The Center of Gravity (75.4)

60th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

There was a sense of foreboding permeating the stale air of the bunker as the new year approached. Hundreds of meetings had been held between the many Majors, Colonels and Generals in attendance at the bunker, and their chosen staff of trusted warrant officers, staff officers and specialists. They had decided everything from logistical priorities for hundreds of pieces of war materiel; to the exact supply routes that had to be secured and followed to deliver these supplies; to the tactical use of those materials, how many bullets to a man, how many men to the bullets. Training programs had been outlined, promotions hashed out for new officers leading new units. Every aspect of the war in Ayvarta for the next year had been examined and planned according to what everyone euphemistically referred to as “the new situation,” of the past two months.

Nocht had dearly wanted to have won this war by now, within a hundred days of its commencement. That would no longer be the case. It was found to be impossible.

It was clear that the next phase of the war would be much harder than anything Nocht’s military had ever faced, even the Kingdom of Franz. At the beginning of the conflict, Ayvarta’s army was scattered across its territories and each individual territorial unit was smaller than the Nochtish forces attacking it. Now all of them could concentrate on one defensive line around a very specific target. Solstice would decide everything.

At the dawn of the 60th, much of Ayvarta’s fate had been set in motion by the Federation armed forces. Its air, naval and ground branches each had their grand strategies in order. There were only a few more meetings left for the very highest echelons of Federation command, the few Major and Colonel Generals along with the grand Field Marshal, to review the decisions of the staff and make small amendments if necessary.

Field Marshal Haus was particularly busy at this time, and so, he found himself quite bewildered but not upset when he found Von Drachen early for their afternoon meeting.

At his side, however, a young, mousy-looking woman was far more upset. She had been holding a keyring meant to open the meeting room door, only to find that the lock had been picked and the door left askew. Shocked at this violation of bunker security, she charged through the door and there, they both found Von Drachen reclining in one of the couches that had been brought to the room. He greeted them with a nonchalant wave.

“Wh-what are you doing in here?” shouted the staff girl. “How did you get in?”

“I let myself in.” Von Drachen said. “I wanted to be punctual, and to put up my things.”

Held to the walls of the bunker with sticky tape were some scrawled-upon maps of Ayvarta, covered in lines depicting the flow of troops and supplies for Von Drachen’s vehemently marketed pet project. A mass desert march around Solstice and toward Jomba, the fertile breadbasket of the uppermost half of Ayvarta. Thanks to the desert bifurcating the continent, Jomba’s produce did not travel too far, but in a Socialist Ayvarta that now started at Solstice rather than Adjar, Jomba was wildly important.

Haus smirked at the maps and at Von Drachen himself. He crossed his arms.

“Schicksal, let us permit this nonsense just this once. I don’t want to have to deal with a courts martial for over-politeness.” Haus said, gently patting Schicksal on the shoulder.

“As you say, Field Marshal. At least General Dreschner wasn’t here to see this mess.”

Schicksal sighed and stood outside the door quietly, waiting for their next guest.

Haus, meanwhile, took his seat across from Von Drachen. There were piles of documents on the table between the room’s comfortable couch seats. Clearly Von Drachen took what he had said in their last meeting to heart. Though Haus had not truly meant to do so, he had encouraged Von Drachen to go through the data and craft a plan as thorough as Generalplan Suden. Back then he had wanted to be rid of Von Drachen; this meeting had been arranged before that incident and was supposed to be perfunctory.

They were supposed to shake hands and Haus was supposed to give Von Drachen his blessing to continue operating despite being widely hated by the staff and the President himself. All this owing to the fact that Von Drachen was quietly acknowledged as a powerful commander, and furthermore, a guarantee for continued Cissean cooperation. As the Cisseans’ only frontline general, Von Drachen was a point of pride for that nation, a symbol of their achievement and independence from the communists in Ayvarta.

Von Drachen’s eccentricity and zeal had changed the entire character of this meeting.

It was slightly irritating, but more than that, it was intriguing. Haus would humor him.

He picked up Von Drachen’s information packet, laid out on the table, and began to flip through it, finding himself strangely engrossed by the operation described therein.

He was not so sure that Dreschner, their other guest, would be happy with this outcome.

Nevertheless, he wanted to hear Von Drachen out. He had a chance to pick his brain.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus said. He put down the information packet, having skimmed all of the synopsis and some tables, and spread his arms out almost like a shrug. “I can hardly imagine what goes through your head. If you could make me understand one thing, I would like it to be this: what is it about Madiha Nakar and you? Are you in love?”

Schicksal, outside the door, gasped at the scandalous nature of this question.

Von Drachen blinked and frowned. “She is not my type at all. Women generally aren’t.”

Once again Schicksal was given cause to gasp outside the door at the sheer scandal.

Haus suspected as much and let the comment slide as if it were merely lad humor.

“Then what is it? I’ve dug up her records and studied the reports on Bada Aso and Rangda. Each time she was caught off-guard at first and got lucky with the weather.”

There was a prevailing theory among Nocht’s military intelligence that an earthquake hit the Bada Aso region on that fateful day in the Aster’s Gloom, triggering the fires that consumed the 13th Panzer Division and its affiliates and caused Nocht’s defeat there.

Her second achievement was also explained away as if by enthusiasts divining a piece of stage magic. While the defeat of the traitor Ayvartan forces was seen as inevitable given their weak leadership, the Elven force had the element of surprise and superior training. However, strong winds from a pressure system off the coast of Rangda diverted numerous Elven glider and paratrooper forces and caused them to land scattered, allowing Nakar’s forces to split and pocket and destroy them. Nothing was given to Madiha Nakar’s supposed genius, but to the weather and to military common sense.

These theories were hardly discussed, because Madiha Nakar was not a foremost concern of the Heer, but most officers who heard them believed them readily.

Most.

Von Drachen had his answer immediately, and did not need to dwell on Haus’ question.

“I’m fascinated by the idea that the Ayvarta of her adulthood could possibly create her and use her in this manner.” He replied. “Madiha Nakar is someone that a truly utopian communism should never desire, require or even create. She is militarism given form, an avatar of war and death. She thinks of nothing else but war. And yet, here she is.”

Haus was surprised at this answer. It felt masturbatory and its rebuke self evident. “Of course she is, because Lenanism is not an ideology of empathy except to fools. Lenanism is a brigand’s philosophy, its about stealing from the rich and industrious. Madiha Nakar is a product of a militarist culture that knows it needs force to accrue loot and defend it.”

“Do you know your Ayvartan history, Field Marshal?” Von Drachen replied, amused.

“Of course I do.” Haus scoffed. “I’ll have you know I grew up around Mary Trueday.”

“That wouldn’t teach you anything of value. What did she say, that the communists put rubber on toast in place of cheese? She doesn’t know anything, Field Marshal.”

Haus might have been expected to feel offense at this casual mistreatment of his childhood friend by a nobody like Von Drachen. However, he was not altogether very close to Mary and felt no such impulse. She was something of a romantic rival; and Haus himself considered her a little dim. Nevertheless he cleared his throat loudly in response.

Von Drachen snickered. “Ayvarta was at a crossroads between utopian communism and revolutionary communism. For a while, the militaristic revolutionary elements were highly placed, but with the death of Lena Ulyanova, there was a dawn of utopianism that dominated the Ayvartan trend for the better part of the last decade. Social democrats and libertarian communists developed convoluted distribution systems and generous social policies with one hand, while strangling military spending and drawing down Ayvartan involvement with parallel revolutions like Cissea and Kitan’s. These utopian communists wanted peace in a contained, almost autarkic state, and feared the revolutionaries.”

Von Drachen leaned forward, his fingers steepled, an eerie grin on his face.

“This is the Ayvarta that Madiha Nakar assimilated into in her adulthood. But Madiha Nakar is an avowed Lenanist revolutionary, and if you look into her eyes, you’ll understand that she is a born killer. She loves to inflict death; it is stimulating to her. All of this war is an exercise for her brain. She is the polar opposite of the Utopian communist. It is fascinating to me that Ayvarta is relying so strongly on the kind of person it ought to find the most revolting. All you need to turn Madiha Nakar into the perfect contradiction is to make her a secret royal, and then she would truly be deserving of exile from utopian communism. I saw it in her face, Field Marshal.”

“She would probably deny it if you asked her. All of this is conjecture.” Haus said.

“She would, but she can’t deny it to herself. We fought hand to hand, Marshal. And not only that, I saw her, on the fly, plan and execute a daring attack on an unknown enemy during the Rangda situation. You could see it in her face, Marshal! Flashes of excitement, exhilaration! I wonder, will Madiha Nakar stop fighting after this war? Or will she find cause to challenge her new government just for her own continued edification? Maybe she would keep fighting no matter happened. Maybe her zeal would never be satisfied.”

Haus knew all of this philosophy well enough, but it was in his nature to repudiate any politics that were unnecessary to accomplishing his goal. He as much hated the war profiteers in the Congress meddling with his fighting as he did the soldier-scholar who though too deeply about the matter of war. Both of them ultimately led to complications.

He himself had asked Von Drachen about this, though, so he excused him, for now.

“Why does this matter to you?” Haus pressed him. “It’s an utter inanity, to me.”

“It matters to me that Madiha Nakar is fighting for a future in which she cannot exist.” Von Drachen said. “I’m a scholar of war myself, Field Marshal. She is a threat to me!”

“A threat?”

Von Drachen shrugged and laughed. “Let’s say I just want the vanity and glory of being the most successful and defining strategist of my time. If not me, it would be her, so!”

Haus raised an eyebrow. His tone of voice had changed suddenly. It was as if Von Drachen had actively prevented himself from speaking too seriously; or maybe he was revealing an inkling of his seriousness, and the rest had been satire. He was lying, but Haus could not tell what part of what he said was meant to be the joke in this discussion. It unsettled him, because clearly it was the one on one setting that brought this about.

Von Drachen had thought of what to say and said this whole spiel. What was his angle?

Before he could press Von Drachen any further, or even think to do so, General Dreschner arrived at the door. He was grim-looking as ever, but gave his aide a gentle pat on the head as he arrived, and took his seat silently after a quick salute to the Marshal and a nod of the head to Von Drachen. Haus had wanted to assemble a group with himself as a neutral party, Von Drachen’s crazy idea, and a General who advocated for a Solstice Attack Operation, the unoriginal draft name for their current course.

“Gentlemen.” Haus began, once both men were comfortable. “Both of you have proven to be great warriors in this conflict. I’ve made many missteps in personnel management, but I correct them when I can. I am standing by my word: Von Drachen has managed to flesh out his ideas into something resembling an operational plan. I am surprised by the effort and on a superficial read, by the quality of his ideas. I think they deserve debate.”

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly. Some of their other generals would have scoffed and immediately began shouting Von Drachen down, but Dreschner was a little more composed when it came to his peers. This was not a quality he always had. It seemed that the course of the war in Ayvarta had tempered some of his most atavistic impulses.

Haus urged Von Drachen to go through with his plan. Dreschner sat back and watched.

Von Drachen stood and stretched a series of marked-up maps on a board atop a tripod.

