the wake that Major Choi and his division of super heavy battle tanks were surely leaving, Yasuho suddenly felt the ground begin to quake! Everyone felt it! The trench that their Tiger was nestled in began to rumble violently.

"What is that?!" Yasuho's crew exclaimed one way or another.

Yasuho braced! Now was not the time to get a concussion from being shook into the metal walls of their own tank! "Stand by!" she shouted. Captain Aoshima quickly checked her viewports, jumping from one port to the next. But she couldn't see anything! She had to go topside! Throwing open the hatch and propping herself out into the open air, she heard it! The ground around them was opening up! It was opening up everywhere it seemed!

"I'm getting radio traffic!" Maho called, "Tankers in the first and third sectors! They're being overrun!"

There was a distant boom! Then another! Then another! All the while the ground and their tank shook as though a freight train were rolling right over them! The sound of a pop came. Yasuho snapped to look in that direction. It was distant, very distant, easily over five hundred meters away, but she saw the turret of a Tiger tank being launched from its hull! Another explosion! Another! Panzers, Panthers, Tigers, trucks, and mechs were being destroyed one after the other! Left and right! They weren't even counter! Yasuho's eyes shot wide open as she realized what was happening!

"TRAVERSE!" she yelled, "TRAVERSE THE GUN! COUNTERATTACK!"

"TRAVERSE?!" Eunji cried back, surprised by the sudden alarm. "Which way? Which way?!"

"Left or right!" Yasuho shouted, "Doesn't matter for now! Just do it!"

She didn't have to say another word. Before she finished her sentence, the turret began to swing the cannon leftward.

"Hanako! Spool us up! Get ready to move!" Yasuho continued to order.

"Understood," Hanako acknowledged. Her voice remained calm. So were her movements. Her hands and feet moved smoothly through the motions on the controls. It was because she had such a gentle and precise touch that she was one of the best drivers out there. Panicked drivers, after all, were the ones that drove into ditches, flip their tanks over, or ran over infantry, Hanako thought. She tapped the gas, giving a few revs into the engine and cycled through the gears. Metal clanked and actuated as the heavy tank readied to move. Smoke belched from the exhausts as the monster came to life.

Maho was scanning the radio channels, one hand rapidly flipping through the frequency dials while the other loaded a fresh belt into the bow machine gun she propped against her hip. Junko slammed in the next armor piercing shell, she had already made mental notes about how many of each shell they had left. They were running uneasily low, and with how well Eunji and her crewed the gun, they would run out soon.

The ground right beside them tore open! A tunnel! Less than twenty meters away! And out roared a Zaofu Tiger tank! Two bright spot lights shone from its turret, one from the top hatches, and the other affixed on the mantlet, the blinding eye of the beast. Behind it, was an up-armored and up-gunned Sherman, a jumbo of sorts. And following along were hoards of soldiers. The two tanks charged, coming directly at them from their side. They'd run right over them!

Yasuho held her hand over eyes, shielding them from the blinding light. She ducked as bullets began to fire towards her, but she didn't see the main gun of the approaching Tiger depressing to fire on them!

"Junko! Grab her!" Eunji shouted.

Her loader immediately understood what was being asked of her. She didn't even acknowledge. The short but diligent loader spun about, latched onto the hem of Yasuho's skirt and forcefully yanked her down into the turret. Immediately Yasuho understood why Junko was so efficient at shuffling those heavy cannon shells. She was much stronger than she looked. The incoming Tiger fired! The high velocity shell whizzed right over the commander's cupola, right where Yasuho had been just then hadit not been for Junko, and smashed into the ground just beside them! Dirt flew from the deafening explosion and poured into the still open hatch!

"GET US OUT OF HERE!" Yasuho yelled at Hanako. She was still trying to recover and sit herself up after being yanked in. The driver hit the accelerator. The tank lurched forward, belching smoke as they sprung into action. The cannon fired! They punched a hole clean through the oncoming Tiger's crank drive shaft through the forward lower plate! An explosion burst from within the destroyed enemy tank. Eunji held the trigger for the coaxial machine gun, firing one long continuous burst of lead into the grouping of accompanying Zaofu guardsmen, also point blank. The hot lead tore into them, shredded them, and cut them down. She didn't need to traverse or sweep the turret left or right as the forward motion of the tank was enough! The long cannon barrel sweeping across horizontally caught the legs of soldiers and tripped them right into the line of fire of the parallel mounted machine gun. Blood sprayed as she fired into them without pause. It was a bloody sight.

Bullets ricocheted off of the open hatch door that Yasuho had left hanging open. As the tank commander finally propped herself upright in her seat and regained her bearings, she heard the clanging of metal bouncing off of metal followed by a thud. She felt something roll over and tap her foot.

"Grenade!" she yelled. As if anyone else could do anything about it in these cramped confines. She flicked her wrist, and the hand-tossed explosive shot right back up the hatch. A following flick shut the door just in time. A dampened thud pounded as the concussive forces slammed into the top armor of the turret. Crisis averted, for now.

"Say again, kommandant?" Eunji asked. Junko saw the whole thing and was wide eyed and quiet.

"Nothing," Yasuho shrugged off, "carry on."

They angled sharply upward as they climbed the ramp to get out of the dug-in they had been hulled-down in. Having cleared the grenade, Yasuho reemerged out the top of the turret to get a better view of the situation! The larger 76mm gun of the trailing enemy Sherman turned to chase down the moving Tiger.

"Hana-chan! They're swinging around on us! We're fully broadside to them! EEP!" Yasuho ducked back down as the booming chug of the top-mounted M2 machine gun fired on them. Heavy fifty caliber slugs rang off the armor, and punched holes in the turret hatch door. For now Yasuho wouldn't dare stick her head out.

"I'm watching," Hanako acknowledged, "I'm watching him!" She was practically leaning over watching the enemy tank take aim through a narrow viewing port, while also keeping her eye on their current heading.

"Armor piercing!" Eunji shouted.

"Coming up!" Junko called back. She had the shell cradled in her arms and was about to load it into the gun.

"Brace!" Yasuho yelled, anticipating to take a lethal hit. The Sherman's gun was trained on their barn-sized side profile.

"Just a second more!" Eunji and Junko yelled in sync.

Just then, Hanako reached over and yanked the left side tiller level. The gears shifted and the engine groaned. The heavy metal box jerked left in a sudden evasive maneuver. Eunji was shaken from her gunsight. Junko was thrown into the right side wall, unable to load the shell. The Sherman fired! CRRAAANNNGGG! A deafening cry! The incoming shell ricocheted off their side armor. Hanako had done it! She faked continuing the wide turn and had correctly anticipated when the enemy would fire.

"Oi! Fujioka!" Eunji yelled, "Steady, damn it!"

"Please drive more kindly!" Junko added.

"She just saved our lives!" Maho defended. She had been watching the whole thing from her own view port.

"Chen!" Yasuho yelled into her radio, clasping her throat.

"I got him, Captain!"

A distant boom! A deafening boom! A high velocity shell slammed into the side of the Sherman Jumbo. Fire, shrapnel, and molten steel flew, pouring out of the wreckage of the destroyed medium tank, carried on by the extreme momentum. The turret launched off the hull and crashed down into the dirt beside.

"Good kill," Yasuho commended. She saw the Emerald green and silver accentuated Panther tank trundle out of its own entrenched firing spot.

"First tank kill, ma'am. Glad it was worth it."

Yasuho couldn't reply. The swarming troops left behind were still firing on them. Hand grenades began to pop off one by one. Plinks and pangs were heard as the soldiers fired on them with small arms, rocks, boulders, small and large pieces of steel, everything they had. It was immediately obvious they didn't have any RPGs in this attacking squad, fortunately. Pillars and krags jutted out from the ground. Multiples, all shooting out at the same time and in various directions at various targets, as Yasuho dealt with the swarming troops herself. She could hear metal benders pulling at metal on her tank, targeting gears and mechanisms. They were her first targets. This was not the time to be immobilized by metal benders. Even so they were right on top of them! Too many to handle! Too close for the cannon, and the turret rotated too slowly for Eunji to sweep them off the tank with the coaxial. Maho's bow gun was also limited to what was directly in front of her. Yasuho was too exposed up top. The thought to reach over and using the top side MG42 didn't cross her mind until it became too much to handle. Zaofu soldiers were clambering over the tank in mass, like zombies in a frenzy. But unlike zombies they had weapons or had bending abilities. One soldier pulled the pin on a hand grenade. Yasuho dropped down and quickly shut the turret hatch, locking it and holding it with her bending.

