This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.
This chapter contains depictions of violence and death as well as psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.
* * *
Under incessant rain the revolver was cold, slippery and heavy in her little hands. They were hands not meant for weapons. No one designed weapons meant for those soft little hands. But those hands had been unknowingly destined for the wielding of weapons.
There was blood on her hands now to prove it.
She did not quite realize what had happened. Her mind filtered it differently.
Like any child who had completed a task, she had simply returned to the adult who issued.
“I made the bad guy go away. He won’t hurt you now.”
It was almost like those words were not her own, but she had said it and she had done it.
There was silence between them. There was only the rain and the cold and the tension.
She offered the gun back to its owner. It had done what it was constructed to do.
“I don’t like it. It’s heavy. It hurt my wrist. And it only has five things in it.”
A meter away from her lay the woman, squirming against the wall of the alley, her own blood soaking down her clothes into a puddle over the uneven stones. At first the child had thought her beautiful, and she still did, she still saw the beauty and power in that face, that grave expression, though now she understood that it was tempered with pain. She was wrapped in a ragged cloak, but her face was visible, that beautiful face with its long nose, red lips and striking eyes, eyes drawing wide with the realization of what had been transacted between them. The child knew that she had a complicated, adult beauty. She was not an angel or spirit.
From this woman’s hands the child had procured the gun and heard the desperate plea.
“Don’t let him kill me.” It was a tormented voice she spoke with. “Please.”
This child knew about complicated, adult things. So she was drawn to do what she could.
Around the corner, out of their sight, was the corpse to prove the result.
For as long as she could remember, whether it be with sticks or stones, with paper airplanes or jars of glue, Madiha Nakar had never missed a shot if she had time to aim.
And she’d learned that people sometimes stopped being trouble if you hit them in the head.
Slowly the woman forced herself to stand, pushing her back against the wall, stretching her legs, clutching her wound. She wrapped her free hand around Madiha and pushed her close. Madiha felt the blood getting on her from the woman’s body.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She mumbled. Madiha could not see her face. The revolver fell on the ground, slipping away from them with the trickling water. Madiha returned the embrace, wrapping her arms gently around the woman. To her there was nothing to be sorry for.
“Police men here are bad. I didn’t want them to hurt you too.“ Madiha replied. “I don’t want people to get hurt by bad men anymore. I wanted to get him back for being bad.”
The woman knelt in front of her, until they were eye to eye. She looked shocked. But Madiha was determined and she knew what she was saying, and she knew it was an adult thing in a child’s words and she didn’t care. She had never been afforded the peace needed to be an ordinary, innocent child. She was a child of strict discipline and distant bells and bolted doors and a terrible escape. She was a child of splintered wood, broken glass, shattered stones.
Madiha was a child who rarely saw beauty and wanted desperately to guard it.
Back then there had been no greater motivation than that. That was her forgotten origin.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”
On the dawn of the 28th Madiha awoke again with a nightmare.
Her reaction to these ugly visions was no longer fearful.
She did not jerk out of her sleep and seek a hidden predator.
All of that preternatural terror was replaced by a deep weariness.
Madiha situated herself quickly, and pushed everything else deep down into a pit where it would not be seen. She focused on the material. She was in her office, the air was cool, the atmosphere was quiet. She heard rain. Remembering the day’s business, she stood from her desk, adjusted her tie and uniform, the fabric and buttons slipping from her shaking hands. Standing by the office window, Parinita watched the skies with obvious trepidation.
She had been watching the skies since the day before, when they first went out under the rain and exchanged a few forceful words. The Weather battalion was ambivalent about the growing intensity of the rain. Both of them knew this would not stop Madiha on this day, however.
Parinita turned briefly over her shoulder. Their eyes met and then avoided one another again.
“Good morning,” Madiha said. Her mouth felt strangely heavy. She had a tic in her jaw, and felt her cheek spasm when she closed her lips behind the words.
“Good morning, Madiha.” Parinita said. She saluted, clipboard pressed against her chest. She was not so cheerful anymore, none of them were. Her disheveled light red hair was gathered into a ponytail, and her skin looked clammy. Her lips curled into a forced smirk.
After their disagreement yesterday, they behaved awkwardly to each other.
Outside the skies gradually darkened, and the drizzling gradually escalated. A growing wind blew droplets against the window, blurring Madiha’s view of the street. Without breakfast or even a drink of water to assuage their dry throats, the Commander and her Secretary set out to their only planned business of the day. They gathered around the desk and spread open a map of the lower city and had their meeting, as fast as they could have it, before Madiha set out to carry out her “survey.” On the ground the situation had not changed much from the day before. Matumaini had been blasted out of relevance — it was almost literally a pit now.
Action would certainly focus on Penance Road and Umaiha, but thus far, nothing had happened for two days. Parinita briefed her on the state of the various units as quickly as she could, and outlined what the division commanders seemed to have in the works — a big load of nothing from the Territorial Army officers, the paltry few that they possessed. These were men and women who had trouble enough with transporting troops along big lines on a map.
They would not be launching offensives. They were barely able to organize reinforcements.
Penance Road was being held by a strip units in and around the old Cathedral. Umaiha had a mishmash of units straddling both sides of the river, hoping for the best. The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles was on standby, acting as a mobile reserve and defense. They could respond to any attack within the hour, if an attack had to be responded to at all.
“Your Motor Rifles Division has requested a bit of operational freedom today.”
“I approve. Leave them to their devices. I trust them to engineer a victory.” Madiha said.
“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said dutifully. “Lieutenant Batuzi has told me he is following a few leads we got on Nochtish activity from the Signals Intercept battalion today.”
“I trust he will perform admirably.” Madiha said. She felt frustrated to have this conversation. At this point there was nothing she could do. The Strategic turn of the battle was over. Both sides were in position and following through to their general objectives. They had their supply lines set, and their general formation could not rapidly change. It was all real time tactics from here, and no matter how much she wanted it, that was not the domain of the Army HQ.
Madiha shook her head. She could not command eight divisions by herself. It was not possible. She could not even command one by herself — she needed to stay behind the lines and insure that the strategic plan was fulfilled by the army as a whole. Even the little excursion she had planned for today jeopardized her ability to respond to a crisis.
But she was sure she would lose her mind if she stayed in this office any longer.
“Is something wrong, Madiha?” Parinita asked. She stared at her with a gentle expression.
“Nothing is wrong, Warrant Officer. I will go on survey with an Engineering company today, out to Umaiha. We must fuel the final act of the Hellfire plan. I won’t be long.”
Parinita raised an eyebrow. “Warrant Officer; what? Really?”
Madiha gave no reply, and made no eye contact. This was one time when the words did not escape her mouth without thinking. Parinita looked exasperated, clearly unsettled by the cold, distant reference. This was for her own good; for everyone’s own good. She had been too weak and let everyone come too close and it would take their toll on them in the end.
They were more valuable than her — Parinita was more valuable than her. She did not want her to come close and find the thorns in Madiha’s hide, punishing her embrace. She had already seen too much of the monster inside. She had already wasted too much time worrying and weeping over a purposeless thing. Everyone needed distance now; nobody could be allowed to see any more of Madiha before the end of this. It was for their own good.
Bless her heart, Parinita tried — she was not giving up on Madiha so easily.
“I don’t mean to pry, but have you taken your medicine lately?” She asked.
“Not since that day.” Madiha clutched the side of her head. It was starting to hurt.
Parinita sighed. “Madiha, you’re really a creature of extremes aren’t you? I wanted you to stop abusing your medication not to stop taking it at all. Please take it.”
Madiha felt a chill hearing her name from those gentle lips. It was like a heresy.
And yet despite all her convictions she couldn’t form the words to stop her or resist.
She sighed inside. Her mind was torn in a dozen directions at this point.
“Wherever your medication ended up, please take it.” Parinita said. “You need it.”
“I do not need it.” Madiha said. “It was only a source of greater strife. I am fine.”
“Are you sure? I think that you should take it, but if you insist, then I guess I can’t–”
“I am sure. Now, did you hear what I said before this? It is important.”
