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.
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.
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.