Hell Awakens (22.4)

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Core Ocean, 1 km off Bada Aso

Parinita whistled. Personnel gathered on the deck of the ship and gazed at the inferno in awe.

It felt like from the deck of the Revenant they could see every single explosion as it went off.

Now the city was ablaze, a massive smoke-belching pyre becoming ever brighter and distant.

There was a general murmur of prayers and chants, for Ayvarta and even for the enemy.

Then, all across the ship, an unusual sound after the moment of silence — there was cheering. There were fists raised in defiance. Everyone had fought the world’s self-described strongest nation, and its people, and they had resisted the advance. On this ship everyone had survived. They had braved the cauldron and escaped unburnt. Nocht’s eyes, those eyes looking from outside into Ayvarta, saw them as sacrifices. But they saw each other as heroes today.

Madiha Nakar and her secretary watched from the starboard side of the ship’s stern, just off the side of a 100mm turret. Parinita joined in the cheering, but Madiha merely clapped.

She estimated that the casualties from the initial explosions would already reach the tens of thousands, given the places that she had contrived for the fires to be funneled toward.

Smoke and burning rubble would claim even more, especially if they tried to fight the fires and rescue anyone trapped in the blaze. In the coming hours Nocht would almost certainly have to vacate the city entirely, and let it burn out by itself in front of them. This would deny them Bada Aso’s railroad, if they even had any cars that could navigate Ayvarta’s rail gauge.

Scores of materiel set down in safe places by the enemy would be lost, destroyed either immediately by the fury or left behind as a casualty of the priorities required for a vast and desperate evacuation. Any vehicle in the city’s main roads would become a death-trap.

In the meantime, the Kalu defenders could strip everything from their line while enemy Panzer divisions stood still in the confusion as their Corps headquarters retreated from the city.

Time and again Madiha had asked herself whether this was the correct course of action. Did even an enemy as despicable as these men deserve the atrocity that she had unleashed on them? And yet, this was not solely about them. Without Hellfire, the city was both impossible to “defend” and impossible to escape from. Nocht had always had the mobility advantage. They could have chased down any retreat — except this one. Everything pointed to Hellfire.

At times, she had cursed her mind as it returned to the maps and the plans. Her mind would not allow her to make a different choice. She knew too well that this was the only plan that would work without opening themselves to be encircled in the city to die at the enemy’s hands.

Without the capability to blow the city to pieces under Nocht’s feet she would not have been able to evacuate so many of her own troops, to strip her lines just bare enough to hold Nocht for a few days and then escape on the Admiral Qote’s naval detachment. It was only with the knowledge that she did not need the troops to destroy Nocht that she could do what she did. It was the only way to save as many people as possible without condemning the saviors entirely.

In the end, Bada Aso was always going to erupt into these purging flames. It was inevitable.

* * *

Escort Naval Squadron “Admiral Qote” was a small fleet dispatched from Tambwe after the arrival of the Revenant, bringing news from Bada Aso. It consisted of the Revenant itself as the lead ship, along with the Admiral Qote, the newest and largest of Ayvarta’s few aircraft carriers; and the Selkie I and Selkie II, frigates; and the Charybdis, a troopship converted from a cruise liner over a year ago. Tourism to Ayvarta would not reignite any time soon.

Instead of holiday-makers, the Charybdis carried the remains of Madiha’s 3rd and 4th Line Corps, now dissolved pending reassignment. Madiha’s Divisional HQ for the 3rd Motor Rifles had been assigned with the annexation of as many of the best soldiers from the Ox defenders as could be found during the evacuation, and these people sailed on the Revenant with her. She was pleased with the combat records of people like Gulab Kajari and Adesh Gurunath. They would be needed in the time to come, and if possible, she desired to lead them.

She had wanted to gather everyone, congratulate them, and offer them Honors as a reward for service, but it seemed incredibly petty to reward them with a voucher that could potentially become a music player or fancy clothing or a personal motorcycle after all of these events.

Instead, Madiha stood on the starboard-aft side of the Revenant, beholding her handiwork.

“Hujambo, Major! Look what I got! It’s all fresh and warm too and not from a box!”

From behind her, Parinita appeared with a big, eager smile on her face, holding out a tray. She carried on it a big bowl of steaming yellow dal and several fresh-baked flatbreads. She had let her hair down, and it fluttered with the strong, salty ocean winds. Madiha smiled back.

“Ah, thank you.” She said. “Food has been the last thing on my mind today. I was very tense.”

“I noticed!” Parinita said. “But you’ll only feel worse if you stay hungry. Let’s sit down.”

Parinita gingerly set the tray down, and together she and Madiha sat against the stern-side turret. Before them was the sea and the city, growing ever distant. Behind them were the cranes to unload the cruiser’s speedboats, and then there was the conning tower where their navigation and sighting took place. Between the conning tower and the massive foremast was an aircraft catapult with a single Anka biplane converted for sea usage. Smaller quarters were strewn about and under these basic structures. The Revenant was quite a large vessel.

Madiha folded a piece of flatbread and scooped some of the lentil soup. She took a bite. Everything was nice and hot, the bread was soft, and she could taste the spices.

“I’m not averse to ration boxes, but a fresh meal always wins out.” Parinita said.

“Indeed.” Madiha said. She laid back, watching the smoke rise toward the clouds.

“How do you feel?” Parinita said. “We completed the plan. We were successful.”

Chewing her flatbread, feeling the mild residual heat from a hint of pepper in the soup, Madiha did not know how she felt. She thought dimly that she might feel triumphant watching the city explode, but something was missing. Though she had funneled them into a trap, she did not feel that it was by her maneuvering or force of arms that the enemy was defeated. She felt as if she had lured a hyena off a cliff, when she had been given a spear with which to hunt it.

Had she been anywhere but Bada Aso she would have failed. It was not her that defeated Nocht, she thought, but the history that she had in this place. The City itself devoured them.

Madiha realized that she wanted to fight Nocht. She wanted to defeat them in a contest.

Perhaps it was a matter of hazy emotions, but the Battle of Bada Aso did not satisfy that.

“Not particularly accomplished,” was what she finally settled on. It sounded right enough.

Parinita laughed. “‘Not particularly accomplished’ is a legitimate feeling. Trust me, I’m an expert in it. This one time, however, I’m allowing myself a little respite from self-doubt.”

“I suppose I could stand to treat myself less roughly.” Madiha replied, feeling a bit dispirited.

“You should.” Parinita laid a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think anyone begrudges the choices that you have made. I signed off on the plan too, back in that long truck ride up to the city. I knew what was at stake and I had an idea of what would happen. But I trusted you. I think you are the chief reason any of us are still alive today. You give us all hope, Madiha.”

Madiha’s cursed dark eyes meet Parinita’s bright, friendly eyes. She looked at them fondly. It dawned on her, just how much everything could have been different. Had Parinita been anybody but herself; things would have turned out very differently. Seventeen days ago they had met for the first time, complete strangers suddenly thrust into each other’s orbits.

Now she could not fathom what her life would be like without Parinita, how those intervening 17 days of hardship could have played out without her jovial, sympathetic secretary. Without her friend; without a partner sharing in the burdens and the tension of the stressed HQ unit. Her recollections of how she treated Parinita made her feel more than a little inadequate.

“Thank you.” Madiha said. “It means a lot to me — we did not exactly meet under amicable circumstances but you were always there to support me. There were a lot of things you should not have seen and should not have had to do for me. I am ashamed of a lot of my conduct toward you. I was near to a breaking point and like a child I drew attention to myself and I put my hurting above everyone else in our circle. You should not have had to bear the burden of that on any level. You should not have had to pick up my pieces, Parinita. I’m sorry.”

Parinita heaved an amicable sigh and put her hands on her hips. “I can’t believe you! You start with a thank you and end with an apology. Have you even considered my feelings on this?”

Madiha was a little taken aback. “I’m not sure what you mean by that. I’m sorry.”

“I wish you’d stop apologizing.” Parinita said, looking at her pointedly. “For me it was not picking up your pieces. I might just be a Chief Warrant Officer, that might be everything that it says in my pins. But I’ve seen in you a person who is intelligent and kind and who has done so much. You put others ahead of yourself; maybe too much! And you have a great strength, and focus, and drive! I just– I, I admire you! I’m not just here to do a job, you know.”

Madiha blinked. Parinita averted her eyes a little and looked awkward for a moment.

After a moment’s silence, the secretary scooped up the last flatbread, soaked it deep into the dal, and pushed it into her mouth. She swallowed, drank a bit of fruit juice, and then thrust the lentils Madiha’s way. “Eat the rest of it, Madiha. You don’t have to respond. It’s just something I wanted you to know. I don’t feel offended; I just wanted us to be clear on that. If it’s you, I’d be more than happy to pick up those pieces, because I really want to see you whole.”

Unfamiliar pangs in her heart kept Madiha quiet. She dutifully took in spoonfuls of lentils and ate, until the bowl was empty. By then, Parinita looked to have dozed off beside her.

* * *

Night fell over the ocean, and Madiha could still see the smoke, having risen into the sky and mingled with the clouds. She could not sleep. Her mind wanted to be kept busy. So she stared out at the indistinct waves. She could not even see her face in them. It was just blue murk. Far behind her she saw the other ships, including the impressive Admiral Qote, on their tail. Collections of lights attached to a formless dark chassis, rolling over the gentle sea.

Having spent most of the day doing little of substance, she felt restless. Aboard the ship there was nothing of military importance for her to do yet. This was Captain Monashir’s domain. She had walked the deck, taken the tour; she had talked to Corporal Kajari and other KVW soldiers and gotten a positive response about the operation. Everyone seemed to relax and wind down. Madiha could not. Some part of her still felt like it was fighting. She could not sleep.

Instead she tried to catch her reflection in the water and she failed to see a face every time.

Gradually over the course of the day she had come to grips with several obvious facts.

Bada Aso was over. She had staked so much in this plan. It was completed. It was done. She did not know whether there would be new plans. Who knows whether the Council might seek to bring her to justice for the magnitude of the destruction? Certainly after Bada Aso Nocht would not be diplomatic with them anymore, if it was ever in the mood to be diplomatic before.

With this explosion, she had sounded the loudest gun alarming everyone to the fact that they were irrevocably at war. She had made the war real in a way no one had before her.

A city was destroyed, tens of thousands had been killed. Hell had awakened. It was War.

She heard the creaking of one of the metal doors behind her, and a long, loud yawning.

“You should be asleep!” Parinita said, stretching her arms over her head as she approached.

“I should, but I’m afraid I can’t sleep. I’ve turned into a bit of an insomniac.” Madiha said.

“Is it the nightmares again?” Parinita asked. “Like the ones you had before?”

“No. I had what I think will be last my vision a while back. I’ve broken the mean spirit that had a sway over me. Or at least, I think that I’ve done so. It may yet linger in me.”

“Something is lingering in you alright. You’re becoming strangely moody again.”

Parinita stood beside her and looked out to sea as well. Her hair was blowing again.

