TL: Chapter 10 - Recruits

«Alright team,» Eohelm said on the newly opened radio channel, «I …» He fell silent for a moment, then corrected himself. «I mean, friends.» There was another pause, and his voice sounded more downcast as he added, «This is … quite the situation.»   «That’s the understatement of the year!» Rex said.   «Please don’t interrupt me,» Eohelm replied.   Rex remained silent indeed. Eohelm went on.   «There’s not really anything I can do right now in terms of making combat plans. There’s too many unknown factors. So, Nordic, you know what to do.»   Nordic stirred with a deep sigh. He accepted that hiding in his garage and watching the trees cast their flurry of shadows from the inside was not what he should be doing right then. Especially when he received an impatient comm from someone else only moments later. The GW Panther was asking where he had gone to. Nordic made sure to make his voice sound as ingenuous as possible as he reassured her that he was just having a strategic break.   “On it,” he said to both Eohelm and the GW Panther, and rolled out into the garage spaces.   He left them on the A-Street, which carried a name that had little to do with anything except the fact that it vaguely looked like the letter A of the tank runes alphabet on the town map. It was not to be confused with the A-Lane, which was on the other side of the town center, and named like that for entirely different reasons. If Eohelm had tried to keep the naming of the roads logical and easily comprehensible to anyone who wasn’t himself, he had unfortunately failed in this regard.   Rolling along at a steady pace, Nordic wondered the same thing he had been wondering in his garage already: how to go about his task. But he realized that he was just mentally beating around the bush. In fact, there wasn't a lot of preparation needed. The Hellcat knew his teammates well enough to come up with a strategy for talking to each one on the fly. He was expecting to be met with approval for the most part. Some cases would be more difficult than others, but there was no doubt that they would all join the GW Panther's cause. She simply gave them a good excuse to do what they had wanted to do anyway.   A fight had been bound to occur. It just hadn't been clear who would be the good guys, and who the bad guys. For Nordic, this decision was now made. To the others, the terminology probably mattered little. If it hadn’t been the GW Panther, they would have supported someone else. If it hadn’t been someone else, the Falkendorf Team’s final battle would have been a battle royal.   Nordic halted and looked up. Despite the block of houses towering to his right, he could clearly see the town’s big hill through the crumbled walls and broken window frames. On the top of the hill, no sign of the GW Panther could be seen. But he knew nevertheless that she was there, in her favourite spot, watching. Few things were concealed from an SPG in an elevated position.   Falkendorf, with its tall buildings and rampant flora, was full of nooks and crannies. But it also offered many angles for indirect fire; some of them hidden, others more obvious. Even though Nordic himself had never been the target of fire from these angles, he knew them well - if only because the GW Panther had instructed her team in painstaking detail and repeatedly with great impatience where they were not supposed to go during battles to avoid blocking her line of fire.   Right now, he was in such a spot. For the first time outside a battle, it gave him an uneasy feeling - as if a cannon was being pointed at him.   He quickly averted his optics and drove on, faster this time. It was time to do what he had brought upon himself. He was going to tackle the most difficult case first.   As he reached the end of the lane, he turned to his left - and hopped on the brakes as he saw someone standing next to the junction. He came to an abrupt halt and returned the M40’s direct gaze with confusion. The SPG was silent. They looked at each other for a long moment.   “When?” the M40 asked plainly.   There was the same indifference in his voice that Nordic had gotten to know as his defining trait. Indifference that had led the SPG to take the stance of a neutral party, even the devil’s advocate in all of the team’s preceding internal conflicts. But this conflict was different. It knew no neutral party. This time he was going to end up between opposing fronts, and Nordic had the feeling that his teammate knew this well.   “At sunrise,” Nordic replied. Seconds passed. The M40 eventually looked away. He sighed, and confirmed Nordic’s suspicions.   “I’ll be going on vacation.”   Nordic kept looking at the SPG until his gaze was returned again.   “Every team member has their duties,” the Hellcat said. “One of those duties is to stop teammates from becoming traitors.”   The M40’s cannon twitched, but he didn’t say anything. Nordic went on.   “Another one is to report any teammate who becomes a traitor despite such an intervention.”   After just staring at Nordic for a while longer, the M40 spoke.   “You’re calling me a traitor?”   “Who’s a traitor?” Nordic replied with a question.   “Someone who lets their team down,” the M40 said, reluctantly — but immediately.   Nordic nodded.   “You know, at this point,” he said with a weary voice, “I’m pretty sure that ‘letting your team down’ means to stay until this bitter end we’ve got coming up.”   It took a few more moments of silent tension, but then the M40 seemed to understand. He relaxed visibly, and finally nodded.   Nordic didn’t have anything else to say to him and drove on. As he should have expected, he was immediately contacted by the GW Panther.   «What’d he say?» she asked through their private radio channel.   “He’s not on our side,” Nordic replied. It wasn’t a lie.   «We’ll kill him too, then!» the GW Panther said, and the nonchalance in her voice made it sinister.   For a long time, there had been a sort of an unspoken — and not even always conscious — agreement that it was a bad idea to put artillery in charge. The argument was usually the same: Fighting enemies from up close is something personal. When you hear their screams, and see their determination, or even fear — you know that there is a life behind the armour. Artillery, on the other hand, hardly ever got to know their enemy like this. The distance to their enemies was not only physical. For them, there’s coordinates on a map. Virtual images of shapes that resemble a tank. Direction and driving speed. Shoot if hostile, don’t shoot if allied. Friend or foe alike: There’s targets. And to someone who only knows targets, lives become variables in a calculation.   But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, not all SPGs displayed a strictly rational — if clinical — attitude as a consequence of this. Not all of them dealt with their variables in a sober-minded, sustainable way. With some, and it seemed like the GW Panther was one of those, this disconnection simply led to arbitrariness. Which was undoubtedly worse. The GW Panther had ended up in charge, and now she decided who lived and who died. She had become a bit too comfortable with this power, evidently.   Really, it would have given Nordic a major headache if he hadn’t kept telling himself that her reign wasn’t going to last for much longer.  

***
 

The GW Panther was humming to herself. The old tunes, long banned and buried in oblivion. Had anyone who still recognized them heard her, she’d have been in trouble. But here, in her little sanctuary, the only one who listened was a certain light tank who never would have gone and snitched on her.   Obliviously below her, her team was following their usual pastime activities. A seemingly mundane day. How small and trivial they looked from up here. But among them, Nordic was scuttling about the town. He was doing his job — and, hopefully, doing it well. Everything depended on him being able to gather enough supporters. Fortunately, he was armed with a solid pretence. It should be easy enough.   That’s what the whole traitors thing was, after all — a pretence. If many winters had taught the GW Panther anything, it was that to most tanks, their own struggles mattered most. Getting them to care about anything else required certain philosophical detours. No matter how noble a cause, if a tank couldn’t relate to it personally, they weren’t going to waste a single shell on it.   An SPG’s hardships inspired wrath in those who bothered to educate themselves on the underlying issues and sympathise with them. Unfortunately, few did bother. A tank betraying their comrades, on the other hand, was a very straightforward concept.   Naturally, the GW Panther would have preferred to lead a group of loyal followers who felt the same importance and urgency for her cause. As an intermediate means to an end, however, leading an angry mob also worked.   She looked up as a shadow unfurled itself onto her field of view. In a matter of seconds, she could watch it chase the sunlight out of the streets, and far away out of sight. A breeze, so soft she hadn’t noticed it before, suddenly felt cold as it dragged at the single piece of painted cloth that was tied to her cannon. The SPG stopped humming. She turned around to look at the sky; touched by a subconscious fear ingrained into a whole generation, she expected to see giant wings.   But it was a storm front had reared up and swallowed the sun.   The GW Panther gazed at it for a while. The fear was soothed, but it had left behind a husk of worry. This wasn’t a bad omen, was it? She averted her optics with a deep frown, turned back around. Below her, the scene was unchanged — except for one detail.   A handful of tanks were entering the town centre. Two of them were following the train tracks — Rex and Fox. The GW Panther only watched them for a moment before she focused on the other two newcomers. Eject and one of the strangers were approaching the garage spaces. Upon closer inspection, the GW Panther recognised the other tank as the Pershing, whatever her name was. The SPG’s optics searched for the rest of the strangers, but they were nowhere to be seen.   