Core Ocean, 1 km off Bada Aso
Parinita whistled. Personnel gathered on the deck of the ship and gazed at the inferno in awe.
It felt like from the deck of the Revenant they could see every single explosion as it went off.
Now the city was ablaze, a massive smoke-belching pyre becoming ever brighter and distant.
There was a general murmur of prayers and chants, for Ayvarta and even for the enemy.
Then, all across the ship, an unusual sound after the moment of silence — there was cheering. There were fists raised in defiance. Everyone had fought the world’s self-described strongest nation, and its people, and they had resisted the advance. On this ship everyone had survived. They had braved the cauldron and escaped unburnt. Nocht’s eyes, those eyes looking from outside into Ayvarta, saw them as sacrifices. But they saw each other as heroes today.
Madiha Nakar and her secretary watched from the starboard side of the ship’s stern, just off the side of a 100mm turret. Parinita joined in the cheering, but Madiha merely clapped.
She estimated that the casualties from the initial explosions would already reach the tens of thousands, given the places that she had contrived for the fires to be funneled toward.
Smoke and burning rubble would claim even more, especially if they tried to fight the fires and rescue anyone trapped in the blaze. In the coming hours Nocht would almost certainly have to vacate the city entirely, and let it burn out by itself in front of them. This would deny them Bada Aso’s railroad, if they even had any cars that could navigate Ayvarta’s rail gauge.
Scores of materiel set down in safe places by the enemy would be lost, destroyed either immediately by the fury or left behind as a casualty of the priorities required for a vast and desperate evacuation. Any vehicle in the city’s main roads would become a death-trap.
In the meantime, the Kalu defenders could strip everything from their line while enemy Panzer divisions stood still in the confusion as their Corps headquarters retreated from the city.
Time and again Madiha had asked herself whether this was the correct course of action. Did even an enemy as despicable as these men deserve the atrocity that she had unleashed on them? And yet, this was not solely about them. Without Hellfire, the city was both impossible to “defend” and impossible to escape from. Nocht had always had the mobility advantage. They could have chased down any retreat — except this one. Everything pointed to Hellfire.
At times, she had cursed her mind as it returned to the maps and the plans. Her mind would not allow her to make a different choice. She knew too well that this was the only plan that would work without opening themselves to be encircled in the city to die at the enemy’s hands.
Without the capability to blow the city to pieces under Nocht’s feet she would not have been able to evacuate so many of her own troops, to strip her lines just bare enough to hold Nocht for a few days and then escape on the Admiral Qote’s naval detachment. It was only with the knowledge that she did not need the troops to destroy Nocht that she could do what she did. It was the only way to save as many people as possible without condemning the saviors entirely.
In the end, Bada Aso was always going to erupt into these purging flames. It was inevitable.
* * *
Escort Naval Squadron “Admiral Qote” was a small fleet dispatched from Tambwe after the arrival of the Revenant, bringing news from Bada Aso. It consisted of the Revenant itself as the lead ship, along with the Admiral Qote, the newest and largest of Ayvarta’s few aircraft carriers; and the Selkie I and Selkie II, frigates; and the Charybdis, a troopship converted from a cruise liner over a year ago. Tourism to Ayvarta would not reignite any time soon.
Instead of holiday-makers, the Charybdis carried the remains of Madiha’s 3rd and 4th Line Corps, now dissolved pending reassignment. Madiha’s Divisional HQ for the 3rd Motor Rifles had been assigned with the annexation of as many of the best soldiers from the Ox defenders as could be found during the evacuation, and these people sailed on the Revenant with her. She was pleased with the combat records of people like Gulab Kajari and Adesh Gurunath. They would be needed in the time to come, and if possible, she desired to lead them.
She had wanted to gather everyone, congratulate them, and offer them Honors as a reward for service, but it seemed incredibly petty to reward them with a voucher that could potentially become a music player or fancy clothing or a personal motorcycle after all of these events.
Instead, Madiha stood on the starboard-aft side of the Revenant, beholding her handiwork.
“Hujambo, Major! Look what I got! It’s all fresh and warm too and not from a box!”
From behind her, Parinita appeared with a big, eager smile on her face, holding out a tray. She carried on it a big bowl of steaming yellow dal and several fresh-baked flatbreads. She had let her hair down, and it fluttered with the strong, salty ocean winds. Madiha smiled back.
