Conspiracy City (46.3)


Rangda — 8th Division Barracks, Training Field

Madiha was reasonably comfortable being out in the sun. Rangda was cooling off as the Gloom began to turn into the Frost. There was a clear sky above them and then sun was out, and a strong breeze blew her hair as she went. It was neither the weather, nor the possibility of an attack, that had led her to consider hiding in the Barracks until nightfall.

An attack at the moment was unlikely. Majini did not walk freely under the sun.

Unless they wore the brass masks — and she had dealt with all of those.

Though she once thought she had dealt with all of them in general and that proved folly.

Her motivation for wanting to hide was to spare her troops the sight of her.

She was hurting all over. Her arm was in a sling, her head was bandaged. One of her eyes was partially swollen and could not fully open — the severity of the bruise was lessened by a careful application of cosmetics and combing her hair over it. She tried to appear energetic as she walked around the base, but she was exhausted. When Parinita got to her she felt like her skull had been split open. Even healing hands could not repair all of the psychic damage. Morphine had to patch up a few lingering ills.

Her confrontation with Chakrani had inflicted a new set of wounds on her soul, perhaps, if not her brain and body. She tried not to let Chakrani get to her — she did not want to keep lingering on their failed relationship. She wanted to move on. But it was difficult to ignore. She heard the word “monster” as said by Chakrani’s voice, that voice that once said sweet things to her in bed, that greeted her every day, that told her she was loved and wanted. It reverberated in her head. On top of everything else, it shook her badly.

“You have nothing to hide over. You’ve done everything you could.” Parinita said.

Madiha was thankful to have Parinita at her side. It was the sight of her lover supporting her and telling her sweet words that empowered her to take these difficult steps outside. Parinita had a point; hiding in the headquarters all day would have had a detrimental effect on the troops. There was too much that was already being kept from them, and they were enduring every unreasonable event at this base purely on their faith in her.

She drew strength from Parinita. She tried to think to herself that Parinita deserved for her to be there, for all of her to be available, and none of her stuck in the past with Chakrani. They were lovers now; girlfriends in Parinita’s own view. She deserved strength.

So Madiha would be strong for her. She would go out with her head held up high.

As she surveyed the training field, the barracks, the reclaimed storehouses beyond the second gate, and the remaining facilities, Madiha was pleasantly surprised by the discipline of her troops. There were few gawkers, and everyone was quick to salute.

She stopped first at the edge of the training field, where Lieutenant Munira was teaching grenade throwing to groups of infantry. Madiha and the tall, gallant, brown-haired older lieutenant had been first acquainted in Bada Aso, where they defended a strategic hill from a relentless Nochtish air attack. Lt. Munira had proven herself gifted in speaking to her troops then, and this was no different. Everyone stood attentively as she explained how to “cook” grenades, proper throwing technique, and the purpose of a grenade.

“As a shuuja, the heroic rifle soldier of Mother Ayvarta, the grenade is the most lethal weapon in your disposal if you wield it properly. You cannot reach for your grenade in panic; you will only disarm yourself of a valuable weapon when you need it! You must use the grenade carefully and in concert with your allies. You can use it to suppress enemies, who will flee the grenade temporarily, allowing your allies to flank them; you can use it to attack around obstacles, such as sandbag walls and gun shields or around tight corners inside buildings; you can use them to clear enclosed spaces; never throw one aimlessly!”

As before, Lt. Munira’s voice was powerful, and her pronunciation never once slipped. Words flowed swiftly and strongly from within her and swept over the entranced crowd.

When Madiha appeared behind the Lieutenant, it took the infantry a moment to notice that she had snuck into the fore. When she was finally spotted everyone quickly and respectfully saluted. Lt. Munira turned over her shoulder and smiled, clapping her hands.

Salam, Colonel! Our field is elevated by your presence.” She said, bowing her head.

She then saluted, the same as everybody. A greeting, parts religious, and parts military.