“Those tunnels in Bada Aso were older than antiquity.” Parinita said. “Old folks thought they gave visions. I would not have connected this legend to gasses, but it made sense when we talked it over during the planning stages. I never expected it to go off like this, though.”

“I don’t know exactly what that gas was, chemically. It might not even have been anything we know. There was work on its lethality done before me. I trusted it well enough.”

“Who did that work? I had access to a lot of information about the Adjar Dominance, including Bada Aso, and yet before you told me I had no idea Bada Aso could potentially blow up.”

“It was originally Kansal’s plan.” Madiha said. “In 2004 when the sewer was being renovated and expanded, a lot of old tunnel that had been built over was exposed. Workers became sick. Chemical workers thought it was an airborne illness. Kansal thought it had to be chemical gas. She thought we could set off a huge fire if we exploded a bomb in the right place underground. She even descended into the tunnels herself to see what could be done about it.”

These were things that she had forgotten until recently. They seemed eerily clear to her now.

“But she didn’t go through with it. Something convinced her that doing such a thing would kill tens of thousands of innocents. It was not possible to target only the Imperial administration. I don’t know where she got her information, but it always stuck with me. I forgot plenty of things, but the idea that Bada Aso could go up in smoke never quite left me. Had Kansal not shown restraint, who knows what direction the Revolution might have taken.”

“Given that I’m alive now, I like to think she made a good choice at the time. Maybe it was just intuition on her part. Or maybe she received a vision of her own in the stomach of the Earth.” Parinita said. She giggled a little. “Perhaps I’m being overly superstitious, however.”

Madiha averted her gaze, but the smoke was inescapable. It expanded across the sky like a scar left on the world. She had done that. No vision had prevented her from doing so. Her heart felt hurt. Bada Aso had been the closest thing she ever had to a home. Its streets were the only nurturing she received. In its schools she received her only formal education. She had first fallen love in Bada Aso; she had so many memories there that she had turned coldly from and obliterated, in much the same way that her convictions had led her to lose Chakrani.

She felt like the evidence of her humanity was now burning in the middle of those ruins.

“It feels monstrous to watch this unfold.” She said. “It makes me feel inhuman. So much happened at the border; it felt like a part of me that had been gone for decades had been thrust back into my body. I was seeing massive battle again for the first time since my childhood, and the very first thing I considered was to lead Nocht to Bada Aso and blow up that gas.”

“Madiha–” Parinita tried to interrupt her but Madiha continued to talk. She stared out over the fence at the edge of the deck, and her eyes sought for a face in the water. She found none.

“I had no idea what the magnitude of the explosion would be. At the time, I had no idea we would have those remote-control tanks available. Anyone whom I condemned to the final mission would have certainly gone to their deaths. No fuse, no wire, could have spared them from the aftermath. My first plan, the only plan, was essentially a suicide bombing.”

Those dreadful words reappeared in her mind.

Cunning; Command; Fearlessness; Ferocity.

“I would have done it. No matter what.” Madiha said. “Even if I had to go myself to set off the bombs. This, Parinita; this is all that my head is good for. I look at a beautiful city like Bada Aso, full of people, full of life and love and community. And I consider its destruction from afar. Destroying Bada Aso meant nothing to me; it accomplished the objective that I desired. In my mind it was just arrows on map, divisions in a grid on paper. It is a sick thing, isn’t it?”

Suddenly Parinita seized her by the shoulders and turned her around, locking eyes.

“I do not think you are sick at all Madiha. And I think, captivated by the fire, you’ve forgotten all the human things that led you here. You did not just spend your time calculating coldly. The Madiha that I saw throughout all of this was a person full of empathy and who saw everything through human eyes. I refuse to believe that your mind is only capable of unfeeling destruction. The fact we are having this conversation tells me you are honestly quite terrible at unfeeling destruction. And the tears starting in your eyes tell me you are very much human.”

There were tears. Madiha was weeping openly. She felt a surge of emotion that had long been repressed. Many years worth of a childhood were she could not feel for fear of being weak; a young adulthood where she did not feel for lack of things to feel; and an adulthood where in the face of loss and violence she thought she needed to be stronger than mere feeling. Now she wept, and she choked back sobs. Her heart pounded. Her head felt terribly hot now.

Parinita raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks and smiled. “Treat yourself better, Madiha.”

Gentle thumbs ran across her cheeks, lifting her hair. Madiha felt the fire going away.

She raised a fist to her face and wiped away her tears. She nodded silently. “I will try to.”

“I will help.” Parinita said. She stroked Madiha’s cheek again. “I want to help.”

Madiha nodded her head, and took Parinita into her arms, and embraced her tightly.

“This reminds me of when I first proposed it, so; how about you indulge my hobby?” Parinita said, pushing Madiha by pressing with the tip of her finger between the latter’s breasts.

Madiha laughed; they were not exactly on the Revenant that time. But it was close enough. They looked out over the sea again, side by side with the ocean air and the gentle waves.

“I suppose one thing comes to mind. Do you know how they did the stormy ship effects inBattleship Krasnin? I have always wondered about that. Did they film it on a real ship?”

“Some of it was, but other things were cinemagic effects. Here, I’ll explain it in detail–“

Overhead the clouds of parted, and moonlight shone over the naval group. Sailing away from the city that had sealed their fates, the architects of this great destruction began then to forge something entirely different between each other on the deck of that fearsome ship.

 

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030

Adjar Dominance, Ruins of Bada Aso — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Casualties were still coming in. Fruehauf couldn’t believe the numbers. She was emotionally numb but her head was pounding and she found it hard to work. She was sweating and had nothing to drink. Just up the street, the Squire half-track firefighting vehicle struggled to contain the massive fire working its way down from the central district. For their own safety the entire staff had evacuated the restaurant and set up shop in a truck a kilometer down.

After the quaking from the explosions, it had nearly shaken itself apart anyway.

Everyone around her was sniffling. They could smell the smoke and burning even here.

There was nothing in the city ahead but a wall of fire moving closer, shining all the brighter at midnight, and thick smoke billowing that covered the moon and stars overhead.

All of their radio equipment had been transferred to the truck. A gas-powered generator towed behind them powered everything. She and her girls continued to work the airwaves. It was all that they could do, though even their sweetest voices granted no comfort in this disaster.

Calls were frantic. Medical supplies to Umaiha, more firefighting equipment requested to Penance, a tank requested to Matumaini to try to demolish a burning structure and prevent it collapsing on another and spreading the fire, ambulances requested everywhere. Everyone screamed at her that they needed help and every time she told them that their resources were stretched. The 10th and 11th Grenadier divisions were being moved from rear echelon duties to assist as fast as possible; and the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had nothing useful to give.

Whenever men demanded to speak to Von Sturm she would tell them he was ill or hurt.

Every scream for help and desperate realization that none could be spared wore Fruehauf down. She could no longer pretend that everything was fine and that she and the girls were living in a place apart from the war, like children looking out at a garden through a glass. They weren’t just gainfully employed helping out the boys; they were in the war. It was upon them.

With a shaking hand, she reached into her pocket, withdrew a cigarette, and smoked. She had told herself she wouldn’t — and she had spent over a week without one. But she could not handle it anymore. Leaving the radio command to Erika for the moment, she stepped out of the truck, and sucked on the end of the smoke stick, feeling the menthol cooling her throat.

She walked around the front of the truck. Wrapped in blankets, head lightly bandaged, Von Sturm slept in the front seat, tossing and turning. During the three minutes of loud and continuous explosions, and when the restaurant began to shake, he fell from his chair and hurt himself, because he was balancing with his feet on the table. It had been his golden excuse to spend the rest of the day leaving the coordinating of rescue efforts to lower officers like the recently-demoted Lieutenant Aschekind. There was no one above Captain dealing with fire.

Atop the driver’s compartment sat Von Drachen, with his feet on the hood. He smiled at her at first, but then he took on a sudden, judgmental turn when he saw the stick glowing in her lips.

“I did not take you for a smoker, Fruehauf. Those things can kill you, you know? I have seen it happen myself. I will admit that the stick makes you look more mature, though.”

“Watching over the good General?” Fruehauf asked, her tone a lot less sweet than usual.

“I must say I may be nursing an unfortunate attraction to the irascible little man.” He said.

“I would keep that to myself.” Fruehauf replied. She took a long drag of the cigarette.

Von Drachen stared over his shoulder at the fire. She saw him work up an impish grin.

“They’re going to make us pay dearly throughout this entire war. She, especially, will be trouble. And I’m going to think, all throughout, that I could have stopped her.”

He held out his hand to Fruehauf. “I think I’m going to need to take up smoking, to cope.”

Fruehauf turned her cheek and denied him. “I’m not going to be responsible for that.”

She sat on the hood of the truck. Her nerves were calming. She blew a little cloud.

Von Drachen fell back atop the truck, spreading his arms. He started laughing.

“Sergeant Nakar; you rascal. You have no respect for us. But why should you, when your mind is stronger than our weapons? Must the burden truly fall on me to try to be your equal?”

Fruehauf withdrew her cigarette from her lips and stepped on it on the floor. She crossed her arms and watched the fires play in the distance. She wondered what would become of their corps, and whether Ayvarta had any more of these terrifying sights in store for her.

Maybe she had picked a spectacularly bad time to try to be free of nicotine.

 

% % %

Declared end of the Battle of Bada Aso on the 36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Operational Failure; city destroyed, unacceptable casualties, advance delayed, rail network compromised. Ayvartan Strategic Failure; city captured, Adjar lost.

Near total destruction of the 6th Grenadier Division, 13th Panzergrenadier Division, and Cissean “Azul” Corps. Heavy losses to the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.

Disbanding of Battlegroup Ox due to loss of its mandated territory.

Continued strategic success of Generalplan Suden. Ayvartan forces withdraw from the Adjar Dominance and are defeated in the Shaila Dominance. Nocht control of Southern Ayvarta solidified. War proceeds to its next stage. Operations in Dbagbo and Tambwe greenlit.

Confirmed deployment of 1st Panzerarmee and Field Marshal Haus to Ayvarta.

Confirmed promotion of Madiha Nakar to Colonel; Ayvarta’s first in many years.

Casualties as declared by belligerents~68,000 Ayvartan || ~43,000 Nocht.

Please advise.

–Striving For World Peace

~Helvetian Foreign Intelligence Bureau “ULTRA”

* * *

Read The Next Chapter || Read The Previous Part

Hell Awakens (22.3)

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This story segment contains scenes of graphic violence, burning, choking, mental distress, and death.

Bada Aso Tunnels, Various

Everything was being decided underground, and by then everyone understood what was transpiring. All that was left was to execute, and then to stand witness the aftermath.

Bada Aso’s tunnels had always had a reputation but few understood their true significance.

Word had always traveled about what those tunnels could have contained. For outsiders it was grizzly ritual and savage anarchy; those who knew the history knew the labyrinth was linked to community and to culture. As always, the outside looking in failed to see right in Ayvarta.

