The Praedian Records

J.G. Phoenix

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Fleeing Victory

Chapter Two

If the tankers of the 203rd were hoping to escape their inexplicable headaches and the natural unease they felt around the corrupted crystals, those hopes were dashed when they learned that the scouts had barely managed to clear the way for them.

As above, so below.

There were corrupted crystals everywhere. While the tunnels themselves may have been more than a hundred feet across, the armored battalion could only traverse the bottom, a narrow stretch of rock and gravel lined by red crystal mounds. Ricard noted a few wider areas where two tanks could travel side by side, but they were few and far between. More importantly, they had to travel single file to ensure every vehicle had enough room to turn around in an emergency.

More and more became amenable to the idea of turning back as the ground and the walls began to stir. No one needed the sensor vehicle’s operator to tell them that there was seismic activity in the region. It hadn’t yet been confirmed whether the small tremor was one of the worms, or aftershocks from some other event.

“This is the van. We have two paths we can take up ahead.”

Ricard touched his ear piece, curious about the report.

“Another tunnel opens up just behind us. They look fresh.”

“You found a fresh intersection? That’s unfortunate.” Ordinarily, Lieutenant Rog would be the first to explore a new avenue of attack, but a fresh tunnel meant unexplored territory. In truth, its only appeal would be the complete and utter lack of corrupted crystals along the path.

“No scout detachments?”

“Yeah. We have no idea where it leads and we don’t have time to chart it.”

The paths were marked for another team, and the 203rd pressed on. By the time Chaser came up to the intersection, Ricard was compelled to utter the lieutenant’s own words. “That’s unfortunate indeed.” The path was clear–and dark, lacking the eerie red glow cast by the corrupted crystals. Still, it was a much more attractive option than the path they were on. Looking back, Ricard could see where the fresh tunnel created a second branch going roughly back in the direction the came.

“I wonder if that worm is in the area.”

One by one the 203rd’s vehicles challenged steep inclines and narrow passages, each crew hoping in turn that their luck would get them through to the other side of the tunnel system. Ricard’s ease was just beginning to return to him at the top of another incline when he heard something shatter overhead.

Nicholas’ gaze shot back to him. He had no answer for the young tanker.

“I’ll take a look,” Ricard said, pulling his scarf up to cover his mouth. He didn’t know for certain, but the only materials around here that would make that sort of high pitched splitting noise were the corrupted crystals. The rest was all rock and metal, neither of which even came close.

“Be careful,” Nicholas said as Ricard reached over to his side and picked up a helmet.

“I’ll be fine, but have Chaser stop for a second.” They should still have a minute before the next tank in the column reached the crest of the incline. That was time enough to poke his head outside and see what fell on top of them.

Just for good measure, Ricard pulled down the goggles affixed to his helmet before lifting himself up through the commander’s hatch.

“Oh no …” Ricard winced at the glowing red shards strewn across his tank’s hull. He spied a few crystal growths above them, poking out from the roof of the tunnel. Some must be coming loose after the tremors. That was especially dangerous for the scout vehicles, whose gunner stations offered no verticle protection whatsoever.

Purportedly, contact with bare skin would leave a soldier down for the count, so it wasn’t worth the risk trying to get rid of the shards himself. Ricard didn’t like the idea of being outside of the hatch, but these shards had to go one way or another.

“Chaser, go manual.”

Ricard steadied himself with his left hand while holding out his right. The tank began to shake, its right manipulator arm coming loose and stretching out to match his movements. Slowly–carefully, Ricard made gentle sweeping motions, minding the position of Chaser’s mechanical arm, and with a few swipes, the shards were sprinkled onto the side of the path. A few tiny fragments were left behind, but nothing as large and cumbersome as a tank’s manipulators could deal with those. They would have to spray Chaser down thoroughly back at the base to get rid of those.

“That’s the best we can do,” Ricard sighed, slapping the roof of the turret a couple of times.

Chaser’s arm stowed itself back alongside the suspension system, the mechanical hand attaching itself to the sprocket hub for support. There was a loud metal clamping noise that let Ricard know the arm was secure, and that the sprocket’s ‘backup’ drive was in place again.

Ricard climbed back down into the hatch and pulled down his scarf, letting Nicholas see his relieved smile for himself.

“All good?”

“Almost, but we should be fine for now. Onward we go.”

“Back up! Hurry!”

Casey was shaken out of his daydream when Alice hit the brakes on their scouting vehicle. She hadn’t been the one calling out on the battalion’s primary channel just now, though.

Casey knew the voice; it was the gunner for the front-most scout. As soon as he caught sight of them, a flash of yellow dove down onto the vehicle, causing it to bounce on the spot. A plume of fire and smoke erupted from the impact, and for brief, terrifying moment, Casey feared the worst.