He would flip between them at various points in his explanation.

“The Ayvartans are hard at work preparing for a valiant final stand in the city of Solstice. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We view Solstice as a vital political center for Ayvarta, from which communism radiates out to the rest of the world. Certainly, Solstice understands the importance we place on it, and mirrors it back in its defense of itself. So Ayvarta will be ready to fend us off from there, creating a long defensive line centered on Solstice.”

Von Drachen flipped to a map with a outwardly-bulging, semi-circular defensive line around Solstice, stretching across vast expanses of the desert from north to south. There were arrows pointing toward the semi-circle, each numbered the same as a major unit of the Federation’s armies that was scheduled to move in that direction. One arrow for example had his own 13th Panzer Brigade, jabbing at central Ayvarta off of the flank of the 3rd Panzer Division of General Anschel and between the 6th Panzergrenadier Division of Meist, recently reinforced with units of light tanks and motorized artillery.

“However, I do not believe Solstice merits this attention. Its military production is sizeable for a single city in the middle of a desert, but it is nothing compared to the industry Ayvarta is squirreling away beyond the sands. Furthermore, Solstice is utterly dependent on the remaining ‘Dominances’ past the desert for most of its precious food.”

Haus was about to ask a question but Von Drachen launched into an uncalled for explanation of the Ayvartan word for Province, which dated back to the Imperial years and the fact that each province was named for a warlord. So “Adjar’s Dominance” for the province controlled by Lord Adjar, and so on. Haus blinked, and Dreschner shook his head and they both wondered what this had to do with anything, and both protested.

“Ayvartan history is deeply important! To everything!” Von Drachen said, as scandalized himself now as Schicksal was when Haus implied he was in love with Nakar. He had a grumpy, petty look on his face, perhaps moreso for being interrupted than anything. “Solstice’s ancient history is the reason we are going after it, and the reason they are defending it. Why, if we understand this history, must we repeat it blindly?”

“Because the swiftest end to this war is decapitating the communist structure so that the Republic can rule in its place.” Dreschner said. “Because all we need to attack is Solstice.”

“Any siege of Solstice will drag out and cost us dearly in materiel and men. I am advocating a different approach that seems riskier but takes advantage of the moment.”

Von Drachen turned over to a new series of maps that showed a three-directional attack on the Ayvartan line; a massive concentration of forces in the southeast, launching a massive punch at one part of the Ayvarta line; a breakthrough in the south and a hasty march past Solstice. One enormous armored thrust at the ‘dominance’ of Jomba, the breadbasket of the Ayvartan east, able to perhaps feed the entire continent someday. Its industry had been young in the waning days of the Empire, but slowly, it was building.

“Our supply lines will collapse.” Dreschner said simply. He was visibly curious, however.

Haus himself was also very curious. He would not have thought of this trick. Had his forces managed any breakthrough he would have sent it directly to the walls of Solstice, hoping to pierce the city defenses and begin the political endgame. Von Drachen’s gamble was that the long Ayvartan line protecting Solstice would rearrange to meet two fake northern thrusts, break in the south, and that the fortress would be unable to chase a blitzkrieg charge past its walls and to its tender, necessary northeastern regions.

Von Drachen seemed to notice their engagement and smiled proudly at them.

“All we need at that point is to cause damage. Ayvarta can’t counterattack into the Republic with its current forces, so they cannot exploit our absence from the Solstice front or truly cut us off. And if Jomba suffers too much under us, they will lose the ability to resupply any kind of force. I believe the Ayvartans will surrender at that point.”

“What kind of forces are guarding Jomba?” Dreschner asked.

“It’s not important; any kind of battle on that soil is a win for us, even if we are beaten around a bit. However, I believe they have concentrated most of their forces defending Solstice. I doubt Jomba has a full army to its defense.” Von Drachen replied.

“So you want us to go in there and what? Torch crops?” Haus said.

“I think it is more useful to steal them for ourselves at that point.” Von Drachen said.

Haus rubbed his chin. “I can’t deny that you have a point, but it is terribly risky. If Ayvarta does not surrender, and continues to fight, we will be in a tough position.”

“Lets say Solstice does keep fighting and locks us in the northeast. They will kill many of us, but we will have done damage to their ability to prosecute this war long-term that will be impossible to repair. We will win eventually. Our sacrifices will still be pivotal.”

Von Drachen seemed to dismiss the concern. Haus blinked. He was ready to put himself in a nearly suicidal position, cut off deep in enemy territory. There was logic to what he said. By making Jomba a battlefield, at all, they would put the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, the power opposed to the new Republic of Ayvarta, under threat of starvation. Von Drachen might be cut off from supply but he had enough power at any time to rip up fields, burn orchards, poison and salt lands, and render the breadbasket useless. Only the Republic and its southern territories would be able to bear the burden of feeding the continent at that point. It would be nearly impossible for Solstice to recover. Even food assistance from Helvetia would be useless. Communism will have lost all credibility with the people if it could not under its own power feed them anymore. The Allies would win.

“I don’t believe it will come to that, because I think there are voices within the communist camp who will realize the damage that is coming and seek a diplomatic solution.” Von Drachen said. “People with the foresight to know they have been beaten.”

“Do you mean Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked, crooking one eyebrow skeptically.

Dreschner looked between the two of them, clearly confused about this new topic.

“No. I think she will realize what is happening, but I think her solutions to the problem will look utterly insane and she will probably be locked up or become a lone partisan. Her presence will certainly help peace seem reasonable, I think.” Von Drachen said.

“I must admit that I see some merit in it, but I must oppose any plan that hinges on our acceptance of suicide.” Dreschner said sternly. “Even if it led to a guaranteed victory, asking me to give up over 200,000 men– no, actually, you put here 500,000? Insane.”

“Not all of them will die.” Von Drachen shrugged. “You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Your glib tone is only making this plan less appealing to me.” Dreschner said.

“Every time we fight, we take a suicidal risk.” Von Drachen said. “You, and me, and him,” he pointed offhandedly at Haus, “and even the girl at the door, could die any minute.”

Schicksal gasped at the door, now scandalized at the casual acceptance of her death.

“There’s a difference between being in danger and plunging into death.” Dreschner said.

“On paper every one of these operations is plunging into death. In the long term, we want to destroy the communists, and this is what will do it. I guarantee it will do it.”

Dreschner scoffed, quickly devolving to his typically passionate debate.

“Which side are you on Von Drachen? Your attitude is putting all of this into question.”

He was shouting, and Von Drachen sighed and replied calmly, “I’m on the side of victory.”

Before Dreschner could shout something again or raise his shaking fists, Haus grunted.

The Major General paused, and seemed to find his calm and shame in himself.

“Apologies, Field Marshal.” Dreschner said.

Haus glared at Von Drachen, over fingers anxiously rubbing down his own face.

He moved his hands off his own face and clasped them together, staring at the maps.

“Von Drachen, tell me one thing and I’ll consider this plan of yours.” Haus said.

Von Drachen nodded his head. “Unknowing of the inquiry, I certainly shall try my best.”

Haus breathed heavily and dropped the question out into the air, heavy, dispassionate.

“Why did you betray the anarchists in Cissea? Why did you become a part of Nocht?”

Dreschner looked up from his seat at the standing Von Drachen.

Haus did not look at him. Still, he looked at the maps.

Von Drachen was smiling. His smile could be felt even if not seen.

“I’m just a man who falls on the side of victory over sure defeat.” He said.

Haus stomped his boot on the ground. “You’re lying.”

“Well, I don’t know what more to say.” Von Drachen said. He was unfazed.

Haus stood up from his seat and dusted off his coat. There was dust everywhere here.

He closed his fist, feeling a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.

“I’m sure your plan is genuine, and you’ve proven to me you’re a canny officer, but not one I can trust to shoulder the responsibility for an entire operation like this.” Haus said. “I’m putting Dreschner in tactical command of Group South, and you will follow his directive. We will break the Ayvartan front line and attack the walls of Solstice. If, as you say, you are on the side of victory, and not yourself, nor anarchy; you will help him out.”

“I am at your service.” Von Drachen said. His tone had not changed one bit.

“That all? Not going to stand up for yourself?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It’s fine. I did not expect much. I’m glad I got as far as I did.”

It was almost vexing how easily he took being put down this hard.

Dreschner said nothing. He looked between the two men with an expressionless face.

Just then, someone stepped past Schicksal at the door, and the little aide merely gasped and shrieked and did not seem to put up much of a fight. A beautiful blond woman in a pristine uniform charged past, holding in her hands a document and a letter, breathing heavily. Haus stepped closer and held her shoulders gently to reassure her. It was his trusted aide, Cathrin Habich. She was sweating and had clearly been running hard.

“What’s wrong?” Haus asked. He put one hand on her own, and signaled with his fingers over the back of her hand, where she could see it. They had developed this system together. He was trying to see if it was something they could talk about among them.

Cathrin signaled affirmatively with her own hand and slowly rose, caught her breath, and regained her composure and the cold, steely gaze for which she was known.

“Sir, McConnell went around all our backs.” She said.

“What?”

Haus raised his voice. He felt a sudden shock in his chest, a swelling of anger.

Dreschner looked speechless, caught in the sweep of events. He could not have known what McConnell was planning, unless McConnell also went to him with his idea. But Cathrin certainly made it sound ominous and deadly serious. Von Drachen, meanwhile, was cleaning up his things without concern for the drama unfolding around him.

“Show me.” Haus said.

Cathrin showed him the document. “Presidential approval. Here’s a telegram.”

She then opened the letter and handed Haus the paper.

Haus almost did not want to open it.

He felt stung, betrayed. He imagined what it must say and it made him hurt and angry.

In one sweeping move accompanied by a sigh he spread the paper open.

“Prepare Rolling Thunder. McConnell is sharp. Trust him like I did you.”

Trust him like I did you? When did Haus ever have to prove himself to Achim? When did he have to come up with some unnecessary, nonsense plan to earn his trust? Haus felt a level of dismay and even jealousy that he knew was irrational but could not contain. He had felt secure in his knowledge that he would be trusted utterly to make decisions like this. Achim had interfered in operations before, and Haus had allowed it and even seen some of the wisdom in it; but this time he had promoted a subordinate over him.

McConnell would get to execute an operation Haus had blocked as infeasible.

Had he used his pull with his brother in the Senate? Haus did not know.

He could only fantasize angrily about every backhanded thing that may have happened.

In a bid to tear his mind away from the shock and hurt, he handed Dreschner the paper.

Dreschner read it, and the accompanying document, and almost seemed not to believe it.

“This is exactly like Bada Aso. Why would the President order this to happen again?”

“Field Marshal, what are we going to do?” Cathrin asked.

Haus had no answers for anyone.

He stood, breathing heavily, his soft, boyish face broken up by anger and despair.

Looking up from the his hands, he only saw Von Drachen’s back as the man left the room with all of his maps and charts in tow, without a word or seemingly a care in the world.

Something in Haus yearned to understand how Von Drachen could continue to raise his head like that, where Haus felt such a burden upon his own that it was hard to even live.


