This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso
Late into the morning the signals technicians crowding the ARG-2 radar trucks in the southern districts found their CRT displays crowded by green blips. They witnessed for the first time an immediate shift from a clear sky on the radar to one choked with objects each occupying their own tiny portion of the indicators, their own eerie wavelengths.
Were the ARG-2 more sophisticated they might have thought it a malfunction.
But it was clear to them that this was far from an error.
They quickly contacted Parambrahma, who in turn alerted everyone in the Battlegroup Command. An ARG-2 couldn’t tell how many planes approached: it could only tell that enough were coming that they drove the instruments into a frenzy.
They had never seen anything like it. It could only have been a real attack.
Madiha had arrived from the rail yard well before the alert.
She took a prescribed barbiturate to control the near panic attack that she had when she arrived, and hid in one of the school rooms on the lowest level for about an hour before returning to the general population. She sat down in the cafeteria, feeling hollow and weak.
About halfway through a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk that Parinita had all but forced her to eat, several KVW guards and the staff brought her new reports. Exhausted, with her brains pounding inside her skull and her stomach gurgling as though ready to expel everything she had just eaten, Madiha forced herself to stand straight and look certain.
She covered up her shaking hands as best as she could and authorized a general alert.
She made the calls to the divisions over the army-level long range radio herself.
Her eight divisions in Bada Aso began to take their air raid positions.
Much of their materiel was already hidden as best as it could be from the Luftlotte, and their anti-air batteries were at their positions and ready to fire within minutes.
Amid the chaos Madiha had additional orders for the Battlegroup as a whole.
First she ordered the deployment of an aerial counterattack from the northern Adjar regions. All Anka and the few more modern Garuda in the arsenal would be prepared immediately; pilots were to be briefed thoroughly, and then lift of as soon as possible.
Where possible Garuda should be grouped together into homogenous squadrons to maximize the concentration of strength. Anka would have to do most of the work however.
Having little experience with air power she hoped that the air officers could take care of the deployment, but nobody sounded confident in a speedy reinforcement.
Next she turned her eyes back to the city.
Thankfully she was not making her stand out in the open: a preponderance of radio and telephone equipment allowed her will to easily reach all of her troops, an invaluable advantage that would have been lost anywhere but inside the developed confines of the city. Through the various lines more orders came, reaching each division and many of the lower rung officers directly. Hundreds of anti-air batteries with dozens of guns all over the city prepared to launch a curtain of fire into the skies the instant the enemy appeared.
To support the smaller anti-air batteries Madiha also ordered the 100mm coastal turrets to elevate their barrels and turn around to defend the city. Though primarily meant for naval defense, the 100mm was an All-Purpose Gun with the range and ammunition to defend the air. Several of the guns had been set into huge stationary pillboxes, but at least six new guns had been built on turrets that could be rotated manually with some effort.
Troops garrisoned in the city were the next major consideration.
Too many losses from carelessness now could sway the outcome of the future battle. Madiha ordered any troops stationed near entrances to the Bada Aso underground to hide in the tunnels and sewer system, unless they were specifically in support positions to Anti-Air batteries, in which case they were to remain in the open with their batteries. Those hidden underground would be safer there, and their preservation was necessary. Several divisions were ordered to take shelter with the civilians near their defensive positions.
However a strong presence was still needed in the streets.
She ordered the platoon of mobile-anti-air trucks to ready themselves to respond quickly to concentrations of air power in the area, and for a few foot-mobile machine gun battalions to support them and the air batteries. This was a particularly painful deployment, given the inadequacy of the Khroda heavy machine gun when fighting against air power.
Finally she had one very necessary order which countermanded previous briefings.
“Inform our forces in the Kalu that they are to ignore their air raid posture and remain hidden in their positions unless they are specifically attacked.” Madiha ordered. “If Nocht overflies the Kalu and their air power reports almost nothing there to resist them, we will have a key advantage in the upcoming battle. It is vitally important that the Kalu forces maintain as much stealth as possible. Fight back only if necessary to preserve yourselves.”
Over the long range radio these orders went out to the Kalu, where soldiers had been establishing themselves in the rolling hills and rocky scarp, behind the tors and in wooded gorges near the streams and tributaries of the Umaiha. They used the varied terrains of the hilltops to their advantage. Camouflaged netting hid tanks and trucks and guns across the uneven span. Operations staff in the base appeared to question the wisdom of this advice, but relayed the orders; out in the wilderness the men and women, including the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, simply hid, in prepared positions or as best as they could improvise.
With this order given, the die was cast.
Putting down the phone and radio sets, Madiha knew she could not shuffle around any of the forces that she had ordered from their positions. Everything she did was now set into stone. Should her judgments turn out to be wrong, there was no undoing them.
Parinita took charge of the civilian alert.
At first she sounded the sirens for a minute to get everyone’s attention. They were then silenced and radio broadcasts took their place. Across the city the speaker system instructed the remaining civilian population of around ten thousand to take shelter. Those who were close or those who could make the trek rushed to designated air raid shelters.
For those who could not leave or could not leave behind, a basement offered the most protection, and everyone in the staff hoped that the civilians remembered their drills.
Air raid shelters had been stocked with supplies in the event of an air attack, which would surely prevent citizens from reaching civil canteens or shopping at msanii markets. Emergency rations had been handed out yesterday to civilians in their homes as well, in case they could not make it out in time and needed to sustain themselves for a day or two while sheltered in place. Windows were sticky taped; basements crowded up.
Parinita’s voice calmly repeated the needed instructions, and people moved.
It was an ordered chaos.
Everyone was scared, and everyone was rushed, but all proceeded according to plan.
The ARG-2 had done their jobs waking the Ayvartan community in the face of danger. Now the equipment was temporarily powered down and the precious radar trucks quickly sequestered to secure positions to give them a better chance to survive the coming storm.
First blood would soon be shed on the Battle for Bada Aso.
Everything was set into motion.
22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast
Once the Staff Secretary’s voice had gone silent, the air raid sirens blared one final time to insure everyone was fully aware, and then ceased to sound as well.
In Adesh’s corner of the world there was an eerie state.
There was little sound and it seemed like silence, but to someone inclined to notice there was enough noise to bother one’s sensibilities. Those noises that remained seemed to beat just off from the rhythm of his heart and made him anxious. Footsteps, tools, the locking of loaded gun breeches. Metal sounds that had no music to them. In poems and stories about war everything seemed to have a poetic rhythm. Here, nothing did.
Soon this anxiety seemed to pass from him to his colleagues.
“Nnenia, you’re doing that wrong.”
“You’re working the elevation handle wrong.”
“I’m elevating it just fine.”
“You’re holding it oddly, you’ll tire yourself out.”
“Stop micromanaging what I’m doing and focus on your loading.”
Four days ago Adesh had stood, confused and afraid, behind a 76mm anti-tank gun. He had been told that his crew (somehow Nnenia and Eshe had become his crew) had scored three vehicle kills. He remembered shooting, but he certainly didn’t feel victorious. Now he had a similar task. He was part of Lt. Bogana’s battery in the northeast district, stationed in the middle of a park. Outside the grounds the streets were empty and every building closed. Since the sirens first went off the few people remaining went into hiding. Only gun crews remained outside, awaiting the aircraft soon to approach.
“So, do you have any amazing observation instructions to share, professor?” Nnenia asked. She had on her face a common look for her: a strange mix of apathy and grimness where she was between cheer and genuine morbidity toward their situation.
Eshe seemed annoyed by her.
“When you somehow manage to spot a plane, Adesh shoots at it.” He replied tersely.
Adesh sighed a little, seated on a rough metal platform with a sight and a firing mechanism before him. His friends and crew were a little nervous. They had every right to be. They had survived the border but now found themselves in a similar situation. But their bickering was not just nervous. Those two were always grinding against each other.
“I just thought there was some other amazing gunnery trick you learned from one of your pamphlets that you could share with us.” Nnenia sarcastically said.
Eshe crossed his arms. “Here’s one you fool: don’t get distracted by the pretty planes and the wonderful colors of shells and do your job correctly for once.”
“I’ll keep my eyes skyward and not on the regulations booklets, you pinhead.”
It was if they wanted to cry for help, but this nonsense was all that came out.
“Could you two be quiet?” Adesh sighed. “You’re going at it even more than usual!”
Eshe and Nnenia looked at each other and at Adesh and seemed to feel shame.
As before their little trio was behind an artillery piece, and this time with a much greater responsibility than they once had. It was no longer an anti-tank gun but an air defense gun that defended their position. The 37mm was a small bore on a large weapon, with a long barrel and preponderance of mechanisms, mounted on a swiveling base that could be rotated all the way around and locked to specific positions as well.
