Brigands [3.6]

“So this is it, huh? At long last I get to meet the UNX-001 Brigand.”

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya walked down a long chute with displays projecting camera feeds and diagrams of the ship she was about to enter. There were directions keyed off her own rank that showed her the path to the bridge, inside the command pod of the Brigand. She had seen pictures of the ship — Nagavanshi would not let anyone in the crew live in peace without handing them a picture of it for some reason.

Yana’s opinion of it was simple: it looked like a piece of shit.

It was big and rectangular, clunky, reminiscent of an old converted hauler design.

The Union progressed well past those kinds of ships after the revolution.

So from the exterior alone, it felt like an anachronism.

She supposed that was part of the camouflage.

One of the directives had been that the crew of the Brigand needed to dress like a private company, rather than a military operation. As such, on the eve of their departure, everyone had been issued a uniform for a front company: Treasure Box Transports, with a gaudy TBT logo. The uniform for the bridge crew, like Yana, was a teal-blue half jacket with a sleeveless zip-down white shirt and a teal-blue skirt or pants, worn over their bodysuits, wetsuits or swimsuits of choice.

“I suppose I’m a big-shot company woman now.” Yana said.

Nothing had ever felt more ridiculous than pretending to be a capitalist.

Thankfully, she had some luggage. She brought a uniform and normal clothes.

As she crossed the docking chute into the ship itself, she found herself in a cramped hallway with bulkhead doors on every side. This was the edge of the “primary hull” and beyond it was the inhabited “secondary hull” of the ship, where everything vital was, and where most of their time would be spent. Beyond the docking room was the lobby of the secondary hull arrival area, where a gaggle of sailors congregated and seemed to be making acquaintances. Yana saw many fresh faces in there. Many sailors saluted her, which she turned down with a casual wave of the hand.

“Don’t be too formal right now. Save it for when we enter combat.”

The suggestion that there might be combat seemed to sober the excitable sailors.

“Captain, over here.”

There was no missing Chief of Security Akulantova, who towered over the sailors when she appeared from a bulkhead situated around the corner. She was wearing the ‘company uniform’ like the rest. However, she had a full coat, rather than the half jacket. One could appreciate how muscular she was even under concealing clothes. One curious detail about her biology took Yana by surprise. When she first entered the room her eyes turned grey for a moment: she must have brought up her secondary eyelids while getting used to the brighter lights in the lobby. Then her much more human-like blue eyes reappeared. Not once did her expression change during this.

“I would like to guide you up to the bridge. I’ve explored quite far already.” She said.

“Lead the way.” Yana said, smiling and gesturing toward the bulkheads.

Akulantova was an interesting person.

A gentle face, a charming voice, and that big body all together.

None of the parts were ill fitting. She wasn’t too big, and her voice wasn’t too chirpy and so on– Yana certainly had no criticism of her. She looked natural, the product of her labors.

Just interesting, as far as Yana was concerned.

“Captain, since we’re about to embark on a long voyage, I want to ask a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“Would you ever order me to shoot a crew member?”

They were walking down a hall in the engineering deck, to the elevator.

Yana stopped in her tracks. Maybe Akulantova was too interesting!

The Captain answered quickly and emotionally.

“Absolutely not!”

In the next instant she realized how flustered she had gotten and felt vulnerable.

Akulantova smiled at her without any apparent malice.

“Nice answer. Maybe a little naïve. Don’t worry, if I ever have to, I’ll just use this.”

The Security Chief revealed her sidearm. It was a launcher for ‘baton round’ rubber bullets.

On a ship, live ammunition was rare. It might over-penetrate, hitting crew and equipment.

Her launcher was a two-handed grenade weapon for most folks. For her, it was like a pistol.

“It might break some bones, but it won’t kill anyone.”

Yana sighed. It was hard to stay on edge when Akulantova was so oddly cheerful.

“There will certainly be difficulties ahead for us as a crew. This is a unique situation. But let’s take things calmly, as they come.” Yana said, giving Akulantova a friendly pat on the arm.

She sounded a bit stilted, but she tried to be her most Captain-ly self in that moment.

Akulantova put her rubber bullet launcher away.

“I’m glad. I will always follow the Captain’s orders, but I like when I have a nice Captain. When the Captain has a good heart, it means I can be a good-hearted Security Chief myself.”

She turned around, and whistling a quick tune, resumed leading Yana to the bridge.

As they traversed several tight hallways, Yana got the impression that while the exterior of the Brigand left a lot to be desired aesthetically, the interior was almost cozy. Many of the walls in the secondary hull had light blue coats of paint that evoked a nursery or a school. Most of the floors were a soft shade of red, maybe salmon pink. The air was treated well, it was not too dry or too humid; it recalled to her memories of living in the Academy dorm. Cramped, but homely.

That was one of the things that a technical diagram didn’t really convey.

The Brigand’s interior layout was not entirely unique. All of the day to day operations happened in compartments contained in an internal “secondary hull” surrounded by a second layer of much less traveled surfaces called the “primary hull.” Aside from the docking chutes the crew were not expected to ever be outside the secondary hull. From what Yana understood an innovation with the Brigand was that the Primary Hull had two sections along with the exterior armor. There were recovery systems in place to seal off breaches to the armor and first section of the primary hull, and route emergency ballast to the second section of the primary hull.

This meant that the Brigand could potentially take twice as much punishment as a normal vessel in combat. Given that a single torpedo at just the wrong spot could split even the most powerful vessel right in half, this was not as incredible as it sounded. Yana would still run the normal playbook: avoid combat if possible and avoid any kind of damage if possible.

Within the secondary hull, the ship was divided into several “pods.” Pods were not circular as their name would suggest — the nomenclature grew out of bathysphere designs, and once the ships of their ancestors grew into the fleets of today, it was retained. Most of them were rectangles.

The Brigand’s secondary hull was divided into two tiers. There were habitats on the top and bottom floors. Each habitat had living spaces, a bathroom with closed stall toilets and open showers, and a gathering area. Officers lived two to a room or by themselves in the top habitat; Sailors lived 4 to a room, with each person having a pod bunk with a privacy door, and a chest for personal items.

All rooms were small. The only privilege was having one to yourself, or, like the lucky lady Murati Nakara, who was on the crew roster as cohabitating with a certain Karuniya Maharapratham, being able to have a room to yourself and your wife. As the Captain, Yana had a room all to herself, but there was a second bed built-in that could be pulled out if necessary.

Apart from the habitats, the top floor housed the Command Pod, along with the Common Pod which housed the mess, infirmary, and a social area. There was also a Science & Observation Pod or “S&O” which housed the main computer racks, the labs and the all-important hydroponics section, with wall-gardens, root beds, mushroom pens, as well as the ship’s trees.

On the bottom floor, there was the Cargo & Reserves Pod or C&R, where all the goods they would need, along with spare parts and any other sort of thing were kept. Everything was stored in compacted containers and every single possible centimeter of space was used. So the part of it that was visible to the ordinary sailor was basically a cargo door with a slit in it to talk to the supply crew, who were packed inside in probably the worst conditions on the ship. C&R was particularly tight for the Brigand as they had at least 10 Diver suits packed into the back of it.