Bada Aso had always possessed a complicated underbelly beneath its rocky skin. Many of its earliest tunnels were natural, thought to have been made by water struggling to make its way to sea. These paths had been charted and traveled across Ayvarta’s antiquity, trod on first by the religious and later by the curious, by the adventurous, and by those without option.

When the water was redirected and the earth sculpted to suit the needs of the Emperor, the same hands that dried the tunnels out began to reinforce and expand them. Some were dug to hunt for precious stone and ore; a few became the sewers; others were defensive in nature.

Through the ages the scent had been characterized differently. Ancient sages thought it invoked religious visions. Early imperials thought it was the breath of the old earth and ignored it entirely. Late imperials, influenced by the ideas and religion of the northern empires, feared the illnesses and curses that the old fumes could carry and took precautionary measures.

Every administration had some plan or other to make use of the tunnels but only Madiha Nakar would come to unleash the strength building beneath that cage of clay and stone.

With every meter, the machines drove farther away from modernity and closer to antiquity. Trundling through the widest, deepest tunnels, the radio-controlled Goblins had no noses with which to smell the fumes, but faced unique challenges in navigating the old underground.

Below the city the radio signal that controlled the teletanks proved unreliable even despite the upgrades, and so the tanks started and stopped in the dark, hitching forward little by little. When the rock was porous or the earth separating it from the surface thin, they hit a stride.

But it was difficult for the controllers to calculate how far they had been able to go.

There were three key points in the city that had to be hit all at once for the plan to work. And it was not a matter of being positioned in the right places. The Goblins had to plumb the tunnels deep enough under the earth, where the most thick and volatile pockets were concentrated.

It simply had to work. They hunkered down, kept pushing forward, and some of them prayed.

Communication to the goblins was spotty, but communication out to sea was perfect. Each control Hobgoblin would receive the signal from the command staff aboard the Revenant. They would set off the Goblin’s weapons and then they would flee inside their vehicles as best as they could. For the two in the eastern sector, fleeing into the Kalu to join Kimani’s retreating troops was an option. For the control Hobgoblin in the north, escape into Tambwe was a possibility.

Though their mission no longer required suicide, safety was not at all guaranteed to them.

However, the KVW officers in each control tank knew that, in putting themselves in danger, and even in dying, they gave tens of millions of their comrades a chance against Nocht. They had proven that they could defend from Nocht, that they could blunt their assaults, that they could fight their technology in the right circumstances and avoid defeat, if not win.

It was not about sacrifice; sacrifice implied a surrender, kneeling before a cruel fate.

They could not win the Battle of Bada Aso. In their hearts everyone knew this whether or not they knew the exact details of the Hellfire Plan. They could not drive Nocht from the city.

But it had long since become about something more than the city. This city or any city.

Over the radio the unencrypted message transmitted suddenly and proudly on all channels.

Draw blood from the stone,” the message said, first in Ayvartan, then in Nochtish.

One by one, the control tank crews deployed the flamethrowers on their remote Goblins.

Madiha Nakar understood, under the driving rains of the autumn storms, that people did not come to Bada Aso to die, and that it was not sacrifice that her troops imagined when they fought for her. Even though Bada Aso would have to die for the resistance to continue, she was not sacrificing the city. It was time for the city itself to fight, using the means that it had.

City of Bada Aso, Various

Awakened by the flames, the ancient fury of Bada Aso rushed through every crack in the earth.

It was not immediate; it began with a sucking, a booming, and then the scent of death. Roads began to tear imperceptibly, like hairline fractures on black glass; buildings trembled slightly, enough to shake dust from them, and there was a general quaking, the stirring of a great beast.

Every Landser or Panzergrenadier who heard the gentle murmur of oncoming doom thought that it must have been a distant shell, perhaps from the enemy cruiser. They raised their heads at the sound, and looked in the distant as if they would see the blast. Very few sought cover.

Over the radio, confused murmuring was exchanged by the few attentive radio personnel.

Those distant-sounding blasts did not unfold where any eye could see them. Underground the stampeding death hit pockets of volatile gas like a herd through rock walls, hungrily tracing air and fuel alike as if following a light out of the tunnels, punching its way through the earth, past the brick and rock and clay. Penetrating ever skyward, desperate, manic, unstoppable, gasping and gasping. It burst through to the sewer, and took a massive breath of surface air.

Across the ancient city the grand conflagration forced its way as if back toward the sun.

Manhole covers expulsed from their holes flew like the thrown chakrams of long-gone gods; great belching torrents of flame ripped from the floors of buildings and expanded out the doors and windows. Pillars of fire rose from every exposed tunnel entrance. Cellar doors exploded and great waves of hot pressure blew through alleys and into the road. Streaks and ribbons of flame swept across the streets. Weaker buildings flew everywhere in pieces, leaving behind fleeting geysers; larger buildings spewed fire for a second like the burners atop a stove.

The Panzergrenadiers across the Central Sector found themselves caught in an infernal monsoon. Dozens of men standing in the wrong place on “Home” were thrown bodily as if slapped off the earth by a giant hand. Their vehicles flew from the earth with them or burst into pieces around them. Those standing nearest to the conflagration burst into flames almost immediately, while those meters away found wisps of fire crawling up their pants and sleeves like whining imps. Men lost their composure and screamed that Ayvarta’s demons had finally seized on them, and they rolled and thrashed and ran as the world collapsed around them.

After the initial explosions fickle flames leaped intermittently out from under buildings. Fire spread from the tunnels and the doors into the street, casting terrifying waves of flame that made shapes in the air like the cackling grins of wraiths. In the smoke and the fire they saw gaping maws that opened to swallow bodies whole, slashing claws that picked men and launched them against the concrete, mad eyes that scanned the surroundings for victims.

Under strain the battered streets of “Home” split, the cracks expanding a few centimeters, enough to be noticed, and enough to vent the earth’s fury. Foul smelling gases leaked into the street and where they met stray tongues of flame they exploded over the road like hellish bubbles, blasting apart armor and gun shields and turrets and tearing to pieces any men unprotected from their wrath. Those men not burnt started to cough and choke and they ran as far as they could from the deadly fireworks spontaneously setting off a show at their backs.

In the first minute thousands of fires erupted from the Central District to kill thousands of men, and quickly spread. In the North District buildings began to explode unseen by the Nochtish troops lagging behind nor by the Ayvartan troops already long-gone. Near the Umaiha district fuel leaking from wrecks and ruins lit the river and its surroundings ablaze. Ancillary buildings in the Southern Districts spontaneously caught fire, the inferno’s potential hampered there by the number of tunnel closings the Ayvartans had to perform in self-defense.

Across Bada Aso old factories exploded the most violently, going off like gigantic fragmentation rounds and scattering volleys of metal tools and equipment left behind into the surroundings, large and fast enough to reduce every building around them to rubble and any men to meat.

Two minutes in and clouds of smoke blinded any survivors. Standing in the street was like walking in front of an oven. Those who were issued such tools and remembered to use them strapped masks over their faces and shambled in the inferno, disoriented, deafened, some temporarily, some not. For many the surroundings were consumed in smoke with flashes of red and orange within them. Those unlucky enough found themselves instead in the middle of great vermilion labyrinths, wildfires spreading across buildings as easily as they did on trees.

Those alive and able to breathe saw, within that incoherent instant, a world consumed in fire, pockmarked by the dead, where wrecked vehicles stood as if they had self-destructed in place, where the sky was red and black, where every building was a burning pillar. As they inched forward, trembling, buildings began to collapse, their foundations too battered to stand. Those aware enough and gripped enough by desperate panic started to run. Many stood before the flames and rubble and died in spirit before the avalanche of a falling building claimed them.

Within the rage there were pockets of peace, as if gates to another world. A lack of tunnel connections, blocked tunnels, or the utter absence of gas, or the absence of anything to burn, rendered these areas safe. After three minutes, the worst of the explosions had passed, and there remained only the slow and spreading burn. Those survivors who found safety could turn around and stare helplessly at the slowly enveloping fires. Many fell on their knees and prayed.

Through its tens of thousands of years Bada Aso had stored enough rage for three minutes, and in that time frame it inflicted more casualties than the Line Corps who had evacuated the city.

Bada Aso was left an inferno that would burn and burn unchecked across the days to come.

 

Southwest District, Penance Road

Massive pillars of smoke streaked from the city like the effluvia of a volcanic eruption.

Kern woke on his back in the middle of the street. He coughed, but he could still breathe. He saw the smoke rising in the distance, but near him he only smelled something foul. There was a fire burning somewhere — he felt the far-away heat. His vision swam. He had hit his head, he thought. What had happened? Blood started to trickle down the bridge of his nose.

He tried to take in his surroundings and he realized there was not just one fire. Across both streets all the houses seemed to be smoking, and several had caught fire. A few had already collapsed under their own weight, but this did not smother the flames. Kern tried to walk before his mind had fully caught up to him, and he tripped on a gash in the middle of the road. It was as if the skin of the earth was tearing and bleeding something foul.

As he stood from the floor he saw the tenement in the distance surrounded by smoke. Several windows belched more smoke into the sky and he saw orange flashing inside.

Kern took off running for the tenement, shouting, “Voss! Voss!” as if the man could hear.

Several figures with gas masks hauled bodies out the front door; whether alive or dead Kern did not know. Outside the nurses checked on each person quickly, affixing oxygen masks and lung pumps. A woman screamed for Kern to return but he was not listening to her or anyone. He was not even listening to his own mind that screamed and screamed for him to turn away.

He charged up the stairs, and found the second floor hall ablaze. Dancing fires shrieked and howled from various rooms, gradually spreading to the floor and the walls, eating away at the building. Smoke blew every which way. His whole body stung, his skin felt dry and hot, his clothes felt like hot blankets smothering him. As he stepped into the hall a pair of men shouted at him and ran past with a body in tow. Was everyone dead? They couldn’t be, they just–

Disoriented and too impulsive to keep thinking, Kern hurtled forward, covering his face with his hands. He slammed through the door of a room and founds a small fire and no occupants. He kicked down the door opposite and found a massive hole that he nearly fell into. Below him there was a red-hot pyre from several rooms worth of piled burning rubble that had fallen in.

He grabbed his head, bit his lips, his head pounding and his eyes hot and unbearable.

Then he remembered where Voss’ door had been. He doubled back down the hall and smashed through a weak door into a half-collapsed room. He felt like he had opened a door to an oven, hot smoke blew against his face, and he felt pinpricks of agonizing heat like knife-tips scratching his skin. Inside the room he found one bed overturned and another burning under rubble fallen from the roof. There was a body turned to charcoal beneath the mess.

He let out a scream and stamped his feet, gritting his teeth, struggling even to weep. As if all at once he saw that massive beastly tank, he saw those planes, he saw the entrenched machine guns, all flying in the smoke and the fire, fighting and fighting, there again to kill him–

Not again, he couldn’t take another death of a man he knew, not today, not now–

Side-rooms! Kern charged past the overturned bed and pounded his shoulder against the locked door. Under this stress the door hinges snapped entirely, and he fell with the door into the bathroom. Huddling beside the toilet, he found Voss in his robes. Voss coughed and looked at him as if seeing a ghost. “Kern?” He said, his voice sounding hollow and forlorn.

