This story segment contains depictions of violence, psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.
28-AG-30 Umaiha Riverside – 31st Engineers Survey
Clouds thickened and darkened, and the wind worked itself to a frenzy. Over Bada Aso the growing storm blocked out the sun and reduced its radiance to a bleak gloom.
Thick sheets of rain cascaded over the city, and seemed to turn the world monochrome and mute. Rainfall was the predominant sound, clanging against steel, pattering against rock, tapping on the rubber tarps on the half-tracks. Water pooled over any depression in the ground, turning the roads into a series of puddles within a latticework of rock.
Waves rose and water splashed as the convoy headed north up the Umaiha. Carefully the vehicles slowed and turned on the slick ground, crossing from the right bank to the left. They gathered around a wide two-story building near the bridge, parking in alleyways.
A metal shutter opened on the right side of the building’s face, and two tanks emerged to join the dismounting engineers. Both were Goblin tanks, with their drum shaped turrets, conspicuous turret counterweights, thin, long guns and steep, almost flat long plates and angular tracks. One of the tanks had a pair of long antennae reminiscent of an insect’s atop the turret, while the second boasted a long aerial atop its turret like an angel’s halo. A hatch opened on this particular tank, and a KVW officer appeared and waved his hand stiffly.
Sgt. Agni and Madiha waved back at him, dressed in their cloaks under the rain.
“Give her a demonstration!” Sgt. Agni called out.
Atop the tank, the officer acknowledged.
Madiha heard a distinct mechanical wirring and a buzzing noise inside the lead tank. Sgt. Agni approached the machine and lifted every single hatch – it was hard to see inside, for it was very dark in its cramped confines and very gloomy out of them.
But Madiha thought she could not see anyone inside the tank.
Everyone on the street gave the machine a bit of clearance, and it started moving forward. Its turret turned all 360 degrees around; it looped around the building once. It fired its gun across the river and smashed a two meter hole into the side of a building.
Sgt. Agni clapped her hands. Madiha did not quite understand the point yet.
Finally the so-called teletank and the officer’s tank parked in front of the vehicle depot.
Everyone approached again for a closer look. The Engineers looked curious for once.
“This is a teletank.” Sgt. Agni said. She patted one of the Goblins on its track guard.
“It looks like any other Goblin to me. What makes them special to us?” Madiha asked.
“Radio control.” Sgt. Agni said. “Inside that tank,” she pointed to the officer’s vehicle, “there is radio control equipment that sends signals to the unmanned tanks,” she patted the track on the Goblin nearest to her again. “When the Control tank sends the correct signal to its frequency, the Drone tanks follow these commands electronically.”
“So there’s nobody inside that tank?” Madiha asked, tapping her knuckles on the same tank Agni petted, as though she would hear a hollow sound from it to confirm her curiosity. She peeked her head into the front hatch, and inside she found a box full of lights and vacuum tubes and dials, and electrical wiring across every surface. No humans anywhere.
There were still seats but it didn’t seem like more than one person could fit inside.
“Not a soul.” Sgt. Agni replied. “It is controlled by radio. Electronic equipment inside the drone tanks receives signals via radio, and depending on the input it receives, it will follow certain preset commands. We can power the tracks, turn the tank, turn the electric turret, and fire the guns. Skillful handling can allow this tank to perform like any other.”
Madiha was skeptical. “How does it load shells for the anti-tank gun?”
Agni was prepared for this questions too. “There is a complicated auto-loading system inside that contains twenty shells, cycling between Armor-Piercing High Explosive and High Explosive Fragmentation, all of them 45mm type as normal for a Goblin.”
“All of that machinery in the tank works to cycle the breech automatically and load shells – the concept of the drone tanks evolved from a desire to use the auto-loader, but the impossibility of cramming a crew inside the turret with it. We’ve largely failed to scale down the system, unfortunately, but it has found a home in these drones.” She spoke a little quicker and clearer when detailing the mechanical functions – it was her clearly her preferred subject, and she had a command of it. One could almost call her tone emphatic, inaccurate as that would have been. However it was certainly affected, in a subtle way.