Madiha tried more forcefully to redirect the discussion to military matters.
“Yes, you’ve told me a few dozen times already about your ill conceived plan to survey the Umaiha tunnels, a mission that Sergeant Agni could command just fine by herself if you would delegate it to her.” Parinita pointedly replied. “I’ve already told you what I think.”
“I need to be there. I was the architect of this operation, I should carry it out.”
“If you say so,” the secretary dismissively replied.
Madiha felt inexplicably annoyed. “You have taken a liking to that response.”
“I’ve already told you what I think. I can’t actually stop you.” Parinita said. She sounded hurt. “Especially since you are making it a habit now not to listen to my concerns.”
She was the Staff Secretary; she had limited influence. Her role was crucial — she had to gather information and pass it to Madiha. She had to listen to an army’s worth of concerns and discoveries and intercepts and she had to compile it with her staff day by day, and she had to sort out what Madiha needed to know and then figure out a way to deliver it to her. Without Parinita and her staff, everything would be impossible. There would be too much information to handle. No single person could listen and respond to so much information. So it was not just personal, in a way, it was also professional, that she would feel hurt and impeded.
But Madiha did not pick up that hurt, or she ignored it. She was not sure what her mind was doing anymore. “Have some faith in me.” She said. It came out more strongly than she wanted. It sounded like a demand more than a plea. It sounded like asking her to turn a blind eye.
It sounded like she was saying she would destroy herself and Parinita would watch.
And the secretary knew it. “You keep saying that and you’ve no idea how unfair it is.”
Neither of them said anything more. Madiha focused on the maps, though there was nothing new there for her to see. Parinita waited for a response, but finally admitted defeat, and picked up several papers from the desk, clipped them on her board, and went on her way. She paused at the door and put a hand on the frame, as though she needed to hold on to it to prevent being swept away by a current. Her fingers tightened around the grooves. She looked over her shoulder for a brief moment and whimpered a few words before departing.
“Good luck on your mission, Commander.” She said, unsmiling, eyes wetting.
Madiha was left alone in the room, her cruel mind quickly filling in the silence. Parinita’s voice bounced off the walls of her cranium, and she felt the agonizing palpitations. Her thoughts were a whirlpool of Parinita’s words blending together. Things she had said in their meetings, across the ten days they had been together, came to Madiha unbidden, booming like howitzer shells. Her smiling lips, her concerned eyes, her warm hand on Madiha’s shoulder–
She crouched behind her desk, opened a drawer, and withdrew a little container.
She produced a little white pill and she swallowed it dry.
She laid with her back against the desk and kicked closed the door to the office.
“There. I listened to you. I’m listening.” Madiha whimpered. She felt sick and weak.
They had to be distant — it was for everyone’s good. It was for everyone’s good. Even when the tears came to her eyes, when the pounding in her head grew unbearable, when the shaking in her hands would not stop, when everything broke down — she was alone and this was for everyone’s good. For the good of every soldier out there fighting and dying while she read her maps and felt her deep shame and hid her face and averted her eyes. Until she joined them in the earth she did not deserve their lips speaking her damnable name. They had to see nothing of her but her cold confidence, so that they would meet the bullets feeling bold.
To the shaking, the agony, the tears, only the stone could be a witness.
It was for everyone’s good. Even hers, she thought– she was sure.
“You won’t have to watch, Parinita. You won’t have to watch.” She mumbled.
* * *
Sergeant Agni was on her way out of the building when Madiha composed herself enough to leave her office and travel downstairs. Her timing could not have been better. Barbiturates pumping through her blood, the facade reconstructed, she confidently intercepted Agni on the steps outside. The Engineer had a bit of oil on her brown cheek, and her long, black hair was gathered in a haphazard bun behind her head. She had left the lobby quite briskly and with a purpose, her tool box dangling from the fingers on her left hand.
“Hujambo, Commander.” She said. “I was going to eat breakfast before we left.”
“Working hard?” Madiha asked. Her voice sounded close to lifeless as Agni’s.
“I spent the morning preparing the equipment for today’s trial.” Sgt. Agni said.
“Far more work than I did, I’m sure.” Madiha said. She meant it as a bit of friendly self-deprecating humor, but some of that shame was poisoning her words.
“Perhaps, but I managed it on a full night’s sleep, and I know that you did not.” Sgt. Agni said. Quickly she added. “Would you like to join me, Commander? I suspect we will be out in the field for several hours. Best to leave the base with a full stomach.”
Madiha nodded. “Sound advice. I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”
Sgt. Agni blinked and stared for a moment before leading the Commander away.
Outside the headquarters, in an old drug store across the street from the school that still had power and structure, civilians ran a makeshift field kitchen for the soldiers.
From behind the old drug store counters they ladled stews and sauces unto serving trays, handed out bread and drinks, unpacked dried vegetables and stock powders from trucks and mixed them with oil and water, and perhaps most importantly, they offered encouragement and camaraderie to the passing soldiers on this rainy, miserable day.
Many of these rear echelon laborers, the ones unloading, preparing and serving the food, were volunteers, who had chosen to stay behind and become involved in the defense. When not serving food they also set down sandbags, loaded trucks, manufactured ammunition, manned the phones, and performed light repairs; among a myriad other tasks.
There were a few thousand city residents who remained behind and remained busy.
Without them, Madiha’s difficult effort would have become close to impossible.
Among the civilians there was a sizeable contingent of reservists – soldiers who had been stripped from the Territorial Army by Demilitarization downsizing policies. They thought of themselves as warriors still, unable to abandon the front now that there was finally war. They knew more than the average person about what needed to be done in a theater of battle, so they mobilized more quickly and took on more responsibility without complaint.
These were the most energetic and useful folk. Perhaps they needed to be.
Though they did not have uniforms to spare for them, Madiha thought it right to bolster their confidence by issuing them small arms. But there were no pistols brandished in the field kitchen. Instead the reservists heaved big pots of dal and curry, baskets of flatbread, large pitchers of fruit juices and flavored milk. They served soldier and civilian alike, engineers, laborers, signals staff, frontline soldiers, resting tank and truck crews, and they smiled equally at every face before them. Sometimes they broke into a few verses of marching song while the line organized and moved. Many were marching songs from their days in basic training.
Sgt. Agni and Madiha picked trays from a stack near the door, and stood in line with men and women in traditional long robes and cloaks, in dust-covered overalls, in one piece jumpsuits with masks dangling off their necks, in military uniforms with weapons hung over their backs. There was little chatter among them, but everyone seemed to be in good humor, rocking their heads and tapping their feet to the marching songs of the food service.
Some of the people in the line even joined in the songs. They were simple songs, often repeating uncomplicated rhymes about equipment and landmarks. One popular song in Madiha’s House was about a soldier going down to the train station to drink palm wine while watching Goblin tanks loading unto cars. One whole verse was about the tank’s specs.
In their current circumstances that particular verse took a somewhat macabre character, but nobody but Madiha seemed to think of it that way. Everyone was enjoying it.
Normally Madiha ate whatever Parinita or other staff brought to her office.
But she had to admit, this was an invigorating atmosphere. She was among her people.
Though the line seemed long from the outside, there were multiple servers and people were moving unto the tables next door very quickly. Briskly the Commander and Sergeant made their way to the counter. Sgt. Agni held out her tray, and received a crisp green salad with citrus slices, a large spoonful of lentil dal, a pair of flatbreads and a tomato curry over rice. Sgt. Agni opted for water. At the same time, Madiha was about to receive the same service from another server, but the young man looked captivated with her and paused.
“You’re Commander Nakar aren’t you? Everyone, the Commander is here!”
Around the room there was a singular voice, delivering a warm Hujambo! to Madiha.
“I’m sorry if it’s awkward, but we’ve been waiting to see you here! We thought you’d be too busy and that we would never be able to see you in the flesh.”
Madiha hardly knew what to say. She was surprised by their reaction. “I have been busy.”
