This scene contains graphic violence and death.
Solstice City — Conqueror’s Way Defense Zone
For all the myth that surrounded it, Conqueror’s Way was a bridge, built out of stone in antiquity and reinforced with steel and concrete in modernity. It had withstood a horrific punishment during the war. Across its monumental bulk the bridge’s gates had been bombed to rubble, the ramparts pulverized, the bunkers and pillboxes crushed by relentless ordnance. Rubble lay undisturbed where it had fallen. Its hundred meter width was pitted and ruptured, but there was clearance here and there, where towers had fallen into the water instead of over the lanes, or where gates blew outward instead of collapsing in on themselves.
Atop the rubble of the outermost gate, soldiers of the 1st Guards Mechanized Division’s 2nd Motorized Infantry Regiment stood guard over the Conqueror’s Way. They passed a pair of binoculars among themselves, each individual hoping that they could confirm the sight before them as merely a wraith in the heat’s haze, a trick of the desert sun and partial dehydration. When the binoculars landed in the hand of eighteen-year-old Loubna Al-Alwi, and she raised them to her eyes and stared over the rubble at the edge of the desert, she saw the sand blowing up into the air in the distance, and the figures, rippling in the heat mirages, moving closer and closer, trampling in a huge mass, until she could make out uniforms, helmets, and guns.
At her side, her partner was quivering. She reached out a hand to Loubna’s shirt.
“Loubna, they’re coming. They’re really coming. We’re really going to fight.”
Loubna was a few months older than Aditha, and she wanted to say something reassuring as a senior to a junior, but she knew she had nothing in her that would ease the situation. They had been waiting with the breath trapped in their chest for months. She could see in Aditha’s sweat-soaked face, in her green eyes, that fear. She felt like she could make out her own perplexed face, mirrored in the tears starting to roll out of Aditha’s eyes.
She shook her head, averted her eyes and took Aditha gently by the hand.
“We should tell the Sergeant and the 2nd Lieutenant. Come on.” Loubna said.
Aditha wiped her tears and nodded her head.
At their sides, the shimmering waters of the long, twisting Qural disappeared behind the remains of the bridge’s barriers as the pair slid down the mound of rubble to the bridge.
Leaving the other five members of the squadron atop the rubble mound, Loubna and Aditha crossed the car lanes on the pitted, uneven bridge flat and ran toward a chunk of a guard tower on the left-hand side. There were people all around, with their backs to rubble, seated with canteens out and tarps strung wherever they could be, trying to beat the heat. Beyond them lay the rubble of the second gate, still half-standing and retaining more of its shape, having only been struck directly by a single heavy bomb from a Nochtish airplane.
There were more people behind that second gate, but that was not Loubna’s destination. Instead, behind the remains of the forward guard tower the recon platoon’s command element had set up a radio under a grey, amorphous tent that looked like another piece of rubble.
Inside, 2nd Lieutenant Charvi Chadgura and 1st Sergeant Gulab Kajari were seated together, crossing out parts of the gridded desert map in conjunction with radio personnel from the Division. It was something that transpired quietly every week. Old maps were destroyed, and new ones with new positions, directions and coordinates were issued and marked up.
Everything looked almost serene, like nobody had any idea the war had arrived.
“Ma’am! There’s a problem!” Loubna said nervously. At her side, Aditha merely stared.
Lt. Chadgura looked up first. Her face, dusty from the desert wind, was fully devoid of emotion, and her speech felt dull to the ears. She was unimpressive of stature, but colorful in appearance, her silver-like hair a contrast to her dark skin. She made an impression.
“Private Al-Alwi; please explain.” replied the Lieutenant, fixing her with a strong gaze.
At her side, Sergeant Kajari pulled off a big pair of radio headphones.
She gave Loubna a big smile from over her shoulder.