Madiha whistled. “Incredible. I had no idea we had this technology.”
“Neither does the Civil Council and the Territorial Army, to be honest. We received all of this equipment alongside the big tanks when the 5th Mechanized Division joined us. They brought their experimental telemechanized company with them and subordinated it to our use. Inspector General Kimani thought that it was an adequate addition to our operational plan. At first I was skeptical, having only heard of this technology in theory. I did not want to waste your time; but I felt confident presenting them to you after I had a good look at them. Certainly they are more palatable for the plan than the alternative.”
“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a trembling inside her stomach.
She had planned to carry out the most dangerous part of the Hellfire Plan using live human volunteers. Any KVW soldier would have unquestioningly put down their life to complete the plan, but she already felt like enough of her ideas had ended up becoming suicide missions, without also directing an explicit suicide mission to top it all off.
Sgt. Agni was quite right that the tanks presented something of a relief.
“What is the command range?” She asked. “You said it’s using a radio.”
Sgt. Agni averted her eyes for a moment, glancing side-long at one of the tanks. Her expression was blank and her mannerisms void of emotion but this was a major tell that something was wrong. She had held Madiha’s eyes perfectly throughout the conversation.
“Right now, around 300 meters.” Sgt. Agni said.
She continued avoiding Madiha’s eyes.
“That is unacceptable.” Madiha said.
Her own voice was picking up a note of frustration. For her plan 300 meters was simply nothing. Whoever she sent down would still be in the epicenter of the event!
“I understand.” Sgt. Agni said. Madiha thought there was a gentler tone to her voice but she might have been projecting that onto her. She continued. “I have been working on a command module that can perform the same function as the telecontrol tank but from one and a half kilometers to two kilometers away. While perhaps a stretch in actual combat, it will be more than enough for our purposes. We will still be able to command the tank to move forward and ultimately to shoot even with signal fade. In addition I am also working on installing a flamethrower on the teletanks we will use for the final phase.”
“When will this be ready?” Madiha asked. Sgt. Agni was a blessing – her news had renewed Madiha’s energy just a touch enough to keep her moving. Her mind started going over military possibilities rather than internal malaise – she wanted to accelerate to the final phase if possible, though at the moment Nocht was not yet in a practical position for it.
Sgt. Agni fidgeted with her long, wavy hair, arranging several longs over her ear meticulously. “I am trying to get it done within the week.” She said. Her voice sounded a little lower. “Once I have found a way that works I can rapidly convert more radios.”
Madiha felt unsteady on her feet. This was a bit of a sudden blow. But she had to take it. There was no other option at the moment. No option that was conscionable.
“Thank you, Sgt. Agni.” Madiha said. Her voice caught in her throat a little. She looked over the tanks; now it was her turn to avoid Agni’s eyes. “How many teletanks do we have now and how many do you think can we count on for the final phase, if all goes well?”
“We have ten units in total. Should the assessments from the Chemical battalion prove correct, we will only need four detonations, at the most saturated points.”
“Well, I hope they are correct. I am basing the entire plan on them.”
Sgt. Agni looked her in the eyes. There was confidence in her again. “History has vindicated those who have heeded the dangers of Bada Aso’s underground in the past. I am a mechanical engineer, not a chemical one; but I trust that our Hell will burn brightly.”
Madiha wanted to smile or feel inspired but it was no longer in her.
“Good.” She said simply. “On that note, let us look at this tunnel.”
Sgt. Agni nodded. She signaled to a small squadron of engineers to accompany her.
Together with the Major they entered the old, empty building, mostly abandoned save for a working telephone system that was still maintained. Wires ran into the walls, and there was still a desk in the lobby with a working phone that anyone could use. All the rest was empty rooms and halls, graffiti, and discarded toys from adventurous children.
It was macabre and eerie. Little damage had been done to it during the bombing, and that only added to the strange atmosphere inside. Madiha still felt its history.
Once the building had been a police station.
So much violence and horror occurred in these rooms and halls, so much infamy, and so many souls lost screaming to its brutality, that there was much pause for the socialists as to whether they should demolish it or repurpose it. So it simply stood, a monument to a painful era, bypassed daily by locals and travelers who could peer through its windows and doors and enter its walls but ultimately wanted nothing to do with its ghosts.
