The Sun That Shone Through Smoke (28.1)

51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice

Early in the morning of the 51st, various impromptu street meetings were convened to inform the public of recent developments. Newspaper articles had yet to be drafted as the news happened at an inconvenient hour — but everyone needed to know. Dull-voiced KVW politruks in their red and gold uniforms stood before crowds forming in parks and midways and read their scripts as loud as they could over the murmur.

“Comrades of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. From the People’s Peak to your ears this is an important announcement. Last night saw the end of the political deadlock that has been threatening the capital for the past month. The National Council of the SDS has decided to step down from governance, and have appointed Daksha Kansal, from whom many of you heard the past week, as Premier of a new government with a mandate to improve responsiveness and efficient pursuit of the People’s will.”

Pauses, to gauge the crowd. No response. Thus the statement continued. “Premier Daksha Kansal and the newly-created SIVIRA, the Supreme High Command, will be handling executive and military matters henceforth. There will be no changes affecting the self-directed labor of Unions or the economic policies on Cooperatives. Regional Councils will be subordinate to the SIVIRA on military matters but will continue to be responsive to the concerns of the People in this time of war as they have been in the past.”

Nodding heads, glances exchanged, intrigued, curious faces; some confused. Satisfied the politruks continued their announcements. “Our country is in a desperate struggle against a vicious enemy, and it will take great heroism to fend off its heinous attacks. In the coming days, Premier Kansal will interact with the People and commiserate on what can be done by all of us, the socialist workers, to prepare for and win the real war that lies ahead. This being said, the matter is settled. For now, tend to your labors and to yourself — remember that your work and health represent the work and health of the nation!”

Across the city the Politruks delivered their speeches and then stepped down and ambled out of sight, leaving behind the crowds and ignoring any questions asked.

There was no great outcry one way or another, no visible social shift to match this political shift. People simply listened, nodded their heads, and continued about their day with a prayer for the comrades further south, upon whom Nocht continued to encroach. For most citizens of Solstice, the words of Daksha Kansal still resonated, if not entirely the contents then the spirit of them. Many of them knew this was a necessary step and after her showing on the 45th, they were eager to see what her governance would bring.

On the 51st of the Aster’s Gloom, Solstice knew of the Supreme High Command; and that news would be slow to trickle out from the Capital to its embattled children.

51-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Nobody paid the rain any attention. By now it was simply the state of nature.

Dark adobe-red mud covered the ground in the clearing. Sparse green spears of grass stretched from crowns of mud and from murky puddles. Despite the cover of the overgrown canopy above, rainfall scored the site as if unhindered, each drop marking its fall on the soft ooze covering the forest floor. Gloomy and wet, the jungle grew cold.

As the convoy approached, frogs jumped out of the puddles and scattered away. Their falls left their own round prints on the muddy ground. Naya watched, downcast.

Karima sounded a bugle call, perhaps only because she wanted to. As long as she was bugling she was out in the rain — Lila held on to the umbrellas in her place instead.

After the bugle call was done echoing through the forest, everyone made ready.

In a thoroughly unenthusiastic voice, Chief Ravan announced, “Today, we are conducting tests on the 76mm KnK-3 gun. Mainly endurance tests. We already have armor data.”

This time there were few formalities and fewer spectators. Under the unrelenting Dbagbo rainfall, a paltry few engineers set up the prepared plates. Standing off to the side, again under an umbrella, Ravan barely seemed to pay attention to the test.

Inside the Raktapata’s turret, Naya handled one of the 76mm shells. Before her the KnK-3’s mechanisms were much more compact than those belonging to the previous guns, though the casing bumper connected to the breech ring was closer in than the length of a shell. This meant she would have to lift the shells up over the bumper and slide them into the breech. Thankfully each 76mm shell weighed only 6.3 kilograms and had a manageable length.

Naya could pick it up and put it down easy. She set the shell atop the brass bumper.

Unlike the 85 mm and 100 mm gun, the KnK-3 was not exactly a prototype according to Chief Ravan. It was ready for manufacture for all intents and purposes and the model they had was an example of the early production run. Today’s test was much more about how it performed mounted on the Raktapata than about the KnK-3 itself.

One immediate sore spot was the gunnery sight. It was jammed very close to the side of the gun, separated by a thin metal bracket. She could accidentally bang her head on the gun when shooting via the sight. To make matters worse the glass was lower quality and gave a dimmer, foggier view of the surroundings than the experimental gunnery scopes on the other guns. Her periscope could not sight the gun, but it offered a much better view and she would have to rely on it more strongly to spot enemies from afar.