“I’m sorry for taking up your time — but we all owe so much to you, Commander,” said the Server, “we’ve all been wanting to make it up to you. A week ago we thought everything was hopeless, that there was no resisting Nocht. We felt like it was all coming to an end for us. They defeated the Cisseans and the Mamlakhans so easily a few years ago, in mere weeks. Major Gowon never instilled much confidence in us. We heard rumors that the Council was going to give up on the city, that Solstice was ready to desert us, but we are still holding on to our city because of you. In the time Nocht took over Cissea, they’ve crossed a few streets here!”
Madiha felt herself wither under his gaze. She could feel the eyes of the room on her too.
“Your courage has saved so many of us. Were it not for you my brother would have never made it back from the border. He’s just a kid, and yet Gowon kept him in the army, and kicked me down to the reserve. If we lost him like that, spirits defend, my family would have been heartbroken — he’s such a good boy, and so loyal to country and comrades. I’m sorry Commander but I’m just,” he looked very emotional, shedding tears.
Everyone in the room seemed uplifted by the man’s speech. He saluted the Major.
“I’m so glad for you, Commander. So glad we all have someone like you now.”
One by one everyone in the line, soldier and civilian, raised a hand to their forehead.
All of the room was saluting. Even Sergeant Agni felt compelled to raise her hand.
Madiha was stunned, and a thousand evil thoughts raced to her mind all at once, and she almost teared up in front of the serving line. She wanted to shout at them, to ask them pointedly why they thought of her in such a way. What did they see in her? What made them think she deserved their admiration; what made them think she was worthy of praise; what conditions had she fulfilled to become their heroine all of a sudden? How could they put these hopes in her and in no others? How did they even see a person before them, and not a toad, a coward, a monster? Through what eyes did these delusions turn so rose-colored?
Her command? She had drafted a map and given orders that killed thousands!
At the border? She spoke through a radio and gave artillery coordinates!
Why did they see her this way? Why did they burden her with their hope?
But she said none of these things. She said nothing at all.
Instead she raised her hand in salute. Around the room, salutes turned to claps.
Triumphantly the Server who spoke filled her plate. She received her yellow vegetable stew and red curry and her lentils, an extra flatbread, as much drink as she wanted — which was no more than anyone else. Plate fully loaded, she followed the line out a side door to an adjacent building, where the laborers had erected as many tables as they could. This was a half-ruined space that still had enough of a roof to block the elements, and many of the tables were uneven, but nobody complained. Madiha and Sergeant Agni sat at the same table as a few quiet privates, who took bashful peeks at Madiha over their food. Sgt. Agni opened a pack of plastic utensils and basic condiments, likely drawn from a ration crate, and distributed them.
Madiha nibbled her food and tried to clear her head, to remain solid, upright. There were eyes everywhere that needed to see something powerful, however false. They could not see her faltering. Not now — they had made it clear that they depended strongly on her. Everyone saw her as The Hero of the Border and those among them old enough to remember the Civil War might even know she was a Hero of the Socialist Dominances, an award given to her while catatonic in a hospital. She felt like a liar, a manipulator, but she needed to be.
Despite this necessity it still haunted her, for these people to see her in such a way, to depend in her, to take strength from her. She was always the goblet, the thing to be filled, with the will of others, with the loyalty toward others, with the strength of others. She sought people to complete her, to give her a purpose, to fill her with themselves where she had nothing. When did she become those others, who filled people’s hearts with their grace? She did not want this. She felt like she had deceived these people. If they saw inside her, they’d recoil from it.
They would lose their will; like her they would become shaken with despair.
She was not a hero, not a worthy commander; they wished too hard to see this in her.
Other people were suffering in her cowardly name right now. Maybe even that man’s brother. She had not saved him, she had acted like any military officer, with the calculating coldness to see that he died correctly on another date. She could not possibly be a hero.
Heroes defied death; they prevented it. They found a way to obviate sacrifice.
Whenever Madiha pinned a unit on a map she demanded sacrifices she could not stop.
1st Vorkampfer Corps Headquarters
“We have an important day ahead of us!” General Erik Von Sturm shouted, atop a table in the middle of the room. “I do not want to see any more mistakes! We are going to comb through the objectives until each one of you knows them better than your names! Let us start!”
Before the dawn on the 28th of the Aster’s Gloom, the restaurant serving as the 1st Vorkampfer’s home was full of activity. Helga Fruehauf and her radio girls checked their equipment; General Anschel, a small, wide man with a heavy beard departed to rejoin the headquarters for his departing 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions; Generals Von Drachen and Meist assembled along with a gaggle of staff officers around General Von Sturm, the chief architect of their current course of action. Outside the sky was still dark, the atmosphere cold. The drizzling rain maintained little puddles that had built on the streets over the course of the past few days. There was a stiff breeze that seemed to pick up intensity over time.
They would move with sun, so they had to plan in the gloom.
Together they went through the current situation; as if teaching a kindergarten class, Von Sturm slowly worked his way up to recent history. Ayvarta was controlled by totalitarian communists, he said, who spat upon constitutions like Nocht’s, funded terrorism in the free northern countries and smuggled arms and harmful drugs to criminals. To this end, Nocht launched an invasion supported by the Government-In-Exile of one empress Mary Trueday, with the hopes of raising her to power once again and having a compliant Ayvartan ally. To achieve this ultimate goal, Generalplan Suden was carefully laid out — Von Sturm puffed himself up and proudly proclaimed his own hand in supplying consultation for Suden. Like the Bada Aso siege, it was in part his brainchild. And for Suden to remain on time they had to be out of Bada Aso and at the Tambwean border before the 35th. Thus, this day had to be decisive.
Von Sturm emphasized decisive and he eyed the generals maliciously as he did.
Matumaini was once the preferred path forward, but due to recent events it was too problematic. Due to the destruction leveled at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block, a bridgelayer would have to be used to cross in any reasonable timeframe, and it was too vulnerable to the Ayvartans controlling the other side of the gap. Thus it was forgotten, and for the past 2 days, their forces reorganized along the two remaining lanes north. On Penance Road to the west, a Cathedral had become a redoubt for Ayvartan forces, and Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers was making ready to challenge it. On the eastern side of the city, the Riverside District would be challenged by Von Drachen’s Azul Corps. Meanwhile, 6th Grenadier under Meist had covertly deployed its artillery in Buxa, moving pieces at night and slipping in through thin corridors between the Ayvartan’s overstretched defenses between Penance and Matumaini. This artillery would support 13th PzG in their attack on the Cathedral.
At this point Von Drachen raised his hands. He had a nagging curiosity.
Von Sturm stared at him with distaste. “What is it, Von Drachen?”
“Why don’t the Panzer Grenadiers simply drive through Buxa and past Penance, ignoring the static position on the Cathedral entirely?” Von Drachen asked.
“We have received intelligence that the Ayvartans have tunnels under the city they can use to get an upper hand if we try to outflank them.” Von Sturm said. “We cannot leave any of their redoubts behind or we stand the chance of a regiment tunneling out in our wake.”
“How much reinforcement can they expect to perform through underground tunnels? Maybe a platoon at a time, certainly nothing heavy.” Von Drachen pressed gently. “You can play to your strengths by speeding past their defenses, creating a corridor forward, through which rear line units can move to surround the Cathedral, and force either a decisive action from the Ayvartans, or the starvation and defeat of the redoubt without direct engagement.”
“Your suggestion would just create disorder in our lines Von Drachen! It is an unneeded diversion! We are pushing forward methodically, clearing out each sector, and that is final! We will not give the Ayvartans more opportunities to booby trap every inch of ground along Penance road! I want a direct way forward, and I will carve out! Is that clear?”
Von Sturm was shouting at the top of his lungs. Von Drachen smiled.
“I understand. Please continue the briefing.” He said, unaffected.
Everyone in the room sighed, while Von Sturm’s hands closed into fists and shook at his sides.
Thus the briefing resumed. The 13th Panzergrenadiers would attack with a regiment forward, trickling in units to probe every way through Penance and Buxa until they had hurled the Ayvartan line right out of the southern district. They would depend on their rapid deployment and reinforcement as well as their superior firepower, and make it a slugging match with that Cathedral — their superior combat power would allow them to bleed the place dead with minimal losses, and leave no Ayvartans behind the Nochtish line to cause trouble.