On the 1st of the Postill’s Dew of 2031, a brand new year, the active airports of northern Dbagbo and Tambwe, in cities like Rangda and Karahad captured mere weeks ago, began preparations to launch massive daily air attacks on Solstice under plan Rolling Thunder.

At their disposal were the Archwizard class heavy strategic bombers with 7000 kg of bombs; Wizard class long range bombers with 3000 kg of bombs; the standby Archer fighter and its new cousin, the Crossbow; and the old reliable Warlock ground attack plane with its cannons, light bomb-load and a screeching dive right out of a nightmare.

There were other weapons being cooked up too; but the pilots knew little about that.

Enemy opposition was always implied in battle operations, but in this case, it was largely unremarked upon that the Ayvartans would try to keep them out of their airspace.

As far as they knew, their flying would be mostly opposed by the Ayvartan’s old Anka biplane with nowhere near the fighting power of even the older Archer. Perhaps a first generation Garuda might appear once in a while, to speak nothing of the rare Garuda II. In their minds the pilots of the Luftlotte’s Jagdwaffe and Schlachtwaffe felt that they would easily own the skies over Solstice, and kill without obstacle. It was almost funny.

None of the men on the ground had taken part in that meeting where Haus quoted a very large number of anti-aircraft guns on the ground and walls of Solstice. So in the minds of the pilots, it was a scenario where they would either fight gallant duels in the sky, or just bully Ayvartan planes into the dirt over and over while the bombers rained death.

In this environment, all the preparatory activities of Rolling Thunder were carried out with zeal. Lehner had finally been talked down, and the Eagles were now cut loose.

The Luftlotte scheduled the attacks to commence on the 13th and last for weeks, maybe as far into the month as the 30th or 40th from there, or until Solstice utterly collapsed.

Or until their ability to fly collapsed. Whichever came first; but only one was acceptable.

Thus began the apocalyptic Battle of Solstice.


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Life In The Besieged City (74.4)

This scene contains sexual content.


25th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

Shortly after midnight a stark silence fell over the guest room.

One final creak of the mattress spring; one last verse in the lover’s ragged duet.

At the peak of their passion the lovers fell onto the bed together.

Parinita laid on her back, looking up at Madiha at her most physically glorious.

Her hair thrown about, eyes half-closed, her breasts rising and falling with her rough breathing. Her skin was smooth and bark-brown in the dark, slick and glistening with sweat that made the slight, lean delineations of muscle in her arms, shoulders and belly more visible. She looked like she had been caught in a monsoon, and she was beautiful.

Her dark, fiery eyes locked to Parinita’s own and she smiled softly.

“Let me hold you.” Madiha asked.

“Of course.”

She rarely expressed a specific desire like that, so it was urgent to accommodate it.

Parinita tittered as she and Madiha shifted in bed.

Taller and leaner, Madiha crawled off from atop Parinita and laid breasts against back, holding Parinita with one arm over her chest and another under her weight. Parinita was a little more plump than her girlfriend, and Madiha seemed to want to dig deep into her. She held her tight, and she locked legs with her and drew her head close. Parinita responded, pulling back her strawberry hair from her shoulder so Madiha could eagerly kiss there. She felt Madiha’s breathing, a warm pulse rolling down her slick flesh.

“I love you so much.” Parinita said.

Madiha held a kiss on her neck a little longer in response.

They laid together for some time, eventually growing quiet and still, Madiha staring into Parinita’s shoulder and Parinita staring at the subtle, waving patterns on the wallpaper. She treasured this chance. Not just because she was horned up. It was not that their sex life was sparse; they had enough opportunity to suit both their levels of interest and endurance. But moments like this, when they managed to lay down together without the pressure of time or the tension of something on the horizon, came only once in a while.

Last time they got to have sex and then bide their time, alone and at peace, without responsibility for hours and hours at a time, must have been Rangda, after the festival. Parinita had been the aggressive one then too — she usually always was. Madiha tended to turn the tables around eventually, however. This time had been like that as well. Though she seemed like a muted person, Madiha was quietly intense. It was delightful.

Parinita often wondered what Madiha thought in these circumstances. She didn’t think to ask. She knew a lot about her lover’s interior life when it came to other matters. But they never talked much about sex or about being in bed, or about their relationship. Parinita felt too insecure to seek the answers; she felt better thinking it must all be fine.

That night however, Madiha seemed finally inclined to make conversation.

“Parinita, I’m going to keep fighting, you know?”

Internally, Parinita sighed. Both fondly, but also a touch annoyed.

“I know.”

“Even if you ask me to stop. I know that I couldn’t.”

“Hey, I would not ask you to. I’m a soldier too! Or do you not consider me one?”

That seemed to give Madiha pause. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without you.”

“Damn right you wouldn’t! I’ve seen the notes you take for that book of yours.”

“Thank you for organizing everything. I’d be like a brain without a spine otherwise.”

Parinita was not sure that was what the spine did, but like animals, maybe Madiha just was not taught much about anatomy. She laughed a little to herself and held her peace.

Madiha sighed deeply.

“Why did you fall in love with me, Parinita?”

It was so sudden that Parinita couldn’t help but laugh nervously.

“This is not how you ask to go another round.” Parinita replied.

She felt her heartbeat swell a little.

At least she confirmed she was not only person with low self esteem in the room.

Madiha whispered a barely audible apology.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I understand. After all, I’m such a catch. Seventy kilos of film trivia!”

She intended it in jest, but it came off more malicious.

“The sarcasm there saddens me.” Madiha said. “I was just thinking what an amazing person you are Parinita. It’s honestly still like a dream to me that we can be like this.”

Parinita held on to Madiha’s hand, laid on her waist.

“I’m sorry too.” Parinita said. “It’s just a weird question. Let me think about it.”

“There doesn’t have to be a reason I guess. It’s fine as long as we’re both in love.”

“You’re right, there really doesn’t need to be a reason. But I know you like to make sense of the unknowable in all your doings.” Parinita turned around in bed suddenly. She pushed herself a little so she would be at eye level with the rather taller Madiha.

Looking back into those eyes, so deeply, really brought back a lot of memories.

She remembered when she first saw Madiha, in Gowon’s office, the instant she walked into the room to be scolded and made a fool of. Parinita had to admit to herself that she had an awful dirty mind about the whole thing. Within the haze of stress and shame she felt as she was made Gowon’s scapegoat, Parinita thought Madiha was delectably tall, that she looked like she’d aced her PT, and that she had a pretty face to boot.

But she was not about to tell Madiha, “In between almost pissing myself about my boss turning me in, and the shelling, I briefly thought I wanted to fuck you when we met.”

Especially since she only had a few fleeting moments of arousal before a war started.

She recalled another scene however. Seeing Madiha running downhill with Parinita in tow, desperate to reach their comrades as the war started, desperate to mount a defense and to resist the tide of violence. She was in such a haze back then, everything was crazy, and their relationship seemed built on a foundation of such craziness, from Parinita’s superstition to Madiha’s actual supernatural power to their unequal rank in a military structure and to the violence and the threat of violence that pervaded their lives.

That day, however, she realized with a great sadness that Madiha was profoundly lonely. Profoundly, thoroughly, alone, in a world of her own that seemingly nobody understood. Some of it was Madiha’s own doing. She was so obsessed with doing right by others and so selfish in her own sacrifice. She was like that all of the time with everything that she did. She was so like that, she had not asked nor given room for Parinita to reciprocate her tonight, and they were already pretending to have completely wound down in bed.

It was that which, to Parinita, defined Madiha most. Her loneliness: she was unique in a lot of ways, but being unique only made her more alone. Being exceptional made her alone. Being needed of and demanded of, made her alone. And internalizing those things and putting them ahead of herself at all times, made her alone. She was alone because only she could understand herself; she was alone because she expected that only she herself could or should take on burdens and dangers alone. Alone and made alone.

Left to her own devices, Madiha would have died alone in Bada Aso and wanted to.

Parinita saw that in her on that day and throughout the glory and tragedy of Bada Aso.

She saw it in Rangda, at the formal start of their romantic relationship, too.

She even saw it now. Left to her own devices Madiha would die and die alone and want to.

And it vexed her. She wanted more than anything to accompany Madiha. She wanted her to not be alone; she wanted to penetrate that world of hers, to learn and know and see and feel and taste everything that was Madiha. Even if it meant to be the one other person alone with Madiha if that was what it took. Even if it hurt her; or hurt others.

When she saw those lonely eyes bent on their own self destruction, Parinita wanted to burn with her, to burn at her side. She wanted the glory, she wanted the tragedy, and she wanted the moments like this, of the profound peace of two alone individuals together.

Because she was alone too, and she saw the most kindred person in her life on that day.

Left to her own devices, Parinita would have died alone too.

And she would have wanted to.

Maybe that, too, was part of the craziness. Maybe that also did not make any sense.

Maybe it was contradictory.

Maybe it was selfish.

Maybe she concocted it in her own head out of nothing.

She loved Madiha.

“I like tall women with short hair, but not too short. I like them a little feminine.”

Madiha blinked hard and looked confused.

“I’m kidding.”

Parinita giggled. She felt such a surge of emotion looking at Madiha’s eyes.

She started to weep.

“I’m such an oaf, I’m sorry.” Madiha said. “I did not mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t.” Parinita settled down, still both giggling and weeping, and found the words. “Madiha, I fell in love with you, because when I see you trying your hardest to put the whole world on your shoulders and fall to the ground with it, I can’t help but get under there and grab, even though I’m fat and useless and can barely lift a chair anyway.”

She couldn’t help but throw in a little self deprecation.

Madiha drew her face closer to Parinita’s.

“You’re not useless and you’re not fat. You’re beautiful and smart and healthy.”

But she was weak, Parinita supposed. Nothing there about her lifting abilities.

Parinita giggled even harder.

“You are an oaf sometimes, Madiha Nakar! A big dumb oaf!”

She took hold of Madiha and was suddenly on top of her, a big grin on her face.

She threw her hair back, straddling Madiha.

She envisioned herself, towering over Madiha, nude, candle-lit red.

For once she thought, she must have looked glorious.

Her hands reached around Madiha’s hips, tracing teasing lines down her outer thighs.

Madiha looked up at her with a slowly broadening smile.

Leaning down, Parinita took Madiha into a kiss.

“I’m my turn to be on top now.”

Parinita pressed her weight atop Madiha, her fingers sliding from outer to inner thigh.

“I’d love that.” Madiha replied.

She was awkward but clearly enthusiastic.

That, too, was rare.

And Parinita loved it.

She loved it while she could.

Everyone on Solstice did.

They loved, feverishly and with haste, while they still could.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

It was a brand new day in Solstice. Scarcely 0900 and the sun was already bearing down.

There was a good breeze, however, and the resort had a fresh, tropical scent to it.

In front of the hotel, the bride’s guests stood together, smiling and vibrant, waiting to be sent off. Gulab and Charvi had been a little late, but they looked brilliant, hand in hand, their faces glowing with warmth and joy. Parinita and Madiha were a picture perfect couple (though they would have insisted they were not if pried), recently showered and manicured by the staff, their clothes freshly ironed. They smiled knowingly at each other, wondering idly what had Gulab and Charvi so happy, but being too serene to pry.