Between C&R and the ominous Reactor Pod, which was sealed off to everyone but properly accredited personnel, there was Engineering, which took up much of the lower tier. Here they kept Divers and Watercraft that would actually see combat. Engineering was composed of the Hangar and various workshops. There was space here, allegedly, to deploy 18 Divers. From the schematics, it seemed like there were only 8 deployment tubes, so the other Divers simply waited their turn — or they used the hatch for the Shuttle, and just jumped out of a moonpool into the sea.

The Hangar could be turned into a football field with some ingenuity.

They had a single Diver squadron assigned to the Brigand with 5 active-duty Divers, 1 Reserve Diver, a few suits going unused, one Shuttle, and extra space. Most of those 18 Diver suits were actually stuck in C&R, awaiting distribution to all the wonderful friends they hoped to make along the way. Having only 5 professional Divers available essentially put the Brigand on par with any other modern capital ship, which was not very impressive.

Hopefully, they would remain stealthy and avoid confrontations.

“You seem to be in your own little world, Captain!”

Akulantova smiled. They got off an elevator into the upper floor.

“Welcome to the command pod. I’ll leave you to inspect your bridge. I would like to get started configuring the security room. I like to set up the cameras just so. Good luck, Captain!”

With a big cheerful wave of her hands, Akulantova left her side.

On a nearby wall was a double-wide sliding door.

Breathing in, steadying herself, Captain Korabiskya entered her Bridge.

There were few people at their posts.

Yana was an early arrival, along with the mechanics.

The Bridge was divided into three sections, each a set of three steps down from the last. At the top, accessible through the door, was the Captain’s seat. It was a rotating chair on a solid base, with a built-in computer, and it was tilt-proof for when the ship rocked. There were additional seats that could be pulled out of the wall for the Commissar and (if present) the First Officer.

Yana took her seat.

She adjusted the armrests and the computer monitor’s angle.

Down from the Captain’s location, enough that she could see over the shoulders of her subordinates, were six stations set against the walls, three on each side. “Communications,” “Sonar and Sensor arrays,” and “Diagnostics & Electronic Warfare” stations on the left; “Torpedoes,” “Main Gunnery” and the Helmsman’s “Navigation” station on the right. Further down from them were six stations that were all for “Auxiliary Gunnery,” such as gas guns. Those six gunners could control up to twelve guns at a time with the help of software and optics. In this way, all of the vital combat functions of the ship could be directed from the Bridge itself.

Aside from the stations there were two monitors that could be pulled down from the roof. One of them was closer to the Captain, while the second on the far wall was much larger and would allow everyone in the room to see the same picture if it were used, such as for important messages.

“Helmsman, how is she? Do you think she looks fierce?”

The Captain looked down at the navigation station. Abdul Kamarik had arrived early and was on the navigation computer, hammering away at the keys and calibrating the wheel he would use to control the ship. Like Chief Akulantova, maybe he liked to set things up for himself as soon as possible. From what she could see of his screen, he was deep inside the diagnostics.

“She’s a mysterious dame, Captain.” Abdul said. “Did y’know this ship has two additional hydros on the back? That’s why we have this weird diamond rectangle looking hull, I bet.”

“Two additional jets? Are they full size?”

“Not like the other four. These extras are more Cutter-size. And the way they’re positioned, and with how inefficient the intakes to them are, they’re gonna be straining our core power when they’re active. I think these might’ve been dummied out and left there, or maybe they’re meant for short term bursts of speed. Even if they’re not all full size, running six jets is a lot of thrust.”

“That’s strange. Thank you for looking into it. I’ll make a note to follow up on this.”

He saluted her casually and started turning his wheel and documenting the results in the calibrator software. Yana saw how absorbed he was in his work and decided not to bother him.

When he first introduced himself at the Officer’s meeting, Yana had not really known what she should make of Abdul Kamarik. She was starting to think of him as someone who was very precise and knew his ships. Looking at him fiddling with the wheel, she felt assured of his ability.

Her gaze fell on the left-hand side of the room.

At first, her eyes glanced over a pair of dark, cat-like ears atop a woman’s head and it sent a shiver down her spine. That notion was dispelled quickly. When she noticed the gaze upon her, the woman at the Sonar & Sensor Array station responded with a charming, friendly smile, unlike the waifish woman who troubled Yana’s mind. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun in the back of her head with a white, lacy cloth. Her uniform was tidy, and well fitted; she had a full figure which, along with her impeccable makeup, lent her a mature, refined air, like a model in an ad campaign.

“Pleasure to meet you Captain. I love your lipstick. Coral, am I correct?”

Yana was surprised.

She had done herself up a little bit but did not think it was special at all.

“That’s right, it’s coral color, from the Rurik collection.”

“It’s the perfect color for your skin– Oh, I’m sorry, I hope that wasn’t awkward to say,”

“Ah, no it’s fine– well, thank you.”

“It’ll be fun to have a Captain who seems like a mature woman with a sense of fashion.”

She was beaming so widely, Yana almost wanted to turn away the praise.

“I try to give my crews a good time, as much as I can.” She awkwardly replied.

At that moment, the woman’s bushy tail stood on end suddenly.

“I almost forgot to introduce myself. Chief Petty Officer Fatima al-Suhar.”

Yana smiled at her. “Pleasure to meet you. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

“Oh, of course I know your name Captain! How could I not?”

“At any rate,” Yana tried to steer the conversation away. She had a hunch that Fatima was prone to chiding herself for silly things. “You’re setting up your station, I see. Do you need a pair of specialized headphones? For your ears, I mean– maybe the ship wasn’t designed for–”

Fatima quickly rescued Yana from her awkward attempt at being inclusive by lifting the headphones up from the navigation computer’s controls. Each speaker was separated and included a clip that was adjustable for human ears and Shimii ears. This way, Fatima could easily listen to the hydrophone and perform all of her duties with the same degree of comfort as anyone.

“Thank you for your concern Captain. I should’ve brought it up sooner–”

“It’s fine, you’ve done nothing wrong. At ease.”

Yana smiled. She was a good soul, that Fatima. That was the Captain’s instant impression.

While the Captain was conversing with the Helmsman and the Sonar technician, there was one additional person in the command room who was making slightly irritated noises while fiddling with a console. Situated at the Torpedo computer was a tall, slim woman, with wide shoulders and long legs. Her silky brown hair had been messily braided into a bun in the back of her head, with what looked like a chain around it from which hung a little squid symbol. Her slightly angular face had a honey-brown complexion, and she had odd eyes: one brown, one blue.

“Having trouble there?” Yana asked, in good humor.

For a moment, the woman looked back at her with surprise before returning to her labors.

On the computer screen, there was a simulation of a torpedo.

She was moving around a joystick, which would be used to guide such torpedoes.

“This thing’s gate is just like, crap? I don’t know. It’s weird. I might have to pull it apart.”

“Please do not pull it apart. We can file a maintenance request.” Yana objected.

The Torpedo officer sighed and turned back around to face the Captain.

“Listen, I’m a professional gamer, ma’am. I need my joysticks to be exactly right.”

Yana directed a concerned, frowning face at her subordinate.

“You’re a torpedo tech; this isn’t a game. Name and rank, now.”

Though she could have pulled up the roster, Yana liked to hear it from the soldier’s mouth.

Again, the woman sighed with exasperation. “Chief Petty Officer Alexandra Geninov.”

Hearing that name piqued Yana’s curiosity a bit.

“Not Geninova?” She asked.

“Nope. I didn’t care about changing it.”

“Ah, I think I understand, sorry.”

“S’fine, I said I don’t care. Shit’s all fake to me.”

 Yana came from the same ethnicity as the patronymic half of Alexandra’s clearly mixed heritage. Her own surname, Korabiskaya, was easily recognizable as such. She supposed that the officer’s name indicated a softening of certain conventions in her community, which was good. It gave Yana sympathy and respect for Geninov, who had a clear grasp of herself.

“Well, I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. It is great to be working with–”

Geninov quickly worked at dismantling that bit of respect Yana had found.

“You can just call me Alex, Captain.” She tapped her fist on her chest, smiling. “Three-time winner of the All-Soviets Video Gaming Championship. And may I also add, in each of those events, I won, individually, Climbing Comrades, Constant Attack I and II, Leviathan Fury–”

“That’s great, Petty Officer.” Yana interrupted. “You will not take apart your station.”

The officer stared at her with narrowed, annoyed eyes before returning to her joystick.

Yana had never played a video game herself. She had never grown up with such things.

As such she neither knew, understood nor cared about all of this nonsense.

Judging by her fetching looks, which seemed wasted in this whole gaming scene, Alex may have been young enough to have played a lot of games in her teens. While there were definitely traits about her which seemed quite admirable, this gaming thing was a black mark far as Yana was concerned. She hoped to hear no more of it, but she knew that was wishful thinking.

She supposed this crew was going to be a handful.

Yana was already noticing a pattern. Some exceptional people here, by certain definitions.

“Communications officer isn’t here yet, so I’ll just do this myself.”

There was a minicomputer attached to the side of her chair that could be brought around to the front of the chair and locked in. Yana brought the computer forward and pushed the screen until she could lock it at a good angle for visibility and comfort. The interface was pretty standard. There was a list of programs, routines, scripts and other potential clickables, largely unadorned, which appeared before her after she authorized herself. She touched to select an item.

Bringing up the ship’s stock activities, she started to issue a ship-wide “roll call.”

It was that precise moment that a new face came tumbling into the room.

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry for being late! It will never happen again!”

At the door, breathing so heavily she almost seemed like she would choke, was a woman in a disheveled state, her TBT half-jacket falling off her shoulders, and her beret on the floor next to her, and her long, yellow hair thrown about. Her soft, round face was quite rosy with effort, a glossy coat of red just barely applied on her lips — and shadow applied on only one eye.

Yana thought she would have looked like a very bright, bubbly girl on a good day, but this was clearly a disastrous time for her. She looked as if she had buttoned only enough of her shirt to declare herself modest, as if she had run out of time to cover her round belly; some of the bold, erotically lacy design of her swimsuit brassiere was still partially visible even despite her efforts. One wetsuit stocking was piled up around her knee, while the other had gone up as far as her thigh.

Rather than the official uniform pants or skirt, she appeared to have thrown on what seemed like tight black exercise shorts that did not really go with the cheerful colors of the company jacket. Yana wondered if the shorts were part of her wetsuit and she had run out in her unders.

Yana smiled at her.

She tried to appear gentle and understanding, but the awkwardness of the moment crooked her lips into what seemed more like a grin than the motherly face she wanted. She could not keep her eyes from wandering afield as she looked over the situation. When the young woman at the door noticed this her face blanched and she looked quite mortified. She looked down at herself, squealed, and started buttoning down her shirt.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I ran all the way over here. I overslept. It’s my fault. I’m a dumbass. I couldn’t sleep and then I took sleeping medicine and then I slept too much– AAAAAAH!”

With the girl clearly in distress, and unable to get a word in, Yana stood up from her chair to physically console her. At first she hovered over her, but this clearly failed to have an effect, the Captain had no choice but to go for the hug. She threw her arms around the woman.

“It’s really not a big deal. Take a deep breath.” Yana said.

She patted her in the back, trying to reassure her, as well as give her a handkerchief.

As she said this however everyone else in the room was staring at the door.

“All of you have things to do!”

Upon being admonished, Fatima, Abdul and Alex turned right back around.

At these simple acts of kindness, the young woman was so deeply moved she kept crying.

“Thank you so much Captain! You’re such a professional and I don’t deserve this at all–”

The young woman wiped off the running makeup on her face with the kerchief. She then blew her nose into it and coughed into it so hard it almost appeared like she would vomit. When she handed it back, Yana threw it over her own shoulder for a cleaning drone to worry about later.

In the next instant, the young woman, her face cleaned, was suddenly all smiles.

She saluted. “I’m Signals Specialist Natalia Semyonova! May I ask one final favor for this pathetic girl standing before you? Um, can we just all put this embarrassing episode behind us, and start over? Don’t you agree Captain? And uh everyone else in the room too, right? Friends?”

 Yana cast a deathly glare at the three stooges in the nearby stations.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better dear.” Fatima replied. She sounded genuinely happy.

“I didn’t see nothin’.” Abdul said. Pretty genuine, acceptable disinterest.

“Sure.” Alex replied, grinning.

Yana put her on a mental list for lying so brazenly.

At that moment, Yana still had her arms on Natalia’s shoulders. This was unfortunate; because also at that moment, a pair of cat-like ears crossed into the room and captured Yana’s attention.

Those familiar ears were attached to a hauntingly beautiful Commissar.

A Commissar who had a low opinion of Yana and perhaps reason to suspect that she might not have good intentions in touching another crew member. The Captain’s eyes drew wide with guilt when the Commissar appeared; and the Commissar’s eyes drew wide with fury in turn.

“Captain Korabiskaya, what kind of situation have I walked into?”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara crossed her arms and bared her fangs.

Yana raised her arms off Natalia as if she were being held up with a gun.

In such an uncomfortable scenario, she might as well have been.

“The Specialist was troubled, and I was trying to cheer her up.” Yana said.

“Cheer her up? Specialist, is this true?”

Natalia, in her continuing, near-total dishevelment, turned to the Commissar with all the blood rushing to her face, and seemed unable to respond to anything that was happening then.

“I’ll– I’ll go fix my clothes. Sorry for causing trouble!”

Aaliyah’s expression softened. Natalia walked away with a gait heavy with shame.

Leaving a void between the Commissar and the Captain.

“She’s trying very hard.” Yana said. Her voice sounded a little too desperate.

Aaliyah sighed and rubbed her own forehead with exasperation.

She accepted things, in the end.

“I’m watching you, Captain. Please behave.”

She turned and walked right back out of the bridge. Yana instantly felt as bad as Natalia seemed to. She wanted to collapse on the floor.


Previous ~ Next

The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — North Solstice

Deep in the heart of Solstice, under the shadow of Armaments Hill, the ground began to tremble violently. Several blocks out from the headquarters of the Golden Army the shocks and the stirring of Solstice’s three great biting heads could be felt in the floor and the walls. At the Varnavat Artillery Base, there was nothing but blacktop and three massive structures. Stone turntables each the size of a city block, arranged in a triangle around a central control tower, began to turn three massive 800mm cannons.

All three cannons, each 20 meters long, lay on enormous steel bases. Recoil tubes larger than two adult men standing atop each other and thicker than a sand worm were installed atop the barrel to carefully reset the weapon as it slid across a mount some 15 meters long, criss-crossed by the skeletal components of its wheel-driven elevation mechanism. Each gun had a crew of 250 men and women assigned to it for setup, maintenance and repair, along with an elite 15-troop gunnery crew. These hundreds of people crowded the spinning terrain of each turntable, tightening screws, lubricating parts, working the cranes that raised 4-ton explosive shells up to the massive breeches.

