Friday, April 9, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
At the close of her second full week at DSM, Miho Nishizumi felt she had cause to be content. Despite having arrived with only a couple of months left in the school year—an inauspicious time to be making a start at a new school—she felt neither academically overloaded nor socially bereft. To the contrary, on both accounts: for while DSM was by no means an easy school, its program lacked a certain element of... of rigor that had been in play at her old one, and if you wanted to get really particular about it, she'd had the beginnings of two new friendships before she'd even made it all the way to Jeraddo.
Others had followed—not a lot of them, because Miho wasn't so much the socially enterprising type, but since she'd almost immediately run into no fewer than three people who were (and one other who was sort of drawn along in the wake of one of them), her new network sort of constructed itself around her. Saori Takebe was practically a human introductions database all by herself, constantly considering and matching personality traits of people she knew in her head. She and her friend Hana Isuzu had introduced themselves on Miho's first morning on campus simply, she claimed, because they saw the email about Miho's arrival at school and thought she'd be "interesting".
Most refreshingly of all, neither Saori nor Hana knew a single thing about tanks. Not that it particularly bothered Miho that Nora Southwell Ozaki and Yukari Akiyama, the ones who'd met her before she'd even cleared Babylon 6, did; but still, under the circumstances it was nice to know some people from completely outside the armored world she'd spent most of her life to date living in.
Just now, the five of them were all together, having just left their last class of the day (PE). The weather was, according to Saori, unusually warm for early April in the Jeradar Valley, and the gentle breeze blowing across the Common was refreshing rather than threatening to freeze their shower-damp hair, like it had been for most of the preceding week. As they crossed the Lower Bridge heading for Res West, Nora was telling a war story from her old school, the others were listening with rapt attention, and Miho was smiling to herself and reflecting that the world was not such a terrible place after all.
Nora was just getting to the punch line: "... So Nicki says to the guy—" when one of their school-issue multicomm units trilled for attention, and a voice declared,
"Miho Nishizumi, Class 2-2, please report to the mailroom."
"—no she didn't, that's not how the story goes at all," Nora protested.
The five girls paused on the bridge, four of them turning to look at the fifth; Miho dug her multicomm out of her track top pocket and regarded the message notification with a look of bafflement, then transferred that look to the others.
"Expecting a package?" Yukari asked, but Miho shook her head.
"Not at all," she said, sounding mystified.
"Guess we better check it out," said Nora pragmatically.
The campus mailroom was located in the Student Union, on the north side of the Common—not far from where they were bound anyway, as it happened—so it was only a matter of a simple course correction for the five of them to make their way there instead of going straight to Baxter Hall. Miho had seen it on previous visits to the building, but she'd never had occasion to go there yet; students' normal mail was usually delivered to mailboxes in their individual residence halls, and she hadn't received any of that so far either.
Now she presented herself at the counter and gave the staffer on duty her student ID, wondering as she did so about the large sign posted above the service window (NO ADMITTANCE TO CRAZED MERCENARIES). The mailroom attendant (CHUCK, according to his nametag) scanned the card, blinked at the message this caused to appear on his screen, and then said,
"Oh, it's you." Returning the ID, he added, "Wait here a moment, please."
Without waiting for a response, the attendant pulled down the metal shutter over the service window, leaving Miho and her friends to exchange confused looks. A moment later, the door off to one side opened and Chuck beckoned to Miho: "This way."
"Um..." said Miho, glancing around at her friends.
"Sure, you can all come, that's fine," Chuck said, and they all trooped after him through the door. He led them through the "backstage" area of the mailroom—sorting machines, pigeonholes, unidentifable gadgets—and beyond it to what seemed to be a loading dock, right at the back of the Union building...
... and then beyond that, straight out the ground-level door, and into a paved area behind the building. Normally, the girls assumed, this would be where the delivery vehicles parked while being unloaded. At this time of day, it was empty—except for one thing. Standing in the courtyard, a bit off to one side so as not to block the loading dock, there was a box.