Inside the building there was a particularly large tunnel entrance in the basement level that interested the engineers. Though the tunnel system was far older than the Imperial Police that had once occupied the building, several renovations to specific tunnels had been carried out in secret with the express purpose of moving agents, officers and saboteurs to aid in the brutalization and liquidation of Bada Aso’s communist cadres.
It was thought that if the so-called criminals had made the streets their underground, then for them to be rooted out and exterminated the city had to create a new underground, a hell that lay beneath their feet. In reality the tunnel expansion was borne of the hubris of men who desperately needed to appear as though they had a solution to a growing tide of resistance, and did nothing but expend resources that could have gone elsewhere.
These tunnels were ones that dug too deep – perfect for Madiha’s purposes.
In the empty basement, they pointed electric torches at the gaping black maw.
Sgt. Agni and her engineers produced their measuring tapes and sized the beast.
Four meters by four meters – just tall and wide enough to fit the teletank through.
“There are more tunnels like this in the central and upper city.” Sgt. Agni said.
“Thanks to our megalomaniacal predecessors, I suppose.” Madiha said.
There was a bright flash from upstairs. Madiha shuddered – her cloak was dripping wet, and the weather was only getting worse. She thought the Weather battalion must have vastly underestimated the intensity of the storm. Their tasks were done in this sector; it was time to move further up the Umaiha. With haste they might beat the worst of the rain.
Sgt. Agni led the way upstairs.
A soldier with a backpack radio ran into the building and met them in the lobby.
“Commander, the 2nd Line Corps have been broken through. We have no confirmation from the actual 2nd Line Corps, but a scout saw Cissean troops moving upriver.”
“How far away are they?” Madiha asked the radio man. “And how many?”
“We’re not sure of much, our scout was not in a ready state. He was sending a panicked alert to every Ayvartan frequency he knew. It might have been hyperbole but–”
In a blink everything was in tumult.
For a fleeting moment before the collapse Madiha felt the pressure wave.
Then everything scattered, like a windblown stack of cards.
Thunder and a flash; the building shook and there was a sharp crack and a massive crash. There was an instant of pain and an eternity of numbness. Dust and heat blew in from the outside and the world shook and twisted, the ground warped and the walls closed in. Madiha was blinded and dazed and she knew that it was not thunder that had fallen from the sky. Her senses were obliterated and she could not feel her body.
She was suspended in the dark again.
But they were watching, millions of eyes, millions of hands.
From the hands the fingers fell; from the eyes the lashes shed and the lids bulged.
Then the forearms and the corneas and bit by bit everything fell like old meat.
There was nothing again. She was suspended in the dark.
There was only blood around her, an ocean of blood. She clutched her ears.
“You failed them again. You selfish thing. What was your worth in the end?”
Water started coming down over her face, and her eyes opened and burnt as the cold drops dripped over her lids. Before her, framed in jagged concrete, there was only the dark sky, traced by deep violet thunder. She thought blearily to raise her hands and cover her eyes from the water and the flashing lights, but she could not move her arms.
She heard gunfire in the streets, and a loud blast farther up the road.
Smoke and dust rose into the sky somewhere far, blown over her concrete trap and into her sight by the wind. Dust and tiny rocks sifted off the sides of her prison. Rocks were pushed aside, and she felt as though her tomb was being dug through.
She saw Sgt. Agni’s face.
“Commander, Commander, can you hear me?”
Agni reached down a gloved hand and took Madiha’s cheek, and pushed her head up.
It started to dawn on her all at once that her body was buried in concrete.
She started to shake and to squirm and try to slide out of the rock.
But she could not, she could not budge her arms or her legs.
She could feel them again and she could feel them moving – and they hurt. She had not lost them. But she could not free them. She was trapped in here.
“I can’t move!” She shouted. Her mind was racing. “Agni, I can’t move!”
“We are under attack from Cissean forces.” Sgt. Agni said. “That had to have been a salvo from a 15 cm battery. I have no idea how they moved everything up this quickly.”