Meanwhile, the bride had a rough night. Though dressed well in the complimentary sari and a midriff-bearing choli and skirt, silken and bright purple and blue and gold, Kremina Qote was pale in the face, her ponytail a touch disheveled. She had bags under her eyes and an unfriendly expression on her face. At her side, Daksha Kansal was calm and collected but her posture was a little unsteady and her eyes wandered. Both had clearly drank too much and had a tumultuous evening with the resulting illness.

“Thank you all for helping us celebrate our wedding as our honored guests.” Daksha said.

Kremina handed each of them a complimentary little gift of a lotus flower in a glass orb.

It was customary to treat the honored guests: in this case, the maid selected by the bride (Parinita,) the best man selected by the groom (Madiha) and the wedding shooters.

However, the grace and cheer with which they accepted their gifts only put the bride off.

“Good, good, yes. Very nice, thank you all, etcetera.” She hissed. “Young people are henceforth banned from this hotel! Nobody younger than me, nobody! I don’t want to see anyone under sixty years of age around me! Only old spent women trying to enjoy their honeymoon hangovers are allowed. Dismissed! Go have fun somewhere else. Goodbye!”

She practically shooed away the guests. Daksha looked away from the sight, and laughing and smiling, the two couples went their ways, as the bride and groom looked on.

There was a melancholy air about it, but they were proud and happy in their own way.

“Ugh. It’d be cliche to say, ‘those girls are our future’ or something, wouldn’t it?”

Kremina took a step closer to Daksha and held onto her arm, leaning into her side.

Daksha smiled and caressed her hair. “You could say that, but those girls already have another generation waiting in the wings that they’re going to be responsible for. Time moves too fast these days. It’s us who should have been leaving them soon; I wish we would have left them better than this. What was it Lena said? Communism in 10 years?”

“That was always optimistic.” Kremina said. “You’re not going to let her fight, are you?”

She had changed the subject very quickly. She was referring to Madiha, now.

“She will have her chance someday.” Daksha replied.

Kremina did not push the subject.

She was exhausted, but more than that, she was starved for affection.

“Daksha, I’m sorry for sleeping through our wedding night. Can I make it up to you?”

She reached around behind Daksha’s back and grabbed quite a handful of her rear.

Daksha silently and sternly took her by the shoulder and pulled her up into a kiss.

“You can make out with me.” Daksha said upon releasing her.

Kremina pushed herself back up into the kiss anew and with vigor.

“I’m thinking of a lot more than that.” She replied.

Neither wanted to govern right now, not just yet. For now, they were still just brides.

And the future was still, for just a little bit longer, on hold.


30th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kashlikraj, Civil Lodge

Basanti Rahani opened his eyes not in the officer’s barracks but in a sparsely furnished, cozy little private room. His hair had fallen over his eyes. It had gotten longer than he thought. He liked it. It was nice. Somewhere around the shoulder was a good length.

His hair, and his face, were slick with sweat. Solstice was so much hotter than Bada Aso.

Behind his back, he felt warmth, and a strong, comforting embrace.

One arm wrapped around his chest. He felt a kiss on his neck.

Meanwhile the other arm slinked around his waist. A hand cupped tight over his groin.

Rahani let out a delighted little giggle. He kept himself from becoming too excited.

“Breakfast and a shower first. Then we can go again.” Rahani said sternly.

“How long do we have the room for?”

Rahani turned around. He met his husband’s face and pecked his lips quickly.

“We’ve got a few hours.” Rahani said.

“I haven’t seen you in so long Santi. I really want you, you know?”

There was just something delectable about hearing his pet name said aloud again.

Naveen was an technician working with the Prajna super-heavy gun team, and Rahani was a field artillery officer, so their married life had been on and off and difficult. Before the war, Rahani had been angling for a promotion to work as part of the Prajna team. He was closer than ever to getting it; his team’s heroics in Bada Aso and Rangda were well recognized, and all of them were advancing to officer ranks themselves. Soon, Rahani would not be needed to guide them. He could move on to the next step in his career.

And more importantly, to the next step in his married life: seeing his husband every day.

For now, though, they still only saw each other during little escapades like this one.

They were patient; this was good enough. Rahani put on a salacious grin for his man.

“I know Naveen. But until you take a bath, I’m not going back down there for you.”

It was Rahani’s turn to grab somewhere and Naveen nearly jumped at the sensation.

He sucked in his lips briefly and smiled at Rahani, who had him under the sheets, subtly teasing him. Naveen had a precious face, angular and inviting. He and Rahani fit together like lock and key; Rahani’s small, slender softness and Naveen’s tall, round, thick beauty. Rahani truly wanted to just sink into him, but things had to be done appropriately. After all, Rahani was a very clean person, appearances mattered to him.

He wanted to make love fresh, comfortable, smelling like roses and in a pretty dress.

“Come on, if you let me dress up, you can dress me back down.” Rahani said.

Naveen smiled. “Ah, but it’s like pulling back the petals on a lotus flower, Santi. Sometimes its a shame. You dress up so well.” He raised a hand to Rahani’s chin. “Why not just stay here with me. I’m ready to go and you won’t even have to lift a finger.”

As much as the suggestion both appealed and made him cringe, Rahani said nothing.

Instead, Rahani caressed Naveen’s face also. They kissed one more time, this time pulling in each other’s lips for a little longer, enough to taste tongue. Then Rahani rolled out of bed. Behind him, Naveen laid back in the bed, a mixture of placid satisfaction and mild frustration in his face and actions. He crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling.

“If it’s too frustrating, I can dress up in the other room.” Rahani teased.

He had a fondness for feminine clothes, and in general cultivated a very feminine appearance, though he always thought of himself as more of a man, if he was anything at all. On some level, the genderedness of things was felt false to him, but he liked the idea of being a man with straight, silky hair, a delicate figure, a face done up with pigments, and a flower in his hair. From the clothes complimentary to the room, Rahani picked out a sari and a choli of humble make but with nice, bright colors, and a skirt to match. Donning sandals, and plucking a flower to pin with his hair, he bid Naveen wait for him.

Naveen, arms still crossed, continued to stare at the ceiling.

“Take a shower or I’ll be crueler than I have been! I promise!” Rahani said.

Naveen sighed but smiled at the doggedness of his self-styled wife. He got up.

Rahani stared at his bulky figure for one enticing moment before making himself go.

He was almost contemplating just showering with him and doing the deed there.

But proprieties separated the roses from the weeds! It would be worth waiting.

Besides which, he was actually hungry for more than his husband at that moment.

Outside the lodge, Kashlikraj was busy with traffic, the nearby roads choked with vehicles, and crowds on the streets and around the nearby buildings. Its newfound adjacency to the center of government power, after Daksha Kansal moved the central offices of the army to its vicinity, meant a lot more coming and going than the neighborhood had ever seen. It was already one of the newer and more modern of Solstice’s districts, at least circa 2015 when it was near completely redone.

Now with the introduction of many government workers and the conversion of the infrastructure to support them, Kashlikraj was turning into Solstice’s new nerve center.

There were some growing pains, exacerbated by the war.

As Rahani made his way across the street, he found the traffic shaped not solely by demand in the newly crowned district, but by something of a catastrophe. Looking over the line of decorative shrubbery along the street, Rahani saw a massive collapse in the center of the road, exposing water and electric veins and even some of the sewer. There was one civil guard slowly leading small traffic around the corner and past the affected area, and a road sign was put up forbidden the entry of large trucks for the moment.

Several such large trucks were parked on the street farther ahead, waiting.

Rahani approached the hole to get a closer look, and heard several people arguing.

“We’ve had our goods truck held up a block away for an hour now, surely you can’t be closing the entire neighborhood down for one hole can you?” asked an irate manager of some kind of state store. He was throwing his hands up in front of the civil guard.

“I had a truck with construction materials headed for the northern districts turned around and frozen for two hours now! I need you to release it to leave at once!” This second voice came from an older woman in overalls, waving a clipboard at the guard.

Between the two and several others, the civil guard seemed like a scared teenager surrounded by an angry mob. He couldn’t have been any older than Adesh was now.

The Guard crossed his arms and averted his gaze and spoke in an unsteady voice.

“I’m sorry, we’re very short staffed at the moment, we closed down the neighborhood roads and froze incoming heavy traffic to check for structural problems in the roads connecting to this one. I’m afraid I can’t personally redirect your vehicles anywhere. We’ve got some folks from the engineering college coming in soon and if they think the connecting roads are good enough then everyone can go on their way promptly.”

Rahani felt sorry for the whole lot of them. All of the experienced construction workers and civil engineers were farther south, helping build the earthworks and camps and other defenses against the incoming Noctish forces. All they could spare were students to help fix the roads, and because Kashlikraj was suddenly so important, everyone involved with this problem was twice as paranoid as they needed to be about safety and security. The Civil Guard had been heavily tapped for more military power, too, so the average age and experience of the patrolmen and women of Solstice had dropped dramatically.

Rahani wondered if the person back at the guard outpost calling the shots on this was also younger than him and frightened to death at the prospect of more failing roads.

“For god’s sake man! Just let us turn around and we’ll redirect through Yoruba instead!”

“I’m afraid I can’t release any of the vehicles right now. I’m sorry. I’m following orders.”

Around the Guard the crowd grew increasingly agitated. Rahani did not think that a fight would start, but he knew the Guard was under a lot of pressure and that everyone would lean on him to get their side of the affair done, or harass him until he fled responsibility. It was an ugly insight into the way their daily lives strained under the weight of the war. Solstice was understaffed and overwhelmed; Rahani was only given respite because he had already faced two deadly battles with his unit. Otherwise, he’d be straining too.

Rahani turned away from the scene and headed for the civil canteen across the street.

He would pick up some bread and lentils, milk and yogurt, and run back to the lodge.

The first clue that his plans were about to go awry was that the Canteen windows did not have a fresh basket of the day’s ingredients. Wilted greens and some day old fermenting yogurt sat in a forlorn half-empty basket on the storefront. The Canteen was nearly deserted, with only one teenage girl on staff who was sitting behind the front counter with her head on her hands. Rahani walked in and found the banquet tables nearly empty. On a normal day they were stuffed with the day’s goods and arrayed neatly along the sides and corners of the store. Today, many tables were packed up in one corner.

Not to say there was not any food. There was fresh bread, a pot of yellow lentils, a jar of dried fruits and sugared dried fruits, and two serving jugs of clean and carbonated water. There was no yogurt, milk, vegetables, fruit juice or paneer. It was the most barren that Rahani had seen a civil canteen in a major city like this, and it scared him.

At the sight of a customer, the girl looked up and tried to put on a smile, but it was clear that she was under a lot of stress today. God knows how many hungry and irritable people she had to deal with today. It must been such a shock to her and to everybody, to come into a Canteen without food in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. In Solstice City itself no less! He had to wonder as to the cause of this. Had the war caught up this fast?

The Canteen Girl picked up a hole puncher and bid Rahani to come closer.

