48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, City of Solstice — North Solstice
Deep in the heart of Solstice, under the shadow of Armaments Hill, the ground began to tremble violently. Several blocks out from the headquarters of the Golden Army the shocks and the stirring of Solstice’s three great biting heads could be felt in the floor and the walls. At the Varnavat Artillery Base, there was nothing but blacktop and three massive structures. Stone turntables each the size of a city block, arranged in a triangle around a central control tower, began to turn three massive 800mm cannons.
All three cannons, each 20 meters long, lay on enormous steel bases. Recoil tubes larger than two adult men standing atop each other and thicker than a sand worm were installed atop the barrel to carefully reset the weapon as it slid across a mount some 15 meters long, criss-crossed by the skeletal components of its wheel-driven elevation mechanism. Each gun had a crew of 250 men and women assigned to it for setup, maintenance and repair, along with an elite 15-troop gunnery crew. These hundreds of people crowded the spinning terrain of each turntable, tightening screws, lubricating parts, working the cranes that raised 4-ton explosive shells up to the massive breeches.
Before the Solstice War, the Prajna had not been fired in anger since the revolution.
Now it felt almost routine. At the Sivira HQ not too far away, at Armaments Hill just a stone’s throw from Varnavat, in the surrounding streets, and even in the control tower a hair’s breadth from the epicenter, there was no stress. Civilians passed by the base on their way to work or shop in the North Solstice City District; at the military installations men and women walked the halls with their feet gently quaking, and with the earth’s palpitations winding their way through their guts and lungs, and they bore it quietly.
Every one of the three 800mm Prajna Super-Heavy Howitzers turned its barrel South.
Lieutenant Adesh Gurunath of the 5th Guards Mechanized Artilery Brigade watched the massive guns moving, settling, and the teeming mass of humanity that crewed them, with a mixture of awe, pride, and a lingering, uncomfortable sense of mortality, fear, despair. He was dressed in the formal uniform, coat, button-down, skirt, leggings; his shoulder-length hair wrapped in a bun, his glasses dripping with sweat from his brow, his entire face, ordinarily pleasant, soft and effete, contorted with anxious disbelief.
At his side, his previous superior, now-Major Rahani, outdid him in military elegance with the addition of a bright rose in his hair and a touch of makeup around his eyes and on his lips. Smiling, with a hand on his hip, he patted Adesh gently in the shoulder. His own skirt was just a little bit shorter than Adesh’s, who wore a more conservative woman’s uniform. Both of them had dressed up their best for the facility tour.
“I knew you’d love to see it. My husband is an engineer here, you know.” He said.
He pointed toward the third gun with a winking eye. Adesh made no expression.
He had wondered so many times before: why me? His life had been spared in battle so many times; he had felled so many foes with so little understanding of how or why; he had been promoted away from his friends for so long. Now Rahani had chosen him to bear witness to this. Rahani was going to become one of these powerful, elite gunners.
“Please don’t be nervous. I know on some level that these weapons scare you and you hate using them. I just wanted you to get the full picture of what they can do, before you decide anything.” Rahani said. “I know you’ve been through so much, Adesh. You’re on the cusp of major turning points in your life. You can’t just go with the flow anymore.”
Major Rahani wrapped an arm around Adesh, and drew him close in a motherly way.
“You like guns, right? I think seeing this might help you understand some things.”
In front of them, the guns began to elevate, and then were set into their final arc.
“For the artillery, we are at a crossroads between movement and power. We’ve never had to think about this before, not the way we do now. This right here, is the power you could have by staying rooted where you are now. By stalwartly defending this place.”
Adesh raised his eyes to the barrels of the three Prajna as their breeches locked down.
Standing beside the control tower, he saw flag-wavers come running out of the building.
“You’re here, in Solstice now. You could stay here, like I have. Isn’t this magnificent?”
There was a great and mighty shock that sucked up all other sound.
From the barrel of the Prajna came a flash like a bolt of lightning, and copious black smoke belched out in the wake of a massive, red-hot shell that rushed to the horizon like a shooting star. Beneath Adesh’s feet the ground quaked, and he felt the onrushing force of the gun’s shot like a tidal wave, washing over him. Into his every bone, to the marrow; within his guts; even his eyes felt like they were shaking with its power. He wept openly.
In succession, the second and third guns fired their own projectiles, and Adesh nearly fell; had it not been for Rahani holding him close, perhaps both of them would have fallen. Gunnery and engineering personnel all around stood in the same shocked silence, picking themselves up from their own exposure to the god-like force of the gun firing.
Somewhere out there, something was going to catch those stars and die.
Adesh stood, speechless.
He wished so much that Eshe and Nnenia could be here with him.
He wished he knew where they were.
He wished things hadn’t resolved the way they did.
Rahani, at his side, smiled and waved off the rapidly disappearing shells.
He sighed deeply, and turned to Adesh again.
“We could defend this city’s walls until the end of the war, safe and sound. No more fighting, no more stress, helplessness, powerlessness. We would have 15,000 of the quickest guns in the world, and the three biggest guns in the world, at our disposal. We can do desk work, start families, make passionate love to our partners every night.”
Something small, insignificant almost, wandered in from the edge of Adesh’s vision.
There was a Chimera moving about, towing one of the Prajna’s massive shells.
Its gun was bound up with cloth. There was no need for it to shoot. It was just a tractor.
“But this is a new age also.” Rahani said. “You could follow this war to another border. You could follow General Nakar, the only person in this army speaking of Attacking.”
“I could leave the army.” Adesh said, sobbing.
“You won’t.” Rahani said. “I know because I said it once too. I see a lot of myself in you.”
Adesh hated how right Rahani was, despite how much he loved him that moment for it.
