48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya
Naya’s dull, persistent aching had not gone away over the past few days, but the relatively quiet life in the camp helped her to ease into it. She had lived with worse pain than this.
She thought to blame it on the rain. Unabated, it made the environment cold and humid.
In the forest she could feel a chill needling her skin. It was better inside the tank.
There was no bugle call for this particular exercise since Karima was holding a pair of large umbrellas over herself, Lila, Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan, shielding them from the incessant rain. Thankfully the wind was calm, so the deluge was surmountable.
“Let us begin testing of the 85 mm A.A.W!” Chief Ravan called out over the radio.
Naya responded affirmatively. Though it was less impressive, she thought she liked the 85mm better than the 100mm gun. All of its parts were much more compact, and the gunnery sight placement was more comfortable. She could reach for the spare shells more easily. Its AP projectile also weighed maybe ten kilograms and was only around 70 centimeters long — far easier to pick up and load into the gun. Naya was sure she could sustain a higher rate of fire on the 85mm than on the 100mm gun.
Across the clearing, 800 meters away, engineers prepared the 80 mm thick plate.
Once they were clear, Naya received the fire order, and launched a round downrange.
Brass ejected; the breech also belched a puff of smoke that smelled a bit strong.
Naya hardly paid it any mind. She was used to smoke; she was focused on the target.
In an instant a smoking hole the size of a fist appeared just off-center from the painted target. Though it was an easy shot to make — 800 meters, 90 degree angled plate — Naya still felt proud of her accuracy on the target. She would try for the bull’s eye next.
Switching from gunnery to periscope, she trained her vision equipment on her officers.
“What remained of the shell?” Captain Rajagopal asked over the radio.
Chief Ravan checked with her engineers using a hand radio and reported back.
“Fragmented after impact into four splinters. Most of the mass was lost on impact. The shard cone was tight, judging by the breach and the fall of the fragments.” She said.
Captain Rajagopal nodded her head toward the periscope. “Naya, status report!”
“Everything looks fine in here. Brass cycled successfully.” Naya replied.
“Good! We’ll hit the 100 mm plate and then test the endurance fire.”
Again the engineers set up the plate, but this time they tilted it at a steeper angle.
“This time the 100 mm plate is tilted at a 60 degree angle. Sloped armor provides more effective resistance against penetrators. Aim for the target nonetheless Naya.”
“Got it.” Naya loaded the next shell, and worked the elevation and turret controls. She stuck her tongue out, and felt a tension in her fingers as she prepared the gun. She aimed a little higher and off to the side than before, correcting for her last shot. Her fingers gripped the cannon trigger. Slowly and deliberately she pressed and depressed to fire.
In the center of the plate an ugly, irregular hole appeared where the shell breached.
“Excellent! Yes! Yes!” Chief Ravan cheered. “That 85 mm craves the steel!”
Bullseye! Naya adjusted the magnification of her sight as far as it would go and took in her handiwork. She had gotten the shell dead center. Due to the slope of the plate, the shellhole was shoddy looking and crooked. But she felt a swelling of pride nonetheless. In the cold cockpit of the Raktapata, she felt for a second the same strength that she had when she sprinted, when she kicked right past a goalie, when she cleared a jump.
Captain Rajagopal called and took Naya out of her reverie. “Private, begin endurance fire when ready. Launch ten consecutive AP shells through the gun as fast as you can.”
“Yes ma’am!” Naya said. “Beginning endurance fire! Clear the range for 3 minutes!”
From the ammunition rack she withdrew the first shell, put it down on the short extension connected to the breech, pulled the breech lever, punched the round inside, and pulled the trigger. She counted — it took her 12 seconds to complete this motion. Rack, carry, breech ring, load, shoot, 12 seconds. Second shell; she felt a sting in her shoulder that built as she slid in the third round. Third shell, and the smoke was starting to build. She coughed. Fourth shell, her eyes scanned the instruments while shooting, watching the cannon roll back in between the buffers with the recoil, the breech spitting back brass that fell under her and smoke that clouded up the turret. Fifth shell–
Naya loaded the shell and the breech closing nearly bit her hand off. Her trigger then stuck, and no amount of ramming it would dislodge a shell. Was her cannon jammed?