“Ah, thank you.” She said. “Food has been the last thing on my mind today. I was very tense.”
“I noticed!” Parinita said. “But you’ll only feel worse if you stay hungry. Let’s sit down.”
Parinita gingerly set the tray down, and together she and Madiha sat against the stern-side turret. Before them was the sea and the city, growing ever distant. Behind them were the cranes to unload the cruiser’s speedboats, and then there was the conning tower where their navigation and sighting took place. Between the conning tower and the massive foremast was an aircraft catapult with a single Anka biplane converted for sea usage. Smaller quarters were strewn about and under these basic structures. The Revenant was quite a large vessel.
Madiha folded a piece of flatbread and scooped some of the lentil soup. She took a bite. Everything was nice and hot, the bread was soft, and she could taste the spices.
“I’m not averse to ration boxes, but a fresh meal always wins out.” Parinita said.
“Indeed.” Madiha said. She laid back, watching the smoke rise toward the clouds.
“How do you feel?” Parinita said. “We completed the plan. We were successful.”
Chewing her flatbread, feeling the mild residual heat from a hint of pepper in the soup, Madiha did not know how she felt. She thought dimly that she might feel triumphant watching the city explode, but something was missing. Though she had funneled them into a trap, she did not feel that it was by her maneuvering or force of arms that the enemy was defeated. She felt as if she had lured a hyena off a cliff, when she had been given a spear with which to hunt it.
Had she been anywhere but Bada Aso she would have failed. It was not her that defeated Nocht, she thought, but the history that she had in this place. The City itself devoured them.
Madiha realized that she wanted to fight Nocht. She wanted to defeat them in a contest.
Perhaps it was a matter of hazy emotions, but the Battle of Bada Aso did not satisfy that.
“Not particularly accomplished,” was what she finally settled on. It sounded right enough.
Parinita laughed. “‘Not particularly accomplished’ is a legitimate feeling. Trust me, I’m an expert in it. This one time, however, I’m allowing myself a little respite from self-doubt.”
“I suppose I could stand to treat myself less roughly.” Madiha replied, feeling a bit dispirited.
“You should.” Parinita laid a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think anyone begrudges the choices that you have made. I signed off on the plan too, back in that long truck ride up to the city. I knew what was at stake and I had an idea of what would happen. But I trusted you. I think you are the chief reason any of us are still alive today. You give us all hope, Madiha.”
Madiha’s cursed dark eyes meet Parinita’s bright, friendly eyes. She looked at them fondly. It dawned on her, just how much everything could have been different. Had Parinita been anybody but herself; things would have turned out very differently. Seventeen days ago they had met for the first time, complete strangers suddenly thrust into each other’s orbits.
Now she could not fathom what her life would be like without Parinita, how those intervening 17 days of hardship could have played out without her jovial, sympathetic secretary. Without her friend; without a partner sharing in the burdens and the tension of the stressed HQ unit. Her recollections of how she treated Parinita made her feel more than a little inadequate.
“Thank you.” Madiha said. “It means a lot to me — we did not exactly meet under amicable circumstances but you were always there to support me. There were a lot of things you should not have seen and should not have had to do for me. I am ashamed of a lot of my conduct toward you. I was near to a breaking point and like a child I drew attention to myself and I put my hurting above everyone else in our circle. You should not have had to bear the burden of that on any level. You should not have had to pick up my pieces, Parinita. I’m sorry.”
Parinita heaved an amicable sigh and put her hands on her hips. “I can’t believe you! You start with a thank you and end with an apology. Have you even considered my feelings on this?”
Madiha was a little taken aback. “I’m not sure what you mean by that. I’m sorry.”
“I wish you’d stop apologizing.” Parinita said, looking at her pointedly. “For me it was not picking up your pieces. I might just be a Chief Warrant Officer, that might be everything that it says in my pins. But I’ve seen in you a person who is intelligent and kind and who has done so much. You put others ahead of yourself; maybe too much! And you have a great strength, and focus, and drive! I just– I, I admire you! I’m not just here to do a job, you know.”
Madiha blinked. Parinita averted her eyes a little and looked awkward for a moment.
After a moment’s silence, the secretary scooped up the last flatbread, soaked it deep into the dal, and pushed it into her mouth. She swallowed, drank a bit of fruit juice, and then thrust the lentils Madiha’s way. “Eat the rest of it, Madiha. You don’t have to respond. It’s just something I wanted you to know. I don’t feel offended; I just wanted us to be clear on that. If it’s you, I’d be more than happy to pick up those pieces, because I really want to see you whole.”
