HQ:A - Chapter 11
In this (yet unnamed) chapter we meet an old acquaintance who isn't as dead as he was thought to be ... Meanwhile, Crowley has taken it upon himself to bring back Sky, but the endeavour seems hopeless ... And what's going on at the Tanking League's camp anyway?

The dim light inside the bar was flickering ever so slightly. It wasn’t well attended — it never was. Maybe in the past, before the territory it was located in had been conquered. Now, there simply weren’t many tanks left to visit it. There was in fact only one guest at the moment; the Jagdpanther was brooding over a can of high octane fuel at the counter. His prominent white camouflage paint had seen better days - the rest of him as well. On top of the chipped and patchy paint, remains of what used to be a pale red clan emblem were visible. It had been painted over with a certain blood red symbol. A worn-out camo net — which at this point only served a sentimental purpose anymore — clung to his flanks.

There was quiet swing music coming from a stuttering jukebox, which was the only noise inside the cramped room beside the scraping of tables against the ground. The barkeeper had started moving them around after she had given up on trying to involve her guest — who was silent as a grave — in a conversation. She had already broken two of the tables in the process. In her defence, they were in a similar condition as her guest. Not that it mattered much. Even the reduced number of tables would not be completely occupied anytime soon.

The bar’s gate suddenly opened, and the bright daylight coming from outside made the Jagdpanther squint with displeasure as he threw an incurious look through his backwards facing optics. Dust was floating through the illuminated air. He could only make out a dark silhouette inside the door frame at first, but as the new guest entered the bar, it turned out to be a FCM 50t. Right after it, a T30 entered as well. Both of them were wearing the same insignia as the Jagdpanther. They must have had come to get lunch. The gate closed behind them. The Jagdpanther focused on his drink again. The two other guests made their way to one of the tables while chatting casually, and the barkeeper immediately drove up to them to ask them what they wanted to drink. As soon as they had ordered, the FCM 50t and the T30 continued their conversation.

They were talking so loudly that it was hard to ignore them. The FCM 50t was telling the T30 about a recent battle that he had fought only a few kilometres south of their current location, and both of them were enjoying the report greatly, judging by their occasional laughter and cheerful voices.

“It was almost too easy, really,” the FCM 50t said with a triumphant grin in his voice. “I thought their plane would be a problem, but …” He paused to chuckle. “It just fled right away!”

At the mention of a plane, the Jagdpanther’s cannon perked up. He threw another look behind himself. The barkeeper was serving two cans to the guests right then, and they started slurping the fuel immediately.

“Really?” the T30 asked. “Planes, go figure!”

Planes were not a common sight with the free teams. Before he had joined his new clan, the Jagdpanther had only seen very few of them in his whole life. In fact, only two. The first one they had found dead in the mountains. The second one had belonged to a certain team. But could it really be …? He was listening closely now as the FCM 50t went on.

“Not even their Leopard 1 could do anything. The heavies were quite tough, though,” he said with a shrug. “That King Tiger’s aim was something else. Not to mention the VK, had to take that one out myself. But the strange thing was, they had all these high tiers, but then on the other hand, they had low tiers also.”

“Low tiers?” the T30 asked with an audibly raised optic ridge. “Like, tier 7 and such?”

“Nah,” the FCM 50t replied. “I mean Shermans, and even a Wespe. A Sturmpanzer also.”

“Huh. That’s odd,” the T30 said.

Now there was no doubt anymore. The team exactly fit the description of the one the Jagdpanther had been looking for. He almost knocked over his fuel can as he spun around hastily and hurried over to the table the two other tanks were parked at. They paused their conversation to look at the stranger who had suddenly approached them.

“Did you kill them?!” the Jagdpanther asked the FCM 50t.

His clan mates stared at him.

“Uh … What?” the addressed tank replied eventually.

“The team you fought! Did you kill them all?!”

The FCM 50t and the T30 shared a brief look. They probably weren’t quite sure what to think of this stranger. They probably thought him frantic. They weren’t entirely wrong.

“No … They ran away,” the FCM 50t said slowly.

“Where to?” the Jagdpanther continued the interrogation.