“Shit!” She cursed. She alerted everyone. “We’ve got a sticker! It’s not firing!”
“Get out of the tank right now!” Chief Ravan shouted. “Both of you!”
Naya gingerly removed her hand from the trigger and slowly backed away from the gun so as not to touch any instruments. She opened the hatch, letting in a trickle of rainwater. She climbed gingerly out of her hatch, and helped Farwah out of his. Both of them jumped off the tank hull, while Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan left their places under Karima’s umbrella, climbed on the tank and dropped inside. It occurred to Naya that if there was a truly dangerous malfunction, both of them could be killed in the tank.
“Please be careful.” She said. Neither of her officers responded one way or another.
Engineers kept their distance from the tank. Farwah pulled Naya along behind a tree trunk nearby that was just about thick enough to absorb metal fragments. There was no radio contact for several tense moments. Naya and Farwah surreptitiously peeked at the tank from behind the trunk. They saw Karima and Lila across the other side of the tank, similarly hiding. Finally there was some noise on the line — it sounded like a grunt, a rattling noise, and then a ripping noise as though someone was tearing sheets off a notebook in there.
“Looks like it’s just the electric fire control.” Chief Ravan said into the radio. “I can’t be sure whether it’s the trigger pressure, or if there’s a wiring failure or something.”
“Can we manually fire the cannon?” Captain Rajagopal asked.
“There’s a way — Naya, get me an adjustable wrench. It’s safe to approach.”
Naya felt a sudden relief. She strode out from behind the tree, crossed around the Raktapata’s back, since a cook-off misfire was always possible; she found Ravan’s toolbox, produced the necessary wrench, and climbed carefully on the tank. She leaned halfway down into the gunner’s hatch and found Ravan seated in her place, with Captain Rajagopal on the left-hand side at the back, waiting in the Commander’s chair.
Naya handed Chief Ravan the wrench. Ravan thanked her, unscrewed the head, and leaned over the gun and closed the wrench around an unseen piece of metal. She maneuvered on the turret basket, contorting herself to give the gun some clearance under her while still maintaining a hold on the wrench, and shouted a warning for everyone.
Twisting the wrench, Chief Ravan fired the gun. Naya nearly bashed her head against the turret roof and also nearly fell inside from the force. She watched as the gun slid just under the doctor’s chest and arm, while she shook in place from the force of the shot.
As if nothing had happened, the breech opened and spat out a little puff of smoke.
Chief Ravan sat back on the gunner’s chair, leaving the wrench stuck where it was.
“We obviously can’t conduct any more tests like this.” She sighed. “Let’s return to base. We’ll take out the 85 mm and replace it with the 76 mm KnK-3 or something.”
“I’m so sorry ma’am.” Naya whimpered, still hanging half-inside and letting in rain.
Chief Ravan waved her arms dismissively, as if fanning away the smoke in the turret. “Naya, it is not your fault at all. Personally, I’m blaming A.A.W in my report.” She said.
Owing to a defective trigger mechanism and, to a lesser extent, a heinous lack of obdurant solutions that resulted in the turret being full of smoke, the tests were once again called off. Farwah brought the Tokolosh back around and hooked the Raktapata on to it. Lila gave everyone involved in the turret situation a quick once-over as the resident medic, and then cleared them just as fast. Ravan and the Captain rode with the engineers on the Sharabha half-track. Karima and Lila made for the bed on the Tokolosh.
Naya requested to ride inside the Raktapata. Everyone gave her odd looks.
“Whatever for?” Chief Ravan said. “It’ll just be bumpy and uncomfortable.”
“Lila and Karima can ride up front on the Tokolosh. Everyone’ll be sheltered.”
Chief Ravan curled a lock of hair around a finger. Captain Rajagopal acquiesced.
When the Tokolosh got going, Naya was inside, seated on the gunner’s seat. She leaned back on the seat, casting lazy eyes about the turret. She felt like there was something that she was not getting. In a way she still thought that it was her fault, that she had brought something to this machine, like a curse. She looked around the turret as if she could find a solution to it. But then again, what could she even do? She was just an aimless brat with nothing to look forward to, nothing to hang on to in life, nothing special.