Before the Solstice War, the Prajna had not been fired in anger since the revolution.

Now it felt almost routine. At the Sivira HQ not too far away, at Armaments Hill just a stone’s throw from Varnavat, in the surrounding streets, and even in the control tower a hair’s breadth from the epicenter, there was no stress. Civilians passed by the base on their way to work or shop in the North Solstice City District; at the military installations men and women walked the halls with their feet gently quaking, and with the earth’s palpitations winding their way through their guts and lungs, and they bore it quietly.

Every one of the three 800mm Prajna Super-Heavy Howitzers turned its barrel South.

Lieutenant Adesh Gurunath of the 5th Guards Mechanized Artilery Brigade watched the massive guns moving, settling, and the teeming mass of humanity that crewed them, with a mixture of awe, pride, and a lingering, uncomfortable sense of mortality, fear, despair. He was dressed in the formal uniform, coat, button-down, skirt, leggings; his shoulder-length hair wrapped in a bun, his glasses dripping with sweat from his brow, his entire face, ordinarily pleasant, soft and effete, contorted with anxious disbelief.

At his side, his previous superior, now-Major Rahani, outdid him in military elegance with the addition of a bright rose in his hair and a touch of makeup around his eyes and on his lips. Smiling, with a hand on his hip, he patted Adesh gently in the shoulder. His own skirt was just a little bit shorter than Adesh’s, who wore a more conservative woman’s uniform. Both of them had dressed up their best for the facility tour.

“I knew you’d love to see it. My husband is an engineer here, you know.” He said.

He pointed toward the third gun with a winking eye. Adesh made no expression.

He had wondered so many times before: why me? His life had been spared in battle so many times; he had felled so many foes with so little understanding of how or why; he had been promoted away from his friends for so long. Now Rahani had chosen him to bear witness to this. Rahani was going to become one of these powerful, elite gunners.

“Please don’t be nervous. I know on some level that these weapons scare you and you hate using them. I just wanted you to get the full picture of what they can do, before you decide anything.” Rahani said. “I know you’ve been through so much, Adesh. You’re on the cusp of major turning points in your life. You can’t just go with the flow anymore.”

Major Rahani wrapped an arm around Adesh, and drew him close in a motherly way.

“You like guns, right? I think seeing this might help you understand some things.”

In front of them, the guns began to elevate, and then were set into their final arc.

“For the artillery, we are at a crossroads between movement and power. We’ve never had to think about this before, not the way we do now. This right here, is the power you could have by staying rooted where you are now. By stalwartly defending this place.”

Adesh raised his eyes to the barrels of the three Prajna as their breeches locked down.

Standing beside the control tower, he saw flag-wavers come running out of the building.

“You’re here, in Solstice now. You could stay here, like I have. Isn’t this magnificent?”

There was a great and mighty shock that sucked up all other sound.

From the barrel of the Prajna came a flash like a bolt of lightning, and copious black smoke belched out in the wake of a massive, red-hot shell that rushed to the horizon like a shooting star. Beneath Adesh’s feet the ground quaked, and he felt the onrushing force of the gun’s shot like a tidal wave, washing over him. Into his every bone, to the marrow; within his guts; even his eyes felt like they were shaking with its power. He wept openly.

In succession, the second and third guns fired their own projectiles, and Adesh nearly fell; had it not been for Rahani holding him close, perhaps both of them would have fallen. Gunnery and engineering personnel all around stood in the same shocked silence, picking themselves up from their own exposure to the god-like force of the gun firing.

Somewhere out there, something was going to catch those stars and die.

Adesh stood, speechless.

He wished so much that Eshe and Nnenia could be here with him.

He wished he knew where they were.

He wished things hadn’t resolved the way they did.

Rahani, at his side, smiled and waved off the rapidly disappearing shells.

He sighed deeply, and turned to Adesh again.

“We could defend this city’s walls until the end of the war, safe and sound. No more fighting, no more stress, helplessness, powerlessness. We would have 15,000 of the quickest guns in the world, and the three biggest guns in the world, at our disposal. We can do desk work, start families, make passionate love to our partners every night.”

Something small, insignificant almost, wandered in from the edge of Adesh’s vision.

There was a Chimera moving about, towing one of the Prajna’s massive shells.

Its gun was bound up with cloth. There was no need for it to shoot. It was just a tractor.

“But this is a new age also.” Rahani said. “You could follow this war to another border. You could follow General Nakar, the only person in this army speaking of Attacking.”

“I could leave the army.” Adesh said, sobbing.

“You won’t.” Rahani said. “I know because I said it once too. I see a lot of myself in you.”

Adesh hated how right Rahani was, despite how much he loved him that moment for it.

Rahani, with his gentle smile and pretty features, who had saved him so many times.

He was always there for him. Even now, when he had no responsibility toward him.

“You want to do what is right; but you also have to do what is right for you. All of our people are part of this war now. But you don’t need to sacrifice your life for it.”

Rahani pointed at the Prajna’s once more as if reintroducing them to Adesh.

“Please consider it before you return to Mechanized again, Adesh.”

It was a kind, wonderful gesture.

But Adesh knew what he would do.

It was so kind and so wonderful because it was so unnecessary, so ineffective.

He was the only one in that field, it seemed, who saw that Chimera trundling about.

Adesh knew he would unbundle that gun and leave everyone behind. On those tracks.

Rahani sighed a little bit. “My hubbie will be busy, so, lets grab a bite and catch up!”

He clapped his hands together happily. Adesh nodded his head.

“I would like that. You’re the only one of us I can visit anymore.” Adesh said.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Major General Von Fennec stood on the back seat of his utility truck and watched in a mixture of horror and exasperation as a shower of rocket fire wiped his and Von Drachen’s troops off the bridge to Conqueror’s Way. He had heard of the Ayvartan rocket troops and their howling ordnance, but seeing it with his own eyes was like watching meteors raining from the sky on his men. It was sudden, infernal, and vexing.

The disdainful hand of a fiery goddess, slapping his men like pieces off a game board.

Truly that Madiha Nakar had a knack for setting her own battlefields aflame.

Setting down his binoculars and turning away from the scene of half his men burning to death and the rest fleeing like cowards, the general tapped his foot against the rib of a girl below him on the back of the truck, crouched in clear discomfort beside a portable radio. She groaned upon being struck this way, and grumpily turned her blond head.

“Casualty estimates, right now.” He demanded.

Promptly but with a trembling in her voice, the young woman responded.

“Major Yavez is saying a hundred and thirty, at least. Battalion combat-ineffective.”

“What about the Vishap?”

“It appears unharmed sir.”

Von Fennec sighed with a deep relief. He dropped his binoculars on top of the girl.

“Acceptable. Tell those idiots to get back on the bridge ASAP. Combat ineffective my ass.”

The General left the girl, speechless and rubbing her head, and dropped off the truck and onto the sand. His all-terrain quarter-ton “Peep” truck was parked in the far edge of the battlespace, with a full view of the bridge but ample distance between himself and any guns. He had been watching the battle with a keen interest in the Vishap’s advance. He was an old warhorse of the days of carriage-drawn artillery, and rose through the ranks with the mortar and howitzer men of the last war. This Vishap was really something else.