"Hanako! Evasive!" she yelled.

"Ahead of you!" she called. She couldn't see out of her own view port. It was obstructed. One enemy soldier held his submachine gun to her port. Hanako flinched and reeled back as the soldier fired into the port. The bullets smashed into the glass and white blooms sprouted from the impact points. The glass didn't break but it became very difficult for Hanako to see! Good thing it was only pistol slugs. She jerked the steering wheel left and right, yanking on the tiller levers erratically too.

With her freehand, Yasuho focused in on the top mounted MG42. First the locking pin unlatched, then the bolt racked the belt of ammo into battery. With her metal bending she engaged the trigger. The machine roared to life, spraying a line of tracers and swinging about desperately. Bodies fell against the armor, cut down by the machine gun. But it was easy for those that survived to stay clear as Yasuho couldn't see where she was shooting from within.

Hanako slammed on the brakes. The sudden stop tossed several dead and wounded enemies off the deck.

"Captain Aoshima," Chen called, "Seems like you got an infantry infestation. Button up. We'll scratch your back!"

"Scratch away by all means!" Yasuho yelled back.

Chen's Panther traversed its turret toward Yasuho's Tiger and opened fire with the coaxial machine gun. Bullets rang off the dense armor, cutting the infestation off their tank.

"Much appreciated," Yasuho thanked.

"Right on! Let's fight the bastards back!" Chen replied. He was definitely still hyped from his first tank kill. And now, at least immediately, it was mainly infantry they were dealing with. Something he had excelled in, in his service record.

"Hanging in down there, Hana-chan?" Yasuho checked.

Hanako was still a bit shaken. Getting shot at point blank with nothing more than a lightly rated bullet resistant glass between you would jar anyone. "Hanging in there. Viewport is shot, though."

"Can you make do?"

The driver squinted and looked for an angle to see through the chipped and shattered glass. "I can get by," she assured.

"Hard to starboard, let's get moving," Yasuho ordered.

Engine sputtering to life once more and metal shifting, Hanako replied, "Aye, Captain." They pivoted in place and reoriented towards the front line. The Zaofu counter attack was all around them. It was two walls crushing a central target! Hanako could barely see, but she had to make do. She was now relying on callouts from her commander, Eunji, and Maho. The tank lurched forward as they began advancing.

Finally, Junko's armor piercing shell was slammed into the breach, gun readied to fire. She was shaken about for a bit with the sudden evasive moves. Now that they were reset and on the move, it had to be smooth sailing from here.

"They're fielding all their heavy tanks," Eunji called, staring through the sight. "It's difficult to pick which ones to target."

Maho paused, letting off her machine gun for a moment. "Told you to be careful of what you wished for!"

"Target anything that is immediately a threat to us!" Yasuho ordered. She popped up into the outside world once more. The battlefield, plains, had been churned up from its previously smooth landscape. Artillery, trench digging, and the exchanging of tank rounds tore open scars and veins into the land. No longer was it a smooth ride. Every ditch was a wave that Eunji had to account for when firing. "Tiger! One O'Clock! Two hundred meters!" Yasuho called out.

The turret began to rotate. There were tanks and troops everywhere! Friendly and enemy! Troops were engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, practically tackling each other! Rocks and boulders flew amid a deadly slew of crossfire.

"Right stick, Hanako!" Yasuho called. The tank sharply veered right. A round ricochet off!

Eunji reversed direction, swinging the turret the other way to compensate. The stabilizer could only do so much in these evasive maneuvers.

"Left stick! Now!"

Hanako again slammed on the brakes, yanking the left tiller. They jolted left, angling the hull again! Another ricochet!

Eunji was frustrated. She did not have the shot!

"Steady! Advance!" Yasu called. They stopped the turn and moved forth.

"There you are!" The gun fired as Eunji put the shell straight through the enemy tiger's frontal armor. A major explosion came as they detonated an ammo rack!

"Target, right side! M46 Patton!" Yasuho called, "Got him?"

"Trying," Eunji groaned, gritting her teeth. "AP!" she called to Junko.

"Captain? Chen?" Lieutenant Chansung called on the radio, "It's getting a bit dicey out here."

Yasuho spun around in her cupola, leaving Eunji to deal with her target. Two tanks were bearing down on Chansung's Tiger I! The closest one, being just a few yards away being an enemy Tiger, and the furthest one from her position being a Panzer IV. Yasuho quickly checked the markings to make sure they weren't actually friendly units.

Chansung's tank was immobilized. His track wheel link was severed! The turret of his tank slowly swung to meet the two opponents but it wouldn't traverse in time!

A cannon fired! The Panzer IV detonated! A shell tore through the rear of its turret armor! Chen's Panther with another assisting shot! But the lieutenant didn't notice the heavy tank several yards back and had also crossed into the line of fire.

Chen's Tiger fired! The boom of its eighty-eight resounded even all the way over here where Yasuho observed. But he had destroyed a distant Sherman tank that was harassing a scrambling grouping of mech suits and transports.

"Straighten up you two!" Yasuho scolded. "Find your bearings!"

Her own tank fired! She quickly spun around to check Eunji's own effects on target. A sharp ricocheting sound rang as her own tank's shell bounced off the enemy's hull.

"Lucky bastard!" she could hear Eunji curse from below.

Yasuho ducked at the blast of a cannon and the whistle of a shell! The enemy missed! Eunji could deal with it, she thought. She flexed her core and pushed her palm downward. The earth beneath the nearby enemy Tiger tank opened up, and sunk the Zaofu tank on one side, trapping it at an angle. Its gun sagged toward the ground from its off-balanced weight and it fired straight into the dirt. Nearby, an Earth Empire jumped out of a foxhole, shoulder-fired rocket launcher trained. The zipped across the field and tore into the partially sunk Zaofu tank through its undercarriage.

Yasuho spun back around just as Eunji fired off the second round! The enemy tank she had been dueling with popped off like a firecracker! Another enemy tallied!

"Right stick, Hanako!" she ordered.

Fluidly, she whipped her arms about then threw a punch, as they pivoted sharply to the right. The field shovel affixed to the side of the hull tore from its fastenings and shot out like a spear, slamming into the head of a nearby Zaofu rocket soldier! She faced forth and punched at an airborne boulder coming directly at her, smashing it into dust. "Infantry! Dead ahead!" she yelled.

The cannon fired and the tank rebounded. The vapor trails of hundreds of ball bearings appeared in a cone sprouting from the muzzle. More guardsmen shredded. They didn't even have time to scream. "Tiger, starboard side! Hanako, slide us over Chansung's right side! We'll screen for repairs!"

Yasuho lifted a large slab of earth from the ground beside. The huge, easily half-ton stone floated alongside their tank, screening it as the turret turned to face their next target. They pivoted right, and headed for their disabled comrade.

The enemy tank fired! Yasuho felt a striking blow on the shield she held up! It shattered into chunks but absorbed the shell. The fragments, still large and heavy, she orbited around their lumbering heavy tank, forming a sort of defensive barrier. One by one she flung the heavy stones at the enemy tank. Boulders, car sized, slammed into their enemy's turret and gun. When she was through, their gun barrel had been cracked from the force. The remaining stones she launched at enemy troops that dared to get close! Her last stone stopped abruptly and was sent over to the left side, just in time to block an incoming RPG rocket. The gun fired.

Eunji struck yet another tank from the enemy's roster. They pulled up beside the stricken Earth Empire Tiger. Its commander, Lieutenant Chansung was hunkered down low in its cupola, the hatch door resting on his peaked cap.

"Chen, screen Chansun's left side!" Yasuho ordered.

"On it, ma'am!" the Panther tank's CO replied.

"Flat tire?" Yasuho asked, calling to the other Tiger.

"Bastards nailed the track wheel," Lieutenant Chansung replied. "It's a wonder we haven't been destroyed yet!"

"Hang tight, I'll get it. Just be ready to move!" Yasuho yelled.

"Yasu!" Maho cried, "We can't stay here long! We got several more closing in!"