“Yes ma’am.” Loubna and Aditha both stood straight and saluted. “Ma’am, at 0137 we caught sight of figures in the desert, and keeping watch on their movements, we now believe them to be the enemy, ma’am! They are making their approach from the desert, direction of uh,”
Loubna’s brain became stuck, she could not remember the surrounding areas well–
“–From the direction of Sharahad, ma’am!” Aditha added, covering for Loubna.
Loubna felt secretly the most grateful she ever had been for Aditha at that moment.
“Huh? Did they get past the 1st Tank then?” Sergeant Kajari said, turning to the 2nd Lt.
“No, they must have gone through the sands. It’s the only gap.” 2nd. Lt Chadgura said.
“So then, it’s probably a recon force and an exhausted one at that.” Sgt. Kajari said.
Sergeant Kajari stood up from the ground, and picked up a Danava type Light Machine Gun set against the wall of the guard house ruin. She stretched her arms up, and let out a big yawn, as if she had not stood up for many hours, or as if she had been bored. Wiping dust off her rump, she walked over to Loubna, who was still stiff as a board nailed to a checkpoint barrier.
Face to face, Loubna was a head taller than Sergeant Kajari. She had bigger shoulders and shorter hair and felt just a little inadequate faced with the unit’s vibrant, energetic idol.
Smiling all the while, Kajari thrust the Danava into Loubna’s hands and patted her back.
“It’ll be fine, Private Al-Alwi! Private Chatham! Let’s go hunting! We’re recon after all!”
Aditha, shorter, longer-haired, a bit more dainty, drained of color.
Loubna gulped, but Sergeant Kajari had such energy it was impossible not to follow her.
“Please be careful, Gulab.” 2nd Lt. Chadgura cried out to them.
Sergeant Kajari merely raised a hand and waved it dismissively, without even turning back.
“We’re forming two echelons! Five of you follow me up to reinforce the mound. All the rest of you stay down here, and form up behind the rubble!” Sergeant Kajari commanded.
Not one canteen was left on the ground, not one tarp strung up. Instantly, all of the platoon that was situated between the 1st and 2nd Gates began to take up fighting positions. Loubna was transfixed by them for a moment, how quickly and efficiently they moved and worked. These were Sergeant Kajari’s regulars, the elite of the 2nd Division’s Guards Reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, their leader was hopping and skipping toward the battle with Loubna in tow.
With almost a relish, Kajari charged up on top of the first gate mound, laid flat atop it, and asked for the binoculars to be passed to her. Loubna and Aditha laid down beside her. Sergeant Kajari raised the binoculars to her eyes and stared down the desert. The advancing forces were making no effort to conceal their movements. Though in fact, it was more apt to say they could not. Aside from the rise and fall of the sand, there was no cover for them to hide from the bullets. Their only protection was to move quickly and spread out their formation.
She passed the binoculars to another platoon member, and clapped her hands together.
“I knew it. I read the map correctly. Those are Republic of Ayvarta troops, comrades.” said Sergeant Kajari. “Traitors who joined with Nocht and seek to hand Solstice to them.”
“That’s the Empress’ government in the south.” Aditha said, as if to herself in shock.
“Don’t sound so impressed. Empresses and Kings and Queens are all fake.” Sergeant Kajari said sharply. “I can go around saying the desert belongs to me just as well as anybody else. And nobody has to listen to me either. They’re all cowards, and we’re teaching them a lesson.”
Out in the desert the formations of men entered combat distance, and they could see the yellow uniforms of the Republic, and the Nochtish-issue rifles being hefted up for battle, and the sabers and machetes being drawn by officers signalling their men to charge. There were over a hundred men approaching in scattered groups, all coming within a kilometer.
Sergeant Kajari suddenly stood up from the mound, and raised her rifle to her eye.
She took aim and fired a shot that seemed to resound across the empty desert.
Somewhere in the distance one of the moving figures fell and vanished.
“Take aim and fire, comrades! We’re Guards Reconnaissance, and we lead the way!”