He was excited to be entrusted with it. To him, it meant Lehner still believed in the old staff, that he was bringing the respected elder statesmen of the army into his future.

Unlike his compatriots, Von Fennec readily dispensed with tradition if it suited him.

Now even the artillery men could know the glory of the assault! They could finally take whole cities by themselves, and humiliate the enemy in the fashion of the infantry! No more was the artillery a lowly thing dragged behind the lines, or saddled with the thankless defense of worthless camps and fortresses. Now in this age of maneuver, the innocent artillery that fired unknowingly into the sky, could itself know blood and fire!

All he had to do was watch the Vishap as it crept toward the city, and await victory.

Now that was progress he could agree with.

Von Fennec walked back toward the tall dunes surrounding his camp.

“Sherry, I shall be in my command tent, tell those cowards to get back in line–”

Moments after he turned his back, as the firestorm died down on the bridge and the Vishap’s gate-smashing shells once more became the loudest presence on the field of battle, Von Fennec felt a trembling moving from the floor to his legs, up his bones.

He shuddered, and turned once more toward the city.

He saw trails of smoke stretching over the sky like black lances.

And the speartip was a trio of glowing-red shells like stars being shot into space.

From the back of the peep truck, Sherry stared at him with terror in her eyes.

“General, the Prajnas have been fired! We’ve got three shells, south-bound!”

Von Fennec sighed deeply with great relief.

“Not my problem then! We’re attacking from the east. Tell my men to keep fighting.”

Safe knowing he was not the target of those monstrous guns, Von Fennec once more turned his back on the truck and the city and ambled away, his gait irregular from horse-back injuries sustained long ago. He had a bottle of wine in a personal icebox on his command vehicle. He could see his HQ already, near the Vishap’s old container. A tank transporter with what resembled a little house on the bed instead of a vehicle.

Several minutes later and sopping wet with sweat, he put his fist to the HQ’s door.

Finally, time for a well-earned rest and maybe a bit of drunkenness.

Von Drachen was out there somewhere, he could do the commanding–

Von Fennec then heard the beeping of a horn, and turned to see the Peep rushing close.

Confused, he watched silently as it pulled sharply up in front of him.

Sherry was in a panic in the back. She was waving her arms with every word said.

Her glasses practically fell off, and her professional-looking hair bun was out of sorts.

“General!” She cried out, short of breath.

Von Fennec turned back around and reached for the door, hoping to ignore her.

“Corps is calling an immediate retreat out of Prajna range!”

Von Fennec stopped and abruptly turned sharply over his shoulder.

“They’ve sustained casualties as high as the divisional level. Our southern thrust is broken, we’re practically fighting alone, and we’re closest to the city.” Sherry said.

Von Fennec blinked.

To retreat would mean–

“We can’t abandon the Vishap! My career will be over!” Von Fennec said.

He turned his head sharply every which way, looking for that uppity mutt.

“Where is Aatto?! Get that bitch out here! We need to extract the Vishap immediately!”

Von Fennec was losing his sun-addled mind entirely.

Demure and white as a ghost, Sherry mumbled, “Sir, um, about that–”


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.3)

This scene contains violence and death, and an experience of dysphoria.


Loose stones began to shake and rattle atop the ruin, trembling with the ground.

“Gulab, the Vishap is approaching. Good luck. I love you.”

She almost muttered the last sentence.

“No luck, just skill! I love you too, Charvi!”

Gulab was loud about it as usual.

She switched the radio frequency on the portable talkie and put it in her pouch.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to steel herself for what was to come.

It was just like hunting the rock bears, she told herself.

But even that gone poorly for her in the past.

Atop the mound of rubble that was once the first gate of the Conqueror’s Way, the approaching Vishap was like a boulder rolling down from the mountains, like an avalanche of metal. Sergeant Gulab Kajari tried to find more homely metaphors to describe what she was seeing, but without embellishment, it was a gigantic tank with a big gun pointed directly at them. Its dauntless trundling kicked up clouds of sand, and the infantry at its sides looked minuscule in comparison. It was easy to forget them.

She was surrounded by people who could not afford for her to overlook anything.

She sighed internally, smiled outwardly, and pointed at the incoming Vishap.

“Troops, I’ve got nothing here to say but: we gotta kill that thing.” Gulab said.

Loubna and Aditha and the rest of the rookies in the squadron cast eyes at the floor. They were huddled atop the mound, half their bodies on the steep end away from the approaching Vishap, looking over the makeshift hill. They were hidden from the enemy, hoping to ambush them as they neared. In their hands they had submachine guns and rifles, useless against armor, and one their belts they had anti-tank grenades. Though small, these could at least fare better than a rifle round against the heavy tank.

There was more to it than that, but Gulab didn’t have the time to catch everybody up on everything the General hurriedly told her over the field telephone. Even Gulab herself thought she had not caught all of it. But she had to somehow make all of it work out.

“Trust me, I’ve hunted bigger!” Gulab said. “We just have to know when to run away.”

She pounded her fist against her chest and put on a proud expression.

Morale did not improve upon hearing such a thing with the Vishap in the background.

“Why isn’t it shooting?” Loubna asked. Everyone was watching the machine breathlessly.

Gulab cast her eyes at the approaching tank. She remembered some of the things she had learned from Adesh Gurunath about cannons, in the various times they had cooperated during the war. Longer cannons could shoot farther, and their shots flew faster; the larger the hole of the cannon, from which it ejected shells, the stronger and larger the ammunition was. The Vishap’s cannon was very short and stubby, though the bore was wider than most of the guns Gulab had seen on tanks. It was mounted on the front face of the tank and seemed unable to swivel or turn, since it had no turret to move with.

“I don’t think it can shoot this high, and I don’t think it’s in range yet.” Gulab said.

There were a few sighs of relief among the assembled soldiers, but the trundling of the machine nearing them seemed to put into doubt whether it had any weakness at all.

As the Vishap approached the bridge, the machine noise that accompanied it grew louder, but it strangely enough began to slow down a tick, as it neared closer to 1000 meters from the Conqueror’s Way. Then from around the Vishap’s flanks rushed enemy riflemen, charging across the open desert. Gulab raised her hand at the sight and silently ordered her squadron to huddle closer to the ground and to hide themselves.

Within minutes the enemy riflemen were jumping over the rubble and onto the bridge itself ahead of the machine. A squadron of foot Cissean soldiers was in the lead, and several more followed them. They were armed with rifles and bayonets and quickly left the cover of the rocks. Boldly, they started across the open space to the first gate ruin.

This was good fortune for Gulab’s team; they had to pose a credible threat to the enemy.

And while Gulab doubted she could even dent the Vishap, she knew she could kill men.

“Fire on mark; Loubna, sweep the left flank, everyone else aim at the right.” Gulab said.

“Are these guys related to the men before? Don’t they know we’re here?” Aditha asked.

“I don’t think so. I think they’ve been lost in the desert for longer.” Gulab replied.

“So it’s an ambush?”

“That’s the plan.”

In truth, it was General Nakar who thought that, but Gulab nonetheless took the credit.

It was important for the kids to look up to her!

Aditha did not seem impressed, but she did focus back on the enemy with steeled eyes.

