Solstice, Eastern Wall Defensive Line
“Yuck. It reminds me of the final scene in The Last Dragoon. I can’t stand to look.”
Parinita Maharani, Chief Warrant Officer for the 1st Guards Mechanized Division, put down the binoculars and averted her eyes from over the ramparts with disgust.
At her side, Brigadier General Madiha Nakar of the selfsame unit gently touched the woman’s shoulder, comforting her with her presence as best as she could just then.
Madiha held out her hand and her lover gave her the binoculars, and she looked herself at the battlefield. From the ramparts they could see the entire desert unfold before them, a desolate expanse of swirling ruddy sand. But it was hard to see anything around what remained of the First Gate of the Conqueror’s Way, kilometers away. There was so much rubble piled so high and the ramparts viewed the bridge at such an angle that it blocked the vantage. However, though they could not see the death directly around the bridge, on the edge of the desert they saw enough corpses and blood to confirm the slaughter.
“I have never seen that film, but I guess I can imagine what it must be like.” Madiha said.
Parinita got excitable and started to gesticulate wildly as she spoke. “They packed hunks of pork and tomatoes bound in gelatin into uniforms to resemble gore, for the aftermath of the fated charge into the machine guns. It was really gross! I think it just didn’t look like what you think a human being should, even in death, so it was really shocking!”
“I see. Well, death isn’t very pretty, you know? Not in any form, not even in action film.”
Madiha put down the binoculars. Her eyes felt a little heavy from what she had seen in the battlefield, even those little hints from that far way. It never got any easier to see bodies. One learned to not see them, to avoid acknowledging them after a fight. When forced to see the butchery for what it was, Madiha found her stomach unsettled by it all.
Parinita raised a hand to her hair and wrapped long, wavy strawberry locks around a finger. She looked a little embarassed and ashamed of her previous enthusiasm.
“Hey, I’m sorry Madiha. I was being glib, but seriously. I needed to do that to process it.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I’m always happy to hear you talk film, remember?” Madiha replied.
She smiled at Parinita, her lover, confidante, and primary support personnel.
It was a hard smile to hold up, but it was worth it for her. Anything was.
“Right. I get carried away sometimes, though. But, anyway! It looks like the coast is clear.”
Parinita waved a hand over the desert. Madiha smiled and nodded at her lover.
They were dozens of meters above the ground, standing a few meters removed from the edge barriers of the Eastern Wall ramparts. Solstice’s heat bore down on them, it was past midday. Madiha could vaguely hear, even off in a great distance, the firing of the rampart guns on the Southern Wall of the city, which also under attack. Nocht had finally pushed far enough ahead, and slashed through enough of the defenses (or in this case at least, bolted past them), to besiege Solstice directly. Madiha had been put in charge of the defense of the Conqueror’s Way, though she had her own intentions for it.
Conqueror’s Way was so named because it was the route taken into Solstice by several conquering kings in antiquity. It used to be a rocky wasteland. It was said that whoever crossed the Conqueror’s Way, and then left the city victorious and paraded down the Way once more, and survived both journeys, would bless their rule to last a lifetime.
In modernity, it was a massive bridge, its length in the thousands of meters of stone and concrete and steel, suspended just shy of the rushing waters of the great Qural river. Once upon a time it boasted many fortifications; all of which had been pounded to rubble by repeated high-altitude bombardment during the preceding months.
Conqueror’s Way was as close as bombers could get to Solstice before the defenses got them, and as such presented the safest place to bomb where Solstice could heard it.
For a few weeks it had been a topic of great terror how Conqueror’s Way was destroyed.
Madiha intended to ride out through this bridge, or what was left of it, a hero herself.
But not yet; now was not the right time.
For now, she trusted the defenders on the remaining walls, and focused on her own.
“I have to wonder why they thought they could cross Conqueror’s Way with a company.”
Parinita turned to face Madiha with a quizzical expression. Madiha crossed her arms.
“I wager we have succeeded in hiding our numbers from aerial reconnaissance. They must have thought we left the bridge undefended after overflying and bombing it so much and seeing nobody there. Without troops on the bridge, they could walk to the very gate. Likely they intended to absorb the casualties inflicted by the rampart gunners, using those sacrifices as a means to attack the gate itself and ultimately breach the wall.”
“I guess after all that bombing they did, they must have been ready to believe it paid off.”
“That’s precisely why I allowed them the chance. It wound up helping us.” Madiha said.
In truth, there would’ve been a remote possibility of defending the bridge against air attacks. Madiha had calculated that scenario as well. Solstice’s anti-air defenses were strongest at the walls and within the city, and they were focused almost singularly on preventing overflight of the walls. It was possible, like with any artillery, to extend its cover beyond its typical range, to reorganize and retrain the shooters, and thereby extend a thin cover from the Eastern Wall’s dedicated Anti-Air to cover the Way.
