This chapter contains mild sexual content.
16th of the Postill’s Dew 2031 D.C.E.
Solstice, Shimii — F.O.B. “Silver”
At the bottom of a long slope in the terrain lay the Shimii village and the Oasis, while at the top of the long, broad hill was FOB “Silver.” An improvised runway had been cut across the flattest terrain running atop the slope, just long enough for the largest planes in the Ayvartan arsenal to charge off the end of the incline. There were three improvised buildings all made of wood, tin and concrete blocks with curtains covering the entrances and windows. The interiors were no better developed nor any cozier.
There was a minimal amount of staff. A few mechanics, a few truck drivers who tripled as cooks and performed refueling when they were around, and the commanding officer, Captain Ashani Bastet, a morose cat-kin woman with dark circles around her eyes. She was there to greet the vultures when they arrived on the 15th, and offered them old ration boxes and sheep’s milk. The next day, she was also there, with a beleaguered look in her eyes, as the vultures woke up at the crack of dawn to prepare for their mission. Walking out from one of the buildings to the runway, she stared out.
Her eyes drew ever so slightly wider with disbelief.
“Why is that one without a shirt? What is she doing?” asked Captain Bastet.
Her ears wiggled incessantly as she pointed to Mannan, whose breasts were both exposed and glistening with machine oil as the first shafts of morning light played about her. She was dressed in a pair of work pants that were starting to ride down her hips, a pair of thin gloves on her hands, and her hair was collected in a bun tightly wrapped behind her head so that no oil or grease would get on it. She wore no shirt, no brassiere, no camisole, not even a half-open uniform coat covered her upper body.
As the base captain called her out, Mannan stepped from down a ladder from the aircraft she was working on and scratched her hair with consternation. Captain Sheba, watching from the sidelines, sighed loudly but did not immediately intervene. Homa Baumann snickered and watched attentively. Sayyid started humming a tune.
Mannan stepped up to the base Captain, whom she had quite a height advantage on. Captain Bastet eye level perfectly aligned with Mannan’s chest in a way that the Captain seemed to notice all too well. She averted her gaze slightly, cheeks red.
“Ma’am, I feel most in touch with the machines when I can apply all of my senses to the act of tuning them. This includes feeling the engine on my bare skin, taking in the heat when it fires up,” Mannan was sounding excited, perhaps a little too much.
Captain Bastet narrowed her eyes, making the black bags look further swollen. She had her cheek half-turned on Mannan so that she was staring just past her body.
“That makes no sense to me. I don’t know how you people live in Solstice, but there are children here, and decent women who will get strange ideas.” said the Captain. “We want to be hospitable to our guests, but decency is a prerequisite for that.”
She raised her hand as if she wanted to poke Mannan, like a schoolmarm would poke a disobedient child, but she reminded herself immediately of Mannan’s present state of nudity and stopped before she would be touching Mannan’s bare breast. Withdrawing her arm, the small, tousled-haired cat-kin glanced to Sheba as if asking for support.
In return, Captain Sheba shrugged openly. “We’re all girls aren’t we?”
She winked an eye and smiled at Captain Bastet as she said so.
In turn, the base commander seemed to have no idea how to interpret the gesture.
“Well.” Captain Bastet looked helpless, and more exhausted. “I can’t argue, I suppose.”
She walked back into the building she came from as if sulking.
Mannan sighed as she watched her go.
“People really don’t understand.” She said. “Honestly, I should be asking all of you how you can stand to be wrapped up all day like meat in a market stall. Don’t you all yearn for the caress of the wind? For the warmth of the steel, and the slickness of the oil?”
She turned around to face her comrades. At first her arms were crossed over her chest, but she gestured quite emphatically at the end of her little speech, and thus exposed herself to them once again. Sheba was the only one without a reaction.
“Can’t relate.” Homa said, covering her mouth to conceal an ear-to-ear grin.
“I support you, partner.” Sayyid said, finally popping out from behind her own plane.
She gave Mannan a hearty thumbs-up. Interestingly, however, her eyes never wavered and remained firmly in contact with Mannan’s own; much unlike Homa’s demonic gaze.
Mannan therefore spared her any anger. She simply left the crew with a loud ‘hmph!” and climbed the ladder back to the plane’s exposed engine to continue her work.