A very large box.
Nora, who was good at eyeballing that kind of thing, would have guessed it to be about 10 feet square and a little more than twice as long. Really quite a sizeable box indeed.
It was made of grey fiberplast board, just like the boxes stuff came from Rubicon in, but the only obvious branding appeared to be that of the carrier that had handled it, O'Reilly Parcel Service. Apart from that, it was emblazoned with various and sundry boilerplate package directions, all of relatively commonplace types apart from their size. ↑↑ THIS END UP ↑↑. USE NO HOOKS. DO NOT CRUSH. And, in very large red letters, FRAGÎLÉ.
"There you go," said the mailroom attendant, gesturing to the giant box. "Between you and me, I don't know how fragile it can really be, given that it weighs 15 tons." Then, deadpan, he went on, "Do you need a hand getting it up to your room?"
"Oh... my," said Miho, stepping slowly toward the box. "Are... are you sure this is for me? There isn't some mistake...?"
Chuck shook his head. "Not if you're Miho Nishizumi from Class 2-2," he said, pointing. Miho stepped closer and saw that there was an airbill on the box, sealed in a plastic envelope glued to its side, just like on a normal parcel, and it was indeed addressed to
STUDENT BOX 4501
DEEDLIT SATORI MANDEVILLE MEMORIAL INSTITUTE
CENTAURI SECTOR 4492
"Wow," said Yukari as the other four all gathered around her. "What the heck is it?"
"I have no idea," Miho replied, not taking her astonished gaze off the box.
By the time the five of them had worked out a plan for tackling the box, Chuck had returned to his post, and word had spread around campus that someone had received a truly monumental package. A fairly decent-size crowd had gathered a discreet distance away, out by the end of the loading dock driveway. While Hana politely but firmly kept them over there and Saori "supervised", Miho and Yukari worked their way up the side seams on one of the box's narrow ends with borrowed duraplast cutters, while up on top, Nora did the same along that end's seam up there.
"OK, that oughta do it," Nora said, as Miho stood on tiptoes to train her cutter's beam on the last few inches of the seam on her side, and Yukari did the same on the other. "Once I take out these last few inches in the middle here, this end ought to just... flop down," she said, making an unfolding gesture with her free hand.
"Just like the ramp on a Higgins boat," said Yukari cheerfully.
"Uh... yeah," Nora agreed, nodding. "Just like that. OK, you ready? Stand back if you don't want a hundred square feet of duraplast falling on your head... here we go!"
Somewhat to Nora's surprise, and even more so to that of the onlookers at ground level, the box end didn't just flop open when she completed the cut; in fact it sprang open, swinging down onto the concrete with a loud SLAP, as the pressure of the box's contents behind it shoved it out of the way. To cries and oohs from the crowd, a thick wave of something white and rustly surged out behind it, rolling like a moderate surf across the ground and spreading out to either side to engulf Miho and Yukari halfway up to their knees.
"What the hell?" Nora wondered, scratching her head.
Yukari bent down and picked up a piece of the material that had just buried her shoes, then straightened and held it up, declaring, "Packing peanuts!"
"OK... wasn't expecting that," Nora admitted. "So what's inside?"
Miho didn't respond; she was just standing there, gazing into the open end of the box with a look of even blanker astonishment than she'd been giving it when it was closed. Hana couldn't see into the box from where she was, and Saori looked as stunned as Miho, so it fell to Yukari to answer. Wading through the packing peanuts, she got out her multicomm and switched its camera strobe to flashlight mode, shining it into the darkness within the container.
"Oh... oh wow," she said.
"What is it?" Nora asked from up top. "Can you see anything?"
"Yes," Yukari replied, and then, in a rapturous voice, "Wonderful things."
An hour of hard, sweaty work later, the five of them had the box completely broken down and in the recycling, the actual ton of packing peanuts ditto, and Yukari's wonderful things laid out on the concrete like they were planning to shoot a promotional poster. Saori, ever the organizer, had her glasses on and the retrieved bill of lading in her hand, turned to the detailed manifest on Page 3. While Yukari excitedly identified the items, Saori ticked each one off the manifest with a pencil.
