The Gates of Hell (9.4)


21-AG-30 Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

“Madiha, are you sure you want to do this? I think we should go back and rest.” Parinita said. Her stuttering had grown pronounced, and she was practically shouting every word as though it would be her last. She was driving now, was constantly correcting and overcorrecting on the steering wheel, shifting the scout car to the wrong gears, and she could only turn corners by braking to a snail’s pace and accelerating into them little by little.

Madiha would not have been surprised if this was her very first time driving a vehicle outside of basic instruction. Nonetheless she had insisted in driving, and insisted that Madiha keep her head tipped back against the seat, with a wet, warm cloth over her forehead. They ate peanuts, strips of flatbread and dry, roasted chickpeas out of a box, and it seemed to Madiha that more of the food flew from the box than was actually eaten.

“Madiha, I asked if you were sure–”

“I’m becoming gradually certain that I do not want you to drive.” Madiha replied.

Parinita blinked hard and took her eyes off the road. “Oh, wow; I can’t believe I’d hear a sarcastic joke from you of all people! I meant if you wanted to go the port or not! Now it’s my turn to tell to you not to be coy and to consider my words, Madiha!”

“I was not being sarcastic! Please, Parinita, park the car and surrender the wheel!”

“No! You need to rest. If we’re going to the port, you need to be fresh and relaxed.”

No sooner had Parinita completed the sentence that both of them jumped from their seats as the scout car took a sudden bump in the road very roughly. Parinita hit the steering wheel with her chest, and Madiha’s head snapped forward and back against the seat.

Had the road defect been any worse they might have been completely ejected from the car! It had no canopy and the windshield was not of great quality.

Still, Parinita refused to cede the wheel to Madiha.

She drove them out to the waterfront, stopping and starting and swerving side to side whenever she sped up, going over every bang and bump. She had navigated using a map of the city and took several wrong paths. They were further south than they were meant to, atop the stone ramparts overlooking the low, sandy beaches of the Ayvarta’s western coast.

Embarrassed but determined, Parinita switched gears needlessly and drove them up the coastline for forty-five minutes. Gradually the beach receded, and the water rose. From quite afar they spied the port along the large artificial harbor, a projection composed of thousands of tons of concrete straddling the old stone ramparts on the coast.

Building it had been quite a project, and the Empire did not fully complete it before falling. The Socialist Dominance of Solstice, however, had quickly finished the job after the Revolution, and for a time had very busy trade with the outside world.

Almost no commercial vessels occupied the harbor now. Many had fled.

In their place there was one very visible heavy cruiser, the Revenant.

Almost 200 meters across, the Revenant had a long thick hull, ungainly but reliable and heavily armed. A main turret containing two 300mm guns was supported by six 37mm guns organized in three pairs that acted as an anti-air defense, and six 100mm dual-purpose guns organized in pairs for both air and surface combat, as well as several machine guns.

Bristling with weapons, packed with sailors ready to fight, it was one of the proudest ships of the Ayvartan navy, more effective perhaps than even its capital ships.

Parinita whistled again, the same as she did seeing the tanks.

Madiha was not planning on keeping this gift.

“Are you feeling hot, Madiha?” Parinita asked out of the blue.

“No, I am not.” Madiha replied. “I am room temperature, I suppose.”

“Alright, good. I think your condition is bettering then.”

“I already told you it was. I’m driving on the way back.”

They parked along the water and Parinita offered to help Madiha walk to the ship, but the help was not necessary. Madiha had recovered fully from her bitter failure to reengage her powers. Though overwhelming at first, the pain and confusion was shorter-lived than she imagined. As soon as they pulled away from Lt. Bogana’s air defense zone Madiha recovered her senses. She hesitated to say that she was becoming more used to employing her eerie, nameless gift, but she nursed that secret hope. Parts of her hated and feared this power and what it meant; but her pragmatic side believed that if she could channel it and use it sparingly and without discovery, she might inflict brutal damage on Nocht.

But that was not the plan, not right now. It could not be. It was simply too uncertain.

Madiha led the way up the steps to the bow of the ship, where five marines, the captain, and her executive officer. Captain-At-Sea Monashir was a younger woman than Madiha would have thought would be in command of such a vessel.

She was dressed sharply in her full uniform, with her hair in a bun and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. Madiha and Parinita looked disheveled in front of her.

“Good evening, Major.”

Evening it was. Madiha had scarcely taken notice of the growing darkness. She was running out of time and simply could not muster much eloquence anymore. She was exhausted and had a heavy heart and mind. She made her case quickly.