Yasuho grit her teeth, ad with her bending immediately got to work reassembling the destroyed track links. Chansung surely took a bad hit. There was nothing to work with! It would be a temporary fix at best, just enough to get them moving.

"Chansung, your tracks are toast! Once I get this done, you need to throw it in reverse and make for our rear lines!" Yasuho instructed.

"Armor piercing!" Eunji ordered below. Moments went by, milliseconds that felt like minutes. "Anytime now!"

Junko scrambled, checking each shell for the second time. "We're out!" she cried.

"Captain Aoshima," Chen called, "We can't stay here! It's getting too hot!" A pair of tank shells crisscrossed overheard, fired from a long distance away at the grouping of three tanks. Several more bombarded the ground about them. Machine gun and rifle fire started to train towards them. Yasuho's ears perked up at the sound of mechanical marching and the chugging sound of two chain guns. Two mechs!

Yasuho had most of the links reconnected, but she needed to fasten them. "I need a locking pin, Chansung!"

She looked over to glare at her supporting tank officer. He was occupied yelling orders at his crew. His Tiger's gun swung towards an oncoming target.

"Something, Junko! Anything at this point will do! Just load a shell!"

Chen's panther fired off into the distance. An explosion erupted from the ground. He fired at soldiers.

"Nail that enemy Tiger!" Chansung accidentally called into his radio. Yasuho heard it.

Tiger? Yasuho snapped about, seeing the coming enemy tank. "Eunji! Armor piercing! We're exposed!"

Her gunner was frantically cranking elevation wheels, her face glued to her scope. "We're out! I got The Iron Giant coming at us!"

"Apologies, Captain Aoshima. I'll see what I can find! Track locking pin, right?"

Chen called desperately. "Captain, we need to move! We're swarmed!"

"Cannister, up!" Junko called. Not the ideal shell type.

"On the way!" Eunji yelled. Their tank fired! Another wall of tungsten ball bearings tore into an oncoming mech suit. Not a complete disassembly, but the canister managed to puncture the metal suit of the mech. Chansung's tank fired! The enemy Tiger was destroyed!

No time, Yasuho thought. She slammed both her palms together and squeezed tightly. The track lengths on Chansung's tank mirrored and slammed together. The metal melding together. It was a dreadfully slow process. And the hordes of enemies were closing fast!

"Got one! Got a track link!" Changsung called.

"Too late," Yasuho grunted, "Throw it in reverse! Reverse! Reverse!"

Chansung's engines belched a thick cloud of black smoke. Sparks flew as his battered Tiger attempted to roll out. Yasuho's own tank was not much better at this point. She inhaled sharply, relieved of the pressure. "Chen, we're done here! Move out!"

"Don't have to tell me twice!" he replied. His panther lurched ahead, pulling in front of the trio.

"Hanako, get us out of here! We need to try regrouping with Major Choi's units ahead!"

Tiger 118 advanced, swinging right to spread out from Chen's Panther.

"Much appreciated, Captain Aoshima!" Chansung called on the radio. "We'll get a proper fix then rejoin the li-"

CRASH! A series of explosions burst behind Yasuho! She spun about seeing a massive fireball blowing from the turret ring and hatch of a destroyed Earth Empire Tiger!

"Lieutenant Chansung's hit! He's hit!" Chen cried.

"Infantry ahead!" Maho yelled. There was more than she could handle with the bow gun.

"Field gun! 2 o'clock relative!" Chen called out on the radio.

"Sherman!" Yasuho also called, "Off your port side!"

"My what?!" Chen yelled back, not familiar with his squad leader's naval lingo.

"Your left side!" Yasuho shouted into the radio. She turned to her crew. "Eunji, we'll handle that field gun! Traverse right! Hanako, left stick! We have to bounce their shot!"

Their tank swung as a cooperative unit, moving as if choreographed and practiced from dusk til dawn! All guns, cannon, coaxial, and bow gun oriented right to hose down enemy troops and take aim at the field gun.

"H.E. up!" Junko called.

The turret was just about to get on target.

"Guys," Hanako called, quietly as she wasn't sure what she was looking at. It was near impossible for her to see out the driver's viewport with the shattered glass and fragmented metal obscuring. She was practically pushing her face up against the glass.

Chen's tank fired! The field gun fired! Yasuho ducked. Junko covered her ears! The enemy Sherman exploded! Another tank for Chen's tally.

"Got ya!" Eunji exclaimed.

"GUYS!" Hanako cried, much louder this time.

Maho turned to face the front. Her eyes shot wide. "Mech suit! Dead ahead!" They had forgotten about the second mech suit that had attacked while they were making repairs.

"Huh?" was all Yasuho could say as she turned her head to the path ahead. Wind blew a lock of her hair across her face from under her cap. The mech had its chain gun primed.

Its arm-mounted cannon began to chug and chug away. Ker-chunk ker-chunk ker-chunk ker-chunk. Heavy shells slammed into the armor sweeping from turret to hull. Yasuho screamed and dropped down into the turret for protection as a shell struck the edge of the turret mere inches from where she was posted. Maho dove for cover as the mech suit operator fired at the forward viewports in the hull. Hanako couldn't

The impacts drew closer and closer to the driver's port. Hanako gripped the controls tightly and shut her eyes. Once Eunji fired, she could yank the wheel either direction and get out of the line of fire! But Eunji hadn't fired yet. There was still an AT gun staring at them.

Crack! Crack! Smash! A round smashed through the weakened protective glass in the narrow viewport. It bounced violently off the metal frame then tumbled directly at their driver. The heavy chunk of metal slammed into her chest, just left of center. Hanako was thrown back in her seat. Blood soaked the controls and screened the view port a dark crimson. Her hand, still gripping the steering wheel tight, jerked left. Her foot wedged down on the gas. The tank sharply veered left just as Eunji hit the trigger. Their shot soared to the left of the target, whistling clear over the field gun!

The AT gun fired! Their side was flat to the enemy position! KI-CHAAANGG! Everyone inside flinched as fire, sparks, and spalding flew within the compartment. The enemy shell had, fortunately, smashed into their engine compartment. Their engine sputtered and immediately caught fire. The gears and shafts came loose from their fittings and erratically slammed into other metal components, the machinery tearing itself apart with each revolution. They were, after all, still engaged and putting out their max performance.

Junko took a hit from the shrapnel! A shard of spalding, fragments of the metal hull sent richeting around the inside of the tank from the hit, tore into her shoulder! She flew back and hit the wall of her section, gripping at her injury and crying in pain.

"Junko! Get me another round, stat!" Eunji cried. After reorienting herself and peering through the scope she could see the field gun turning towards them to fire once more. "Hanako! Hang in there!" she called, gravely concerned for her fellow crew member.

Junko pushed through the pain. No complaints. No questions. No quips. She cradled the next shell and threw her body onto the loading sled to seat the round, standing up and lunging to ram it into battery. "U-Up!" she weakly called.

Maho leaned over into Hanako's compartment. Their driver was slumped in her seat, leaning on Maho. Blood poured out intensely. She coughed and sputtered blood too, unable to talk. Still Hanako seemed to try and maintain awareness of the controls and her driving. Tried. Her foot still floored the accelerator and they careened towards the enemy mech, who was still firing on them.

"Good..night!" Eunji yelled. The main cannon, sights zeroed on the enemy position, fired! They rocked back from the recoil, and a terribly large explosion burst from the enemy target. "Ammo detonated! I hope they felt that!"

The firing of the chain gun drew closer and closer. They were going to ram the mech!

"Hanako," Maho called, cradling her crewmate in her arms. "Hanako, stay with me. Foot off the gas. Move your foot!" She tried to tend to Corporal Fujioka's wounds, at least supporting her body, while also taking a firm grip of the steering wheel. She wasn't a driver, and wasn't familiar with the many controls and levers. This thing doesn't have a handbrake, she cursed.

There was nothing she could do, and she knew that. Hanako was not responsive and bled heavily. The damage done was fatal.

Yasuho peeked out the top. She was also on her last ropes. Even she, the armored warfare prodigy, was panicked. "Brace! Brace! Brace!" she yelled.