It was also an automatic gun, a fact which took some getting used to. Fed with five-shell clips and boasting a simple firing mechanism it could sustain a high rate of fire, though the barrel risked overheating if the rate of fire was used to its fullest advantage.
Four other people stood with him. His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe remained in his crew, having miraculously lived through their earlier tribulations. He was now their gunner however, not their leader. In his place as gun commander was a pretty corporal from another unit, Cpl. Rahani. He was a young Arjun of pleasant features, brown-skinned, with a gentle face and flowing hair down to the shoulders, decorated by a lovely rose above his left temple. He had quite a lot in common with Adesh and his friends, and he was probably just little older than their own ages. Prior to the sirens sounding, he had tried to get everyone to wear their own flowers for good luck. Nnenia, Adesh and Eshe accepted, a little awkwardly, and received a bundle of purple lilies which they wore over their ears.
Alongside Rahani served another private, the mysterious, grim Kufu. He had eyes like a fox, a thick beard, and strong features. When he spoke he had a smooth voice, but seemed to think ill of saying anything with it. He looked like he could have fathered the other members of the crew, even Corporal Rahani, and was not a lively fellow at all. He had refused to wear any flowers. He was a traditional man, he explained to them tersely.
“Well if you say so!” Cpl. Rahani said in an amused, good-natured voice. “But in that case, I have a good idea! We will put your flowers on the gun itself. There. Now we will catch the attention of the spirits and they will protect us. It was a tradition in my village.”
Kufu scoffed, and sat by the side of the gun, looking away. He was assigned to traverse the mount across the ground. Eshe loaded, Adesh was the gunner, and Nnenia and Rahani were in charge of elevation and sighting, as well as communication and other odd jobs.
“I apologize if I offended you; are you an ancestor worshiper?” Cpl. Rahani asked.
“No. I don’t worship nothin’. No spirits, no ancestors, no messiah, not the light; nothing. Thought this country’s supposed to be secular now.” Kufu replied calmly.
Cpl. Rahani looked slightly distressed. “Oh, well, double sorry.” He said softly.
“Well, it is secular in the state apparatus, but individuals can still worship, you know. Even the Messianic church is around.” Eshe interjected in a know-it-all tone.
“Too bad.” Kufu replied. He still was not facing them. Everyone sighed a little.
A foul mood fell upon the crew while they waited, looking tentatively at the sky and between each other. Cpl. Rahani’s cheerful smiling faded too. But not everything was so bleak. Some things had changed since the battle at the border, even as some things had remained quite the same. Adesh was part of an A.A. unit, and the guns, while larger and heavier, were state of the art and had more sophisticated mechanisms that allowed for a faster firing rate and easier handling than their cheaper, six-year-old 76mm anti-tank guns. Everyone was impressed with the quality of the equipment when they first saw it.
Lt. Bogana also made sure they were better organized.
Every position was five meters apart and none of them arranged in straight lines. This made strafing them difficult. The five 37mm guns in the battery were positioned in an outer ring that could cover the two 85mm guns and the three 57mm guns from close-air attack. It was the job of Adesh’s crew to cover against lower altitude attacks from faster planes.
Two teams of machine gunners with Khroda 7.62mm guns on hastily-assembled anti-aircraft mounts hid in bushes and under trees nearby, covering the 37mm gunners in case even they failed to stop a strafing aircraft or a dive bomber. Though the Khroda looked unwieldy in this role, it still gave the team a little fallback. It made all the difference.
Adesh had a measure of confidence in their phalanx. Everyone acted with discipline and carried out concrete orders under the auspice of a commander. It was like being part of a real army with a strong direction. They had even received a visit from Major Nakar, who had personally taught them to shoot. Things had changed substantively now.
Nocht was not ambushing them this time. The People awaited them.
Adesh found his hands still shaking and his heart quivering, however.
That certainly had not changed.
Every ten minutes Corporal Rahani would spend some time watching the skies with a pair of binoculars, seeking for contacts. Adesh thought that there would be some stark transition between readiness and annihilation; the sky would turn red, great meteoric tears of flame would fall from the heavens and engulf them all, in the blink of an eye.
Instead, their first glimpse of the enemy came from Lt. Bogana, who left the side of a signals officer calling for all crews to proceed to combat alert; the southern district batteries had already made eye contact with the enemy aircraft through their sighting equipment.
As he said this Corporal Rahani passed around the binoculars, pointing his crew toward the sky. Adesh saw tiny pinpricks of smoke and fire blooming in the dark, distant skies when Nnenia passed him the lenses. Thus with little fanfare the battle was joined as the southern district batteries opened fire on objects the northeast district could not yet even clearly see in the sky. Adesh felt an uncomfortable thrill across his entire body.
Helplessly he watched as hundreds of objects came closer and closer.
They flew like a flock of birds, and to Adesh’s eyes they were just as small at first, but the closer the came the deadlier they appeared. Flashes of gunfire became visible, closer than before. Ayvartan batteries awoke all around the city. Like red glowing darts thrown by errant hands hundreds of rounds of anti-air tracer ammunition began to light the sky from the southern defensive sectors, then the central sectors.
Seconds later Adesh heard the first thousand-kilogram bomb drop on the city.
He felt a shudder, rumbling waves straining through the earth into his body, and he saw the smoke rising in the distance. He had just blinked and missed the flash and the short-lived geyser of fire in the bomb’s wake. Strategic bombers were now directly over the city.
Dozens of isolated explosions swept across the south and center.
Adesh looked up at the sky and it was as if he were watching the heavens shatter, lines of ordnance coming down like metal teardrops from the bays of barely visible bomber planes, pounding the earth like the footfalls of a giant. The quivering in his hands grew into a terrible shaking across most of his body that he struggled to control.
Aircraft squadrons began to take distinct shapes and their groupings became terrifyingly apparent as they neared the northeast district. Adesh saw a dozen squadrons splitting off from the massive fleet and sweeping through the sky in every possible direction. Five fighter planes in a tight group banked and lunged straight for the park, flying through the fire from the adjacent batteries across the nearby blocks as though not one gun were actually shooting them. Adesh and his battery comrades took their positions and opened fire on them, but the the planes maneuvered through the curtain with ease.
In a moment Adesh found his gun unloaded once again.
“Battery, the enemy has entered our zone!” Lt. Bogana shouted.
Adesh released his iron grip on the large trigger-handle for the 37mm gun, while Eshe pushed a five-round clip of its shells into place atop the gun and stamped it down to properly feed the weapon. Each shell had a tracer and explosive-fragmentation filler.
Nnenia and Kufu traversed the weapon on its swiveling mount and constantly adjusted and readjusted the elevation in order to follow their fast-moving enemies. Nneia elevated the barrel over 65 degrees, then 70 degrees, then descended it down to 50; while Cpl. Rahani instructed Adesh on the positions of the targets. Adesh watched the enemy through the large metric sights. His breath began to outrun him as the aircraft neared; a tight group of five sleek monoplanes, with long wedge-shaped wings bristling with armament.
From afar Adesh thought he could see off-color paint across the hulls of the planes. They were gaping maws; bright red mouths bristling with teeth, painted on each plane. These were Nochtish Archer fighter planes. In an instant the planes swooped on them.
Withering fire from nose-mounted Norgler machine guns swept the park as the planes overflew them in a shallow dive, coming down from the sky like bolts of lightning and storming away into the distance again. Dozens of rounds ricocheted off gun shields and clipped the grass and the trees; miraculously nobody was killed in the attack.
Kufu and Nnenia and Rahani worked frantically to turn around the 37mm, while around them the 85mm guns opened fire at an almost 90 degree angle into sky, and the 57mm guns joined them, both targeting the Wizard bombers dropping heavy payloads.
Adesh was temporarily deafened whenever their unseen assailants dropped their heaviest payloads, crushing buildings in an instant under thousand-kilogram explosions. Debris flew so far it almost hit the park from a whole block away; window frames, chunks of concrete, gnarled street lights, all soared on the blast waves and across the streets.
None of the heavy bombs actually hit the battery, or even near them.
Thank the spirits! One would be all it took to kill them all.
Armed with a 37mm they stood no chance against a high-altitude level-bomber.
Adesh swallowed hard and focused on the fighters.
The Archer squadron split from its wedge-like formation to pick off the battery crews. Constituent planes flew from one another’s sides, two of them sweeping around the edges of the park like vultures, drawing fire from the support machine guns; and three running lanes across the battery’s position. Adesh squeezed the handles on his gun and watched his five rounds fly away in a few seconds, hitting nothing. His shells joined the dozens other ineffectual missiles streaking across the air, scarcely hitting anywhere near the enemy.
They reloaded and spun the gun until they went nearly dizzy with motion, and again the shells flew into the air with seemingly no avail. Adesh and his comrades’ gunfire reminded him of a sky full of fireworks, and yet the enemy aircraft soared through the red and gray curtain as though the fragments and smoke and fire was utterly harmless to them.
