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 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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