The mech ceased firing and turned to try and run too late. Still under power, the Tiger slammed into the mech, immediately breaking off a leg and arm! The central hull and torso of the mech suit was pushed beneath their left side. Everyone felt the Tiger suddenly drop as the weight of their heavy tank crushed the body of the mech like stepping on an aluminum can. They then dove straight off a ledge and into a deep shell crater, the one the mech had been crouching in. The hull slammed into the base of the crater hard, a submarine diving straight into the ocean floor on a crash dive. Everyone was thrown forward as the hull dug into the dirt. The turret swung forward and the gun barrel groaned as it bent hitting the surface. Junko rebounded, again off the turret wall. Eunji was thrown at the cannon assembly. Maho and Hanako were launched into the forward wall. And Yasuho fell from her commander's perch and landed just beside Junko! They had come to a sudden and immediate halt.

Yasuho's world spun. The impact and the shock of everything was directly affecting her orientation, this wasn't even considering the physical trauma. She was just hearing a slur of several screaming panicked voices. Outside the pounding of shells and gun fire mixed with the crumpling and tearing earth. The inside of Tiger 118 glowed red from the burning engine just behind them. Smoke was filling the compartment.

"Captain?" Someone tapped her on the cheek several times. Her eyes were narrowly open. "Captain? Are you alright?" It was Junko.

Weakly and slowly she regained awareness. Maho and Eunji were yelling at the top of their lungs crowded around Hanako, trying to tend to her injuries. "I'm fine…" she managed to croak, "Go help Hana-chan." Junko immediately did as she was told.

Just at her fingertips, Yasuho could feel the headset for her radio. Taking it, she pressed one ear piece to her ear and pinched the transmit buttons on her laryngophone. She sat up as best she could. "Lieutenant Chansung," she said, "We're down hard. Need support."

"Coming back around, Captain Aoshima. We're pushing the enemy armor back! Not so many tanks, but infantry are everywhere!"

She could hear the engine of the approaching panther.

"RPG! Right side!"

A muffled thud and a louder explosion came from outside. The sound of tearing metal and secondary explosions. She angrily threw the headset against the wall of the tank and ripped her microphone off. She grabbed the fire extinguisher while her crew held on to Hanako.

The sound of the extinguisher fwooshed away at the rear. Hanako whimpered. She would not survive this.

"Aid kit, stat!" Maho yelled. Eunji quickly produced the crew's first aid kit.

"Morphine," Yasuho called. "If we still have that herbal stuff from Taku, use that too!"

"Aye, Cap," Eunji acknowledged. "As soon as I stop this bleeding!"

"No time!" Yasuho shouted. She came off as rather cold given the circumstances. Colder than usual. "Numb that shit up and get ready to move!"

"Huh?!" the gunner called in protest. "You're giving up?!"

"She's right," Maho grimly affirmed. Eunji's head snapped around to face her radio operator. The look on Maho's face said it all. And the open and awaiting hand called for pain suppressant.

Sergeant Koizumi took the syringes. They still had one vile of the herbal concoction from Taku. She used that first. It was stronger and less harsh than the army's morphine. She then uncapped and jabbed two shots of the morphine into Hana's shoulder.

Immediately, Hanako's condition at least somewhat improved. The herbal suppressant made a large chunk of the pain go away. The morphine suppressed the remaining five percent.

"We- We can't just leave her," Eunji cried. "We aren't going to leave Hana-chan!"

Hanako, turned to Eunji and reached up a bloodied hand. No words were spoken, but her eyes told her to go. They had to go. They had no choice. It was still a warzone!

Eunji bade one last glance then looked to Maho who gave her a look back. She snorted and immediately took off for her compartment, slinging the Kar98k rifle that was posted on the wall. Junko lightly touched Hanako on the cheek and followed suit.

Finally, Yasuho came over and knelt beside her friend. "Hana-chan.." was all she could manage. Hanako was on her last ropes. The damage had been done. It was remarkable that she managed to hang on this long.

Captain Aoshima took her hand and held on tightly. She didn't want to let go. Seeing her friend like this tore her apart. Hanako was the joyous and bright one of the crew. She had a flowery outlook on life and was always seemingly in high spirit, despite the circumstances they had been through. In droll times or times of sadness she was the one to lift the others' spirits, particularly Yasuho's. Seeing her like this, her eyes devoid of warmth, was heart shattering.

"We need to go," Maho said. She put a hand on Yasuho's shoulder and flinched as a boulder slammed into the turret armor. Eunji could be heard shouting curses and obscenities outside, accompanied by rifle fire.

Yasuho twitched her shoulders roughly, shooing off Maho's touch. She didn't want to go.

"We can't stay here, Yasu," Maho reiterated. And the other two still need their leader. We're not out of this. Not yet."

The tank officer wanted to say something. Anything to her dying friend, but couldn't muster the words. Her eyes narrowed, naturally coming to rest neutrally grim. Her mood and attitude had noticeably declined from what it was months ago, but this was the nail in the coffin. It was as if much of the joy in her life had left with Hanako. She felt Hanako's hand go limp and heard her driver take her last breath. Hanako had given her a final look, telling her she needed to go and that it was okay.

Yasu's eyebrows fell closer to her eyes. Her nose crinkled and her lips narrowed to the width of a hair, turning downward. "I'll kill them all," she whispered, menacingly.

Maho did not like where her friend was heading, internally. "

Yasuho gently set Hanako's hand in her lap and rose to head to the hatch. She took more metal plating and firmly sat them into her magazine pouches. Maho gently let Hanako down and followed, taking her submachine gun from under her seat.

"We need to regroup, Yasu," Maho tried to say. But Yasuho heard none of it.

"We're still in this fight. We have orders to repel the bastards and advance," Yasuho calmly and collectively, in an eerie way, said. "And I intend to see this mission to the end." She firmly set her officers cap on her head and swept back her long black hair, just enough to get it out of her face.

"We're a tank crew without a tank. We're not soldiers," Maho pleaded, trying to reach her friend with sense. "You might be a master bender, but none of the three of us are!"

"WE'RE ALL SOLDIERS, SERGEANT KOIZUMI!" Yasuho snapped. Her body rotated to face the radio operator almost demonically. "We all have a part to play in this war! And, tank or not tank, we have a war to win and orders to follow! We will push on! Or are you going to let the bastards that did that," she scolded gesturing to their fallen comrade, "GET AWAY WITH IT!?"

"You're not yourself right now, Yasu," Maho challenged. "The girls need you to lead, level headed." She paused, stocking additional magazines for her MP40 into her belt. "Jun wouldn't want you to go through with this."

That last bit sent Yasuho off the rails. Overwhelmed with emotion she shot back at her friend and confidant. "I'll kill him too! He's part of this! What?! You think I won't?!" She was shooting off words so quickly and with such volume she was forced to take a deep breath and reload. "I'll march right into Zaofu, and then after, Republic City, and watch our army crush them into dust! Anyone! Anyone, who stands against us, I will put in the ground! Now we are moving out! And we will finish this fight with a victory! Are you coming? Sergeant Koizumi? Or will I be putting you up for insubordination!?"

That was the second time now. Yasuho never called Maho by her rank and last name. Not even when they first met each other. Her breath was ragged and her eyes mad, wide open and unblinking. Maho could see her friend's fists clenched tightly and shaking at her sides. Blood dripped onto the floor, streaming from where her nails dug into her palms with fury.

"You're going to regret this, Captain Aoshima," Maho coldly said. "You're making a mistake." Her movements hastened as she racked the bolt on her MP40 and slung it over her shoulder. Maho took her helmet off the wall, the metal clanged as metal banged on metal, and rammed it tightly on her head. "Remember who attacked who. In every sense of the statement."

Maho pushed past her commanding officer roughly and clambered out the top of the turret. Yasuho had none of it. It didn't even occur to her in the moment how far and how hard she had managed to push her closest friend away. She wiped her bloodied hands on the heavy wool of her skirt and clambered out into the night as well.

She dropped down into the dirt beside their destroyed tank where her surviving crew were gathered. At least the shell crater was deep. Tracers zipped overhead, crossing every which way erratically.

"Your orders, Kommandant?" Eunji asked, loading more rounds into her K98 Mauser.

Junko had already tried haphazardly bandaging her shrapnel injuries. It wasn't ideal but it would have to do.

Maho stood behind her commanding officer, silent. She, the soldier, was present and onboard. But, as a friend, she had checked out.