Their fragmentation rounds had timed fuses and scattered splinters into the air to threaten enemy aircraft, but the timing had an element of precision nonetheless.
Effectively unopposed despite the intense fire coming from the ground, the Archers sped through several runs on the battery, firing volleys of 80mm rockets from under each of their wings that exploded across the park. Adesh and crew hunkered down, crawling meekly behind or against the gun shield as best as they could while loading and traversing the weapon to match the movements of the enemy as best as they could.
A rocket hissed overhead and blasted apart a tree a dozen meters behind them.
Smoking craters littered the periphery.
Somehow the battery survived.
No rockets had managed to strike a comrade dead.
The Archers soared out of the park and turned easily back around over the streets, taking a new formation for their next run. Two outlying craft moved in to substitute two of the planes that had unloaded all of their ordnance. Those two planes then circled the park.
Eshe heaved one of the shell clips and punched it into the vertical loading wedge.
“Overhead!” Nnenia said suddenly.
Adesh looked up, and found the sky alight.
Fire and smoke spread within the dark clouds and burning pieces of metal rained down on the city. A pair of Wizard bombers fell down from the sky like meteors, wreathed in flames and splitting into a scattering of debris as they descended. Remains of the planes, more fire than steel, smashed into the roof of a civil canteen building on one of the park’s adjoining streets and spilled out onto the pavement and road along with the debris.
“Don’t get distracted!” Eshe shouted, pushing on Adesh’s shoulder.
“Finally the kid says something I can agree with!” Kufu shouted, frantically turning the wheel to loosen the mount, and pushing his shoulder into the gun and turning it. Grumbling, Nnenia joined him in working on the gun and descended the barrel.
Adesh desperately tracked the incoming fighters through the sights.
“Adesh, fire!” Cpl. Rahani ordered.
But the corporal was not looking through the sights.
Adesh was; nothing aligned, and no matter how fast the team moved he felt helpless against the planes. He pressed the handle-triggers and watched his gun shoot, rock back a little with recoil, and shoot again. Popping noises, the creaking of sliding metal from the recoil buffers, the gentle thud of the shell dropping on the ground, all was drowned by a single bomb falling on the street behind them and raising a pillar of fire and smoke.
Fences around the park fell over from the force of the blast. Adesh felt the heat behind his back, and felt his body pump with the consecutive force of his own gun as he kept shooting. Five rounds of his flak cut across the sky and exploded in gray bursts of smoke and fragments between three of the fighter planes as they approached.
The Nochtish fighters veered violently away from the shots, and found themselves trapped in a massive net as the remaining 37mm guns and 7.62 machine guns saturated the skies. Instantly the guns on the Nochtish aircraft were silenced, their propellers slowed and stopped, their engines caught fire, their cockpit windshields burst to pieces.
One by one the aircraft passed them overhead, spun out of control, and vanished into the inferno raging behind the battery, landing in bomb craters and smashed buildings.
Two remaining planes circling the park turned sharply away from their careful course and fled the district. Ayvartan fire trailed them every meter they flew, and triumphantly the entire 37mm compliment of the battery lowered their barrels and shot after the planes until they disappeared from sight. Lt. Bogana leaped out from behind the gun shield of his 85mm, raised his fist into the air and roared with triumph. They had driven them away.
Cpl. Rahani raised his own fist and joined with his own sweeter-sounding cheer.
Spirits rose momentarily across the park.
The sound of bombs and the chopping of norgler machine guns grew distant again and it seemed that their sector was clear for the moment, however long that would be.
Over Bada Aso the skies still raged with battle.
Bright flak cut across the dark clouds, long lines of fire streaking overhead from the multitude of guns stationed across the city. Trickles of Nochtish planes began to fall.
Bombers careened toward the ground like the fallen angels of the Messianic religion, set ablaze and cast from the paradise above the clouds; thousands of rounds of ammunition from 37mm guns and heavy machine guns around the sector began to add up, and Adesh saw a fighter group fall suddenly from over a nearby sector, blown to pieces in mid-air.
Like the ashfall from a volcano fire and smoke and metal seemed to rain down over the city. It was like the end of the world; Adesh could think of no other way to describe it. Hundreds of planes were attacking them but it also felt like hundreds were falling too.
While Adesh’s battery had a moment of calm they rushed to a nearby groundskeeper’s cellar and hastily pushed out crates of hidden ammunition. Fighting those five planes had consumed hundreds of rounds of the battery’s 37mm ammo. They reloaded their guns, sliding fresh shells and clips into the breeches, and accommodated reserve ammo nearby.
Lt. Bogana knelt beside a radio unit and called the adjacent sectors.
“Our southern batteries have taken the brunt of the attack,” Lt. Bogana shouted for the benefit of the crews, “but we have not yet dealt any kind of decisive damage to the enemy, comrades! Those planes are moving closer, so stay alert and be ready to fire!”
It was disheartening to hear; but it sounded far too true.
Even if Adesh counted all the planes he had seen fall so far, it was really only around fifteen or twenty out of spirits know how many in the air fleet. Their battery after all this fighting had only personally accounted for three fighters and a pair of bombers!
Eshe sighed. “Once, I read that the average stock needed for an air kill is 598 shells.”
“Thanks for the heartening tip.” Nnenia said, slumping against the side of the gun.
Adesh sat silently behind the 37mm gun and Corporal Rahani scanned the skies for targets using his binoculars. Kufu grumbled something inaudible while he and Nnenia readjusted the gun to face south and the barrel elevation to an angle between 60 and 70 degrees. Around them every other 37mm gun crew searched for targets as well.
The crews of 85mm and 57mm guns adjusted the elevation of their guns to hit bombers overflying other sectors now that bombs had ceased to fall directly around their own sector. Soon they began to fire again, casting their shells forward toward the skyline and out of the northeast district. Above them the skies were eerily silent, and their battery shifted its attitude toward supporting fire more than direct engagement.
“No distractions next time, alright? I want to live through this.” Eshe said bitterly.
Nnenia raised her head from over the gun to launch a smoldering stare at Eshe.
“Now now, no harm was done.” Cpl. Rahani said, trying to smooth things out.
“Don’t be using this to start a stupid argument now, kid.” Kufu grumbled.
“I thought you agreed with me!” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.
Kufu grunted. “I did in the fight, but not now when it doesn’t matter.”
Adesh sighed. Nnenia and Eshe’s bickering worsened when introduced to more people.
“Everyone focus, please,” Cpl. Rahani softly said, waving his hands gently.
Minutes passed; from the sky fell a light drizzle.
Smoke billowed away from the burning craters and ruins, blown around the park as the wind picked up. Adesh was shaking and his legs were weak. There was something about this scene that he could not square away in his mind as he watched the sky, a thick, choking knot building inside his throat and tears spilling from his eyes. His teeth chattered. He was as unprotected from the cold droplets as he was from the enemy planes.
He saw figures fighting in the distance, and he heard the guns of his comrades, the rockets and bombs and cannons of the enemy, and yet, they were intermittent sounds.
Sound and violence and horror flitted in and out of his reality, an intermittent chaos. He cast eyes around the park and across the air, his fingers stretching and closing on the trigger-handle, his jaw twitching, mute, violent panic building and building in his belly.
“Adesh?” Cpl. Rahani whispered, shaking him gently. “It is fine to be scared, but–”
His eyes had gone hollow, staring over his gun sight and directly skyward, directly overhead. Much closer than the distant fleets of the enemy he saw an object.
“Dive bomber.” He shouted at the top of his lungs.
For a few seconds he felt that he had gone mad, that the unreal reality of everything had consumed him. Then the bombs fell among them and the planes swept past from out of nowhere and there was fire, and there was rage again in the middle of Bada Aso.
22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central
Madiha had gotten her rain; she had the water; she had the iron; the fire and fury.
Across Bada Aso guns fired relentlessly, and the drizzling rain picked up as smoke and fire fed into the clouds. Soon there was a rolling shower over the city that smothered the bomb-fires in the streets. All of those hundreds of planes seemed suddenly distant.
There was quiet, so Madiha assumed the enemy must have been between major waves.
The Cafeteria had become her makeshift office. It lay close to the center of the building on the bottom floor, and had no windows. Whenever a bomb went off somewhere all the dreary lights would fluctuate and dust would fall from the ceiling. But the noise and the rumbling was minimal and Madiha could try to focus and to keep her calm.
More than once she hyperventilated when she heard the sound of a nearby gun or a swooping aircraft in the outer offices. Worst of all was the lobby. A massive pane of clear glass had been raised over the archway doors into the school building lobby. She felt as though it was a scope forcing her to gaze up at the sky. Was this black and red billowing inferno what she wanted? Could she have done anything more to try to prevent it?