Along the eastern edge of Bada Aso, the Umaiha river straddled much of the exterior of the city, and in the Umaiha Riverside district it veered west, right into the city, curled once toward the south for several kilometers, and was then funneled west again, under the city and out to the ocean. Right now the Ayvartans controlled everything west of the curl and north of the veer — a crossing on each side would have to be effected by Azul, using all the firepower available to them. Von Drachen had nothing to say to this — he knew his plan already.
One final dimension to the day’s events was the Kalu, a massive stretch of chaotic wooded hillside that made up the space between Bada Aso and the Shaila dominance in the east, the Kucha mountains in the northeast, and Tambwe in the north. Intelligence indicated that some military formation had to be hiding in the Kalu, and it would be drawn to battle against the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Their objectives were to push almost 200 kilometers through the Kucha, and then veer westward, crossing the zig-zagging Umaiha at several points, and finally turning diagonally back toward the city and flanking the city defenders behind their lines. They would penetrate through northern areas of the city’s eastern limits, areas that were not protected by the Umaiha, and rush through with their superior firepower.
In the confusion, Azul would push fiercely and link with elements of the Panzer Divisions, completing and securing a major breach. That would be the end of Bada Aso.
One decisive day ahead of them. How soon would the 28th be a triumph behind them?
“Any questions?” Von Sturm asked.
Nobody responded because nobody was supposed to. This was Von Sturm’s indication that he was done, and that any mistakes would henceforth fall on the individual, and he washed his hands of them. Fruehauf and her cadre returned to their radios. Meist left the room unceremoniously. Staff dispersed every which way. Gradually the restaurant emptied again. Von Sturm sat on his table with his hands on his chin. He breathed out in exasperation.
“What do you want this time Von Drachen?” He asked.
From the edge of the room Von Drachen smiled and approached the table.
He took a seat across from Von Sturm, and raised his own hands to his chin.
“My good man, can I borrow your sword for the day?” Von Drachen asked.
Von Sturm’s voice went suddenly flat, void of inflection.
He stared at Von Drachen, his left eye twitching. “What sword?”
“You have an officer’s ceremonial sword. I was never given one.”
“What do you want it for?” Von Sturm was so taken aback he was responding earnestly.
“I want your blessing — I should say, I need your blessing. I want a symbol of you.”
Von Sturm’s eyes drew wide. “I don’t understand a word you are saying.”
Von Drachen nodded. “I have been hassled by your Security division a few times already trying to move between the front lines and the rear echelon, and I want something to show them so that they will shut up quickly. A symbol of your authority.” He replied.
“That’s not supposed to be happening. I can just have Fruehauf call them.”
“While you do that, I’d like to head to my front lines as quickly as possible, and the first check point is a kilometer away. Can I borrow your sword? It would be quicker.”
Von Sturm seemed to be grappling with the logic behind Von Drachen’s request. He covered his mouth with one hand, rubbing his lips. He stared at Von Drachen’s eyes, and his expression was empty of the rancor or mischief that characterized him. He looked dazed. On his part, Von Drachen was very serious. He thought, if he had the sword, a Nochtish officer’s sword, then those idiots from Security would not talk to him. They would not look at him, they would not appear near him. He thought, if he confronted another Security officer, he would wring the man’s neck, and hurl his carcass at another man nearby. There would be violence.
So, a sword — he could show it, nobody would speak, and he would move.
Failing that, he could open a man’s ribcage with it. But he wanted to avoid that.
He hoped that his honesty, earnestness and good intention would get through to General Von Sturm. Across the table from him, the General was catatonic for several minutes.
Finally Von Sturm seemed to have caught up to everything. He grit his teeth.
“It’s upstairs with my formal uniform. Just take it and go and don’t say anything again.”
Von Drachen nodded, stood, returned his seat to the table, and went on his way.
He stepped outside, under the rain, and waited. He looked over his shoulder at the door every few minutes. Finally a man older than him, in a beige uniform, dark tanned and thickly bearded, appeared holding a golden scabbard and hilt. He presented the weapon to Von Drachen with some trepidation, his meaty, wrinkled hands shaking around the purloined weapon in his grasp.
“Is this alright General?” He asked.
“Yes, I have permission. Thank you for fetching it, Gutierrez.”
Von Drachen took the sword and affixed it to the outside of his black trench-coat, where it could easily be seen. He adjusted his peaked cap over his head. His facial features, sharp and stiff, contorted slowly into an amused smile. He was still getting wet. He did not quite care.
“Is my personal battalion ready, Colonel? Unfortunately this will be an efffortful day.”
At his side the older Colonel smiled fondly. “We are ready, sir.”
Umaiha Riverside, 31st Engineers Survey
Around noon the first lightning bolts fell over Bada Aso, but the rain was barely above a light shower and the sky was a pale gray. Though the river stirred, it was not yet a threat nor projected to be one. Unaware of how quickly the weather could escalate, Madiha joined the survey company without any sense of urgency. The day’s mission took the 31st KVW Engineering Battalion’s “A” Company down the side of the river in the southeast district.
These riverside paths were several meters above the water, and out the back of their trucks and the sides of their tractors the engineers could see the water rushing through the stone channel, the defining feature of the district. It was the ability to command these waters that transformed the district into a place of lovers, of trendy shops and fine restaurants, and, after the Empire, a burgeoning industry now annihilated by evacuation and bombing.
All Madiha remembered was moonlit walks and sweet kisses, however much she tried not to.
Riverside Street, one of those kissing places, was the main thoroughfare in the southeast district, the Matumaini and Penance of the city’s eastern limits. From the Kucha mountains in the northeast the Umaiha rushed diagonally toward Bada Aso, taking the path of least resistance through the Kalu region. It straddled over half of Bada Aso’s eastern boundary before veering sharply west inside the limits themselves, and then curling again south, three quarters of the way into the easterly district. Along this southern curl Riverside’s two lanes of traffic were split, joined only through intermittent bridges over gap a few dozen meters wide.
Finally the river shifted westward again to find the sea, and Riverside street veered too and took a new name. Several decades ago at the peak of the Empire, the river had been forced underground. Matumaini, Penance, Buxa; such places had been paved over the tamed river. A show of force of humans over nature, largely to profit everyone but the people living over the old river. Madiha could not drive far enough south to see the river vanish again — that was the front line. Instead the column halted its advance a few kilometers behind the front line.
They veered up a cobblestone street toward the interior. They parked along a block of buildings, many lightly damaged by bombs. Most of the old buildings had been spared a direct assault, and some, build of rock rather than brick, had even survived a rocket or light bomb.
Only one building nearby was reduced to rubble, and that was the Goloka restaurant.
This was another place full of unwanted memories that now bubbled up from Madiha’s injured mind. Around her the engineers dismounted their vehicles and equipped themselves with their tools. Cutters were used to snap open locks on sunken little doors set into the alleys between old buildings. These doors lead into cellars and those cellars into tunnels.
Gas masks were distributed for the exploration — there were nasty fumes lying dormant beneath the ground, if one followed the right (or wrong) tunnels. While the chemical troops inspected their share of the underground, other squadrons inspected the damage and remaining durability of nearby buildings and the street, assessing their capability to resist future punishment. They measured craters on the street, checked the ages and material composition of the damaged homes, searched for pieces of bombs or rocket shells, and tried to assemble a postmortem assessment of the block, and whether it was even safe for continued use.
If it was not, then they would have to level or booby trap everything to repulse the Cisseans.
Meanwhile, Madiha stared distantly at the restaurant. Inside the inviting facade the roof had collapsed, spilling out from the doorway like a tongue, a tongue from a ruined mouth beneath a brow battered open. She could not help but humanize the structure, to see it as a murdered thing, as a living being gored before her eyes. She still tasted Chakrani on that terrible night. She felt the hurt freshly, and felt additional hurt, because the location that bore witness to that last tender moment was gone. It was another casualty that she could not prevent.
Soon nothing of Bada Aso would remain. She would never be able to expiate for her sins.
