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.