Speak of bad omens.   For the next few moments, the GW Panther’s strained gaze darted down every street. But she hadn’t missed anything; the low tiers simply weren’t there.   “What …!” she shouted.   She looked behind herself, where the AMX 13-75 was craning his cannon curiously. For a moment, she almost considered asking him for his opinion on the sudden disappearance. Someone else was more important to talk to, however.   "The low tiers are gone!" she whined into her radio.   Nordic's confused voice responded.   «What do you mean?»   "Low tiers. Gone."   As there was no immediate reply, she added an impatient "What are we gonna do?!"   «Well, it doesn't change much, does it?» Nordic said tentatively.   The GW Panther directed her attention at the town center again. Her optics grew wide with a sudden realisation.   "What if they know?" she gasped. "They found out somehow!"   «… you think?» Nordic asked. «I don't —»   "True," the GW Panther talked over him. "If they knew, they'd have done something abou—"   She fell silent for a moment.   "For crying out loud!”   There was a moment of frantic contemplation. How could she find out for sure what was going on? Being subtle was not something she did well, so she quickly decided that it was time for an interrogation.   Only a few minutes later she was already hurrying through the streets below the hill, trying to catch up with Eject and the guest. She found them quickly, turned a corner at full throttle and suddenly stood in the middle of the street, blocking their path. Her shadow, the AMX 13-75, showed up behind her moments later.   Eject and the Pershing halted. Sky, that was her name. Right. Both tanks looked puzzled at the sudden appearance of a very flustered looking SPG. They couldn't even say anything before she immediately blurted out the reason for her visit.   "Where did your friends go?" she asked Sky.   Eject replied before Sky could.   "What do you think?" he asked coolly.   "I'm not in the mood," the GW Panther hissed.   "They left," Eject specified.   "And her?" the GW Panther asked on, gesturing at Sky. "Why is she still here?"   Sky's expression turned from neutral to irritated, but she still didn't speak.   Eject replied instead of her again.   "Because the others left without her," he said matter-of-factly.   Oh, how furious this attitude of his always made the GW Panther. He never got tired of acting as if he was talking to a pocket calculator. She never got tired of imagining wringing his turret.   "They just left her behind?" she asked, struggling to keep her voice in check.   "They'll meet up again."   "Seems irresponsible for a leader to just leave her low tier team-"   "They can fend for themselves in the meantime."   "You didn't answer my question. Why is she here?" the GW Panther insisted.   Eject gave a non-committal shrug.   "She'll stay for our next battle, in return for the fuel we gave her team."   That was the first time the GW Panther had heard about such a plan. Wouldn't the team be talking about it? Wasn't there supposed to be some sort of deliberation among them when it came to such things?   "Who agreed to that?" she snapped.   "I did," Eject said plainly. The GW Panther stared at him, inhaled audibly, but didn't reply. Eject looked at her for a moment longer, then started rolling towards her. He simply pushed past her. Sky followed him immediately. They didn't make it far. The GW Panther turned around and raised her voice.   "Going it alone as per usual, I see," she said snidely.   Eject coasted to a stop. He turned his turret around halfway. His permanent frown made way for a glare. Seconds passed before he spoke, slowly, clearly, and calmly.   "As your teammate, I swore to respect and protect you. But I'll tell you one thing right now, and I'll only tell you once. If it wasn't for this oath, I would not hesitate."   The GW Panther gaped at him.   "Hesitate?" she echoed after a moment of baffled silence.   Eject's features grew impassive again. He turned his turret back around and drove on.   "Hesitate to do what?" the GW Panther shouted after him, but he didn't pay any further attention to her.   She stood there like petrified, staring after the T29. His words were sinking in fully. The GW Panther spun around and threw a scandalized look at the AMX 13-75, who returned it with an aghast expression.   "Did he just … Did he threaten me?" she asked.   The AMX 13-75's optics darted to the other tanks that were out of earshot by now. A transition in expressions from clueless to outraged to uncertain took place on his features in the span of a few seconds, but he didn't say anything. The GW Panther rolled her cannon with an exasperated sigh.   "Whatever!" she growled.   She shot one last glare into Eject's direction, then drove off the other way, murmuring to herself. The interrogation hadn't gone as she had hoped, but at least it hadn't given her the obvious impression that they knew about the planned mutiny. She would be on her guard of course, but for now, it felt safe to proceed.