Kern did not respond, and instead picked up the man as best as he could and struggled out of the room. He gathered enough momentum to run, and got out into the hall. Ahead of him the fires had spread from every conceivable angle. Taking a deep, hot breath of what little air was left, Kern reared back and then ran past the wall of flames. His pants and shoes caught fire, and he kicked out his legs violently as he ran to try to put them down. He charged down the steps.

Under his feet several of the steps collapsed, and he went tumbling down with Voss in tow.

Everything was spinning, and the pain in his legs started tracing up to his back. He did not know whether he was on the floor or still falling. He could not feel anything at all. He could not see Voss. Had another man died on his watch? Had he failed again to make any difference?

Then something icy cold shook him. He felt the ground sliding from under him. He was wet.

Out of the burning building the masked men pulled him and Voss and set them against a solid wall across the street. Behind them, a Squire B half-track towing a fire hose and water tank arrived, and men from the rescue unit in special suits rushed in to fight the flames.

Kern’s vision stabilized. His thoughts started to catch up to him again. He moved his feet and legs. It hurt, but they worked. He moved his hands. He craned his neck to see beside him.

Voss was there, and he was staring at him, gasping for breath. Kern breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you alright?” Kern said. Now out of the fire, a torrent of tears escaped his eyes.

Voss wept much the same. “I’m alive. Everything’s here, I think. Messiah defend us.”

They stared at the tenement burning, and it seemed to obscure every other thing in the surroundings that was also burning. It hadn’t hit them yet what they had survived.

“I think I’m going to have to join you in the hospital now.” Kern said through loud sobs.

“I’m quickly getting the feeling we’ll have no end of company.” Voss replied.

* * *

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Hell Awakens (22.2)

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35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

14th Day Of The Battle of Bada Aso

“Damn it all! This fucking rock! There’s always another problem here isn’t there?”

Von Sturm ripped the marked-up map from the table and threw it into the air in disgust. Around him his planning staff looked demoralized. A few meekly recovered the map but did not dare to present it to the General again. Fruehauf watched from the corner, waiting to relay orders back to the field. She was anxious enough she nearly forgot to breathe.

“Patriarch?” A call came in. Fruehauf responded affirmatively, and the man commenced with his report. “We have begun clearing the minefields. They were very sloppily placed, but the concentrations are huge. I’ve already lost one man to them. We are looking for alternative passages but there’s no other roads north that can support a broad front approach.”

“I understand. Have the Ayvartan forces made any show of force? Aircraft or shelling?”

“Nothing whatsoever. It’s like they’ve vanished into thin air. But they made damn sure to booby trap every good road before they did. We’re still taking precautions just in case.”

“Indeed. A single shot from that heavy cruiser in the port could be deadly to your operations. Be ready to evacuate in case anything happens. But try to clear out at least one road north. Concentrate your efforts. The General considers this task valuable and pressing.”

“Yes ma’am. Tell him if he wants it to go any faster he should send us more bangalores.”

He took his leave and returned to his work. Fruehauf thought the man’s tone a little inappropriate, but she kept it to herself. Throughout the front the troops were losing faith and respect in General Von Sturm. She, who worked closely with him, had a dimmer view from the outset, but most of his troops had been loyal to him, and they had been ready to defer to his commands earnestly. Now even his 13th Panzergrenadiers were embittered.

She turned from the radio and approached the table, her clipboard pressed over her chest.

“Sir, we’ve received word that the minefields are being cleared as quickly as possible.”

Von Sturm raised his eyes from the table to Fruehauf’s face. He gestured to the table.

“You’re always standing up. Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” He said softly.

Fruehauf nodded, and took a chair. Her heart raced. Beside Von Sturm the rest of the chairs on the table were vacant. Von Drachen had not returned to the HQ since yesterday.

“How are we doing on moving materiel to the central district?” He asked.

“We’re going slower than expected. With the port captured and threatening the eastern section, and our horses having to move around that gaping hole in Matumaini, and the flood damage in Umaiha, we have very few paths we can move supplies through.” Fruehauf said.

“I’m willing to put off a large-scale attack another day.” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf nodded. This was not in the plan they discussed yesterday, but at this point it would come as a welcome relief to everyone. “What about the combat patrols moving north?”

“I was getting to that.” Von Sturm said, raising his voice, but not to the level of aggravation he exhibited in days past. “Continue the minefield clearing. That must be our top priority. When it becomes possible, I want a mechanized platoon moving up through Karkala and Main.”

“Same mission as outlined yesterday?” Fruehauf asked, holding her pen to her clipboard.

“Expand the timetable, but yes. I want them to search for the enemy. I don’t want them to engage unless they feel they have found a weakness, because heavy reinforcement will not be ready to support them. But we need to find the Ayvartans. We need to find them.”

“I understand sir. I will convey your orders to the troops.” Fruehauf said.

“Right.” Von Sturm steepled his fingers. “Hey. Listen, Fruehauf. You– you’re doing good work. You clearly know– you know how a radio works.” He was hesitating a little as he spoke.

“Yes sir.” Fruehauf said, puzzled. This was coming too little and too late for her.

“Out of everyone here, I, well, I can’t blame you. You’ve been doing your job.” He added.

“Thank you sir.” She replied. She wasn’t exactly smiling. This all was hard to respond to.

He looked to his side at nothing in particular, perhaps just to avoid looking at her anymore.

Fruehauf took this as her cue to return to her radios. She wanted to sigh and maybe shake her head, but if the General was in a pensive mood, then at least he wasn’t in a raging one.

 

Southwest District, Penance Road

Kern remembered the man’s name, thank god. It was Voss. He didn’t recall the first name. He would avoid using it. He just needed to call him Voss and that would satisfy everything.

Technically, Kern should have been going to a hospital as well, but after having fragments extracted and a roll of bandages around his chest and back, he requested and received special permission to walk it off because he was part of a headquarters company. Before anything else happened he needed to see Voss — particularly because his name was starting to mix in Kern’s mind with Schloss, when he remembered the names at all. Voss had been transferred from the old field hospital to a more sturdy and intact building just off of Penance road.

As he walked along the road west from the South district, he saw a tank with an anti-air gun hitched crudely to its back plate, dragging it along the road up to the defensive line that had been hastily assembled the day before. There would be no movement forward in the West, not with that Ayvartan naval group holding the port. Penance was very tense. Kern could see the Cathedral from afar as he neared. He remembered the division fighting hard to secure it.

Kern checked his map. He found himself soon in front of the new field hospital, set inside a tenement with twenty little apartments. It was a red brick building, tall and wide, and a white cross had been painted on it so that it could be quickly identified. Past the door, a young woman asked for his credentials and whom he wanted to see. Kern showed her the letter that Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind had signed for him. She nodded, and led him up one floor.

Each apartment contained a little reading room with a table, a couch and bookshelves, a little bedroom off of a side door, and a bathroom and shower off another door. For space concerns, the reading room had been cleared out and two beds installed there. A man in a full body cast occupied one bed. On the other was Voss, sleeping; his dark blond hair had been cropped, and his patchy facial hair had been shaved completely, but he looked familiar enough nevertheless. His arm was still in a sling but he looked otherwise unharmed and seemed healthy.

“You can wait until he wakes. He’s in good condition, so don’t worry.” said the nurse.

When the nurse left, Voss opened one of his eyes and watched her depart the room.

“Didn’t want another round of annoying questions.” He said. He cocked a grin. “Kern, you look grown-up, and it’s only been ten days. I don’t think I can call you ‘my boy’ or anything now.”

He laughed. Kern smiled. He did not feel any bigger. He had been a fairly average guy, average height, average build; he had never forced himself. He had been told he had a handsome face, a boyish youthful face, a few times. In the mirror set down near the beds for examinations, he thought he looked as soft and young as always. His cropped blonde hair hadn’t grown out much since Matumaini, and there were only a few intermittent flecks of gold along his lips, chin and cheek. Nothing that a shave wouldn’t fix and return to how it was. Voss was exaggerating.

“You can look in the mirror all you want, but I remember, Kern. It’s on your face, but it’s a part you can’t see for yourself in a mirror. It’s a part you show to others without knowing. Seeing you I feel like you must have been through some shit this past week. I wish I could have been there to help. They’ve been pulling metal out of me for a while now.” Voss replied.

“Nurse said you were doing better. I think you’ll be able to leave soon.” Kern said.

“I don’t think so. My arm is still a complete mess. That’ll take more than ten days. Good god; ten days though. Can you believe that? Take a hit, and you’re out the whole battle. How do we sustain this?” Voss said. He looked over at the fully-bandaged man beside him.

“That’s what the rest of the Division is for, I think.” Kern said, smiling at him again.

“You got jokes now! See, you’re starting to learn how to deal with it.” Voss replied.

Kern pulled up a little chair that was set near the wall, and sat in front of Voss’ bed.

“Thanks for the visit, by the way. It’s nice to see a different face around here.” Voss said.

“Voss, I,” Kern hesitated for a moment, feeling the words caught in his throat. It felt at once both stupid to worry about but also terrible to admit. “I forgot your name for a while, Voss. And I completely forgot the names of the two men who died with us. I’ve forgotten the names of the guys who died with me yesterday. I don’t know what is happening. I feel like I’m going nuts.”

Kern thought he must have been annoying the poor man; lying injured in a bed, finally receiving a visit, and discovering it’s just a kid looking for comfort. He felt terrible, but Voss did not chastise him. He did not even sigh or shake his head. His tone of voice was unchanged.

“You’re not going nuts, Kern. Everyone is just trying to survive. It’s not training camp and it’s not a social experience. We are not bonding out here. You can’t blame yourself. Wanna know their names? Hart and Alfons. You know what? I don’t even know if those were first or last.”

“They fought alongside us!” Kern said. “They died alongside us! Least we could do is–“

“You can’t turn yourself into a walking gravestone for everyone, Kern.” Voss said. “Had you come here without knowing my name, I’d have just told you my name. You’re the only guy in this entire army who has deigned to visit me except for staff officers who needed to input me into their fucking charts. We met one day for a few hours. I don’t expect you to know my life’s story, and if I die, I don’t expect you to carry my ashes with you. In fact, I forbid that.”

Kern closed his fists against his legs, feeling helpless and weak. He thought Voss would know something that could help him assuage all of the guilt he felt for all those thousands of men he had seen die across the ten miserable days of this ground battle. Kern could not have saved them, and could only vaguely remember them in death. He felt that it was certainly irrational, but he still felt quite broken up over them. Why, out of all of them, had he survived?

He thought that Lieutenant Aschekind saw something in him too. Through all of this, Lieutenant Aschekind knew that Kern would survive. He saw something in Kern that made him reliable, but what could that even be? Kern was a subpar soldier. He was fearful, unskilled.

“So hey, I heard a kid from the 6th Division finally killed that beast of a tank the Ayvartans had been hounding us with.” Voss said. “Hit it with a Panzerwurfmine. Was that you, Kern?”