“Evening, Captain. I’m afraid I haven’t much time. But I must insist that you depart.”

“We’ve just barely arrived, Major.” Captain Monashir explained.

“Then it will be that much easier for you to depart anew.” Madiha continued. “Our air defenses cannot protect the Revenant from a sustained bombing by the Luftlotte. I must request that you leave for the ports in Tambwe, and return in two weeks time with any naval resources that the Admiral can spare. Right now it is too dangerous for you remain.”

Captain Monashir shook her head. “Do you know if you will control the port by then?”

“You can smash it back into our grasp if necessary.” Madiha said.

Parinita handed the Captain a copy of the operational plan as well as the now slightly inaccurate Table of Organization. Captain Monashir glanced at them before handing them to her XO and crossing her arms. She sighed a little bit.

“Admiral Qote ordered me to follow your orders, and I shall. I will attempt to remain in radio contact with your office as much as I can, but I cannot promise anything at sea. I hope you understand what you are doing, Major.” The Captain said.

She had reason to be wary. She was not with the army, and not at the border; she was not one of those few people with a glowing view of Madiha. She had every right to be skeptical and she exercised those rights. Clearly this was what people outside the situation thought. Madiha was unprepared and foolish and making poor decisions.

“Godspeed, Captain.” Madiha said. She and Parinita departed the heavy cruiser.


21-AG-30 Late Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

The Major was burning again. Whenever they were together, the burning was less terrible to behold, but the fire behind her eyes was so bad now that blood was seeping from the sockets. Could nobody see this but Parinita? Could nobody help her?

While Madiha spoke with the Captain, Parinita had tried her best to do what she learned from her grandmother’s superstitions. Surreptitiously she blew on the flame, she swiped away the flame. Why was this something only she could do?

In a panic all those questions seemed to flood her again. She could not let Madiha know about the burning; it was too crazy, too horrible. But it all bore out; the burning was really getting worse all this time. Madiha might go up in flames.

But her labors seemed to bear results. By the time Captain Monashir had accepted her orders, Madiha’s eyes had returned to their dull, sorrowful old facet. Parinita breathed a sigh of relief, and tried to ask if she felt hot. There was no response.

Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since they arrived at the port before they were off the ship again. Standing over the edge of the pier they watched the Revenant prepare again to sail into the darkness. An hour passed, and the ship was off with the last hints of the sun.

Slowly becoming a sliver of lights playing about the moonlit surface of the sea, the ship’s departure was a strange sight on which to hang up another day.

Madiha looked exhausted.

They climbed into the scout car and then started the drive back, but Madiha soon stopped again and parked along the ramparts overlooking the sea.

She stepped out of the car and leaned on the edge barriers.

Parinita joined her.

She did not ask when they were going to return to the headquarters. She knew that Madiha needed a little break, and that it had been a heavy day, and given no combat had occurred, heavier days yet awaited them. After a long quiet period she decided to speak up.

Perhaps it was time again for a film night!

Anything to try to distract the both of them from their situation.

“Is it fine if I call you Madiha?” Parinita said. “While we’re away from work.”

“I don’t mind. You’ve been doing so all this time.” Madiha said.

“True. Just making sure!” Parinita replied. “So, what was the first film you saw?”

Madiha stared at her for a moment, but then she smiled and complied.

“I cannot remember the name. I was about five or six years old at the time. One day the nuns at the orphanage took us to see it as a treat for some holiday. It was a very tedious religious film, even worse because it was silent, so I nodded off a lot.”

“Ah, yes, talkies didn’t exist back then. We’ve only had talkies for ten years or so now.”

“As a teen and adult I watched films mostly on dates or out with friends.” Madiha said.

Parinita nodded. She took a deep breath and she laughed a little telling the long story of her first film. It was something she had rehearsed a little in her own mind.

“When I was a kid I went to the theater multiple times a week. I practically lived out of the theater. My grandmother took care of me while my mother was out, and she thought I was tedious to look after, so she would send me to the theater with money to ‘get looked after.’ And nobody at the theater really cared who watched what films.”

She took a little breath, all of the sights flashing in her mind. She continued. “So I always watched grown-up pictures and not the kiddie shows. My first was a silent slapstick movie from Nocht, Well-Mannered Mr. Krauss. Mr. Krauss was clumsy and he hurt himself a lot. He fell down pits and got hit by doors and he tripped and smashed into a cart full of cabbages. At the time I laughed. I feel bad about it now that I’m a clumsy adult.”