Without the running explanation, Saori, who was not conversant with these things, wouldn't have known what most of the objects retrieved from the box were. The largest of them, though, was obvious not just to her, but to all the onlookers. They might not have known what specific type it was, but even the rankest layperson among them could not fail to know that it was a tank.
Nora stepped up beside Miho, mopping sweat from her forehead with the back of one arm, and quipped, "And it's not even your birthday." Receiving no answer, she turned to look and saw that Miho was staring at the tank, her eyes filling with tears.
Aw, crap, thought Nora, her heart sinking. She knew that, like herself, her suitemate had retired from competitive Armorsport, where Miho's had until recently been a well-known name. What she didn't know, at least not exactly, was why. She could guess, based on certain things she'd read online and heard through the grapevine (insofar as she was still connected to the latter), but she didn't know; Miho hadn't offered that intelligence, and Nora hadn't felt it was her place to pry.
She didn't do so now, either; instead, leaning closer, she just said quietly, "You OK? I'll cover for you if you have to bail."
Miho blinked hard, clearing her eyes, and shook her head. "No," she said. "I'm OK. I'm not even sure why I'm..." She wiped her face with her sleeve, then pulled herself together, repeating, "I'm OK."
"All right, everybody, show's over," came a raised voice from the other end of the loading area. Nora turned her head and saw two unfamiliar figures approaching, evidently having just come around the Union from the Common side: a boy and a girl, both apparently human, she tallish and sporting a heavy fall of hair in a remarkable shade of turquoise, he grim-faced and scarred in ways that high school-age boys customarily were not.
The girl was evidently something of an authority figure, or possibly it was just that she carried herself with such authority that people did what she told them regardless. Either way, she dispersed the crowd handily, sending the gawking students packing with admonitions that they find some more worthwhile use for their time.
With that task taken care of, she crossed to the little group that remained and said in a friendly but ever-so-slightly weary sort of way, "So! Once again rumors of weird stuff happening on campus turn out to be true." Then, as an aside to her companion, she added with a wry smile, "And this time you didn't have anything to do with it!"
"It had to happen sooner or later, Miss Chidori," the boy replied stolidly.
"Miss Chidori" chuckled at that, then turned her attention back to the group. "Oh, hey, Saori. Hana. Surprised to find you two to be mixed up in something like this. Yukari, not so much," she admitted.
"You're mean, Kaname," said Yukari, but with a smile.
"I don't think I've met you two; you must be our new transfers on Baxter 2? I'm Kaname Sterling, I'm the RA for Hamlin 4. And I seem to have been elected Weird Stuff Officer for the Student Council at some point."
"Gotta come with the territory in your family, right?" Nora said with a grin. "Nora Southwell Ozaki. I think we met once when I was like four? Your mom's parents know mine."
Kaname nodded, smiling in recognition of the name. "Right, I heard you were coming here. You're looking well."
"They had the technology," said Nora easily, then breezed past it and went on, "Before you reach the obvious conclusion, though, this mail call wasn't for me."
"Um... yes," said Miho, looking a little awkward. "I'm, er... Miho Nishizumi. This... this seems to be mine. But I have no idea who sent it or why!" she blurted, her face going red with embarrassment. Bowing deeply, she went on in a rush, "I'm really sorry about all the commotion!"
"Ah, don't sweat it," Kaname told her. "We get crazier stuff than this around here all the time. Although," she added with a judicious look at the tank, "it's usually a little smaller." Turning to the boy who'd come with her, she said, "Sergeant—oh, sorry, how rude was that? This is Sōsuke."
"Sōsuke Sagara, Student Council Sergeant-at-Arms, Special Constable for Campus Extraordinary Security Matters," said Sōsuke. Then, slightly to Kaname's surprise and considerably to both Nora's and Miho's, he saluted the two crisply and went on with the same stone-faced sincerity, "It's an honor to meet you both."
