The Center of Gravity (75.3)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could clearly not be dealt with through education.

Ultimately it would have to be experienced and endured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McConnell was in just such a position.

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

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

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

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

Haus smirked, and internally he was grinning terribly.

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

Cathrin did not move a muscle for him.

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

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

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

This whole performance put McConnell in an obvious mood.

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

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

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

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

Instead McConnell envisioned a strategy of purely Nochtish aerial terror.

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

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

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

McConnell knew this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He waved him away.

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

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

Having finished with him, Haus watched McConnell stroll off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are the men?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jelani was not needed as a figurehead right then. 

Haus had a different need for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathrin Habich arrived as she had been instructed to.

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

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

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

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

“Anything, sir.”

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

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

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

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

Haus tipped his hat over his face.

He reached out his arm.

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

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

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

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

“I will trust you to be discrete.”

“Yes sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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

 

The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

Water was vile, but swimming was a powerful ability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm. Plan B.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Von Drachen covered his head.

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

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

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

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

Many of them stared at him.

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

Von Drachen pointed to the Ayvartan side of the bridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a colossal explosion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One moment,” said a woman’s voice.

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

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

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


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

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

“I’m sure she did, Madiha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It vibrated gently and began to rise off the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, Agni!”

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

“Yes ma’am.”

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

“I’m firing, ma’am! Get ready!”

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

Agni pulled the firing pin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha looked down at it from the ramparts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.2)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on!”

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

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

“Throw now!” Gulab called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab nearly caught one of the chunks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It once more started to move.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing but the sounds of a thousand hornets buzzing–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gulab, stay down, we can’t–!”

More noise; the radio signal cut out abruptly.

Charvi was in danger too! But how–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reloading?

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

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

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

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

Inside she quickly found what looked like blocks of clay.

“A satchel!”

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

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

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

There were flashes from machine gun mounts atop the Vishap.

Twin bursts of gunfire sailed past the dashing Gulab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hit the button on the radio.

What would she say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Change it now!”

Atop the Vishap one of the Cupola swung open.

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

His shaking hand wielded a pistol at Gulab.

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

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

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

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

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

No matter what, Gulab had to prevent this disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, she is alive.” Illynicha said.

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

“You will what?”

“Just do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am, I have an idea.” Loubna said.

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

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

She speed up the pace and took a leap.

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

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

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

There were tracers flying everywhere there.

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

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

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

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

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

Below, Loubna and Jaffar rushed to catch her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had she failed?


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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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The 3rd Superweapon (69.2)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“All guns, site the enemy tank and open fire on approach!”

Ferried across the desert by four tank transporters, the massive steel crate dropped its front door open like a ramp onto the sand, and from the aperture escaped an enormous tank, easily larger than any tank Madiha Nakar had ever seen. It was wider and thicker than an Ogre or a Giant, with a track that must’ve reached twelve wheels in length.

Its front surface was sloped and seemed thick, and it carried an additional steel plate of bulldozer blades. in the middle of the glacis, a thick round mount surrounded a short-barreled howitzer or mortar that must have been at least 150mm bore. There were several structures on its flat, long upper surface that seemed like cupola, but only one was centralized and likely to be used for command. All of the others were located on the corners and it was possible to make out tiny barrels sticking out of them: machine guns.

Painted black all over, its designation was emblazoned on its side: the “Vishap.”

Cutting in between the hilly dunes that had kept it out of sight of the wall, the beast revealed itself in full to the defenders, and made clear its intentions. At the highest speed the gargantuan tank could muster with its weight on the treacherous sand, it was making  ponderously for the Conqueror’s Way. Men in Cissean and Nochtish uniforms charged alongside it, rifles in hand, barely keeping pace with the grinding march of the machine.

Atop the walls, the rampart gunners hurried back to their posts, and found the Vishap on their direct-fire optics. Madiha Nakar and Parinita Maharani surveyed the proceedings as the crews began turning wheels and pulling levers to get the guns moved. By adjusting the height of the gun mounting itself, they could make up for the lack of negative elevation on the 76mm all-purpose gun, and fire over the wall at targets far below.

