Warning: this chapter contains scenes of violence and death, including violence to a child, a depiction of extreme mental distress, and frequent scenes of fire and burning.
30th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2007 D.C.E
Ayvartan Empire, Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso
“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”
Desperate panting and crying broke the silence of the midnight streets.
Hurtling through empty alleys and desolate roads, a small girl fled from phantoms.
All of her instincts screamed for her to run and hide.
Her every step was dogged by a creeping, malevolent cold and shadow.
In hurting, she had experience far beyond her years. She had a keen sense of danger.
She sought glimpses of the enemy over her shoulder, above her head, and in every clay brick wall surrounding her in the tight streets of Bada Aso’s old quarter. She could see nothing. There was almost no light. With the moon clouded over, the only illumination came from beams between cracks in old doors and dim candlelight from bedroom windows.
Despite what her eyes told her, she felt the creature’s evil presence everywhere.
Like eyes watching her, the burden of a gaze, the bearing of a hateful judgment.
Closer and closer it came and she felt the weight shaking her legs and bowing her back.
Through the nondescript streets Madiha Nakar dashed, her location and bearing unknown, clutching her satchel against her chest. Though she felt chills across her skin she knew the night to be warm and moist and without breeze. Her white beret would have flown from her head otherwise. It was the creature that made it cold. A lanky figure, all arms, covered in a tattered cloak, its face covered by an eerie mask. It wasn’t human — it wasn’t anything.
Taking a blind corner she found a trash bin in an alley leading to the old plaza. Mustering all of her strength, she seized it by one of its handles and pushed it, spilling the contents behind her in a crashing of bottles, a rustling of old paper. She resumed her flight; moments later she heard, briefly, the crunching of glass and the stirring of paper once more.
It was still there.
A spectre made half-substantial, or perhaps, flesh trapped between worlds.
Madiha charged out of the alley and ran toward the center of the old plaza. A wide, empty green field housing the skeletal remains of a stone temple, it was said the plaza had been the site of the first brick laid on the first building made by the ancient Adjar culture. Now it was utterly forgotten — there was not even a plaque to commemorate the deteriorating rock. Madiha rushed behind a crude waist-high rock wall and crouched.
She was surrounded by ranks of rocky pillars in varying states of decay.
More importantly, there was an old torch affixed to one of the stones.
Holding her breath and fighting back her tears, she laid down her satchel.
From it she withdrew the revolver Daksha had given her.
Five rounds; she hadn’t looked in some time, but she just knew.
A cold and airless breeze blew her way, stirring nothing but the fire inside her.
She felt the ghastly presence draw nearer, clutching at her heart.
Scratching on the grass; sifting dust as the creature stepped over the old rock.
Shuffling of fabric as beast shifted its hideous, emaciated form under its cloak.
Sucking noise as the monster sniffed into what long-decayed organ passed for its nostrils.
Closer, and closer, she felt the creature’s weight in the surroundings.
Her shivering worsened, the cold was stifling, she wanted to scream.
Madiha leaped to her feet and swiped her hand at the torch.
In an instant the fire inside her lit the dead fire in the wax and rags.
Amid the old temple the shadows retreated, leaving only one in their midst.
Stunned by the torch, the Majini retched, raising its arms and drawing back, its upper body bending away from the flame directly overhead while its lower body remained abominably rooted into place. Ashes from the sudden fire fell on the creature’s cloak and burned through it leaving tiny red rings that bled finger-width columns of black gas.
Unleashing a primal, soundless roar, the creature righted its ragged sock-like body and hurled itself toward Madiha, arms thrashing around it as if attached to a spinning wheel.
She felt the scream not by any perceivable noise but by a shuddering in her chest.
Reeling, Madiha retaliated with a shot that grazed the Majini’s barely extant shoulder.
She missed; she never missed.
Leaping over the wall it swiped, one of its arms grabbing her by the neck and scooping her off the floor with primal strength. Madiha thought her head would pop off her body, and she felt an intense pain; almost reflexively, within the next instant, she used what she knew of her abilities to push herself and remain balanced in the creature’s grip, preventing her body from swinging opposite her neck. Another hand then quickly seized her waist and belly.