"Orders were to repel the counter offensive and be ready to make the final push into Zaofu," Yasuho said with conviction. "That's what we'll do! We'll clear the area of Zaofu units for our army's reinforcements! Eunji, all of you really, you're off leash! Shoot anything that moves and isn't ours! No quarter! No mercy!"

The sound of a trio of soldiers suddenly came up on them! The rattling of hand grenades and magazines against belt buckles gave them away, and three Zaofu guardsmen crested the ridge, sent to investigate the downed Tiger tank.

"Four! Open fi-!"

Yasuho ducked as a submachine gun pecked away beside her head. It was Maho! The three men were peppered with pistol slugs, dust poofing off from where each bullet hit on the enemies. Thirty two rounds, a full magazine dump. The three men fell into the crater, piling on top of each other. One was dead before he hit the floor, and the other two were injured.

Sergeant Koizumi let her emptied stick magazine clatter to the floor while she drew a fresh one and reloaded. Yasuho was surprised.

Maho walked over to one of the men, placed her boot against his chest to pin him down and pulled the trigger. The other held his hands up in surrender weakly, terrified.

"I give up! I give up!" he pleaded.

The radio operator simply turned about and pushed the surrendering soldier over with her boot heel. The enemy cowered, having been disarmed. She took aim at him and paused, looking Yasuho dead in the eye. Everyone else was equally shocked. This was abnormal for Maho.

"What?" Maho questioned, her tongue as sharp as a serpents and her question bristling with daggers. "This is what you wanted, right, Captain?" Her glare shot daggers at her friend. "This was your order. You made that very clear in the tank, and reiterated again just now. Let's kill 'em all! We're all going to kneel before the spirits, be sent to the valley of forgetfulness, or come before God's divine judgment," Maho ranted, " or whatever it is from whichever belief strain you want to pull from, one way or another, together! Why don't they go first then?!"

For a moment, Yasuho was speechless. She had never seen her friend like this. For a moment.

Maho grabbed the soldier by the collar and pulled him up to his knees, holding her weapon at his head.

"Enough theater! Let's go! Get on with it!" Eunji shouted, raring to get back in the fight.

"Stop!" Yasuho interrupted.

Maho was hopeful. Maybe she had reached reason with her friend. She tried to maintain her stern and scolding facade. Truthfully she was hurting. Every ounce of her was screaming for her to stop. Maho kicked the surrendering man firmly back to the ground and lowered her weapon.

Yasuho pushed her way past Eunji and Junko and firmly drew her pistol. Maho went wide eyed! Pop! Pop! Pop! The P38 went off in Yasu's hand. The surrendering soldier became still. She reholstered her sidearm with such force it felt as though the holster would give! Maho was speechless, her facade fell.

The metal benders flipped one of the bodies over rapidly, taking the metal in their uniforms. The first one dead, their squad leader's uniform insignias and devices came into full view, dirtied by the mud. There was a badge pinned just over the rank insignia. A cannon. "These men are anti-tank crews," Yasuho hissed. "A spotter, a rocketeer, and an assistant rocketman! They probably did this!" She advanced and her shoulder bumped into Maho's. She stopped right then, her mouth close to Maho's ear, and spoke. "That is exactly what I wanted, Maho. They had it coming."

Gosh, it's even worse if you say my name with that tone, Maho thought. But before she could voice any opposition, Yasu had moved on and was motioning the rest of the crew to follow her up to the rim of the crater. Just ahead of them, just a short dash away, was the burning wreckage of Chen's Panther tank. No survivors by the look of it, but decent cover before the next crater. Lieutenant Chen's last observation was largely correct in that there weren't so many tanks scattered about, but there also was indeed a lot of infantry. Soldiers of both sides were everywhere. It was a disorganized chaotic scramble! Burning tanks and transports darted the battlefield. Ample cover to fight from.

They were spotted! A rifle shot rang out and a puff of dirt erupted just a foot ahead of where Yasuho's face was. She ducked back beneath the rim of the crater. Eunji and Junko opened fire with their small arms, and the enemy squad scattered. Moment of repose over.

"Maho, Junko! Provide cover fire," the captain ordered. "Eunji, you're with me. We'll push up to the tank!"

"Aye," Eunji replied. Junko nodded, her oversized helmet shaking. Maho silently acknowledged.

"Ready..and..go!" Eunji popped from cover, rifle shouldered. It went off with an ear-shattering bang! One enemy soldier's head recoiled back before his body dropped to the ground. Yasuho launched a series of boulders at the enemies and took off running after her gunner. The twin chatter of the pair of submachine guns sounded as the pair made it behind cover. Soon their suppressive fire ceased and the two girls dropped back behind cover.

Eunji cycled her rifle's bolt. "They're coming at us," she yelled, clutching her rifle.

"I know," Yasuho yelled back, "Hang on!" Coming at them from the opposite direction was another pair of isolated Zaofu guardsmen. She stamped her foot into the ground and threw forth a punch. The entrenching shovel mounted to the side of the burning Panther shot out from between the two of them, again striking one of the enemy soldiers in the head! Eunji quickly shouldered her rifle and fired, taking the other one out. She racked the bolt, turned the corner and fired again. Another crack of thunder. Another enemy down. She cycled the next round in.

"You are getting really good at that, aren't you?" Eunji chuckled, "Maybe you should keep a shovel on you at all times."

Yasuho wanted to chuckle light-heartedly, but didn't have time. "Duck!" she yelled. Eunji did just that, just as a grouping of metal plates slammed into the armor beside them. She went through a cutting and a wrenching motion, then sent forth another set of quick punches. The track wheels of the wreckage bolted out and nailed another pair of soldiers. Junko managed to shoot down another soldier.

The tank that they took shelter behind began to tip! The metal groaned as the panther rapidly began to topple towards Eunji and Yasuho. They would be crushed.

Eunji cursed and began to back up away from the wreckage.

"Oh no you don't," Yausho said through gritted teeth. First she tried stopping the metal wreckage with her metal bending alone, wrestling for control of the huge steel box. But more and more earth and metal benders joined in on the opposite side. She began to lose the fight and the tank continued to tip towards them. The gunfire intensity increased. If one of the other two, or Eunji stepped out to avoid the wreckage, they would be shot in the crossfire. Yasuho stamped te ground and set into a strong horse stance. Columns of earth and stone shot up and braced against the tipping Panther tank, holding it up.

"There's multiple!" the captain called, straining. "Widdle their numbers!"

Junko was the first to move. She swung around Maho and popped up in a different quadrant of the crater, opening fire again. The stout but fierce loader hit two riflemen and one earth bender. Yasuho could feel the relief immediately. Junko briefly ducked back into cover, again to change out her magazine. Eunji went over. She clambered onto the angled deck of the panther and peered over the ridge. A shot rang out. She drilled another straight through the forehead. Junko emerged and the chatter of her submachine gun opened up once more. She struck another but couldn't get a good angle on the other squad. Eunji popped up and shot again.

"Junko, Maho! Push up!" Yasuho ordered.

"Reloading!" Eunji called.

"Yes, ma'am!" Junko called.

Maho tried to stop her. "Wait! Wait for Eunji to cover!"

But Junko didn't listen. She moved immediately on the order. She made a dash for the next small crater just to the left of her commander and Eunji. There, she'd have a clearer shot. Eunji fumbled for more rounds, the rifle scope forced her to feed each cartridge in one at a time.

Junko fired from the hip, spraying down the enemy position as she dashed for her next position. As she rounded the tank and got a clearer view, she saw the enemy squad was quite large. They were also dug in in a similar artillery crater! She went wide eyed, realizing there was a lot more than she could handle. As her magazine steadily emptied she saw their riflemen taking aim at her.

Tracers tore through the air! They zipped just past Junko and tore into the enemy position. It was a terrific stream of glowing orange lead and it tore into them. A buzzsaw cutting through wood! A single pop shot rang out in opposition. Junko recoiled, a burning sensation erupting from her core. The loader dropped into the foxhole, concealed as lead continued to fly. It was a friendly!

Twenty meters back, a lone MG42 opened fire on that enemy squad. Relief in the form of suppressive volumes of fire! Junko had managed to hit a small grouping of men, but the machine gun took out the brunt of the enemy squad. The panther tank fell back onto the ground with a resounding crash!