At the General’s order, a dozen 76mm guns on the ramparts opened fire on the Vishap. Each impact was near invisibly distant and sounded dull and almost unreal, as if the artillery of a battle a world away. Smoke obscured the machine after the first red-hot tracer impacted the hull and exploded. Shells fell around it a dozen every few seconds, throwing sand into the air, billowing dust and fire; it was impossible to confirm any hits.

However, in the light of the rising afternoon sun it was possible to see the shadow, continuing to lumber, and once the last shell had exploded, the sound of the roaring, grinding engine was still perfectly audible. From the cloud of dust and sand, the Vishap crawled out, undaunted. Its front surface was pitted and pockmarked and in places cracked, and one of the bulldozer blades had been blasted off. Some of the front track guard and the armored skirt covering its wheels had been damaged, but not too badly.

“Madiha, take a closer a look at it, I think there’s something odd about its armor.”

Parinita handed Madiha the binoculars, and set down a radio unit, hidden behind the rampart stones. She took up a radio headset and began to make calls to Solstice for support, while the General honed in on the Vishap’s front and surveyed the damage.

Over, around and between the bulldozer blades, the armor plate was the thickest, and insignificant damage seemed to have been dealt to it. However, the form that damaged took was confounding. There were deep, uneven cracks, and dusty bruises, and no deformation from the heat whatsoever. Armor this dense could crack, but not in the way this material was cracking. It looked like a brick wall that had been suddenly hit with a sledgehammer, not a sheet of metal that had deformed under intense, prolonged heat.

“It’s concrete. It’s got to be. They put a layer of concrete armor over the tank.”

Madiha was perplexed, but it made sense. Anti-tank shells were designed specifically to defeat metal armor that would resist the pointed nose of the shell, and deform around the packed-in explosive charge, in very specific ways. It was meant to go through 50 to 70 millimeters of metal armor, not through a centimeter or more of concrete cement.

“Do we have anti-bunker or anti-concrete available for the 76mm?” Madiha asked.

Parinita shook her head despondently, waving to the city behind them.

“No, we’re not stocked with those. Those are special-assignment for assault troops.”

Madiha looked over her shoulder. She was so focused on the battle ahead, that she hardly had taken any time to look at what she was protecting. Always, behind her every shout, her every shot, Solstice waited at her back. It was a vast city, its few tall buildings visible in the distance, but mostly composed of small, flat-roofed brown buildings, either made of clay or textured to look like it. All kinds of colorful awnings hung over porches and balconies to help the inhabitants get some air while beating the oppressive heat. Winding roads and numerous labyrinthine alleyways characterized a city that grew, organically and haphazardly, for thousands of years. It was beautiful; and most of her troops were there. They awaited orders to counterattack a sizable divisional force.

“Focus artillery fire on the supporting infantry!” Madiha turned back around and shouted at her rampart gunners, and they began to coordinate among themselves and to lob shells at the encroaching enemy battalion. She then turned back to Parinita, and to the desert ahead. “Let the Vishap come. How’s our air support? That flat roof is the weakest part of the whole thing, it has to be. We can order a strike from Vulture.”

Parinita shook her head, pulling off her headset and hitting a switch on the radio. “That’s what I thought so too, but I just got off the airwaves with Air Command. Vulture and the other air units are split between supporting the western defenses, interdicting incoming raids on Solstice, and launching their own long-range air attacks. It’s mostly Elves who are trying to come after us at this point, with token Nochtish support, but if we can break through these attacks, we may be able to inflict some damage on the Elven navy.”

“So the air force gets to launch a counteroffensive, but the Army has to sit and wait.”

Madiha grumbled. Parinita shrugged and rationally replied, “There’s no Lines in the sky.”

“We’ll have to make do then. Release the vanguard rifle battalion onto the bridge to fight. I’ll come up with a battle plan as we go.” Madiha said. “Get the drawbridge gate open.”

“Roger. Contacting the drawbridge engineers and the 7th Battalion now.” Parinita said.