Rahani, with his gentle smile and pretty features, who had saved him so many times.
He was always there for him. Even now, when he had no responsibility toward him.
“You want to do what is right; but you also have to do what is right for you. All of our people are part of this war now. But you don’t need to sacrifice your life for it.”
Rahani pointed at the Prajna’s once more as if reintroducing them to Adesh.
“Please consider it before you return to Mechanized again, Adesh.”
It was a kind, wonderful gesture.
But Adesh knew what he would do.
It was so kind and so wonderful because it was so unnecessary, so ineffective.
He was the only one in that field, it seemed, who saw that Chimera trundling about.
Adesh knew he would unbundle that gun and leave everyone behind. On those tracks.
Rahani sighed a little bit. “My hubbie will be busy, so, lets grab a bite and catch up!”
He clapped his hands together happily. Adesh nodded his head.
“I would like that. You’re the only one of us I can visit anymore.” Adesh said.
Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach
Major General Von Fennec stood on the back seat of his utility truck and watched in a mixture of horror and exasperation as a shower of rocket fire wiped his and Von Drachen’s troops off the bridge to Conqueror’s Way. He had heard of the Ayvartan rocket troops and their howling ordnance, but seeing it with his own eyes was like watching meteors raining from the sky on his men. It was sudden, infernal, and vexing.
The disdainful hand of a fiery goddess, slapping his men like pieces off a game board.
Truly that Madiha Nakar had a knack for setting her own battlefields aflame.
Setting down his binoculars and turning away from the scene of half his men burning to death and the rest fleeing like cowards, the general tapped his foot against the rib of a girl below him on the back of the truck, crouched in clear discomfort beside a portable radio. She groaned upon being struck this way, and grumpily turned her blond head.
“Casualty estimates, right now.” He demanded.
Promptly but with a trembling in her voice, the young woman responded.
“Major Yavez is saying a hundred and thirty, at least. Battalion combat-ineffective.”
“What about the Vishap?”
“It appears unharmed sir.”
Von Fennec sighed with a deep relief. He dropped his binoculars on top of the girl.
“Acceptable. Tell those idiots to get back on the bridge ASAP. Combat ineffective my ass.”
The General left the girl, speechless and rubbing her head, and dropped off the truck and onto the sand. His all-terrain quarter-ton “Peep” truck was parked in the far edge of the battlespace, with a full view of the bridge but ample distance between himself and any guns. He had been watching the battle with a keen interest in the Vishap’s advance. He was an old warhorse of the days of carriage-drawn artillery, and rose through the ranks with the mortar and howitzer men of the last war. This Vishap was really something else.
He was excited to be entrusted with it. To him, it meant Lehner still believed in the old staff, that he was bringing the respected elder statesmen of the army into his future.
Unlike his compatriots, Von Fennec readily dispensed with tradition if it suited him.
Now even the artillery men could know the glory of the assault! They could finally take whole cities by themselves, and humiliate the enemy in the fashion of the infantry! No more was the artillery a lowly thing dragged behind the lines, or saddled with the thankless defense of worthless camps and fortresses. Now in this age of maneuver, the innocent artillery that fired unknowingly into the sky, could itself know blood and fire!
All he had to do was watch the Vishap as it crept toward the city, and await victory.
Now that was progress he could agree with.
Von Fennec walked back toward the tall dunes surrounding his camp.
“Sherry, I shall be in my command tent, tell those cowards to get back in line–”
Moments after he turned his back, as the firestorm died down on the bridge and the Vishap’s gate-smashing shells once more became the loudest presence on the field of battle, Von Fennec felt a trembling moving from the floor to his legs, up his bones.
He shuddered, and turned once more toward the city.
He saw trails of smoke stretching over the sky like black lances.
And the speartip was a trio of glowing-red shells like stars being shot into space.
From the back of the peep truck, Sherry stared at him with terror in her eyes.
“General, the Prajnas have been fired! We’ve got three shells, south-bound!”
Von Fennec sighed deeply with great relief.
“Not my problem then! We’re attacking from the east. Tell my men to keep fighting.”
Safe knowing he was not the target of those monstrous guns, Von Fennec once more turned his back on the truck and the city and ambled away, his gait irregular from horse-back injuries sustained long ago. He had a bottle of wine in a personal icebox on his command vehicle. He could see his HQ already, near the Vishap’s old container. A tank transporter with what resembled a little house on the bed instead of a vehicle.
Several minutes later and sopping wet with sweat, he put his fist to the HQ’s door.
Finally, time for a well-earned rest and maybe a bit of drunkenness.
Von Drachen was out there somewhere, he could do the commanding–
Von Fennec then heard the beeping of a horn, and turned to see the Peep rushing close.
Confused, he watched silently as it pulled sharply up in front of him.
Sherry was in a panic in the back. She was waving her arms with every word said.
Her glasses practically fell off, and her professional-looking hair bun was out of sorts.
“General!” She cried out, short of breath.
Von Fennec turned back around and reached for the door, hoping to ignore her.
“Corps is calling an immediate retreat out of Prajna range!”
Von Fennec stopped and abruptly turned sharply over his shoulder.
“They’ve sustained casualties as high as the divisional level. Our southern thrust is broken, we’re practically fighting alone, and we’re closest to the city.” Sherry said.
Von Fennec blinked.
To retreat would mean–
“We can’t abandon the Vishap! My career will be over!” Von Fennec said.
He turned his head sharply every which way, looking for that uppity mutt.
“Where is Aatto?! Get that bitch out here! We need to extract the Vishap immediately!”
Von Fennec was losing his sun-addled mind entirely.
Demure and white as a ghost, Sherry mumbled, “Sir, um, about that–”