"Eunji! Off!" Yasuho yelled. Her gunner jumped clear and with a forceful roundhouse kick and an angered battle cry, Yasuho sent the sixty ton tank wreckage sliding across the battlefield at the enemy. There was a brief collective scream from the grouping of Zaofu guardsmen before they were smothered by the sound of crashing metal, as the tank fell into the crater on top of them.

"JUNKO!" a soldier's voice called. MG42 propped on his shoulder, PFC Kyung Choi dashed over the exposed and open fields towards his fallen girlfriend. She had taken a hit! Blood poured from her stomach region. The enemy gunfire resumed. It was hard to ignore the sound of a careening and crashing tank wreck.

Eunji and Yasuho ducked. Getting rid of that tank exposed them! "Get to cover!" they both yelled to each other.

"Junko!" Yasuho realized. The pair of them ran for the couple. Maho got the memo and followed suit, vaulting from her position and taking off after; already, she was readying the aid kit.

Yasuho widened and deepened the foxhole into a small proper trench with a subtle downward push of her hand. The pair of them dove in, with Maho bringing up the rear.

"Junko," PFC Cho panicked seeing the extent of her injuries. He first noticed her gunshot wound, but then saw the aftermath of her shrapnel injuries. That was not a good place to be shot! "Junko! Hang on, okay? Hang in there!" Kyung was trying to comfort her, but he was not even close to being a medic. None of them were.

"Soldiers closing in!" Eunji called out. She fired her rifle and picked off the enemy one by one from a distance, repositioning after each shot. "A bit much for a single rifle to handle!"

Junko coughed blood. She writhed in pain. Maho pried her hands away from her waist, stopping the girl's instinct to clutch at it. She needed to tend to the injuries as best as she could, as fast as she could. "Nice..of you to..show up," Junko managed to say to her boyfriend.

"What do you need?" he asked Junko. "What do you need? What can I do?" he asked Maho, who was rapidly prepping antiseptic and bandages. Maho didn't speak, she was focused entirely on her crewmate's wounds.

"PFC!" Yasuho called, forcefully calling his attention. "Get on the machine gun or we'll be overrun!"

Kyung snapped out of his despair. The captain was right. He wasn't a medic. He was a rifleman! Well…machine gunner now. His services were geared towards fighting.

"Yes, ma'am!" he acknowledged. He flicked open the bipod on the '42 and dropped it next to Eunji.

"Focus on the enemy," Eunji scolded. Trust Maho to take care of your girl, ya here?!"

"Got it!" the PFC acknowledged. The machine gun tore into action. Yasuho unleashed a barrage of stones at the enemy soldiers. They were all around!

"Where's our side?!" she asked the machine gunner. "It's just been us here!"

"Scattered!" Kyung reported back, yelling over the deafening rip of his machine gun, not once taking his eyes away from the sight picture. "The counter offensive really screwed everyone up! Everything is in chaos! And First Armored is too far up to turn about!"

She noticed the radio pack he was carrying. "Soldier, toss that radio over here," Yasuho ordered.

He let out a lasting long burst from the MG before laying off the trigger. The barrel was glowing hot. "Barrel change, please, corporal," he said to Eunji. While She worked on changing the gun barrel, Kyung unslung and tossed the heavy radio set over to the captain.

With great efficiency, faster than Yasuho could unpack the equipment to access the dials and switches, Kyung racked the bolt and fed a new belt of ammunition into the MG and continued to spray walls of tracers at the Zaofu guards.

Grenades that tossed at them but fell short, detonated and shook the small entrenchment. Dirt and debris poured in while the machine gun team continued to tear into the the base, Yasuho fumbled with the radio, trying to call for support, while Maho tended to Junko's wounds. Maho tried to stop the bleeding, but was not succeeding.

Yasuho cranked the power generating handle, building up a small electric supply in the radio to contact other units for support. Once she was satisfied and the lights illuminating green, she tucked the phone between her head and shoulder and got to work trying to help Junko. She was like a wall street broker multitasking during peak trading hours. She could hear the panicked and confused transmissions filling the airwaves, but was unable to send a broadcast herself.

"Any available units, this is Captain Yasuho Aoshima, 2nd Armored Division, Tiger 118. My surviving crew and I are dismounted and surrounded by enemy infantry and armor!" she yelled into the receiver, pausing to tear open a pack of sulfa powder with her teeth. "Requesting immediate support!" she said, spitting the piece of the packaging out, "I repeat, request QRF support!"

She listened intently for a confirmation, or even simply an acknowledgement of her broadcast, all the while helping Maho wrap bandages around Junko's midsection. She prepped a shot of morphine and injected it into the skin near the entry point. No reply on the phone. She would have been satisfied with someone telling her, "unable at this time," as it would have at least told her they were listening.

"All units-" she began to repeat before her eyes fell on the radio box. There was a pair of bullet holes in the device. Whatever damage it sustained, the transmitting ability had been struck.

"Damn it!" she cursed, resisting the urge to toss the phone.

"All units! All units on frequency! This is operations command! Hold positions. Repeat. Hold current positions!"

Yasuho dropped the phone. "We're holding position!" she shouted, taking hold of the loose hanging bandages and helping Maho tend to their downed crewmate. Junko was not doing well. Blood still poured from her abdomen and streamed from her mouth. Her breathing was irregular, labored, and weak. And despite painkillers, she was still hurting.

"I- I really did it now, didn't I?" she asked, looking at both Yasu and Maho. "Eunji always said my clumsiness would get me one day. She was right," she coughed, "I can't make it in the infantry."

Yasuho felt her heart drop even further. She was the one who ordered Junko to move, blindly.

I'm-" Junko sputtered, "I'm going to die. Aren't I?"

"Don't say such things, Junko," Maho replied, choking back, "Please. Just hang on, okay? Hang on! Help's coming!"

"Orders are to hold here," Junko replied. "If it's not already here, it'll be a while. You guys..n-need to m-m-move on-n."

"Just hang on, Junko," Yasuho pleaded. "Standby, that's an order."

"TANK!" Eunji yelled.

Not another one, Yasuho cursed.

Cresting out of a fresh tunnel in the ground came a Zaofu Tiger tank. The incoming metal box dug its way out and emerged fifty meters way, machine guns lit up and its gun trained right at them!

"Get down!" Yasuho yelled. The cannon fired. Before either Eunji or Kyung could duck, the shell whistled unnervingly close over their heads and slammed into the ground behind the trench, exploding on impact! Maho and Yasuho shielded Junko from the raining dirt and stone.

Eunji slid down to join the others around their fallen crew mate. "We can't stay here!"

"We can't run!" Maho opposed, gesturing to Junko.

Eunji cursed, clicking her teeth. "Then we need to find a way to kill that tank! And fast!"

Yasuho again was torn. New threat and her crewmate was laying here dying!

The burst from the MG42 drowned out the call from Maho. She was the only one who saw it. "GRENADE!" she shouted. She watched the spherical explosive sail into their position. No one else heard the call, and no one else saw the weapon drop in. She sprung into action trying to push Eunji, Yasu, and Junko away. But she missed the downed loader.

Junko herself sprung into action, despite her severe wounds! She gathered all her remaining strength, sat up and lunged at the ticking-down explosive, removing her helmet and covering the grenade with it and her body. She closed her eyes tightly and held her breath, resolute and determined to save her crewmates.

It happened in an instant. Yasuho didn't have time to call out to her, her hand was fully outstretched trying to reach out and pull Junko away but it was too late. The explosive went off, completely smothered. Everyone was safe, thanks to Junko's sacrificial act.

"JUNKO!" Kyung shouted, coming down from the machine gun position.

Maho and Yasuho took positions at the firing line. The pair ducked and dodged the incoming fire, but made sure to take down as many enemies as possible. The drumming accurate bursts from the submachine gun accompanied a fierce and fluid fighting routine by Yasuho. The tank officer rapidly flung steel plates and projectiles at the enemy with precision accuracy. She expertly ducked, dodged, and spun around each incoming rock, metal chunk, or steel cable launched at her. If it were slowed, the reflection of her face in a polished steel plate would have shown the tears in her eyes, from the loss of another crew member.

"We need to get closer!" Yasuho ordered.

"How are we supposed to kill that thing?!" Maho questioned.