Hujambo!” She definitely had a teenage girl’s voice and stature. Rahani smiled back. She snapped the hole puncher in the air. “Sorry comrade, normally we don’t really insist on this much, but they’re really tightening the regulations so I’m going to need to punch your meal card today. You can take anything you want though, don’t worry.”

“Can I take out a card?” Rahani asked nervously. He had left all his things except a little money, in case it was needed, back at the lodge. He expected to walk in and walk out.

Everyone had become accustomed to it in recent years.

Across the desk, the girl averted her gaze. “I’m really not supposed to do this anymore, but I really like your flower and dress, so I’ll make an exception.” She said.

She gave him a little smile and passed him a meal card with one hole punched already.

There were two holes for each day for one week. Rahani was surprised.

It was a much tighter rationing system, one that could change week to week!

“Miss, is this your card? I’m not sure–”

“The Staff eat all the leftovers anyway, so its fine.” She said. “I took it out for myself yesterday and nobody’s checking the numbers yet. Just get one yourself soon. You can’t just pick them up at the canteen anymore. There’s specific times at the local Council.”

“Thank you.” Rahani said.

“Enjoy the bread. I made it myself.”

“By any chance, do you know when you’re scheduled to receive more food?”

In response the girl nodded her head toward the east.

“We’re supposed to have a truck coming. I don’t know what’s happening with it. Don’t expect fresh fruit or veggies for the rest of the week though. We’re making do with dried sugared fruits and canned palms and mushrooms and stuff like that for now.”

“Thanks miss.”

Rahani picked up a box and grabbed some bread, a few cups of lentils, some of the fruits and some plain water, and walked back out. On the street, the guard was putting up some caution tape and standing behind it so nobody could come near him, and turned his back on the small crowd of irate people looking for an answer. Everyone politely declined to jump the tape and bash him; it was still Ayvarta even if they were all mad, and they limited their frustrations to shouting. Nobody had descended to savagery.

Yet.

Staring down at his box of food and the diminished offerings at the Canteen, Rahani wondered, with fear deep in his heart. Did the same desperation he felt to love his husband and to drink of him all that he could, while he still could, extend to everyone else around him? Without knowing it, was this city beginning to live its last days? How would that desperation grow? Would it remain kind and naive? Would it turn wretched?

Nobody was jumping the caution tape to hit the young, rookie guard. Yet.

All of that vanished from Rahani’s mind as soon as he entered the lodge again.

His desperation grew suddenly greater. He felt, fearfully, that he was living his last days.

He heard the shower going off, and with a swelling feeling in his chest, he stripped off all his clothes and ran into the bathroom. He saw Naveen in the shower and ran to him and threw himself at his back, hugging his waist. Naveen tensed up briefly, then relaxed; Rahani could feel the stirring of his muscles and girth and the softening of him, and he wanted to cry. As the warm water descended upon them, some tears did escape.

“I was missing you already.” Naveen said, in good humor.

He reached behind his back and squeezed Rahani’s hip. Rahani smiled against his back.

“I missed you too.”


35th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Krashlikraj, The 10th Head

Madiha Nakar threw open the door to Daksha Kansal’s office, fuming.

Behind her, Cadao Chakma, the defense minister, looked insignificantly small.

Opposite them, Daksha Kansal sat behind her desk. She had been in conference with the diplomat from Helvetia, Larissa Finesse, but Madiha had not heeded Minister Chakma’s warnings to remain outside, and barged in suddenly. Larissa raised a skeptical eyebrow upon seeing her, and Daksha sighed and frowned as if she knew what was happening.

“Premier, I demand an explanation for why Marshal Vikramajit came out of retirement to lead the First Solstice Front. As a General I don’t believe this to be a wise course–”

“Did you have ambitions for the position?” Daksha replied. “That’s new.”

Madiha blinked, confused. “New?”

“You’re normally so passive and obedient.” Daksha said.

They were talking almost like mother and daughter. Larissa looked confused.

And yet they carried on the theater in front of her and Chakma anyway.

“I’m sorry ma’am, I tried to stop her–”

“It’s not your fault, Cadao.” Daksha said.

Madiha crossed her arms and grumbled. She was trying to center herself and failing. Everyone could see the fire in her eyes. “I had several glowing recommendations from various officers and volunteered for the position. I even submitted a detailed plan. I think, to pass me over for a man enjoying his retirement is an unduly harsh reprimand.”

“We passed you over because you are needed here in Solstice and your ideas are not needed on the front right now.” Daksha said. “We are not mounting a counteroffensive.”

“My plan has been meticulously researched and is realistic to our strength! Tell me what Vikramajit has done that makes him appear suitable to lead the war for our lives!”

Madiha was shouting.

Daksha sighed and rubbed her own forehead. “We’re not talking about this. You will train the Solstice garrison for now and build up your Mechanized unit. You’re the only one here with relevant frontline combat experience and a glowing academy record. We need you here. For god’s sake most of our army is younger than you right now. Leave the heroics to them for now and focus on rebuilding our officer cadres! We need you!”

The Premier was becoming emotional. Every ‘we need you’ was hoarser than the last.

“Now dismissed!” Daksha shouted.

“With all due respect ma’am–” Madiha shouted back.

“You’re not showing me any respect with your attitude, Madiha. Out! Now!”

Madiha turned her back furiously, swiping her hand at the desk in frustration.

One of Daksha’s pictures fell from the desk in response, for some mysterious reason.

Cadao Chakma bowed profusely and then followed Madiha out the door.

Daksha’s head sank into her hands.

“Oh, this is a shame.”

Larissa picked up the remains of the frame and the photo and put it on the desk.

It was a picture of Daksha, dressed in her cloak and worker overalls, what she wore as a bandit in Bada Aso. On her shoulders rode a precociously tall but still clearly child-like Madiha Nakar, aged 8 or 9 or 10 — who could really know? Madiha was dressed in her own little overalls with a newsboy cap, and had her delivery girl satchel with her.

“You should get this reframed. It’s a beautiful photo.” Larissa said.

“I will.” Daksha replied.

Larissa looked back over her shoulder at the closed door.

“Do you feel like you have to protect her?” Larissa asked.

“This country can’t keep standing on her back. Even if she will keep letting it.”

Daksha put the photo in a drawer and turned her full attention back to Larissa.

“We’ve exploited Madiha Nakar enough. We’ve exploited all our youth enough. It’s time for tired old women to make tired old women decisions for the future of these kids.”

“I see.” Larissa said. She seemed, for once, sympathetic toward the Premier. “In that case, let us resume. We were talking about your oil and gold for our industrial equipment–”

“Yes, let’s get back to it.”

This was all for the best, Kansal told herself.

It absolutely had to be.


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.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — North Solstice

Deep in the heart of Solstice, under the shadow of Armaments Hill, the ground began to tremble violently. Several blocks out from the headquarters of the Golden Army the shocks and the stirring of Solstice’s three great biting heads could be felt in the floor and the walls. At the Varnavat Artillery Base, there was nothing but blacktop and three massive structures. Stone turntables each the size of a city block, arranged in a triangle around a central control tower, began to turn three massive 800mm cannons.

All three cannons, each 20 meters long, lay on enormous steel bases. Recoil tubes larger than two adult men standing atop each other and thicker than a sand worm were installed atop the barrel to carefully reset the weapon as it slid across a mount some 15 meters long, criss-crossed by the skeletal components of its wheel-driven elevation mechanism. Each gun had a crew of 250 men and women assigned to it for setup, maintenance and repair, along with an elite 15-troop gunnery crew. These hundreds of people crowded the spinning terrain of each turntable, tightening screws, lubricating parts, working the cranes that raised 4-ton explosive shells up to the massive breeches.

Before the Solstice War, the Prajna had not been fired in anger since the revolution.

Now it felt almost routine. At the Sivira HQ not too far away, at Armaments Hill just a stone’s throw from Varnavat, in the surrounding streets, and even in the control tower a hair’s breadth from the epicenter, there was no stress. Civilians passed by the base on their way to work or shop in the North Solstice City District; at the military installations men and women walked the halls with their feet gently quaking, and with the earth’s palpitations winding their way through their guts and lungs, and they bore it quietly.

Every one of the three 800mm Prajna Super-Heavy Howitzers turned its barrel South.

Lieutenant Adesh Gurunath of the 5th Guards Mechanized Artilery Brigade watched the massive guns moving, settling, and the teeming mass of humanity that crewed them, with a mixture of awe, pride, and a lingering, uncomfortable sense of mortality, fear, despair. He was dressed in the formal uniform, coat, button-down, skirt, leggings; his shoulder-length hair wrapped in a bun, his glasses dripping with sweat from his brow, his entire face, ordinarily pleasant, soft and effete, contorted with anxious disbelief.

At his side, his previous superior, now-Major Rahani, outdid him in military elegance with the addition of a bright rose in his hair and a touch of makeup around his eyes and on his lips. Smiling, with a hand on his hip, he patted Adesh gently in the shoulder. His own skirt was just a little bit shorter than Adesh’s, who wore a more conservative woman’s uniform. Both of them had dressed up their best for the facility tour.

“I knew you’d love to see it. My husband is an engineer here, you know.” He said.

He pointed toward the third gun with a winking eye. Adesh made no expression.

He had wondered so many times before: why me? His life had been spared in battle so many times; he had felled so many foes with so little understanding of how or why; he had been promoted away from his friends for so long. Now Rahani had chosen him to bear witness to this. Rahani was going to become one of these powerful, elite gunners.

“Please don’t be nervous. I know on some level that these weapons scare you and you hate using them. I just wanted you to get the full picture of what they can do, before you decide anything.” Rahani said. “I know you’ve been through so much, Adesh. You’re on the cusp of major turning points in your life. You can’t just go with the flow anymore.”

Major Rahani wrapped an arm around Adesh, and drew him close in a motherly way.

“You like guns, right? I think seeing this might help you understand some things.”

In front of them, the guns began to elevate, and then were set into their final arc.

“For the artillery, we are at a crossroads between movement and power. We’ve never had to think about this before, not the way we do now. This right here, is the power you could have by staying rooted where you are now. By stalwartly defending this place.”

Adesh raised his eyes to the barrels of the three Prajna as their breeches locked down.

Standing beside the control tower, he saw flag-wavers come running out of the building.

“You’re here, in Solstice now. You could stay here, like I have. Isn’t this magnificent?”

There was a great and mighty shock that sucked up all other sound.

From the barrel of the Prajna came a flash like a bolt of lightning, and copious black smoke belched out in the wake of a massive, red-hot shell that rushed to the horizon like a shooting star. Beneath Adesh’s feet the ground quaked, and he felt the onrushing force of the gun’s shot like a tidal wave, washing over him. Into his every bone, to the marrow; within his guts; even his eyes felt like they were shaking with its power. He wept openly.

In succession, the second and third guns fired their own projectiles, and Adesh nearly fell; had it not been for Rahani holding him close, perhaps both of them would have fallen. Gunnery and engineering personnel all around stood in the same shocked silence, picking themselves up from their own exposure to the god-like force of the gun firing.

Somewhere out there, something was going to catch those stars and die.

Adesh stood, speechless.