“Heck if I know —” the FCM 50t replied, and was obviously getting irritated now. He paused with a frown, and went on in an almost hostile tone. “Why do you want to know anyway? Who are you?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the Jagdpanther said and already turned towards the door. The barkeeper shouted a question after him, asking if he wasn’t going to finish his drink, but he didn’t pay any attention to it as he stormed out of the bar while the other tanks looked on with bewilderment.

Outside, the Jagdpanther’s unit was already waiting for him. They were gathered in a group along the shore of the pond near the building, standing close together despite the abundance of open space between the adjacent former vineyards. Many more tanks had joined them as the other clansmen had ordered them to wait here as well, but the tank destroyer didn’t have any trouble distinguishing his tanks from the others. Their lowered cannons raised as he gave them the order to wake up and follow him. He drove ahead of the unit, choosing a southward direction.

The Jagdpanther’s engine turned fast with excitement as he accelerated, leaving the slower tanks of his unit behind him for now. They would catch up. It wasn’t of any concern to him right then. All he could think about was the showdown that was going to happen as soon as he found the tanks that were responsible for his life taking a turn for the worse. Now that he finally had this hint of their possible whereabouts, he knew where to continue his search. He had a purpose again. No more watching himself rusting away in the reserves. No more merely cleaning up after his new clan mates. No more wasting time in rundown bars.

All of that was now over. After all these months, he would finally hunt again. And he was going to settle this score, once and for all.

***

Being a Sherman Jumbo had its perks. Even if he wasn’t invulnerable, Crowley’s armour could withstand hits decently, especially the turret. His cannon did the job. But being a Sherman Jumbo also had its downsides. The biggest one at the moment was that — unlike many of his kin — Crowley was slow. Not as slow as many heavy tanks, but also not fast enough to catch up to Sky. Being a Leopard 1 instead for example, that would have been convenient right then. Or even knowing one who could help him with his endeavour. That would have been enough. But the only Leopard 1 wide and far that had passed him by a little while ago had been anything but helpful. The only complaisance had been a vague description of Sky’s supposed whereabouts.

Instead of helping him bring Sky back, Pepper had told him to return to the base. In response to Crowley’s “Make me”, his team mate had only wearily shaken his cannon and raced off. Of course the Leopard wasn’t entirely wrong when advising Crowley to go back — this far away from his team mates, the only thing he’d achieve if he ran into someone would probably be being kidnapped or killed. 

On top of that, he didn’t even know if he was getting closer to Sky at all or if she was going too fast and too far. She wasn’t replying to Crowley’s attempts of reaching her on the radio, which either meant she was out of range, or that she simply didn’t want to. It had led to this bizarre situation where he had started rambling to her through her private radio frequency, with dwindling hope of her ever responding to what he had to say. He had started out by just asking her repeatedly to come back and telling her that he was sure the team would take her back. But as that had had no effect, he had begun to freely speak his mind — saying all the things he hadn’t had the chance to tell her in person.

Someone who was more eloquent maybe would have gotten to the point by now, but the Jumbo couldn’t even tell if he was making things worse or if his words would eventually convince Sky to at least reply. He just kept talking anyway.

“I’m not gonna lie to you,” he went on. “You know I’m not a tank who lies or sugarcoats things. So, I’m gonna be honest with you. I know you probably don’t wanna hear this. But I think you know too that it’s the truth. They’re wrong about a lot of things, but they were right when they said you couldn’t lead this team.”

He paused thoughtfully, still waiting for any sort of reply. As he should have known however, none came. He continued his monologue, explaining the point he was trying to get across better.

“You’re a strong tank. You wouldn’t be alive if you weren’t. But a leader … Not right now, just the same as I wouldn’t be. It’s not that they’re an ungrateful bunch. It’s not that you’re a bad person. Maybe you’ll even be a leader again one day, but today isn’t the day. Neither tomorrow — You know what I mean.”

Climbing yet another one of the hills, Crowley stopped to let his optics wander. There was still no sight of anyone; the sun was already rising to its peak. He thought about what his next words could be.

“They were fed up,” he eventually said. “I don’t think it was entirely your fault. Someone had to put their neck on the line. Someone had to go. Hadn’t it been you, it would’ve been someone else. It’s a bad time to be the leader, I think. I mean, you can’t tell me you enjoyed the job. I only saw you frown lately.