“We will meet up with the special squad soon.” Sgt. Agni tonelessly said. She looked on the Goloka with her dull eyes. “Do you recognize this building?”
“My girlfriend and I visited once. We had a falling out near the river over there.”
Sergeant Agni was a comforting presence. Madiha had served with her in the motor rifles before, in Mamlakha. She could not say she really knew her; to what extent did she really know anyone? But she was a familiar face, and a familiar voice, and they were used to each other.
She did not want to be tempted to vulnerability near her — but she could vent a little, right?
“It is a morbid feeling to stand here and see a place where we shared a kiss, perhaps our most passionate kiss, broken under a bomb. There was so much I could not stop.”
Sgt. Agni nodded. “With respect, you are young and handsome and likely to bounce back.”
Madiha almost laughed, but she knew she would have sounded bitter rather than amused.
“Have you ever been in love, Sergeant Agni?” She was getting carried away now.
“I do not know. I have found people sexually attractive, but it was nothing profound.”
“I was in love.” Now she truly sounded bitter, and she could not stop. She didn’t want to. “But my ambivalence tore it all apart. I felt a drive away from peace and warmth, but I wanted so desperately to keep it in addition. I thought I could fill myself up everything she wanted to give me, and that regardless of what I chose to do afterwards, I could always come back and nothing would change. I never gave anything back — I never had anything to give back. I took, and I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. I was filling the absence of something, and leaving behind when I was fed. Maybe if I had settled, things would be different.”
Sgt. Agni said nothing. What could she say? She knew nothing of any of the people involved.
It was foolish for Madiha to continue. She had wanted to wave her hand and dissipate all of these vulnerabilities but water (perhaps blood) kept seeping through the cracks, winding its way and eroding deeper and greater fissures in her facade. This time, it was all the same as before. She was pulled too many ways at once, and she just ended up broken in the same manner over and over again. She wanted both the grave strength and the genuine warmth, so she had none.
She had wanted the world of light and love and peace to fill all the dark cracks in the monument of her life, all those moments lost to violence and chaos and never to return. And yet, the scything blade of history called to her again and again. Always she and Chakrani wrestled with this ambivalence, this desire to chase after the forgotten child hero of the old war. For a time they made love, they played house, each desiring the other above all else. But ultimately, war called to her, for the final fateful act. Overnight, Chakrani’s Madiha was gone.
Instead she became Kimani’s “Right Hand of Death,” hunting spies for years.
Now she became “The Hero of the Border,” a phantom created to repel Nocht.
Always something filled her, because she had nothing of her own but to chase after War.
War – “the scything blade of history” — could not be escaped. Was she born to it?
What was its promise? What was it that lured her away from comfort in the light?
Her mind flailed behind her cold facade, and it settled on a tragic conclusion.
Yes, it all made sense, when one played with thoughts of inhumanity.
Over twenty years ago during the Ayvartan Civil War there was a child named Madiha Nakar who would become entangled in events beyond her reckoning, and become a hero to people who would slowly forget as the need to remember was lost; as she herself would forget. Perhaps, in truth, this child, whose mind was lost to those events, was born without a purpose, without an origin. Perhaps there was never a Madiha Nakar who was lost, who never completed her childhood, who never lived in the world as others did, who never became a human to anyone’s reckoning, because there was no Madiha Nakar at all. Perhaps there was not now a Madiha Nakar and perhaps there was not then a Madiha Nakar. Perhaps she was a fleeting will that had been born to die. More blood for the scything blade. So much was absent – it made sense.
War offered her only the promise of death. That was the purpose.
Her mind was void of anything else. What would drive Madiha to do anything?
It wasn’t even a question because there was no concrete Madiha in her mind.
“Commander, are you alright? You are shaking.” Sgt. Agni asked.
Reflexively, as though the only thing left of her still thinking rationally were her hands, Madiha withdrew her barbiturates, and drank a pill. She felt it go roughly down her throat.
“I might need to see a doctor about my dosage.” Madiha said, her voice falsely amicable.
Sgt. Agni nodded. Without further comment she left and rejoined the survey company’s efforts.
Madiha took one last look at the remains of the Goloka. Staggered by storming memories she peeled herself away from the ruin, taking heavy steps away with Sgt. Agni. She thought if she looked at it any more she would have wanted to be buried with the rubble.
While the voices quieted, Madiha still felt obliterated, as though truly turned to nothing.
Central District Headquarters, “Madiha’s House”
“We haven’t even gotten to talk about a movie for a while.”
Parinita watched the column depart from the office window. At first she sighed, but the sighs turned to tears. She tried to squelch the first drops with the back of her hand, but her mouth started to make sobs, and her body turned cold and shook. She closed the door, and lay behind Madiha’s desk, slamming her back in frustration against the hard wood and the metal frame.
For what seemed like hours she remained behind that desk, her legs stretched against the door to keep it closed shut, shedding copious tears, and berating herself. She beat her head against the desk, and bawled out loud. Never before had she felt so helpless and useless.
She felt like such a fool. Madiha’s fire was growing brighter and stranger before her eyes, and her actions had become erratic and dangerous. She could be consumed at any moment and still Parinita had failed to explain to her anything of what she knew!
But there was a shuddering in her chest whenever she imagined that conversation.
She felt a terrible anxiety toward it and it always gave her pause. Damnable weakness!
Deep in her heart she feared that Madiha would not understand. What if all of this was solely in Parinita’s head? What if it was just another lingering scar of her grandmother’s eccentricity and her mother’s negligence? Perhaps there was no Fire eating Madiha and no Power in her. Perhaps Madiha was just Madiha and nothing more. Perhaps she had it all wrong.
After all could anyone truly confirm whether the legend of the Warlord was true? At first she had thought that if she sat down with Madiha, the Major would have a related epiphany, and at once the two of them would have connected and resolved everything between them.
But slowly, like an icy build-up over her skin, it dawned upon the Secretary that she could potentially approach Madiha and explain everything she knew or thought she knew about her and her unique existence, entangled in bizarre myth and half-remembered history — and that in turn Madiha could recoil in fear, tragically, disastrously, having no frame of reference for such a thing, having no experiences that could confirm it. And after this final wound between them, Madiha would depart, and burn out all alone, ignorant of her own magnificence.
Parinita’s trepidation hit its peak, and she could not bear the thought of this. She felt like a thief, who stole away with a piece of Madiha, something she needed to know to understand herself and would never uncover on her own. But how could they share in something so strange and distant? How did human beings even communicate across these horrifying gulfs between them? Parinita felt so isolated and confused, so anxious, so totally lost.
She stalled and stalled, and Madiha grew further and further away. Now it seemed the most impossible thing, to confess to her what Parinita knew — that she was not a twisted thing, that she was not a monster, that Madiha was gifted and exceptional and necessary.
And valuable, beautiful, powerful, inspirational; Parinita shook her head.
Madiha did not need this right now. That much she had made perfectly clear.
Parinita had work, and her work was not this. This could wait a little bit. It had to, she supposed.
The Chief Warrant Officer wiped away her tears, stood up from the desk, fixed her tie and patted down her skirt, and departed the office, clipboard in hand. Madiha wanted her to work, and the army needed her to work, so she would work. She would find something to organize in this chaotic day. She would weather the distance, for Madiha’s sake, for what Madiha wanted.
Her tears had hardly dried completely before she was stopped outside her office.
“C.W.O Maharani, the Weather battalion’s received new information.”
A young, out of breath staff member stopped before her, grasping a bundle of papers in his shaking fingers. He bent nearly double, coughing, having run all the way from the other side of the building. Parinita patted him in the back gently while taking the documents from him and reading them quickly. She understood immediately the source of his concern. Based on these new projections the clouds overhead were not intent on simply drizzling over them; and the isolated thundering was only a harbinger for worse to come. An alert had to be sounded.
“We need to contact all units quickly! Has anyone reached the Commander?”
The staff member looked up at her, hands on his knees.
She recoiled from the dire look in his eyes.
“I’m sorry Chief, we haven’t been able to reach her.” He said grimly.