Before the test began, she pulled back from the gunnery sight and raised her head to the periscope, watching the engineers preparing the 80 mm plate at 500 meters.

“Why is the plate so much closer this time?” Naya asked over the radio.

Chief Ravan sounded pained in her reply.  “The KnK-3 gun can’t do better than this.”

“I see.” Naya said. She remembered that her old 45mm anti-tank gun could not penetrate any more than 43 mm of armor at 500 meter ranges, and no more than 32 mm of armor at 1000 meter ranges — and this was taking into account 90 degree angles that were not always guaranteed. It was enough power for light tanks and the sides and rear of medium Nochtish tanks, but inadequate against the faces of most tanks at significant ranges.

Though the 85 mm and 100 mm guns had been able to plow through seemingly any amount of steel put in their way, the KnK-3 simply could not punch at that weight class.

“Naya, commence 10-round endurance fire when ready.” Captain Rajagopal said.

Naya nodded her head, entirely to herself. “Acknowledged!”

She picked the 76 mm shell she had been playing with up from the casing bumper, turned it on its side and loaded it in at an angle until it sat on the feed slide, and punched it in. Instead of an electrical trigger like the 85 and 100 mm guns, she instead had a shooting lever. She reached for it, pulled it to open fire, punched the hot brass off the feeding slide that connected the breech ring and bumper, and then started to time herself. Grabbing a shell, loading it, and shooting; this second shot was better representative of the time it took.

Nine seconds. Not bad, she thought. Was she getting better?

After each shot a tiny puff of gas escaped from the breech. It was thinner and less noxious than that of the 85 and 100 mm guns but it was still quite annoying to her! She also had to manually beat away the brass casing after it ejected and hit the bumper. Sometimes it fell off by itself, but most of the time it simply remained on the feeder after firing!

She focused entirely on the repetitive motions, reaching, sliding, pulling. She barely looked through her gunnery sight, and did not need to readjust. Loading and shooting as fast as possible was her number one priority in an endurance fire. Her fingers hurt, and she felt a distinct pain in her left right shoulder and flank with each passing round. Her breathing quickened and her arms felt loose and aching after the 10th round. When the endurance fire was completed about one and a half minutes had elapsed in total.

Naya raised her head to the periscope to view her handiwork.

Many of her shots had stricken the edges of the plate, none of them had hit the dead center. Of course, the aerodynamics of the 76 mm shell were different and she hardly accounted for them. It was significantly lighter and shorter, and she had been told it was made from much cheaper materials than the bigger shells. She could see chunks of metal embedded in the target plate everywhere, leaving ugly scars and compromised sections of the armor. There were two dirty holes with a lot of metal still embedded, but at least indicative of a limited penetration; but most of the plate was merely banged up and dented after the onslaught.

Naya turned her periscope around and saw Chief Ravan rubbing her forehead with her hands in quiet frustration. This was certainly less impressive than the previous guns.

“Sorry ma’am!” Naya said through her radio. “I didn’t do so well now!”

“Dear, for the umpteenth time, it is not your fault.” Chief Ravan replied.

Chief Ravan called her engineers and had them take down the busted plate. For the two penetrations they could not find significant shards even after thoroughly searching the surroundings with magnets — it must not have been a very effective penetration. Perhaps the quality of the shells caused them to ground to dust. Eventually they put up a second plate, this one thinner and smaller than all the previous targets.

“Naya, for this test use five AP shells, drawn from the reserve ammo stowage. Your target is a 50 mm thick plate at a 60 degree angle at 500 meters.” Ravan called out.

Beneath her there was a long shell basket holding the tank’s remaining ammunition. The racks at her back held only ten shells for quick access during a fight, and the baskets below and to her left, hugging the wall, could hold a total of fifty extra shells. However for the day’s test only 15 extra shells had been furnished for the Raktapata’s use.

This was another rate of fire test. After all, a tank would likely have to fight off its reserve ammo in a heated exchange with a mobile enemy, where it could not afford to replenish the ready rack. Reaching down to seize a shell would add time to the firing of the gun.

It might also inflict on her back some punishment she wasn’t sure she could take.

Swallowing hard, hands shaking, she tried to steel herself for the task ahead. She closed her hands into fists, sat back in her chair, and focused away from her own body.