“Automated gun!” The next report came over the airwaves–from that same insanely lucky pair up front, no less.

“Get out of there,” Casey called out to them as the two leaped from the flaming wreck and ran like mad. They were practically tripping over themselves–and getting perilously close to the corrupted crystal mounds along the path–to reach the relative safety of the 203rd’s light tanks.

By the time they were clear of the immediate danger, another shot struck their vehicle and blew it up. The explosion sent thick, hot air racing past Casey and far down the line of vehicles in the tunnel.

Just when Casey was about to ask the lieutenant for his orders, the man himself instructed the units at the front. “This is Intrepid 1 to the van. Intrepid 21, standby to take point. Intrepid 7, move up and take out that gun. Acknowledge.”

“Intrepid 21 scout vehicle, acknowledged,” Alice sent back, “Holding here. Over and out.” While Ricard was the leader of Intrepid 21, they were now divided into two independent crews, one in the light tank, Chaser, and the other in a scout car.

Intrepid 7 was another matter. Theirs was one of a handful of tanker teams that hadn’t been reconstituted after the attack on Munica’s colossus weapon. Matteo, Luca, and their swift, brawler of a light tank named Daring were the original Intrepid 7 from the start of the war. Casey and Alice both knew what kind of shenanigans to expect from them.

“Intrepid 7 acknowledges. Over and out.”

Daring pulled ahead of them in the long line of vehicles and deployed its long mechanical arms for the coming exchange. The arms had the tank’s skirt armor attached to them, so they hung like small shields off the side of each arm. Once they were close enough, Daring grabbed onto the smoldering wreck and moved it out of the way. Next, the arms folded over the turret, leaving just the gun barrel exposed to return fire.

“Intrepid 7 to Intrepid 21. Give us one minute and we’ll have the way clear for you~ Over.” Matteo said. He was talking to–flirting with Alice in particular. No one in Intrepid 21 had any doubts about that.

Daring suddenly moved up into nearly the exact spot the scout vehicle was when it had first been hit. Its gun elevated to line up whatever was waiting at the top of the incline, but the tank quickly reversed and pulled back out of the line of fire. It wasn’t a moment too soon, as another flash of light struck the ground, sending up rock and loose parts from the first wreck. Without wasting any time, Daring pulled forward again, ready to fire back. As soon as Intrepid 7’s light tank came to a halt, its gun fired. Then, just as the smoke from the muzzle was beginning to disperse, Daring quickly backed up again, narrowly avoiding another shot from the automated gun.

“That’s definitely a 37mil,” Luca informed the rest of the 203rd.

Casey shrugged at the report. Daring had already done a lot to protect itself and the crew against that caliber of gun. While Munica’s anti-tank guns could punch through a light tank’s armor with relative ease, it was extremely unlikely that they would be able to make it through two separate sets of armor spaced as far apart as the skirt armor on the tank’s mechanical arms, and the hull armor at the front of the vehicle. Not getting hit in the first place was proving to be the best approach in this fight.

Daring jerked forward again and fired another shot, then quickly retreated in the brief window it had, completely avoiding the automated gun’s response. If the weapon they were facing had been manned, they might have had the good sense to hold their fire and bait Daring out into the open before firing. Instead, the weapon fired the moment it was reloaded, creating perfect three second intervals for Daring to weave its attacks into. This was a weakness of automatons that the Cordaeans had centuries of experience with. Using their own predictable behavior against them was enough to turn a stalwart defender into just another bump in the road.

Daring quickly moved back to the foot of the incline and fired up at its opponent, scoring a hit on the gun barrel itself. The light tank didn’t back off this time.

“Target neutralized. Moving to the top of the hill to check for additional guns. Over.”

“Copy that, Intrepid 7,” Lieutenant Rog replied, “Give 21 some space to get by after you clear the area. Over.”

“Hey, is everything alright up there?”

Casey laughed hearing Ricard chime in. He wasn’t sure if his friend was worried about the actual enemies in the tunnels with them, or Matteo making moves on Alice while he was half a dozen vehicles behind them.

He had his suspicions, though. “Oh yeah, we’re fine, man. We’ll be out of these tunnels in no time if that’s the best they’ve got for us.”

“Clear comms,” Lieutenant Rog said warningly.

“Intrepid 7 to Intrepid 1: We’ll make sure the road is good and clear, sir. Over and out.”

Someone was beginning to sigh into the channel before realizing their mistake and cutting the transmission.

“Heh.” Casey felt the same. He cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, “Well get to it then ya showoffs!”

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