Bullets started to drive right back at them from the desert, striking the rock and rubble, flying over them and past the brazenly upright Sergeant, and it made her mad shouting all the more imposing, all the more commanding. There were now twelve of them atop that mound, and facing the incoming onslaught seemed almost suicidal, and yet, none of them would run.
Loubna found herself reaching down her side, and she pulled up the Danava LMG and set it atop the rubble, the barrel shroud poking out from between two concrete bricks and the sight peeking just over the debris. Beside her, Aditha withdrew her rifle and laid on the rocks, taking aim with her telescopic sight. Her teeth were chattering and her hands shaking.
Sergeant Kajari laid down flat atop the rubble of the first gate and started shooting.
One by one their other comrades in the squad were picking targets and firing.
Judging by what she had seen in the binoculars the approaching enemy lacked vehicles and seemed to be low on heavy weapons. It was a mass of riflemen and bayonets, hoping to penetrate in a cavalry charge without horses. They could do it against a lightly armed position, such as theirs, but there was one wrench in that dire strategy. Sergeant Kajari had entrusted Loubna, perhaps carelessly, perhaps unthinkingly, with the tool to win the battle.
It was like everything Loubna had read in the pamphlets and in the tactical reports.
She had an automatic weapon and none of the enemy approaching her did.
They had no cover, and she had all the bullets, more bullets than the whole squadron.
Everyone’s lives were in her hands. She sweated, and looked down the Danava’s sights.
Her own hands were shaking, but she thought of Aditha and what they had gone through.
“Loubna, are you alright? You’re shaking.” Aditha said, setting up her rifle.
She patted Loubna on the shoulder. In turn, Loubna tried to steel herself for the battle.
“Adi, I’ve never shot anyone real before. But I promised.” She said, in a serious voice.
Aditha looked up from her scope in shock at those words, but she could not say anything before Loubna held down the trigger, and the metal crack of each shot silenced her.
“I promised I’d take care of you!”
Loubna shouted, and from the barrel of the Danava dozens of seething blood-red rounds flew out into the desert, kicking up sharp spears of sand and dust into the air wherever they hit. Loubna swung the gun around on its bipod, settling the sights in the general area of an enemy group and pressing and depressing the trigger rapidly. In short, rapid bursts the bullets soared down on the enemy, grouped closely but deviating in a cone spread that showered the desert.
Her entire body shook with the forces going through the weapon.
Wild and mostly innacurate, her gunfire served to disrupt the enemy’s movements. She moved her sight from group to group, launching several quick bursts before moving to the next, and causing the men to drop, to spread out, to crouch and lose their pace. Formations began to run into each other in the chaos, and the enemy march lost its discipline and efficiency.
As the men scattered, her comrades and their slower-firing weapons could pick them off.
As one, the squadron fired its rifles in time with Loubna’s bursts, and set upon the enemy.
It was powerful; her Danava was monstrously powerful.
When her gun clicked empty, Loubna ripped the pan magazine from it, and reached into Aditha’s bag beside her (she was the support gunner), and slammed a new pan into place.
Aditha again had no time to speak before Loubna, focused like bird over a bug, shot again.
This time the men were closer, and this time Loubna’s shots began to inflict upon them.
She saw it, or at least, she thought she did, when the first man she ever killed fell.
He was an officer in the midst of his men, holding out a machete, almost 500 meters close.
She set her sight on him, opened fire, and the group dispersed and dropped and scrambled away from the gunfire, but he was caught, instantly, amid the burst. He stood for seconds as if suspended in the air by cables, his arms going limp as the bullets impacted his shoulder, his elbow, his armpit, like a series of knockout boxing blows. His knee exploded from a shot, bringing his dying body down. His face swung to catch a round in the nose.
Loubna had thought the first man she would kill in this war would be some Nochtish devil in grey fatigues with skin like a ghost. Instead, she shot a man as brown as she, and he died.