Unfamiliar pangs in her heart kept Madiha quiet. She dutifully took in spoonfuls of lentils and ate, until the bowl was empty. By then, Parinita looked to have dozed off beside her.
* * *
Night fell over the ocean, and Madiha could still see the smoke, having risen into the sky and mingled with the clouds. She could not sleep. Her mind wanted to be kept busy. So she stared out at the indistinct waves. She could not even see her face in them. It was just blue murk. Far behind her she saw the other ships, including the impressive Admiral Qote, on their tail. Collections of lights attached to a formless dark chassis, rolling over the gentle sea.
Having spent most of the day doing little of substance, she felt restless. Aboard the ship there was nothing of military importance for her to do yet. This was Captain Monashir’s domain. She had walked the deck, taken the tour; she had talked to Corporal Kajari and other KVW soldiers and gotten a positive response about the operation. Everyone seemed to relax and wind down. Madiha could not. Some part of her still felt like it was fighting. She could not sleep.
Instead she tried to catch her reflection in the water and she failed to see a face every time.
Gradually over the course of the day she had come to grips with several obvious facts.
Bada Aso was over. She had staked so much in this plan. It was completed. It was done. She did not know whether there would be new plans. Who knows whether the Council might seek to bring her to justice for the magnitude of the destruction? Certainly after Bada Aso Nocht would not be diplomatic with them anymore, if it was ever in the mood to be diplomatic before.
With this explosion, she had sounded the loudest gun alarming everyone to the fact that they were irrevocably at war. She had made the war real in a way no one had before her.
A city was destroyed, tens of thousands had been killed. Hell had awakened. It was War.
She heard the creaking of one of the metal doors behind her, and a long, loud yawning.
“You should be asleep!” Parinita said, stretching her arms over her head as she approached.
“I should, but I’m afraid I can’t sleep. I’ve turned into a bit of an insomniac.” Madiha said.
“Is it the nightmares again?” Parinita asked. “Like the ones you had before?”
“No. I had what I think will be last my vision a while back. I’ve broken the mean spirit that had a sway over me. Or at least, I think that I’ve done so. It may yet linger in me.”
“Something is lingering in you alright. You’re becoming strangely moody again.”
Parinita stood beside her and looked out to sea as well. Her hair was blowing again.
“Those tunnels in Bada Aso were older than antiquity.” Parinita said. “Old folks thought they gave visions. I would not have connected this legend to gasses, but it made sense when we talked it over during the planning stages. I never expected it to go off like this, though.”
“I don’t know exactly what that gas was, chemically. It might not even have been anything we know. There was work on its lethality done before me. I trusted it well enough.”
“Who did that work? I had access to a lot of information about the Adjar Dominance, including Bada Aso, and yet before you told me I had no idea Bada Aso could potentially blow up.”
“It was originally Kansal’s plan.” Madiha said. “In 2004 when the sewer was being renovated and expanded, a lot of old tunnel that had been built over was exposed. Workers became sick. Chemical workers thought it was an airborne illness. Kansal thought it had to be chemical gas. She thought we could set off a huge fire if we exploded a bomb in the right place underground. She even descended into the tunnels herself to see what could be done about it.”
These were things that she had forgotten until recently. They seemed eerily clear to her now.
“But she didn’t go through with it. Something convinced her that doing such a thing would kill tens of thousands of innocents. It was not possible to target only the Imperial administration. I don’t know where she got her information, but it always stuck with me. I forgot plenty of things, but the idea that Bada Aso could go up in smoke never quite left me. Had Kansal not shown restraint, who knows what direction the Revolution might have taken.”
“Given that I’m alive now, I like to think she made a good choice at the time. Maybe it was just intuition on her part. Or maybe she received a vision of her own in the stomach of the Earth.” Parinita said. She giggled a little. “Perhaps I’m being overly superstitious, however.”
Madiha averted her gaze, but the smoke was inescapable. It expanded across the sky like a scar left on the world. She had done that. No vision had prevented her from doing so. Her heart felt hurt. Bada Aso had been the closest thing she ever had to a home. Its streets were the only nurturing she received. In its schools she received her only formal education. She had first fallen love in Bada Aso; she had so many memories there that she had turned coldly from and obliterated, in much the same way that her convictions had led her to lose Chakrani.