Hujambo,” Madiha said. She saluted back with her good arm. Parinita did the same.

“If it is not out of place to say, Colonel, I am pleased to greet you. I know everyone had been wanting to see if you were well, after the incident last night.” Lt. Munira said.

“It is all under control, don’t worry. I will be recovered in a few days.” Madiha replied.

“I’m glad to hear.” Lt. Munira said. “Would you like to show them a quick throw?”

“What will I be throwing? Back when I did basic training, we threw water balloons.”

“No balloons here; we’ve been deemed worthy of something a little more tactile.”

Lt. Munira handed her a dummy grenade. Madiha recognized the device when her fingers wrapped around the smooth metal can. These units had token amounts of explosive in order to produce a bang that could be seen and heard by the thrower, but they were harmless unless one detonated while still affixed to a belt or inside a soldier’s bag.

Nodding her head in affirmation, Madiha held the grenade in her good hand. She walked through the group of soldiers, glancing briefly over their faces and forcing a little smile for them. On the other side of them was a cleared area of the field with distance markers and several black marks on the floor where previous grenades had landed and burst.

Holding the grenade under her injured arm, she used her weaker hand to pull the pin.

She waited, and then threw the grenade with all of the strength of her good arm.

Her entire body ached from the effort, but she hurled the grenade a good 50 meters.

She then immediately threw herself on the ground as was the training procedure.

Though this put even more strain on her arm, it was important to do things correctly.

In the distance, the grenade went off with a dismal pop. Behind her, everyone clapped.

Several soldiers stepped forward and helped her from the ground, dusting her off.

“Thank you,” she said to them, and then addressed the group at large. “Remember, however, that it is important to throw it accurately and not just far away. Our real grenades have a killing radius of 5 meters and an injury radius of 15. Sometimes you must throw them 20 meters exactly; sometimes you must do this while under stress. Practice your throwing whenever you can, and practice throwing near and far. It will serve you well.”

There were nods from the crowd, and Lt. Munira continued to clap excitedly.

Madiha walked through her soldiers once more, and watched them throw in her place.

Seated atop the ruin of a waist-high wall a few meters from the soldiers, Madiha and Parinita watched thirty throws from the Company’s 1st Platoon. There were some clumsy throws, and poor safety technique, but for the most part everyone seemed to have the fundamentals well in hand, and nobody had their grenade burst in their own hand.

Madiha congratulated the group before taking her respectful leave of them.

“May the light shine on you always, Colonel.” Lt. Munira said.

Parinita and Madiha bowed their heads and went on their way.

“What do you think?” She asked, once they were again walking in relative privacy.

“I’m pleased.” Madiha replied.

“Everyone has really stepped up since Bada Aso, haven’t they?” Parinita said.

“It was Bada Aso itself that made them stronger. They had to grow to survive it.”

“Yes, but I feel that they are becoming better refined now, and not just stronger.”

Madiha nodded her head. “Was I shaking when I threw that grenade?”

“You looked a little off-balance. But nobody was distracted by it.”

“Even as I walked among them, nobody was frightened by my wounds.”

“We’ve seen worse happen to other comrades.” Parinita said.

“But not to the ‘Hero of the Border.'” Madiha said. Though she felt uncomfortable with the moniker, she was pragmatic enough to see its usefulness at the moment. She was keenly aware that she needed to preserve this dignity in order to keep morale steady.

Parinita crossed her arms and looked skyward, thinking for a moment.

“Well; think about it, in an action film, you expect the hero to end up covered in wounds, but victorious! It’s no different here. Everyone saw the bandages, but they know you won.”

Madiha chuckled. She loved hearing Parinita make references to film.

Wandering through the training field they paused to watch artillery fires, tank driving, and infantry launching attacks on a house defended by a team with water guns. At each stop they chatted with an officer and received some demonstrations. Most of these activities were too high-impact for Madiha to participate in her current state, so she respectfully declined to demonstrate them. She especially did not want to be sprayed with red water.