Sheba giggled lightly.
Mannan was out this early because she was obsessed with tuning the aircraft to perfection, and they were all grateful for it. Those Garudas needed it. In truth, none of them could actually sleep. For some like Homa, sleep was always elusive; for Sheba, it was hard to sleep in F.O.B.’s, they never felt like home. Even Malik and Anada, who waited inside the barracks instead of coming out, were only pretending to sleep.
So the girls outside waited, watched, and cheerfully interrupted Mannan’s labors.
Perhaps hoping to savor every peaceful moment they had on the ground.
After all, a mission from a F.O.B. was serious.
It was one degree of separation from the place they wanted to protect the most.
To die after deploying from an F.O.B.– not even your ghost would see home again.
This superstition chilled even the bones of weathered and grim girls like the Vultures.
There were more concrete reasons to be worried about this mission too.
In the background of their banter was an Ayvartan bomber-turned-transport; a Roc-class. It was an all-metal four-engined aircraft that was rarely seen up until this point in the air. Most of the air force’s 500 Rocs had been arrayed around the northeast coast of Ayvarta to serve as a maritime deterrent. With the Nochtish invasion, however, and the foundation of the Republic of Ayvarta, strategic bombing targets had opened up closer to home. Their Roc was an ordinary example of the type, with its massive tail-fin, two-tiered bulletproof-glass paneled nose, raised dorsal cockpit and huge wings.
This one Roc would not be dropping any bombs, however. Instead it was the floating headquarters for their operation. As a massive, sturdy bomber it received frequent maintenance and needed little field tuning, unlike their banged-up Garudas, so there was nobody looking at the engine, no big crowd around its wings. Out of all of them only this peaceful giant enjoyed a moment of calm before the violence that lay ahead.
Minardo was still in the barracks; two of her subordinates oversaw the refueling.
For those paratroopers, the mission was far closer and more critical.
Already the Vultures had proven time and again that they could fight Nocht’s aircraft and win, but now, their objective was to protect this vessel and to insure that it could complete its own mission. It was almost out of their hands whether this rescue was successful. All they could do was kill the enemy; the rest was up to Minardo.
“Did you learn any tactics for babysitting in the officer’s academy?”
“I suppose its like a bomber escort, except the bomber stays uncomfortably long.”
Homa squatted down on the edge of the runway beside Sheba. Both were soaked in sweat already, even though the sun was barely climbing. So they sat half-out of their bodysuits, with their sleeves and upper suit hanging around their waist. Beneath the suit tops they wore combat brassieres, made of similar material to the bodysuits. Straps looped around their necks and across the middle of their backs, while a one-piece triangular cup compressed their breasts. It was respectable enough to wear out.
Their long locks of hair were tied into nearly identical ponytails. Neither commented on the similarity. For Homa, it was odd to be familiar with anyone; and Sheba did not want to push any of her little fantasies, however minor, on her cold new partner.
“Right.” Homa had been joking, but now that Sheba took her seriously, she started to talk in a serious tone of voice as well. Both of them sat side by side, staring at the Roc in the back of the runway. “When a bomber goes in for a run, naturally they run out of bombs and head right back. You don’t have to pay them any attention beyond that. And so that Roc there is not particularly designed to linger over the airspace is it?”
“It’s an old type of bomber. They designed it in the late 10s.” Sheba replied. “I’m sure it has received armor upgrades since, but not to the level of say, those Hierophants.”
“Hell, that’s no comparison. They made the Hierophant to fire a gun over a city, so it has to have more armor. That Roc might have a couple sheets of corrugated plate.”
“Maybe, I can’t really say. I’m no engineer.” Sheba finally admitted, chuckling gently.
Homa put on a bitter little grin and flicked all of the fingers, pantomiming an explosion.
“So if Minardo flies over a bunch of mountain troops with A.A. artillery, boom! No baby.”
Sheba sighed, but with a smile on her lips. “You’ve got a sick brain, you know?”
“Heh, but I’m not wrong? So, some of us will have to go after those ground troops.”