She felt like the evidence of her humanity was now burning in the middle of those ruins.
“It feels monstrous to watch this unfold.” She said. “It makes me feel inhuman. So much happened at the border; it felt like a part of me that had been gone for decades had been thrust back into my body. I was seeing massive battle again for the first time since my childhood, and the very first thing I considered was to lead Nocht to Bada Aso and blow up that gas.”
“Madiha–” Parinita tried to interrupt her but Madiha continued to talk. She stared out over the fence at the edge of the deck, and her eyes sought for a face in the water. She found none.
“I had no idea what the magnitude of the explosion would be. At the time, I had no idea we would have those remote-control tanks available. Anyone whom I condemned to the final mission would have certainly gone to their deaths. No fuse, no wire, could have spared them from the aftermath. My first plan, the only plan, was essentially a suicide bombing.”
Those dreadful words reappeared in her mind.
Cunning; Command; Fearlessness; Ferocity.
“I would have done it. No matter what.” Madiha said. “Even if I had to go myself to set off the bombs. This, Parinita; this is all that my head is good for. I look at a beautiful city like Bada Aso, full of people, full of life and love and community. And I consider its destruction from afar. Destroying Bada Aso meant nothing to me; it accomplished the objective that I desired. In my mind it was just arrows on map, divisions in a grid on paper. It is a sick thing, isn’t it?”
Suddenly Parinita seized her by the shoulders and turned her around, locking eyes.
“I do not think you are sick at all Madiha. And I think, captivated by the fire, you’ve forgotten all the human things that led you here. You did not just spend your time calculating coldly. The Madiha that I saw throughout all of this was a person full of empathy and who saw everything through human eyes. I refuse to believe that your mind is only capable of unfeeling destruction. The fact we are having this conversation tells me you are honestly quite terrible at unfeeling destruction. And the tears starting in your eyes tell me you are very much human.”
There were tears. Madiha was weeping openly. She felt a surge of emotion that had long been repressed. Many years worth of a childhood were she could not feel for fear of being weak; a young adulthood where she did not feel for lack of things to feel; and an adulthood where in the face of loss and violence she thought she needed to be stronger than mere feeling. Now she wept, and she choked back sobs. Her heart pounded. Her head felt terribly hot now.
Parinita raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks and smiled. “Treat yourself better, Madiha.”
Gentle thumbs ran across her cheeks, lifting her hair. Madiha felt the fire going away.
She raised a fist to her face and wiped away her tears. She nodded silently. “I will try to.”
“I will help.” Parinita said. She stroked Madiha’s cheek again. “I want to help.”
Madiha nodded her head, and took Parinita into her arms, and embraced her tightly.
“This reminds me of when I first proposed it, so; how about you indulge my hobby?” Parinita said, pushing Madiha by pressing with the tip of her finger between the latter’s breasts.
Madiha laughed; they were not exactly on the Revenant that time. But it was close enough. They looked out over the sea again, side by side with the ocean air and the gentle waves.
“I suppose one thing comes to mind. Do you know how they did the stormy ship effects inBattleship Krasnin? I have always wondered about that. Did they film it on a real ship?”
“Some of it was, but other things were cinemagic effects. Here, I’ll explain it in detail–“
Overhead the clouds of parted, and moonlight shone over the naval group. Sailing away from the city that had sealed their fates, the architects of this great destruction began then to forge something entirely different between each other on the deck of that fearsome ship.
36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030
Adjar Dominance, Ruins of Bada Aso — 1st Vorkampfer HQ
Casualties were still coming in. Fruehauf couldn’t believe the numbers. She was emotionally numb but her head was pounding and she found it hard to work. She was sweating and had nothing to drink. Just up the street, the Squire half-track firefighting vehicle struggled to contain the massive fire working its way down from the central district. For their own safety the entire staff had evacuated the restaurant and set up shop in a truck a kilometer down.
After the quaking from the explosions, it had nearly shaken itself apart anyway.
Everyone around her was sniffling. They could smell the smoke and burning even here.
There was nothing in the city ahead but a wall of fire moving closer, shining all the brighter at midnight, and thick smoke billowing that covered the moon and stars overhead.
