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.
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.
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.
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?