Eunji called up to the pair. "With this!" From Junko's tunic belt, the gunner pulled free a single stick hand grenade that had been tucked in the small of Junko's back. "We'll fry 'em!"

"I'll cover," PFC Cho added. "I'll cut down as many of those punks as I can!" He was going to stay behind and provide suppressive fire!

"You su-" Yasuho was cut off.

"I got it," the private interrupted. "Go!"

Yasuho brought up solid blocks of cover for the trio to advance from. They dodged bullets and boulders as they ran from cover to cover, and they couldn't afford to stay behind any slab of stone for too long with a cannon taking aim at them. Behind them, the MG42 tore into the enemy troops, letting loose its continuous streams of lead. Bullets ricocheted off the Tiger, causing the crew to button up and close all hatches. It sounded like a metal pan left outside amid a downpour. Soon the trio had reached the enemy tank.

The Tiger fired! The shell exploded right were Kyung was set up with the machine gun!

"Cho!" Eunji called back. The firing ceased. The PFC had been killed by the explosion and fell back into the crater beside Junko.

Now without cover, the Zaofu guards turned on the three crew members that were now right next to their own tank. The three of them pushed right up against the side wall of the large steel box and moved with it as it inched forward. Maho engaged the troops ahead, and Eunji, now making use of both her rifle and her pistol, took on those around and behind them.

Two soldiers came up! Before they could reach for anything, Yasuho launched a pair of metal plates at them, and nailed them through the chest respectively. She heard the commander's hatch open, and as soon as he popped up, she took grasp of the officer's metal epaulets and pulled him out of the tank, dropping him roughly on the ground. A shot rang out from Eunji's rifle as she shot the commander dead.

A boulder smashed into Eunji's right shoulder, an earthbender! A second one came right at her, but the airborne slab was blocked by a timely wall from Yasuho. The tank officer danced around a rock coming at her, but she did not see the following one. Yasuho took a hard hit to the core which threw her against the side armor of the tank. Winded, she struggled back to her feet, managing to block a pair of metal plates, but taking a hit to the head!

Maho spun about, and emptied her magazine at the attacking earthbenders. Her relief couldn't have come sooner. Yasuho was disoriented, her world was spinning and the edges of her vision were black. She was fine, fortunately, but she was hurt.

"Last mag!" Maho called out. The radio operator flinched as bullets bounced off the armor near her head. She ducked, falling near Yasuho.

Captain Aoshima wiped the blood from the corner of her lip and snorted, even more irritated. The locking pin of the top mounted machine gun came undone, and Yasuho let loose a loosely aimed burst from the enemy's machine gun, cutting down the remaining troops ahead of them.

Eunji clambered up on top of the tank. The Zaofu crew's radio operator popped up from his hatch, pistol in hand. But a shot from Eunji's Kar98k drilled straight through her chest. The enemy crew member's lifeless body fell back into the hull, the hatch shutting on top of her.

Yasuho followed up top. She grabbed hold of the tank's gun from the cradle and squeezed. The metal tube crumpled and bent before completely shearing off!

"Fire in the hole!" Eunji shouted, slinging her rifle and pulling the cord on the stick hand grenade, arming it.

She pulled open the hatch. Staring back at her was the muzzle of a rifle. BANG!

Yasuho spun around in shock at the sound of the shot. Eunji dropped the armed grenade and fell backwards, clutching at her throat. The grenade clattered against the metal deck, live.

Thinking quickly, Captain Aoshima vaulted over the turret and flung the hatch back open with her bending while picking up the ticking-down explosive. She threw it in, narrowly dodging the follow up shot from the tank's gunner's rifle and slammed the hatch shut. The locking pin was in the same place as Empire Tiger's and from the outside, holding the hatch down shut with her foot, she engaged the lock within. A trio of muffled panicked screams came from within before a baffled bang. Then the voices ceased. Smoke seeped out the edges of the hatch door and the tank rolled to a stop.

Eunji struggled, trying to stay alive. She clutched at the side of her throat where blood poured out of.
"Eunji! No no no no no no!" Yasuho dropped down beside her gunner. Corporal Jang couldn't breath, and couldn't speak. She was, for once, terrified. She didn't have long.

Yasuho needed bandages. Something. Anything to try and stop that bleeding. She wasn't going to accept this! She tapped each pocket of her tunic, keeping one hand on top of Eunji's, trying to aid in blocking the pour of crimson. Their efforts were futile. She frustratedly yelled, not finding anything useful. Desperately she yanked her neck tie from her collar; she would try to tie up the wounds with a largely ornamental uniform component. Blood immediately soaked into the wool and cotton of the forest green tie. She worked quickly, but it wouldn't be enough, not even close.

Maho was calling from the ground. "Yasu! Yasu! We need- Oh shit!"

Sergeant Koizumi clambered up, but taking one look already told her all she needed to know about the situation. Eunji was going to die, and she was essentially there already.

Finally, Eunji placed a hand over Yasuho's. She gave her a final strong look, defiant of death. It looked as though there may as well been fire in her eyes. "G-Give 'em hell, C-Cap'n!" she sputtered.

"Eunji?" Yasuho called, "Eunji?!"

Corporal Jang's hands fell from Yasuho's and clattered to the deck. She fell still, and her final labored breath left her body.

Yasuho wanted to cry. She was regretting all of this. She had lost three of her crew in the blink of an eye.

"YASU!" Maho latched onto the shoulder strap of Yasuho's tunic belt and pulled her friend off the top of the Tiger, back behind the armor where she wasn't knelt on a sacrificial platform, open for all around to shoot at.

An artillery shell exploded just beside the two! They were thrown against the side of the tank. Maho tucked her head and hugged her knees, her helmet shielding her from the raining dirt. Yasuho was distraught and delirious. Rocks and soil pelted the top of her peaked cap, tearing into the fabric crown and bouncing off the visor and the metal army insignia.

Zaofu soldiers and tanks were fleeing from something! Whatever Earth Empire units that were in the vicinity had also pulled out. But Yasuho took no notice. She stared at her bloodied hands. It wasn't even her own blood. Her ears rang, deafened by the explosion.

I…don't want to do this anymore, she thought, isolated in her thoughts.

She was shaken, literally, to her senses by Maho. "I'm pretty much empty on my last mag!" Sergeant Koizumi shouted above the barrage. "I'm going to strip a weapon and ammo off one of the Zaofu soldiers! I'll also try to find us a working radio for the next orders! Get us a good foxhole to set up in! With the tank as cover, I think we can hold position here!"

Maho felt a tug on her belt. It was Yasuho. "No," her friend rejected. "We need to get out of here."

"But-"
"Fuck the order! We're under-equipped and outnumbered! I can't lose you too!" Yasuho yelled, fighting back tears. "We'll withdraw from this sector!"

Maho paused for a moment, under fire. She hadn't seen her friend like this in a long time. She knew when her friend was regretting her decisions. And her heart sank. She felt guilty. She did tell her, 'you're going to regret this,' but she didn't intend for it to mean they would lose friends. She didn't mean it like this. No time to feel sorry for one's self right now. "Aye, kommandant," Maho acknowledged. "We're closest to third sector. Maybe we can run into friendly lines if we head south!"


Yasuho threw a punch forth in the direction they were heading, reaching in with her other hand, then as if opening a pair of curtain drapes, pushed them both apart. The ground split, giving the pair a small trench to make a slightly covered exit through. "It's not deep, and I can only do sections at a time, but it'll have to do!"

"Good enough," Maho commented, jumping into the path. Her friend followed just behind.

Yasuho jumped in right after. As soon as her shoes hit the ground she could sense a strong approaching vibration in the earth. One did not need to be Toph Beifong to feel this kind of seismic activity. What the hell? An Earthquake? Maho didn't notice and charged ahead.

Zaofu troops were rushing at them!

"Coming at us!" Maho yelled. She propped her MP40 overhead and sprayed blindly at the running hordes of Zaofu troops. None of them fired back. She struck a pair of them, who crumpled to the ground, before her magazine ran dry. The bolt racked forward with a firm clack. The two soldiers she hit just got up and continued to limp at them. No one shot back. Everyone was panicking! A truck, bearing Earth Empire markings, drove straight into the trench and was immediately immobilized!

"What's going on?!" Yasuho yelled.

Maho's eyes widened. She saw what the Zaofu soldiers were running from.