There was a cosmic instant where this became apparent to her, and she thought she would be trapped in it, and she thought she would regret it so deeply that it would kill her as brutally as the bullets had killed him. But the adrenaline pushed her out of that deific second where she contemplated the power she had, and into the next deific second where she wielded the lightning like the Gods of the North had done. She raised her hand, and with a flick of the wrist had the appropriate elevation angle, and continued to shoot as she had been.
Just that simple turn of the hand guided her bullets to three other men crouching away from the gunfire, and slew them in turn, perforating their flesh and blowing up dust and sand over them. It looked for a ridiculous instant as if spears of earth had blown through their bodies, and the desert itself killed them in revenge. It was just the penetrating power of the gun.
She had shot at beef hunks as part of her training; she knew what bullets did.
Moments later, she felt a click, and a sputtering final recoil through the gun, and she stretched out her hand, shaking like mad, into Aditha’s bag for another pan. It felt numb, weakened.
Suddenly she felt a warm hand on her arm, and turned with wide-open eyes to see Aditha.
Her long, dark hair was over her honey-brown face, and she was sweating, and red in the eyes.
“Loubna, please, you’re hurt. Please.” Aditha said.
Loubna felt a sting in her shoulder.
She looked down and saw a cut in her coat, bleeding.
It hurt suddenly. Her arm started to shake even worse.
“It’s nothing.” Loubna said, her voice trembling.
“You’re shaking. Please, for the love of God, take this and settle down for a moment.”
Aditha handed her an injector, and a compress bandage, from her bag.
She returned to the scope on her sniper rifle.
“Listen. I don’t need you to protect me. In fact, I can protect you. Don’t be so conceited.”
Aditha took a deep breath, and pressed the trigger.
700 meters away a man’s head vanished into red mist.
Loubna could not read Aditha’s mind or place herself in her head.
But she wondered if Aditha had felt that moment of strange disquiet after her first kill.
Seemingly without pause, without even drawing a new breath, Aditha worked the bolt on her sniper rifle, and quickly lined up and took a second shot. Out in the desert a man trying to set up the enemy’s only visible Norgler machine gun fell down a tall sand dune with the weapon, and both ended up partially buried at the bottom of the hill by the rising winds.
“Right now the worst you could do to me is to die. Please, Loubna.”
Loubna nodded, shaken a bit by the intensity of her friend’s words.
She slid down a bit from the position of her gun, flipped onto her back, and spread her coat.
She applied the compress under her clothes and over the wound, the waxy glue sticking the bandage hard against her bleeding, cut and bruised shoulder. She took the injector and pressed it against her neck, and pressed the button, and felt the sudden prick in her skin. There was a cold pain and then a sensation of lightness as the drugs spread through her bloodstream.
“A hundred meters! We’ve got enemies dashing in!” shouted a comrade.
Rifle shots rang out, and were answered, the replies now far too close.
They could hear the boots trudging up the steep mound.
“Loubna watch out!” Aditha shouted.
Loubna looked up and saw a shadow over her with a rifle and a glinting bayonet.
Over her the Republican soldier who had breached the line raised his weapon.
Rifles and pistols went up all around him, but there wasn’t time to stop him.
He roared, and he thrust down.
Then, as if instantly meeting a wall, he sailed back from Loubna.
2nd Lieutenant Chadgura had charged up the rubble and struck him with her shoulder.
He reeled, and she drew her machete and drove it into his gut, pulling him closer.
Blood splashed onto the rubble, onto Loubna, who lay vulnerably beneath the melee.
2nd Lt. Chadgura drew her officer’s pistol, her other hand holding the dying man by the blade.
She thrust the corpse forward, where it met the rifle bayonets of a pair of republican soldiers.
She raised her pistol, and fired at both in quick succession, their faces vanishing in red gore.
Sergeant Kajari stood up from the rubble, drew her own pistol and knife, and joined 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura at the fore of the defense, shooting the men clambering desperately up from the desert below. Rifle fire sailed past her, and both officers were lucky that the enemy did not want to stop to aim at the bottom of the makeshift hill, or they would have been shot.
They had no automatic support: Loubna had the Danava, and Loubna could hardly move.