"Um... and you?" Miho managed, offering another bow and a slightly wan smile.
"Oh, I heard of you," Nora said, snapping her fingers. "You're Drop Pod Boy, right? Yukari told me about you. Sorry I missed the show."
"Yeah, well, I'm sure you can see it on gTube," said Kaname, facepalming. "Anyway. Sergeant, what's your professional assessment of this here?" she went on, gesturing to the tank.
Sōsuke considered the vehicle for a few moments, a thoughtful frown on his face; then, turning back to Kaname, he admitted as though it caused him mild physical pain, "It's obviously a light tank, but I confess I'm not familiar with the type."
Yukari looked up from the contents of the toolbox that had come along with the tank, which she was sorting for inventory. "It's a—" she began, but before she could continue, Kaname had interrupted, her voice a strange, almost mechanical monotone:
"Panzerkampfwagen II Ausführung L 'Luchs', Sonderkraftfahrzeug 123, project development code VK 13.03. Alternately designated Panzerspähwagen II. Four-man scout/reconnaissance version of the 1936 Panzer II, adopted in 1943; it was the last variant of Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg's Panzer II to see even limited mass-production, and represented a near-complete redesign of the vehicle."
While her small audience stared in astonishment, Kaname walked around the tank, pointing out various features, and continued in the same weird tone, "Designed for improved survivability and enhanced cross-country mobility, it was larger and more heavily armored than a standard Panzer II, and the only variant to be fitted with Schachtellaufwerk overlapping road wheels in a 'slack track' configuration. It had a 180-horsepower gasoline engine mated to a six-speed gearbox; maximum road speed, 37 miles per hour. All-up weight around 13 tons. Main armament was Rheinmetall-Borsig's improved KwK 38 version of the Mauser Kampfwagenkanone 30 L/55 two-centimeter autocannon, which was used on all the standard Panzer II models."
Pausing at the front of the tank, she folded her arms and summarized flatly, "As an upgrade to an outdated design, it was obsolescent when it was introduced; only about a hundred originals were made before the project was canceled in 1944 to prioritize newer, heavier vehicles like the Panther and Tiger tanks."
There was a moment's startled silence.
"... Yeah," said Yukari slowly. "That."
Kaname blinked, shaking herself. "Uh," she said, as if awakened suddenly, and then, reddening, "Sorry. Still getting the hang of that. If you can believe it, that was the short version," she added ruefully.
"Well, I'm impressed," Nora said. "You even knew its SdKfz number. Hell, I don't even memorize SdKfz numbers."
"I do," Yukari mumbled.
Kaname sighed, fingertips to forehead. "Remind me to track down whichever of my relatives has memorized every issue of Armor magazine and smack them."
"Thank you, Miss Chidori," said Sōsuke, nodding gravely. "An excellent summary." She shot him a skeptical look, as though unconvinced of his compliment's sincerity, but he missed or ignored it entirely and went on,"Having heard that, and assuming it hasn't been modified with any modern offensive or defensive technologies, I wouldn't classify this vehicle as a substantial threat." Turning to make sudden eye contact with Miho, he asked, "Are the weapons operational?"
"I—I really have no idea," she squeaked, quailing slightly under the intensity of his gaze. He seemed not to notice that he'd intimidated her, leaving her with the curious impression that he hadn't intended to do so, as he took her answer at face value and turned back to the tank.
"There's no ammunition, anyway," Saori supplied, checking down the package manifest. "Or fuel, for that matter."
"And you seriously don't know who sent you this or why?" Kaname asked her.
"I don't," Miho insisted, shaking her head. "I mean... there are plenty of people back home who know I used to be a sensha-dōka," she admitted, "but most of them don't have the means to do something like this, and the ones who do... wouldn't bother," she finished, looking a bit awkward and downcast at the same time.