Madiha looked surprised and elated with her. She seemed on the verge of laughter, but just controlled enough to appear merely fond of the anecdote. “You have an incredible memory.” She said, holding her hand up to her mouth for a fraction of a second.

“For remembering slapstick movies, maybe.” Parinita laughed.

“I would probably laugh at some simple slapstick. I don’t like deep comedies much; especially social comedies. They make me cringe when I watch them.”

“Ah, so something like The Wedding of Dr. Franz would not please you?”

Madiha smiled. “I have actually watched that, and no, it did not please me.”

“I knew you had to have seen it. It has been extremely popular these past few years. Even aired dubbed on the television in Solstice and Bada Aso and a few other cities that have television service. It’s seen extremely wide distribution for such a fool’s film.”

“I must say I despise those kinds of films. I hate humiliation and social comedy.”

“I agree! Slapstick is cruel, but you can write slapstick so other people aren’t to blame.”

“Perhaps that’s what it is. I lack an explanation for my preference. I simply feel discomforted by humiliating situations. I can’t laugh at them at all.”

“On the other hand though, slapstick has more violence. You can draw blood in slapstick. So when you watch a slapstick flick, if it gets too intense, like when they try to incorporate guns going off, it can make you a little sad too. So I don’t know if it’s better.”

Madiha laughed nervously. “Talking with you makes me feel that I am the type of person who pushes aside introspection too much. I’ve never really thought about this.”

“Oh, well, don’t worry about it. I think we all do that a lot. Especially in times like this, we need to push through the bad brains and focus on the job at hand don’t we? But when it comes to films, I’m always thinking on what I got out of watching.”

In truth Parinita simply channeled her own runaway mind into a hobby, so that the spectacle of film would drown out her innermost insecurities when work could not be called upon to do so. She supposed Madiha did the same but she either channeled them into work, or when work was not available, she allowed them to devour her. At least now Parinita could occupy her with silly things about film and waste both of their time.

And it gave her an opportunity to try to dull the flames otherwise gnawing at Madiha from within. She could see it behind her eyes, like in her grandmother’s stories.

When she first saw those eyes she felt a sense of urgency.

To her grandmother these stories had been so important; more important than Parinita herself. They had been her grandmother’s life. But now, what could Parinita even do? How could she save Madiha? She hadn’t even known Madiha at all when she first saw those burning, sorrowful eyes. Did she even know her at all right now? One thing she knew was that her presence seemed to dull the flames. Grandmother had been incredibly cryptic and cruel, and her stories full of poison, but Parinita was too kind. She could not write off Madiha’s fate as some superstition, and the more she partnered with the Major the more that felt driven to do something about her condition, to support her however she could.

The burning was not as intense now, but a tiny flame was nursed again in Madiha.

Parinita reached out while Madiha was fixated on the moon shining in the water. She grabbed some of the flame. She smothered it in her hands. Parinita could do this too. At all costs she could not allow Madiha to burn up like that. It was too horrible a fate. If only she had paid more attention to those wicked old stories; she would know more of what to do.

Quickly, she changed the subject to gossip that Madiha could contribute to.

“I was wondering, how do you know Inspector Kimani? Not to sound untoward, Madiha, but you two seem to have more than a working relationship, to me.”

“She was one of the first people I ever really knew.” Madiha said. “I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and then on the streets. Such a situation precludes truly knowing anyone; other people are enigmas one must beware. Kimani was the closest thing I had to an acquaintance or friend; everyone else was a guardian or a mentor, or gone.”

“I suspected it was something like that based on how you talked to each other. In Gowon’s office everyone had to be really stiff to each other. You cultivate a lot of familiarity around yourself. Not that I mind. I like being able to talk to my boss.”

Madiha stared at her for a moment as though unsure of how she should feel about this.

“Well, if you are comfortable with it, then that is fine with me. I don’t really try to do anything untoward or casual with my command. It is merely that I have no opinion of how I am addressed.” Madiha said. “My rank has never really meant anything, as I was always subordinate to Kimani. I was staff to her in the same way that you are staff to me. I still have that kind of relationship to most soldiers I suppose.”

“You don’t have to explain it! It’s nice, that’s all. So how did you meet Kimani?”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to sigh and to attempt to construct a narrative.

“We were working together during the revolution. I was a courier, when I was seven years old or so. She was one of the many people to whom I brought letters. One of the revolutionaries. We had our own code; certain people wrote letters in it that contained organizational plans, sabotage, intrigues, and so on. I delivered letters to many people. Each of them had their own predilections that I would come to discover. Kimani was much more concerned for my well-being than the others. We would sit and talk, and she would teach me things. She would give me changes of clothes and food. Other people just took my letters and looked the other way as I struggled out in the world.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad you had someone like that. Kind of like an older sister to you?”

“I can’t really say. I never had siblings or parents. Kimani was just Kimani to me.”

“Well, if it means anything, she sounds like a better parent than mine! My mom would have looked the other way. She might have even thought I was a nuisance to take care of. Heck, sometimes she even pretended I wasn’t her child. So hey, you dodged a bullet!”

All those words had come out so easily. They were bitter and didn’t hurt anymore. Parinita had gotten too used to the taste of that vinegar. Others would have been shocked, but Madiha, whose life had been so irregular, did not seem to understand their magnitude. Her eyes were still cast on the water off the coast. Sorrowful and unchanging, hiding that fearsome, eroding fire. She was a strange woman. Her grandmother had never made it clear what kind of person the Warlord could even turn out to be in any given era.

Parinita thought it would have been a man, like a knight.

Or nobility, like the former Emperor.

Instead it was Madiha, gazing sorrowfully at the sky and water as though trying to find something buried in the dark, something that fire in her eyes could not illuminate. Slowly burning, dying, with no knowledge of what was really happening.

“I like to think that I have progressed past the life of that child,” Madiha said, presumably referring to herself. “But I don’t really know a lot about her life so in turn I can’t really know if I’ve changed. I was told I was very precocious during the revolution.”

“People don’t change a whole lot, I don’t think. You probably weren’t that different!”

“Perhaps they don’t and perhaps I wasn’t. It simply gnaws at me not to know.”

“Well, maybe life just doesn’t work that way for anyone. Maybe time is just nonsense outside of a film story.” Parinita said, guiding them haphazardly back into Film Night, and away from that minefield of personal anguish. “In films everything is all neat and tidy and happens in a line. People get stronger, they learn new things; it’s really dramatic, isn’t it? People in real life don’t experience things like that, and that’s okay! Unlike in the films we have more than the sixty or ninety minutes to make up for problems along the way.”

“Perhaps.” Madiha said. Her eyes smoldered again. Sorrowful, burning; slowly dying.

“We’re limited.” Parinita said sadly. “But we can still change the course of things!”

“I suppose so.”

“Your plan, for example. I’m confident we will give Nocht a good whacking!”

From the look on the Major’s face this was not a happy topic. She had seen Madiha concoct the plan in the back of their half-track, bitterly and tentatively, agonizing over it. In the end it appeared that she had accepted the plan, and everyone in the staff agreed. To them it was just words on paper, positions on a map, an order of battle, a route of supply. These were things pinned to a board that they had to make reality, they were abstract.

You could put your faith in abstractions, like you could with the plots of fantastic films.

To Madiha though, the defense of the city was probably a lot more real. Parinita realized her insensitivity then and her gregarious, cheerful nature was muted for a moment.

“I would not be so quick to throw your hopes behind Operation Hellfire.” Madiha finally said, in a dull, detached voice. “It is brutal and bloody, heinous, wasteful. I never thought the first operation I would command would be a defense in depth. There are times where I wish I could die in place of all the people who will be thrown against Nocht; and not just in this operation but in the coming months. I feel weak, Parinita.”

“Don’t say that Madiha! You are very important! As important as any rifleman!”

“They sacrifice blood and flesh, while I hide behind them. I am unimportant.”

“Then what about me?” She asked clumsily. “How important is someone like me?”

Parinita shocked herself with the response, and how easily she had said it, and Madiha was shocked even more. Her eyes drew wide and her expression bore a note of horror. It was a Madiha unlike any she had ever seen looking back at her. She was turning pale. Those simple words had invoked something terrible in her mind.

“I am so sorry.” Madiha said. “Forgive me. I was a fool. In no way did I mean–”

“Nah, it’s okay!” Parinita hastily said and patted her shoulder. “It’s okay!”

Her eyes did not burn any harder despite the clear anguish building in her face. So it was not hardship that made them burn. Thank the Spirits for that. Had it been, Parinita thought to herself that she might have killed the Major on this night.

Both of them pretended to move forward from that, but Parinita knew that neither of them would think of anything but that painful exchange until morning. They returned to headquarters after hours of staring at the water and sky, finishing their trail ration along the way. Departing the scout car they exchanged awkward goodnight wishes and went their separate ways. Parinita felt very stupid lying on her stretcher in the office, covered in a medical blanket, feeling cold and weeping lightly about everything.

She knew she had cost Madiha a night’s worth of sleep and she felt grotesque for it. She had said something haunting. It was something that had haunted her for very long and now she had set it on Madiha atop all of her other problems. She bit the flesh on the side of her thumb in frustration, and managed very little sleep herself.


22-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Rail Yard

Rail traffic showed no signs of slowing down the following morning. Several new trains passed through Bada Aso, including a very long train carrying numerous tanks and half-tracks for the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. This train was immediately ordered to ship out to the middle of the Kalu and deploy its cargo there. Thirty minutes later a passenger train carrying the infantry component of the 5th Mechanized arrived as well, and Kimani was about to set foot through its door when a car pulled up behind the platform.

Madiha Nakar quickly exited the vehicle and climbed the platform, breathing heavily. Dark bags had developed under her eyes, but they were hard to see due to her brown skin. She had at least taken the time to comb her hair. But clearly she was upset.

“Chinedu, at least have the heart to wait a moment for me to properly see you off!”

Kimani turned to her. Her face was inexpressive. “Apologies. I didn’t expect this.”

“I suppose I should have other priorities; but you cannot blame me for this.”

“I would not do that.” Kimani said. “But it is very pernicious for you to prioritize me.”

“I understand you’ve lost feelings for me; but I can’t lose them for you. I just can’t.”

“I have not lost all feeling. Only some. Everyone in the KVW still has feeling.”

Madiha balled up her hands into fists and avoided eye contact. She felt like a child.

“I understand why you’re leaving.” She said. “I’m not small. I can’t hide behind you.”

“That is part of it, yes. But you are wrong: I am not leaving you, Madiha.”

Madiha shook her head. Her voice started to crack. “You know what I mean!”

“No. I am not, in any way that you imagine, leaving you. I will never leave you.”

Madiha scarcely allowed her to finish speaking.

She threw herself at Kimani, wrapping her arms tight behind the woman’s back and throwing her head into her chest. She was weeping, and she did not want Kimani to see it, even if the heard the sobs, even if she felt the quivering. She did not want Kimani to see the tears. Kimani in turn wrapped her own arms around Madiha, and brushed her hair like a mother would to her child. She felt Kimani’s chin and nose against her head and she wondered whether the Inspector was weeping too. She never confirmed it.

“I only wish I could have been a real protector to you. Perhaps I will yet make that up.” Kimani said. “All I have done is wrong you. Perhaps I will make amends for everything that has happened. Please understand Madiha; I’m trying to make things right.”

They stood on that platform for close to fifteen minutes.

It was hard to let go. It was near impossible to watch the train depart.

She never even saw Kimani’s face as the train separated them. Madiha was not sure that she left the station any better or worse than she entered it. She was hollowed out, and she was not done crying. She knew there would be many more tears to come. She knew none of this was definitive. None of this was a forging experience. But she left it, and she breathed, and her heart thrashed. Time passed. She still stood upon the earth.

There was a burning inside her, and a monster yawning to life.

She was not ready, but not yet gone. Her heart was faltering, but not broken.


22-AG-30 ????????

Adler 1, reporting in.”

Adler 2, reporting in.”

Reports came in. All Adlers reported. Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

Frequencies toggled.

Falke 8, let’s show them the Blitz part of the Blitzkrieg huh fellas?”

Falke 9, just shut up and fly Falke 8 for Messiah’s sake.”

“Falke 10 just quietly following the luftgruppe.

“Affirmative luftgruppe, all of Falkegruppe is ready. Milans, report.”

Milan 3, going steady, ready to dive on target on mark.”

One by one the calls came in and were logged by flight command.

All Call-Signs reported in. Dozens of planes in groups making up hundreds of planes.

Quick Archer monoplanes speeding forward with their cannons ready to shed blood. Thicker, slower, more heavily armed Warlock dive-bombers and ground-attack craft followed, waiting to take their precise bites out of buildings and armor. Wizard bombers lumbered somewhere far overhead, bearing their apocalyptic payloads of hundreds of heavy bombs that would not spare the innocent from the guilty. The Luftlotte was bringing its force to bear. Flight command cheered that they had the planes to darken a clear sky, and they had a dark sky already. Soon the Battle for Bada Aso would begin in earnest.

“We are approaching our attack vectors. City is in sight, over.”

“Roger. Give them commies some hell for us, boys.”


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2 Comments

  1. Completely appreciated the discussion about what comedy is palatable and what comedy is not. Why is humiliation funny to people?

    Can’t wait to see how the supernatural elements in this story affect the battles!

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