Despite this everywhere they went they received warm greetings.

Even the most exhausted soldiers were cordial and energetic to them.

“See? You’re still the hero to them.” Parinita said.

“I’d rather not be a hero at all, but I’ll accept it for now.” Madiha said.

From the field, they made a quick stop at the canteen. Different training groups ate at different times. Food was prepared around the clock to keep the Regiment’s few thousand mouths fed as they came. Madiha dropped in on the cooks at the canteen and thanked them for their service — it was its own form of heroism keeping everyone fed.

Though they were noncombatant staff, they saluted as strongly as any shuuja.

Madiha then visited the infirmary. There was a squadron of soldiers ill with something they caught together in their barracks, and a few knocked out by food poisoning and allergies. One woman was bedridden with a sun-stroke. Everyone was pleased to see the commander, despite her own injured state. Some felt emboldened to go out themselves — the medics quickly set them back toward their beds and had none of that.

After the field, barracks and facilities, her final destination was the depots.

Through the gate, Madiha and Parinita approached the first set of depots. There were engineers moving equipment into each depot, re-purposing the abandoned buildings as workshops and storage spaces. Madiha found herself naturally attracted to a big, open, hangar-like depot behind the rest, where she spotted a familiar comrade from afar.

Sergeant Agni, the brown-skinned, dark-haired, stone-faced engineer who had proven key to the operation in Bada Aso, sat outside this depot, atop a rather large tank with a unique appearance. She had her hair in a ponytail, and the ponytail pinned in half against her head by a large clamp. She was dressed in greasy pants and a tanktop undershirt that was, judging by some spots, originally white. Now it was caked black, along with her arms and breast.

Hearing their footsteps, she turned around from the tank’s turret and greeted them.

“Hujambo.” she inanimately said. She raised her hand and waved a hammer.

“Hujambo! What’s the hammer for?” Parinita asked.

Agni looked at it briefly and threw it over her shoulder.

She shrugged. Parinita stared at her.

Madiha smiled. “Say, Agni, what is that tank? It’s not a hobgoblin is it?”

“No, it is not.”

Madiha examined the new vehicle.

Over the course of the battle of Bada Aso Madiha had become better acquainted with the Hobgoblin. Though most were assigned to defend the Kalu, a small group had remained in the city. She had found them quick, reliable, well armored and well armed. Agni’s tank had the familiar turret, with a bulging and rounded turret front and a block-like gun mantlet from which the 76mm KnK-3 gun extended, and long, sloped, partially rounded sides that overhung its squat, narrow neck, and a pair of hatches at the top.

That was where the similarities ended. While the Hobgoblin mounted the turret toward the front, this tank had it in the center. It had a squat and thicker body with a more steeply sloped front, and tracks and guards that were as tall as the rest of the body rather than a step shorter. It appeared more substantial than the hobgoblin, yet more compact.

“It looks similar, because the Hobgoblin is a generic unit.” Agni explained. “It has a long history. After the Goblin’s dismal performance in the Cissean war and the Mamlakhan affairs, a prototype was developed called the Kashyapa, produced secretly by the KVW along with the M.A.W and A.A.W firms. From the Kashyapa, there were two paths we could take. A revolutionary design called the Raktapata greatly expanded its capabilities, but was almost impossible to reliably mass produce, so only a few were ever built for continued experimentation. Meanwhile the Hobgoblin fixed a few problems, but it was closer to the original and easier to produce. Solstice wishes to mainline the Hobgoblin.”

“So the Hobgoblin is a fixed-up, genericized Kashyapa, and this is a Raktapata?”

Agni shook her head. “Yes, and then no, respectively. This tank,” she rubbed her hand on the armor atop the tank, “is a bunch of Raktapata spare parts that we were given, cobbled together with a Hobgoblin engine and Ogre tracks to create a mostly functional vehicle. I call it the Rakshasa Command Tank, because it is yours, Colonel Nakar.”