As the tank bumped along the forest floor, Naya felt the aching grow worse.
She pulled off her radio headset, because she was starting to weep again and she wanted to be by herself, completely cut off, when such things happened. It was only right.
“You’re just like me.” She said aloud. Her voice echoed in the empty, closed turret. “Anyone watching you would say you’re just fine. Some people might even be impressed with you. They’ll find potential and things to like. But you don’t live up to it. You’re all broken up inside. There’s so many problems– and even if you fix them, what would you do then? You’re a prototype. Something better will come to replace you in the end. It’s sad isn’t it?”
She wiped her face, but the tears wouldn’t stop. She ended up crying into the brass bumper at the end of the breech ring extension, as though into someone’s shoulders.
“We’re drakes with broken fangs. All we could do is bite, so what now?” She moaned.
* * *
Back at the camp, the Tokolosh deposited the Raktapata inside the workshop and drove off. Naya took her leave to go rest, Chief Ravan locked herself up in her work and everyone dispersed for the day. Dinner time passed peacefully by and night was falling.
It was this time that shifts were traded for any common overnight chores.
Captain Rajagopal entered the radio tent and found it mostly empty. Inside there was only Private Karima Faizan, doing one of the camp’s many odd jobs given its lopsided personnel roster — a bunch of one-track-minded engineers and a gaggle of replacements hastily procured through the slapdash efforts of Chief Ravan. At least it kept things lively.
Karima sat behind a desk with a large pair of headphones, a list of frequencies and secret codes at hand. Atop the desk was a radio unit. Beside the desk was a chair topped by a device that seemed like a chunky, ergonomically impoverished typewriter.
Spotting her superior, Karima stood up and saluted with a serious expression.
“Oh! Hujambo, comrade Captain! No important messages have come in, ma’am!”
Dhorsha Rajagopal smiled and signed at her subordinate. “At ease, private.”
Karima nodded — she had learned many common signs at an impressive pace.
“I’m willing to stay up to help if necessary.” Karima said. She spoke casually.
Casual speech was appreciated. It was easier to read than deliberately slow pronunciation. The Captain nodded her head back to the private in appreciation.
She signed again. “Not necessary. Get some rest. Your dedication is appreciated.”
Karima stood up from her desk and walked past the Captain to the tent door.
Suddenly the Captain raised her cane and blocked her. Karima looked surprised.
“Please leave that here.” signed the Captain. She pointed at Karima’s hand.
She was about to leave the tent with the handwritten note of secret codes in hand.
“I’m sorry ma’am! I just forgot!” Karima said. It would be serious if the codes got out.
“Don’t fret, I understand that it was a mistake. Have a good night.” the Captain signed.
Karima bowed her head to the Captain, gave her the codes, and left the tent without incident. The Captain put the piece of paper in her coat pocket and sat behind the desk.
Captain Rajagopal’s vision was better than most people imagined. Through her blue eye was blind to shapes and colors and contours, while it was open it could detect whether there was light or darkness. Her green eye could see fairly clearly up to two meters away or so. Some features looked indistinct, and she had problems with depth that she required her cane for. But she could read lips enough to communicate. From “Oh!” to “Captain” she could listen to every word that Karima was saying so long as it was spoken in Ayvartan.
Had she spoken them through the Captain’s special radio, the volume would have been boosted enough that the Captain would have heard it as tinny but audible noise.
These were methods that the KVW had helped her to train — they had told her they could improve her cognition, her focus, sharpen her, make her all that she could be. Most of their methods failed. But she helped develop new ones for people like herself.
There were no red rings around her eyes, but she was a KVW veteran nonetheless.
Almost as soon as she settled in the seat and started taking in the residual warmth of the previous occupant there was a rattling noise from the teleprinter. After a moment’s worth of grinding noises, it spat out a paper with an uninterrupted block of letters.
Captain Rajagopal held it up to her eye, and pulled out the week’s code sheet.
“8th Rifles retreating in east Shebelle. 3rd, 4th, 5th Rifles retreating in South. Gollaprollou vulnerable. Line to Benghu weakening. Offensive has failed. Enemy building up.”