Kern looked up from his own feet. He turned bashful. “I didn’t really do anything.”

“You kidding? You know how many tanks we lost trying to take out that monster?”

“It was all Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind’s doing, really. I just got lucky in the end.”

“Whatever you say; but if that were me I’d be asking for a promotion.” Voss replied.

“I actually got demoted, same as all of Aschekind’s HQ platoon. I was Private 1st Class for a few days, and now I’m a Private again because it is impossible to demote me to Kadet.”

Voss burst out laughing. “That’s the brass for you. Nobody’s ever on their good side.”

“I met General Von Sturm once. He came off like someone short on patience..” Kern said.

“Don’t let anyone catch you saying that.” Voss said, still light-hearted and jovial. “Least of all the good General, because you’re quite right about his demeanor. And he doesn’t take kindly to people being right, let me tell you! Though, this is all hearsay on my part. Who knows?”

“It sounds right.” Kern said. “I think hearsay on this General is easy to believe so far.”

“I have heard that the battle is not going exactly as planned. We might need reinforcements.”

“Well, we have them somewhere, so I suppose we can keep going.” Kern said. He looked out the window. He thought he saw a bird, and he had not seen any for a while. But it was nothing.

“It’s not about the reinforcements though. The General’s original plan has completely fallen through now. He will lose prestige. Right now, everything coming in from the Fatherland has to arrive by ship to Cissea or Mamlakha. The General has cost the army a lot of equipment they have to ship in from overseas. I wager he knows that any replacements the army gets are gonna be attached to a new General to replace him; so has to try his hardest with what he’s got here to win before any help arrives. That’s the politics of this army, I’m afraid.” Voss replied.

“I did not consider that at all.” Kern said. He felt foolish. It truly had not crossed his mind that just as Von Sturm demoted Aschekind and him, someone could do the same to Von Sturm. In his mind that did not absolve the General; he still felt quite ill at ease with the man’s demeanor, what little of it he had been exposed to. But he better understood the man’s zeal and rage now.

“Folks getting shot at tend not to. Politics are the luxury of the officers.” Voss said.

“I wonder if it’s the same for them.” Kern said. He nodded out the window — he meant the communists, their enemy. He wondered suddenly whether there was an Ayvartan out there talking to his buddy in the hospital about their own Generals, about their own politicians, about whether they had to be fighting this war right now. How different was life for the Ayvartans compared to his own? “Do you think they are angry right now about how their commanders have used them? Both sides have taken casualties in the tens of thousands by now, if we count the wounded and ill and dead together. They must be feeling disillusioned like us.”

“I don’t doubt the politics are similar, but they are probably glad to fight because it’s their home they’re fighting for.” Voss said. “It’s always hardest on the invader, whatever the intelligence officers tell you. They told us we had all the advantages, but look how that ended up. Home field advantage is a hell of a thing. I bet you the Ayvartans are quite motivated to fight.”

Always hardest for the invader? Kern found that difficult to believe. Had this battle played out in Kern’s home, in Oberon, he would have felt much more hopeless than he did. Right now he felt awful for having re-learned the names of men who died beside him. Now that they had faces again in his mind he felt like he had done them a disservice, and he felt helpless in the face of the suffering they must have gone through. Had those people been dear to him, he would surely have been devastated. He wouldn’t have been able to go on after the first.

Could the Ayvartans really stand like stone as their family and friends were endangered in this fight? That did not sound right. All other things being similar, certainly this was a fight harder on the Ayvartans. This was their city that had been bombed and invaded. These had been their homes and places of work. Kern did not know much about their culture, but they couldn’t have felt that differently from him. They must have felt that this was a useless sacrifice that got nobody nowhere, just like he felt. He wondered dimly who all of them blamed for all of this–

But he stopped thinking about that quickly; it made him feel sick to ponder it all.

“I think I should go, Voss. Don’t want to overstay my welcome, and you look a little sleepy.”

“Hey, don’t worry about overstaying, it’s not like I’ve got people lining up at the door to talk to me. But if you must, then go with God, my man; and thank you for coming.” Voss said.

Kern nodded. He reached out a hand and shook Voss’ good arm. He stood slowly up from the chair and set it back along the wall where he found it before letting himself out of the room.

“Kern!”

At the doorway Kern turned around, puzzled. Voss sat up on the bed and waved at him.

“My name is Johannes Voss. I come from Rhinea. My father was a banker, and I hate his guts. He left my mother behind, and she is a typist at a law firm. That’s about it.” Voss said.

“I’m Kern Beckert; and I’m just a farmer’s boy from Oberon, Corporal.” Kern said.

Voss laughed. “Nah, I think you’ll be more than that someday. I can guarantee it.”

* * *

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Hell Awakens (22.1)

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This story segment contains scenes of mild body horror, mild misogyny and light injury to a child.

 

29th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2007 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — Central District

She held on to her hat and bag for dear life as she dashed through the Msanii, the traditional marketplace, evading the kiosks and leaping over goods on carpets, her steps barely sounding above the murmur of the crowd. She cast breathless glances over her shoulder.

Was he gone? There people everywhere around her, in robes and shawls and headscarves and long flowing garbs, a few in shirts and overalls — there was only one man in a uniform. Around her the street was thick with people. Dozens of men and women crowded the street.

Today was a festival day; in front of a kiosk a crowd of at least twenty people stood around waiting to purchase a miniature wooden chariot for the Ratha-Yatra festival.

She pushed past them without slowing and ran along the gutter, ducking around the people coming and going on the street, running under carried packages, between the held hands of couples, and through the gaggles of cared-for children visiting with their parents.

Her little heart pounded in her chest. Did she lose him in the market? Though there was only a single package in her satchel it felt incredibly heavy. She had run her thin legs raw.

At the other end of the market street she stopped to catch her breath, thinking that she must have lost the guard in that mess. She looked past and into the throng, gasping. Her chest heaved up and down under her boyish vest and dress shirt. She pressed her hat against her head, tufts of short, straight hair falling over her cheek and ears and the back of her neck.

“Thief! That boy’s a thief! Stop him! Stop that boy! Someone grab his fuckin’ hand, now!”

She saw a headscarf go flying, a box of pastries fall along with a dazed man; the guard was not done with her. She saw him shoving his way through the crowd toward her like a tusk-fiend, and Madiha took off running again, her chest tight, her throat raw, her eyes tearing up. She no longer even knew where she was going now — she hardly ever detoured through the lower central district. The Zaidi, the socialists she worked for, avoided the shadow that the imperial administration cast here. There were more alert guards and one could not bribe them. Any coin in her pockets was useless for this zealous man. He was not bought. He would beat her!

Perhaps she could have run to the house of a Social Democrat here — if the Zaidi weren’t feuding with them at the moment. Instead, all she could do was run into unfamiliar alleys.

She heard his tramping behind her, growing ever closer. She was gasping for every breath. Her legs felt like giving out. She dashed past a dingy little street made up of old stones.

In her satchel she carried a revolver, and she knew if she aimed for his head she could kill him, but it was not dark out, and she knew no place she could lead him to where she could kill him and be completely safe from discovery. She felt it clanking inside her bag, useless.

Over her shoulder she saw him take the corner and reacquire her with his bloodshot eyes.

She bowed her head and swerved into a tight corner — and found a dead end punctuated by a large green metal garbage bin. Unbelieving, she stared at it for a moment. She was trapped.

Madiha rushed to the garbage bin and started to climb it. Then a bullet pierced the lid.

“Stop you fucking rat!” Shouted the guard, in a voice so loud it seemed to resonate within Madiha’s flesh. Though she was seven or eight years old (she knew not with accuracy which one was the case) she was tall for her age, and the guard had only a head on her, but he was burly and rough-looking, with a yellow and red burn scar along his thick neck. In his hands was a concealable revolver that the Imperial police used. They could draw it within a second.

He picked her up as if she weighed nothing, and slammed her against the garbage bin.

She cried out and dropped her bag. Her hat went to the floor. She crumpled against the garbage bin, trying to choke back tears and all kinds of miserable sounds. She thought she felt a rip in her vest, along her back; she thought she felt a rip in her spine, it hurt so much.

The Guard hovered over her, staring at her quizzically for a moment. He looked around the alley, and he looked behind himself. There was nobody around. There were tiny windows on the left-hand building enclosing the alley, and he looked into them and seemed satisfied nobody was watching. He produced his truncheon and prodded Madiha, lifting up her chin, pressing against her stomach, tapping her on the peak of the head a little too roughly.

“Shit, you’re a girl? Spirits defend.” The Guard spat on the floor of the alley. “Woulda hit you less hard. Fuck you dressing up like that for? What’s the world coming to these days?”

Madiha breathed roughly and silently. She hadn’t worn a dress or a shari and parkar in over a year. To her none of this meant “dressing like a boy” — but the city as a whole cared little.

The Guard picked up her bag and withdrew the package. He was quick about it. He knew all along that she must have been ferrying something important. Kids carried all kinds of things in bags in Bada Aso. Gangs used kids to steal things or to transport money. Madiha’s satchel was a special brand of bag that was big and light and popular with working homeless kids. Most gangs made you steal your own bag, but Madiha had gotten hers from the Zaidis.

“Should’ve stopped when I told you. If your mother ain’t gonna learn you, I will.”

Madiha laid against the garbage bin, her spine screaming with agony. She felt like bending double and rolling up into a ball, but she was in too much pain to move. Nobody had ever hit her so hard in her life — and she had been hit a few times before. This was different. She thought this must have been what it was like to be hit by someone trying to kill you.

A shadow obscured her, and the Guard knelt down. He pressed the letter against her face, and waved the paper cruelly and mockingly against her nose, flicking the tip with the envelope.

“What’re you carrying here? Tell me who gave you this. You tell me here and you can go, but if you don’t I’m gonna have to take you down to the guard house.” He said.

She struggled to make any kind of acknowledgement. She stared at him; she glared.

“Giving me the evil eye? Ain’t nobody gonna care about one less little vagrant on the street. You tell me something right now or you’ll be leaving without teeth, and trust me, there hasn’t been a single happily married girl in this city lately who’s been missing her pearly whites.”

Madiha said nothing back to him. She stared right into his eyes as if through him. She struggled to breathe. Her head was turning hot; a red haze that obscured the edges of her vision.

He took his truncheon again and he raised it up into the air to beat her over the head.

“Don’t touch me!” Madiha shouted. She waved her arm as if slapping him away.

At once, the Guard’s legs swept out from under him, and a force drove into his gut in mid-air and sent him crashing back hard onto the stones. He squirmed on the ground.

Madiha struggled to stand, and hobbled toward the man. He stretched along the floor in pain, disoriented, twitching. He swept his leg impotently at her and nearly tripped her up. She fell on her knees over him, and she pushed her hands against his head as if she were trying to pump something into his skin. At once, his eyes went glassy. He babbled for a second.

She felt the power in her fingers, coursing through him, forming a connection. Flashes of vague thoughts and emotions seeped from his mind to her own. She saw in him a desperate, chained-up monstrous thing, and she set it ablaze, and it howled and screamed until it died.