Like the unhinging jaws of a snake, the creature’s black, emaciated hands extended and expanded and looped around her as if custom-fit to throttle her neck and body specifically.
From under the cloak one final arm extended behind the monster’s back.
It seized her satchel, and withdrew a letter.
Its neck snapped, and its face descended to her own.
In the middle of its mask was a smaller, fist-sized depiction of a silver face.
She saw the eyes on this tiny face moving. The larger eyes on the mask did not.
She saw its nostrils flare and felt a force pulling on her.
Her arms hung limp, still holding the gun. Did it understand the danger of it?
Did it just not fear?
It surveyed her, stretching its neck to look her up and down.
She felt colder than ever, a chill penetrating through her skin wherever it touched.
Her mind was growing hazy and numb.
Bending its limbs and head in unnatural ways, the Majini raised the letter over its shoulder.
Guttural noises issued from its neck as if it was trying to read the name.
Madiha remembered the address and directions.
She heard Daksha’s voice in her head. Deliver this to Lena. It is vital for us.
Would she ever make good on that promise?
She was just a child? What could she do?
As the Majini tightened its grip, she felt as if her soul was leaking from her mouth.
Cold and alone in this abandoned place; would she die here?
It simply could not be.
More than anything she didn’t want to fail; she wasn’t just some stupid kid.
She wanted to be a Zaidi. She wanted to be a socialist. She wanted them to win.
She felt the fire spark inside her.
Madiha unleashed her own soundless, primal cry.
Thinking fast she exerted her mind’s secrets and pushed on the Majini’s hands and both of them tore to pieces that flew in every direction, as if blown from within by a grenade. The Majini’s twisted form instantly righted itself and lifted its arms and its head to the heavens, screeching, now with sound, recognizing the agony that had been inflicted upon it.
Madiha landed clumsily on the floor and drew on the fire rather than the pushing.
Red lines flashed briefly from under her clothes, and sparks flew out of her fingertips.
From the palm of her hand a long red dart flew into the center of the Majini’s cloak.
Soon as it touched the monster its entire thrashing body caught fire.
From its remaining limb, Madiha snatched the letter, grabbed her satchel, and took off.
Behind her the burning creature wailed and screamed with mortal agony.
Madiha vanished into the night, running for her life without ever looking back.
She vanished into the concealing gloom of the underworld, but she knew deep inside her quivering little heart that her war with these living shadows was only beginning.
Throughout her quest to free the Ayvartans from tyranny, they would dog her every step.
49th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barrack
There was a sense across the Rangdan base that the trainees had crossed an invisible threshold, and that the levity of the night before was behind them for good. Everyone picked themselves up, told their last stories, struggled out onto the field, and found the place transformed overnight. The 1st Motor Rifles caught a glimpse of the trials that were to come as they experienced their first “real” day of training, one of many promised to come.
Though they had yet to rectify their supply troubles, the Regiment’s officers and staff had become masters of improvisation over the preceding week. After days of accumulating sandbags, scavenging the junkyard for metal and wood, and meticulously planning, Inspector Kimani finally came up with a course that could really teach some lessons.
In the middle of the field a series of alternating sandbag walls, shoulder-high, was erected for the infantry to run. Men and women ran up to the sandbags and took positions. Using training rifles, designated shooters fired practice cartridges at dummy aggressors to cover the movement of runners, who would move to the next piece of cover. Then the roles would switch until the squadron was safe. This, they were told, was called “bounding overwatch” and formed the backbone of infantry tactical movement in a firefight. For simplicity’s sake, it was also referred to by a common name any child would know — the “buddy system.”
Hundreds of troops went through the bounding exercise course, expending thousands of rounds of practice ammunition against dummies and walls while Inspector General Kimani and other staff members shouted words of admonishment and encouragement. Counting every pair of feet involved in the exercise, thousands upon thousands of meters were ran that day. Platoons that completed the exercise stood on the sidelines, watching the next platoon take the course while drinking water and sweating it back out.