“Are you volunteering?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m doing the opposite. My Bennu’s greatest asset is speed, and you can’t go too fast if you’re trying to shoot precisely at ground targets. So you should leave the dogfighting to me. In fact, you should join me in the dogfighting, since you’re none too precise yourself, little miss ‘leave the trigger down all day.'”
“Hey, my accuracy is perfectly acceptable, as is my trigger discipline.”
Sheba poked Homa sharply in one of her mixed black-and-white ribs.
“You know, I never thought you’d be the one to come offer her support on this”
Homa was more shocked by that than the poke. “Don’t take it the wrong way! It’s not like I’m some samaritan trying to spare you; I wanna save myself extra work, okay?”
Her endeavor to remain cold and distant in spite of everything made Sheba laugh.
For all her resistance, there was a lot of wisdom in her words.
As always, Sheba was grateful to have Homa by her side.
Dogfighting was their strength, and the Garuda was adequate for it.
However, aside from the 20mm cannon, they did not have much going for them against ground targets. They could terrorize them easily, but if the infantry kept a cool head, and played with the advantage of rough terrain to hide in, they could very well set up a position that Vulture could not break from the air. With bombs or rockets it would have been simple to destroy the ground troops, but the need to travel a long distance meant they had to keep light. Their Garudas were equipped to dogfight only.
Should they meet the mountain troops in battle, keeping them scattered was a necessity if the 20mm cannon was all they had against them. So Homa was right; Sheba would need to assign a pair that would keep pressure on the ground targets.
Sheba’s gaze steeled with determination as she tallied up Vulture’s aircraft.
She knew exactly the pair for the task.
“I have an idea. I’ll let you know the formation when we’re in flight.” Sheba said.
“An idea, huh?” Homa said. She grinned.
Sheba grinned back. “We can win this, Homa. I know we can.”
Homa rubbed under one of her breasts, where she had been fiercely poked before.
“You know, I could get used to looking at you like this.” She said.
Sheba felt a compliment incoming and stuck her chest out.
“Like what? Leader-like and brimming with authority?” She asked.
“I mean with your tits almost out.”
Homa poked back at the Captain a little higher than where she had been poked.
Sheba turned her cheek and groaned.
There were certainly also some downsides to having Homa around.
Dbagbo — Central Kucha Mountains
“Look at that! C’est magnifique! It reminds me of my home country!”
Marcy exclaimed with delight as the desert transitioned to the great grasslands of Patratu, from which they could finally see the vast green, white and brown breadth of the Kucha Mountains ahead of them. Enormous and complex, the mountain range consisted of numerous slopes, valleys, plateaus and peaks. Atop and around the mountains there were forests, rocky flatland, even lakes and river sources. These same features could be found nestled between the rocks. There was no pass through the entire mountain range. One could enter on foot from several places around Adjar, Dbagbo and Tambwe, and even from Solstice itself, but a treacherous climb awaited at the end of any given trail. Villagers developed many bridges and cranes and ladders to try to connect to each other and to the outside, but the terrain was so treacherous that many parts of the mountain remained cut off intermittently or permanently.
For their mission, the Vultures were flying to the valley of Baghland near north-central Kucha. Baghland was surrounded by several of the middling peaks of the Kucha, and the valley itself was high up over the world, cold and craggy and yet home to a great forest. There had once been a large village in Baghland, but when they obtained rifles from the people of the flatlands they overhunted the valley, and ultimately left with a bitter lesson learned. Nowadays only a listening and spotting station occupied the home of their ancestors. One day’s travel by foot, and hours by sled or car, was the nearest village of Inunkaru farther up the mountain to the north. Nocht was attacking from Tambwe, so they would cross Inunkaru on the way to the Baghland area.
For Anada, it reminded her too much of the violence that her people had faced in the past. Because of the lives they wanted to lead, they were in danger, and nobody could protect them. Even as they were riding out to this lonely mountainous place, it was not to come to their rescue. In fact, it was grimly advantageous for them to be in danger.
“So the Inunkarans are basically a speed bump for Nocht huh.” Anada said bitterly.
“We can’t save everybody.” Sheba said. “Adjust formation, we’re close now.”
Anada shook her head in her craft, but realized the need to focus on the mission.
“This is Mother,”
Minardo spoke up at that point, her voice loud and clear on the radio.