It wasn’t even the drugs or the pain.
It was fear. A man had tried to kill her, to butcher her with a blade.
It was scarier than any shootout, and Loubna felt paralyzed.
“Gulab, please hide, I am enacting a plan.” Chadgura dispassionately said.
“Like shit you are! You scared me to death!” Gulab said.
Both of them continued firing, each taking an enemy corpse in front of them as a grizzly shield.
“You may not believe me, but everything is going according to a design–”
“Oh save it, Charvi. I wasn’t just laying around either.”
Sergeant Kajari dropped her pistol and withdrew something from her back pouch.
There was a bundle of grenades linked by a string.
“Oh, well.” Chadgura said.
Sergeant Kajari heaved the bundle down the mound, and all the grenades primed at once.
Both tossed the bodies they were holding, absorbing stray fire as they backed away.
They rolled downhill, and Sergeant Kajari turned around and grabbed 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura. They both fell hard onto the rubble, one atop the other, and behind them a half-dozen grenades went off at once, shooting up smoke and metal and collapsing some of the footholds up the rubble of the first gate. Men were thrown bodily, and slid down, and several were caught in the blasts and shredded, and Loubna could barely see it from her vantage. There was just smoke and blood and indistinct carnage and she could hardly believe it.
It had been less than a minute’s worth of war, that exchange, and it was madness.
“Gulab, you have once again succeeded in playing the hero, so could you please–”
Sergeant Kajari, in full view of the rookies, pressed herself against 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura and took her into a kiss, fully and passionately. The 2nd Lieutenant reciprocated in confusion.
When their lips parted they were staring intensely into each other’s eyes.
“Now I succeeded.” Sergeant Kajari smiled.
2nd Lieutenant Chadgura blinked. She did not smile, but she did seem eerily content.
“You absolutely did.”
Sergeant Kajari, elated, turned to the rookies. “You all better not snitch!”
All around the mound, the rookies nodded their heads in surprise, confusion and anxiety.
“Oh right,” Sergeant Kajari looked down at Chadgura. “What was your plan, sweetie?”
“Oh yes. My plan.” Chadgura shouted. “Dabo!”
From behind them, a serene-sounding voice replied.
Coming from below, a large, round man ran up the rubble, heaving in his arms a metal gun shield in one hand and a machine gun in the other. As he reached the top of the mound, he slammed into place the shield, burying its sharp underside into the rubble, and he set down the machine gun in the slot on the shield. It was a sleek, black, all-metal gun that Loubna was only vaguely familiar with. Long ammunition belts fed it, instead of pans, and it lacked the characteristic water jacket of the old Khroda machine guns: it was an A.A.W. CH-30 Chakram.
Sergeant Kajari and 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura slowly unwound themselves from each other, and both of them hid behind the gun shield with the large Corporal Dabo, and face down the remains of the enemy in the desert. Sergeant Kajari held the ammunition belts, 2nd. Lt. Chadgura ranged the gun, and Corporal Dabo’s huge hands took the gun handles.
“Platoon machine gun team, ready! Fire for effect!” 2nd. Lieutenant Chadgura shouted.
Corporal Dabo rapped the trigger of the CH-30 and unleashed a storm of firey red tracers.
Each 12.7mm shot from the long barrel of the Chakram boomed like thunder, and there were dozens of shots flying out seemingly every second. It caused a terrifying cacophony, and an even more frightening result on the battlefield. Wherever the gun turned, its shots lanced through the attackers like nothing Loubna had ever seen. This was no Khroda; each bullet was twice as long and nearly twice as thick. Flying red spears rained brutally down on the desert. In their wake whole chunks of human vanished from bodies, arms sliced off, ribcages blown out from the side, heads severed instantly from necks. The Chakram churned through the ammunition in its belt as it churned through the numbers of the enemy, wiping out whole sections and squadrons as Dabo turned the barrel from unit to unit at Chadgura’s instruction.
Loubna’s Danava was a toy compared to this devastating weapon.