All of their radio equipment had been transferred to the truck. A gas-powered generator towed behind them powered everything. She and her girls continued to work the airwaves. It was all that they could do, though even their sweetest voices granted no comfort in this disaster.
Calls were frantic. Medical supplies to Umaiha, more firefighting equipment requested to Penance, a tank requested to Matumaini to try to demolish a burning structure and prevent it collapsing on another and spreading the fire, ambulances requested everywhere. Everyone screamed at her that they needed help and every time she told them that their resources were stretched. The 10th and 11th Grenadier divisions were being moved from rear echelon duties to assist as fast as possible; and the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had nothing useful to give.
Whenever men demanded to speak to Von Sturm she would tell them he was ill or hurt.
Every scream for help and desperate realization that none could be spared wore Fruehauf down. She could no longer pretend that everything was fine and that she and the girls were living in a place apart from the war, like children looking out at a garden through a glass. They weren’t just gainfully employed helping out the boys; they were in the war. It was upon them.
With a shaking hand, she reached into her pocket, withdrew a cigarette, and smoked. She had told herself she wouldn’t — and she had spent over a week without one. But she could not handle it anymore. Leaving the radio command to Erika for the moment, she stepped out of the truck, and sucked on the end of the smoke stick, feeling the menthol cooling her throat.
She walked around the front of the truck. Wrapped in blankets, head lightly bandaged, Von Sturm slept in the front seat, tossing and turning. During the three minutes of loud and continuous explosions, and when the restaurant began to shake, he fell from his chair and hurt himself, because he was balancing with his feet on the table. It had been his golden excuse to spend the rest of the day leaving the coordinating of rescue efforts to lower officers like the recently-demoted Lieutenant Aschekind. There was no one above Captain dealing with fire.
Atop the driver’s compartment sat Von Drachen, with his feet on the hood. He smiled at her at first, but then he took on a sudden, judgmental turn when he saw the stick glowing in her lips.
“I did not take you for a smoker, Fruehauf. Those things can kill you, you know? I have seen it happen myself. I will admit that the stick makes you look more mature, though.”
“Watching over the good General?” Fruehauf asked, her tone a lot less sweet than usual.
“I must say I may be nursing an unfortunate attraction to the irascible little man.” He said.
“I would keep that to myself.” Fruehauf replied. She took a long drag of the cigarette.
Von Drachen stared over his shoulder at the fire. She saw him work up an impish grin.
“They’re going to make us pay dearly throughout this entire war. She, especially, will be trouble. And I’m going to think, all throughout, that I could have stopped her.”
He held out his hand to Fruehauf. “I think I’m going to need to take up smoking, to cope.”
Fruehauf turned her cheek and denied him. “I’m not going to be responsible for that.”
She sat on the hood of the truck. Her nerves were calming. She blew a little cloud.
Von Drachen fell back atop the truck, spreading his arms. He started laughing.
“Sergeant Nakar; you rascal. You have no respect for us. But why should you, when your mind is stronger than our weapons? Must the burden truly fall on me to try to be your equal?”
Fruehauf withdrew her cigarette from her lips and stepped on it on the floor. She crossed her arms and watched the fires play in the distance. She wondered what would become of their corps, and whether Ayvarta had any more of these terrifying sights in store for her.
Maybe she had picked a spectacularly bad time to try to be free of nicotine.
% % %
Declared end of the Battle of Bada Aso on the 36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Nocht Operational Failure; city destroyed, unacceptable casualties, advance delayed, rail network compromised. Ayvartan Strategic Failure; city captured, Adjar lost.
Near total destruction of the 6th Grenadier Division, 13th Panzergrenadier Division, and Cissean “Azul” Corps. Heavy losses to the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.
Disbanding of Battlegroup Ox due to loss of its mandated territory.
Continued strategic success of Generalplan Suden. Ayvartan forces withdraw from the Adjar Dominance and are defeated in the Shaila Dominance. Nocht control of Southern Ayvarta solidified. War proceeds to its next stage. Operations in Dbagbo and Tambwe greenlit.
Confirmed deployment of 1st Panzerarmee and Field Marshal Haus to Ayvarta.
Confirmed promotion of Madiha Nakar to Colonel; Ayvarta’s first in many years.
Casualties as declared by belligerents: ~68,000 Ayvartan || ~43,000 Nocht.
–Striving For World Peace
~Helvetian Foreign Intelligence Bureau “ULTRA”