Then he remained quiet, placid, staring at the sky as if he had found a new dimension to the color blue. Madiha had wiped out all of his aggression — and maybe other things with it.

Her own mind recovered from the eldritch process with astonishing quickness.

She caught her breath and stood slowly up, gently helping herself upright by the wall. Her back was in terrible pain still, but she could walk and given a bit of effort she could even run. She picked up her satchel, and took the letter from the floor and put it back. She would have to explain what happened, but at least today’s delivery was to Chinedu Kimani. Anyone else and she might have felt anxious explaining, but Kimani would understand what happened.

Madiha Nakar, the favored courier of the Zaidi socialists of Bada Aso, took off running again. Her routine consisted of running, and fighting was not unknown to her. Though she was little and still feeling shocks of what had transpired, she would not let it stop her. It was not only her height and precocious intellect that drew the Zaidi to her. It was not even the strange abilities she exhibited. Above all else what they prized was her conviction.

Unlike the other children conscripted around Bada Aso, Madiha Nakar was a volunteer.

 

* * *

A nascent Bada Aso, little more than stones at the edge of the sea, labored to renew a cycle.

Skies unfathomably ancient watched as the young race below meddled with forces quite beyond their understanding. Chanting overwhelmed the natural song of the night. Figures danced under the dark. Naked men and women traced dizzying patterns with their sweating, gyrating bodies. Shadows played about the stones. The People screamed and struggled for the primordial lifegiver to accept their offerings, and to keep the world moving, sweating, burning.

Clad in pelts and tusks, the Seer left the dance near the apex of its sound. Dusts were cast into the bonfire and it raged ever higher; the dancers, the chanters and drummers stamped and screamed and beat louder, working their bodies raw from a pleasurable fatigue to an exquisite pain. The Seer approached the edge of the Umaiha and followed the riverside below the earth. In the seaside caverns and tunnels beneath the sacred site rich, thick fumes from the soil’s underbelly overcame the senses and brought visions to the religious mind. Arms and legs shaking, the seer fell to the floor, knees quaking against the stone, hands thrust skyward, taking deep, greedy breaths. Sickly sour gas burnt the nostrils and eyes and spun shapes in the air.

Hours passed. Gradually the dance worked itself down from its climax. Leaning on a stick, feet unstable, stomach churning, the Seer returned to the circle of stones. Before the fire, the fumes escaped from the Seer’s throat and nostrils. Suddenly the fire rose, higher than ever, and threatened to consume the Seer. Flames spun across the circle like ribbons in the wind.

In the middle of the bonfire appeared the Warlord, the executioner that fanned the flames.

Madiha Nakar stood in the midst of shadowed figures vaguely in the shape of Ayvartan men and women. She was not naked like them; her ahistorical military uniform had traveled to the world of the visions with her. It was the anchor of her sanity within this false antiquity.

The Seer’s featureless face suddenly split down the middle, and Madiha saw a flash of teeth.

“Cunning, Command, Fearlessness, Ferocity.” It said. This mockery of her people’s shape could no longer replicate their voices to her. She knew it for what it was — a figment meant to control her. A familiar of some millennia-removed shaman, dragged from the shadows into her head. Its voice was a series of harsh, seemingly unrelated noises that produced words in her mind.

“I know what you are, and to a certain measure, I know what I am.” Madiha said decisively.

On the Seer’s split mockery of a face the teeth ground. “To a certain measure? You don’t really know anything. Your kind can’t know anymore. You’re in a world long past able to know.”

Madiha had no answer to that. Magic was dead in their world. He was correct about that.

He seemed to take her silence as a personal triumph, and he started to speak without pause.

“Madiha Nakar, there is only one reason we speak.” So fervently did the mouth now speak that the upper half of its face quivered and shook and thrashed about like the top of a hood. Madiha felt a certain disgust. It was almost painful to stare at this fiend. “Madiha Nakar, you are again chosen. Once before, we met; but you are a different person now, a different candidate, for a different event. Each Warlord is appointed to carry the primordial fury of Ayvarta to a stage of history. You will continue a cycle that has sustained life for millennia. In this age of ignorance you will give nourishment to the flame, as your predecessors have done. You will be hated, and ultimately, destroyed. You will be the monster of your era. You are the martyr of a blind race.”

“Ayvartans, or humans as a whole?” Madiha asked, eyes still averted from the monster.

Vertical rows of teeth clicked and clacked but offered no audible explanation to her.

“You have been the source of much confusion and suffering for me. I demand an answer.”

A bloated black tongue escaped the teeth and seemed to mock her. Wild laughter ensued.

“I am here to see the ancient will carried out and nothing more. I have done only what was necessary to see the flame set alight for this generation. That is my destiny, and your own.”

Madiha felt the burning in her. She felt the heat trace every sinew in her brain, she felt the power like a pressure against her eyesockets. When she opened and closed her fingers she felt the potential, thrumming inside of her, the latent ability to invoke something alien, strong. This was with her now, every second of the day, fading into the background. It was like the sensation of wearing clothes. She knew how it felt to be bare, but clothes still felt like a second skin.

She remembered what she did as a child, what she had practiced, and she held out her left hand toward the monster. Something swept out toward the beast, but only in her recollection of the moment; in reality the power was noiseless, and had no tell. Madiha moved her arms and in an instant the creature roiled, as though being boiled in mid-air, its black shape bubbling.

“You can’t do this.” There was no pain or distress in its false voice despite the thrashing and shaking of its oozing, shadowy body. Its teeth clattered and snapped but made no sound.

“I am doing it.” It took no effort on her part to double the pressure. Its body collapsed, becoming ever more shapeless and inky, spilling on the floor like a puddle of blood.

“It is your destiny. It is imprinted on you. It is in our flesh. It is in our soul. We cannot escape the blood. Your destiny; our destiny; the people’s destiny; has been an unbroken line traced from antiquity to modernity. Cycle after cycle, we have witnessed it. We are slaves to it.”

“We? So you want to be a part of this now? But you can’t disguise yourself as me anymore.”

“So long as you desire to inflict the burning you must acknowledge yourself, myself, and us.”

Madiha grinned. “I acknowledge that I possess a monstrous ability and I even acknowledge that it may have the history you claim it does; but I refuse the extent of your predestination. I am nobody’s slave; and you are unnecessary to my functioning. I am going to excise you.”

A soundless scream escaped its gnashing mouth. “You will feed the flame. Your era of ignorance still needs the flame. Your kind will never outgrow the flame. There must always be fuel that burns for humankind to see in the shadow. It is in your nature. It is necessary.”

“You are not human and you can never know. You are a tool created by a people that has seen midnight. Your world may never change but mine visibly has.” Madiha replied.

Sound returned. Now she heard the sloshing of its thrashing body, the gnashing of its teeth. Its voice finally took on an affect. It was furious. “I will return; when you lie broken in the soil, stomped to pieces by every foot in the world, a hated thing, an unloved thing, a thing, nothing but broken and befouled meat; Ayvarta will select another of your kind to carry its wrath.”

“You are not Ayvarta.” Madiha said. “Ayvarta has changed. It has transformed beyond you.”

He said that too; and you destroyed everything he built. Human works are temporary. Each of you has tried to defy your fate and your fate has always overcome you. I am the part of you that is eternal. I am the only part of you that will ever matter to the natural order of the world.”

“Humans are not immutable. They are self-constructed in many ways. You admit you are part of me. Then you are a human work too. And you are right, human works are temporary.”

She made a visible effort, and the force inflicted upon the being was finally too much for it.

Under the creature’s black, inky flesh a red core flashed brightly and then collapsed. As if draining through a hole in the world the creature tore away from existence altogether. Everything started to quiver and to shake itself apart. Overhead the sky fell, and around her the stones ground to powder. Finally, brick by brick the Bada Aso she knew came into sharp relief.

Madiha was no longer in the vision of an ancient, wild Ayvarta where a fractious people fought their separate wars to escape depredation; she was in a new Ayvarta that needed protecting.

Things would be different this time. She had to believe that. Though she knew that when she woke her resolve would wane against the harsh material world, she tasted the surety of the vision world for as long as she could, and for once, she drew strength from it instead of fear.

* * *

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Absolute Pin (21.6)

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34th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

“All of the reports say the same, sir. In the Central District, and in the East–“

“That can’t be right. It can’t be right. They must be in the wrong place.”

“No sir, they retraced the Panzergrenadier’s attack path from yesterday.”

“They must have fucked up on some street or another! At this point I would not put that past all of you numbskulls! I’m telling you it is impossible. Give me that radio, I want to hear this.”

Von Sturm seized the radio handset from Fruehauf and leaned in on the radio. Fruehauf leaned in beside the general so she could listen. He did not seem to mind, and even included her. Perhaps he thought she would hear something that might vindicate his point of view.

“Lieutenant, repeat for us again. Have you made contact with the enemy?” He asked.

One of the Jäger armed patrols sent to the central district responded quickly and calmly.

“Negative sir. We think there might be a minefield further up the streets, but the central district is a ghost town. Our combat patrol has met absolutely no resistance. Twenty men, and we just walked right past the shell craters, right past the husks of all our lost tanks, and right up to their supposed headquarters. Nothing here, sir. They must have fully retreated at night.”

“Repeat that again, Lieutenant, because you are not making sense. You returned to the combat area from yesterday, to the central sector with the big school. You found nothing there?

Even the Jäger sounded exasperated with General Von Sturm’s attitude at the moment.

“No enemies, sir. Their entire line was uprooted. I don’t know what more I can say. I have taken photographs so you can see for yourself. You could send a Squire to come fetch us and get them back even faster. I dare say, sir, the Squire won’t meet any resistance at all.”

Von Sturm seemed to want to ask him to repeat one more time, but he did not. He returned the radio handset to Fruehauf, who stared at him as he shambled back to the stable and sat down. He steepled his fingers, fidgeting by touching the tips of each linked pair of fingers in sequence, as if he were playing some kind of instrument. He had a glassy kind of look in his eyes.

Fruehauf felt the same way, but perhaps because it was not her planning that was thrown into confusion, it did not hit her as hard. Still, she had to wonder, and it gave her a feeling of dread, clawing in her stomach, when she considered how little everyone seemed to know.

Yesterday was a setback, but they had made some gains and they still had large amount of troops and equipment that was ready to throw in. They had been planning to probe the Ayvartan central positions, and to prepare their own defenses. Requests to the Bundesmarine and Luftlotte were still being sorted, so operations on the seaside had been put off. Though at a standstill, the situation was not completely untenable for the city invaders. Had the Ayvartans decided to attack and exploit their momentum from the day before, the Panzergrenadiers and Azul could have easily counterattacked and punished them. Everything was still salvageable.

So on the morning of the 34th Von Sturm sent his patrols and awaited crucial intelligence.

Once they received the initial scouting reports, however, the information haunted them.

On everyone’s minds the question was: why did the Ayvartans completely retreat from every sector that they had won the day before? Why was there no pitched fighting against Surge? Why was there no counterattack? On the 33rd they had rebuffed all of the Nochtish strength, and yet now their ships were silent, their planes were grounded, and there was not a communist man on the streets of Bada Aso who was looking to fight with a capitalist one.