Madiha blinked. “Mine? I thought I would get a command truck.”

“I thought you might appreciate this more. We received a bare chassis and a bundle of parts, but with some help, I mounted the turret, added tracks and installed the communications kit. Then I did some work on the engine, and lubricated everything–”

“Wait,” Parinita interrupted, “Agni, does this vehicle have long range radio?”

“I spent all day going over it. I believe it does.” Agni said.

Parinita clapped her hands together and beamed with joy.

“Good. So we have more dependable communication now. Do the Hobgoblins have radios?” Madiha asked. “And what about the Ogres, Giants and Chimeras we received?”

“Most of them do. But the radios on non-Command models are very limited.”

“That’s fine. As long as we’re not completely cut off the waves in case of emergency.”

Agni nodded her head. “Would you like to see the interior?”

“Is it really greasy?” Parinita asked.

“Not as much as it would seem from looking at me.” Agni said.

Madiha smiled.

With Parinita’s help, she climbed atop the Rakshasa’s engine compartment at the back of the tank, and then helped Parinita up onto it. They opened the twin hatches at the top of the tank and climbed down into the commander and gunner’s positions, seated side-by-side with the gun before them. In place of the extra storage on the turret’s rear extension and sides, there was radio equipment mounted on brackets, with a little space between the walls and the radio boxes to lessen the transfer of vibrations from the armor to the vacuum tubes.

Parinita’s seat was closer to the tank’s right side and to the lower shell stowage. In combat, she would switch from radio operator to loader. Madiha was seated closer to the front of the turret with the gun controls. She would command, and also shoot the gun.

It was not an optimal arrangement, but it allowed them to stretch their tank personnel.

Unlike Nocht, they could not count upon thousands of expert, purpose-trained tankers.

Below them was the turret basket with the remaining equipment. This framework existed in the neck of every turreted armored vehicle, anchoring their seats, and housing the turret drives, oil pumps and various mechanisms for turret operation. Madiha could, if she leaned down, see the back of the driver’s seat, and the floor of the tank was not too far below. She could still “drop” down and hurt herself if she was too clumsy, however.

Compared to the Goblin, it was fairly roomy, though the gun mechanism was larger.

Madiha looked through the sights, while Parinita tried out the radio equipment.

Satisfied, Parinita and Madiha climbed out of the tank and sat atop the turret.

“Looks good. A significant improvement in firepower.” Madiha said.

“I love the radios! I almost want to relocate the HQ into this tank.” Parinita said.

“We should. It would probably be safer.” Madiha said. She gave a bitter little chuckle.

“Due to its improvised nature, this tank will certainly not perform as well as the original Raktapata could, and will certainly be slower than a Hobgoblin.” Agni warned. “However, the armor profile was taken directly from the Raktapata and is very strong. It will keep you safe.”

“I guess my dreams of becoming a frontline tank ace have been dashed.” Madiha said.

“Don’t even joke about that, it sounds like something you might do!” Parinita said.

“It will work adequately as a fire support and command vehicle.” Agni said.

“As long as it can fire colored smoke and make radio calls, I’m fine with it.”

“It can carry 35 shells, divided as you desire.” Agni said.

“Can’t the hobgoblins carry 77?” Madiha asked, momentarily downcast.

“Radios.” Agni said, pointing sharply back to the turret.

“Right.”

“We also received another gift. Follow me.”

Parinita waved a hand in front of her face. “Can we follow upwind from you?”

Without cleaning herself up one bit, Agni dropped from atop the tank and started walking. Madiha and Parinita carefully stepped off the armor and followed her back out to the street, and a few depots down. There was more activity at this part of the base than Madiha had seen in days. In the distance she saw rows of tanks parked outside. Chimera, Giant and Hobgoblin were becoming well represented among their number. There was also a smaller tank model among them, though it was not a Goblin.

“That’s a Kobold,” Agni explained, “it’s a new light tank. Has a 45mm gun. Boring.”

“How many of those things will we be saddled with?” Madiha asked.