Parinita dropped the documents and ran past him, rushing to the staff office. She tried not to feel overwhelmed or overcome by helplessness. She had to do something! They had to put out an Army level contact and quickly — if Madiha stayed out there for any longer spirits only know what would become of her! All of the river district was in danger!
Umaiha Riverside — 2nd Line Corps Area
Carried by the surging winds, rain battered against the defensive lines on the southeast district, falling over gun shields and down the necks of cloaks. Machine guns and anti-tank guns on a bridge and its two adjacent streets watched the roads and a pair of buildings, one on each side, served as forward bases overseeing the defense. Men and women stood around the guns, taking cover in their sandbag redoubts and behind the bridge’s balustrade. They huddled on the riverside streets, flanked by the blocks of buildings and the cobblestone roads into the trendy historic areas. Between the redoubts and below anyone’s notice the river swelled.
2nd Line Corps’ defenders in the southeast kept their eyes peeled for the enemy, but the growing rain reduced visibility, and introduced an even greater danger, and one that often went entirely unconfronted — a languid feeling in bellies and heads. Tranquility and contentedness. Along the Umaiha the soldiers had not seen fighting for two days now, and under the growing rain it seemed impossible to muster the energy to fight. Yawning, they let the watch slack.
It didn’t matter. Under the driving deluge and growing thunder the first shells flew silently.
But they did not land – all at once a half-dozen heavy shells exploded in the air just over the heads of the defenders. Fragments rained down on them just as fast as they normally flew up from stricken ground. Over gun shields, through tarps, around sandbags the fragments flew, cutting a swathe across the defensive line. Few died, but everyone was reeling. In the forward bases it took minutes for the officers to realize their troops were injured or staggering.
Direct fire followed. Shells smashed against sandbags and tore the gun shields right off machine guns. They smashed holes into the balustrade and pounded against the corners of the forward bases, finally waking the officers inside to the threat. Light mortar rounds crashed around the line, causing little damage but much confusion. Men and women shifted fighting positions in the wake of the shelling and found lead flying around them. Fire from light machine guns streaked against the lines suddenly. In the distance, men in beige uniforms, uncloaked, fully soaking in the rain, charged against the line with rifles and bayonets, with grenades in hand, under the cover of two tanks and multiple machine gunners mounted on light cars.
Within several hundred meters the enemy had come to the Umaiha’s south-bound stretch.
Batallón de Asalto “Drachen” of the Primera de Infanteria was on the move.
Von Drachen followed right behind his men, on the right bank of the Umaiha. He had the same amount of troops on either side, without having taken any of the bridges — but he preferred the right, because there was more territory to cover on his right. His left was up against the city limits in a sense, and made him feel trapped. Walking briskly toward the defenses along with his column, he could see everything transpiring; if so inclined he could have shouted orders.
That wouldn’t be necessary. This attack had been well prepared for and well rehearsed.
His handpicked forces had effected a stealthy crossing much further south, before there was even an Umaiha to cross at all, tramping through the rubble the Ayvartans believed would deter passage. While Nocht sat and wondered why their brute strength and dizzying speed continued to fail them, Von Drachen had stopped launching hopeless attacks along the Vorkampfer’s foolishly planned routes and began forging of his own perfect path.
Now he had a column moving against the defenses on both sides of the river, rather than on one. He had artillery and armor against an enemy that thought him devoid of both. At the head, his two Escudero tanks put their quick-firing 40mm cannons to good use. They had been adapted from Helvetian anti-air artillery, but exploded just fine against sandbags, rock and human flesh. Within moments they sent dozens of explosive shells crashing against the Ayvartan lines, taking out chunks of sandbag and leaving vicious bite marks on rock and concrete. Behind them, mounted on light all-terrain cars received from Nocht, Von Drachen had his machine gunners stand on the passenger seat and deploy their guns on improvised mounts, shooting relentlessly over his assault troops to cover their advance up the stone streets. Finally, a kilometer behind the advancing columns, he had deployed his artillery: six powerful 15 cm guns, and twelve 6 cm mortars now shelling the enemy haphazardly and causing little harm.
He raised a hand radio to his mouth. “Silencio por dos minutos.” Silence for two minutes.
At once the shelling of the mortars and the guns stopped completely, and movement hastened. Von Drachen’s tanks sped forward and his men broke into a dash.
As the charge grew earnest, resistance stiffened. Fire was returned. Both Escuderos withstood a light shell against their front plates. They were medium-sized tanks and their armor profile was decent enough to stop the weak Ayvartan short-barreled 45mm gun even as the distance closed. Ayvartan machine guns opened fire, and Ayvartan riflemen and women started to dig their heels and peek out of cover. Lead started to fly into his column and Von Drachen started to see his men falling, but this did not concern him too much. Within two minutes the distance was methodically closed to within the hundred meters.
“Tiempo al blanco.” He said over his radio. Time on target. His favorite artillery order.
All at once the Ayvartan defensive line exploded again with the fire from all his guns and mortars. All six guns and twelve mortars that had gone silent coordinated a single devastating hit, timed perfectly to hit every part of the Ayvartan line simultaneously. All the forward-facing balustrade on the bridge ahead exploded into chunks, and corpses fell from the bridge into the growing river along with mangled bits of their machine guns and anti-tank weapons; a shell exploded in an airburst over each of the two thick sandbag redoubts blocking traffic on the riverside streets, the fragments descending like a shower of needles in the company of rain; several mortar rounds exploded among scattered Ayvartan fighters and over the roofs and before the doors of their little forward bases. In the face of the attack their fire quieted.
Those last hundred meters were nothing to Von Drachen’s men. They now charged ahead uncontested. Both Escuderos smashed right through the sandbag walls, and his scout cars hit their brakes, dismounting machine gunners charging into the fray. Hundreds of men poured into the streets, meeting the hundreds of exposed men and women on the opposite side, shooting and stabbing and trampling in a savage melee. Both the tanks turned their guns up from the street fighting, and put several shells through the windows into the forward bases, exploding among Ayvartan officers and radios and supplies and their sheltered wounded.
Blood flowed into the river, and smoke and fire joined the rising wind and falling rain.
Three days or so of planning, and within the space of twenty minutes or so, Von Drachen had broken his first line. He walked past the ruined bridge, crossed a street corner, and laid under a convenient awning, taking shelter from the rain while his men charged through the door. Knives and bayonets flashed through the windows, and the occasional rifle bullet went through one of the thin walls. There were screams and roars and struggle. Upstairs a grenade went off.
Von Drachen lit a cigarette, and tried to ignore the clammy feeling from his wet uniform.
One of his light cars dashed past the building and braked at the edge of the broken-down sandbag wall of the defender’s old redoubt. A machine gunner opened fire relentlessly into the breach in the enemy lines. Running gun battles erupted further up the street as the Ayvartans retreated from their positions while being chased by advancing Cissean riflemen. From his vantage Von Drachen could see none of it, but he heard the continuous stamping of feet, the intermittent cracks of rifles, as the converging masses took their battle dozens of meters away.
From the car, Colonel Gutierrez dismounted, and approached Von Drachen. He saluted.
“We’ve got them on the run sir. Next line is a kilometer up. Artillery is readjusting.”
“Good. Tell the men to keep running, and not to stop. Same for the tanks and cars.”
Colonel Gutierrez nodded. He saluted again, and then the old man turned and marched out.
Overhead a deafening burst of lightning and thunder masked the sudden swelling of the river. A massive wave surged up over the borders of the street and crashed past the bridge and overtook the Colonel’s car, shoving the machine gunner off his mount and smashing him against the stones. Gutierrez nearly leaped back in fear, and rushed away from the edges without looking until he had shoved carelessly back into Von Drachen.
The General’s cigarette fell off his lips and into a puddle just outside the cover of the awning.
Von Drachen stared dejectedly at the moist stick, and felt something close to mourning.
“Que carajo te paso?” Von Drachen said, in a gentler voice than was probably warranted.
“Oh, excuse me, General; the river, sir! Santa Maria I’ve never seen such a thing.”