"Hmm." Kaname considered the tank for a little while longer, then shrugged. "Welp, it's above my pay grade. Sōsuke and I will report to the Council, but this one's probably going to have to get run by the actual, y'know... adults," she added with another wry smile. "Still, given everything else we've got going on around here... I mean, it's not even the first tank we have on this campus. And then there's the Arm Slaves."
"And the Veritech motorcycle," Sōsuke put in.
"And the Veritech motorcycle," Kaname agreed. "Point is, if you want to keep it and you can find someplace to stash it, it probably won't be a problem."
With that, she and Sōsuke took their leave, heading off to make their reports to the relevant authorities. Just before turning the corner and disappearing around the side of the Union, Kaname paused, turned back, and called, "Oh yeah—in the meantime, I think Plant Services would appreciate it if you could get it out of the Union loading dock..."
"OK, will do," replied Hana, who was closest. Bowing, she thanked them for coming as if they'd been dinner guests, while the others all waved and called farewells.
Once they'd gone, the five looked at each other, then turned to consider the Luchs and the large array of spare parts and equipment laid out around it.
"... Now how are we going to do that?" Hana wondered.
"Hang on, let me make a call," said Saori, brightening. Sticking her pencil behind her ear, she got out her multicomm and coded it. "Hi! Hoshino? Saori Takebe here. Are you busy? Great. Can you guys please bring your fuel truck around back of the Union? Oh, you'll see. No, you'll like it, I promise. Great. See you in a few!" She closed the unit and beamed at the others. "Problem solved!"
"You are truly a wonder of the age, Saori," said Hana sincerely.
"I try," Saori replied.
"Come to think of it, Nishizumi-dono, if Mecha Engineering won't let you put your tank with the other one, I bet the Motor Club would let you keep it in their clubhouse, at least for the short term," Yukari said. "They've got a lot of room they're not using."
"Please don't call me that," Miho said, still looking mildly flustered.
"Sorry," said Yukari. "I think it's because of the tank."
A few moments later, the honk of a horn announced the arrival of a tanker truck, decked out in the colorful livery of the DSM Motor Club. This had a crew of two, a pair of tanned and cheerful girls in orange coveralls that made them look slightly as if they had just escaped from the county jail, one of whom jumped down from the cab almost before the driver had brought the vehicle to a complete halt.
"Hey there!" she said. "Somebody call for a fuel delivery? Oh wow, is that a real tank?"
Saori jumped in, instantly in social-engineer mode, and made introductions all around. The truck's driver, Hoshino, and passenger, Suzuki, made appreciative noises about the tank, then set about refueling it, waving aside Miho's stammering offers of payment with easy assurances that the Motor Club's budget could handle it.
While the Luchs was drinking its fill, Saori said, "I have another little favor to ask you guys." She explained about the administrative situation, then put her hands together and asked, "In the meantime, do you think Miporin could stash this stuff in your clubhouse for a while? Please?"
Hoshino and Suzuki shared a look; then Hoshino turned to Saori and said, "Wellllll, we're not technically supposed to let anyone use the clubhouse who isn't a club member..." At Saori and Miho's crestfallen looks, she grinned and added, "But if I made you join, that would be blackmail recruiting, so what the heck, sure." Pulling out her multicomm, she went on, "Let me get Tsuchiya out here with the flatbed..."
The sun was dipping toward the hills west of campus, the loading dock area long since in the chilly shadow of the Union, when the Motor Club's tanker and flatbed departed, the latter loaded with all of the stuff from the box that hadn't been the actual tank. In their wake, the five friends stood, sweaty and disheveled again from the work of helping the Motor Club girls load everything up, and blinked around at each other—suddenly at a loss after all the unexpected action of the last couple of hours.
The bemused silence was broken by the grumbling of a stomach.
"We missed dinner," said Saori, a trifle bleakly.
"Yup," Nora agreed.
"I'm really sorry," said Miho, bowing. "I've put you guys to a lot of trouble today."