Minutes later, the Eastern gate of Solstice began to drop, accompanied by the chunky sound of a motor. It was a drawbridge door that no longer presided over a gap in the bridge, perhaps thirty meters tall and a little less wide, now powered by diesel motors and held by heavy anchor chains and gears. Behind the door waited nearly a thousand ready soldiers of the 7th Battalion, who had deployed all along the road inside the city as a rapid response force. Slowly the door began to angle, and a crack developed at the top where the light of the desert peered into the structure of the Solstice gate threshold.

There was an abrupt crash, and the slackening chains went rigid and tense.

Smoke began to spread from the gatehouse out into the threshold tunnel.

Between the booming of the rampart guns, Madiha heard the gears grind down below.

She peered carefully over the rampart and found the gate at a steep angle.

“Parinita, what is happening?” Madiha asked.

Parinita turned from the radio box and faced Madiha, alarmed.

“Something’s happened to the gate mechanism. It’s stuck part of the way.” She said.

Madiha blinked hard and covered her face with her hands.

It was always something!

“Sergeant Agni is asking permission to blow off the chains and–”

“Absolutely not.” Madiha said. “Should that gate fall Nocht will not give us a respite to properly repair it. We can’t afford for any of the gates to stay open unnecessarily.”

“Then what do we do?” Parinita asked, pulling off the radio headset.

Madiha looked down over the ramparts as the Vishap’s tracks hit stone for the first time.

“I’m calling the bridge by field telephone. Tell Agni to get the engineers and some of the Svecthans with Mountain training ready to go over the wall. As soon as possible!”

Parinita nodded her head and returned to the radio box.

Meanwhile, the General produced the field telephone from behind one of the ramparts. Cable had been laid down to the bridge long ago, and much of it had survived the bombings. She picked up the handset, hit a switch, and immediately called down.

“Sergeant Kajari, listen closely to me.”


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen watched the Vishap go with a sense of minor, quiet amusement. After the machine trundled out of its carriage, he ordered a company of his lead men to chase after it. Rifles in hand, sweating profusely, the riflemen followed his orders and charged after the machine. They had been following it for what seemed like weeks, out in the brutal heat of the Solstice desert, and now they trampled over the sand and made to move ahead of it. There were no words of protest or complaint from them.

“You don’t want to hear it, but I’m taking full credit for this delivery.” Von Drachen said.

At his side, Major General Rodrick Von Fennec scoffed and stamped past him. He was a square-shaped man, with a brick of a head, beefy limbs, but an older, stiffer, and bowing stature than that of the younger, more limber Von Drachen. His remaining eye glanced at Von Drachen with disdain; the other was patched up but likely sported similar scorn. Somewhere under his thick white beard, Fennec’s lips were probably turned up as well. For a louplander, his tail was very stubby and short, and it barely wagged; his ears, poking out from under his desert helmet, were also blunt, and just barely fuzzy.

Von Drachen thought they could commiserate over using fake names, but Von Fennec was instantly hostile to him, even though he went along with Von Drachen’s genius plan.

“Yes, yes, to be frank, only you could have been crazy enough to suggest such a course of action. I will give you full credit for the penetration of the enemy line through the unguarded desert sector; also responsibility for the 100 men who died along the way.”

Von Fennec snorted and put on a confident grin as though he had crushed Von Drachen.

Von Drachen, in turn, shrugged his shoulders. “They knew what they signed up for. I care about the living and I will achieve victory for the dead. All of my men know about this.”

At this callousness, or perhaps more at Von Drachen’s lack of reaction to what should have been a harsh indictment, Von Fennec turned his cheek and grumbled inaudibly.

As the Generals amicably conversed, all of the unit’s strength rallied around the Vishap. All that could be taken along the Vishap on the desert trek, was a light rifle battalion and some stray elements of tank and motor units. Behind Von Drachen, the camouflaged tank transporters, unburdened of the tank’s weight, retreated back behind the dunes, tugging behind them the massive crate-like object that once housed the Vishap inside it.