“Only 20, as a reconnaissance group.” Agni said. “Most of ours will be Hobgoblins.”

Madiha breathed a sigh of relief. Light tanks in all their forms seemed a waste to her.

Agni led them to a small vehicle park at the end of the rows of depots, fenced off but with the lock on its chain-link doors welded in half. Having forced entry, the engineers arranged many of the incoming vehicles that would not fit in depots. These included a pair of Giants that had yet to be thoroughly inspected and made fit for use — they would lie among the trucks and artillery carriers in disuse until they could be thoroughly vetted. Agni weaved through the assembled vehicles toward a singularly tall and broad half-tracked truck.

Tied to the back of this truck was a very large object covered in a tarp.

Pulling off the tarp, Agni revealed a very large artillery gun. It was mounted on a set of tractor tracks, but it was not self-propelled. It had a bore larger than a human head, and upon its enormous barrel was an exterior recoil cylinder about as tall as a fully-grown Ayvartan adult. On the whole the construction was incredibly robust.

It was an intimidating weapon.

Madiha became suddenly excited. Her eyes lit up visibly at the sight of the weapon.

She even smiled like a girl being handed a beautiful doll.

“It’s a 203mm Vajra!” She said aloud. She rushed to its side and touched it.

Parinita, giggling, followed behind her. Both were dwarfed by the size of the gun.

“We received a trio of the guns, likely to take it off the hands of the Tambwean forces moreso than for our own use.” Agni said. “We really can’t service them properly yet.”

“Oh, really?” Madiha said, deflated. Of course, she suspected that as a mobile force, the sluggish, gigantic 203mm gun was not meant for their kind of warfare. Even the Giant was a significant drain on their mobility, and that was a tank with a smaller gun. The 203mm was so large it could only be transported either by train, in pieces on a heavy cargo plane, or by the equally massive Vifaru 10-ton half-tracked carrier parked with it.

“More important than the gun, I believe, is the associated ammunition.” Agni said.

She unceremoniously pulled a tarp off from over the back of the Vifaru’s truck bed.

Stored beneath that tarp were several strangely-shaped artillery shells. Each had a different overall design, though they all shared a sharp, likely explosive warhead similar to those on the 152mm gun on the Giant. None were like the gigantic 203mm Vajra shells Madiha had seen previously. Instead they had strange frames around slimmer shells. Some had cylindrical bumps around the shell exterior, while others ended in conical exhausts.

Madiha could not make heads or tails of what they were meant to do.

“Are these supposed to be rockets?” Madiha asked, throwing out a wild guess.

Agni nodded her head. “Experimental ramjet shells. Supposedly 40 km max range.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, though I doubt I ever will.” Madiha replied.

Rockets were not unheard of. Most advanced nations had some kind of rocket.

Ayvartan planes operated ground attack rockets fired from the wings of their planes, much like the Nochtish Luftlotte‘s rockets. These rockets were shot by diving at a steep angle and firing them at line of sight targets. Because of their inaccuracy, several rockets had to be fired to hit a tank or other valuable target. Most of the time, aircraft rockets were used to bombard infantry. In such a role the effect was comparable to a heavy mortar attack.

Though the velocity and potential range of a rocket were enviable, Madiha seriously doubted a rocket fired out of a cannon would ever be as reliable or useful as a shell.

“You probably won’t ever see it in action. I believe the project is close to shutting down. Agni said. “They’re hard to shoot anyway; and even then we’re not authorized to use them.”

“Do you think you could shoot one?” Madiha asked with a smile.

Agni twined a lock of hair around her index finger. “Probably.” she said.

It was hard enough to fire an ordinary shell out at the distances the 203mm gun could hit and do so accurately. Taking into account the unknown factor of a ramjet rocket being shot out of the gun, the mathematics involved would likely stump any of their artillery commanders and render the weapon nearly useless at its intended, extreme ranges. However Madiha had faith Agni could do it if she tried. Agni was sort of a genius.

