This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
6th Ox Rifle Division Depots
Madiha stood tense in front of the divisional tank depots, waiting for Gowon’s orderlies to open the locked shutter doors. They fumbled with their keys and Madiha could not blame them for their anxiety. Behind the little crowd stood Inspector Kimani, wearing a face as though sculpted from stone, never flinching even as the shells exploded in the distance over the lower hill, even as they heard the cracking retorts from distant rifles.
A battle, a real battle with an enemy military force, was unfolding close by.
Within this cacophony the party at the depots worked in silence, carrying out an inspection as though in a world that was not yet at war.
Madiha took up her pen and pad once again to take note of the inventory, knowing exactly why the Inspector had insisted on coming here.
Gowon also knew. He had turned as pale as a Nochtish man. He was quivering in place.
Finally the door was unlocked. The orderlies pulled up the shutter enough for Parinita and another man to crawl under, and they pulled the door the rest of the way by a chain, and secured it. Inside the depot were dozens of discrete aisles that should have been crowded with lines of tanks, but instead they saw only shelves of spare parts and tools, pools of oil, discarded old engine blocks and cannon housings.
There was not a tank in sight.
“Where did you send them, Gowon?” Kimani calmly asked.
“They are refitting,” he explained desperately, “I sent them to Bada Aso for refitting.”
She pressed on. “You have contacts there who work in machining, don’t you?”
Gowon paused, and then stamped the ground in anger.
“I don’t have to suffer this from you Kimani!” He shouted. “I don’t require you to lecture me on ethics and disclosures, I don’t need you looking through all my family and friends! I’m a high ranking member of the civil council and the head of this battlegroup! The military council has no right to come here and–”
Before anyone could gasp or cry or even conceive of what was happening, Kimani had already drawn her revolver and she had already shot.
Madiha did not flinch or move.
At point blank range the heavy round from the high caliber revolver overturned Gowon like a pillar, and burst open the back of his head onto a nearby wall. Only once the streaks of gore had hit and drip to the floor did anyone come to recognition. The orderlies tripped over their own feet in shock and horror. Parinita screamed and covered her ears as though she would go deaf from a noise that had already gone. Gowon was dead.
Madiha knew that Justice had been done in the only way the situation would allow.
She took her pen and put it down neatly and simply: On the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom, Major Elijah Gowon was summarily executed by KVW Inspector General Chinedu Kimani for misuse of army materiel, misappropriation of the people’s funds, capitalistic abuses, and incompetence in the face of the enemy.
She paused after, contemplating what she had written. Incompetence in the face of the enemy. Distantly behind her the guns were still roaring. For the first time in years and years, a high-ranking officer was executed in the midst of a battle. All of the implications of what was happened, what had happened, seemed to fail to penetrate to Madiha.
“Madiha, we have no time to lose.” Kimani said. “I’m putting you in command of Ox.”
“Yes ma’am.” Madiha said. Somehow the words had not registered.
She could not entirely grasp the concept of what she doing. It was just another order from Kimani that she had to obey as an agent of the KVW. She did not interrogate it.
Kimani continued. “Elements of my division are scattered around Adjar. Some are close. I will contact them, and they will help us evacuate. But you must keep the enemy back until then with whatever we have here. I need time to clear out Gowon’s headquarters. We can’t have any sensitive information falling into enemy hands. This is it, Madiha. It is what we feared might happen. Do you understand?” Madiha nodded her head solemnly, and Kimani nodded back. The Inspector turned her attention to Parinita, staring dumbly still at Gowon’s corpse. “You, girl, brief Captain Nakar on Ox’s disposition.”
Parinita blinked hard in confusion. Madiha took her hand and pulled her along. Kimani rounded up the rest of the orderlies and they parted ways. Kimani and the orderlies ran to the looming headquarters building as fast as they could, but Madiha and Parinita walked, a world apart still. In command of Ox, she had said. Madiha turned over in her head what this meant and what she was doing. In her own strange way, she was broken by shock.
Together she and Parinita rushed all the way down to the lower crest, overlooking the field and forest dividing them from Cissea (Nocht), where a semicircular battle line had formed to contain the enemy advance. Anti-tank guns, long-barreled artillery guns and heavy machine guns had been pushed to the edge of the crest, and stood just behind the old line of abandoned pillboxes. Old concrete guard posts and hill edge barriers provided cover from which they could shoot down to the field and the outskirts of the forest. A skeleton crew held the line, men and women enough only to man the guns and shoot down the hill if necessary – a force that might easily be displaced by sustained attack. Thankfully there was a lull now in the fighting. There were bodies of the enemy lying dead on the field.
“Parinita, is it? What is our disposition?” Madiha asked.