“You’ve never seen a river? I’m not so sure anymore of your qualifications here then.”
“No! No, General, I mean I’ve never seen one swell up like that! This is dangerous!”
Dangerous? Von Drachen took a casual glance at the river. Another wave suddenly rose and crashed over the shattered balustrade of the bridge, sweeping away the corpses and the metal husks of the ruined Ayvartan emplacements and swallowing them whole.
“Maybe. But; I believe this presents a unique opportunity for us as well!” Von Drachen said.
Umaiha Riverside — 31st Engineers Survey
Clouds thickened and darkened, and the wind worked itself to a frenzy. Over Bada Aso the growing storm blocked out the sun and reduced its radiance to a bleak gloom.
Thick sheets of rain cascaded over the city, and seemed to turn the world monochrome and mute. Rainfall was the predominant sound, clanging against steel, pattering against rock and brick, tapping over the rubber tarps on the half-tracks. Water pooled over any depression in the ground, turning the city’s roads into a series of puddles within a latticework of rock. Waves rose and water splashed as the convoy headed north up the Umaiha. Carefully the vehicles slowed and turned on the slick ground, crossing from the right bank to the left. They gathered around a wide two-story building near the bridge, parking in the alleyways around it.
A metal shutter opened on the right side of the building’s face, and two tanks emerged to join the dismounting engineers. Both of them were Goblin type tanks, with their drum shaped turrets, conspicuously long turret baskets, thin, long guns and steep, almost flat long plates and angular tracks. One of the tanks had a pair of long antennae reminiscent of an insect’s atop the turret, while the second boasted a long aerial atop its turret like an angel’s halo. A hatch opened on this particular tank, and a KVW officer appeared and waved his hand stiffly.
Sgt. Agni and Madiha waved back at him, dressed in their cloaks under the rain.
“Give her a demonstration!” Sgt. Agni called out. Atop the tank, the officer acknowledged.
Madiha heard a distinct mechanical wirring and a buzzing noise inside the lead tank. Sgt. Agni approached the machine and lifted every single hatch — it was hard to see inside, for it was very dark in its cramped confines and very gloomy out of them. But Madiha thought she could not see anyone inside the tank. Everyone on the street gave the machine a bit of clearance, and it started moving. Its turret turned all 360 degrees; it looped around the building once. It fired its gun across the river and smashed a 2 meter hole into the side of a building.
Sgt. Agni clapped her hands. Madiha did not quite understand the point yet.
Finally the so-called teletank and the officer’s tank both parked in front of the vehicle depot.
Everyone approached again for a closer look. The Engineers looked curious for once.
“This is one of our teletanks.” Sgt. Agni said. She patted one of the Goblins on its track guard.
“It appears like any other Goblin to me. What makes them special to us?” Madiha asked.
“Radio control.” Sgt. Agni said. “Inside that tank,” she pointed to the officer’s vehicle, “there is radio control equipment that sends signals to the unmanned tanks,” she patted the track on the Goblin nearest to her again. “Drone tanks follow these commands electronically.”
“So there’s nobody inside that tank?” Madiha asked, tapping her knuckles on the same tank Agni petted, as though she would hear a hollow sound from it to confirm her curiosity. She peeked her head into the front hatch, and inside she found a box full of lights and vacuum tubes and dials, and electrical wiring across every surface. No humans anywhere. There were still seats but it didn’t seem like more than one person could possibly fit inside with any comfort.
“Not a soul.” Sgt. Agni replied. “It is controlled by radio. Electronic equipment inside the drone tanks receives signals via radio, and depending on the input it receives, it will follow certain preset commands. We can power the tracks, turn the tank, turn the electric turret, and fire the guns. There is a complicated auto-loading system inside that contains 20 shells, and will cycle the breech automatically — the concept of the drone tanks evolved from a desire to use the auto-loader, but the impossibility of cramming a crew inside the turret with it. We’ve largely failed to scale down the system, unfortunately, but it has found a home in these drones.” She spoke a little quicker and clearer when detailing the mechanical functions — it was her clearly her preferred subject, and she had a command of it. One could almost call her tone emphatic, inaccurate as that would have been. However it was certainly affected, in a subtle way.
Madiha extricated herself and whistled. “Incredible. I had no idea we had this technology.”
“Neither does the Civil Council and the Territorial Army, to be honest. We received all of this equipment alongside the big tanks when the 5th Mechanized Division joined us. They brought their experimental telemechanized company with them and subordinated it to our use. Inspector General Kimani thought that it was an adequate addition to our operational plan. At first I was skeptical, having only heard of this technology in theory. I did not want to waste your time; but I felt confident presenting them to you after I had a good look at them. Certainly they are more palatable for the plan than the alternative.”
“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a trembling inside her stomach. She had planned to carry out the most dangerous part of Operation Hellfire using live humans. Any KVW soldier would have unquestioningly put down their life to complete the plan, but she already felt like enough of her ideas had ended up becoming suicide missions, without also directing an explicit suicide mission to top it all off. Sgt. Agni was quite right that the tanks presented something of a relief.
“What is the command range?” She asked. “You said it’s using a radio.”
Sgt. Agni averted her eyes for a moment, glancing side-long at one of the tanks. Her expression was blank and her mannerisms void of emotion but this was a major tell that something was wrong. She had held Madiha’s eyes perfectly throughout the conversation.
“Right now, around 300 meters.” Sgt. Agni said. She continued avoiding Madiha’s eyes.
“That is unacceptable.” Madiha said. Her own voice was picking up a note of frustration. For her plan 300 meters was nothing. Whoever she sent down would still be in the epicenter!
“I understand.” Sgt. Agni said. Madiha thought there was a gentler tone to her voice but she might have been projecting that unto her. She continued. “I have been working on a command truck that can perform the same function as the telecontrol tank but from 1.5 kilometers to 2 kilometers away. While perhaps a stretch in actual combat, it will be more than enough for our purposes. We will still be able to command the tank to move forward and shoot. In addition I am also working on installing a flamethrower on the teletanks we will use for the final phase.”
“When will this be ready?” Madiha asked. Sgt. Agni was a blessing — her news had renewed Madiha’s energy just a touch enough to keep her moving. Her mind started going over military possibilities rather than internal malaise — she wanted to accelerate to the final phase if possible, though at the moment Nocht was not yet in a practical position for it.
Sgt. Agni fidgeted with her long, wavy hair, arranging several longs over her ear meticulously. “I am trying to get it done within the week.” She said. Her voice sounded a little lower. “Once I have found a procedure that works I can rapidly convert more radios and trucks.”
Madiha felt unsteady on her feet. This was a bit of a sudden blow. But she had to take it. There was no other option at the moment. No option that was conscionable.
“Thank you, Sgt. Agni.” Madiha said. Her voice caught in her throat a little. She looked over the tanks; now it was her turn to avoid Agni’s eyes. “How many teletanks do we have now and how many do you think can we count on for the final phase, if all goes well?”
“We have ten units in total, counting this one. Should the assessments from the Chemical battalion prove correct, we will only need four detonations, at the most saturated points.”
“Well, I hope they are correct. I am basing the entire plan on them.”
Sgt. Agni looked her in the eyes. There was confidence in her again. “History has vindicated those who have heeded the dangers of Bada Aso’s underground in the past. I am a mechanical engineer, not a chemical one; but I trust that our Hell will burn brightly.”
Madiha wanted to smile or feel inspired but it was no longer in her.
“Good.” She said simply. “On that note, let us look at this tunnel.”
Sgt. Agni nodded. She signaled to a small squadron of engineers to accompany her. Together with the Major they entered the old, empty building, mostly abandoned save for a working telephone system that was still maintained. Wires ran into the walls, and there was still a desk in the lobby with a working phone that anyone could use. All the rest was empty rooms and halls, graffiti, and discarded toys from adventurous children. It was macabre and eerie. Little damage had been done to it during the bombing, and that only added to the strange atmosphere inside.