It would’ve been bloody.
Conqueror’s Way was far more exposed than any part of Solstice.
Therefore, sacrificing expert anti-air gunners for the task did not sit right with Madiha, especially when the bridge could be so much more useful as a pile of rubble. Nobody understood it except her. The symbolic Conqueror’s Way, bombed out, empty. It was an enticing target, and the enemy took the bait. She had rebuffed a Company-sized attack and destroyed likely the entire enemy unit without casualties using only her recon troops. All because of deception and concealment. She found herself feeling oddly clever and elated, thinking to herself now that her deception had saved lives and killed foes.
“You got the first after-action reports in, right? What do you think?” Madiha asked.
“Gulab and Charvi were just a touch more reckless than they should’ve been.” Parinita said. “It feels like every time you give them an inch they want to fight it all themselves.”
“I will have words with them later.” Madiha replied gently.
“You should, they’re officers, and officers need to mind the back more in this army.”
Madiha nodded. “Well, right now, Chief Warrant Officer, our Kajari and Chadgura–”
Parinita grinned and laid her hands on her hips. “–Jeez, Madiha, you’re so formal–”
“–managed to produce a result,” Madiha continued, unimpeded by her lover’s teasing.
“I know!” Parinita said. “They have it harder than us. Still, it pays to be careful.”
Madiha nodded again. Sometimes she wondered how they did it.
Madiha had been an officer almost all of her career. She had fought on the front several times, and endangered her life plenty; but she could count the number of times she had been in danger at the head of an attack. For a grunt, it was every day, until the days were indeterminate. People like Gulab and Chadgura had volunteered to face death every day. Madiha was always called back to her headquarters. She was far safer than any of them.
She had to play disciplinarian, but a certain guilt tempered her response to recklessness.
“I’ll reacquaint them with the value of their lives.” Madiha said, half-jokingly.
As the desert wind blew away the scent of war, the two of them continued to watch the desert. Defense was not glamorous, and wars of defense even less so. All tales of great wars told of massive offenses and glorious charges and sweeping encirclements. Cunning was sang of when paired with initiative, and forgotten if not. So far, the Golden Army had strengthened itself and proven a tenacious defender, but Nocht kept coming, and they were driven to their last wall. All they could do was wait for an enemy to show up to fight. There was no means for them to launch effective attacks right now.
Sitting idle like this, awaiting battle on the enemy’s initiative, took a toll. On the soldiers, absolutely. But also on Madiha, who felt keenly the weight of her decisions every day.
Every defense had a cost. Today’s defenses, so far, had been free. This would change.
Madiha felt exhausted.
She could hardly believe she was still moving fluidly and standing tall.
Parinita hid it well, behind that pretty face and charming smile. But she was hurting too.
It had been a hellish, evil year, 2031.
“I think in Psychology they call it The Uncanny. You know?” Parinita said suddenly.
She had a finger on her cherry-red painted lips, and was staring off in thought.
“What are you talking about?” Madiha asked.
“Oh, um, sorry, I mean the thing from before. About how unsettling the fake corpses were in The Last Dragoon. I remember some papers on film psychology I read about that. It’s because of the unreality of it, you know? We expect things to be a certain way, but war just feels unreal to experience. At least, that’s what I believe. This violence, and all.”
Parinita shifted a little nervously on her feet. Her tongue was starting to slip from her.
Madiha nodded her head. She had understood; and she especially understood having a thought and having it turned to molten cheese in your brain by your own neuroses.
“I agree. We have an idea of what death should look like. And none of this feels right.”
“I feel it’s more that we don’t know how to think about any of it, even now.”
Parinita put her back to one of the rampart barriers and crossed her arms.
Next to her, a 76mm gun stood sentinel. It was unmanned, because the gunners were ready to rotate, and had gone on a little break. Solstice’s heat, especially on the walls, could easily reach 40 degrees or worse, and would cook one’s brain on a full shift. All essential personnel in Solstice’s defense had to be redundant, and consistently rotated.
“I go on my day to day treating it like a job, or like a favor that I’m doing for my girlfriend. When I’m alone, and I have time to myself, and there’s all the reports in front of me and all that. But looking at it like this, being confronted by it, its so eerie. I vacillate from thinking of it like a math problem. I think about stupid essay questions. ‘A train leaves the station carrying 100 tons of ammunition’ and so on.” Parinita continued, raising a finger into the air. “I am good at those. I also think of it like film sometimes. Prologue, act one, act two, climax; and the actors working tirelessly. But that’s not what it is. Just like tomatoes and pork set into jelly aren’t really a murdered human body.”