Her words sounded distant to herself; she could only imagine how much farther and more dream-like they must have been to the secretary. Parinita stared at Madiha’s face blankly for a moment, their eyes locked to each other, and then she began to speak, droning in the voice of one still half lost in their own mind. “Ox is the Battlegroup size formation responsible for the Adjar Dominance. Under the edicts of the civilian council and the Demilitarization policy we are limited to no more than 100,000 standing troops, 3000 guns, 2000 tanks, a limited officer corps, assorted staff and logistical personnel and vehicles–”
Madiha seized her by the shoulders and stood nose to nose with her.
“How much do we have within grasp and how much out of it?” She said.
Parinita shivered, and she looked down at her hands as though counting something with her fingers, but the fidgeting seemed all to be an act. When she responded she was almost in tears. “I don’t know. A division-sized group is supposed to hold this base – 10,000 troops, but not all of them are here, many were given other jobs, or allowed unspecified leave or to enter a reserve if they performed work that Major Gowon approved of.”
Madiha looked around herself, at the crowds around the distant barracks buildings, at the crews at the hill. There were probably no more than a thousand rifles, if that.
They had trucks and half-tracks scattered around the base, many of which were now towing artillery guns to positions behind the battle line. They had formed an impromptu line long enough to cover the expected approaches toward the base, and dispersed enough that enemy artillery could not destroy all their fighting positions– but there were still less than 30 guns across the battle line, and of those almost all were direct fire guns.
There were a few machine gunners scattered around with a stock of ammo and a gunner beside each. From her vantage she could see only a few mortars in support.
And beyond that there were no armored vehicles at hand – even if there were, they were likely to be Goblin tanks, too lightly armed and armored to make any difference.
Madiha felt herself coming close to shaking and had to steel herself from it. Washing over her like ice-cold water was the realization that she was in charge now of an army that was not here, where she needed it. She slowly let go of Parinita, and approached the guns.
“Who commands here?” Madiha shouted, approaching the nearest fighting position.
A tall young man, bronze as a statue, looked back at her from one of the 76mm guns, leaving the protection of its gun shield to run back to her in a half crouch. He saw the Hydra-headed KVW insignia on her uniform and straightened himself out, saluting her with a sudden grim composure. “I’m Lieutenant Purana, ma’am. Junior Lieutenant, actually. We’ve gotten, umm, mixed up, you could say. I’m not supposed to be in command of the defense but I rallied the people in my barracks to man this position and a few others along the battle line here. We have managed to repel some of the enemy, ma’am.”
“A notably good idea within this chaos. What is happening?” Madiha asked.
“From what I understand at around–” He paused, and seemed to wrack his brain.
“You needn’t develop a timeline for me.” Madiha pressed.
“Yes ma’am.” He looked relieved. “Enemy forces targeted the border defenses with artillery fire; they must have thought it was manned, but in reality there was almost no one there in the trenches and pillboxes. Just some poor trainees and privates having their lunch in the sun! Then it was all thrown into confusion, we had little training on how to handle this, and we expected Major Gowon or some of his staff to come, but nobody did. Our barracks was near one of the truck depots, so when we heard the blasts, some of us went out there, and we came back, and organized bringing guns to the hill with our trucks and manning them, since the ones already positioned here were rusted and useless. We developed this position, and it is haphazard, but we are doing our best, ma’am.”
Madiha nodded. They had done a good job.
“How many comrades do you have in position now?”
“On the line? About a hundred of us. Across the base? Can’t really say. My barracks held about,” he looked at his fingers, counting in his mind perhaps, “two hundred, and we split up the work. People were always coming and going ma’am, so I don’t know for sure.”
“I commend you.” Madiha said. She fixed her eyes on him so that he would understand the seriousness with which she spoke. “You have done quite well. I will make sure you no longer occupy a junior position if we survive. However, I am now taking command.”
“I have no complaints ma’am, but,” He scratched his hair, and sighed audibly, “We were trained to say to KVW that our forces are part of the civilian volunteer army and cannot be commanded by the Military Council. I am relieved to see real army here.” He paused, and Madiha could not help but feel a little disturbed that he considered her the ‘real army’ and not himself. What did he think he was? She could hardly believe what sort of politics was at work here.
“Then you have said it, but the facts remain unchanged. I’m Captain Nakar, KVW Civilian Liaison.”
“Well, you do occupy a space between the two councils, so that works for me. Just, you know, if any of the Civil Council folks object, I’m going to have to say that you coerced me, to preserve my rank.”
Madiha wanted to scream at him, but instead nodded her head in silence and walked past him, out to the edge of the gun line, to see things more closely for herself.
She looked down off the crest of the hill. Most of the trenches in the slope below her had been reduced to splinters and chunks of concrete, and to mounds of upturned dirt, pockmarked with dozens of craters. Despite this she believed that it had not been a fierce shelling. It had been sustained, but the impacts had been small and far apart and did not deliver as much power as they could. It was a hasty and poorly planned attack.
Madiha tapped a woman behind one of the guns on the shoulder and silently demanded her binoculars, which the woman quickly and clumsily gave up. Madiha raised them to her eyes and peered beyond the trenches, to the field dividing Ayvartar and Cissea in this sector.
She saw unmoving bodies in the grass and the woods.
She also saw a couple of flatbed cars and trucks, abandoned across the field. Some were truly wrecked, others merely pockmarked with bullets. A few still burned brightly.
“What happened out there? I assume those are enemy dead?”
“After the artillery, some soft vehicles and foot soldiers charged in to attack us.” Lt. Purana said. “Motorized assault troops I suppose. They ran into all of the traps we laid in the field. Ran into a decade’s old minefield, fell into ditches, sunk in mud-holes. It bought us some more time. We grouped up and opened fire from here before they could bring up their engineers, and they turned tail and ran back again – a lot of them across more traps.”
“So in all, their first artillery attack and the charge after that were wasted.”
“Yes ma’am. I don’t know whether they overestimated or underestimated us. I think it might’ve been some combination of the two – they crush our unused trench, but run over mines? Makes no sense to me, but I’m not gonna second-guess our good fortune.”
Madiha looked again. She focused on the bodies in the grass, the men (for the Nocht army never allowed women into battle) sent to charge the minefield. They were thick with blood and their own gore but she knew something about them was off. She wondered, primarily, what the color of their uniforms would have been before they died, and became soaked red and brown in the blood and muck. Madiha suspected they were not Nochtish.
“Those could be Cisseans.” Madiha said. “I believe deployed Cissean forces to launch the initial attack and then to absorb our fire. This would explain the situation.”
“Ancestors defend,” Lt. Purana said, “So the actual Nocht forces may be–”
“Biding their time. Perhaps organizing their armor to assail us. That means we still have time – but that the worst is yet to come. What is the disposition of our other forces? You say that these people here are just your own barracks-mates? Where are the others?”
“Everyone is in a sorry state right now ma’am, I’m very sorry. I’m not entirely sure. I think some of the other officers in the division were organizing for a counterattack?”
“That would be ridiculous right now.” Madiha said. She turned her head. “Parinita!”
Behind her, Parinita seemed like she would fly off the ground in fear when called. She had been standing back from the line and observing bashfully. She nodded her head in acknowledgment when Madiha called, and stood in attention as the Captain spoke.
“Spread the word around the base. I am in command.” Madiha said. She began to gesticulate alongside her orders, pointing out the positions and weapons she was referencing as she spoke. “Major Gowon has been removed by the KVW for incompetence. We are in a state of emergency. Half the troops will organize to defend this hill, the others will rush into the HQ and help Kimani evacuate materiel and destroy intelligence that could fall into enemy hands. I want all 122mm and 152mm guns we can muster formed into a support battery under my command. I want all 45mm and smaller anti-tank guns in ambush positions at the rear echelon, protecting the artillery batteries. All 76mm guns and available machine guns must be brought forward and organized across this line on a wide front. Each fighting position at least 5 meters apart from the other. Did you get all that?”
Parinita looked dumbstruck by the orders at first, but then she nodded quickly and saluted, standing stiff and tall with her chest stuck out. Was she trying to make up for earlier? “Yes ma’am, Captain Nakar! I have a good memory,” she said, stuttering her words. “I will muster everyone, Captain, ma’am,” she added in a loud, strained voice.
She then took off to spread the word, as instructed.
Madiha spotted her stopping in front of a medic for a few minutes, and then taking off for the barracks. The Medic, too, ran in a different direction, alerting others along his way.
Everything seemed to be moving now. Madiha sighed with relief.
“Did you get that as well?” She asked the forces around her.
Behind each anti-tank gun and the few machine guns, there was a concerted nodding.
6th Ox Rifles Divisional Barracks
Parinita’s heart was racing as fast as her feet.
She ran farther uphill, climbing a gentle slope from the first crest and up to the next closest barracks that she could spot. It seemed empty – so she ran further up to the next one. She reasoned then that the first barracks from the crest of the hill was the one she saw deployed to the battle line. Her legs quickly felt sore from the effort.
Her mind raced too.
Everything around her was at once collapsing but finally falling into place as well. All of the cryptic things she had been told, all of the expectations that she had tried hard to forget. It was all catching up to her again. She and Madiha both had to survive this. She had seen the omens in Madiha’s eyes. She thought she would never see those eyes; and that she would never see them facing death. Those eyes were at once so alien but so familiar.
She had been taught to find those sorrowful eyes.
Like in the old legends, that was her long-forgotten fate. This was not just fancy or imagination. Seeing the fire in those eyes told her it was real; everything had been real.