Her eyes twitched and she felt her arms seize up at the sight. So she returned to the cafeteria for shelter. There she waited, impotent, as the clockworks she had set into motion now worked themselves out. She was haunted by her inability to respond within this mechanical performance. She waited, hearing the bombs and the guns in her own head.
“Major, we got combat reports.” Parinita said, laying a hand on Madiha’s shoulder.
Her secretary gently laid a small folder in front of her. Madiha donned a pair of reading glasses and turned the pages. She had begun wearing them that very morning. They not only helped to hide the deepening dark bags under her eyes, but they allowed her to read the small print crammed on some of the hastily typed reports coming in.
She was surprised at the difference they made. She had always thought her eyesight just fine. Thankfully there were a few pairs of generic readers in the school clinic and after trying a few she found some that suited her fine. Parinita had helped her pick them out.
“Forty-three guns are down this quickly. Only two hours have transpired; only a few waves of the bombardment.” Madiha said. Her voice lost strength and turned to whispers. “According to this our batteries have only been able to account for thirty aircraft.”
“It’s difficult. But historically speaking, losing thirty aircraft in a few hours is a major blow to the enemy’s fleet. Several of those were heavy bombers.” Parinita said.
“Our losses cannot be the equal of theirs. Should this continue we’ll be helpless.”
“I know. And the air army hasn’t come to our rescue quite yet. What keeps them?”
“Inexperience and unpreparedness.” Madiha said. “None of those pilots have even flown a combat mission and their air units have been poorly funded since demilitarization.”
Parinita nodded. “Good news though: our caches and manpower are mostly intact.”
“For how long, I wonder.” Madiha said. She felt her breath quickening.
She stood from behind the lunch table serving as her desk, and she walked out behind the long serving counter to disguise her nervous tics and building anxiety. She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a little plastic bottle, out of which she drew a small, white pill. She popped it into her mouth and swallowed it with a glass of water from a nearby sink. Behind her Parinita graciously attended to a pair of soldiers in thick rubber hoods, soaked from head to toe and leaving a wet trail wherever they moved.
They were aircraft observers, carrying heavy tripod-mounted telescopes strapped on belts around their backs. Madiha had asked them to hide on the roofs of buildings to keep watch, protected, at best, by machine guns and barrage balloons; but mostly, by nothing. When Madiha stepped out from behind the lunch counter they were conversing already.
“Anything to report?” She asked.
“Cpl. Somner here says that a larger wave of planes is coming, with, he believes, more low-flying bombers.” Parinita said. Her words barely sank in when Madiha felt like someone had ticked a box inside her, turned on some strange machinery.
“This could be our chance then.” Madiha said.
She felt a thrill down her spine, and the words she wanted to say stuck fast to her throat and silenced her. Her body felt heavy and the drugs in her system could barely stifle the sheer terror she was experiencing. She moved slowly back to her cafeteria table and withdrew her maps of the city, as well as her diagrams for the airspace altitudes.
Along the main thoroughfares leading to the headquarters there were a few assembled batteries. One of them was positioned centrally enough, and built on a natural slope above the level of the district, that it likely had enough of coverage of the sky to make it the central threat to this incoming assault. Low-flying planes: maybe dozens of them.
All targets that she could crush in one fell-swoop.
“Parinita, have my scout car brought out and made ready to leave. I have to rally the sector battery near the old observatory on Nyota hill to fend off this wave.”
Parinita looked stunned and confused, and stood fidgeting with a file folder.
“I wouldn’t advise that Major.” Cpl. Somner said. Parinita put on a nervous face.
“I can’t stand to lounge here a second longer! Prepare my car.” Madiha shouted.
No one argued further.
Twenty minutes later she stepped through the lobby, and descended the steps outside into the rain. Her little green scout car had been driven to the front of the building, flanked by two trucks equipped with anti-aircraft quad machine guns. Her four-wheeled, two-passenger unarmored car stood no chance if shot by an airplane, but it could potentially outmaneuver strafing runs on the street if she ran it as hard as it could go.
Or at least, that is what Madiha told herself.
Unlike guns she could not be entirely sure of the car’s performance, it was all a gut feeling, and one felt in desperation, perhaps. She ordered the KVW driver to dismount, and he did so immediately and without argument. Raising her hands to signal the drivers of the anti-air trucks, Madiha stepped behind the wheel of the scout car and–
“Wait, Major! Please wait! Don’t drive off yet!”
A series of pleas from the steps to the school; Madiha turned her head over in frustration and tried to shoo away Parinita, who ignored her completely as she charged out of the lobby and down the steps, carrying a Khroda machine gun and its mounting kit.
She had roped an engineer into helping her heave the damned thing to the car: Sergeant Agni, the brown-skinned young woman with long, wavy hair that had was once covered in ash from setting off the explosive traps at the border. She was part of an engineer battalion, and was now more covered in oil than ash, washing off her face and hands in the rain.
“What are you doing?” Madiha shouted. “Go back inside the base, Parinita!”
“We’re helping you! I’m not staying behind. I can drive the car and you can use this machine gun.” Parinita shouted back. “You never miss when you shoot, right? Inspector Kimani always said that. So you can use this to shoot at any planes. You’ll be safer.”
“You can hardly steer over dry ground on a peaceful day, think of what you’re saying. And how can I use that machine gun? It is too heavy for me to heave it around from the passenger seat. Please, Parinita, trust me and return to the base. I have to do this–”
“I can fix the part about the gun, commander.” Sgt. Agni interjected.
She pulled the beige cloth tarp off the top of the car and raised the machine gun, with Parinita’s help, onto the passenger’s metal seat. She laid a plate in the open space between the front and back seats, produced a few tools, and set to work bolting the mount to the plate and the plate to the car’s rear. With the confident and quick way that the engineer worked on the gun Madiha thought she might not even stop if ordered to do so.
Madiha felt a terrible wracking guilt watching all of these people rushing to her side; she felt that she was contributing so little to what all the people in this army were giving in return. Parinita’s own words still stung, somewhere in the back of her mind.
What was she worth? Was it really worth dying to protect her? Why?
“I don’t want you to be involved in this and endangered!” Madiha shouted.
“I’ve made my decision commander,” Parinita said, and suddenly she began talking quickly and loudly over the rest of Madiha’s objections without listening to them.
Developing a pronounced stutter as she went along, she cited several seemingly disconnected military regulations involving her role in Madiha’s staff, her role in case of emergencies, and proper procedure for procuring and organizing convoys. Parinita continued: “Furthermore it is written in the military code of conduct and basic organization concerning command convoys, that the commander’s car when travelling in dangerous territory must always have a defensive retinue involving at least one heavy weapon!”
Stunned, Madiha could hardly get a word in edgewise during this filibuster.
During this cacophony, Sgt. Agni finished mounting the Khroda.
One last bolt turn groaned over the arguments of the officer and her secretary.
They quieted and turned their heads.
“I can also drive the car.” Sgt. Agni said, raising her dull voice.
She then saluted stiffly.
“You can’t argue with this, Major.” Parinita said sternly.
Madiha sighed, raising her hands to her face. “I cannot believe your stubbornness right now Parinita! And especially you, Agni! You’re all supposed to follow my orders!”
“My loyalty is to Ayvarta.” Sgt. Agni replied with little discernible affect.
Madiha supposed that meant keeping her alive over indulging her guilt and trepidation.
She stepped out of the car, ceding the driver’s seat to Sgt. Agni, and climbed onto the back. She stood behind the Khroda and locked her feet into catches built into the vehicle mounting plate, and tested the swivel. It was smooth and quick to turn, and the gun elevated easily, even with the ballistic shield weighing it down. Along with the gun Parinita had brought ammunition and Madiha loaded the machine gun and worked the bolt.
She raised her hands overhead, and signaled the crews of the gun trucks to follow her.
“To Nyota hill, Sgt. Agni, as fast as possible; and I hope for the sake of this nation that you are a better driver than the Chief Warrant Officer!” Madiha called out.
Parinita crossed her arms and sat with a grumbling expression on the passenger seat.
In the distance Madiha spotted almost a hundred planes flying lanes across the sector.
She would have to challenge them.
22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast
Adesh woke without sense, without a window to the world. He was overwhelmed by the smell of smoke and fire but at first he could not move, and he could not see through the dark clouds around him, and he could hear nothing but a vicious whistling and buzzing in his ears. His mind swam. A dull pain traced the center of his narrow chest and across the small of his back. It flared, turning hot and sharp as his sinews throbbed beneath the ruined flesh. His body jerked up from the ground, but not of his own volition; his limbs lolling in the air, his neck hanging, the smoke whipping across his face with the strong winds.
Distant voices, warping in the hot air, called out his name.
Touch returned with the sound.
He was under drizzling rain, and he felt something, solid and budging beneath him.
Pain returned to him and urged him blindly to move and struggle. He was stricken with panic toward the condition of his body. He gasped, coughed violently, and he shook his arms and his legs, twisted his waist and torso. He screamed as he felt himself beaten back.
“Calm down Adesh! Calm down! You’re hurting me! Stop thrashing already!”
Adesh fell and it seemed an eternity before he hit the hard ground on his wounds – what he now recognized as his wounds. He cried out and jolted awake from his stupor, embracing himself on the floor of a nondescript building with a view of the park through its open door. A vast plume of smoke seemed to consume the park and the road between them and whatever could possibly remain of the anti-aircraft battery, if anything remained.
Guns did not sound and bombs did not drop.
There was only the sound of burning and collapse.
Near him Eshe had also fallen, and he too became fetal in his agony, clutching his shoulder and closing his eyes and biting his lips. For a moment both of the boys nursed their pains, unable to address or acknowledge the other. Adesh’s eyes were foggy and overflowing with tears. He felt burns across his chest and back. Anxious he touched his body with blood-spattered hands, spreading the blood across his face, his legs, his belly.
All of him was still there.
Burnt, bleeding from open blisters and bad cuts; but nothing near the irreversible maiming he had feared. When he finally recovered his senses fully and took better notice of Eshe, he saw no burns on him, but ash and blood and grime spread across his face.
“Eshe! I’m so sorry.” Adesh said through sobbing and tears. “I didn’t know!”
“You’ve got to focus.” Eshe said, his voice strained. “Stop being so distracted.”
Adesh smiled feebly, tasting his own tears. “I should maybe follow the rules more.”
Eshe breathed quickly, and his body shook violently as he forced himself off his side and onto his back. He sat up, and got onto his knees. From there he could barely stand again, and when he did it was only to step closer to Adesh and sit near him. He pulled open the remains of Adesh’s coat and shirt, and breathed a sigh of relief. He laid his head on Adesh’s shoulder, their bodies nearly collapsed together, and he wept. “Second degree, just a little blistering and bleeding for you. I’m so glad. You might scar but you’ll live. When she gets back we should be able to patch you up good, my friend. Thank everything.”
Adesh lifted his hand and stroked Eshe’s hair. Eshe laid his hand over Adesh’s own.
Behind them a shadow cast into the building from the doorway.
There was a gasp and a series of rapid footsteps.
Nnenia dropped to her knees and threw her arms around both boys, kissing their heads, kissing on their noses and cheeks and lips and everything she could reach in a sudden frenzy, accompanied by a muted weeping and sobbing. Adesh could hardly return the embrace or affection, he felt so weak and physically incapable; Eshe raised his injured arm around her in his place. Together they cried and wept in their little hiding place.
“Thank the spirits you’re both alive! Eshe, I said I would look for him! It was stupid of you to leave again! Now you’ve gotten more hurt than before!” Nnenia cried.
“It’s fine; I found him, so there’s that. It’s done.” Eshe shouted.
“At least you’re safe now.” Nnenia sighed weakly.
Unlike Eshe, Nnenia seemed to have been spared any obvious injury.
Her normally unaffected expression was touched now with such emotion, such pain and fear, that Adesh almost felt like weeping again just from the sight of her. Her eyes were red and swelling from these outbursts. She always fairly quiet and a little guarded, and it was very moving for him to see her cry and worry and wear her emotions so openly. Though she made little noise her face looked like she’d screamed her lungs out.
Flashing from the doorway–
An explosion outside rocked the building.
Adesh cringed back, a sudden animal reflex forcing him to try to move.
Nnenia and Eshe held him and tried to calm him, and he wept and bit his lip as he struggled to control himself again. He felt a rushing of energy and agony at once.
“Please, Adesh, you’re hurt, be still! We’re safer in here than out there.” Eshe said.
“Where are Kufu and Corporal Rahani?” Adesh said suddenly, breathing heavily but trying to calm down. He turned his head around the room. “Are they alive?”
There was a thump in the dark. Adesh found himself in an enclosed hall a few meters from the door in what seemed like a large building. There were a half-dozen doors along the hall, and at the end of it on either side he saw staircases leading up to a second floor, perhaps a third. Everything was brick and concrete. It seemed a sturdy place. He heard the thump again, and squinted his eyes. A pair of legs dangled from one of the staircases.
“Right ‘ere kids,” Kufu said from the end of the hall. “We’re all accounted for. If I was a believing man, I’d say one of your gods helped us, maybe whatever flowery god the Corporal’s got a liking to. But I ain’t; those dive bombers just got muddy goddamn sights.”
“He’s been back there all this time,” Eshe whispered to Adesh, “Not keen on being included, that one. He’s hung back ever since we got out from the fires.”
“He’s not keen on going outside either, the coward,” Nnenia said, “Corporal Rahani is outside looking for survivors. I went out too once the shock wore off.”
Adesh shook his head and tried to remember.
At the park he had looked up at the sky, and he was captivated by the stillness he saw, until he thought he saw a silhouette, and heard a whistling noise, the sound of an enemy cutting through the air to dive upon them. He alerted everyone too late.
Coming down from a high altitude, directly overlooking the battery, the dive-bombers had been impossible to spot. A group of three bombers, each of them unloaded a small bomb from the underside of their hulls at a steep angle with deadly accuracy.
Adesh was thrown away by the force of the blasts, and lost consciousness.
Eshe told him that he had found him lying under a rent blast shield with some burning material around him; perhaps the source of his burns. He was lucky to be alive.
Together everyone theorized that perhaps the bombs had been intended to destroy the 85mm guns, and thus the attack was concentrated away from their own guns.
“And despite this I was flung away like a doll. I don’t know how I survived.” Eshe said.
Nnenia stood in the middle of the conversation, approached the building’s face and closed the door after taking a quick peek outside. She sat again with them. “I don’t know how I came out as well as I did.” She said. “My head is just bleeding a little, that’s all.”
She bowed her head.
There was blood; and Adesh would not have characterized it as a small amount.
“Nnenia that looks serious to me. You should patch yourself up.” Eshe said.
“Adesh is more important right now.” She replied. Blood trickled down her ears.
“These blisters are nowhere near as bloody as the cuts on your head.” Adesh said.
From inside Nnenia’s pouch they took a roll of bandages and a bottle of antiseptic. Adesh demanded again that she be patched up first, and begrudgingly Nnenia bowed her head and allowed Eshe to sop up blood from her cuts, using some of the bandages as cloth. He applied antiseptic from the bottle, clumsily and with a heavy hand, and then bandaged around her head as best as he could. It was a sloppy job, but at least her wounds were clean and shut from the air. Nnenia touched her bandaged head and winced a little. Dark red color spread across them. She laid against the wall beside Adesh, sighing audibly.
“Now Eshe, your shoulder is wounded too isn’t it? I see red on your coat. Fix that.”
“You can’t be serious with this, Adesh, you’ve been sitting there for so long now–”
“It’s against some regulation somewhere to have a bleeding wound I’m sure.”
Eshe shook his head. “You don’t care about rules! What a time it is for you say this!”
“But I know that you care, Eshe, so, get patched up first.” Adesh said.
He tried to say it with good humor.
Eshe stroked his own mouth with growing agitation and handed Nnenia the bandages to clothe the wound on his shoulder. Nnenia pulled back his jacket and shirt and found a bloody, ugly gash and a few offending pieces of metal, which she pulled out. She then practically poured the antiseptic bottle over his shoulder, and Eshe flinched and balled his fists and grit his teeth with pain, but it was a large wound and a lot of cleaning was necessary. They wiped it, again with some of the bandages for lack of any clean paper or towels, before wrapping it up around the shoulder and arm as best as they could.
Then Eshe joined them against the wall of the long hall.
Outside the rain had picked up, but the bombs were very distant.
“Hopefully the Corporal will return soon.” Nnenia said.
Adesh nodded. He sat up straighter and turned his head.
“Kufu, have you any wounds in need of–”
Adesh had hardly finished speaking his name when Kufu waved dismissively at them.
“Suit yourself then!” Eshe shouted.
He turned his head and took a softer tone after. “So, that means it’s your turn Adesh.”
Behind them the door gently opened, and someone took a tentative step in. They turned, with welcoming faces, ready to say a hujambo; but there was a haunted figure at the doorway, clutching his arm and scarcely able to stand on one of his legs. Chalk-white of skin, with hair almost as pale, like seeing a ghost; and mauled along the limb he guarded. But it was his uniform that gave him away, gray, and on his breast a medal like a black cross, specked with blood. Around his neck hung a pair of goggles and a respirator.
His eyes filled with tears.
Much faster than he had stepped in, the man limped away down the steps, making choked, pathetic noises and sobbing in some incomprehensible tongue, nicht, nicht, hier nicht. He could hardly get off the short steps with his bad foot, and nearly tripped in fear.
Breathless, paralyzed, the trio watched him, as though they had truly seen a ghost.
This silent terror passed Adesh by like a flash of lightning before his eyes. His stomach churned, and his eyes felt cold and dry and keenly focused. Fear washed from him quicker than ever. He was assaulted with images, the firing of guns and the booming of bombs.
Him; it was all his fault. Everything was his fault.
Forgetting his pain, Adesh bolted up onto his feet in a fury, brandishing his revolver.
“Come back here! You coward! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”
It was like a demon had consumed him.
Adesh fired off a shot into the air, whizzing past the man’s head.
Almost limping himself he charged outside into the rain, dodging Nnenia and Eshe’s hands as they tried to hold him back. Cold water washed over his head and shoulders and stung at the burns on his exposed chest. Step by tumultuous step he gave chase to the fiend without regard for his own body. His adversary cried louder and louder, swinging his good arm to remain upright, his injured limb hanging useless at his side. His alien tongue worked itself raw with screaming. Adesh closed the distance, raising a shaking hand to shoot.
His bullets flew past the man’s feet, between his legs, under his dangling fingers. Adesh rapped the trigger until only clicks sounded from the gun, screaming after him.
“I’ll kill you, you fucking animal! You did this, you did all of this, all of it!”
Around him the world spun, but at the edge of his vision Adesh spotted the wreckage of a Nochtish plane, a dive bomber, like before. His hatred for the pilot was all consuming and spurred him to move. He dropped his revolver, tore his knife free and pushed forward, gaining step by step under the driving rain. Not once did the man look back, he continued hopping, dragging his leg, clawing with his good arm as though there was a lifeline to grab.
He was near the edge of the smoke, close to escaping.
Adesh screamed and cursed and swung his knife in the air.
Then a shot rang out.
The Nochtish man fell forward, his skull blasted open.
He fell half inside the smoke with a barely visible splash of gore.
Adesh felt as though the shot had woken him from a nightmare.
He felt a thrumming in his head, and tightness around his eyes.
“Adesh, please go back inside.” Corporal Rahani said. “And watch your language.”
Adesh was so surprised he nearly fell himself.
Rahani was behind him, holding his own revolver out.
Blood and water trailed down his face, giving him a grimmer look, and the flower in his hair had lost several petals, and the remainder had been clearly stressed and had their own little wounds. But he was upright, and around his shoulder he carried an injured man.
It was Lt. Bogana, his eyes closed, blood and dirt caked around his face, and one of his hands little more than a knob of glistening red flesh. Adesh turned around, and walked slowly back into the building with him. Both of them stowed their sidearms.
Inside, Rahani laid the lieutenant near the wall and tended to him gently, wrapping bandages around his mauled hand and cleaning his face with water collected on a helmet from the rain outside. He made several trips to collect water, and he cleaned and dressed the lieutenant. He had a calm expression on his face, concealing his emotions.
All the while that Rahani worked, Adesh stood beneath the doorframe, his knife slipping from his fingers, standing frozen, staring at the ground. Nnenia and Eshe stood impotently with him, themselves paralyzed, trapped in some stupor.
At the back of the hall Kufu leaned out in shock.
Without aid or input Rahani bandaged up the lieutenant and let him rest.
He stood up and ambled to the door frame.
On his face was a smile, a gentle, pretty smile.
Rahani took Adesh into an embrace, laying a hand on his head and stroking his hair.
“There, there. Everything is fine, Adesh. It is alright for you to be scared, and alright to be angry and sad. Please be all of those things, but please stay safe.” Rahani said.
Adesh slumped in the corporal’s warm embrace, and he wept.
It struck him then that he had lost his own flower from his hair.
22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central
For the first few blocks it appeared they might have a peaceful drive to Nyota Hill.
Would the heavy rain remain the only obstacle to their journey?
Unfortunately this was a notion they were quickly disabused of.
Driving the scout car, Sergeant Agni led the small convoy of anti-aircraft vehicles south on the main thoroughfare for a few kilometers, while Parinita watched the sky with an aircraft observer’s scope that she had to wipe down every few moments.
Profiting from her dedication she alerted them to the presence of enemy craft.
Standing behind the Khroda heavy machine gun, Madiha followed Parinita’s directions and spotted the Archer fighter planes, now acting as ground strafing aircraft and circling the sector in search of new prey. Madiha elevated the gun and began to follow them.
“Unless aircraft rocket technology has grown by leaps and bounds in a year, we should be able to avoid their ordnance. It is those machine guns that we must be wary of. Sergeant Agni, they will fire in long, tight lanes, and you will have to strafe around them to survive.”
Sgt. Agni sped up and switched gears, and expertly took the next corner, losing almost no speed from it; her driving certainly eclipsed Parinita’s, and she was likely a better driver than Madiha herself. Her eyes were locked on the road and nothing seemed to distract her.
At times it was as though the car drove itself perfectly without her input.
Confident in Agni’s ability, Madiha shifted her attention skyward again.
On a stationary position, the Khroda heavy machine gun, a relic in use by the Ayvartan army since 2000 D.C.E was rated at a maximum range of 4 kilometers and an effective range of 2.2 kilometers. Its rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute. On a moving vehicle, spirits only knew how accurate it was; of course, these were considerations for different eyes than Madiha’s. Kimani always told her: she could hit anything if she aimed.
“We’re coming up on them! They’re banking this way!” Parinita shouted.
Madiha caught a glimpse of the five planes speeding suddenly above the convoy.
One city block away the squadron split and the separate aircraft turned sharply in the sky, doubling back to run their lanes along the convoy’s path. They moved so freely that even Madiha found it difficult to keep up with them in the darkening skies.
Old roads limited the convoy cars to ungainly, predictable sidestepping, while the Archer planes could almost double over their own paths, banking and turning, diving and climbing, with very few obstacles in the way of their movement. There was only one consideration for them: because of the disparity between flying altitude and the convoy on the ground, the Archers would have to take shallow dives in order to shoot at them.
Like any attack on the ground it would happen across a series of dives and climbs, and against moving targets in an urban arena the lanes they could run were even more limited. Most of the planes were flying perpendicular to the road and circling around.
Above the convoy the formation broke. Enemies banked, twisted and doubled back.
“Open fire!” Madiha shouted, raising her hand and opening her palm.
From behind the scout car the anti-aircraft trucks began shooting, saturating the sky with machine gun bullets. Little came from it; the Archers maintained altitude, perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters in the air, and the cutting streams of fire seemed to almost intentionally miss the craft, so naturally did they fly away from danger.
Sheer volume seemed to do almost nothing against them.
Avoiding their fire the planes circled around the convoy, three lining up behind them, maneuvering themselves parallel to the road, and two others flying in eccentric patterns.
“Ahead, Agni, one of them is going to cut us off!” Madiha shouted.
Sgt. Agni veered sharply and cut their speed.
One of the circling Archers flew across and blasted the road ahead with its cannons, leaving behind a line of small holes before flying away. They would have been within its lane had they not slowed when they did. Free to move again Agni sped back to full speed as quickly as she could and drove over the lacerations on the road with ease.
Three planes behind them accelerated into their own shallow dives, quickly overtaking them, and opened fire with their Norglers, a modern equivalent to the Ayvartan Khroda. A stream of bullets chased the convoy and perforated the ground around them.
Madiha heard a loud, wet cry and found the windshield of the one of the trucks behind her splashed with blood. The truck veered violently, toppled over on the leftmost street and was no more, riddled with bullet holes and leaking oil, its crew butchered where they sat.
Overhead she heard a loud cracking and fizzing noise.
Rockets launched from under the wings of the craft, crashing around the scout car and kicking up columns dust and smoke and concrete, but Agni veered away from the volley and managed to avoid every potential hit. All of the ordnance was 30 kg rockets, too small to rely on indirect hits. While the car rumbled from the explosions they hardly lost speed or control, Agni was far too tight in her driving to be thrown off by the blasts.
Madiha hid behind her gun shield and waited.
Less then fifty meters overhead the planes leveled out and started to climb. She finally had a bead on them. Madiha raised her Khroda as far as it would go and opened fire.
Archers had thin armor; they were protected mainly by speed and maneuverability.
Throughout the day they had proved this, but against Madiha it was a different story. Her machine gun bullets traced a line under the hull of the leading craft, drawing smoke and fire from its undercarriage and even striking one of its remaining rockets.
Seizing up and starting to burn the craft banked away from the formation and crashed, out of sight and over the rooftops. In the midst of firing Madiha turned the stream of bullets to the next craft and clipped numerous wounds into one of its wings, causing the remaining planes to split up and peel violently away from the convoy’s now accurate fire.
“Almost there!” Parinita shouted, huddling low in her seat.
While the pursuing planes scattered, circling planes tore suddenly from their paths and haphazardly laid fire on the road. Agni turned violently from the road and onto a connecting cobblestone path, avoiding desperate sweeping shots from the two circling planes.
Larger explosions sounded overhead, targeting the circling planes and forcing them back with smoke and fragments. Ahead of the convoy, Nyota Hill appeared and woke violently, seeking to reclaim the sky with hundreds of explosive shells from its guns.
Nyota Hill was an urban park built around a cylindrical hillock dozens of meters in circumference that also rose several meters over the buildings surrounding the park across the adjoining streets. Small for a hill, compared to the larger formations present in the Kalu, Nyota was nonetheless one of the highest places in Bada Aso, with a commanding view. A small observatory had been raised over its peak to study the constellations, but only a pair of walls and a thick plume of black smoke remained of this landmark.
A bomb had leveled it; much of the rest of the hill showed signs of violence.
Bomb craters and trails of Norgler fire pockmarked the once perfectly green hill, and the wreckage of a dive bomber rested at the foot. Nyota Hill bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the city’s open north, but Nocht’s fury had not yet broken the important positions across its surface. The trenches that had been dug across the slopes of the hillock to accommodate dozens of artillery and anti-aircraft guns still stood, and mostly intact.
From the cobblestone path Sgt. Agni drove over a fallen fence and onto the green, while the guns around the hill cast their explosive projectiles over the the roofs of the district, shooing away the fighter planes still marauding. Thanks to the altitude, the surroundings, the slope of the hill, and a varied placement of firing positions, Nyota Hill made a very difficult target for enemy aircraft. Within the range of those guns, no planes dared continue their pursuit. Everyone was safe in the shadow of Nyota, for the moment.
Sgt. Agni swerved to a stop, and Madiha dismounted.
She ran to the hill and dove into one of the artillery trenches cut into it, calling for the commanding officer to meet her immediately. Parinita and Agni took their own places in the nearby trenches, cramped with sopping wet men and women manning the guns.
In command at Nyota Hill was a middle-aged woman, comrade Lieutenant Munira, her light skin and dark brown hair dusty from the smoke and powder around the hill. She arrived promptly, dropping into the same shallow trench as the Major and directing the gun commander of the nearby 85mm to depart and run up to the Lieutenant’s old position.
Lt. Munira clapped her hands together and bowed her head as a greeting.
“Salam, Major; we received your radio message an hour ago and have been fighting fiercely since. This was a dangerous journey you undertook; foolhardy even. I thank the Light that you were guided safely to us. What brings you to our little fortress?”
Madiha nodded. “Thank you for your blessing, Lieutenant; I believe we will soon be faced with renewed enemy attack. I hope to aid you in coordinating the defense.”
“Our observers spotted an incoming air fleet minutes ago. We are preparing now.”
“I shall join.” Madiha said. “I hope that my presence might reinvigorate the troops.”
“I defer to you, comrade commander.” Lt. Munira graciously replied.
“No, I wish for you to command.” Madiha said. “Address your troops as you see fit.”
Lt. Munira nodded her head. She stepped outside the trench momentarily, and delivered a speech to her batteries in a loud, fierce and very slightly accented voice. “Comrades, Major Nakar has joined us in the face of the enemy’s bombardment, having braved rockets and gunfire to bear witness to our victory today! As she did in the border, the Major is here to help us brave the odds, and together we shall become a legend of the city of Bada Aso! Fix yourselves toward the southwest, from whence the imperialist’s aircraft approach, and turn them back with all your fury! With Comrade Major Nakar at our side we will eject them across the seas once more! Man your guns, and fight bravely!”
Madiha hadn’t heard of Lt. Munira much, aside from the fact that she was one of the rare Diyam, worshipers of “the Light,” in the Ayvartan army. Perhaps she had been at the border battle, perhaps she was a convert to this odd legend going around.
When the Lieutenant called her out from her trench, and held her hand in the air to show everyone that she was present, Madiha could not say much. Munira’s oratory was intense and the reaction from the troops was boisterous and determined like she had never seen. It was uncomfortable to hear such powerful and flattering words, and worse to feel flattered by them, and feel flattered by the synchronized cheers from the battery crews assembled around the hill. But Madiha had little time to feel uncomfortable.
She cleared her throat and said few words of her own.
“Comrades, I do not merely plan to watch you fight; I would be honored to join you in battle. As one, let us come together to resist the profligate imperialist invaders!”
She offered to take the position of gunner for Lt. Munira’s 85mm gun, and the Lieutenant and the previous gunner were equally pleased to cede the seat and gun shield to her. They returned to the trench, where Madiha took her new position. While everyone was setting up she asked for the names of soldiers in adjacent batteries, surreptitiously trying to collect and remember as many names as possible in order to awaken her latent potential.
For her plan to work, she could not simply have one gun at her disposal. She needed as many of the heavy guns as possible, firing the strongest fragmentation ordnance available. During the hustle and bustle, she identified most of the crews of the big guns.
“I admire your learning their names,” Munira said, “Should I die, you can honor the fallen in my place. Truly everything said about you is coming true before me, Major.”
Madiha nodded as though that was exactly what she had been thinking.
One could not have gone further from the truth.
Then across Nyota Hill the call sounded: “Enemy aircraft, from the southwest!”
Almost in tandem every crew adjusted their gun elevation. Sounds of twisting and sliding metal issued from every trench as gun elevation was adjusted, and clunking and thumping noises as shells and shell-clips went into breeches. Gun commanders pulled up their binoculars and issued coordinates to their crews.
On the horizon Madiha spotted the enemy air group, or fleet, approaching them in force. Fighters made up the bulk once again, and in groups of five; dive bombers and level bombers flew higher in the dark, rainy sky. Madiha’s own gun was not automatic, and could only fire one shell at a time. Thanks to its breech mechanisms it was a simple affair: dropping in a shell, locking the breech and pulling the firing pin to shoot the gun, then removing the shell remnants from the breech and repeating the process for the next shell.
The 85mm could manage 10 to 15 rounds a minute with a good crew.
Sadly, unlike the anti-tank guns, it lacked automatic shell ejection.
In minutes the two sides collided.
Nyota Hill opened fire with everything it had, and the Nochtish squadrons dispersed in the sky and whirled around the landmark like currents in a storm of metal. Fighter planes strafed the trenches with their machine guns and 12mm cannons, tearing up the green, kicking up dust, slamming gun shields and disorienting crews, but unable to put rounds on flesh. Dive-Bombers descended at steep angles, launching small bombs from their undersides and rising sharply away under constant fire. It was a trick that could not be repeated overmuch, and the hill was like a rock in the face of the bombardment.
Four bombers stricken by flak seemed to disintegrate mid-dive, while several smashed portions of the trench and threw back men and women but did no serious damage; two planes flew into heavy fire, lost their nerves and broke away with light damage; a single plane sped into the green, sliding uselessly downhill from the lip of a trench.
Lt. Munira raised a danava LMG over the top of the trench and riddled the cockpit of the fallen plane with bullets. Blood spattered over the cracked and perforated glass.
“Nam jeyid.” She said under her breath.
The wreckage joined the other plane at the foot of the hill.
There were soon dozens more planes circling the hill, but Madiha focused skyward.
Shell into the breech; she turned the handle and locked it.
Lt. Munira and crew raised the barrel almost directly overhead.
Being behind an artillery gun was different than shooting a firearm.
As a child Madiha had fired a revolver. It was the first time she shot at anything.
She hit a man in the foot; there was one bullet left and she hit him inside his mouth. Both shots had been perfect, as though she had been born handling a gun. A firearm had a sort of texture, a grip, a series of motions. To her eyes there was something visible, guiding lines, a blue-print in the air that would guide her shots. Artillery pieces were impersonal. Even if you could see the target, the piece was stationary, and your body had no control over it. There was distortion in the lines. She was removed from the blueprint.
She likened it to moving her limbs with her eyes closed.
There was a unique feeling to one’s body moving without input from the eyes.
Time to aim was an abstraction. Madiha hardly aimed. She always simply moved.
An artillery piece didn’t allow her to.
Nonetheless, whatever monstrous thing twisted away her humanity, it was powerful. She felt that eerie, demonic strength course through her mind as her hand touched the firing pin and unleashed the fragmentation shell into the sky. Her consciousness traveled with the ordnance for what was to her a split second, but encompassed the whole of its flight; the shell flew straight into the air at a steep angle, crossing thousands of meters in tens of seconds. There was no contact with metal, no grand rending to pieces of the enemy.
The shell reached fuse altitude and flew past an unsuspecting level-bomber.
It did not miss; the shell exploded just over the wings.
