46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya
Because of the surrounding forest, the elevation of the ground toward the east and the camouflage net, Camp Vijaya was still rather gloomy at 0600. This made it easy to sleep in; so Naya slept in. She muttered to herself, twenty more minutes, and snuggled up against a bundle of her clothes that she had brought into her sleeping bag for comfort. She smiled, a genuine smile, brought on by holding something warm while half-asleep.
Then at 0633, a severe and impassioned bugling erupted just outside of her tent.
Naya jerked away and crawled half out of the tent, her naked lower body still inside the sleeping bag. She was wearing nothing but a one piece lavsan-fiber combat bra. There was a dull aching in her body, punctuated by very sudden bursts of pain in her joints that came and went as she maneuvered herself around in the fog of half-awake cognition.
Outside she found herself staring at a dark green pants leg and black shoes.
She looked up and found a giant of a woman looking down at her with a brass horn.
“It’s 0634! Time to get up! I’m not gonna have two breakfast shifts in a row!” She said.
Naya nodded dimly and started to extract herself from the tent. The woman shouted.
“Put some clothes on first!” She said, bowing down and pushing Naya into the tent.
Back inside, Naya dressed sloppily in a clean white shirt and green uniform. She slapped her garrison cap on over her head, and then crawled back out and labored to stand.
Tapping her feet just outside the tent, the young woman with the bugle didn’t look so huge when both of them were standing, but she was still almost two meters tall. She was statuesque: tall, with a good figure, and probably pretty fit under the uniform.
“Private Naya Oueddai.” Naya said softly, introducing herself through a yawn.
Opposite her, the woman’s golden eyes were half-closed and her thin brows downturned. Her thin lips were curled into a frown. A tiny twitch shook her light olive skin and the smooth features of her face. Even the high, voluminous, brown ponytail on her head, tied with a silky brown scarf, seemed to twitch like an angry tail in Naya’s eyes. When she introduced herself her tone was curt and her voice a little deep, maybe in anger, maybe not.
“Private Karima Faizan. Come on, you have dishes to do, Lila’s got her hands full.”
Naya blinked and stared, still half-asleep and uncomprehending of her demands.
Karima took her by the hand and pulled her along. Naya silently complied, her head not fully switched on. They walked to the other side of the camp, behind the chow line and into the back of a big tent beside which the water half-track was parked. Inside the tent there was a standard field kitchen, with burners, a stove, cracked-open crates of food, most of it packaged or preserved in various ways — and a big stack of dirty dishes inside of a big metal storage basin. Ahead of them, behind the kitchen counter, a nymph-like young woman with a white apron over her uniform and a white cap over blunt cut blond hair served the day’s breakfast staples to a crowd: a flatbread with paste-like curried vegetables or a lentil stew, milky yogurt with added fruit jelly as a drink, and a grape semolina halva dessert.
When she heard Karima come stomping into the kitchen tent, the young breakfast girl turned from the line and started scolding. “Karima, don’t treat her so roughly! She’s new and honestly you should just do her shift for today. Don’t take things out on her.”
“I’m not!” Karima said. She parted through her swept bangs with a finger during the scolding, and cast her eyes at the floor, like a child met with the rhetorical force of an adult.
Naya raised her hand, a somewhat dim expression on her face, like a drunken smile.
“Where am I right now?” She asked through another involuntary yawn.
Karima and the serving girl looked at her, one scowling, the other amused.
“I’ll take her shift but just this once. She better pull herself together.” Karima said.
“Thank you, you’re a real sweetie, Karima.” the serving girl said.
“It’s not like I’m doing anything special.” Karima replied. She heaved the metal basin full of dishes and took it outside with her head up high as if turning up her nose.
Naya stood there staring. Her head was thick as the forest and her thoughts as lost in it as the camp was. She stood around uncomprehendingly for a moment, until the serving girl waved at her to come up front to the chow line. Naya ambled forward, and the girl pressed a little bottle into her hands. Unthinkingly, Naya removed the stopper and drank. A hot, disgusting, slimy liquid trailed down her throat, burning all the way.
Suddenly everything in her body woke at once, mostly in shock and disgust.
“It’s cayenne and tumeric and garlic. Wake up and lend a hand, please.”
In her own way this serving girl was as rough as Karima was! Naya quickly complied. There were a dozen people still lined up, waiting patiently for food. Most of them had the red rings around their eyes and the vacant stares like Farwah — they were eerily noticeable in the morning gloom. But not all of them had the rings; there were some ordinary folks among them. Everyone had a tray in their hands. Naya stood at her side and helped spoon in the lentils and yogurt, while the girl laid down flatbread and halva. With two people, the line thinned very quickly, and new arrivals started being fed as soon as they arrived at the tent. While she worked Naya heard water gushing from the half-track’s tank behind the tent, as well as Karima’s loud grumbling whenever the water subsided.
At around 0710 they had fed everyone and stood around waiting for any stragglers.
“Chow line opens at 0620 or so, depending on preparations; it closes at 0700 but we don’t want to be cruel to anyone who might have missed a chance to eat warm.”
Naya nodded. She extended her hand to shake, hoping to put a good foot forward.
“Naya Oueddai. Private. Sorry for the trouble. I’ll be more alert in the future!”
“I’m Private Lila Bennewitz.” the girl said. “Very pleased to meet you Naya.”
Naya suddenly honed in on her features, her skin, her eyes. She said nothing, because she didn’t want to put her foot in her mouth a second time and look insensitive by asking Lila if she was Nochtish, the way she had asked Farwah if he was Svechthan. It would be an especially sensitive subject for Lila given the current conditions — but that kind of foreign surname really stood out. Naya smiled and they shook hands like comrades.
“You did a good job! Tomorrow it’ll be someone else’s shift. I’ll get you a copy of the camp schedules ASAP. Every Private has a shift doing camp jobs, since the officers and the engineers have their hands full between all the tests, preparations, reports–”
“Is she mad? Karima, I mean.” Naya interrupted, whispering and covering her mouth. She looked over her shoulder and could see Karima furiously scrubbing trays.
“She’s always mad.” Lila giggled. “Don’t mind her, she truly means well.”
“I’m sure she does. Should I go help her, you think?” Naya asked.
“Oh no. No no.” Lila withdrew a tray from the stack, handed Naya some breakfast. “I’ll help her. You stay here, eat this, and serve anyone. You can leave in fifteen or so.”
With a cheerful wave, Lila skipped out of the tent. Still holding her tray, Naya watched from afar as she loomed over Karima, patted her shoulders, tweaked her ponytail. In response, Karima scrubbed more furiously and completely ignored her presence.
Naya smiled and wondered if she could become friends like that sometime.
* * *
A dispassionate, off-key bugle call sounded repeatedly through the middle of the forest.
Karima stood despondent and helpless while Chief Ravan made a nuisance of herself with the instrument. After about a minute of blowing fruitlessly into the brass, she nonchalantly gave it back. Karima wiped it off with a clean handkerchief, and played the correct call.
“Anyway!” Chief Ravan called out after a few notes. “We will now begin the first test of the Raktapata Medium Tank with the hundred millimeter KnK-10 high-velocity gun!
A little after noon the testing unit had left the camp on the Sharabha half-track. Farwah and Naya towed the Raktapata using the Tokolosh tractor. Driving eastward through rough terrain and thick jungle, the convoy eventually reached a perfect spot at a somewhat clearer area of the wood. Though there were still several trees, but they had big roots and thick trunks and created a lot of space between themselves. There was a clear firing range of several hundred meters that they could exploit, and it was all under canopy cover.
Vehicles parked, and the crews dismounted. Now everyone made ready for the tests.
Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan stood off to the side while Naya and Farwah unhitched the Raktapata and climbed inside. Lila was also there as a first response medic, holding a bag with a red cross on it just in case. Karima played the role of bugler. There was a small squadron of gendarmes with submachine guns patrolling the forest. They had red rings around their eyes too, quite easily visible if you were near them.
Naya felt a thrill standing beside the Raktapata. It was a titan of a machine. She had seen the insides of cars, locomotives, and even an old airplane once during a trip. In training she had seen the interior of a Goblin, as well as diagrams of an enemy M2 Ranger. She had climbed into a Goblin turret and shot a few rounds. But this was a different beast.
She felt equal parts excited and anxious to be involved with a machine like this.
There was a voice in her head telling her it was too much, that she would fail and she should run, but she didn’t listen to it. This time was different. She ran toward the tank.
Farwah climbed inside through a front hatch, while Naya took a running leap onto the track, climbed on the turret and dropped herself in from the top hatch. There were separate hatches for the commander and for the gunner, because the massive breech and the slide plates of the 100 mm gun almost divided the turret into neat halves. There was a cushioned seat to the left for the gunner, and further up and to the far right was the commander’s seat. Farwah sat further down and front, in a chair under a thick hatch that blended into the hull roof plate. Naya could see some of him if she leaned quite far down from her seat.
She waved at him eagerly, and he turned around and waved back.
Ravan was right to seek people of a specific size — Farwah fit comfortably, but he was less than 170 cm tall. Naya was around 172, and she figured she was just about the cutoff to fit comfortably in the gunner’s seat. Her commander would have to be a little smaller. Captain Rajagopal would be a good fit for the task if it was necessary. On the whole, the interior was cramped. There was not much space to go around. Beside her the gun’s interior mechanisms felt quite enormous. In front of her the instrument block was convoluted. Behind her, some long, heavy 100 mm ammunition was kept handy — reserve shots went under the gun block and required painful contortions to fetch. Crew comfort was a tradeoff for the Raktapata’s profile. Something had to be sacrificed for the tank’s compact size.
It was uncomfortable. Naya seemed to bang her arms on something carelessly whenever she turned, and the hard seat only accented the dull aching she had felt all day.
Despite all this, she felt a surge of enthusiasm as she checked the equipment.
Naya flipped down the eyepiece for her periscope and looked into it. She turned the scope, scanning around in front of her. She saw Ravan, Captain Rajagopal, Karima, Lila, the gendarmes; she scanned around the forest for a moment. She saw engineers farther ahead, setting up the first target for the gunnery test. Pulling back from the periscope, she leaned forward and to her right to peer into the lower gunnery sight.
Focusing the sight, she watched the preparations being put in place down the makeshift range. Engineers were hard at work, laboring to raise a metal testing plate using materials brought into the forest from the camp, withdrawn from the back of the Tokolosh. Held upright by a strong metal frame, the plate had a target painted on it.
Once everything was ready, they cleared the area and went a safe distance away. They had to remain near the target to watch and record results, but also out of shrapnel range.
Farwah started the engine, and the tank brimmed with noisy life. They would have to communicate exclusively over the short range radio while the tank was active.
Chief Ravan whistled a little ditty to test the radio and then made an announcement.
“We will commence the first test! Armor plate, 80 mm thick, 800 m distance!”
Naya pulled on the traverse gear lever and turned the turret while looking down the sights. Because the lever was single-speed, some additional correction was needed to get it just right on the target. She would have to complain about that to Ravan.
“Load AP and fire when ready, Private Oueddai!” Captain Rajagopal said.
She wondered how much of the operation the Captain could effectively experience.
From behind her, Naya withdrew a solid steel penetrator. Each 100 mm round weighed close to 16 kilograms, and was nearly a meter long. They were unwieldy, and Naya felt that she was handling them clumsily. She maneuvered the tip of the shell onto the extended breech ring, freeing up a hand, and pulled a lever, opening the gun up to accept ammunition. Naya then pushed the heavy shell into the gun — the breech snapped shut automatically, completing the loading motion for her. Could’ve gone much faster than it did; she would need more practice with loading big shells if she wanted to fire more than one a minute!