It was tough. She was aching a little everywhere. She could feel the wear on her, as if still stretching taut the muscles and tendons in her shoulder, arms, flank and hips.

“Naya, commence 5-round endurance fire when ready.” Captain Rajagopal said.

Naya breathed in deep, and she started to time herself. She bent down and to the side, seized a shell, raised herself back up to her seat with it, angled it into the feeder slide, loaded it, opened fire. Fifteen seconds. She pushed away the hot brass with her hand — her insulated gloves protected her — and took a quick peek through her gunnery sight.

She confirmed a clean penetration on the plate; she started reaching for the next shell.

“Cease fire and cut the engine now!” Chief Ravan shouted suddenly.

Farwah complied immediately and the tank grew gradually silent. Naya dropped the shell back into the basket and painstakingly helped herself up, standing on her chair, and then on a foothold in the turret wall. She peeked up out of the turret hatch in the rain. Though persistent, the rainfall was gentle and relatively sparse compared to the past few days.

It allowed her to hear the buzzing overhead, beyond the jungle canopy. She looked up in a panic but could not see anything through the green. Chief Ravan waved her down.

“Naya! Get back into the turret now! You’re safer there!” She shouted.

Naya gestured behind her, where an AA machine gun was set on a pintle.

“I could use that to defend us!” She called over the radio, her lips trembling.

“You won’t do any good Naya! Just hunker down and wait for it to pass!

Shaken up, Naya remained out of the hatch. “Could it be one of our planes?”

“No. Our planes have no reason to fly over this place!” Chief Ravan said.

Disobeying the Chief, Naya turned around and seized on the machine gun. It was a Khroda heavy machine gun slapped on a pintle mount with a box magazine. She scanned around the canopy through the pop-up metal sight on the machine gun but she could see nothing but slices of grey sky and the the rain filtering in through the lush ceiling of the forest.

Chief Ravan pressed her hands against her face in frustration at Naya.

“Can we call for air support?” Farwah asked over the radio, still inside the tank.

“We barely have active planes in Dbagbo. Our airfields close to the border were bombed early in the invasion and surviving planes were moved to improvised airfields farther north.” Captain Rajagopal said. “Nocht’s flights have only been hindered by the incessant winter rains. They otherwise have near full command of our skies right now.”

“I suppose their air men must have gotten testy of late.” Chief Ravan said.

“Or they’re desperate for intelligence to feed an attack.” Captain Rajagopal replied.

They heard the buzzing of the engine again, closer overhead. Everyone quieted for several minutes and stood still. There was no shadow, no way of knowing that the plane had passed or whether it had them in their sights. They heard the buzzing come and go beneath the gentle rain but could not divine its direction. It was moving fast.

Then there was a shriek on the radio that startled everyone.

“I saw it! I saw it through the canopy!” Lila shouted.

Naya scanned around in a panic but the plane did not materialize for her.

“What kind of plane was it?” Karima demanded.

“Monoplane! Grey with big propellers!” Lila replied. “Going that way!”

Again Naya raised her gun, this time with a direction, but again saw nothing. She grit her teeth, her hands shaking against the gun handles. She felt as if half-alive and half-dead, as if her body was preparing for the fact that within an instant all sensation could cease. Though the aching temporarily subsided, her stomach turned and her muscles locked.

Everyone stared helplessly up at their invisible assailant, standing near thirty two tons of armored vehicle that could do nothing to protect them, helmed by a shaking girl whose thoughts were whipped up into a swirl of panic and recklessness and self-hate.

Rain dribbled down the bridge of her nose and her cheeks, masking her tears.

Overhead the buzzing of the engine grew near.

Everyone took cover; with a gasp, Naya succumbed and hid back in the turret.

Holding on to the hatch, she heard a swooping sound.

She grit her teeth, hands tight on the handle, shaking and shaking.

No machine guns, no bombs.

Overhead the buzzing of the engine grew distant.

After several minutes of silence, everyone inched out of cover.

“Back to camp while we have the chance!” Chief Ravan shouted.

Leaving behind the testing plate, the engineers packed up their tools and rushed back into the Sharabha half-track with Ravan and Rajagopal; Farwah exited the tank, hooked it quickly to the Tokolosh, and started out of the clearing. Moving so quickly, everyone forgot Naya inside the turret, but that was fine for her. She was still crying furiously.

In case of an enemy air raid, remember! Vote for The Solstice War on Top Web Fiction!

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