Yasuho also peered over the edge of the trench. "What is that thing?" was all she could say under her breath.

It was a super weapon, unlike anything she had seen before. Shrouded in the darkness of the night and the shadows of the mountains, she couldn't see it clearly, only that it was enormous. A land-going heavy cruiser, or battleship! The leviathan bristled with guns, one mount was fit for a warship indeed. She could make out the enormous insignia of the Earth Empire marked across the bow.

Its largest mount turned to face the entirety of the second sector, facing the graveyard of destroyed tanks infested with infantry; facing the straightest line to the outskirts of Zaofu. One of its barrels began to glow a fierce, bright, shade of purple.

"GO!" Yasuho pushing Maho on the shoulder, "GO!"

The pair made a break for it, diving and crawling under the wreckage of the downed Earth Empire truck and running further along the trench. A distant thunderous boom echoed. Shell incoming!

The ground several hundred meters ahead erupted! It was a massive impact! Fire, earth, and wreckage were thrown. Anything at ground zero would have been obliterated. The wreckage of a King Tiger went airborne in the blast!

Zaofu soldiers poured into their trench, not noticing the pair of Earth Empire fighters within. A Zaofu Tiger tank inched up onto the edge of the trench, aiming its gun at the colossal weapon. In the chaos and the flood of enemy soldiers, Yasuho and Maho were separated.

A brutish man grabbed onto Yasuho by the shoulder strap. "You don't get to run from this!" he threatened.

Pop! Yasuho shut her eyes. The back of the arresting soldier's head exploded. He recoiled forward! It was Maho, surrounded by Zaofu soldiers, smoke pouring from Eunji's P1 pistol. She had taken it off their fallen crewmate. The swarm of Zaofu troops tried to tackle the loan radio operator, even ignoring Yasuho.

"MAHO!" Yasuho yelled as she was pulled further and further away from her last crew member and friend. They couldn't shoot Maho, else they'd hit their comrades. They all dropped to the deck when the Tiger fired off its 88mm cannon at the leviathan! The sound further deafening them all.

Maho was able to wriggle away, climbing out away from the men and out the top of the trench. Yasuho put some distance between them, also getting away from the Zaofu guards and similarly trying to pull herself out of the trench line.

A distant clap of thunder!

"Incoming!"

Yasuho dove for the ground! There was no more time to run! The terrible whistle of a gargantuan artillery shell screamed at them and slammed into the ground near the enemy heavy tank. Again, Yasuho was deafened. The force threw her several meters. She bounced off the hard soil, battered and scraped. CRASH! SCREECH! The turret of the smashed Tiger tank embedded in the ground uncomfortably close to her. She hadn't even noticed it going airborne!

"Maho!" she shouted, "Maho!" She scanned the scene frantically, trying to find her friend.

Then it came. The charge of purple light and energy in the other barrel of the Colossus shot forth. An uncomfortable, terrifying, hum sounded out and echoed throughout the battlefield. There was an intense thud and the ground jumped! Yasuho turned to look toward the massive beast. A stream, a laser, a beam of destructive energy…she didn't know how to refer to it..tore up the battlefield in a spectacular uninterrupted way! The ground smashed, fragmented, and flew as the beam swept up and forward towards Zaofu, tracing the line of the entire Second Sector of combat! Everything in its path was vaporized or tossed from the force! It was as if God was dragging the eraser of a pencil across the landscape! The charge was long too!

Everyone panicked! Tanks were in full reverse, blindly trying to get away from the laser! They were running down and crushing retreating soldiers in their haste! Yasuho even saw tanks and troops of her own army fleeing! They ran side by side with their enemy trying to get away. The soldiers caught in the beam weren't even able to scream. They were eviscerated, vaporized, or evaporated on contact with the deadly purple energy stream!

This is something straight out of some twisted anime! Yasuho thought as she curled up behind the destroyed tank turret, hoping and praying she wouldn't be simultaneously incinerated. Why is our army firing blindly on its own soldiers! We're not clear yet! She hugged her knees tightly, terrified of what was to come! The terrifying hum came closer and closer, and with it was the rumble and cry of the earth!

And then, just like that, just short of the threshold before Yasuho would be vaporized, the beam stopped and the ground was still once more. The colossus had ceased firing. That was a long burst, the captain made a mental note!

It was now or never. She had to run. Yasuho made a break for it. No positive outlook, no willingness to comply with orders, no compelling drive to fight the enemy, and essentially no reason remained. Captain Yasuho Aoshima was a hollowed shell of her former self. She didn't even notice she was running with a group of Zaofu soldiers towards the refuge of Zaofu. She didn't scream. She didn't yell. She just ran, as fast as her legs could carry her. She didn't even remember that she could move faster using her earth bending!

An entire line of riflemen popped up from a covered trench ahead. Suddenly, muzzle flashes! Shots rang out across a wide line. One by one, rapidly, Zaofu soldiers to her left and right dropped dead, their bodies crashing into the soil! The tearing of MG42's screamed in her ears. Yasuho dove for the ground, covering her head with her hands - as if that would make any difference. Volleys and streams of 8mm bullets whizzed overhead, just missing her. The sound of pulverizing and tearing flesh came from all around her as the Zaofu casualties mounted. They had run into a perfectly set up Earth Empire ambush, one that even she had used before. Yasuho covered her ears. She didn't want to hear the gut-churning sounds.

The ground shook as cannons blasted, tearing the soil to her left and right. A soft but sharp ring pierced her ears as a volley of metal plates zipped past and struck down a group of soldiers with cold precision.

"Cease fire!" an officer called, somehow heard above the flurry of gun and cannon fire. "Cease fire! There's one of ours out there!"

The hail stopped. Moments went by. Yasuho propped herself up to her feet as soon as she felt it was safe to do so. She stood among a sea of the dead, all wearing Zaofu uniforms. Staring down at her were the muzzles and bores, cannons and rifles of a company of the 1st Armored Division. It took her a while to notice the camouflage pattern of their King Tigers and Maus tanks.

She noticed the glint of the Badger Mole insignia on the garrison cap of the agile officer that approached her; he had dismounted from the leading King Tiger.

"Pai-sen! Looks like you made it!" Major Choi immediately reached around her shoulders and motioned her towards their defensive line. "Jeez, you look like you've been through the ringer!" he rambled on, "What the hell are our generals doing?! It's been unbelievably chaotic. I managed to rally my men together, but..Oh man, was it difficult. This operation has been..a mess, to say the least. I'm glad you're safe."

They executed those soldiers. They were fleeing, not even a threat, Yasuho thought. She was guilty of doing the same. So this was what it was like to be on the receiving end.

"Where's your crew?" he asked. He struck a painful chord.

"Gone," the Captain managed.

"Oh jeez," Choi grimaced. "Those Zaofu bastards! We'll make them pay for this! We'll put Suyin's head on a stake for this!"

The men and women of the 1st Armored Division immediately recognized Captain Yasuho Aoshima. Her name and repertoire preceded her. After all, she was still the poster girl for the Earth Empire's army. She was the reason many of them joined, and the person many, especially in the armored divisions, aspired to emulate.

"You have many big fans in this division, senpai," Major Choi praised. "You'll roll with us for the remainder of this operation. At least until we can regroup you with 2nd Armored. I'm sure many will love fighting alongside you the notorious angel of death," he chuckled, knowing how much she usually disliked the colloquial title and how ridiculous it sounded.

The terrifying hum fired once again. Yasuho instinctively ducked, suddenly. Terrified of the deadly energy beam.

"Oh that?" Major Choi explained. "That is the real secret weapon we've been working on for months. Not so secret now, I guess." He took a deep breath in awe, almost like he was bragging. "Not exactly a nuclear warhead…probably…But that is single handedly the greatest leap forward in weapons technology since the atomic bomb! Zaofu…any one who stands against our Earth Empire, really…have no chance!"

Explosions rang out and distant loud shrieking and groaning of metal cried. One of the towering shells of platinum broke from their massive mounts, slammed into the ground beneath, and began to fall outward from the city. The beam cut straight through the armored plates and sliced straight through the towering skyscrapers in the city too! Fire and smoke rose from the sudden extreme destruction as the tops of several of those buildings fell towards the streets below.

"Onward to unity, Captain Aoshima! Hail the Great Uniter!"