“Firing rigid armor-piercing shell!” Naya called out. She pressed her trigger.
Naya felt the sheer power inside the turret as she cannon fired. She felt a force deflected toward her, and heard a deafening cry. It was as if a ghostly hand were smothering her for an instant. As the cannon belched out the shell and spit back the empty casing onto the ground of the tank, she whistled admiringly. Down the gunnery sight she saw the effect of that simple trigger pull occur in a second — a hole on the edge of the target. Penetration.
“Yes! Yes!” Chief Ravan shouted into the radio. “Penetration! Take that! Take it!”
“Please don’t shout so much.” Captain Rajagopal said over the same system.
“How are things in there? You feeling powerful Naya?” Chief Ravan asked.
Smoke wafted up from the breech and scratched at the interior of Naya’s nose. She ignored it. Her skin tingled with exhilaration from operating such an amazing weapon.
“I’m feeling like a dragon breathing fire, ma’am!” Naya chirped happily back.
“Oh ho ho! So then, tell me about the interior, did it survive the big shot?”
“Ma’am, everything looks fine from in here. All my instruments took it well.”
“Was there a lot of shaking? I went through hell installing those recoil buffers.”
“There was some shaking.” Naya said. “But the breech cycled perfectly fine.”
“How are you doing, Farwah? Did you feel like a tomato inside a can?”
Farwah sounded wholly unmoved by it all. “I’m not a tomato.” He said simply.
Chief Ravan laughed in the radio and commanded the second target be raised.
Soon the engineers were back to work again. Naya rested her back on the seat, pulling away from her vision equipment. She wiped sweat off her brow. She drank from her canteen. It was getting hot inside the turret. But she felt good! She felt energetic and focused.
Next up was a 100 mm plate at 800 meter distance. She loaded the round.
“Fire when ready, Naya!” Chief Ravan said.
Naya pressed the trigger and launched the second round. It blasted through to the target, again in less than a second, and punched a head-sized hole into the outer rim of the painted target. A little off from before, but nonetheless, she scored a penetration.
“Splendid! Splendid!” Chief Ravan cried out.
“One more shooting test before the endurance fire.” Captain Rajagopal said.
“Yes! Naya, this next test will simulate 150 mm of armor plate by using concrete blocks. Sadly, we have yet to be supplied 150 mm testing plates. Can you believe we don’t manufacture those? I had to ask some be custom-made and they haven’t arrived.”
“I can’t believe it at all ma’am.” Naya said. She was playing along. “It’s an outrage.”
“Quite! Anyway once the blocks are prepared, please shoot right at them for me.”
“It’d be my pleasure ma’am! I’ll let those blocks have it alright!” Naya replied.
She had a big grin on her face. She was really getting into the spirit of things.
Firing from a tank was different than an AT gun. An AT gun was vulnerable, it had to be hidden behind bushes or sandbags. It projected no power; it felt like running away.
But the Raktapata was enormous, powerful. It didn’t have anything to hide.
Inside this machine she felt like she wanted to. Strong, honest, eager, brave.
With a grin on her face, Naya loaded the 100 mm AP round and pushed it in.
She hit the trigger and buried her face in the gunnery sight, smiling through the vibrations and noise inside the tank as she watched the tower of solid blocks become suddenly displaced. Pieces of concrete went flying as the penetrator punched right through the target, just off to its side. A block slipped and fell off the top.
“Good! We’ll get a better result once the plate comes in, but I have high hopes that the KnK-10 can penetrate 150 mm of armor at 800 to 1000 meter distances!” Chief Ravan cheered.
Naya pulled back from the gunnery sight and stretched her arms. For the endurance shots she would have to load and shoot as fast as she could in succession. She started to twist each way at the waist, and to bend her back, making herself ready for the task.
At her side however the breech was still locked tight. It hadn’t cycled out the casing.
She pulled the breech lever and though it slid back, the breech did not open.
“Ma’am, the breech looks like it’s stuck. I can’t open it up.” Naya reported.
Chief Ravan responded with more alarm than Naya had thought she would.
“Don’t touch it! There might be shell remnants in it. Get out right now.”
Naya complied, though a little perplexed about the reaction. It was only inert brass trapped in the breech! She stood up on her chair, pushed up the hatch, and climbed out of the tank. Farwah exited as well. Unrelated personnel took a few steps back from the tank. Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal climbed on the back of the tank. Ravan peered down the hatch, leaning in while Captain Rajagopal kept her from falling on her face.
“Nothing from the lever either? Damn it.” Ravan said. “Looks like it might be a problem with the hydropneumatics. Maybe the oil’s gone bad. How hot was the gun?”
The Chief turned her head to Naya, who raised her hands defensively. “Dunno!”
With that simple word the tests on the 100 mm KnK-10 were forced to conclude.
* * *
Back at the camp, the Raktapata was returned to the workshop. A squadron of engineers in fireproof clothing met the testing party as they arrived and immediately set to work on the Raktapata, separating the gun mantlet from around the KnK-10 gun, pulling off the barrel and removing the breech block and slide. Chief Ravan picked up a specialty wrench and unscrewed a few bolts herself alongside them, all the while Captain Rajagopal exhorted her to change into safety clothing first. Naya and Farwah stood off to the side, watching.
In about fifteen minutes the engineers had the entire shooting apparatus dismantled, but they still hadn’t opened the breech despite taking much of it apart.
Ravan finally picked up a sledgehammer and slammed the top of the breech-block.
At once the breech ejected the shell casing. Then the breech lever fell right off.
She sighed audibly.
“When it rains, it pours!” She cried out. “We’ll mount the 85 mm A.A.W. until we’re sure that the 100 mm’s hydropneumatics are up to snuff. This is such a disappointment.”
Naya almost felt like crying. The Raktapata looked like quite a sorry sight with a gaping hole in its turret and its gun in pieces on the oily, grimy floor of the workshop. And all of this because brass failed to cycle? It felt almost cruel, and somehow, all her fault.
She felt a swelling of emotion and approached Chief Ravan. She bowed her head.
In a pitiful voice she started to apologize. “Ma’am, I’m sorry! This was my fault and I–”
“What? No, dear, no! It’s got nothing to do with you!” Ravan responded.
She put her hands on Naya’s shoulders and smiled. “You did a fantastic job!”
Naya nodded her head but wasn’t convinced. Dark thoughts were saying otherwise.
To think that something so powerful would be pulled away, chastised, for something as simple as a failure to cycle brass. Suddenly she felt her heart sinking, and she had to fight with herself to stay in Chief Ravan’s presence. Her teeth chattered, her hands shook. She fought back tears. It was a snap response from her body, as if ice cold water were crashing over her head. She withered inside under Ravan’s interrogating gaze.
She felt pathetic; and pathetic for feeling pathetic. Her mind was spiraling down.
Despite her attempts to hide it, Chief Ravan could see through her furtive behavior.
“Naya are you really alright? Were you hurt during the test?” Ravan asked.
It was hard to speak, but at least when the words came out they made some sense.
“I’m fine ma’am.” Naya said, in a somewhat choked voice. “Just a little tired is all.”
It wasn’t entirely a lie. Ravan looked her in the eyes and then turned away.
“You should go for the day. Eat well and get some rest, Private Oueddai.” Chief Ravan said. “You can work on your report later. For now just take care of yourself.”
Naya nodded her head and turned sharply around. She headed back to her tent.
She was worried for you and you ran away, her mind screamed at her. You coward.
That wasn’t it at all! She didn’t need to know. It was better that she didn’t.
But still the thought kept recurring, torturing her all day. Nice job breaking it, Naya.