Loubna prepared her partially concealed light machine gun, facing the approach she was to cover; Gulab checked her Rasha submachine gun for one final time before cocking it and setting it on a stone for stability. Squadron members with basic Bundu rifles set them on the rocks, partially hidden, taking impromptu sniping positions across the ruin.

Gulab drew in a breath and aimed for the men running toward the mound.

“Mark!”

Gulab briefly raised her fist, and then laid it down, finger on the trigger, and fired.

Her squadron quickly followed suit.

Tracer fire sailed from atop the rubble of the first gate and showered the advancing enemy infantry. It was almost a moment of deja vu as Gulab watched the men struck down mid-run as if they weren’t expecting to be shot, and their compatriots clinging to the nearest piece of rubble for cover, or running back to the Vishap. Automatic fire from the submachine guns and Loubna’s Danava viciously covered the approach, and a dozen men were killed almost simultaneously before the rest took the hint and scattered.

As the waves of enemy infantry grew timid they began to concentrate around the Vishap.

There was only one way Gulab could account for this behavior among enemy soldiers.

They had caught them by surprise! It was just as General Nakar had predicted; they had not been in contact with the Republic of Ayvarta troops that had attacked this position previously. These new arrivals with the Vishap group likely expected an ambush but could not have known its ferocity or character, because they were acting independently of the main body of RoA troops deployed to take the Conqueror’s Way. As such, like the RoA troops defeated before them, these Cisseans and Nochtish were taken by surprise.

“Hah! Trekking through the desert melted their brains! Pick them off!” Gulab shouted.

Loubna reloaded, and she began to fire on the enemy’s cover selectively. Gulab praised her discipline and began to fire upon a sited spot herself. A few men tried to contort themselves with their rifles around the chunks of rock and from out the pits and trenches that scarred the Conqueror’s Way, but to no avail. Every time a rifle came out, a stream of bullets from atop the remains of the first gate silenced it. More and more of the enemy appeared and consolidated in thick formations behind cover, but without any cover down the middle Way they could not approach the mound. They were pinned.

For a moment, it seemed almost like they had turned back the tide. The enemy had advanced, lost men, retreated a step, and become bogged down in relentless gunfire.

This was all part of the General’s plan! It was all working as she had said.

In any other situation such a stalemate could be exploited. Gulab had seen it before.

However, there was nothing the bullets could do to stop the Vishap, ever closing-in.

It was this detail that made this battle different, and rendered this triumph so null.

Soon as its tracks hit the stone of the Conqueror’s Way, the Vishap changed the tide of the battle. It ground rocks beneath its bulk, and shoved rubble away with the bulldozer on its face, and its own men leaped out of its way as it charged forward. But once it moved past their positions, the Cisseans took up its back and began to advance again. Though the mound continued to brutalize the Conqueror’s Way with submachine gun, rifle and machine gun fire, there was nothing they could do. All manner and caliber of small arms fire was bouncing harmlessly off the Vishap’s blades and its wounded front plate armor.

“It’s not doing anything!” Aditha shouted, rapping the trigger of her rifle uselessly.

“Keep shooting! Wait for my signal before doing anything more!” Gulab shouted back.

Trundling to within a stark 500 meters of the first gate, the Vishap’s cannon glowed.

Smoke and fire belched from the aperture, and with a terrifying growl the Vishap loosed a heavy shell that flew in a belabored, shallow arc into the bottom of the mound. There was a monumental flash. Fire and metal and chunks of rock flew straight into the air in front of the defender’s very eyes. Everything shook under them. It felt like the mound would collapse. The Vishap moved once more, and it loomed larger and larger as it did.

Atop the machine, two of the shoulder cupolas turned to face the mound, and the dark slits cut across the sides of the structures flashed a bright green. Hundreds of rounds of machine gun fire struck the rubble at the peak of the mound, and a cacophonous sawing noise sounded above the shifting of the stones and the sound of loading and firing of rifles. Hundreds of bright green tracers bounced skyward or overflew the peak. Even the rookies could identify the sound as that of the deadly Norgler machine gun, and they scrambled back from the rubble, putting the slope between them and the Vishap.

The Vishap’s top-mounted machine guns blazed as the machine crawled toward the mound. It was like a demon, belching fire from its snout-like cannon, its cupolas like eyes firing searing, chaotic beams of green tracer ammunition. It was a terrifying sight that cowed the defenders like nothing else. Not another shot flew out from atop the mound; Gulab swallowed hard and shrank back with the rest of her squadron, pinned.

“Comrades, get ready to retreat! Grab your weapon and start moving toward–”

Beneath the infernal noise of the machine guns the Vishap’s cannon cried out once more.

One more shell impacted the rubble of the first gate, and this time the force of the blast wound itself inside the rubble, and rocks and concrete belched out the other side of the mound, collapsing some of the rookies’ own footholds on the rear of the slope. Several squadron members were blown back with the rock, and they dropped from the mound and hit the ground. Disoriented, but alive, they fled in a panic back to the second gate.

There was no time to hold the Vishap there. They had to sacrifice the first gate and fast.

“Comrades, over the side barriers, right now!” Gulab shouted. “Come with me!”

Everyone looked at her with surprise. They clung on to the rubble and rock as if they were suspended over a precipice, and their guns were almost an afterthought, hanging by belt loops or pressed between them and the slope. Nobody was moving at all.

“Come on!”

Gulab grabbed hold of rookie Loubna with one hand, who was paralyzed with her Danava embraced in her arms, and the sweating, panting Aditha with the other. Finding purchase on a solid slab of concrete beneath her, Gulab could afford to let go of the mound for this maneuver, and with all her strength, she dragged the two rookies, and leaped from the mound and atop the side-barrier. She pushed Loubna and Aditha off, and it looked to everyone as if she was throwing them in the river. There was no splashing or screaming, however, if any such thing could even be audible under all the machine gun fire; and witnessing Gulab herself disappearing behind the barriers, the remainder of the squadron gasped with collective fear and charged toward the water.

Jumping around the meter-and-a-half tall concrete barriers on the side of the bridge, Gulab found herself in a drainage segment off the side of the bridge. There was maybe a meter in which to stand or sit, and the rushing waters of the Qural below. Loubna and Aditha clung to the barrier, terrified by the rushing water. Gulab urged them to move; in a moment, five additional squadron members would jump the barrier and land messily one after the other, some nearly falling into the river. Gulab got everyone organized.

She huddled the group and addressed them. “Alright, see, nobody fell, nobody got–”

Behind them, there was a much louder blast and an even more violent rumbling and rattling as the Vishap finally destroyed the mound of the first gate. Then, the grinding of its tracks and the roaring of its engine resumed, and they could all feel it moving past them, like a dragon stomping its way past their village as they hid from the destruction.

Gulab had no intention to remain hidden. This was all another chance to attack.

“Comrades, any hunter can kill any beast by stopping it from moving! If that thing gets past the second gate, it will have a clear shot at the wall. We can’t let it get any further.”

All of her squadron was clearly shaken. In a span of minutes they had lost a position, lost comrades, and witnessed head-on a massive tank bearing down on them. Their eyes were watering, their faces sweating and turning pale, their bodies shaking. But they were focused: Gulab saw it in their faces that they understood the urgency. That was good; a soldier could be afraid, but they had to channel that fear into their survival.