Everyone in the Vorkampfer was unsettled. It simply made no sense. It was unprecedented.

“We will use the time to regroup. Push everything up as far as the Ayvartan are willing to let us move, and then launch rapid attacks again against the North. If they’re giving us this then we’re taking it.” Von Sturm declared. “They must be fools, complete fools, just like we thought. Fruehauf, call in the combat engineers, I want every significant structure and every street examined for mines and traps. Relocate the wounded south, and forward all reserves north.”

Fruehauf nodded. She felt helpless in the face of all this. “Yes sir. Right away sir.”

Von Sturm looked at the table and rubbed his hands. “They must be fools, just like we thought. All of their little victories so far have been nothing but flukes. We’ll end it tomorrow.”

* * *

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Absolute Pin (21.5)

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This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

Soon as she exited the tunnel Gulab had been fighting desperately once again. Her squadron came out of the civil canteen near the home base to find a labyrinth of burning hulks just off of the defensive line and dozens of men huddling behind them. Two of the Svechthans were picked off by a Norgler almost immediately and nobody had time to mourn — everyone ran off the street and rushed as fast as they could to take cover behind the nearest surface. Nikka and the remaining Svechthans made for the street corner, but Gulab, Chadgura, Dabo and Jande ran forward and jumped behind a half-circle of sandbags protecting a 76mm gun off the left side of the line. Since they began running the gun had not put a single shell downrange.

For a second they caught their breaths behind cover, having barely made it to safety.

“Why isn’t this 76mm shooting?” Gulab cried out in anger, trying to yell over the gunfire.

To her surprise, she found huddled behind the sandbags all the kids she had met days earlier. Adesh, Nnenia, and Eshe, all with their heads down. They looked up and pointed at her in amazement when she appeared. Their commander, a soft-faced and pretty Arjun with a peach slice clipped to his hair, banged on the side of a radio and shouted into the handset.

Behind the gun was a scruffy looking man leaning drowsily against the shield. He waved.

“No ammo, ma’am.” He shouted with a shrug. “I dare say we’re kinda doomed here.”

“Shut up, Kufu!” Eshe shouted. “Nobody asked you for your pessimistic opinion!”

Corporal Rahani put down the handset and sighed. “Now’s not the time for this.”

“I agree.” Sergeant Chadgura said suddenly. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“You can’t go out there!” Adesh interrupted. “Those Nochtish men are just waiting for that!”

Nnenia slid a small portable periscope over to Gulab. She picked it up and looked over the sandbags and across the fighting. Their little gun redoubt was positioned diagonally and just off the western side of the defensive line, across the street from the civil canteen, on the road running in front of Madiha’s House. Twenty meters away the wreck of a Nocht troop carrier and an assault gun shielded a what seemed to Gulab like several squadrons of men, who fought from in and around the remains of those vehicles. They had practically split the line in two just by losing their vehicles in that spot. A Hobgoblin wreck was the nearest piece of cover.

Overhead, Gulab spotted a group of aircraft. Orange spears from somewhere in the horizon shot at them and dispersed them every few minutes, but they remained solidly in control of the air space. Gulab figured that was long-range AA fire from Nyota Hill to the northeast of Home. Judging by the wrecks of Hobgoblins all along the defensive lines, it had been ineffective.

She handed the periscope to Chadgura and urged her to look as well. “How are those planes?”

“We think the planes are out of bombs now. A few of them even went down.” Nnenia said.

“Good. Those planes are all that worried me.” Gulab said. “Just let us handle the rest!”

“Ms. Kajari– err, I mean, Corporal Kajari,” Adesh said, rubbing his hands together nervously. “It’s too dangerous to go out now. We’re glad you came along but– you just can’t!”

Gulab felt a surge of warm fondness for the boy. She smiled, and lifted her chin up, and pressed her fist flat to her chest. “You do not know me very well, Private. I don’t know the meaning of can’t! I can run out, get some shells and run right back here. Just tell me where to go.”

“Please be careful, Corporal Kajari.” Adesh said, frowning. He looked utterly deflated.

She sympathized with him. But Gulab did not let herself get bogged down with fear. Certainly all the physical symptoms were present. She felt a thrill along the surface of her skin, as though bugs were crawling on her. She felt a slight shaking in her feet and across her hands. There was a slight ache in her head. It must have been adrenaline and nerves, but it didn’t stop her.

Whenever she was overcome by fear, someone had died or been hurt. Even Chadgura had been hurt before. Her grandfather had paid dearly for it. She couldn’t allow that anymore. That was her bad star’s luck to bear and nobody else should have to suffer for depending on her.

“I will go, on my honor!” She turned to Corporal Rahani, who looked terribly perplexed.

“I suppose they must have some ammunition left inside the HQ proper.” He said softly. “They were hit by a shell at the start of the enemy attack, but since then they have recovered.”

Gulab turned to Chadgura for permission. The Sergeant clapped her hands.

“I agree with the urgency of the situation and I also agree, regrettably, that there are not many solutions beside your proposition. But please, do be careful. I do not believe that I would recover easily from the loss of you at this juncture.” Chadgura said. Her voice sounded awkward for once. Deadpan as it was, Gulab could see a lot of feeling behind this.

She patted Chadgura on the shoulder. “I like you too, comrade. So, I will be back.”

“We’ll be cheering for you.” Nnenia said. Eshe and Adesh nodded, looking subdued.

Gulab took her rifle, crawled to the back of the redoubt, and looked to the street corner.

Nikka!” She yelled at the top of her lungs. “I’m going to run out, keep them off me!

From the corner a small head peeked out. “Are you mad, Gulachka?” She shouted back.

Maybe!” Gulab shouted back.

She thought she saw the Svechthan flash a grin.

I like your spirit Tovarisch! Udači!”

Several submachine guns and Nikka’s rifle suddenly appeared from around the corner.

Beside the overturned troop carrier, a Norgler gunner using the damaged track for cover caught a bullet between his eyes and slumped against his weapon, momentarily silencing a third of the gunfire on the redoubt. Behind him his loader crawled up to the discarded gun. Submachine gun rounds then started plinking off the vehicle’s armor and across the dusty, torn-up concrete between the hulks. Heads started going down, men started stepping back.

Gulab took off running, discharging her rifle toward her right flank on automatic.

Chadgura suddenly took off behind her, twisting around her side to shoot as she ran. She held down the trigger and sprayed the husk of an assault gun until her magazine emptied. Dabo and Jande were left speechless behind, and got up over the sandbags momentarily to cover her.

Combined, the threat of automatic fire from the street corner, Nikka’s sniping, and Gulab and Chadgura’s haphazard running and gunning bought enough time for the sprint. Not one rifle snapped at them as they crossed the no-man’s-land. Both officers reached the Hobgoblin’s battered metal corpse and crouched behind it, catching their breath for a moment.

“Why did you run after me like that? You could’ve been killed!” Gulab shouted.

Chadgura looked at her with that deadpan expression of hers, blinking her eyes. She started talking abruptly, as though she had rehearsed and was waiting for an opportunity. “You see, it is a feature of my psychological condition that I sometimes become too restless to remain in one place. At those times, I sometimes jump in place, or run in a circle; now I was compelled–“

“You’re making excuses!” Gulab said. She grinned at Chadgura, more amused than angry.

“It is for the best that I am present for this tactical deployment.” Chadgura said. She reloaded her rifle, and Gulab did the same. Whatever he reasons, she was glad for the Sgt.’s company.

“Well, you are present, boss. Now what?” Gulab looked to the side of the Hobgoblin. There was a stretch of ten meters or so to get to the stairway, and then the steps up to the lobby, and finding safe cover in said lobby, added perhaps ten more meters to the journey. On the other side of the street, Nochtish riflemen behind the remains of abandoned sandbag redoubts and burnt out frames of tanks exchanged fire with the troops garrisoning the school lobby.

She waited patiently for Chadgura to survey the area as well and give her a response.

The Sergeant pulled four grenades out of her pouches. They looked like sealed bean cans.

“We throw all of these and run as quickly as we can.” Chadgura said calmly.

Gulab blinked. She searched her own equipment and found a single can in her bag.

Chadgura nodded her head. They pulled the pins and threw the first two cans over the top of the tank wreck. Chadgura pulled the pins on her remaining three grenades simultaneously and threw them after. Soon as they heard the first bomb went off they took off running.

To their right several enemy positions had been temporarily suppressed as a grenade went off near them. Gulab had hear the cries of GRANATE from the line, and caught glimpses of men crouched behind sandbags and metal debris from damaged vehicles. They covered the few meters to the steps in mere seconds, and took the first steps without slowing.

Then the enemy came alive again. Preceded by a chewing noise like that of an automatic saw, bursts of Norgler machine gun fire flew beside them and hit the walls around the lobby entrance. Bolt action rifle fire bit at their heels and flew past their heads. They bowed their heads and raised their guns behind them as if that would provide any protection.

A pair of Nochtish stick grenades landed a few steps behind their feet and rolled down.

At the top of the stairs, Gulab and Chadgura themselves through the door and onto the ground.

Fire and smoke and fragments blew in from behind them. Medics scrambled to pull them from the doorway and help them out of sight, behind the thick concrete walls. Though dizzy at first Gulab recovered, feeling an urgency to check her own body — and then a different urgency.

“Everything there?” Gulab asked, breaking away from a medic and grabbing Chadgura. She looked over the Sergeant, searching behind her back, under arms, across her legs, for wounds.

“I’m unharmed, I believe.” Chadgura said, standing very stiff and still while Gulab obsessed.

“Thank everything.” Gulab said, heaving a sigh of relief. She collapsed against the wall.

In the lobby, two large groups of soldiers huddled behind the concrete walls to the sides of the door. Because all of the glass on the windows had been broken, and the ornate door frame had been shattered by the fighting as well, there was only a strip about two meters wide on either side of the broad, open doorway that was safe to stand on. They had provisions stacked up against the corners, mostly boxes of various shell and ammunition calibers. There was one broken mortar piece of maybe 81mm caliber, and a smaller piece intact and unused. Behind the front desk a big radio box was constantly monitored. There were maybe 25 people around.

Periodically, fire from a Norgler or rifle would soar through the middle and hit the back wall. So often had gunfire penetrated the lobby that the back wall sported a crater a meter wide and several centimeters deep, formed from hundreds, maybe thousands of bullet impacts on it. After each burst of Norgler fire a man with a Danava light machine gun peered through the window and fired a long burst into the sandbags ten or twenty meters away.

One of the medics who dragged them off the door knelt beside them and offered them a nondescript bagged drink with a cardboard straw. “You both ok?” He said. “Drink this.”

Gulab tasted it first — the drink was salty and bitter and thick. “Yuck! It’s horrible.”

“It tastes bad but it will energize you. What’s your errand, Corporal?” asked the Medic.