He wished so much that Eshe and Nnenia could be here with him.

He wished he knew where they were.

He wished things hadn’t resolved the way they did.

Rahani, at his side, smiled and waved off the rapidly disappearing shells.

He sighed deeply, and turned to Adesh again.

“We could defend this city’s walls until the end of the war, safe and sound. No more fighting, no more stress, helplessness, powerlessness. We would have 15,000 of the quickest guns in the world, and the three biggest guns in the world, at our disposal. We can do desk work, start families, make passionate love to our partners every night.”

Something small, insignificant almost, wandered in from the edge of Adesh’s vision.

There was a Chimera moving about, towing one of the Prajna’s massive shells.

Its gun was bound up with cloth. There was no need for it to shoot. It was just a tractor.

“But this is a new age also.” Rahani said. “You could follow this war to another border. You could follow General Nakar, the only person in this army speaking of Attacking.”

“I could leave the army.” Adesh said, sobbing.

“You won’t.” Rahani said. “I know because I said it once too. I see a lot of myself in you.”

Adesh hated how right Rahani was, despite how much he loved him that moment for it.

Rahani, with his gentle smile and pretty features, who had saved him so many times.

He was always there for him. Even now, when he had no responsibility toward him.

“You want to do what is right; but you also have to do what is right for you. All of our people are part of this war now. But you don’t need to sacrifice your life for it.”

Rahani pointed at the Prajna’s once more as if reintroducing them to Adesh.

“Please consider it before you return to Mechanized again, Adesh.”

It was a kind, wonderful gesture.

But Adesh knew what he would do.

It was so kind and so wonderful because it was so unnecessary, so ineffective.

He was the only one in that field, it seemed, who saw that Chimera trundling about.

Adesh knew he would unbundle that gun and leave everyone behind. On those tracks.

Rahani sighed a little bit. “My hubbie will be busy, so, lets grab a bite and catch up!”

He clapped his hands together happily. Adesh nodded his head.

“I would like that. You’re the only one of us I can visit anymore.” Adesh said.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Major General Von Fennec stood on the back seat of his utility truck and watched in a mixture of horror and exasperation as a shower of rocket fire wiped his and Von Drachen’s troops off the bridge to Conqueror’s Way. He had heard of the Ayvartan rocket troops and their howling ordnance, but seeing it with his own eyes was like watching meteors raining from the sky on his men. It was sudden, infernal, and vexing.

The disdainful hand of a fiery goddess, slapping his men like pieces off a game board.

Truly that Madiha Nakar had a knack for setting her own battlefields aflame.

Setting down his binoculars and turning away from the scene of half his men burning to death and the rest fleeing like cowards, the general tapped his foot against the rib of a girl below him on the back of the truck, crouched in clear discomfort beside a portable radio. She groaned upon being struck this way, and grumpily turned her blond head.

“Casualty estimates, right now.” He demanded.

Promptly but with a trembling in her voice, the young woman responded.

“Major Yavez is saying a hundred and thirty, at least. Battalion combat-ineffective.”

“What about the Vishap?”

“It appears unharmed sir.”

Von Fennec sighed with a deep relief. He dropped his binoculars on top of the girl.

“Acceptable. Tell those idiots to get back on the bridge ASAP. Combat ineffective my ass.”

The General left the girl, speechless and rubbing her head, and dropped off the truck and onto the sand. His all-terrain quarter-ton “Peep” truck was parked in the far edge of the battlespace, with a full view of the bridge but ample distance between himself and any guns. He had been watching the battle with a keen interest in the Vishap’s advance. He was an old warhorse of the days of carriage-drawn artillery, and rose through the ranks with the mortar and howitzer men of the last war. This Vishap was really something else.

He was excited to be entrusted with it. To him, it meant Lehner still believed in the old staff, that he was bringing the respected elder statesmen of the army into his future.

Unlike his compatriots, Von Fennec readily dispensed with tradition if it suited him.

Now even the artillery men could know the glory of the assault! They could finally take whole cities by themselves, and humiliate the enemy in the fashion of the infantry! No more was the artillery a lowly thing dragged behind the lines, or saddled with the thankless defense of worthless camps and fortresses. Now in this age of maneuver, the innocent artillery that fired unknowingly into the sky, could itself know blood and fire!

All he had to do was watch the Vishap as it crept toward the city, and await victory.

Now that was progress he could agree with.

Von Fennec walked back toward the tall dunes surrounding his camp.

“Sherry, I shall be in my command tent, tell those cowards to get back in line–”

Moments after he turned his back, as the firestorm died down on the bridge and the Vishap’s gate-smashing shells once more became the loudest presence on the field of battle, Von Fennec felt a trembling moving from the floor to his legs, up his bones.

He shuddered, and turned once more toward the city.

He saw trails of smoke stretching over the sky like black lances.

And the speartip was a trio of glowing-red shells like stars being shot into space.

From the back of the peep truck, Sherry stared at him with terror in her eyes.

“General, the Prajnas have been fired! We’ve got three shells, south-bound!”

Von Fennec sighed deeply with great relief.

“Not my problem then! We’re attacking from the east. Tell my men to keep fighting.”

Safe knowing he was not the target of those monstrous guns, Von Fennec once more turned his back on the truck and the city and ambled away, his gait irregular from horse-back injuries sustained long ago. He had a bottle of wine in a personal icebox on his command vehicle. He could see his HQ already, near the Vishap’s old container. A tank transporter with what resembled a little house on the bed instead of a vehicle.

Several minutes later and sopping wet with sweat, he put his fist to the HQ’s door.

Finally, time for a well-earned rest and maybe a bit of drunkenness.

Von Drachen was out there somewhere, he could do the commanding–

Von Fennec then heard the beeping of a horn, and turned to see the Peep rushing close.

Confused, he watched silently as it pulled sharply up in front of him.

Sherry was in a panic in the back. She was waving her arms with every word said.

Her glasses practically fell off, and her professional-looking hair bun was out of sorts.

“General!” She cried out, short of breath.

Von Fennec turned back around and reached for the door, hoping to ignore her.

“Corps is calling an immediate retreat out of Prajna range!”

Von Fennec stopped and abruptly turned sharply over his shoulder.

“They’ve sustained casualties as high as the divisional level. Our southern thrust is broken, we’re practically fighting alone, and we’re closest to the city.” Sherry said.

Von Fennec blinked.

To retreat would mean–

“We can’t abandon the Vishap! My career will be over!” Von Fennec said.

He turned his head sharply every which way, looking for that uppity mutt.

“Where is Aatto?! Get that bitch out here! We need to extract the Vishap immediately!”

Von Fennec was losing his sun-addled mind entirely.

Demure and white as a ghost, Sherry mumbled, “Sir, um, about that–”


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.4)

This scene contains violence and death.


On the road leading to the eastern gate sixteen trucks and tractors assembled, each of them supporting via metal scaffolds a bed of 132mm rockets. They assembled in a formation that took up much of the clay road between a pair of evacuated shops and restaurants at the edge of the city. Each driver, accompanied by a small gunnery team, exited the vehicles. Together the teams began to adjust the angle of the rocket launchers. There were at least twelve rockets per truck, and around eight rockets to a tractor.

Madiha Nakar watched the so-called “Guards Heavy Mortar” teams setting up Ayvarta’s secret weapons. She helped them adjust the elevation of the launchers via short-range hand-radio, feeding them the distance and coordinates to the approaching Vishap.

Once all the trucks and tractors were situated and their rockets ready, Madiha left them.

She turned around and ran to the opposite end of the ramparts, fixing her gaze back to the Conqueror’s Way, whenever she heard the Vishap fire its main gun. She guessed the weapon must have been at least 150mm caliber for all the damage it was doing, and loaded with anti-concrete explosives. From her high vantage, directly in line with the bridge, it was hard to see, but she knew the massive vehicle, surrounded by infantrymen, had punched neatly through the first gate. She saw the smoke and some of the rubble go flying into the water in pieces. Now the ruins of the Second Gate obstructed her view.

“Parinita, stay here on the main radio, I’m running farther up the wall!” Madiha shouted.

Parinita nodded her acknolwedgment, and the General took off running. She kept her eyes on the bridge, and as she got an angle on it from the wall, she could see around the rubble of the gates, and spotted the Vishap trundling toward the second gate. Its machine guns were firing at all sides, and the main gun fired an explosive shell the second she caught a glimpse of it. A horrid green fireball launched from the front of the tank and struck the rubble of the second gate and instantly reduced to dust a substantial amount.

Her troops around that ruined gate had taken blocking positions. Small caliber anti-tank guns, the only sort that could be hidden around the rubble, shot little red shells of 45mm caliber at the Vishap that ricocheted off its armor and exploded harmlessly on its bulldozer blades. There were six or seven shots Madiha saw flying out, but the Vishap hardly slowed, charging into the blasts confidently. Its frontal machine guns swept over her troops’ firing positions, covering the ruins of the second gate in automatic fire.

Under this assault, and all too aware of the approaching hulk, her troops retreated.

Madiha raised the hand radio to her lips. “Ready a creeping barrage, fifty across.”

Below the walls, in the city at her back, the rocket teams prepared their payloads.

“We’re golden, General!” replied the men on the radio.

“Acknowledged! Salamander 132mm rocket barrage, fire!” Madiha shouted back.

Organized in their staggered ranks, rows of trucks and tractors unleashed their rockets.

Dozens flew at a time with an unearthly sound, a haunting, howling noise. Arcing over the wall, they left trails of fire in the sky. Even the Ayvartan troops turned their heads up to watch the explosives cut across the firmament. Neat lines of bright orange flame drew overhead, past the second gate, and fell directly into the bridge. In quick succession the rockets crashed and violently exploded, setting off a series of deafeningly loud blasts. One after another, great fires bloomed from the earth around the advancing Vishap, churning up the top of the bridge, casting geysers of smoke and stone into the air.

Madiha watched the carnage unfold below, and she licked her lips absentmindedly.

Most of the rockets smashed into the bridge in front of or around the Vishap. One rocket struck the Vishap directly in its bulldozer blades and blew off a section in the top-left; two rockets struck the top center of the Vishap and left fleeting fires burning atop the locked-down cupola. When the fire cleared the thick cupola was deformed and stuck.

But the machine relentlessly ground forward through the smoke. Its top armor was thicker than Madiha had thought. Then again, the rockets weren’t armor-piercing.

No, she had a different target. Her lips curled into a fleeting but wicked smile as she heard the wailing and howling behind her. She thought she felt the heat as the rockets ascended the heavens from behind her back, soaring just over the wall and descending sharply into the bridge once more. This time the payload landed right behind the Vishap.

The Cissean and Nochtish infantry on the bridge had halted their charge after the first rocket barrage. They shrank back from the Vishap, afraid of the fire and shrapnel, and stood paralyzed, a dense mass concentrated around using the remaining rubble for cover, with the Vishap pulling farther ahead of them. They stared, dumbfounded, as the second rocket barrage overshot the Vishap entirely and came down upon them instead.

“You’ll enter this city as ash on the wind, imperialist scum.” Madiha whispered solemnly.

She raised her binoculars and watched with morbid curiosity and a strange sense of duty as the rockets started coming down. Every line of rockets crept deeper and deeper into the enemy formation. Each descent resulted in a torrent of fire spreading and rising, and a column of smoke and rubble following in its wake. Men were thrown about like stones skipped over water, flying whole or in pieces or aflame in every direction. When the fiery explosions didn’t dismember their bodies, or failed to set their equipment and uniforms aflame and condemn them to a slow death, the concussive forces felt even at the far edge of the blast jerked the soldiers in awful directions. Men struck the stones, and flew against the concrete barrier, and tripped and tumbled brutally over rubble.

There was chaos and panic all behind the Vishap, and every man condemned to stand on the bridge was on fire or crushed to a pulp or both. Then came the final series of rockets, that reached as far as the desert, and even the rearmost ranks of the enemy felt some punishment. The farther the rockets reached, the more the lines spread, and several rockets were landing off the bridge, in the water, on the concrete barriers. Behind the Vishap, a long, awful line of butchered men and ephemeral fires, perhaps numbering a low hundreds dead, stretched out to the desert. There were more men coming, but they were paused at the edge of the bridge with fear, and when they moved they did so tremulously, inching their way and watching the skies in anxiety and disbelief.

This was the Salamander, Ayvarta’s howling demon of flames. It was a weapon of fear.

Madiha had succeeded. The Vishap was isolated. There was no man alive to aid it.

She turned from the horror at the bridge and ran back to Parinita and the gunners.

There was a familiar face waiting there alongside her secretary. Long, silky dark hair, dark eyes, an impassive face. A young woman of unremarkable stature, wearing a big pair of goggles and the padded suit and thick gloves of an engineer. Sergeant Agni.

She raised a hand without an expression on her face, and said, “Hujambo, General.”

“I’m glad to see you Agni. How soon until the drawbridge descends?” Madiha asked.

The bridge part itself was no longer needed. Conqueror’s Way had for at least a hundred years now become a fully stone and steel bridge connecting both ends of the river. However, the drawbridge was kept as a gate. There was even space for it atop the bridge so horses and trucks could move seamlessly over it. And so the troublesome raising and lowering was still necessary: and currently, a major issue, owing to its malfunction.

Sergeant Agni shook her head, while fidgeting a little with her goggles.

“It will not be down in time. We need to source a very specific motor in low production.”

Madiha sighed. “Are the climbing troops prepared for action?”

“We have a dearth of climbing gear, but we’re almost there.” Agni said.

“We need to make greater haste.” Madiha said, a hint of frustration creeping in.

“Madiha,” Parinita called out from the floor.

Madiha crouched down behind the rampart stones to confer with her lover.

“Status?” She asked. She tried to put on a gentle face for Parinita.

Parinita was tougher than anyone gave her credit for; she didn’t need it.

“Everything’s a mess, but listen,” Parinita started, her face dripping sweat, and her breathing clearly affected, but with a resolute look in her eyes, “Regiment has just scrounged up a 152mm gun from the battery that got destroyed a few days ago at Sadr. It’s been repaired enough to work again, the shocks and carriage aren’t great, but it’ll shoot if it’s assembled. They’re coming in with a truck, ETA two or three minutes.”

Any additional heavy gun was useful in this situation, but it was a long shot.

“The Vishap’s roof might be too strong.” Madiha said. “And we’d need to immobilize it.”

“I have an idea.” Parinita said. “Madiha, what’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted?”

Madiha looked at her own arm and flexed it a little with a quizzical expression.

“Lifted? I’m reasonably fit, Parinita, you know this, but I don’t think–”

Lifted,” Parinita said again, with a wink this time.

Madiha blinked, and she understood immediately what Parinita was thinking.

She turned to Sergeant Agni and looked at her with haste and intensity in her eyes.

Sergeant Agni, inexpressive as always, seemed to understand the urgency.

“It’ll take a miracle to get a shot over the wall without it killing you.” Agni said.

“I’ll show you a miracle.” Madiha said.

“Please, trust her, Agni.” Parinita added.

Sergeant Agni nodded. She replied in a dispassionate voice, but with a hint of curiosity.

“Then if the General shows me a miracle, it is only fair I show a miracle in kind. I can assemble it enough to shoot in a few minutes if you can bring it up here for me.”

Madiha embraced Parinita, kissed her on the cheek, and bolted back onto her feet.

She rushed to the wall, and spotted a truck cutting in between the rocket launchers.

On the back, tied up under a tarp, were the pieces of the refurbished heavy gun.

Madiha reached out with her hand, focused on one of the recoil tubes sticking out.

She felt a tiny pinprick of hurt in her brain as she pulled on the object.

In the next instant, the recoil tube went flying out of the bundle as if kicked away.

It soared like a Nochtish football over the ramparts, twisting and turning.

Parinita and Agni both gasped all at once as the object came flying at them.

“I can catch it!”

Madiha quickly pushed on the object, and in a blink, countered its spin and stopped it dead in the air, preventing it from smashing her fingers off as she caught it in hand.

It was very heavy, and nearly pulled her arm to the ground in a second.

But she brought it up the wall, and she caught it.

The General shouted with girlish excitement, reminiscent of her childhood days.

Agni stared at the tube, at Madiha’s arm, and then at Madiha.

Parinita sighed. “Remind me to never ask you to do things again.”

Madiha smiled. “Oh, don’t worry, you won’t have to. This will be my idea from now on if you don’t.” She said, deftly twirling a bullet in the empty air with nothing but her mind.

Far below her, the ground crew was stupefied with the disappearance of the recoil tube.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.3)

This scene contains violence and death, and an experience of dysphoria.


Loose stones began to shake and rattle atop the ruin, trembling with the ground.

“Gulab, the Vishap is approaching. Good luck. I love you.”

She almost muttered the last sentence.

“No luck, just skill! I love you too, Charvi!”

Gulab was loud about it as usual.

She switched the radio frequency on the portable talkie and put it in her pouch.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to steel herself for what was to come.

It was just like hunting the rock bears, she told herself.

But even that gone poorly for her in the past.

Atop the mound of rubble that was once the first gate of the Conqueror’s Way, the approaching Vishap was like a boulder rolling down from the mountains, like an avalanche of metal. Sergeant Gulab Kajari tried to find more homely metaphors to describe what she was seeing, but without embellishment, it was a gigantic tank with a big gun pointed directly at them. Its dauntless trundling kicked up clouds of sand, and the infantry at its sides looked minuscule in comparison. It was easy to forget them.

She was surrounded by people who could not afford for her to overlook anything.

She sighed internally, smiled outwardly, and pointed at the incoming Vishap.

“Troops, I’ve got nothing here to say but: we gotta kill that thing.” Gulab said.

Loubna and Aditha and the rest of the rookies in the squadron cast eyes at the floor. They were huddled atop the mound, half their bodies on the steep end away from the approaching Vishap, looking over the makeshift hill. They were hidden from the enemy, hoping to ambush them as they neared. In their hands they had submachine guns and rifles, useless against armor, and one their belts they had anti-tank grenades. Though small, these could at least fare better than a rifle round against the heavy tank.

There was more to it than that, but Gulab didn’t have the time to catch everybody up on everything the General hurriedly told her over the field telephone. Even Gulab herself thought she had not caught all of it. But she had to somehow make all of it work out.

“Trust me, I’ve hunted bigger!” Gulab said. “We just have to know when to run away.”

She pounded her fist against her chest and put on a proud expression.

Morale did not improve upon hearing such a thing with the Vishap in the background.

“Why isn’t it shooting?” Loubna asked. Everyone was watching the machine breathlessly.

Gulab cast her eyes at the approaching tank. She remembered some of the things she had learned from Adesh Gurunath about cannons, in the various times they had cooperated during the war. Longer cannons could shoot farther, and their shots flew faster; the larger the hole of the cannon, from which it ejected shells, the stronger and larger the ammunition was. The Vishap’s cannon was very short and stubby, though the bore was wider than most of the guns Gulab had seen on tanks. It was mounted on the front face of the tank and seemed unable to swivel or turn, since it had no turret to move with.

“I don’t think it can shoot this high, and I don’t think it’s in range yet.” Gulab said.

There were a few sighs of relief among the assembled soldiers, but the trundling of the machine nearing them seemed to put into doubt whether it had any weakness at all.

As the Vishap approached the bridge, the machine noise that accompanied it grew louder, but it strangely enough began to slow down a tick, as it neared closer to 1000 meters from the Conqueror’s Way. Then from around the Vishap’s flanks rushed enemy riflemen, charging across the open desert. Gulab raised her hand at the sight and silently ordered her squadron to huddle closer to the ground and to hide themselves.

Within minutes the enemy riflemen were jumping over the rubble and onto the bridge itself ahead of the machine. A squadron of foot Cissean soldiers was in the lead, and several more followed them. They were armed with rifles and bayonets and quickly left the cover of the rocks. Boldly, they started across the open space to the first gate ruin.

This was good fortune for Gulab’s team; they had to pose a credible threat to the enemy.

And while Gulab doubted she could even dent the Vishap, she knew she could kill men.

“Fire on mark; Loubna, sweep the left flank, everyone else aim at the right.” Gulab said.

“Are these guys related to the men before? Don’t they know we’re here?” Aditha asked.

“I don’t think so. I think they’ve been lost in the desert for longer.” Gulab replied.

“So it’s an ambush?”

“That’s the plan.”

In truth, it was General Nakar who thought that, but Gulab nonetheless took the credit.

It was important for the kids to look up to her!

Aditha did not seem impressed, but she did focus back on the enemy with steeled eyes.

Loubna prepared her partially concealed light machine gun, facing the approach she was to cover; Gulab checked her Rasha submachine gun for one final time before cocking it and setting it on a stone for stability. Squadron members with basic Bundu rifles set them on the rocks, partially hidden, taking impromptu sniping positions across the ruin.

Gulab drew in a breath and aimed for the men running toward the mound.

“Mark!”

Gulab briefly raised her fist, and then laid it down, finger on the trigger, and fired.

Her squadron quickly followed suit.

Tracer fire sailed from atop the rubble of the first gate and showered the advancing enemy infantry. It was almost a moment of deja vu as Gulab watched the men struck down mid-run as if they weren’t expecting to be shot, and their compatriots clinging to the nearest piece of rubble for cover, or running back to the Vishap. Automatic fire from the submachine guns and Loubna’s Danava viciously covered the approach, and a dozen men were killed almost simultaneously before the rest took the hint and scattered.

As the waves of enemy infantry grew timid they began to concentrate around the Vishap.

There was only one way Gulab could account for this behavior among enemy soldiers.

They had caught them by surprise! It was just as General Nakar had predicted; they had not been in contact with the Republic of Ayvarta troops that had attacked this position previously. These new arrivals with the Vishap group likely expected an ambush but could not have known its ferocity or character, because they were acting independently of the main body of RoA troops deployed to take the Conqueror’s Way. As such, like the RoA troops defeated before them, these Cisseans and Nochtish were taken by surprise.

“Hah! Trekking through the desert melted their brains! Pick them off!” Gulab shouted.