“On my mark,” Gulab continued, and laid a hand on Aditha’s shoulder, and quickly explained as the Vishap neared them, “Aditha and Seer will throw frag grenades at the road to distract the riflemen, and then, me, Loubna, Fareeha and Jaffar will rise up and throw anti-tank grenades at the tank’s side and tracks. We only have one shot at this!”

Aditha looked frightened at first, but Loubna put a hand on her shoulder too, and her face turned red. She averted her eyes, turned her cheek on Loubna and withdrew a pair of grenades from her pouch. Looking sour in expression, she nodded silently to the team, most of whom seemed perplexed by her behavior. Meanwhile Fareeha, a tall, dark, athletic woman, and Jaffar, a rugged-looking boy, both gave Gulab intense looks that suggested to her their eagerness to fight. Both were rookies. Everyone here was now.

Gulab didn’t look at Loubna, she felt she didn’t need to. Loubna was ready. Gulab felt it. Loubna was big and tough, and she had a soft heart that yearned to defend the weak.

She saw her own face in Loubna’s, like staring into her reflection on the mountain ice.

She hoped she could count on at least her.

Behind them, the Vishap chewed up the remaining rubble of the first gate, and the ground beneath them and the barrier in front of them and seemingly even the water at their backs, all of it shook and shuddered with the weight and power of the beast. It fired a round at the ruined second gate, resulting in a massive explosion, and its machine guns screamed as it engaged the blocking position set up around the second gate’s remains

Gulab’s stomach vibrated, and she felt the presence of the machine in her neck when she tried to speak, like constant jolt to the adam’s apple. Her words came out shaken.

The Vishap was within zero of the squadron; they had to attack now or never.

Its frontal machine guns were occupied, and its gun was unable to target them.

It was time.

“Aditha, Seer, now!”

Aditha and Seer pulled the pins on their grenades, waited a second, and threw.

Four grenades, one in each hand, landed in the road and exploded in various directions.

Gulab stood and launched her AT grenade in as straight a throw as she could muster.

Only on a direct hit from the head would the grenade be primed and detonated.

She caught sight of something that made her throat seize up.

The Vishap had an armored skirt protecting its wheels and track.

Would the attack even be effective?

She watched the grenade strike the top of the skirt at an angle and burn a visible hole.

The Vishap trundled on.

On the road were dead and wounded riflemen, caught out by the grenades.

Their own comrades were coming in for them.

Just then, behind Gulab, in a sluggish sequence, came Loubna, Jaffar and Fareeha.

Their own throws were haphazard, with Jaffar throwing from the grenade’s head and Loubna lobbing hers. Both grenades exploded over the armor skirt and left minor cosmetic wounds on the tank. Fareeha seemed to have had the best throw. Her grenade hit the Vishap in the side of the skirt and burnt through the armor, exposing a wheel. Some smoke and fire spat out of the wound, but the Vishap continued to advance.

“Everyone down!” Gulab shouted. They had stood out too long, threw too late–

Atop the Vishap, the leftmost rear cupola turned to the edge barriers and opened fire.

Alarming green norgler fire sprayed over the concrete.

Gulab shoved herself into Loubna and Jaffar, the two closest, and brought them down.

Seemingly hundreds of rounds struck the concrete, chipping away bits and pieces that fell over the squadron and casting concrete dust into the air. So many rounds were fired at the barrier that the chipped concrete dust formed a small cloud over the edge of the bridge. Disdainfully the Vishap pressed on, fully leaving behind Gulab and her team.

On the floor, Gulab pressed her hands over herself and found no wounds.

She grabbed hold of Loubna, who was staring at something mouth agape.

She was unwounded too; Jaffar was also alright from the looks him, and then–

Just a few steps away from them, sitting with her back to a black-red smear on the barrier, was Fareeha. Her chest and neck had bled out heavily in moments, judging by the red stain all around her, like an aura burnt into the ground and wall. Her feet dangled from the bridge, and her eyes were open, staring endlessly out into the water.

She was dead.

Gulab hadn’t been able to knock her down too.

From behind Gulab sounded a heart-rending cry.

“Fareeha! No! No!”

Aditha, crouched on the floor, held back a thrashing, screaming Seer, whose black face was turning pale and flushed, her eyes red and strained, weeping. She tried to claw over Gulab to make it to Fareeha’s corpse, and Aditha and Loubna both tried to hold her back. She was screaming for Fareeha, screaming that she could not be left behind, that she could not stay here, that she would be fine if they could get her out of this place.

Gulab looked back at the corpse as if, mindlessly, trying to assess whether it could be ok.

It could not.

She pored over, in that eternal instant where anxiety reigns over the mind, whether she had seen anyone die before. She had seen people die, but had they died? There was an importance difference there that she felt but could not grasp. Certainly, nobody had died under her command before. Because she had not really done that much commanding.

Now, she was in command. And a young woman of merely eighteen had died under her.

In the background to all this, was Solstice city, and Gulab stared at the wall.

She felt the Vishap, attacking the second gate. She felt its motion through the ground.

Gulab turned toward Seer and grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her roughly.

“An entire city of millions of defenseless people will join Fareeha if we don’t do something, Private Dbouji! Wait to mourn until we’re inside some safe walls!”

She picked up her submachine gun from the floor, crawled past Loubna and Jaffar, and without turning back, motioned for everyone to follow. She hated all of this, and herself.

She hated how much it felt like something her father had done and said to her, long ago.

How much that voice sounded like his own.


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Storm The Castle (68.2)

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.

“Hmm!”

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.

“Loubna–”

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.

“Loubna!”

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.

“Charvi!”

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.

“Yeah, well,”

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.

“Yes ma’am!”

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.


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Dominoes (64.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council

Palladin Arsenica Livia Varus felt her brain trembling as she tried to process the sudden, deadly turn in her fortunes. She had hastily recalled all of her radio personnel back to her communications room upon discovering Von Drachen’s escape, and there she stood, pacing, rubbing her temples, eyes wide open, jaw hanging open enough to gasp.

“Order all units to fall back to Council and Ocean Road! Shut them down immediately!”

This nonspecific order belied her helplessness. On all sides the Ayvartan attack was slicing through her units. She was being pushed back from Rangda University, from the old 8th Division base, from Ocean Road itself. Madiha Nakar had come suddenly alive again and was sweeping her aside wherever she moved. Arsenica tried to raise her voice but her voice was not a gun, and all around the Lady Paladin, her guns were being silenced, one by one, shot by shot. Radio contact was sketchy at best, and she was short on field leadership.

It was almost enough to make her regret having sacrificed the Paladin combat team once led by her rival for the throne, Gwendolyn Vittoria. Almost, but not quite. She had her pride and still, and this pride was the rod set against her spine and keeping her upright. Throughout the battle, she waited, and she paced, and she hovered like a grim reaper over her radio personnel, over her tactical advisors, over the maps on the battlefield table.

“I want the Cheshires to dig in right on Ocean Road, do not allow anything through! I want barricades erected with whatever can be spared, and I want every gun we’ve got peering over or around cover and shooting until we’re out of ammunition! Use captured Ayvartan weapons, use anything! Throw rocks if you have to! We cannot let them through!”

Paladin Arsenica shouted as if it was a lack of effort and motivation that rendered a rock unable to pierce a tank. Her radio personnel relayed her orders with trembling voices and shaking hands, and they sat at the edge of their seats as if standing on tip-toe, nervously awaiting futile replies. There was nothing for them to hear back save incredulity and desperation, none of which was communicated back to the Paladin. But she was not as foolish as everyone around her assumed, not completely. She knew what was happening.