“We require 76mm gun ammunition.” Chadgura said. She tasted the drink, and her left eye twitched ever so slightly as she swallowed the slurry. “I assume you have some.”

“We probably do. Check the crates. Don’t know how you expect to get out though.”

“Huh? You guys are stuck here?” Gulab asked, making a face at the medic.

“I’d think so. Biggest bulge in the Nochtish lines is right in front of us. They’re maybe fifteen meters away from us. They almost penetrated into the lobby once before.” said the Medic. “Had their tanks not been destroyed they would still be trying to charge us. They must be waiting for the next wave of reinforcements. Meanwhile we’re here waiting for some good news.”

In the distance, several howitzer shells hit the ground deep into the Nochtish lines, a hundred meters away. Gulab hunched her shoulders, startled; she wondered what they even hit.

“We don’t hand your orders though,” the Medic smiled, “if you try and succeed, try to get word out that we’d really like to leave this school before a tank sends a shell through the door.”

He stood up, and rushed across the room after the next Norgler burst, rejoining a pair of medics on the other side of the lobby. They sat together and shared the rest of the drink.

“We could go to the second floor, follow the hallway to the west, and drop from a window.” Chadgura said. She seemed to be musing to herself aloud, staring out the doorway.

Gulab stood up and sidled across the right wall. She picked through the mound of supply crates and found a box of 76mm shells, buried under crates of unused 60mm smoke rounds. She found a canvas bag and stuffed five shells into the thing, and then awkwardly rigged it to her belt and pouches like a backpack. It was heavy and awkward, but manageable enough for her.

Errand completed, she returned to Chadgura’s side, sat down, and sighed deeply. She put her fists to her cheeks and waited a moment. Another five-second spray of Norgler fire flew in.

Bits of lead dislodged from the wall and clinked as they struck the ground. At the window the Danava was passed to a young woman, and she took her turn shooting at the grey uniforms.

“We’ve got a message on the radio!” Shouted a young man behind the front desk.

Gulab and Chadgura looked over; so did everyone else in the room. He set the radio atop the desk and turned up the volume. It was connected to a speaker loud enough for the room.

“–Repeat, this is Ox HQ! Naval group ‘Qote’ has arrived in Bada Aso. The Revenant, Selkie,Selkie II, Charybdis and the Admiral Qote have arrived to support us. Naval and air support will help to relieve the siege across the Central districts. Now is the time to awaken, comrades! Seize your arms and fight! Push back against the imperialists!”

“That sounded like C.W.O Maharani,” the Medic said, looking around, “so help is coming?”

“You heard her, comrades!” shouted the woman at the window. “It’s time to fight back!”

Everyone in the room seemed truly to awaken at that point. The Medic and his friends recovered their weapons from the corner and huddled at the window. The Danava gunner looked down her sight with renewed zeal and did not hide away from the window, firing burst after burst of automatic fire on the Nochtish line. Her comrades opened fire from the sides of the doorway. This burst of energy seemed to take the grey uniforms by surprise.

Gulab looked over the supplies. She got an idea. She stood up and took the 60mm mortar in hand. She gathered some of the people hiding behind the desk, and got them together near the center of the room and told them to hold the mortar just so — suspended over their shoulders, at an angle more suitable to a direct-fire cannon than a mortar. Confused by her intentions the hapless non-commissioned signals staff served as her stand without making a peep.

“What the hell are you doing?” shouted the Medic, watching Gulab as she schemed.

“Just watch! It’s a brilliant idea. Besides, we’re only using a smoke round.”

The Medic stared between Gulab and the confused signals men holding the mortar.

What?” He asked again, gesturing impotently at the contraption.

Gulab had no time to explain any further. “Chadgura, get ready!”

She nonchalantly shoved mortar shell down the tube. It shook, and the shell soared out the door. Both signals staff members holding the mortar fell back, and the backplate on the piece snapped, but the shell crashed into the street outside and kicked up the smokescreen.

 

“Ho ho ho! It worked! It worked!” Gulab shouted. She took Chadgura by the arm.

In seconds the smoke had risen high enough, and the two of them ran out of the lobby, stomping down the steps, sporadic fire from startled enemies crashing around them. They leaped off the bottom steps and ran for the tank. When the Norgler started shooting again, they were well away, and the lobby had engaged the enemy again and given them their next chance.

Soon they cleared the tank, and managed to return to the sandbags with the shells in tow.

Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe stared, mouths agape, when Gulab and Chadgura reappeared. They had all kinds of cuts on their uniforms — those bullets had come a lot closer than they thought in the middle of things. Didn’t matter. Gulab unloaded her bag and offered Corporal Rahani a 76mm shell like it was a piece of candy, with a big, self-congratulatory grin on her face.

“Anyway, we’re all saved. Naval and air’s on its way to clean up here.” She said.

“Air and naval?” Eshe asked, crawling to the gun. “From where?”

Gulab shrugged. “I don’t know. Somewhere in the ocean. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“My, my, you are quite reliable, Corporal.” Rahani said softly. “Thank you for your help. Adesh, please get behind the gun again. We only have five shots; but I have faith in you.”

“Yes sir!” Adesh said. He glanced over Gulab with awe before taking his place behind the gun. Eshe pulled the crate behind the gun shield, and Nnenia and Kufu lifted the gun by the bracing legs and adjusted it. Rahani called their first target — the overturned APC in front of them.

“Adjust elevation to account for proximity, and then fire when ready, my precious crew!”

Gulab peeked out with the periscope while Adesh punched the shell into place and fired.

With a target less than thirty meters away it was not a question of hitting or missing, but the effect achieved. In this case, the 76mm HE shell easily punched through the thin armor of the overturned half-track troop carrier, even without a penetrating nose, due to the proximity and the muzzle velocity of the gun. Rahani was likely counting on this. Behind the carrier Gulab saw the burst of fire and smoke from the shell. Then she saw men running and crawling away.

Many were bleeding or mauled. Behind her, Nnenia helped traverse the gun further to the left. Eshe pushed away some of the sandbags from the wall to give space for the gun to be moved.

“Hit the assault gun wreck next, and then shoot the sandbags!” Corporal Rahani called out.

Adesh easily obliged. He put a shell right through a large hole that had been bored through the dead tank by whatever killed it first, and penetrated the flimsy, decayed armor on the other side. Again he hit the men hiding behind the gun. Gulab saw the concrete and dust flying behind the obstacle. This time no one sprinted away, though a few did crawl desperately.

All across the line the defenders started to awaken. Over the lazy, sporadic din of the Norglers she heard again the belabored thock thock thock of Danava and Khroda guns, and the sharp whiplash of rifles, the chachachachak of submachine guns from the Svechthans on the street corner. She saw men and women charge out of the lobby and take the steps again.

Rahani’s crew launched another shell and sent flying a wall of their own sandbags, tossing away a half-dozen Nochtish men who must have thought the arrangement convenient until now.

“One more down the road! Let us turn the fiends back, my beautiful crew!” Rahani said.

“I’m startin’ to feel like objecting to these!” Kufu groaned as he helped traverse the gun.

Gulab sat back and laughed. She just could hear the triumphant marching drums and trumpets in her head already, the battle hymn of the socialists; she felt energized. She knew that she had not been abandoned, that help was on its way. They all knew it now, they knew it from each other, even if they had not heard the radio address from the Headquarters. Perhaps each of them had seen one comrade who had started to fight, and it renewed the strength of them all.

At their side, the Svechthans reappeared from the street corner. They pushed out all of the sandbags, and started shooting from over them. Nikka seemed to be having a great time.

“Like shooting ducks frozen into the lake!” She said. She looked through her scope and easily picked off a man lying on the ground behind the stock of a Norgler. Gulab had barely seen him before she got him. Svechthan submachine gunners laid down a curtain of fire against the enemy. Not a single rifle seemed to retaliate now. The volume of fire was too much.

Then came the sound of tracks, and Gulab could pick it out even amid all the shooting.

“To the south! Adesh, you can see them, can’t you?” Rahani asked. He pointed south.

“Their reinforcements have arrived; we can’t let this break our counterstroke!” Nikka warned.

From the bottom of the main street Gulab saw a group of tanks approaching. Everyone scrambled to turn the gun back to the right, but they had only two shells left! Nnenia and Kufu set down the gun, and laid back on the floor, exhausted. Adesh pulled the firing pin; his shell struck the track guard of an M4 Sentinel and blew it off. One shell left; it was no good–

Over the advancing tank platoon a massive shell descended, casting a very brief shadow.

When it crashed, all five tanks disappeared into a grand fireball. A hole was smashed into the road six meters in diameter and four deep, and the tanks collapsed, broken into burning pieces.

Adesh looked over his gun shield as though wondering if he could have potentially done that.

When the rest of the heavy shells started to drop, it was clear that it was not him. Nonetheless, he smiled, and laughed. Nnenia and Eshe took him into their arms. Rahani burst out laughing as well. It was not exactly funny by itself to see the Nochtish men being blasted to pieces. But Gulab thought that everyone was so glad to be alive that there was no other natural response.

“We held!” Shouted the younger gun crew members together. “We held! We held! We held!”

Rahani clapped his hands softly along with them, as though providing percussion. Nikka and the Svechthans seemed to fall over on their backs all at once, like dolls pushed by the wind. They had the same grumpy faces as usual, but they seemed eerily contented nonetheless.

Gulab pulled down the periscope and surveyed herself the carnage unfolding along the line.

All across the road Nochtish men left their arms and hurried away as the naval artillery rolled over their path. Hurtling shells from 300mm and 200mm guns stomped massive holes into the tar and concrete and cast vast clouds of fast-moving debris and fragments. Previous artillery volleys seemed like a child throwing rocks in comparison to the overwhelming power on display. Choking smoke and the stench of gunpowder spread rapidly across the Nochtish lines. Even men safely ensconced in buildings retreated from the disaster unfolding. Troop carriers freshly arrived abruptly reversed from the combat area and turned away from Sector Home.

A Nochtish Archer plane crashed near the line, its wings and cockpit riddled with bullet holes. Gulab heard the familiar, lazy sound of the propellers on a modern Garuda fighter plane, and then saw the long green shapes cutting through the sky and chasing after Nochtish planes. There were far less Garuda in the Air Force than the old but compact and tenacious Anka biplane fighters — but in the Navy, the Anka had been completely replaced by Garuda. Now Nocht got a taste of their own medicine in the air, as a fighter as capable as their own now outnumbered them. Archer planes banked and rolled and struggled with all of their might and skill shake off the Garudas, but there were three green planes to every gray plane.

Within thirty minutes it became clear that the attack was completely broken. The Nochtish troops had given up all of the several hundreds of meters they had gained on Sector Home. Twenty meters from the door, and they had been turned away. Above, the Nochtish Air Force either flew away wounded or crashed down to earth The 3rd Line Corps had held.

“We held!” Gulab joined in, seated against the sadbags, wrapping her arms around Chadgura and kicking her legs. “We held! We held! Eat shit you imperialist scum! Rotten mudpigs!”

Chadgura did not clap or cheer or protest. Instead she simply sat, seeming almost relaxed.

* * *

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