"Oh, don't worry about that," said Hana. "This has been so much more interesting than anything else I might have done this afternoon," she added with a slightly mischievous smile.
"Seriously, this was awesome," Yukari agreed, nodding vigorously.
"But we did miss dinner," Hana said.
"It's true," Saori agreed.
"Well, heck, I'd say this qualifies as a special occasion," Nora said. "What do you say we head into town and get some pizza?"
"I'm too tired to walk all that way," Saori protested.
"Who said anything about walking?" Nora wondered, stepping around her to lean against the Luchs's prow. "We've got a tank."
For a beat, everyone looked around at everyone else.
"... Yeah," they said, and the group broke to climb aboard.
"Who's driving?" Hana wondered.
"I can, but I'm not very good at it," Miho admitted.
"I got it," Nora said.
Halfway up onto the tank, Yukari paused and glanced at Nora, mild alarm in her eyes. So, too, did Miho, who didn't know as much of the story as Yukari, but had enough of the background to know why she was taken aback. Both knew that Nora had been seriously hurt in an Armorsport incident the year before, and that her best friend—who had been their tank's driver—was killed. As far as either girl knew, their friend hadn't been inside a tank in all the 14 months since that happened, and certainly never in the driver's position. How would she react? Could she handle coming that close to what had to be horrible memories?
If pressed, Nora would have had to admit she didn't really know either; but she did know that there was only one way to find out. And so, steeling herself inwardly, she hoicked herself up onto the hull, opened up the driver's hatch, and slithered down into the seat. She did it a little awkwardly—she wasn't very familiar with the Panzer II's specific layout—but without any great problem, and once in place, she took a moment to familiarize herself with the controls and found nothing too unexpected.
And as for the worry at the back of her head, and rather closer to the front of Miho's and Yukari's... nothing happened. No flashbacks, no surge of terror, no overwhelming wave of grief. If anything, it felt like putting back a missing piece, even in this unfamiliar station of this unfamiliar tank. The enclosing armor, the sweet clean smell of iron and paint, it was all... comforting. There was sadness, yes, there always was when she thought of Nicki; but this had been the kind of place Nicki loved best, the place she'd often called her office. Nora wasn't a terribly spiritual person, but she almost would have said she felt her dead friend's presence here.
In her mind's eye, Nora could see her, turning around to look back over her shoulder from the equivalent station in their old Napoleon, giving Nora that sardonic grin as she climbed back down into the turret from an expedition topside.
Honey, I'm home, Nora would always say.
Welcome back, dear, Nicki would always reply, and then, facing forward, Don't stand on the upholstery. Philistine.
Nora chuckled, flicked one single tear away, and set about figuring out how to start the engine.
Meanwhile, behind her, everyone else was sorting out where to sit. The Luchs was technically a four-seater, and a cramped one at that, but it was also designed for larger crew members than it currently had. With hatches open and some creative invention of new seating surfaces, it didn't take too long for everyone to get squared away.
From the radio operator's seat, Miho leaned in close to Nora and murmured, inaudible to the others, "Are you all right?"
"Yep," Nora replied. "Never better. How 'bout you?"
Miho glanced around her, taking it all in for a moment. "Yes... yes, I think so," she concluded, then smiled. "It's like coming home."
"I was just thinking the exact same thing," Nora said. Then, raising her voice, she called, "Everybody set back there? Then we're off!"
The tank lurched, nearly stalling, as Nora hunted noisily for first gear. "Whoops! Whoa there! Grind 'em 'til you find 'em, Nora. Sorry about that," she said, with a sheepish smile for Miho. "Been a while since I drove one of these vintage jobs. Hang on back there!"
There were a couple more lurches and grinds, but by the time she got it out to the road, she'd gotten the hang of it, and it was with a much smoother clutch-and-pivot that she swung them out onto Highway 1. "That's more like it! OK! Next stop, Port Jeradar!"
DSM Panic! The Panzermädchen Files
File 02: "Mail Call"
a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer and James Rinehart
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2018 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited