The Center of Gravity (75.3)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

A photograph-like map of Solstice and its surroundings appeared, projected onto the wall behind the podium. This one had dozens of markings each of which had numbers associated with them. Cathrin Habich went over what the numbers meant, her voice calm, clear, professional. Field Marshal Haus watched the reactions from the crowd. Particularly, from McConnell and Kulbert, representatives for the Federation air force.

“Solstice City,” Cathrin began, her glossy red lips moving with subtlety and elegance, “represents perhaps the most well defended airspace in the world. Thousands of its cannons are dual-purpose 76mm guns, but a significant amount of them are dedicated rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns like the 37mm gun pictured here.” She turned the slide on the projector through a wire control, raising her hand and snapping her fingers on the little button box. Her showmanship was practiced and natural. She made no change in expression or tone as she did any little thing. “This weapon has, so far in the war, been singularly responsible for the destruction of scores of our dive bombers. In the hands of an organized defense like the one in Solstice, they may yet account for hundreds more.”

There was some scoffing from the rugged men in the crowd. Some of them could not believe that any scratch had been made in their pristine army by the Ayvartans at all.

Even the slides with official casualty and death tolls seemed not to move them at all.

Haus found it keenly necessary for everyone to understand that the Ayvartans were both formidable but defeatable. It was the contradictory nature of all of the Federation’s enemies. On the one hand, they had to be subhuman degenerates worthy of the punishment meted out by the higher order civilization represented by Nocht. On the other hand they had to be human also, formidable, powerful, fearful and worthy of respect. Otherwise they could not be fought properly, could not be bargained with and manipulated, and ultimately, could not be rehabilitated to civilization upon defeat.

Few men of the Federation seemed to have the appropriate amount of respect and hatred in them. Haus felt he himself had things correct. Von Drachen, who had been thrown out of the room, fell too closely to sympathy. Men like Wolff and McConnell dehumanized them too much and therefore could be susceptible to arrogance in dealing with them.

This could clearly not be dealt with through education.

Ultimately it would have to be experienced and endured.

“In any projected siege of Solstice, the most devastating weapon Ayvarta will turn against us are the cannons know collectively as ‘the Prajna.'” Cathrin continued, and behind her the projector image turned into grainy photograph of a complex circling three massive black structures. “These are three 800 mm super-heavy fortress guns. A shell detonation from the Prajna can rip the turrets off any tanks within a 20 meter radius, and make a 10 meter deep hole in the ground. Each gun is heavily maintained, with a rotation of several available barrels, and several thousand dedicated artillery personnel operate and maintain each weapon. Solstice can have the Prajna turned fully within an hour, or faster, and once an area is sited, all three guns can fire every 15 minutes. Because of its massive destructive power, we have a special map and special terms for its range.”

Cathrin switched to the next slide. There were old photographs of the guns and their massive railway-style turntables, as well as photos of the guns being swarmed over by men and women working on them. Special artillery cranes with multiple arms were shown lifting massive shells into gantries that then led the shells into the enormous breeches of the Prajna guns. Then, a map of Solstice, that was overlayed with a circle depicting the maximum range of the Prajna, 50 kilometers from its station. This area was labeled the Desolation of the Prajna. However, there was a smaller darker circle inside it.

“Theoretically, there is a minimum distance safe zone close to Solstice. It is essentially in the shadow of the walls, however, and tactically quite useless to us outside a close siege.”

Near the front of the small crowd, General Dreschner raised his hand with a look of skepticism in his eyes. “This seems like an anti-fortress style weapon, and useless against fast moving forces. I’m not convinced it can be tactically relevant to the defenders.”

“Any gun is tactically irrelevant by itself.” Haus responded. “Any piece of artillery is vulnerable against fast-moving forces and could potentially miss its mark. However, once a stiff Ayvartan defense halts our movements, we will become stationary targets.”

It was not even the conventional damage from the gun that concerned Haus. He remembered the “shell shock” of veterans from the great war against the Franks as they encountered comparatively tiny howitzers, 50 and 75 millimeters in shell diameter, firing in great number. He was concerned that such a massive attack on any Nochtish force would cause disarray, cowardice and desertion. Already some of the tank forces had experienced this. He had read accounts of the battle of Bada Aso, where tankers buttoned down when Madiha Nakar’s anti-tank artillery fired on them, suddenly anxious of any retaliation at all. Even when the smaller guns fired, that both Madiha Nakar and the Nochtish commanders knew would not hurt well-armored tanks like the Sentinel.

Clearly, at least one Ayvartan commander took psychology into account for her plans.

There was more to the meeting, but for Haus many of the salient points had already been made. Cathrin went over some slides of Ayvartan equipment they might meet, as well as the famous Ayvartan military officers. One underrrated individual was Madiha Nakar. Aside from Von Drachen nobody had seen this woman, nor heard much of her from before the war. After the founding of the Republic of Ayvartan by Mary Trueday, the cooperating Ayvartan officials from the various conquered local governments dug up all their records for Nochtish perusal. There was some folklore about Nakar, how she was a child soldier for the communists, how she was there in person to see the Emperor killed decades ago. They had an old photograph of her as a young officer cadet, long-haired, tall and skinny, almost passing as light-skinned in the old gray picture, with a fine-featured face that would have been pretty had its expression for the camera not been so grim.

She did not seem formidable. Apparently she had been some stripe of police woman before the war, arresting spies and traitors and turning over houses for hidden radios.

Regardless, she had been at Bada Aso, so she was one to watch. Just not obsessively.

After the meeting, the officers retreated into their cliques, tank men with tank men, air force with air force. A few of the more social officers might have been preparing their plans for the new year. There were prayers to attend, letters to family. Each new year could be the last; even in the Federation, this was the mentality toward the pall of the New Year. Grim resignation. Moreso for these men, stranded on this foreign land.

Haus was left alone with Cathrin, who was picking up the classified files from the projector and storing them into a combination-locked case. After watching the men, he turned to her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, smiling. She turned her head slightly, just enough for one of her eyes to catch a glance of him behind her.

“Meet me in about an hour in my office, will you dear?” Haus asked.

Cathrin nodded silently and with no change in expression returned to her work.

Before Haus could depart, however, a man walked in from outside and hailed him.

In the hand he waved there was a cardboard folder full of documents.

Haus recognized him as Air Commodore Robin McConnell. Young, spry and sleek, with blond hair and a smooth jaw, well-kept. He was easily handsome, casually, naturally, and not only because Luftlotte officers were barely ever in danger. After a point, many of them never even saw a forward air field again, and mainly concerned themselves with making higher order strategic and logistical decisions for their subordinates.

McConnell was in just such a position.

However, his beauty seemed nevertheless remarkable, attributable only to him.

Haus smiled at him and stretched out a hand to shake.

“I see one of the air force’s young geniuses is here with a proposition.” He said.

McConnell smiled back. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to get in touch, Marshal. I believe the Luftlotte has solutions for all of the problems you and the lovely frau Habich pointed out during our meeting. I have a plan to take a city from the air; the first one in history.”

Haus smirked, and internally he was grinning terribly.

“Habich, can you prepare a table for us?” McConnell asked.

Cathrin did not move a muscle for him.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself Robin, that’s my aide you are talking to.” Haus corrected him.

She looked to Haus for instructions and Haus nodded at her.

Then she went to fix a table for them to talk over.

This whole performance put McConnell in an obvious mood.

Once they finally convened their impromptu briefing, McConnell laid out his documents on the table. They included a review of air frames available on Ayvarta, current and potential air bases, the existence of the Task Force (a generic name representing the prototype weapons force of Wa Pruf) and its miraculous new air elements, and a map covered in spaghetti lines to and from Solstice and various other places.

After the Battle of Bada Aso, Nocht’s aircraft situation had become abysmal. Having underestimated the air defense capability of the city, and restricting themselves to mass daytime bombing by hordes of fast but poorly armored strike craft, they suffered the worst aerial losses the Federation had ever seen. In its wake, President Lehner pissed off the entire chain of command by requiring personal authorization for any more Air Operations of that nature. This meant Nocht performed almost no strategic bombing.

Because Nocht got all of its aircraft from overseas, and because the merchant marine was horribly overburdened, they spent almost all of the Aster’s Gloom, with limited air support on a tactical level. The Adjar-Tambwe front barely had any, and the Shaila-Dbagbo front stretched its remaining aircraft horribly thin and overworked them. Now the situation was improving again. Nocht now possessed heavy aircraft on Ayvarta for the first time, including hundreds of heavy escort fighters and dedicated bombers, and the number of light aircraft rose to 1000 examples of fighters and dive bombers.

Despite Lubon having armed forces on the continent now, no attempt was made to secure their aid. Not even McConnell’s plan accounted for them. Their air force was unreliable even when it was properly supplied. So that was no part of the solution.

Instead McConnell envisioned a strategy of purely Nochtish aerial terror.

“I call this ‘Big Wing’ bombing.” McConnell said. He had drawn up an example formation that contained several waves of dozens big bombers defended by many dozen fighter aircraft, attacking the same city from direct vectors, criss-crossing the air defense net at different intervals and overwhelming and confusing the air defenses. But he reasoned that the goal was not to inflict wanton devastation: it was to insure through numbers that any one bomber could put any one bomb on a factory, base, or other military target.

No matter what happened there would be mass civilian casualties, of course.

However, it was not considered important that Solstice survive the war.

McConnell knew this.

Mary Trueday had openly wanted the post-war capital of the Republic of Ayvarta to be in the agriculturally rich (and largely ethnically Umma) Shaila, not in the wastes of Solstice.

“It looks to me like the same thing you tried at Bada Aso.” Haus said.

“Light compositions look almost exactly the same.” Cathrin said.

At this the Air Commodore seemed offended by the comments of a simple aide.

“But the objective is different.” McConnell said. “Now that we have large bombers, we don’t have to be depend on lightweight fighter and dive bomber attacks to soften up our enemies, like we did at Bada Aso. We can destroy their war capacity and demoralize them with massive firepower the likes of which we simply couldn’t deploy at Bada Aso.”

“So you want us to launch a terror air campaign? What’s the objective other than spending munitions? What is this ‘one bomber’ who will get through, going to hit?”

Haus was skeptical. He would have to talk to Lehner personally about this and he truly did not want to bring any more of these fantasy air conquests to his eye. Without a direct goal, this would just look like setting a pyre in Solstice and burning money in the flames.

McConnell of course had an answer. He pulled out a copy of a slide Cathrin had shown during the presentation: the massive complex at the heart of Ayvarta’s military power.

“Armaments Hill.” McConnell said. “Across a week or two of bombing, we’ll split the Ayvartan air defenses. We’ll use diversionary attacks on targets on the edges of the city, tricking the Ayvartans into believing that we are after their precious defensive walls. This will open the ground for an all-out bombing run on the city center from three directions. We’ll take out Armaments Hill, and with it, the ability for Solstice to coordinate, supply and maintain the Prajna gun complex and the wall defenses.”

He pulled open a map of Ayvarta and plotted the courses of the three bombing attacks.

“I call it Rolling Thunder.” McConnell said, as he drew the lines.

One would fly over the central mountains and desert, starting in Dbagbo; the other would swing from Rangda and over North Ayvarta before turning inward to Solstice; the final attack had elements of the others, coming from Dbagbo but following the southern coast before swinging north toward Solstice in the center. All would be grievously fuel intensive and it would require absolutely perfect coordination and execution for the aircraft to start on a straight course but then alter their trajectory so sharply.

McConnell was quite right that this had never been done. It simply wasn’t done at all.

“We can even use the Mjolnir launch sites. There is one prepared.” McConnell said.

He became more excited with each new startling revelation of his master plan.

Haus shook his head. “I will consider this and we can make a formal presentation with Kulbert to the president in a few weeks time. But I will say that I am skeptical.”

There was for a moment nothing but silence, save the cycling of the air system.

McConnell was obviously shocked. He had a look of boyish frustration.

“That gives the Ayvartans the time to stiffen their defenses, and our ground offensive will have begun by then. I believe I can spare the lives of the infantry by destroying Solstice from the air, all I need is a week’s time to prepare starting right now.”

Haus almost rolled his eyes. McConnell pretended to have pure motives but ‘destroy Solstice’ said it all. McConnell was saving no lives: he was trying to achieve personal glory. A historic victory over a historic city conducted in the most uniquely historic way. Otherwise he would have talked to Kulbert about this too. Because he was talking to Haus, it meant he wanted to circumvent his own superiors so he would be put in charge. This was the sort of thing that was only possible in such a highly political army.

McConnell came from an influential family. He had a brother in the senate who as a protege of Lehner himself. Kulbert was just an old man who knew about warplanes.

And Haus was the grand Marshal with the President’s ear.

McConnell was playing rank games and Haus did not appreciate it.

“I’m afraid I can’t do more for you. I am a very busy man. Leave your plan here and I’ll review it when I can. It is ambitious, clearly, and I do respect your effort. We will talk.”

He waved him away.

McConnell stood there for a moment, stewing in his own anger.

He ultimately stopped staring between Cathrin and Haus to turn around and leave.

Having finished with him, Haus watched McConnell stroll off.

He let him get farther away and then turned to Cathrin.

“We’re still on, don’t forget.” He said cheekily.

Cathrin nodded and turned back to the table she now had to clean up.

Satisfied, Haus followed after McConnel had had enough space to vanish.

Outside was a long hallway with a smooth dark floor and smooth dark walls.

They were in an underground bunker, built in a hidden location for use by the regional government in case of an emergency evacuation of the councils. Ayvarta’s infrastructure in general ill suited the secrecy of the Oberkommando’s current meetings, so only this place was deemed suitable. There were few people in the halls other than stationed guards, and the few people walking had destinations in mind. Haus himself began to make his way one story up through a closely guarded staircase. He had to log himself and his destination at the staircase, and he was the Marshal in charge of Ayvarta!

Given the nature of some of the meetings here, Haus welcomed the security, and its impartiality for whom it targeted. Secret superweapons, new forms of energy, and other visions of the future were all being discussed with the Generals, allied politicians, and their most trusted and key staff. The end of the Solstice regime was being plotted here.

Haus meanwhile was headed to a meeting much less dire. In a small office with one table, perhaps once meant for interrogations, he found an older gentleman with a thick mustache and close-cropped hair, unremarkable save for his uniform. Like Haus’ own uniform, it was gray, but cut in Ayvartan fashion and with Ayvartan rank insignia. There was a symbol of a golden sword on its shoulder: the emblem of the Republic of Ayvarta’s VII corps, the “hydra killers.” This man was the first Republican general, Maraesh Jelani.

“Greetings General.” Haus said, taking a seat across from the man. He spoke in slightly tormented standard Ayvartan. He had been learning. He hoped he knew enough now.

Hujambo, Marshal.” Jelani replied, unfazed. “I hope I’m not being arrested.”

Haus laughed. “All the larger rooms are in use.”

“To what do I owe the pleasure then?” Jelani asked.

He spoke in a disinterested tone of voice. Jelani was a managerial man, brought out of retirement upon the birth of the Republic, not someone enthusiastic for battle. As far as Haus understood, there was some worry about old racial tensions with an Arjun princess taking over the old southern haunts of the Umma people and declaring it a new successor to the Empire. Republican democracy was declared as the first conciliation; and an Umma war hero to lead the new anti-communist armies was the second step.

Haus expected that in any battle, he himself would control even the Republic troops, but they all needed Jelani there to issue the orders and to act as a figurehead and example.

“How are the men?”

“Do you mean soldiers? We’ve raised about 30,000 troops so far.”

It was a constant note in Haus’ mind that Nocht referred to soldiers often as “the men,” and he had tried to say the same in Ayvartan. However, Ayvartans had a tradition of frontline fighting women, so just saying “the men” was like talking to someone about “the lads” you went drinking with. Jelani responded with “the troops” which in Ayvarta was the unisex collection of bodies that fought wars. While several officials had wanted to keep the new Republican Ayvartan army exclusive to men, Mary Trueday and Jelani had insisted that they needed to be able to field women, and they eventually got their way.

Language aside, when the communists pulled out, they evacuated a sizeable amount of civilians, mainly union workers, party members and students in state schools. Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo had massive populations and the refugees did not put a dent in those numbers, but there was something of a brain drain to deal with. Those left behind were not largely ideological people, but stubborn or withdrawn folk. They did not love the Republic as a beacon of anti-communism. They just let the world pass them by no matter who claimed to lead it. They lived only for themselves and their direct locality.

“Are they looking like a corps to you yet?” Haus asked.

“We’re all weary, but we will fight. I will lead them in the capacity I am required to.”

Such sterling enthusiasm for the coming conflict. He was sure his troops felt even less.

At any rate, this was enough introductory chatter for Haus.

Jelani was not needed as a figurehead right then. 

Haus had a different need for him.

“What do you know about Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked.

Jelani blinked. He averted his eyes. “That’s a name I had not heard in a long time.”

“But you have heard of it. I know you must have met her even.”

“Pray, Marshal, what more do you know of this tired old man’s memories?”

Why was he being evasive? He must have had some kind of fondness for her then.

Haus put aside those questions and gave him what he wanted.

“During the Civil War, you were a warlord in the South, but because you only acted for Umma independence and not as an explicit pro-Empire or anti-communist figure, you were allowed diplomacy instead of the sword. You did a tour in the war college in Solstice, because the communist party wanted to test your loyalty and have you in their grasp. You proved yourself useful and harmless and as the government mellowed out, you were allowed to leave. During that time, you trained Madiha Nakar, did you not?”

Maraesh Jelani coughed into the back of one of his fists. He breathed out harshly.

“You characterize our relationship too strongly.” Jelani said. “She was not my protege or anything; but yes, she was one of the many students who passed through my halls.”

“Right now, she’s handed us two terrible defeats. As an ally of the Federation, I had hoped you would divulge any information you know about her. Official records of her are very sparse. Ayvartan birth records from the Imperial period and Civil War period are a disaster, that much I understand. But despite spending significant time living in Dori Dobo, Bada Aso and other Southern locales, we have few recent documents for her.”

Jelani steepled his fingers and stared at the table. “She was always a favorite of Daksha Kansal, you know? I wouldn’t doubt she had official protection behind the scenes.”

“So you understand my plight.” Haus said. “I won’t demand it, but I hope you will volunteer some of your time and information. I’d like us to be partners in this.”

He meant the war effort as a whole and he hoped his language conveyed this.

Jelani seemed to take a moment to consider his words. Perhaps the language barrier between them really was that strong. But no, something told Haus that Jelani had fully understood him, he knew as soon as he saw Jelani begin to fidget on the table.

Finally, Jelani sighed and smiled to himself. “She’s a fool, she’s worthless. I don’t think you have the right girl, Marshal.” He seemed to reminisce about her, and spoke while staring past Haus at the walls. “Here’s what I know. She was my student for many years. At the college, Madiha had a few genius wargame results and did well on historical and philosophy tests. Her physical training was also impressive for an officer cadet. Good marks on athletics, shooting, hand to hand. However, she was clueless at Chess and other strategy games. Her tactical mind was unformed and inconsistent. She was moody; it was always off her official record but she was mentally ill. Clearly taking medications.”

Haus blinked. That was such an unsorted mass of random memories; it was only good to him for establishing that Jelani knew about Nakar. And that he was clearly fond of her.

“What about General Adjar Al-Haza? Did you know him?” Haus pressed him.

Jelani seemed to flinch at the name. “Now that is another name I never thought I would hear again. I will spare you my reminiscing of him: he was the one actually close to Madiha– to Nakar, for many years. She was his protege and aide for a time.”

“He was executed during your season of treasons.” Haus said. He grinned to himself. “Perhaps Nakar herself did the deed? She was a policewoman of some sort, correct?”

“Nakar became a spy hunter of some renown yes, but Al-Haza was investigated and put to death by others, not her. Whether she contributed is unknown to me. I do not know their relationship outside the bounds of my administration.” Jelani replied.

“Adjar Al-Haza was a bright star during the civil war. He was a reformer, who wanted to modernize the armies. It was in part his zeal for military expansion and buildup that prompted your old parliament to push back and clamor for limiting military power.”

“He was. He came up with numerous theories of war and mobilization.” Jelani said.

“Whether Madiha Nakar was a mediocre student of yours or not, do you think she may have become a powerful student of Al-Haza? None of your other generals defeated us.”

Jelani breathed deeply through his nose. He shook his head. “Back in the college we would host these war games using certain rules and settings, meant to test what our students would opt to do in different historical scenarios. Nakar hated these as she hated Chess. She would always complain about moving this or that unit here or there from its starting position. She chafed under the limitations imposed upon her. She would begin every game by retreating all of her units to some other location of her preference. She would waste time and make herself look foolish. She scored low on several games.”

Haus knew that Jelani was trying to under-sell Madiha Nakar as a threat to him, perhaps to protect her out of some old fondness for her childhood self. However, Haus’ eyes drew wide with the realization that they were not speaking of different Madiha Nakars, one a genius warrior and the other a failure of a student. Madiha Nakar had performed surprising retreats during both the battles of Bada Aso and Rangda, luring her enemy to her preferred ground. Under the rules of a board game perhaps Madiha Nakar looked petulant and unable to adapt; but in war time she had proven a vicious manipulator.

“Adjar Al-Haza would have fought Von Sturm, Von Drachen, Mansa and the Elves on their terms through superior fundamentals. He would have emphasized the attack. Speed of deployment, superior firepower, consistent supply, and equivalence in manpower were the tools he advocated. Madiha Nakar was no Adjar Al-Haza, and surely is not now. That she defeated Sturm, Mansa, and your Drachen, was just lady War’s dice falling her way.”

Haus smiled at him. “You are right. She is no Al-Haza. She may be his superior instead.”

Maraesh Jelani paused, his features blanching at Marshal Haus’ response.

“And furthermore: I wouldn’t count Von Drachen out of that match quite yet. After all, he was also a despicable pest at our Academy. Perhaps he will become a pest to match her.”

Haus stood from his chair, bid his guest farewell, and stepped briskly out of the room.

All the while he made a mental note to someday pit this Jelani against Nakar if he could.

Just out of curiosity; to see that look on his face again, perhaps.

He was beginning to understand Von Drachen’s obsession with this character, Madiha Nakar. That being said, obsession and exaltation were steps too far. He had to collect the facts and think soberly about the situation, not give himself in to foolish fantasies.

Haus withdrew to the third underground story, where had a temporary office composed mostly of closed boxes and file folders littering a desk and various bookshelves.

When the door shut behind him it seemed to shut out his own shadow and the air he breathed outside. He felt a sense of freedom and like he could forget the outside world.

This office and many like it had been his fortresses for years now. In these darkened crevices of humanity he could hide from the public and indulge. He could be himself.

Here he could shed that stone-faced professionalism and cocksure aggression he had to display for the men outside to deem him worthy. He could be passionate and warm.

He dropped himself on a couch on the edge of the office, unbuttoning his jacket and shirt. He breathed out a sigh of relief. For a moment, he even let himself think of his beloved. It was an illicit thing, but this was his private place. Discipline could be lax.

There was a knock on the door, but it was one he had expected and contrived himself.

Cathrin Habich arrived as she had been instructed to.

She closed the door behind her carefully and entered the room as discretely as anyone could. She approached the couch and stood deferentially before him, awaiting orders.

“Sir.” She said. Her voice conveyed little emotion.

Always prompt, no matter where she was called or what she was called on to do.

“I’ve got a job for you, Kitty.” He said, smiling.

“Anything, sir.”

Her face was expressionless, and her mannerisms carefully neutral, controlled as they always were no matter what duress she was put under. She adjusted some of her wavy golden hair behind one ear. Her pigments, a little red on her lips and a little black around the eyes, had been recently reapplied. She looked stunning as usual. Perfectly proportioned, like a classical if stoic beauty from the deepest fantasies of the artist.

Cathrin was in some ways a token of Haus’ own position, as much as he disliked characterizing it as such. There were certainly other officers who would have been pleased to have her around. Aside from her good looks, she was smart and skilled.

However, they were kindred spirits; once he discovered this, he had to choose her.

“Very well. It’s the same as usual. You know what to do.”

Haus tipped his hat over his face.

He reached out his arm.

On the desk beside her, he picked up a file folder and handed it to her.

“You can use this as an excuse. There’s enough to do for the night; judging by your typical efficiency, you’ll have time to spare where it matters. Say hello to Andrea for me.”

He smiled at her. With his hat over his eyes he could no longer see her but he almost felt the energy in the room as her carefully stone-like exterior melted with delight.

“Thank you sir.” She said, her voice hushed but clearly grateful.

“I will trust you to be discrete.”

“Yes sir!”

There was a muted note of giddy girlishness in her voice that Haus found delightful.

She practically bounced out of the room, running to the arms of her forbidden lover.

This was all he could do for her in the world they lived in, but he did that much.

He wanted to, because he wanted to nurture people like himself who still had a chance.

His own love was doomed, and he knew it. He had known it since he was a child.

But perhaps Achim might still sense the purity of it, and allow others, like Cathrin, the release of their true selves. That was one thing Haus hoped to get out of a powerful, globe-spanning Nocht Federation. Out of the light of Democracy that was expanding to shine on all shadows. True justice and real freedom for the Nochtish peoples, even those like himself who had been born strange existences longing for the most taboo carnality.

It might have been childish. Perhaps that was why his face never seemed to age.

Regardless of what Achim did or did not do, however, Haus had resigned himself to fighting this war for him. That was the monument to his love he built even as a child.

Whoever got in the way of that would be destroyed. Madiha Nakar or anybody.


Previous Part || Next Part

Election Year (73.4)

This scene contains racism, graphic violence and death.


44th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Eiserne

Fruehauf fell in an unforgiving cold alleyway, and jarringly, without transition, she woke in a shabby couch in a room furnished with little else besides, the fireplace dangerously close. She feared she was being thrown in and burned, disposed of like the hated thing that she was, and panicked, and fell from the couch and squirmed uncontrolalbly.

Two figures approached her suddenly and touched her and spoke soundless words.

Fruehauf struggled against them. Her senses had not fully returned.

Her vision wavered, and when it set, and the blaring tinnitus in her ears gradually settled, she could see and hear a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman and another. She focused on the first, an object of a dreadful fear, and she panicked and pushed her away and bashed herself against the couch trying to escape without standing from the ground.

Finally another woman, blond-haired, blue-eyed, seized her and forced her still.

“Come to your senses!” She shouted in Fruehauf’s face.

Freuhauf stopped struggling, and her eyes filled with tears, and she gasped for breath.

Over the course of several minutes Fruehauf slowly came to. She averted her gaze from the Ayvartan woman and from the Nochtish woman who clearly understood and resented the way she treated the former. Fruehauf felt deplorable but steeped in that and did not allow herself to mutter any apologies. She well and truly wished she would just be discarded instead of afforded fake kindness, and so she became more forceful.

“Just give me a ride to the Hotel Reich, if you want to help.” She mumbled.

“Who do you think you are? I’d throw you out on the street if it wouldn’t constitute murder at this point!” said the Nochtish woman. “Are you listening to this?”

She turned to the other woman, who shook her head and smiled weakly. “I’m not unused to this, don’t worry. I think she’s just disoriented. Aren’t the soldiers all supposed to come tomorrow? If she’s here this early there must be some other reason isn’t there?”

“I’m not going out of my way to make it my business for this ingrate.”

Fruehauf felt bitter but she didn’t allow herself to indulge in any insults either.

“I’m from the unlucky 13th. Everyone hates my unit so we’re here early, so that there won’t have to be a walk of shame in the middle of the festivities.” Fruehauf said.

Though the Ayvartan woman did not understand the reference, the blond understood.

“The 13th Panzer? I guess that makes sense. It’s awful cruel, but it makes sense.”

She seemed to ease off Fruehauf at that point and Fruehauf hated her pity.

“If you won’t murder me then just drive me to the hotel. I don’t want to stay here.”

Both of the women were wearing robes over short gowns, and Fruehauf allowed herself the scandalous thought that they were cohabitating sapphics, a concept at once both well known and widespread and damned as a taboo. Since she didn’t know their names, or where she was, and was unlikely to be given either, so she guessed there wasn’t any danger in them meeting her like this. She couldn’t report anything even if she suspected, not that she would at any rate, no matter how bitter. Or maybe they were just that bold.

Not that she was going to report them; what good would it do for her? She was as bad.

“Fine, I’ll drive you there if it’ll get you out of my hair.” said the blond.

“Okay.” Fruehauf said. She sounded so bratty, and she hated it. But she couldn’t help it.

“Please take it easy ma’am,” said the Ayvartan woman.

Fruehauf didn’t even look at her. She was too gentle and Fruehauf hated that also.


Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Hotel Reich

“Ma’am, this may be our only chance for a long time.”

Across the street from the Hotel Reich, among many cars packing the side of the road, there was a long, sleek black limousine with tinted windows. Though this vehicle served quite a life as a government vehicle, on this night its government markings, on its rear window and along the sides, had been covered by black strips of adhesive tape as a shoddy disguise. The limousine was lightly crewed: there were only two passengers and a driver. The VIP, a voluptuous blond woman in a black mink coat and a veiled hat, sat in the middle seat away from the windows. Across from her was an assistant in a skirt suit.

“Ma’am, I’ll go. I’m sure he’ll understand and acquiesce to a meeting.” said the assistant.

She was a young girl, unremarkable save for her devotion.

The VIP frowned, her lush red lips almost shining through the veil.

Even covered up, she was too easy to spot. Everyone was already always looking for her in a crowd. She was too big, too popular, too beautiful. Her life was not hers to hide now.

“This is stupid.” said the VIP. “What can I do, even with his help?”

“We can find dirt. We can sabotage Lehner.”

The VIP laughed bitterly. “Here I am, ‘sabotaging’ the father of my child.”

“I understand you’re anxious ma’am, but the way he behaves, the way he treats you! It’s horrible, it’s scandalous. I detest it. I agreed with you before, when you said you wanted to get revenge. Ma’am, you deserve revenge on him. He doesn’t deserve what he as.”

Agatha Lehner wondered if she’d hooked another girl with her charms, without even wanting to. Kind of like with Cecilia– would she leave too? But Cecilia hadn’t been unwanted. She could delude herself as much as she wanted. But she loved Cecilia. Perhaps this girl who had admired her for long, had grown to feel that way too.

What was with the women of this nation and their repressed, hopeless emotions?

Agatha wanted to shout. But she was so exhausted by everything.

“Go.” She said finally. “He’ll think it’s a trick. He won’t ally with us. But go.”

Nodding, the assistant left the limousine without even taking her coat.

Agatha reached out to her reflexively. Whether she wanted to warn her to take her coat, or to grab her and kiss her out of wanting a woman to kiss; she wasn’t certain which would have happened. Neither did. So quick was her assistant, so precise, that she was crossing the street before any more could be said. But not before Agatha could miss her.

Outside, the wind was picking up and driving the snow so that it seemed to fall in arcs, like the fire of a howitzer. They had a full blown blizzard on their hands, but there were still people out and loitering, because the event at the Reich was just that grand. Agatha’s young assistant squeezed between the cars and moved toward the crowd at the doors.

She bumped into a man, and was barely able to say she was sorry before darting on.

Pushing her way through a crowd apparently growing denser, she found, in the lobby of the Reich, that Bertholdt Stein was preparing to leave. His entourage surrounding him, and cameras and microphones ensnaring them, they moved meter by meter to the doors.  Reporters hurled questions at him from every which way, flashed him without a second’s hesitation, encircled him from all sides for his image and his words.

At this sight, the assistant panicked. She was too late.

This was not a case of a woman in a professional capacity who feared failing her boss in a task that could have granted her promotion. She would have stopped and give up if so. However this young woman had a sense of empathy toward a fellow woman, perhaps deeper than empathy, and she was smitten with justice and the belief she could carry it out. Bertholdt Stein was certainly privy to the gossip, to the slow humiliation of Agatha Lehner, her disappearance from banquets, her husband’s meetings with other women.

Surely Stein, if he was a real man, would at least agree to a meeting. To listen to her.

Fueled by this irrational desire, the assistant hurled herself through the crowd.

“Herr Stein!” She cried out. “Please sir! I need to talk with you.”

She burst through, found herself directly in front of the man and bowed her head.

Shocked, Stein and his entourage paused to take stock. The crowd pulled back a little.

All of those eyes were on her, and she could scarcely do more than stare and stammer.

It was only when the gunshots rang that she was able to get out another word.


Actions, once undertaken, cannot ever be fully recovered or undone.

In every decision there is the tragedy of the effect caused and the context lost.

Were it possible to step backward through the dimension of Time and arrive at any moment, one would still possess no means to change the future, but merely to create a new and different future through new and different actions. Were it possible to return to a moment in time, one would still fail to understand the fullness of its context, for every detail from the breaths taken and the sights seen, are impossible to recreate as a whole.

Historians work with visions, dreaming into the past. Like dreams, there is a skeleton of the truth, but when one considers the magnitude of everything that encompasses humanity, one realizes how simplistic that which we see as total truly is. One never comes close to the true enormity of the past; one can only create a nonfiction of it. One can reproduce the facts that one has and inject prejudice into them; and call it truth.

Ponderous “what if’s” are viewed as unprofessional, but where there is time, every historian projects their own prejudices to the past and wonders, had the item that vexes them personally been removed from a scene, could life have turned out better then?

Since the 44th of the Postill’s Dew, many have wondered about the assassination of Bertholdt Stein, and what could possibly have been done to change its cruel reality.

Many men have picked one of the several meetings that Stein had after which he could have left the building peacefully and lived to fight another day. A popular prejudice, for those who know of it, is that the meeting with Alicia Kolt was valuable and necessary; beyond that, it is a product of the historian’s bias which of the various consultants, lawyers, men of faith, and other persons with no valuable words, could have been axed.

It was perhaps the final meeting that was most tragic and frivolous, most vexing.

Many men in their bias would judge the woman who held up Stein until he was shot.

They would have cruel words for her, because they would call her and the deep-seated feelings that she held, ‘irrelevant’, ‘pointless’, ‘frivolous’. They would wonder aloud if she was a plant, or if she was Bertholdt’s mistress, or a young woman he took advantage of who desired some satisfaction. She would be utterly picked apart by history, destroyed.

Her connection to Agatha Lehner was mercifully destroyed in the process as well.

After all, what control or influence could one woman really exert on another one.

At any rate, as soon as the guns went off, Agatha was driven away and disappeared.

She was never connected to the scene nor did she connect herself to it, out of fear.

A nameless assistant would take blows in death that no even the shooter himself did.


Niklas Todt knew he was sick, and he knew he was part of a society that was sick.

To a point, Todt flew close to the substance of things, but he kicked off of the planet he was orbiting and became a moon to the truth, never touching it, never colliding. He hovered around truth and made violent tides that disfigured its surface. Nothing more.

Todt believed Nocht was being eaten from within, and he correctly identified that his lot in life was impoverished, marginalized, steadily drained: but not by warmongers and industrial vultures and capital kings who hoarded the wealth literally bled from civilians and soldiers alike. Todt blamed the peace movement, those cowards who tried to steer them from glorious victory; he blamed the subhuman Ayvartans, the mongrel Lachy, the barbaric Loups, and other such peoples whose conspiracies undermined the livelihood of those he considered truly human; he blamed the leftists and intellectuals and elites, now a singular class, unified out of the distortions of his own brain, for undermining an idealized Nochtish culture through the moral degeneracy of their scarcely-read words.

In his mind, he was part of the most hated, harassed, censored group of men on Aer.

In Todt’s life, the singular moment that politicized him was the frog pin that he had received at an Achim Lehner rally, years ago. Political commentators called him and other Lehner voters “Frogs,” who croaked and bleated in tune with their master, who let Lehner think for them so they wouldn’t have to. They let Lehner talk to them about science and progress and a new age for Nocht, about a utopian Nochtish vision were men armed with the greatest intellects in the world, the highest technology, the most iron-clad moral clarity and strength and a perfect roadmap of ideas, would finally solve the problems of civilization and become immortal. Todt had never felt both so angry and so elated. He was part of something; there was finally a place he was not alienated from. He listened to Lehner along with his fellows, and he believed, and he psyched himself up. And yet, that place was ridiculed and besieged. Todt believed he had to fight for it now.

That was as much as his manifesto had to say.

Beyond that, his physical actions were known.

He took his brother’s gun and he made it to the Hotel Reich.

For a long time he was a heavily psychoanalyzed cadaver.

Scholars would interrogate him in absentia for ages.

It was vexing!

He must have known the ramifications of what he was about to do. That there was no way he could escape, no way he would be acknowledged as the hero he saw himself to be. No way his movement would not alienate him for their own sake. And yet, on this score, history would fail. They never truly saw what lurked inside Niklas Todt’s head.

He was a ghost, and he would haunt history and those who lived in it.


A grey Oder Olympus parked across the street, near a black limousine.

None of the people in either car knew how close or how distant they were then.

With a huff, a young woman charged out of the back of the Olympus and crossed.

“Good riddance!” shouted the driver.

In the next instant, there were gunshots from inside the Reich.

Immediately, the black limousine took off, so fast it almost hit the Olympus.

Shocked, Cecilia Foss and Ramja Biswa stepped out of the car and stared at the street around the Hotel Reich. People fled in a panic. A human mass emptied out.

Helga Fruehauf rushed inside out of some soldierly sense of justice.

Even she did not know what she was doing, but the sound of guns activated something in her. She charged through the doorway and found herself facing the back of a disheveled, wild-haired man shooting wildly with one-handed grip. He hit a woman in front of him twice, swung his arm, hit two men, and then he hit finally laid waste to his actual target. Bertholdt Stein got to say to nothing, not even to beg, not even to stop; he was struck in the stomach, and the recoil rode the other shots up, to the chest, to the neck twice.

Fruehauf threw herself forward, barely thinking.

She wrestled a surprised Todt to the ground.

They fumbled with the gun for what was an eternity to those trapped around them.

Fruehauf and Todt both had the insane strength of adrenaline on their side.

But Todt took control of the gun, because Fruehauf was herself, too sick, too drained.

Had she not been so mistreated for the past several months, had she not been on the razor’s edge of life and death even as she walked through that door. Then perhaps.

After all she suffered, she tragically could not withstand any more abuse.

Todt shot Fruehauf in the chest, and, wide-eyed, unbelieving of her situation, she fell.

As Fruehauf died, unremarked upon and unknown, Todt stood back up.

He turned the gun back on Bertholdt Stein and his entourage.

There was a resounding click. His magazine was empty.

That click, like a dog whistle, awakened something primal in the surrounding people.

Todt dropped the gun, and he was beset.

Dozens of people lunged for him, punched him, kicked him in a mob. He was brought to the ground, and beaten with furniture, beaten with the strong steel paperweights of the front desk, beaten with the hard snow boots of visiting guests, beaten with furniture. His face was smashed out of shape, his bones were crushed, his organs stamped to a pulp, he was beaten and beaten and beaten and beaten and beaten like his blood was for painting the floor. Men and women, wealthy guests and poor hotel workers, all destroyed Todt.

His green frog pin turned red and black and seemed to be swallowed by his own flesh.

All of the pain of the human race seemed to be inflicted upon Todt in that one instant.

Everything else was forgotten. Many crucial details would just, be forgotten.

Everything but this aberration, this act of God against their fake peace.

Fruehauf was beyond the help of a hospital, and yet, nobody even offered.

Stein had been practically dead on the spot, losing both heart and artery.


“Oh my god!”

Ramja and Cecilia stepped through into the hotel, minutes after the final shot.

Fruehauf was dead on the floor, away from the mob taking revenge on Niklas Todt.

She was ringed in a tidy circle of blood, like a macabre piece of art.

Ramja covered her mouth in shock, tears bursting from her eyes.

Unlike her people in Ayvarta, she was still innocent and unknowing to bloody violence.

Cecilia grabbed hold of Ramja and tried to pull her away.

She was not innocent to violence; and therefore she could at least shield her partner.

She took her back home, where they wept, huddled together, breathed deeply.

Back home, where they lived. They would live. They were alive. Shocks could pass.

Though they had seen something sudden and shocking they were unprepared for, they could manage to live through it. Nobody was lucky; but they were luckier than some.

For everyone, it was over and one. In an instant, and without satisfaction.

Ambulances came with nobody to heal. Everyone who was hurt was hurt to death.

Police came with nobody to question. Everyone who could explain was too dead to do so.

It was messy, sudden, random, despicable and vexing. Vexing! Who could understand?

There was no moment of grandeur where every life touched by this connected to form a tapestry with meaning attached. There was nothing revelatory; everything was just swallowed in the silent trauma of moving on and forward every day in a sick society. Everyone felt helpless to do anything except hope there would be no more shocks.

If there was one historical angle that could be concrete in year 2031, it was the impact on the presidential race. And yet election analysts, wary of politicizing the incident or implicating the President, which would have been dangerous and unfair in their view, were brief and nearly silent on the matter of Stein, and the politics of the election year.

All that anyone knew was that the constant of the Solstice War was extended yet again.

Could the Solstice War have been ended by Bertholdt Stein in 2031-32 Nocht?

That would remain a question for the idle time of the historian, not for the profession.


Previous Part || Next Part

E.S.P. (72.1)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way

Wordlessly, the battle began.

Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.

Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.

Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.

Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.

E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.

It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.

Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.

It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.

Something frighteningly like an instinct.

“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.

Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”

She needled her.

Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.

Water started to rise once more.

She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.

Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.

She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.

Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.

“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”

Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.

“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.

“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I do.”

She had some kind of armor on her body.

Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.

Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–

As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.

“You’re not the only one with tricks!”

Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.

In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.

Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.

Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.

Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways.  When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.

Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.

Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.

Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.

It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.

Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.

“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”

At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.

She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.

Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.

Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.

Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.

“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”

She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.

Or she was an idiot who talked too much.

Madiha pushed again — on herself.

She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.

Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.

For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.

Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.

Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.

She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.

“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”

Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.

She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.

“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”

Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.

Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.

Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.

Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.

She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.

She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.

“Use your inside voice–!”

Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.

She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.

Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.

Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.

Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.

For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.

Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.

Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.

She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.

Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.

She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.

Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.

Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”

She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.

That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.

“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”

Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?

Or was it just low-key misogyny?

Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.

It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.

Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.

There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.

Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.

Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.

All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.

Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.

There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.

But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.

She realized that she could take something else.

“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”

Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.

Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.

She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.

Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.

Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.

“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”

Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.

Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.

“No, no, no, no, no–”

Aatto grit her teeth.

“No! Stop it!”

She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.

Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.

Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.

Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.

Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.

Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.

Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.

She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.

She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.

Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.

Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.

Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.

Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.

She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.

“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”

She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.

Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.

She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.

Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.

“What the hell–?”

Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.

Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her.  She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.

Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.

“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

BERSERKER (71.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death, and brief homophobia.


To the outside world it seemed Loupland was covered in a perpetual snow.

In the spring, however, Loupland thawed just like the world beyond the arctic sea.

Green grasses peered from under their blanket of snow. Flowers, covered in cold dew, rose from the earth, seeking the returning sun. It was the eye in the storm that seemed to consume the little country. A respite from the blizzards. In days gone by, the folk would have come out to till the fields and hold markets and dance under the festival wreaths.

Times changed, but at least the children still laughed and played.

That spring, a little girl from the village decided to go climb the mountain. She did not climb far, but she climbed far for a child. For a child, she felt she had climbed the entire mountain, in her kirtle and smock, getting dirty, laughing aloud and alone. She climbed over big boulders and ran up little hills and after an hour or two she could look back and see the village below her like a little brown square etched on the green and white earth.

On that day and atop that climb, the little girl met a demon on the mountain.

She was scared at first, to see the creature bundled up in a cloak, huffing and puffing and making noises to scare her away. But her curiosity led her to draw nearer to the monster and to stare into its eyes, and she laughed and called it a little imp and ruffled its cloak.

“I’m not an imp.” said the creature dejectedly.

“Can I stay here and play?” asked the village girl.

“Whatever. Don’t tell anyone about me.” replied the imp.

She returned the next day, and found the imp again and brought some food.

She found the imp not wanting for food, its lair strewn with frozen bones.

She returned the next day and brought the imp toys since it was clearly a child.

She found the imp to be a girl by her choice of a doll, which she clung to tightly.

She returned the next day and brought the imp a kirtle and a little smock.

“I don’t wanna dress up.” said the imp dejectedly.

“Will you dress up for me?” asked the village girl.

“No!”

And the imp dressed in the kirtle and smock, but kept her cloak wrapped around herself.

“I’ll come back with more tomorrow!”

“You really do not have to.”

She returned the next day having brought a blanket, stitched up into a cloak.

“Will you wear this for me?” asked the village girl.

“Ugh.”

She helped the imp into her new cloak.

She found the imp had a furry little tail, and she wagged her own furry little tail.

Day after day, the village girl awakened early, ate her porridge and drank her milk quickly, and ran off laughing and smiling to the mountain to play with her newfound friend. She showed her friend many things from the village, fruits and toys and sweets. The imp barely played, choosing mostly to watch, but it was enough that she remained. She followed the village girl wherever the village girl wanted, and they explored the caves and crevices of the mountain, and climbed higher and lower, and had fun.

One day the imp stopped the village girl and spoke to her in a new voice.

“Want to see something strange?”

“Yes! Show me!”

Eager to learn anything at all about her new friend, the village girl followed the imp to a spring formed out of thawing ice, where the imp reached down into the water, and took from it a big fistful of frost. As her hand rose from the water, the spring froze where the fist had entered, the little waves and ripples on its surface etched hard in the ice.

She really was a demon! A demon that could do witchcraft! It was amazing!

Never had the village girl been this excited.

“Promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”

“I promise!”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”

“I won’t! I never have!”

And so the village girl returned home, and every day she would leave for the mountains to play again, and she enjoyed many moons of the thaw season in this fashion. But the thaw season was too short for the village and too short for the girl. Soon the snows began to blow over Loupland once more, and the thaw season, and its thaw jobs began to wane.

Despite this the village girl was resolved. Whenever she had no lessons or finished them early, she would put on her coat, put on warm leggings and thick boots, and she would go out, though the mountain was treacherous and slippery. Though she even took a few bumps, the village girl was very brave and made it to the Imp’s hideout without fail.

“Stop coming here.” Said the imp.

“No! Lets play.”

Reluctant as always the little imp would play with the village girl.

“Soon we’ll be separated by the ice. Or something else.” said the imp.

“No! Lets play.” replied the village girl.

She made a great effort to meet her friend whenever she could.

However, the village around her was changing. With the coming of the snow, there were more people walking the street with nothing to do, crowding the shops and bars, being loud. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt dangerous to go outside, but the village girl kept going, heedless of anyone’s caution. Her routine went unchanged.

One day, however, without her noticing, three men followed her right to the mountain.

They had bottles in their hands, and strange expressions on their faces.

“Every bloody day you leave the village, and come here, for what? Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“Little girls shouldn’t be running around making a racket when the village is struggling.”

“You’re too carefree! It pisses everybody off. What’s up here that’s so special?”

They reminded the village girl of her own father; drunk, jobless, shouting every word.

She felt very nervous, and could not answer their questions, and it made them irate.

“Didn’t your mother teach you respect? Huh? You think you can look down on us?”

One of the men shoved the girl down at the maw of the imp’s cave, and she cried.

In the next instant, the imp stepped out from the shadowed rocks.

She gazed coldly at the men and they gazed quizzically back at her.

“Who’s this? Why she hiding out here? Who’s daughter is she?”

“I’m nobody’s daughter. Go away.”

Confused, the drunks commiserated while the imp stared all of them down.

“Huh? What’s with that tone, you brat? You think you can talk to us like that?”

All three men had emptied their bottles and held them like clubs.

Across from them the imp stood unfazed.

Her tail stretched straight behind her, and her ears were raised in alert.

Meanwhile the village girl tried to calm everybody down.

“She’s not bad! She plays with me! She’s just living out here. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You shut up, you brat. You wanna get hit again?”

One of the men raised an arm to strike the village girl with cruel ease.

In mid-air, the arm stopped moving.

The Imp’s eyes turned icy blue.

“What is–”

Suddenly the man started to scream.

His raised arm started to shake, and his whole body contorted in pain. Dark black veins threaded visibly through her skin, becoming harder and sharper as if the blood inside them was thickening, hardening, stretching. Everyone present watched in horror as the man’s arm started to peel away along lines of the sinews like a blossoming flower of skin and gore, and the stem, blood frozen sharp right under his skin, glowing, and glowing!

The captive man was in such pain and terror that he could not scream anymore. He slobbered and twitched and hung as if his arm was dangling from an invisible shackle, suspended by some unknown force like a sack of meat, the blood in his veins freezing.

“Aatto no!” shouted Petra, little village girl Petra who only wanted everyone to get along.

“It’s a witch! It’s a witch! Kill her! Kill her!”

In an insane frenzy the remaining two men charged past their dying ally, bottles in hand.

“I’m sorry Petra, but you can’t hear what is in their disgusting heads like I can.”

Aatto, Petra’s friend, the mystical little imp of the mountain, raised her hand and without expression, pushed on the men and sent them flying off the mountainside, their bodies twisting and smashing and clinging to the snow and rock, collecting into balls of slush and blood. Blood drew from her nose and from her eyes, her glowing, icy-blue eyes.

Petra saw it, the blue steam that emanated from Aatto whenever she committed this sin.

She rushed to her friend and hugged her around the waist, weeping openly into her.

“Why are you crying?” Aatto shouted angrily. “They were going to hurt you!”

“I’m not crying for them.” Petra said, sobbing and screaming. “I’m crying for you!”

At Petra’s touch, the steam started to calm, and Aatto started to shake. She wept a little.

“Shut up, Petra. I did a good thing for once. I did a good thing.” Aatto muttered.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

“Aatto! Open up!”

Atop a wooden staircase, Petra banged on the door of the camp’s command center module, a small air-conditioned mobile home set on the bed of a tank transporter. She saw beads of water dancing on the shuttered windows, and could feel air coming from under the door, so she knew Aatto was inside. She banged on the door twice, but there was no response. Behind her, General Von Fennec tapped his feet on the step impatiently.

“Why did she lock herself in here? I’ll have you both know this is my command center!”

Petra sheepishly turned to the General with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.

“Ah, well, Aatto really doesn’t like the heat, anything above 20 celsius is bad for her see–”

“Get that door open this instant, and that punk out in the desert fighting! Now!”

“Yes sir!”

Petra twisted sharply back around to face the door and started to twist the handle.

She brought a foot up to the door and kicked it, doing little to move it.

Though she had basic combat training, Petra Hamalainen Happydays was not a fighter, but a support officer. Specifically, a radio operator, as well as deputy to Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather. She was, compared to the tall and fit Lt. Stormyweather, smaller, plumper, and far less capable of battering down a door. She stopped for a moment to tie her golden hair up into a ponytail, her tail swishing to and fro with excitement.

This pause to gather herself before her next attack prompted Von Fennec to scoff.

“Good god you’re all so useless. Out of my way!”

Von Fennec pushed Petra aside, and put his shoulder up to the door.

In the next instant, the General charged the door, and the door suddenly opened.

Von Fennec tumbled into the room, smashing into the carpet.

Petra stood at the doorway, her hands raised in alarm.

“Petra,” someone mumbled in an aggrieved-sounding tone.

Inside the command center, behind Von Fennec’s desk, was Aatto herself, seated sloppily on a rotating chair with her arms dangling, her head thrown back. Her black uniform jacket and shirt were both unbuttoned down to the belly, bearing glistening brown skin and a hint of muscle — and well over a hint of her breasts, her brassiere’s central clip snapped apart so as to almost fully bare them also. Her hair was down, long and black. She was sweating like, well, a dog; all of her body was profusely moist, and her icy blue eyes looked like they would roll back into her head. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

“Petra, I’m dying.” Aatto said. “Petra it’s 44 degrees. I am going to die here.”

Sighing, Petra wiped sweat from her own brow and maneuvered around the fallen Von Fennec as carefully as she could. She rushed to Aatto’s side and immediately fastened her brassiere back and started to unbutton her shirt and jacket, trying to save her dignity.

“Aatto you’re an officer now! And in an army of men! You can’t behave this way!”

“Petra, I’m absolutely going to die. I am melting.” Aatto mumbled.

She fixed Petra with a pathetic look. She had absolutely beautiful eyes, even then.

Petra tried not to stare too deep into them as she fixed the Lieutenant back up.

“Aatto, you slob! You barbarian!”

Petra sighed again, and behind her, Von Fennec helped himself up from the ground.

“You have a mission, you witch! You monster! Go out there this instant.”

“Petra, I’m so hot.” Aatto said, ignoring Von Fennec.

Von Fennec grit his teeth, while on the chair Aatto swooned and slumped.

“Aatto!”

Petra raised a hand to Aatto’s brow and found her blazing hot.

She couldn’t spot any of the blue steam, the sign that Aatto had overdone it with her ESP.

So it was not a supernatural malady — that fact scared Petra even more.

She could, somehow, heal Aatto’s self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she couldn’t heal this.

“She’s burning up, General!” Petra said.

Von Fennec stood, silent, stupefied.

“If I lose her, and the Vishap, and Von Drachen. My career– no, I’ll be over! I’ll be killed!”

He rushed to the desk and started shaking Aatto.

Petra grabbed hold of him and shoved him back.

“This isn’t helping, General!”

“Do something Petra! Do something for God’s sake!”

“I regret so much. I’ll never get to marry Petra.” Aatto said.

Von Fennec blinked and stopped struggling. Petra covered her mouth, scandalized.

“WHAT?” She then shouted.

“We’ll never get to raise a litter of pups–”

“EXCUSE ME?” Petra shouted again.

Von Fennec took a step back from the chair and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

He then suddenly kicked the chair, knocking it from under Aatto.

“Lieutenant Stormyweather, I order you to assault Conqueror’s Way this instant! Your sexual deviancy will be overlooked if you succeed!” General Von Fennec shouted.

On the floor, Aatto started laughing uproariously, and the room suddenly cooled.

It was as if all the heat of the desert had been extinguished with a thought.

“Will do, General Von Fennec! Just give me some water and a target.” Aatto said.

“There’s an entire goddamn river where you’re going! Move! Both of you!”

Petra, mortified, red in the face, and far more tantalized by these sapphic ideas than any good girl of Loupland should be, stormed off with her hands balled into fists, stomping.

Aatto raised herself off the ground, and looked out the door with distress.

“Wait, Petra! I wasn’t kidding! Let’s get married!”

She ran out the door herself, Von Fennec staring at her back with gritted teeth.

Like Petra, he too knew the weapon that lurked inside that oafish bush-tailed girl.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“Ah! What cruel god to have created the waters! I despise them!”

Though he had learned to swim, Von Drachen was still far from the most proficient swimmer, and all of his men were already up and fighting by the time he extracted himself from the water, breathing heavily and struggling to stand. He was pulled up to the barrier by a soldier in a black wetsuit, and found many more of his soldiers fighting already. They had the good fortune to have hit ground near a portion of the bridge where a tower had fallen over, providing good rubble for cover. His men pulled submachine guns free from waterproof bags and enfiladed the Ayvartan portions near the gate.

All manner of red tracers went flying over his head as he got settled.

There was a blazing exchange of gunfire happening as Von Drachen entered the scene. Across the bridge from him there were a dozen Ayvartans around a the remains of a collapsed, bullet-riddled tent, shooting back with a machine gun and rifles. This was likely their command post. Their cover was sparse, however, while his own men had the strong, chest-high concrete barriers. There were Ayvartans scattered all about, fighting ineffectively from any isolated rubble. He had successfully flanked the lot of them.

And this close to the gate, the wall gunners could not adequately target him.

Water was vile, but swimming was a powerful ability.

His own men fought with discipline. They engaged in groups of three submachine gunners, peeking up from the barriers, shooting at targets of opportunity, and then hiding from return fire while three more men attacked from farther up or further down the barrier. Though their position was confined to the left side of the bridge, they had many men and various angles from which they could shoot. While half his men engaged he ordered the remainder to crawl down the bridge and climb the rubble to flank.

Meanwhile, Von Drachen produced his own bag, and pulled his uniform from it.

“Keep fighting,” he said, “our lively friend is on its way.”

Von Drachen buttoned up his coat and put on his shoes in time to watch the Vishap come barreling through the second gate. He smiled, and he clapped for it, standing up to greet it alongside three of his men, dutifully firing on the Ayvartan position and suppressing it while he showed his support. To be the first man inside Solstice; what an honor–

In the next instant, the smile on Von Drachen’s face twitched as the Vishap exploded.

Already worse for wear, the Vishap was blown forward by an unseen blast and propelled across the bridge. Sliding on a streak of flame, throwing up rubble and churning up the bridge floor, the crippled superweapon came to rest, wheels spinning helplessly, its gun staring into space, almost off the edge of the Conqueror’s Way, with no line to the gate.

Von Drachen clapped his hands one final time and crouched with his back to the barrier.

“Hmm. Plan B.”

He waved over one of his men who was crouched with him.

He had a large waterproof pack with an X marking on it.

“Alvarez, we’re deploying the C-10 on the gate.” Von Drachen said.

Alvarez looked as if he was surprised to be addressed by name.

Von Drachen, puzzled by the reaction, tried to explain his orders once more.

He did not count on a far louder sound than his voice rising suddenly nearby.

A shell sailed over the collecting heads of Von Drachen’s platoon and struck the wall.

Rock and shrapnel exploded out from the impact and rained down on the bridge.

Von Drachen covered his head.

“Looks like our so-called superweapon is still alive!” Von Drachen shouted.

He peered over the barrier, briefly glancing over to Alvarez to find him dead, his forehead crushed by a stone come flying from the wall. He frowned at the sight.

Seizing Alvarez’s explosive pack, he pushed the corpse into the river.

“Water burials are honored in some countries.” He told the rest of his men.

Many of them stared at him.

“Look at the road! Our injured friend has company, you know!”

Von Drachen pointed to the Ayvartan side of the bridge.

Against the wishes of a shouting officer, it seemed, several men and women desperate to see the Vishap stopped once and for all ran out of cover with grenades in their hands.

This breach of discipline was most opportune. Von Drachen ordered covering fire.

His men rose as one from behind the concrete barrier and opened fire.

An overwhelming amount of submachine gun bullets crossed the bridge from their side.

Not one of the Ayvartan runners made it to the Vishap’s corpse.

Not one Ayvartan gun responded to the salvo. His men fired continuously on them.

Von Drachen took the opportunity and jumped the barrier with the C-10 in hand.

He ran as fast as his feet could carry him, crossing the no-man’s land, ducking fire.

He was within breathing distance of the gate, the closest any enemy had gotten to–

Just as he raised his head to behold the great wall and its gate, he saw a muzzle flash.

Overhead, one of the wall guns fired on the Vishap at an oddly direct angle.

Von Drachen watched as the shell flew downward from the wall and struck the Vishap.

There was a colossal explosion.

Such a blast could only have been generated by a 152mm gun or higher, but, he had seen all the aerial photographs, and he read the plans their collaborators in the Republic had given them, and various other sources. He knew all the guns on this wall were 76mm caliber at the largest, with the bigger guns used as indirect artillery behind the wall.

He looked briefly up again, and he thought he saw her.

He saw her red eyes, staring down at him in disdain.

Von Drachen dropped the C-10 pack, and made for his own side of the bridge.

He reached for his hand radio, carefully preserved in a waterproof bag.

“Von Fennec, it is likely I will be captured now. My new plan is to escape Armaments Hill somehow and attempt to undergo a guerrilla or sabotage campaign inside the city, and–”

His clearly stressed voice was met with dismissal from the other side.

“One moment,” said a woman’s voice.

In the next instant, Von Fennec took to the airwaves himself, scoffing.

“Von Drachen you’re not going anywhere! We’re protocol thirteen, and I need you there to keep things controlled. She’s coming to get you and the Vishap! You’d better live!”

Von Drachen looked out into the desert, sighing. “I’d rather be captured.”


On the bridge below them, the Vishap came to a halt, its legs chopped out from under it.

“You did it, Kajari. I hope you survived it.”

“I’m sure she did, Madiha.”

“I’ve got to make good on it now, Parinita. Let’s go.”

Atop the wall, Madiha watched with anticipation as Agni and a pair of engineers slid the gun barrel into the completed mechanism of the 152mm howitzer and fastened the recoil buffers tight, finishing the assembly of the gun. It was unmounted, merely sitting on the floor of the rampart without its carriage parts or gun shield, and its optical and ranging equipment lay on the floor as well. There were various other unused parts around.

There were also five shell crates containing pieces of the gun’s two-part ammunition.

“I completed my miracle.” Agni said. “It normally takes eight people an hour, you know.”

“With all due respect General, that gun will fall apart after a shot or two, and in its current state, its too unstable to be accurate anyway,” one engineer remarked.

“She knows. I explained all of this.” Agni said, in her toneless, matter-of-fact voice.

“Yes Sergeant! I am just sincerely hoping this gun needn’t be used.” He replied.

Madiha smiled. “You’re dismissed, corporal. See if you can help with the gate.”

She waved away the two men helping Agni and waited for them to be gone.

“Parinita, hold me from behind, okay?” Madiha said.

Parinita dropped her radio headset on the floor and stood behind Madiha.

“Agni, you load and fire, on my signal.”

Raising one curious eyebrow but otherwise inexpressive, Sergeant Agni nodded.

Madiha took in a deep breath, and focused on the howitzer on the floor.

Her eyes went red and her head felt hot as she pushed gently on the howitzer.

It vibrated gently and began to rise off the floor.

It was the heaviest thing Madiha had ever moved, she thought. She could feel her body tense up, and her brain, also, tensing like a muscle at the limit of its endurance. Her hands shook and she grit her teeth. She was out of practice for this sort of thing, but the howitzer was moving, sliding gently across the ground over to the rampart. Her shaking arms and legs steadied a little, and she lifted the howitzer off the ground a few meters.

Her head felt like it would explode, so hot and tight was the sensation.

“I’ve got you, Madiha. You can do this.”

Parinita embraced her from behind, one hand around the waist, and the other perhaps a little too close to Madiha’s breasts than appropriate, but Madiha didn’t mind then. Having the touch of a healer, Parinita could cool off the burning sensation Madiha felt when she pushed too much or invoked the fire inside her. She could feel Parinita shaking behind her, however. There was a slowly building pain, pinpricks of it, in her brain.

“Madiha, I’m having to go through a bit of effort myself.” Parinita said.

She felt her lover’s grip tighten, and her chest press against Madiha’s back.

This was such an effort that Parinita was being taxed trying to keep it controlled.

But Madiha had the gun over the rampart, and she was pointing it down.

“Now, Agni!”

Agni, staring silently at the spectacle, blinked her eyes rapidly.

“Yes ma’am.”

She quickly picked up the heavy projectile portion of the shell, unlocked the breech, and shoved the object inside. Behind it came the brass-colored propellant casing, a long, thin tube. Once both pieces of the shell were inside the gun, Agni locked the breach tightly.

“I’m firing, ma’am! Get ready!”

Madiha took a deep breath, and Parinita tightened her grip.

Agni pulled the firing pin.

For Madiha it was like trying to hold back an earthquake. She felt the force of the gun diffuse into the air and it was as if she was holding the piece not with her mind but with spectral arms that could be shaken, and that were shaking, and it took all her strength to keep the gun from wobbling as it fired. A bright muzzle flash followed the ejection of the shell, and the recuperator simply couldn’t handle it, and the gun started to come apart.

All eyes turned to the bridge, where the shell sailed into the front of the Vishap.

The explosion that followed consumed the front of the Vishap in smoke, and nearly knocked the hulk fully off the bridge. It just barely managed to hang on to the stone.

When the smoke cleared the damage was immense. All of the concrete and armor in an area the size of a watermelon had collapsed inside and left a smoking pit amid the face of the Vishap. A quarter of the gun mantlet was blasted off and the rest came unseated, and the gun hung half-out of the orifice, almost like an eye plucked from its socket.

That was the end of the Vishap. Madiha let go of the howitzer.

Agni took a step back as the gun came crashing down onto the rampart, spilling apart.

One recoil buffer went flying, the recuperator was crushed, and barrel twisted off.

But it had served its purpose. This ramshackle gun had finally put an end to the Vishap.

Madiha looked down at it from the ramparts.

“Tell the Svechthan mountain troops and the snipers that they’re clear to rappel down.”

Parinita nodded her head and let go of Madiha slowly. She was breathing heavily from her exertions, but smiling and triumphant. Even Sergeant Agni looked relieved after her own efforts. There were enemies invading the bridge, but with the Vishap gone the existential threat to the gate was gone with it, and they could rally once more. Even as they spoke, Madiha could see her troops rallying once more and the frogmen and their officer on the bridge beginning to retreat back closer to the water they came from.

“Tell HQ that the eastern sector is tentatively clear–”

Madiha felt an eerie, sudden chill that prompted her to quiet suddenly.

It was as if there was a sound, distant, just on the edge of her ability to hear it.

Her pupils dilated, and red rings began to burn around her irises.

She looked down at the bridge again, gritting her teeth, her hands smoking.

“Madiha?” Parinita asked. “What’s wrong? You’re burning up!”

Parinita rushed to her side, and applied her healing touch.

Madiha felt her eyes sting so badly she started to tear up.

“Something’s coming.” Madiha said, words drawn from some ancient, prophetic sense.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.2)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

Gulab scarcely had time to guide her shaken troops back into the shadow of the Vishap before the trails of fire appeared far overhead and arced violently down to the bridge.

“Get down!” She shouted, physically shielding those close.

She pulled down Loubna and Aditha in time for the first warheads to come crashing down like meteors. Waves of heat washed over the squadron as flames engulfed the bridge, barely contained by the concrete barriers along the edge of the bridge. Ravenous tongues of fire lashed out over the bridge, shrapnel bounced off the top of the barriers and cascaded into the river. They saw enemy infantry, on fire or badly maimed or both, climbing and tumbling and thrown bodily over the barriers and falling to their deaths in the river below, swept up by the current under the stone and out of their sight.

Though the rookies gaped and gasped at the ruined men, Gulab had long since learned to tune out the immediate casualties of the enemy. She kept everyone in line and urged them to stay down until her signal. This was a god-sent opportunity for them right now.

From behind the wall, the rockets came relentlessly for what seemed like a solid minute or more of non-stop bursting and blasting, running down like a series of stomping steps all over the bridge from the back of the Vishap and stretching almost to the desert itself. When the pounding of the rockets eased up for long enough, Gulab dared to peek over the wall briefly. Smoke billowed from the scattered fires left in the rocket’s wake, and the bridge was pitted and cracked all over from the explosions. There were corpses, charred and charring, and she felt the residual heat from the explosions. It was different from the dry, windy heat of the desert. It was chemical, noxious, it reeked like a coal mine.

And slowly creating distance was the Vishap, almost to the rubble of the second gate.

Gulab shook her head and crawled back down to her squadron, who looked at her with their eyes wide open, their hands shaking, their weapons dropped on the bridge-side.

Seer, in particular, was so despondent and shaken that Gulab knew she was done now.

“We’ve only got one more shot at this while the bridge is clear.” She said. She couldn’t spare time for comfort right now. She was an officer, and she had a mission. It was just like the General, like Madiha Nakar, everything was like she had told her. Everything had to be for the mission. Steeling herself, though she felt uncomfortable with the hardness of her own tone, Gulab continued quickly. “Loubna, Jaffar, you’re going to throw fragmentation grenades at the machine guns on top of the Vishap. You’ll shut down the guns and I’ll run in and jam an anti-tank grenade into the track and stop it. Okay?”

“Sergeant, you’ll die!” Aditha shouted. “You’ll absolutely die if you go out there like–”

Gulab puffed out her chest and stuck her hands to her hips, grinning at Aditha.

“Hah! You think this hunk of metal scares me? I’ll have you know I hunted rock bears in the inner mountains for years. And those could turn on a dime in less than a second!”

She shook her finger right in Aditha’s face, who stared on in speechless confusion.

“Act your rank, rookie! Rookies don’t worry about their officers! It’s the other way around! Loubna, Jaffar, you have your orders. Aditha, lead Seer up to the C.P.! Now!”

Aditha looked at Seer, who in turn was staring at the ground despondently.

She took her hand by the hand and reluctantly led her away, following the river and keeping their heads low below the wall. Gulab barely watched them go; she had precious little time. Already the bridge was starting to shake, and rock started to fly as the Vishap crunched into the rubble of the second gate, its bulldozer blades and gun blasting into it.

“Come on!”

Loubna and Jaffar swallowed hard and followed Gulab as she crouched and ran beneath the bridge barrier and followed close to the Vishap’s position. Beneath her she could feel the ground shake from the machine’s struggle. She heard its infernal engine pounding so hard that the vibration seemed to overwhelm that of her own heart. She grit her teeth.

Everyone got into position in the shadow of the Vishap, grenades in hand.

“Throw now!” Gulab called out.

Loubna and Jaffar pulled the grenade pins, stood, and each quickly made their throws.

Before them the Vishap was gargantuan. It was like a mountain enduring falling stones.

Two explosions consumed the roof of the Vishap in smoke for an instant.

Gulab had little time to check whether it had worked as she intended. At least for a moment, the Vishap was blinded, and she had her chance. Taking in a deep breath, she jumped, climbed the barricade, and landed on the other side in a run. She threw her anti-tank grenade by its handle as straight as she could, and ran around the back of the Vishap. She heard an explosion and saw sparks flying from under the machine.

She was on the bridge, running past the corpses of the men caught in the rocket attack.

It was hot. It was hellish. She peered over her shoulder at the nearby Vishap.

On the floor, the Vishap’s track flew out the back of its churned-up track guard in pieces.

Gulab nearly caught one of the chunks.

She stopped dead in her tracks, catching her breath, staring.

She wanted to laugh. They had done it! They had crippled the machine!

Then in front of the Vishap, there was a terrible flash.

Gulab nearly tumbled from the shock of the explosive blast from the Vishap’s main gun.

In moments, the rubble of the second gate vanished, like a door opening before them.

There was screeching. Sparks went out from the Vishap’s side, where metal met rock.

Beneath the machine, something struggled, metal on metal, something ground.

Something twisted, something labored, more than it possibly could have.

Gulab felt the vibration in her stomach, in her throat, punching her adam’s apple.

She felt her heart sink as the Vishap’s road wheels began to turn on its injured side.

It once more started to move.

Stunned to silence, Gulab’s eyes helplessly tracked the machine as it began to inch away, and then they darted to the top, where the smoke had cleared and the two rear machine guns were slowly turning around to meet her. She could almost see the flash of the guns and the flash of the eyes behind the guns, and what she did then was turn, and run.

At her back twin glowing trails of tracer rounds slashed the air with a ravenous fury.

Gulab threw herself forward moments into her dash, hitting the dirt in a shell crater.

She fell in with a corpse and quickly pushed herself under it.

She covered her head with her hands as the trail of bullets caught up to her.

Nothing but the sounds of a thousand hornets buzzing–

Chunks of stone and spent casings and dust and something fluid trickling, trickling–

Gulab felt a series of impacts along her back and cried out.

It was like a hammer pounding away at the body on top of her.

Blood started to pool at the bottom of the crater and she felt cold and numb and limp.

Her hands shaking, her strength wavering, she pulled the hand radio in her bag to her mouth. Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she drew in a long, labored breath.

“I’m pinned down behind the Vishap! I need help!” she shouted desperately.

Briefly she heard Charvi’s voice answering back, inter-cut with a sound like gunfire.

“Gulab, stay down, we can’t–!”

More noise; the radio signal cut out abruptly.

Charvi was in danger too! But how–

There was no time to think about it. Gulab had to escape and stop the Vishap.

All of the blood wasn’t hers. It came from the corpse. Nothing had impacted her body.

She raised herself slowly, and in turn raised the body above the cover of the shell crater.

She felt the bullets striking around the shell crater, and an impact on the corpse.

Gritting her teeth, Gulab once more lowered herself into the crater.

Her eyes filled with tears. She felt helpless to do anything.

She pulled the radio back up to her face and started turning the frequency dial.

“I can’t wait longer! I’m attacking the Vishap! I’m sorry Charvi! This is my only chance!”

Even if she was hit by the guns, even if she was killed, she could at least take out the tracks! She was not her father at all. His hard words weren’t backed up by anything! Gulab Kajari was a woman who would sacrifice her own life to defend her charges!

Feeling anxious and overwhelmed and not thinking straight, Gulab thrust herself up.

At her back, the advancing Vishap adjusted its machine guns. It was not shooting.

Reloading?

Gulab quickly reached into the pouch of the dead man and took his anti-tank grenade.

She glanced it. Her heart nearly stopped when she noticed the expandable fins on it.

It was a panzerwurfmine! Those things were impossible to use!

She dropped it back into the crater and grabbed the corpse’s pouch.

Inside she quickly found what looked like blocks of clay.

“A satchel!”

Feeling a ray of desperate hope, she stood up off the shell crater and charged.

Her bomb in one hand, and the radio in the other, committing the last of her strength to either radio in her own death or the crippling of the Vishap. She girded herself for it.

There was no more time. She closed in as fast as she could.

There were flashes from machine gun mounts atop the Vishap.

Twin bursts of gunfire sailed past the dashing Gulab.

She felt something graze her skin, releasing a sharp, short spurt of blood.

Gulab’s feet went unsteady, and she nearly fell.

For an instant she felt suspended in water, struggling to gain any ground.

She thought she could see each individual bullet flying her way, closing in.

Her cheek was cut; a pouch fell off her side; her hip was clipped, the closest shot yet.

She was struck then, she knew it, and the force was almost enough to throw her down.

She hit the button on the radio.

What would she say?

“I’m sorry I gave you false hope, Charvi, but you love an utter fraud–”

But before she could even transmit, someone preempted her and called first.

“Gulachka, don’t worry. ‘Mommy’s’ got you.”

In the next instant, she saw flashes inside both of the machine gun cupolas in quick succession. There were sparks and a brief flame like an incendiary round going off.

Both machine guns moved to stare in different, haphazard directions.

There was a shred of light inside each cupola where someone had penetrated.

Gulab briefly glanced at the wall, where she knew she could see the flash of a gun.

And she recognized the voice. It was the little blue haired sniper: Captain Illynichna!

She had saved her! She saved her from the guns–

Gulab’s face went red and she slammed the button on her hand radio.

“Change your callsign, right now Illynicha!” She shouted.

Chto?” went the voice again, clearly Illynichna’s. “Gulachka?”

“I refuse to call you ‘Mommy’! Have you no shame?”

“What are you talking about? I chose this sign because of my deep respect for mothers–”

“Change it now!”

Atop the Vishap one of the Cupola swung open.

A man thrust from atop the tank, his face ruined with scars, blood and burns.

His shaking hand wielded a pistol at Gulab.

Before he could shoot, however, he was pierced from the side by a friendly red tracer.

Gulab took off running after the Vishap, and with her came Loubna and Jaffar.

“I’m sorry Sergeant!” Loubna cried, a rifle in her hand, “My throw didn’t do anything!”

Jaffar cast eyes down at the floor, perhaps ashamed of his own ineffective attack.

All of three of them were mere meters from the Vishap, and the Vishap itself was beginning to cross the second gate, and would in moments be within shooting distance of the gate into Solstice itself. It would be able to shoot the first artillery to ever hit the city interior in decades, and the first to ever threaten the Socialist community inside.

No matter what, Gulab had to prevent this disaster.

And she had to get through that hunk of metal to assist Charvi as well!

Her own insecurities, and everyone else’s, could be dealt with later.

“I’m just glad to see you safe!” Gulab said. “I’m going to need your help.”

She raised the hand radio to her lips once more. “Illynichna, what’s wrong at the C.P.?”

Presumably from atop the wall, the Svecthan captain replied. “Frogmen, Gulachka! A sizeable amount of infantry came out from the river and onto the bridge to assist the Vishap. We don’t know how they managed it: they must be world class swimmers.”

“Without the Vishap they’ll have to retreat.” Gulab said. “Illynichna, is Charvi okay?”

There was an instant between her question and the reply that nearly lanced her heart.

“Yes, she is alive.” Illynicha said.

“Assist her then! I’ll take out the Vishap!” Gulab said.

“You will what?”

“Just do it!”

Gulab pocketed the hand radio, and turned to Loubna and Jaffar.

All of them were practically in the shadow of the Vishap.

And they seemed just as helpless against it as before, even if they couldn’t be shot by it.

It took being within meters of the beast, staring it dead-on, to realize how solid every part of it was. How thick the metal seemed, how armored, how invincible. Even the individual rivets seemed unassailable. Substantial battle damage had been inflicted on it, and yet every scar seemed inconsequential while the machine continued to lumber on.

“Tanks rears are supposed to be the least armored part, but, this is a lot still.”

Gulab found herself able to run right behind the Vishap at its pace.

“We’ve only got one bomb.” Gulab lifted the satchel to show Loubna and Jaffar.

“Ma’am, I have an idea.” Loubna said.

She pointed at the top of the Vishap. “If the engine is at the back of the tank, then, there must not be a lot separating those machine gun points from the engine block.”

Gulab blinked. She smiled and grinned wildly. “You’re a genius!”

She speed up the pace and took a leap.

Her feet hit the track guard of the Vishap, and she climbed up.

In front of her, two remaining machine guns were busy firing forward.

Gulab could see the final gate ahead, and the C.P. just off the main bridge thoroughfare.

There were tracers flying everywhere there.

Her whole body was screaming with pain and exhaustion. She felt the heat like the cruel beam of light from a magnifying glass, burning the ants below. The Vishap itself was like a frying pan, its armor unbearably hot to touch, gleaming in the sun despite the hundreds, maybe thousands of pockmarks upon its surface. Gulab’s head was pounding with bad thoughts and with grave fears and anxieties. It took so much from her to climb onto that machine, and to drop herself inside the ripped-up machine gun mount.

There was a little drum-shaped space there, sealed off. There was a corpse, and a ruined Norgler with ammunition still laying, protected in a case on the wall.

Gulab faced the front of the Vishap from inside and set the charge.

She had maybe ten seconds to spare, so she scrambled back atop the Vishap.

There was no time to climb down, and Gulab’s strength, sapped by the heat and the stress, would not suffice for it. She threw herself off the machine and onto the floor.

Below, Loubna and Jaffar rushed to catch her.

All of them hit the ground together and fell back into a shallow crater.

And ahead of them, the explosive went off with a greater fury than Gulab imagined.

She felt a wave of heat and power coming from the blast that knocked them all back.

Consumed in a beautiful and terrifying flash of light, the rear of the Vishap exploded like a tin can under pressure, ejecting its wheels and parts of its complicated suspension system into the air. Bits and pieces of the monster went flying everywhere like a cloud of shrapnel. Gulab raised her head and immediately lowered it and forced Loubna and Jaffar down; over their heads went a sheet of armor spinning like a thrown chakram.

The Vishap was propelled forward by the blast, and it slid on the smooth stone of the inner thoroughfare, the jagged metal of its underside and remaining wheels casting sparks as the machine flew out of the second gate, skidded around the bridge and smashed into one of the side barriers, stuck partially off the bridge with its cannon facing away from the innermost gate. Flames played about the massive rupture on the rear of the machine, and its remaining track and wheels spun haphazardly in a futile show of its remaining life. Fluid trickled out of it and spread into a puddle, like blood.

Gulab managed to force herself straight, sitting knees-down. At her side, Loubna and Jaffar were thoroughly exhausted, and laid on their backs, panting and panicking.

“We nearly died! We nearly died!” Loubna screamed, checking her body for wounds.

Her head was cloudy, but in that instant, Gulab felt an incredible sense of triumph.

She raised the hand radio to her lips. “Sergeant Kajari, reporting one tank down!”

Almost in the instant she transmitted, an ear-splitting boom sounded ahead.

The Vishap’s gun fired a round and struck the right-hand wall next to the gate.

Ancient rock chipped off the wall and into the water; there was a sizeable dent.

Gulab dropped the radio, and felt all of her remaining strength leaving her.

Had she failed?


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