Water came down over them in a deluge. Madiha couldn’t see anything well.
Clarity was returning. She felt a tightness in her chest and stomach, a thrill down her spine. Her mouth hung open, the cold rain dribbling down her lips. Her breathing quickened. There was a grim realization of what all of this meant. Her time had finally come.
“Go!” She shouted. “Take the Engineers and go! I need you to carry out the plan!”
Sgt. Agni averted her eyes.
“Only one of us is needed for the plan to work! That’s you, Agni! You need to go!”
To Madiha all of this made a dire sense. She was resolved.
She was finally making the rational decision.
All of history had conspired to lead her here.
Her purpose fulfilled, she would be free and clean in death.
Everything made sense now – except the response to her desperate logic.
“Commander I cannot follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.
Madiha stared, and shook her head, whipping about her wet hair.
“What did you say? You’re being ridiculous! You have to go, Agni!”
“Let me rephrase that. I will not follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.
Again the world was breaking apart around her. This order that had been carefully constructed in Madiha’s raging, struggling mind was a shambles again.
Agni pulled the handset from a backpack radio just out of Madiha’s field of vision.
“Resist the Cissean attack as strongly as possible.” She said. She was not heeding Madiha’s orders. She was not running. “Pull back the tanks and vehicles from the shelling area. Deploy machine guns, demolitions charges and flamethrowers. Hide in the rubble. I am coming to organize the defense, but our priority is to free the Commander–”
“Cancel that order!” Madiha shouted at the top of her lungs. “Cancel that order! Sgt. Agni is disobeying a direct command! Cancel that order and retreat! Retreat!”
Sgt. Agni reached down a hand and clamped it around Madiha’s mouth, muffling her.
Madiha started to weep. This was so absurd! This was such an injustice!
Why? Why? Why?
“I repeat–” Agni said, and repeated her order more clearly.
She then put down the handset.
She raised her hand from Madiha’s mouth, and struggled to stand.
Agni cast glances around her surroundings and started moving between the sides of Madiha’s prison, pushing on rocks, chipping away at the edges, gauging the strength of the tomb. She was implacable as always, her face unaffected even by these horrifying events. That was the influence of the KVW, their training, their conditioning.
But it didn’t make sense. She should have listened.
She should have left Madiha to die just as readily as she would have died for Madiha’s sake, if ordered to do so. If ordered to do so. But she was not. She was not leaving her!
“Why won’t you go?” Madiha said, choked up, desperate, tapping into all her remaining strength to keep screaming, “Why won’t you leave me? I’m ordering you to go! I’m ordering you! You need to go so we can succeed! I am not worth all of your lives!”
“It has never been a balance between your life and ours, commander. There is no authority calculating the weight of our blood. You do not have to die; you do not have to expiate for this. We have always fought by your side willingly. That is why I am here, willingly. You will allow me this agency.” Sgt. Agni said coolly. She lifted a stone from near Madiha’s side and tossed it away. Under it was a larger, heavier one.
Delirious from the pain and the pressure on her body, Madiha’s senses started to swim and warp. She felt drained, her throat raw, her eyes burning, water creeping into her nose. She moaned and mumbled. “I don’t want any more of my people to sacrifice themselves!”
Sgt. Agni stopped working and returned to Madiha’s side. She looked her in the eyes.
“We have been together for more than just this war’s ten days, Major.” Agni said. “I think of you as a comrade and so do they. So do our people. This is not about our sacrifice; nothing has been about sacrifice. I will protect you and bring you back safely, Madiha.”
Around Madiha the grey sky and the grey concrete melded together. Her senses were leaving her completely. She fell back to the dream, defeated. Agni’s words did not penetrate to her. They caused her to reel and cry. Even in death she was unable to prevent the sacrifice of her comrades. That was what she thought, trapped by rock and guilt.
That was what she was sure of. Nothing about her life made sense to her otherwise.
What was Madiha Nakar otherwise? What was her purpose, what did she mean?
That word that Agni so strongly denied kept rolling around in Madiha’s head.
She followed the word into unsconsciousness. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice.