The Maw Of Hell (10.3)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.


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.


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