It took no more than its fire alone, and the enemy’s charge was completely broken.
Loubna crawled up, and dropped next to Aditha. Both of them bore final witness.
Survivors began to flee into the desert. There were few.
Below the mound were hundreds of bodies it seemed, splayed all over the desert, at the foot of the first gate rubble mound, a few atop the mound from the earlier melee. There was blood everywhere, seeping into the already ruddy sand and turning it almost black in places. There were wounded men still crawling about without hope, and the dead lay pathetically without any uniformity in their wounds, everyone missing something or other, no body left whole.
Loubna could not draw her eyes away from the sight. It was so disgusting she wanted to vomit.
2nd Lieutenant Chadgura stood up from behind the Chakram gun shield and sighed.
“Good kills, Corporal, Sergeant. Private Al-Alwi. Everyone get ready to move back down.”
Around her, all of her comrades were standing up, their rifles against their chests, breathing heavily from the drop in adrenaline. Loubna could still hear the booming of the Chakram and the rhythmic cracking of the Danava in her ears, within the awful silence of the desert. Was that all of the enemy? She looked out over the sands, trying to ignore the scars formed by the blood and bodies on the landscape. There were no more living enemies that posed a threat.
2nd Lieutenant Chadgura raised her voice. “We will ask for reinforcements and perform body collection. Clearly the enemy is persistent. They will attack again. We held out, but we’ll need more than a recon platoon to carry out the defensive plan against this concerted an effort. ”
“You got that right. These guys were crazy. How could they keep charging like this?”
Sergeant Kajari looked quizzically at 2nd Lt. Chadgura as if her lover could answer this.
Chadgura shrugged. “They must have liked their chances against such a light defense.”
“I doubt it was just that. I feel like something’s got to be happening. But, we’ll see.”
Everyone started to wander off down the mound. Aditha stood, and tugged on Loubna’s shirt.
“We’d better go too Loubna. We should at least drink some water and lay back.” She said.
Loubna nodded silently. She felt ashamed of herself, having fought, in her reckoning, as poorly as she had in that engagement. Sergeant Kajari had entrusted everything to her, and yet–
She felt a sudden pat in the back, strong and sharp and full of vigor.
“Good work, private! Amazing for your first real combat. I knew I could count on you.”
Sergeant Kajari appeared from behind her, smiling her honey-brown smile brightly. Her braided ponytail was flying with the desert wind, and she wore the quilted shawl of a desert nomad over her uniform, for reasons unknown to Loubna. She was always smiling at the rookies, and always patting them on the back. When Loubna looked at her, Kajari winked.
“You remind me of myself, Private! Except bigger and tougher! You’re taller than my brothers!”
Loubna did not feel that was particularly flattering, but Sgt. Kajari must have meant well.
“I’m sure you’ll make a splendid soldier! Just stick with Private Chatham here, she looks like the sort who will set you straight.” Sergeant Kajari looked at Aditha and winked too.
Aditha looked between Sergeant Kajari and Loubna and turned red in the face.
“No, it’s, it’s definitely not like that.” She whimpered with embarrassment.
Loubna averted her eyes. “I don’t think this is a good time, ma’am, but thank you for trying.”
Sergeant Kajari laughed. “Listen: don’t take any levity for granted, or you’ll go insane.”
Waving and smiling one last time at the rookies, she turned and followed the 2nd Lieutenant.
Loubna looked at Aditha, and Aditha at Loubna, and they both averted their gazes after.
Loubna averted her gaze toward desert, in time to spot a column of sand blowing into the air.
She blinked, and stared, uncomprehending of what she was seeing.
Something was approaching, and it was either very large, very fast, or both.
“Adi, do you see that?”
Aditha, her arms crossed over her breasts in a meek posture, peeked over her shoulder.
Her eyes drew wide open.
She raised her sniper scope to her eyes and adjusted the magnification.
“Loubna, we had better get the officers back here.” Aditha said, her voice trembling.