Loubna reloaded, and she began to fire on the enemy’s cover selectively. Gulab praised her discipline and began to fire upon a sited spot herself. A few men tried to contort themselves with their rifles around the chunks of rock and from out the pits and trenches that scarred the Conqueror’s Way, but to no avail. Every time a rifle came out, a stream of bullets from atop the remains of the first gate silenced it. More and more of the enemy appeared and consolidated in thick formations behind cover, but without any cover down the middle Way they could not approach the mound. They were pinned.

For a moment, it seemed almost like they had turned back the tide. The enemy had advanced, lost men, retreated a step, and become bogged down in relentless gunfire.

This was all part of the General’s plan! It was all working as she had said.

In any other situation such a stalemate could be exploited. Gulab had seen it before.

However, there was nothing the bullets could do to stop the Vishap, ever closing-in.

It was this detail that made this battle different, and rendered this triumph so null.

Soon as its tracks hit the stone of the Conqueror’s Way, the Vishap changed the tide of the battle. It ground rocks beneath its bulk, and shoved rubble away with the bulldozer on its face, and its own men leaped out of its way as it charged forward. But once it moved past their positions, the Cisseans took up its back and began to advance again. Though the mound continued to brutalize the Conqueror’s Way with submachine gun, rifle and machine gun fire, there was nothing they could do. All manner and caliber of small arms fire was bouncing harmlessly off the Vishap’s blades and its wounded front plate armor.

“It’s not doing anything!” Aditha shouted, rapping the trigger of her rifle uselessly.

“Keep shooting! Wait for my signal before doing anything more!” Gulab shouted back.

Trundling to within a stark 500 meters of the first gate, the Vishap’s cannon glowed.

Smoke and fire belched from the aperture, and with a terrifying growl the Vishap loosed a heavy shell that flew in a belabored, shallow arc into the bottom of the mound. There was a monumental flash. Fire and metal and chunks of rock flew straight into the air in front of the defender’s very eyes. Everything shook under them. It felt like the mound would collapse. The Vishap moved once more, and it loomed larger and larger as it did.

Atop the machine, two of the shoulder cupolas turned to face the mound, and the dark slits cut across the sides of the structures flashed a bright green. Hundreds of rounds of machine gun fire struck the rubble at the peak of the mound, and a cacophonous sawing noise sounded above the shifting of the stones and the sound of loading and firing of rifles. Hundreds of bright green tracers bounced skyward or overflew the peak. Even the rookies could identify the sound as that of the deadly Norgler machine gun, and they scrambled back from the rubble, putting the slope between them and the Vishap.

The Vishap’s top-mounted machine guns blazed as the machine crawled toward the mound. It was like a demon, belching fire from its snout-like cannon, its cupolas like eyes firing searing, chaotic beams of green tracer ammunition. It was a terrifying sight that cowed the defenders like nothing else. Not another shot flew out from atop the mound; Gulab swallowed hard and shrank back with the rest of her squadron, pinned.

“Comrades, get ready to retreat! Grab your weapon and start moving toward–”

Beneath the infernal noise of the machine guns the Vishap’s cannon cried out once more.

One more shell impacted the rubble of the first gate, and this time the force of the blast wound itself inside the rubble, and rocks and concrete belched out the other side of the mound, collapsing some of the rookies’ own footholds on the rear of the slope. Several squadron members were blown back with the rock, and they dropped from the mound and hit the ground. Disoriented, but alive, they fled in a panic back to the second gate.

There was no time to hold the Vishap there. They had to sacrifice the first gate and fast.

“Comrades, over the side barriers, right now!” Gulab shouted. “Come with me!”

Everyone looked at her with surprise. They clung on to the rubble and rock as if they were suspended over a precipice, and their guns were almost an afterthought, hanging by belt loops or pressed between them and the slope. Nobody was moving at all.

“Come on!”

Gulab grabbed hold of rookie Loubna with one hand, who was paralyzed with her Danava embraced in her arms, and the sweating, panting Aditha with the other. Finding purchase on a solid slab of concrete beneath her, Gulab could afford to let go of the mound for this maneuver, and with all her strength, she dragged the two rookies, and leaped from the mound and atop the side-barrier. She pushed Loubna and Aditha off, and it looked to everyone as if she was throwing them in the river. There was no splashing or screaming, however, if any such thing could even be audible under all the machine gun fire; and witnessing Gulab herself disappearing behind the barriers, the remainder of the squadron gasped with collective fear and charged toward the water.

Jumping around the meter-and-a-half tall concrete barriers on the side of the bridge, Gulab found herself in a drainage segment off the side of the bridge. There was maybe a meter in which to stand or sit, and the rushing waters of the Qural below. Loubna and Aditha clung to the barrier, terrified by the rushing water. Gulab urged them to move; in a moment, five additional squadron members would jump the barrier and land messily one after the other, some nearly falling into the river. Gulab got everyone organized.

She huddled the group and addressed them. “Alright, see, nobody fell, nobody got–”

Behind them, there was a much louder blast and an even more violent rumbling and rattling as the Vishap finally destroyed the mound of the first gate. Then, the grinding of its tracks and the roaring of its engine resumed, and they could all feel it moving past them, like a dragon stomping its way past their village as they hid from the destruction.

Gulab had no intention to remain hidden. This was all another chance to attack.

“Comrades, any hunter can kill any beast by stopping it from moving! If that thing gets past the second gate, it will have a clear shot at the wall. We can’t let it get any further.”

All of her squadron was clearly shaken. In a span of minutes they had lost a position, lost comrades, and witnessed head-on a massive tank bearing down on them. Their eyes were watering, their faces sweating and turning pale, their bodies shaking. But they were focused: Gulab saw it in their faces that they understood the urgency. That was good; a soldier could be afraid, but they had to channel that fear into their survival.

“On my mark,” Gulab continued, and laid a hand on Aditha’s shoulder, and quickly explained as the Vishap neared them, “Aditha and Seer will throw frag grenades at the road to distract the riflemen, and then, me, Loubna, Fareeha and Jaffar will rise up and throw anti-tank grenades at the tank’s side and tracks. We only have one shot at this!”

Aditha looked frightened at first, but Loubna put a hand on her shoulder too, and her face turned red. She averted her eyes, turned her cheek on Loubna and withdrew a pair of grenades from her pouch. Looking sour in expression, she nodded silently to the team, most of whom seemed perplexed by her behavior. Meanwhile Fareeha, a tall, dark, athletic woman, and Jaffar, a rugged-looking boy, both gave Gulab intense looks that suggested to her their eagerness to fight. Both were rookies. Everyone here was now.

Gulab didn’t look at Loubna, she felt she didn’t need to. Loubna was ready. Gulab felt it. Loubna was big and tough, and she had a soft heart that yearned to defend the weak.

She saw her own face in Loubna’s, like staring into her reflection on the mountain ice.

She hoped she could count on at least her.

Behind them, the Vishap chewed up the remaining rubble of the first gate, and the ground beneath them and the barrier in front of them and seemingly even the water at their backs, all of it shook and shuddered with the weight and power of the beast. It fired a round at the ruined second gate, resulting in a massive explosion, and its machine guns screamed as it engaged the blocking position set up around the second gate’s remains

Gulab’s stomach vibrated, and she felt the presence of the machine in her neck when she tried to speak, like constant jolt to the adam’s apple. Her words came out shaken.

The Vishap was within zero of the squadron; they had to attack now or never.

Its frontal machine guns were occupied, and its gun was unable to target them.

It was time.

“Aditha, Seer, now!”

Aditha and Seer pulled the pins on their grenades, waited a second, and threw.

Four grenades, one in each hand, landed in the road and exploded in various directions.

Gulab stood and launched her AT grenade in as straight a throw as she could muster.

Only on a direct hit from the head would the grenade be primed and detonated.

She caught sight of something that made her throat seize up.

The Vishap had an armored skirt protecting its wheels and track.

Would the attack even be effective?

She watched the grenade strike the top of the skirt at an angle and burn a visible hole.

The Vishap trundled on.

On the road were dead and wounded riflemen, caught out by the grenades.

Their own comrades were coming in for them.

Just then, behind Gulab, in a sluggish sequence, came Loubna, Jaffar and Fareeha.

Their own throws were haphazard, with Jaffar throwing from the grenade’s head and Loubna lobbing hers. Both grenades exploded over the armor skirt and left minor cosmetic wounds on the tank. Fareeha seemed to have had the best throw. Her grenade hit the Vishap in the side of the skirt and burnt through the armor, exposing a wheel. Some smoke and fire spat out of the wound, but the Vishap continued to advance.

“Everyone down!” Gulab shouted. They had stood out too long, threw too late–

Atop the Vishap, the leftmost rear cupola turned to the edge barriers and opened fire.

Alarming green norgler fire sprayed over the concrete.

Gulab shoved herself into Loubna and Jaffar, the two closest, and brought them down.

Seemingly hundreds of rounds struck the concrete, chipping away bits and pieces that fell over the squadron and casting concrete dust into the air. So many rounds were fired at the barrier that the chipped concrete dust formed a small cloud over the edge of the bridge. Disdainfully the Vishap pressed on, fully leaving behind Gulab and her team.

On the floor, Gulab pressed her hands over herself and found no wounds.

She grabbed hold of Loubna, who was staring at something mouth agape.

She was unwounded too; Jaffar was also alright from the looks him, and then–

Just a few steps away from them, sitting with her back to a black-red smear on the barrier, was Fareeha. Her chest and neck had bled out heavily in moments, judging by the red stain all around her, like an aura burnt into the ground and wall. Her feet dangled from the bridge, and her eyes were open, staring endlessly out into the water.

She was dead.

Gulab hadn’t been able to knock her down too.

From behind Gulab sounded a heart-rending cry.

“Fareeha! No! No!”

Aditha, crouched on the floor, held back a thrashing, screaming Seer, whose black face was turning pale and flushed, her eyes red and strained, weeping. She tried to claw over Gulab to make it to Fareeha’s corpse, and Aditha and Loubna both tried to hold her back. She was screaming for Fareeha, screaming that she could not be left behind, that she could not stay here, that she would be fine if they could get her out of this place.

Gulab looked back at the corpse as if, mindlessly, trying to assess whether it could be ok.

It could not.

She pored over, in that eternal instant where anxiety reigns over the mind, whether she had seen anyone die before. She had seen people die, but had they died? There was an importance difference there that she felt but could not grasp. Certainly, nobody had died under her command before. Because she had not really done that much commanding.

Now, she was in command. And a young woman of merely eighteen had died under her.

In the background to all this, was Solstice city, and Gulab stared at the wall.

She felt the Vishap, attacking the second gate. She felt its motion through the ground.

Gulab turned toward Seer and grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her roughly.

“An entire city of millions of defenseless people will join Fareeha if we don’t do something, Private Dbouji! Wait to mourn until we’re inside some safe walls!”

She picked up her submachine gun from the floor, crawled past Loubna and Jaffar, and without turning back, motioned for everyone to follow. She hated all of this, and herself.

She hated how much it felt like something her father had done and said to her, long ago.

How much that voice sounded like his own.


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