Maybe the heavies can pull it off. Maybe they’ll mess up. Maybe they’ll get chased away like you in the end. It’s how people are, I guess. You’re their hero until you’re not.”

Crowley’s cannon sank. Perhaps his speech really was pointless. If he hadn’t managed to change Sky’s mind by now — implying she could even hear him — he probably wouldn’t even if he tried for hours while driving around aimlessly. He started one last attempt nevertheless.

“See, I think you’ll be a great leader if you really want it, one day. But here’s the thing. You still gotta learn a lot … a lot of things, and I don’t know most of these things either. There’s a reason why I’m no leader, after all! But I know one thing. A good leader knows what’s best for their team, and sometimes that means passing on the responsibility.”

There was still no answer. Crowley sighed.

“Ah … Well,” he said quietly. It was time to go back. His brother was probably worried sick for him already, and the thought of his new leaders not being amused by Crowley leaving without permission anyway was only further encouragement to be back as soon as possible. Maybe, if he hurried, his punishment wouldn’t be as severe.

Before turning around fully, he threw one last look at the hills ahead, not expecting to see anyone. But he was wrong. He squinted as he noticed something appearing on the horizon. Two silhouettes became visible on one of the hill crests. Crowley immediately loaded his cannon, but didn’t shoot yet, which would have revealed his position. Instead, he looked through his sights, trying to identify whatever he was seeing.

As he got a clear view, the tension he had felt for a moment dissipated. He knew these tanks. He knew them well.

“Sky!” he shouted and watched the Pershing’s turret turn towards him. The Wespe by her side started waving.

Crowley turned to his radio again.

“You came back,” he said, his voice full of relief.

«Looks like it,» Sky replied. Crowley watched his team mates start driving towards him. He cleared his vents before he went on.

“So, I assume you heard everything I said …”

«I did. Thought you’d never stop whining,» Sky said with a smirk in her tone.

Crowley blinked and rose on his tracks indignantly, but in the end couldn’t help but smile.

“It’s good to have you back,” he said.

***

Arty was shaking like a leaf. Her tracks were so tense that she was afraid they’d snap any moment. She could feel her racing engine up to her fuel intake. If she had been able to run, she would have. But that wasn’t an option right then. She couldn’t do anything but wait, straining to hear anything other than her own engine and staring straight ahead.

I never should have agreed to this,’ she thought frantically. 

The hills were blocking her sights, which forced her to use her regular optics. That meant she was basically blind. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big problem. There was almost always someone who would spot what she couldn’t. And even if that went wrong, someone would come to take care of whoever sneaked past them. The rest was good luck, which seemed to be in her favour always. But not this time. This time, Arty was completely on her own. It made her aware like never before just how dependent on her team she really was.

She inched backwards, further behind the hill she was hiding behind, but knew that once the heavy tank came around the bend, she would still be exposed immediately. She’d have a couple of moments at best before she would be noticed and the other tank would have turned his turret towards her. Or, in the worse case, his cannon would already be pointed at her the moment he appeared, if he had anticipated her position.

Stay calm,’ she silently told herself. ‘Remember what Eject told you. Remember, god dammit!

It achieved nothing. Her mind was blank of any advice. Any moment now, it would happen. The heavy tank would find her. When she had still been able to see him in her artillery sights, she had messed up — had failed to hit him. Not once, but twice. Surely, he had seen the shell tracers.

But instead of anything happening, the minutes passed by. If he was coming for her, why did it take so long? He had been close when he had disappeared from her view. Was he waiting for her to completely lose her nerve? If that was the case, he was doing a very good job.

A sudden thought crossed her mind: What if he’d show up behind her? Was that the reason it took so much time for him to reach her? Because he had to go around the other side of the hill? Arty shuffled on her tracks anxiously, unable to decide which direction she should face. Her aim became unfocused as she threw a hectic look behind her. Turning around halfway, she changed her mind in the next moment and turned back into her original direction. 

She looked ahead again.

Her view ports grew wide as something had appeared in her field of view, blocking it completely. For a moment, all she saw was wheels and the lower part of a massive, dark olive hull.

Arty looked up, stared down the cannon barrel of the heavy tank that was suddenly towering before her. Before she could even remember that she possessed a cannon as well that she should have been using right then, the other tank fired.


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