Once the building had been a police station. So much violence and horror occurred in these rooms and halls, so much infamy, and so many souls lost screaming to its brutality, that there was much pause as to whether they should demolish it or repurpose it. So it simply stood, a monument to a painful era, bypassed daily by locals and travelers who could peer through its windows and doors and enter its walls but ultimately wanted nothing to do with its ghosts.
Of interest to the engineers, inside the building was a particularly large tunnel entrance in the basement level. Though the tunnel system was far older than the Imperial Police that had once occupied the building, several renovations to specific tunnels had been carried out in secret with the express purpose of moving agents, officers and saboteurs to aid in the brutalization and liquidation of Bada Aso’s activists, criminals and communists (for many of them there were no such distinctions, both personally, and in the eyes of Imperial law). It was thought that if the criminals had made the streets their underground, then for them to be rooted out and exterminated the city had to create a Hell beneath their feet. In reality the tunnel expansion was borne of the hubris of men who desperately needed to appear as though they had a solution to a growing tide of resistance, and did nothing but expend resources.
These tunnels were ones that dug too deep — and they were perfect for Madiha’s purposes.
In the empty basement, they pointed electric torches at the gaping black maw.
Sgt. Agni and her engineers produced their measuring tapes and sized the beast. Four meters by four meters — just tall and wide enough to fit the teletank through.
“There are more tunnels like this in the central and upper city.” Sgt. Agni said. “Once it was rediscovered in the late Imperial period the tunnel system under Bada Aso was vastly expanded, not only to become the new sewer system, but also to accommodate routes such as this, in case of war in the city. Or more presciently, revolution.”
“Thanks to our megalomaniacal predecessors, I suppose.” Madiha said.
There was a bright flash from upstairs. Madiha shuddered — her cloak was dripping wet, and the weather was only getting worse and worse. She thought the Weather battalion must have vastly underestimated the intensity of the storm. Their tasks were done in this sector, and it was time to move further up the Umaiha. Sgt. Agni led the way upstairs.
A soldier with a backpack radio ran into the building and met them in the lobby.
“Commander, the 2nd Line Corps have been broken through. We have no confirmation from the actual 2nd Line Corps, but a scout saw Cissean troops moving upriver.”
“How far away are they?” Madiha asked the radio man. “And how many?”
“We’re not sure of much, our scout was not in a ready state. He was sending a panicked alert to every Ayvartan frequency he knew. It might have been hyperbole but nonetheless–”
For a fleeting moment before the collapse Madiha felt the pressure wave.
Then everything scattered, like a windblown stack of cards.
Thunder and a flash; the building shook and there was a sharp crack and a massive crash. There was an instant of pain and an eternity of numbness. Dust and heat blew in from the outside and the world shook and twisted, the ground warped and the walls closed in. Madiha was blinded and dazed and she knew that it was not thunder that had fallen from the sky. Her senses were obliterated and she could not feel her body.
She was suspended in the dark again.
But they were watching, millions of eyes, millions of hands.
From the hands the fingers fell; from the eyes the lashes shed and the lids bulged.
Then the forearms and the corneas and bit by bit everything fell like old meat.
There was nothing again. She was suspended in the dark.
There was only blood around her, an ocean of blood. She clutched her ears.
“You failed them again. You selfish thing. What was your worth in the end?”
Water started coming down over her face, and her eyes opened and burnt as the cold drops dripped over her lids. Before her, framed in jagged concrete, there was only the dark sky, traced by deep violet thunder. She thought blearily to raise her hands and cover her eyes from the water and the flashing lights, but she could not move her arms.
She heard gunfire in the streets, and a loud blast farther up the road. Smoke and dust rose into the sky somewhere far, blown over her concrete trap and into her sight by the wind.
Concrete dust and tiny rocks sifted off her the sides of her prison. Rocks were pushed aside, and she felt as though her tomb was being dug through. She saw Sgt. Agni’s face.
“Commander, Commander, can you hear me?”
Agni reached down a gloved hand and took Madiha’s cheek, and pushed her head up.
It started to dawn on her all at once that her body was buried in concrete. She started to shake and to squirm and try to slide out of the rock but she could not, she could not budge her arms or her legs. She could feel them again and she could feel them moving — and they hurt. She had not lost them. But she could not free them. She was trapped in here.
“I can’t move!” She shouted. Her mind was racing. “Agni, I can’t move!”
“We are under attack from Cissean forces.” Sgt. Agni said. “That had to have been a salvo from a 15 cm battery. I have no idea how they moved everything up this quickly.”
Water came down over them in a deluge. Madiha couldn’t see anything well.
But clarity was returning. She felt a tightness in her chest and stomach, a thrill down her spine. Her mouth hung open, the cold rain dribbling down her lips. Her breathing quickened. There was a grim realization of what all of this meant. Her time had finally come.
“You have to go!” She shouted. “Take the Engineers and go! I need you to carry out the plan!”
Sgt. Agni averted her eyes.
“Only one of us is needed for the plan to work anymore! That’s you, Agni! You need to go!”
To Madiha all of this made a dire sense. She was resolved. She was finally making the rational decision. All of history had conspired to lead her here.
Her purpose fulfilled, she would be free and clean in death.
Everything made sense now — except the response to her desperate logic.
“Commander I cannot follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.
Madiha stared, and shook her head, whipping about her wet hair.
“What did you say? You’re being ridiculous! You have to go, Agni!”
“Let me rephrase that. I will not follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.
Again the world was breaking apart around her. This order that had been carefully constructed in Madiha’s raging, struggling mind was a shambles again.
Agni pulled the handset from a backpack radio just out of Madiha’s field of vision.
“Resist the Cissean attack as strongly as possible. Pull back the tanks and vehicles from the shelling area. Deploy machine guns, demolitions charges and flamethrowers. Hide in the rubble. I am coming to organize the defense, but our priority is to free the Commander–”
“Cancel that order!” Madiha shouted at the top of her lungs. “Cancel that order! Sgt. Agni is disobeying a direct command! Cancel that order and retreat! Retreat!”
Sgt. Agni reached down a hand and clamped it around Madiha’s mouth, muffling her.
Madiha started to weep. This was so absurd! This was such an injustice! Why? Why?
“I repeat–” Agni said, and repeated her order more clearly. She then put down the handset.
She raised her hand from Madiha’s mouth, and struggled to stand. She looked around her surroundings and started moving between the sides of Madiha’s prison, pushing on rocks, chipping away at the edges, gauging the strength of the tomb. She was implacable as always, her face unaffected even by these horrifying events. That was the influence of the KVW, their training, their conditioning. But it didn’t make sense. She should have listened.
She should have left Madiha to die just as readily as she would have died for Madiha’s sake, if ordered to do so. If ordered to do so. But she was not. She was not leaving her!
“Why won’t you go?” Madiha said, choked up, desperate, tapping into all her remaining strength to keep screaming, “Why won’t you leave me? I’m ordering you to go! I’m ordering you! You need to go so something can be salvaged from this! I am not worth all of your lives!”
“It has never been a balance between your life and ours, commander. There is no authority tabulating the weight of our blood.” Sgt. Agni said coolly. She lifted a stone from near Madiha’s side and tossed it away. Under it was a larger, heavier one.
Delirious from the pain and the pressure on her body, Madiha’s senses started to swim and warp. She felt drained, her throat raw, her eyes burning, water creeping into her nose. She moaned and mumbled. “I don’t want any more of my people to sacrifice themselves! Please!”
Sgt. Agni stopped working and returned to Madiha’s side. She looked her in the eyes.
“We have been together for more than just this war’s ten days, Major.” Agni said. “I think of you as a comrade and so do they. So do our people. This is not about our sacrifice; nothing has been about sacrifice. I will protect you and bring you back safely, Madiha.”
Around Madiha the grey sky and the grey concrete melded together. Her senses were leaving her completely. She fell back to the dream, defeated. Even in death she was unable to prevent the sacrifice of her comrades. That was what she thought, trapped by rock and guilt.
That was what she was sure of. Nothing about her life made sense to her otherwise.
What was Madiha Nakar otherwise? What was her purpose, what did she mean?
* * *
NEXT chapter in Generalplan Suden is: A Pulse In The Ruins.