She had work to do.
A series of barracks spaces were scattered all around the base with their own depots. A network of roads ringing Gowon’s base connected them. It had all been terribly haphazard and had never been corrected – the outpost was ancient, and they had built over it and built over it for generations. Some of the buildings standing here were built before the revolution. Some had been laid before anyone even considered revolution.
Parinita was a Staff Secretary or Chief of Staff for the Battlegroup, a rank created by the Civil Council to help civilians find palatable military work, without feeling tied down to combat and danger, and to help the main army become a more civilian enterprise.
She had received a bare minimum of training, and she could run a good mile.
At the second barracks, she was out of breath, her legs hurt, and her throat and chest felt raw and overworked; but she had run for ten minutes up the slope without stopping. A crowd was gathering outside the buildings and a crate full of rifles and clips was being parceled out. Parinita shambled toward an officer and bent double, gasping for breath.
“Staff Secretary?” asked the female officer. “Where is Major Gowon?”
“Relieved of command.” Parinita said simply. “Our new commander due to the emergency situation will be Captain Madiha Nakar of the KVW. Before you ask, I support the KVW’s decision, and without them, we will not survive this day. We will cooperate.”
The officer quieted for a moment, thinking, and then said, “Nakar? I feel like I have heard that name. I trust you, Maharani; what does Captain Nakar wish for us to do?”
“She has specific orders we must carry out before the enemy musters again.”
Parinita relayed the orders quickly, and added an additional order that she felt would improve the situation – she asked for radios to be distributed to key personnel.
On her orders the soldiers took several radio boxes out of storage, and completed the set with the additional emergency radio from a barracks lockbox, setting the latter outside the barracks for Parinita. She sent a private from the crowd to deliver some radios to Madiha’s line, and sent others with similar deliveries to the artillery battery being organized in the rear, and a last box to be taken to the headquarters building. Runners were sent to the other barracks to get everyone to distribute their own radios as quickly as possible across their own officers and their own parts of the defensive line – this would allow for the transmitting of orders at a far faster rate than Parinita running across the base.
Soon she had Madiha and the officers on the radio, while a few troops waited for orders around them, and the rest ferried crates of rifles and ammunition or helped push guns into place. Everyone as moving and there was direction and order returning to the base.
“This was a perfect idea, Parinita.” Madiha said, her voice crackling over the radio speaker, a small box that was raised to one’s ear to hear the speaker on the other end. “We have begun to see surreptitious enemy movements along the front, and smoke from the forest. Enemy armor will be moving in soon. We need to form that artillery battery and retaliate soon. It is our only chance against the forces they deployed. Our goal is merely to hold out until Inspector Kimani deems it safe to abandon this position and evacuate.”
“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
“How are things moving along around you?”
Across the road Parinita saw the trucks advancing at a more expeditious rate.
“They are moving, Captain.” Parinita said.
“Has anyone heard from Kimani yet? How long until they clear the HQ?”
“One moment.” Parinita said. She turned the dial on the big metal radio box, switching from Madiha’s channel to those of the runner’s box she sent to the headquarters. “This is the Staff Secretary, what is the status of the HQ?” She issued her requests and there was a moment of silence and a bit of crackling noise, before a voice replied to her, sounding rushed and stressed. Parinita listened to the HQ units, barely able to parse their shouting over the poor quality of the audio and the heavy stress that was evident in their voice.
She nodded to herself and reported back to Madiha. “It will take time.”
“Then we must make a concerted effort to hold.” Madiha said.
Parinita stepped away from the radio, ceding the speaker to an officer. No sooner had she given the speaker away that she saw a cloud of dust and smoke suddenly rise from the direction of the defensive line. She took the speaker box and put it to her ear again.
“Captain, are you alright, is that–?”
Successive explosions roared across the defensive line, throwing up fire and debris.
Madiha replied in a rush. “Artillery attack; is the counter battery ready?”
Parinita snatched a pair of binoculars from the dumbfounded officer at her side and peered out across the road, where a group of 152mm howitzers – long-barreled cannons with wider tubes that bore heavy rounds and fired overhead at an angle – were setting up behind a building for cover against the enemy’s own guns. They established themselves and Parinita called them quickly on the radio. She then switched back to Madiha.
“They’re ready Captain, awaiting firing information. Contact them directly.”
Moments later Parinita looked back to the battery with her binoculars as they adjusted their elevation, turned the gun further to their right, and opened fire. With those bellowing retorts, Ayvarta had begun to fight back, their own artillery likely causing the first Nocht casualties of what she believed would become a long, bloody war. In a sense, all of this had been made known to her long ago – she had only forgotten, when she was a child and wanted to get away, until those eyes told her again. She clasped her hands and prayed while the soldiers scrambled around her. She prayed for Madiha to survive everything.