***
 

Soon, Nordic found the tanks he was actually looking for.   Resting in the Central Square, there was the T34 — a massive brick of distrust, staring down on the Hellcat with unkind optics. Approaching a loner was the tricky part. But luckily, Nordic had a few tricks of his own.   “What if I told you there’s others who think that way?”   Suddenly, the loner knew ‘us’. And that made it easy to teach him ‘them’. Two of the bogeymen the T34 didn’t even know; the third had never made a secret of his scant regard for the newest member of the team. Nordic didn’t have to stir up much disdain. It practically stirred itself.   Just simple reassurance to tip the scales — “It’s gonna be easy.” — and they parted ways as alleged allies.   A surprise to none, certain other approvals took very little persuasion.   “The good old bashin’ some heads in. You know?”   Enough said. T-150’s participation reported to Eohelm, and on Nordic went to the next target.   He approached the Challenger and Axis together, not only because of their currently coincident location. The three of them had a sort of bond, being fellow TDs. Not that it actually exceeded any casual friendship, but it would make his recruitment attempt seem like some fun idea that friends came up with.   “I mean, do we really want someone to play boss? The Falkendorf Team is made of equals. You gotta admit, things were better before they started acting like that.”   The Challenger was won over easily by such regulars’-table-talk. Axis, a more critical thinker, was not convinced right away.   “It’s not really like it could be avoided, I guess. If you gotta choose a side? Better choose the right side.” — was able to fix that, though.   There was one last tank on the list.   Nordic found himself rolling through the streets at a — for him — slow pace. There was a subconscious reason he had left this particular teammate for last. A bitter taste he had been trying to put off for as long as possible.   Bitter to know the Indien-Panzer was gullible. Bitter to exploit this knowledge.   “Unfortunately, absolutely necessary.”   Few words were said, but those had been woven into flowery lies. A restored team, no more arguments. Stronger than ever before. Nordic was supposed to report to the GW Panther next, but he had to take a break from his duty first. Looking into the glimmer of hope in the medium's features for even a moment had left behind an image more persistent than staring into the sun for hours.   “We have to tell him,” he pleaded, his engine howling as he was aimlessly racing through the outskirts.   «Completely out of the question,» Eject said sternly.   Eohelm’s reply was delayed.   «Having another tank on our side cannot be a bad thing …» he mused.   «Telling anyone else is a risk,» Eject insisted.   “He would help us, I’m sure,” Nordic said, his voice still imploring.   «I’m with Eject on this one,» Fox said.   As Nordic expected further explanation, there was none.   “Who of you will kill him, then?” he asked quietly.   Eject was replying, but Fox spoke up again, talking over his teammate.   «If you want to tell him, fine. But it’s on your head.»   «No, no, no,» Eohelm rushed to say. «One tank alone can’t answer for something like this. Either everyone’s on board, or we’re simply not telling him.»   Nordic slowed down, eventually rolling to a halt. The others were waiting for him to respond. He looked back at the town. His cannon sank as he turned his hull around as well and started making is way back into Falkendorf.   “The Indien-Panzer … is on our side,” he said.   «Perfect!» the GW Panther replied.


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