A few token escort tanks, “Rick Hunter” pattern with 76mm guns, drove past, crawling their way out of the hilly dunes separating them from the battlespace, using the last of their fuel and the last endurance of their tracks and suspensions to make it within visual range of the wall and bridge. Divided into platoons of 50 men, the Vishap’s infantry escort formed an arrowhead with the machine and a few men at the head of the pack.

“So Von Fennec, what’s preventing this operation from being bombed to pieces?”

Von Drachen glanced at Von Fennec from the corner of his eyes.

Von Fennec snorted and laughed.

“Take a gander at that sand dune over there, and feast your eyes.”

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder, half-interested. Atop a nearby boulder, to which the sand dunes formed a neat little ramp, a trio of tanks with extensive modications raised twin anti-aircraft guns into the air from open-top turrets. All of them were likely based on the new Rick Hunter light tank types, which were just barely nudging the “medium” category in armor and weight, but had great speed. Open-top turrets allowed the the new M3A3s to mount much larger weapons than the old M3s and M5s, and despite lessened survivability they grew to replace the little sluggers in large numbers.

“We call it the M8 R-K Peacekeeper. Any Ayvartan ground attack craft that closes in to the Vishap will be shredded by 18 rounds a second of high-explosive anti-aircraft fire.”

“I see.” Von Drachen said. “So what prevents those things from being bombed?”

“Shut up, Von Drachen. Do something with yourself. Go talk to Aatto or something.”

“Oh, I plan to. Not talk to Aatto; she’s nice, but I have business with a lady at the front.”

“Excuse me?”

At this point, as if on cue, a utility car pulled up behind them. It was driven by the old Cissean colonel, Gutierrez, who looked exhausted behind the wheel, and on its bed, was carrying air tanks and flexible suits, rope and hooks, and other seemingly random pieces of equipment for some nondescript purpose. A squadron of fifteen men sat around on the back of the truck, squeezed between the equipment and looking most unhappy.

“You’re about to fall for Nakar’s trap and I’m about to get you out of it.” Von Drachen said.

Von Fennec looked livid. “What do you mean? There is nothing Madiha Nakar can do now! Our only difficulty was getting the Vishap here. It is going to walk right through the Conqueror’s Way, and cut a path for us! Reinforcements can follow the desert behind us; once the gate is breached, the battle in the northeast can be ignored for this purpose.”

Von Drachen shook his head. He could see where all this was going. He had been there before. “Here is what will happen. Madiha Nakar will put up a stiff resistance that will endanger the Vishap and cause you to commit more forces to push the Vishap forward. This will force you to consolidate your troops into a large, dense formation. She will retreat, and you will think you’ve won, and you’ll charge your big, dense attack group deeper into the bridge. Then, she will surround it and find some way to destroy it, inflicting disproportionate casualties on you because of the density of your unit.”

“Absolutely not! There’s no way to surround anything on that bridge!” Von Fennec said. His face was red and his tail was standing on end. His nose was starting to wet with anger. “It’s a completely narrow path with nowhere to hide except behind rubble. The Vishap will clear all the rubble, mortar through every fallen gate, and mortar the main gate. You think you know better than me, child? I’m a veteran of countless battles! That is why I was entrusted with a superweapon, and you’re just relegated to recon! Shut up!”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I’m going to the front where it’s friendlier. We’ll meet there.”

Nonchalantly, he began to walk away, knowing full well that Von Fennec was not going anywhere near the front. Von Fennec, meanwhile, stood dumbfounded, his old cavalry brain grinding to a halt at the bizarre idea that a General would go join his men to fight.

“How the hell you intend to get there anyway? You’re gonna walk?” Von Fennec shouted.

Still walking away from the Major General, Von Drachen stretched out his arms in glory.

“I’ve evolved since last me and Nakar fought. I’ve finally overcome my one weakness on the battlefield, Von Fennec!” He sounded triumphant. “I have emerged, like a beautiful butterfly from my cocoon! Molted into a force of nature! I have learned how to swim!”

He continued to laugh as he followed the utility truck out into the open desert.


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