One by one the engines on the bomber’s wing began to fail, stricken with shrapnel. Rapidly losing altitude, the machine fell from the clouds, its propellers fanning flames spreading across its wings and hull. Minutes later every man and woman in the trenches watched the massive bomber crash to earth, another wreck at the foot of Nyota Hill.
There were more targets. Now it was Madiha’s chance.
While everyone was distracted, she touched that power again.
Her head grew hot, hot enough to draw sweat. Her eyes burnt, and her vision wavered.
Bomb bay doors opened far in the sky, and lines of ordnance dropped on the surrounding streets. A massive bomb struck the top of the hill and pulverized the remains of the observatory. Dive bombers and strafing planes swarmed over them like bees and came down in their twos and threes, sweeping across the hill. Norglers blazing, under-wing rockets bursting across the hillock, artillery flak answering each blow; Madiha felt the power erupt from her body, hyperaware of the tumultuous environment.
Fire and smoke and a ceaseless cacophony, and the burning, the infernal burning; her tendrils reached across the hillock, touching every gun she could identify with the power.
Soon as shells left muzzles Nochtish planes immediately began to fall.
Quick-firing 37mm guns rent apart whole fighter squadrons and dive bombers; 85mm and 57mm guns fired directly skyward and sliced through level bombers and their escorts. She sustained perhaps thirty seconds of fire, enough for a few hundred shells, before she slumped on her gun, weeping, blinded, immobilized. She saw the wraith again, forcing its way back inside of her, bleeding back into some unseen wound in her very humanity.
“Major? Major!” Lt. Munira pulled her back from the gun and laid her back on the trench. She smacked her gently in the cheek as if to wake her. “Major, are you alright?”
“Yes, yes,” Madiha gasped, starting to recover, “Yes, I am fine. It’s the smoke.”
She looked out from the trench and through her wavering, blurry vision she saw a sky still filled with enemy planes. Two squadrons of fighters took turns strafing the trenches. An instant later a dive-bomber plunged from the sky and dropped a bomb right into a trench several meters above Madiha’s own, casting dirt and rocks and metal down on her and Lt. Munira’s crew. It was like fighting a swarm. How many had she managed to kill with her power? Fifty or sixty? Nyota Hill was throwing thousands of rounds of ammunition into the sky and seemed to make no gain. Madiha started to hyperventilate again.
Could she reach for a barbiturate in front of her troops?
Could she sit here, the legend they counted on, and fail them?
“Major, are you sure you’re not injured? You look disoriented.” Lt. Munira said.
Dirt and rocks slid down from above, covering Madiha’s head in a tiny stream of debris before she could reply. Something larger dropped from above; Parinita slid clumsily down, almost crushing the loader under herself. In her hands she gripped one of the few hand-held radios distributed to the battery. Moments later Sgt. Agni appeared overhead as well, firing uselessly into the sky with a Danava LMG, before casting it aside and dropping down onto the unoccupied gunner’s seat of the 85mm gun. Lt. Munira looked puzzled by their appearance. The emplacement trench was getting cramped now with their presence.
“Major! You’re looking pale!” Parinita said. “I have some good news–”
An explosion drowned out Parinita’s voice, but she continued to speak.
Madiha made out a phrase from her voiceless lips: Ox Air Army.
Two fighter planes circling the hillock burst to pieces as if spontaneously. Four smaller green biplanes took their place, collectively casting a hail of bullets over the Nochtish planes. Across the park and over the district Nochtish fighters found themselves torn from their strafing attacks and forced into sudden dogfights with the arrival of dozens upon dozens of Anka biplanes from over the city. Slower, but numerous and dogged, the biplanes surrounded their enemies and shot at them from every direction, taking several down.
As the rain abated, the Ayvartan air force joined the battle.
Lt. Munira leaped out of the trench and shouted across the hillock for the batteries to watch their fire, because now they might hit friendlies participating in pitched dogfights.
Madiha joined her, not to give orders, but to watch the sky temporarily clearing, both of the dark clouds, and of the beleaguered enemy fleets, swarmed by hundreds of Ayvarta’s weak but numerous planes, blasted from below by hundreds of guns, and again unable to break Nyota Hill and conquer the skies over the city. Above them the sky was ablaze.
Bada Aso burnt, with fury, with agony, with courage, with defiance.
24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso
At “Madiha’s House” not a soul seemed to welcome the relative silence of the new day.
Stillness gave everyone nothing but a painful moment to contemplate, to fall prey to discomfiting thoughts. As if to fill in the sounds of bombs and guns, everyone seemed to speak louder and step harder on the ground. Everyone worked hard to fill in the silence in their hearts and minds, the cruel silence of a world that had been blasted emptier and stiller.
“It appears the Luftlotte has stopped running sorties since the attacks this morning. The ARG-2 haven’t picked up a thing in hours! So their continuous attacks are over.”
Madiha sat behind a cafeteria table, turning over her curry dinner with a spoon. Parinita tried to smile at her while giving her the news. After what seemed like interminable bombing and strafing, they had somehow expelled the Luftlotte. Unfortunately, massive damage had been dealt to the city infrastructure. Only a big portable petrol generator provided power to the headquarters now, and the lights flickered even without bomb blasts and shockwaves to disturb them. Half the city was without water service or lights.
“Do you want to take a look for yourself, or just the highlights?” Parinita said.
Across from her, the secretary pushed forward a file folder with a fresh strategic report.
“I will confess a touch of fear at the prospect of reading that.” Madiha said.
“Well the news is about as rosey as it can be.” Parinita shrugged. “On the bright side, judging by the wreckage, and from reports from the flak batteries and from pilots, over the course of the fighting we downed almost 300 Nochtish aircraft, including large amounts of the fighter craft they used for strafing. So future dogfights will be a little easier on what’s left of our Anka planes. Which brings me to the downside, which is that we’ve maybe got 100 planes left, if that. The Luftlotte flew twenty times the sorties we did, and it cost them, but it also practically destroyed our air force too. Nobody’s got the skies anymore.”
Madiha raised her hands to her face. That first day of air battles was a large boost in morale for the troops, but then the reality set in. There was massive attrition of planes on both sides. The Ox air army was decimated in two days. She had no idea how much Nocht had left, but the Luftlotte had gotten the message. From 600 sorties the first day, to 200 sorties the second, and now not a single enemy plane over their skies.
She could only hope that both their air forces had been broken by the brutality of the air fighting, and not just hers. Swallowing hard, she cracked open the report.
It was more or less what she expected to see, and she wanted to weep and scream and stomp her feet from the sight of it. Casualties were massive. They had to bury 10,000 bodies. There were thousands injured. Civilians had taken the cruel brunt, maimed and killed in collapses of shelters that had proven inadequate, but the stationary troops, gun battery crews and observers were hit hard as well. Materiel loses were minimal, and she still had the overwhelming majority of her eight divisions in Bada Aso.
One ARG-2 had been damaged in an evacuation accident.
One miraculous bright spot: the forces in the Kalu had gone entirely unmolested.
But the more she thought about it the more she felt personally responsible for this failure, for the debacle of this air defense, for how poorly ready the city was for the attack. What had she known about air defense, about air battle; what did she even know now? She knew that if she personally fired an artillery gun, she could hit a bomber.
She was worse than useless as a commander.
She was no genius, no hero of the border or any of that nonsense her troops desperately clung to in order to view themselves as anything more than pawns in an abstract political game between their bickering government and the bloodthirsty imperialists from overseas who saw them as a threat to the peace of the world. With a shaking hand she reached into her jacket and withdrew a barbiturate pill to calm her nerves.
Parinita reached out her hands, holding Madiha’s with both of hers.
“Please, don’t.” She said. “I saw you drink one just thirty minutes ago Madiha.”
Madiha didn’t struggle.
She dropped the pill, and collapsed over the table, burying her face in her arms.
She was a monster more useless than the human she had once thought she was.
A monster that could not even wield her monstrous power against anybody.
All she had left was the pain and the plan. Parinita was right.
Taking the pills was just useless.
“Schedule a briefing with the captains from each division. We need to go over the defense plan and deploy. Nocht’s land forces will not be far.” Madiha said.
She was speaking without affect, like someone from the KVW.
Not because of conditioning, which she had never received, but exhaustion. She was just too beleaguered to feel anymore. What use were the tears of a monster in commemorating the dead? The pity of a monster for the people she herself had condemned? There was no point in living in this shell of humanity any longer. She was Major Nakar, a freakish thing in human form given pitiless command over an army.
Parinita nodded obediently and stepped away from the table.
She rounded it, pulled up a chair beside Madiha.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”
“Not now, please.” Madiha mumbled.
Again, Parinita nodded obediently. She laid her head on her arms as well.
For a moment, they just sat there together. It felt nicer than Madiha wanted to admit.
NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Legions of Hell