She was content, however, to remain uninformed. Ignorance allowed for some hope.

Then came the dreadful final blow in the place least expected. Northern Rangda, so stable, quiet, the bulwark sector that had been clinched by the elves at the start of the battle, began to call Arsenica’s headquarters. They called for help. Arsenica’s operators could hardly pass on the depth of the fear in their contact’s voices, and so Arsenica was coaxed into speaking and listening personally. She discovered then that horrific, final truth.

Amid sounds of heated gunfire, a woman’s voice pleaded, “Lady Paladin, we need support right away, the 8th Division is attacking every defensive line, and they’ve broken through to the east and south, heading into Ocean Road! We can’t contain them like this!”

Arsenica said nothing, and put the handset back onto the radio, and turned away.

The 8th Division, which had been several times humiliated, demoralized, broken, disarmed. Pushed into hiding in the darkest, deepest recesses of the city, cut off from supply and command, their communications compromised. Madiha Nakar had damaged them and the elven landings had broken them. So then, why? How? She thought she was hearing all their radio chatter: were they sending fake broadcasts and communicating personally among themselves? She could have sworn they were defeated, and yet here they were, using the last of their blood, bayonets and paltry ammunition to assault her.

And they were winning.

And they had won.

When this sudden surge of manpower met the lines of the Ayvartan motorized infantry under Nakar, they would become as floodwater uncontained. Surely that was their goal; any fool could see that Madiha Nakar had struck some kind of bargain with her former enemies against the threat of the elves, and this was the result. Arsenica had nothing that could stop such a press of bodies. She was barely hanging on as it was because Madiha Nakar had to stretch herself thin to cover the entirety of Arsenica’s line, as she desired to.

Had Von Drachen realized what was happening? She had taken an interest in him, but like all the toys of her girlhood, she had ignored him and was all but ready to discard him.

She could not indulge this fantasy for too long; gunfire erupted outside.

There was an explosion, one not distant enough, that alarmed the whole building.

The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.

Everyone in the room was looking at her.

Arsenica had a haunted appearance. Her skin had turned ghost-pale, her eyes shadowed.

She turned to the radio operators, then cast a sweeping glare at the knights out in the hall.

“What are you all waiting for? An order to retreat? You will receive none! You will remain here or lose your honor as cowards! Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?”

She drew her sword, and advanced out into the hall, red in the face.

There was a yelp of fear and a most surprising result.

As Arsenica raised her hand to strike down the first subordinate who looked to eager to run, she was struck in the face by an iron-gloved fist. She felt the cold of the gauntlet and the heat of rushing blood as the fist swiped across her face. Arsenica dropped to the ground, bloody, her nose broken, in excruciating pain. She looked through her hands, pressing on her own face and mouth as if trying to keep the blood in, and saw the face of a stoic, black-haired elven woman, who gave her a filthy look as she lay on the carpet.

“Gisella?” Arsenica cried, in disbelief and despondence.

Gisella turned her back and left the hall at a brisk pace.

From around the departing knight, some lesser subordinates became emboldened.

Three younger girls approached Arsenica, and with vengeance in their eyes, lifted their metal boots and kicked. They struck her breasts, her belly, her limbs. Arsenica cried out and pleaded, but they neither intended to sustain their assault nor stay it completely. Each girl delivered several quick, hit and run kicks, before running away, peeling back one by one as each had their seconds fill of thrashing their superior. Shaking, bleeding, hardly able to move, Arsenica curled up on the ground, and cried, her vision blurring with pain.

Passing beside her, the radio personnel then fled, thankfully without violence.

Within minutes, the hallway and the room and maybe the council building, were empty.

Empty, save for a blonde, classically-elven girl, shaking in her ill-fitting breastplate.

She looked barely an adult and her eyes were filled with tears.

When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.

The Paladin covered her body with her arms as best as she could, and curled up.

She was expecting to be struck, but instead, the girl touched her gently.

“Lady Paladin, I’m sorry, please, lets get you back up.”

Arsenica groaned, every inch of her body screaming with pain as the girl helped her to stand on one foot, and supported the woman over her shoulder. Huffing and puffing with the effort, the girl struggled to get Arsenica back into the communications room, where she laid her on the couch, and wiped the blood from her face, and brought her wine.

“It’s my ration ma’am. You can have it.”

She poured the drink between Arsenica’s broken, bloody lips.

It was hot. That wine had been in a tin pressed against this girl’s body for days.

And yet, that strange act of kindness gave the drink a strange potency.

Arsenica did not feel better. She could not. But she felt an odd inkling of relief.

Watching her drink, the girl started wiping her own tears, and looking down at her.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I couldn’t– I wouldn’t have been able to fight them all. I was scared if I pulled my gun they would all start shooting and everyone would die. I’m so sorry.”

She locked eyes with her battered superior, pulling back the tin once it was empty.

“You– you don’t deserve it ma’am. I admired you for a very long time ma’am. Those girls have no upbringing! How dare they do this. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I’m so sorry about everything. All of us, if we’d tried harder, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m sorry.”

That girl apologized more and more and the reasons why made less and less sense.

Arsenica wanted to ask her for her name, but she couldn’t find the strength to talk.

Instead, she curled up tighter, and wept, traumatized and uncomprehending.


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HEADHUNTERS (63.1)

this scene contains violence and death


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda

Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.

The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.

“Lydia, watch out!”

Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.

Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.

Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.

The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.

Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.

She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.

She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.

“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”

Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.

She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.

Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.

Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.

There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.

“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.

Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.

Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.

“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.

“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.

“Orders are orders.”

Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.

Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.

Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.

She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.

Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.

“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.

“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.

They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.

Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.

“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.

“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”

Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.

In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.

It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.

Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.

Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.

“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”

“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.

Lydia laughed.

She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“How are you holding up?” She whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said.

“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”

Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.

“I apologize.”

“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”

“I know. But appearances are important.”

“Gwen–”

“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”

She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.

“Gwen–”

Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.

“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”

Lydia felt a sense of alarm.

“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”

“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”

Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.

“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.

Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.

She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.

“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.

Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.

Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.

“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.

Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.

“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”

There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.

Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.

They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.

“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”

After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.

She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.

Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.

Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.

Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.

She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.

Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.

When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.

Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.

Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.

This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.

“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.

Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.

A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.

She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.

A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.

Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.

They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.

Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.

Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.

There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.

Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.

From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.

Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.

“Silica, no!”

Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”

“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.

Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!

Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.

Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.

As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.

Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.

Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.

Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.

But the world did not stop for anyone else.

From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–

Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.

Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.

Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.

“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.

She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.

Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.

Crack!

Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.

Her myrta was jammed.

She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.

Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?

Arsenica had led them to this fate.

Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.

Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?

“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”

Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.

In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.

At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.

Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.

Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.

Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.

She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.

Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.

All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.

“Gwendolyn!”

She breathed in smoke, coughed.

Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.

A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.

It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.

Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.

Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.

Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.

Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.

Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.

“Lydia!”

She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.

She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.

There was blood on her forehead.

“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”

“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”

“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.

She glanced back at the road.

Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.

“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”

She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.

Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.

“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”

Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.

Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.

Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.

She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.

“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”

Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.

There was an explosion in the near distance.

Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.

Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.

Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.

They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.

“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”

Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.

Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.

“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.


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