After Agni put the tarps back over the gun and shells, Parinita clapped her hands.

“Looks like that’s the end of our inspection.” She said. “Let’s go eat!”

She smiled sweetly. Madiha thought she heard a low, wet growling noise.

“Agreed. I could use a good plate of lentils.” Madiha said.

“I will have a curry.” Agni said, raising her hand over her shoulder.

Madiha and Parinita stared at her. Sweat glistened over the greased caked across her.

“Oh, in that case, give me a moment.” Parinita said.

She hopped over the couplings on the back of the Vifura, and disappeared.

Madiha stared from Agni, who made no expression, to the Vifura, confused.

Moments later, Parinita returned, dragging along a white hose.

Under the Vifura’s chassis, Madiha could see the hose trailing along to the far back of the vehicle park, where there was likely a water truck waiting for its moment to shine.

“Colonel, step aside!” Parinita shouted.

Madiha fled instantly.

Agni stared at the hose without so much of a twitch of the eyes.

Parinita pulled a lever on the metal head at the end of the hose.

A low-pressure jet of water gushed out of the nozzle and instantly doused Agni.

Grease and sweat and oil slicked off the engineer as Parinita targeted her limbs and her breast with several dozen gallons a minute, and arced the gray-blue lash up into the air to rain water down over Agni’s head. Throughout the aqueous assault, Agni stood as still as a pillar with her arms limps at her sides, her face inexpressive and covered by her wet hair. Water cascaded down her clinging top, over her pants, into her shoes, pulling down gunk.

More and more pleasantly brown skin was exposed from under muck.

Black goo pooled at Agni’s feet and glistened with a myriad colors beneath the sun.

Parinita shut off the hose and dropped it behind the Vifaru.

She clapped her hands repeatedly, as if wiping them clean of this matter.

“You’re welcome!” She said cheekily, before starting back toward the road.

She left behind an engineer thoroughly drenched but free of accumulated filth.

Agni pulled her hair from her face and squeezed it as dry as she could.

She turned a flat gaze to Madiha, who had sought cover around the vehicles.

“Am I cleared to eat now, Commander?” She asked, spitting out water.

Madiha could not honestly tell whether she was resigned, miserable, or what.

She was distracted from the sight of the soaked Agni by the sound of the fence clinking.

Looking between the vehicles, Madiha spotted Padmaja running in from the road.

Her eyes were moist and red and her voice cracked with stress and fatigue.

She barely paused for breath upon meeting Madiha and Parinita, clearly distressed.

“Colonel, Colonel!” She shouted. “Colonel, Sgt. Minardo is in trouble! She’s trapped!”

Madiha’s felt her chest sink into her stomach. “Trapped how? What do you mean?

She knew where and she knew how. There was only one place. Ocean Police Station.

“She’s being detained!” Padmaja shouted. “The Rangdan Council is detaining her!”

Parinita’s face turned white. Madiha could not believe what she was hearing.

“How is she detained? What happened?” Madiha asked, struggling to process it all.

“I don’t know! Her military interpreter says that a man came and detained her!”

“That’s just– they were supposed to be cooperating! This is against the Akjer act.”

Madiha raised her hand to her face, rubbing on her injured temple. Parinita covered her mouth with her hands and stared between Padmaja, who was weeping and distraught, and the Colonel, who struggled to cope with the sights and sounds and torments her mind was suddenly conjuring up and buckling under. Minardo was in danger; and so were Bercik and Kirsten. If the morning was any indication, this was all Mansa’s doing.

And if it was Mansa’s doing then he did not care about the laws and regulations.

He was in Rangda and he had decided that here, he would become the law now.

“What are we going to do, Madiha?” Parinita asked, her lips quivering.

“We’ll demand she be turned over.” Madiha said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Parinita shook her head. “Will they do it? If they went through this mess to grab her–”

Madiha looked at her with a sudden fire in her eyes. “We’ll make them do it.”


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