“Mother is my callsign, you know, because of– well, anyway,” there were a few accompanying sighs on the radio before Minardo started to explain. Her tone got more determined and serious after the introduction. “Everything in the Roc looks normal and stable. As long as you can guarantee our approach, we’ll make the drop over the station, secure the package, and then we can extract the entire team and be on our way. Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. We’re counting on you!”
All of the Vultures knew quite well that they were being counted on.
It weighed on them; they resolved to do everything in their power nonetheless.
As usual the Vultures flew toward the operational area in a staggered formation. Mannan and Sayyid flew ahead on the left wing, while near the center Anada and Malik hung back several hundred meters. Not too far behind them were Homa, flying in reduced power mode, and Captain Sheba herself. Even farther back, the Roc lumbered alongside Marcy, who was to act as a final line of defense in case anything happened.
Though her Cathawk was burdened with radar and radio equipment, at its heart it was still the top of the line fighter of the Helvetian air force and could stand up to enemy fighters faster than the Roc. Should anything get past her however, it would be up to the Roc’s defensive machine gun turrets, and the mercy of God, to stop them.
Marcy was not one to be brought down by this responsibility. She sounded cheerful when she went Coucou Coucou! into the radio to draw Vulture’s attention to herself.
“Cornet to Vulture Lead. I’m starting to pick up flying objects on the radar.” Marcy said. “Straight ahead. Might be escorts or scouts; I can’t be certain of that.” She added.
“Acknowledged, Cornet. Alright Vultures, listen up! Here’s our strategy.”
There was silence on the radio as the Vultures listened with rapt attention.
“When we come closer, Boris and I shall deal with enemy fighters as best as we can; leave primary contact and attack to Boris. I will follow, and then Emeric and Dmitri will join any air attack if necessary, but the primary intention for you two should be to block attacks on the VIPs. Be it ground or air targets, attack anything that is threatening the Roc! Meanwhile Vasily and Gregory will avoid air engagements and intercept enemy infantry. Your objective will be to inflict pressure and limit the movement of ground troops. Do not focus on annihilating the units; spread the gunfire around like a good communist! We want them to scatter and become disorganized!”
Splitting farther apart in their formation, and with the mountains looming closer and closer ahead of them the Vultures prepared to commence the mission. Below them, the jagged peaks of the lower mountains vanished past their cockpits and they climbed over the rocky forest of the Baghland valley, thick with Juniper trees. They were over 5000 meters in the air, so this was one of the highest forests in the world.
Off in the distance, there was a visibly larger clearing, hugging the rocky wall formed by the adjacent mountainside. And far north at the edge of the valley, where the terrain rose sharply and became unstable, there were tricky slopes that squeezed out the terrain and formed a natural barrier around Baghland. Treacherous paths had been cut over these walls of stone as though the Gods themselves had etched them out.
There was smoke rising from these trails as the enemy descended them. Their trucks and personnel carriers chugged, worn down from the struggle to climb the mountain. But nevertheless, the machines and their owners persevered through the slopes.
“Gebirgsjager. Well, we’re right on time to greet them.” Captain Sheba said.
“We’ll be coming up on the aircraft soon too, Captain.” Marcy said.
In the distance, and close to the treeline, Avada Anada could already see them.
Flying low and slow over the forest, seeking through the craggy ground.
A trio of twin-engined craft were combing the forest ahead of the ground troops. They were fairly large planes, with a cockpit suspended in the middle of two long wings, with twin tails joined by a thick strut. A rear conical structure joined with the cockpit, framed by the tail booms. Nothing of its kind had ever been seen by the Ayvartans.
Definitely it was not an Archer, and of the Nochtish reconnaissance planes it was not the Thief-class biplane Ayvartans were taught to expect. Though it shared the characteristic twin engines, it had nothing else in common with the Crossbow.
“Ma’am, I’ve never seen that one before! It’s some kind of weird, slow, square plane!”
As soon as the cat-kin got done with her assessment, a series of flares went up over the slopes overlooking the valley from not only the north but also the east. Behind the Vultures, the lumbering Roc had accelerated, and was perhaps spotted in the distance as soon as it broke through the cover of the lower peaks and toward the valley.
“We’ve become the guests rather than the greeting party.” Sheba said. “Split up like we planned! Boris, with me! Vasily and Gregory to ground! Dmitri, Emeric, fan out and protect the transport; if you see a ground target of opportunity, just go for it!”
In three directions the Vultures fanned out. Anada and Malik tightened their formation and charged over the eastern slope, headed north, hoping to catch both wings of the the enemy ground troops in their first attack run; Mannan and Sayyid gathered around the transport; Homa shifted her engine to just below jet power and dove. Captain Sheba remained close behind her partner but did not immediately join the attack run.
“Cornet, contact home base on the long range radio and describe those aircraft to them! Those planes might be in the Suden plans if they’re operational, and I know the General personally studied those documents. She might just know them.” Sheba said.
“I’m on it ma’am!”
While Marcy’s cathawk flew protectively over the transport, Captain Sheba contacted the men and women inside the Roc directly. They were the ones presiding over the rescue effort while the Vultures fought off the enemy; they knew the status of the VIP.
Before she joined Homa on the attack she needed to know the plan was truly in effect.
“Callsign Mother,” Captain Sheba appended the word ‘callsign’ to avoid simply calling a woman mother constantly over the radio, which was a rather embarrassing thought, “We’re engaging the enemy. Tell your turret operators to keep an eye out for the enemy but to watch my girls when they’re shooting. What’s the status of the VIP?”
Minardo responded promptly. “We were getting her on the horn when you called.”
“If possible, I would prefer we were patched into such conversations, or at least periodically updated. Should the VIP need specific coverage, we have to know.”
“Will do, one moment.”
There was static noise on the radio as Minardo transmitted the call to the VIP over the Vulture’s radio frequency. It appeared at first that the VIP was having trouble with the radio and made plenty of terrible sounds happen from the Vulture’s boxes. Eventually however her crisp, atonal droning voice came through. She sounded as drained and inexpressive as Agni or any other KVW agent did. This was clearly one of those types.
“Mother, Vulture squadron. Thank you for the assistance so far. I have secured the intelligence as requested. Can you see our station? We’re to the northwest.”
“We can see it, Agent.” Minardo replied.
On the clearing near the mountain wall, farthest from both the northern and eastern slopes that the enemy infantry was navigating, there was a brick and mortar building with a lookout tower and a large radio antennae array that had been spun around the tower and even hung up into the rock face. A series of small gasoline generators hummed along, providing the power for the electrical equipment as they spoke. Thin trails of smoke blew from them; the last gasps of this old equipment, set to be lost.
Captain Sheba could strain see it from her vantage; Avana Anada could see it easily.
“How many are in your party, Agent?” Minardo asked.
“There are two agents, myself and one another. There was a third, but he passed.”
Everyone who heard this detail, delivered with such a factual and emotionless finality, put on a grim face, even if only momentarily. Logia Minardo sounded unfazed as she responded. She seemed to have read something in the response no one else had.
“Have the parameters changed then, Agent?” She said.
Captain Sheba felt a jolt shoot down her chest.
“I’m afraid I will need to request your assistance not only for us, but for them too.”
Below them, Agent Shamir Mahapratham stepped out of the observation post so that she could be seen, alongside the bodyguard accompanying her, and around them, at least seven children dressed in coats and fur caps like the mountain folk of Inunkaru.
Avana Anada could see it from the side of her cockpit and shouted.
“Kids! There are children with them!”
Captain Sheba strained her eyes as much as she could from her altitude, and could just barely tell that the littler dots were not the package she had been ordered to retrieve. From inside what was once the converted Roc’s dorsal bombing bay, and now a mission control station, Minardo could easily see everything through her binoculars.
There were children with the Agent, looking up desperately the sky overhead.
Some were in prayer, as if they expected to see a God swoop down to save them.
None of them had been part of the plan.
“Agent, are you altering the agreement because you lacked faith in us rescuing you?”
Minardo asked this perhaps more coldly than she had intended.
Agent Shamir Mahapratham was not troubled however; or, perhaps, if she was, it was impossible for anyone to tell. She spoke with the same clarity as before. Maybe it was radio nose, but one could almost make up what sounded like a bitter little laugh too.
“On the contrary. I am doing this solely because I have faith in us.” She said.