Madiha remembered what she said before. Parinita was trying to process it. She had to; to try to rationalize the unreality of everything. To try to find a way to live sanely with what they were all doing. That was Parinita. Madiha tried to shove things out of the way of her mind, the same way that same mind pushed physical things with its power.
Reaching out a hand idly, Madiha pushed on a stone on the wall and levitated it.
Parinita followed the stone around with her eyes, like a cat watching a toy.
It was odd that the most unreal thing among them was the easiest one to accept.
“Well. You’re more normal than I am I think. I think of war as a game.” Madiha said.
She was instantly ashamed of it, but she said it.
It helped at least that Parinita did not look disgusted or judging.
She smiled warmly at Madiha, catching the levitated stone out of the air in her fist.
“I learned to strategize via Academy war games. To me, its chess, except, I’m good at it.”
Madiha looked out over the desert and sighed.
It put her in a foul mood to think of it like that.
All those corpses on the desert.
Those misbegotten fools whom she hated; and yet they died because, she was better? Because she had outplayed them? Gambled and won? Any number of metaphors, they were all wrong. They all made the conflict out to be a game, or a film, or a story. There was no way to capture what had happened that wasn’t completely, utterly insane.
“Like I said before, we have to do it to process. We have to do something to understand and to carry on with the fight. We’re the victims here, after all.” Parinita replied. As soon as she said it, she seemed frustrated with herself. “I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this, to be honest. Maybe I am going insane now. It’d be inconvenient as hell.”
“You’re not insane. You’re tired. I’m tired.” Madiha said. “I haven’t slept in a week.”
“I’ve slept poorly. Maybe we need to get in bed together.” Parinita said, beaming cheekily.
“We’ve done plenty of that.” Madiha replied.
“Hah, look who’s lewd now? And you say I’m the minx here. I meant nothing erotic by it.”
Parinita put on a little grin and pretended to be innocent, circling her finger over head as if to suggest there was an angelic halo in the space over it, and not devilish little horns.
“I know you too well.” Madiha replied, grinning herself.
“Say I was being lewd, what would you do about it?”
Parinita took a few steps forward with hands behind her back and leaned into Madiha.
With a gloved finger, she pulled a little on the neck and collar of her shirt and winked.
“I’d sort you out and make you proper again.” Madiha replied.
She turned briefly toward Parinita and slipped her own finger down her coat and the neck of her shirt to grip on it and give it a teasing little tug. Parinita tittered happily.
Madiha was so glad for the shift in the conversation, even if it was a little out there.
“Let’s calm down for right now though. It’s too hot out and the gunners return soon.”
“Hey, I’m a paragon of self-control.” Parinita replied, pressing a hand against her breast.
“Right. Anyway, get the map, we’ll do one last check to make sure we report everything–”
Still feeling jovial, Madiha lifted the binoculars back up to her eyes.
There were the corpses, some of her own soldiers in parts of the bridge where she could see them, such as atop the mounds of rubble that once were gates. There was a sizeable amount of sand, and the Khamsin blowing in from the southeast was turning the air just a touch dusty and yellow, even over the Qural river. Satisfied, Madiha looked farther out.
Parinita returned and pressed herself close to the General.
“I got the map here, so what do you want to–”
Madiha spied something in the desert sand, something– uncanny.
Something large, something difficult to place. Something that shouldn’t have been there.
“Parinita, call back the rampart gunners, now. Right now!” Madiha shouted.
Observers on the eastern wall, such as General Nakar, and even those along the ground with the recon troops on Conqueror’s Way, finally spotted the enemy that now made itself known amid rising and falling dunes of the red desert. It had been carefully crawling in the distance, taking whatever path put the most geometry between itself and the walls. It had come close enough now; nothing could disguise its size, the smoke, the men around it, the vehicles that supported it. This was a battalion-sized formation.
But it was all concentrated around a single, monstrously large entity.
A massive series of camouflage nets shed from its bulk, and sand sifted off its surfaces as if it had risen from the desert like a whale from water. It had traversed the desert on the backs of several tracked tank transporters. Scopes and spyglasses could see letters on the side of the massive, metallic conveyance that held the weapon in its place for travel.
Around it, men in yellow and ash-gray uniforms unlocked the crate, and its lid came crashing down like a ramp. Inside, an engine roared to life, loud as a howling dragon.
Around the side of the great machine, two men watched the unfolding deployment.
“Well, General, I believe I have successfully infiltrated your weapon past enemy lines.”
One of the men sighed and patted down his own cap against his head.
“Oh, shut up, Von Drachen.”