Fundamental movement was a theme across the remaining infantry courses on the field.
Some distance away from the sandbag course, a dilapidated old barracks house was reinforced with junkyard materials and turned into a makeshift stronghold, with a tin roof and crate-frame windows. “Automatic” water guns have been set on the windows and other appropriate apertures, and these fired bloody-red fluid at high pressure, roughly simulating a suppression weapon. Though the Inspector General promised that it would be blown up spectacularly in a future exercise, for now the infantry platoons trained in approaching or bypassing the house, rather than destroying or capturing the position. They shed their jackets and battle dress, running around in their white under-shirts. It was vital that they knew the danger a defensive position of any kind posed to them.
Those who came to the stronghold after learning to bound first, did much better, but a significant amount of the Regiment’s 1st Battalion went away with bloody red stains on their shirts. In a real combat situation such stains would have been terribly alarming, if not an omen of a coming death. Nobody got too close to the house, but it was judged a good first lesson, and there was certainly room to grow. Various approaches were discussed, such as the use of smoke, heavy support, and subversion, such as tunneling.
For the troops inside the house, the lesson was a little bit more fun than all of that. As the ones holding the line, all they had to do was keep an eye out, and pull a trigger.
Once more they showed everyone the defensive prowess of the Ayvartan shuuja.
Though everyone in the Regiment was compelled to attend the basic infantry exercises, not everyone was destined to storm houses and run from cover with a rifle in hand. For the signals company, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani had personally carried out the Regiment’s only functional radio on a hand-cart, and instructed them in its basic operation. For the engineers, a Goblin tank husk from the junkyard was brought out, and they were acquainted with its basic parts, as well as the fact that it shared an engine with common trucks like the Rompo. Medical personnel got perhaps the most complete training. There was no shortage of their supplies, and plenty of mildly wounded, hung-over comrades to practice on.
For the artillery crews, a far-off corner of the field was reserved for a single 76mm gun.
Corporal Rahani stood in front of the gun and waved his hand airily at a few dozen future artillery men and women. His pleasant smile and soft voice served as a sharp contrast to Inspector General Kimani and Lt. Purana’s constant scowling and yelling throughout the day. Behind him, the ubiquitous 76mm gun faced skyward, but its appearance had slightly changed since the battle of Bada Aso. This model had a curious muzzle brake on the front of its barrel, and the recuperator, buffer and cradle seemed a little lighter.
“Our old friend has received a few upgrades from Solstice; I see you’re beginning to notice! It’s lighter and easier to tow and turn, and the muzzle brake helps the gun endure its own recoil better. This is an early production model, new from a factory in Chayat.”
Adesh Gurunath, and his bosom companions Nnenia and Eshe, stood in attendance as the Corporal went over the gun, and they watched in rapt attention as he covered the various pieces of the gun and their functions. Some of them they already knew, others were given names where once they were merely rods and wheels without identification.
Adesh also noticed the gun had a lily taped to the recuperator that matched a similar flower in Corporal Rahani’s ear. The Corporal looked to be in very good spirits. He was gentle and energetic and well spoken, a natural teacher to the young artillery crews.
“Properly employed, my dears, the 76mm Model 2030 you’re looking at can sustain a rate of fire of over 20 rounds per minute, at a maximum range of 13.25 kilometers. This range handily defeats that of the close Nochtish equivalent Infanterie-Geschutz 28 gun. It can be fired from the neutral position against targets in one’s line of sight, and in such a role it can defeat over 60 millimeters of armor at 1000 meters, or 90 at 100 meters.”
Rahani rattled off the facts on the gun as if he had a sheet in front of his face.
Adesh shivered, recalling his own use of the gun, primarily against line of sight targets from defensive positions in Bada Aso. He hardly had the time to discern the kind of damage his shots must have done to the enemy. Allowing an enemy within a hundred meters of the gun sounded like suicide to him, armor penetration be damned. He was nearly killed so many times by enemies almost five-hundred meters away. He still felt the powder on his skin, and the aching of his fingers, and the taste of smoke coming into his mouth through his nose. They had fired that 76mm gun so rapidly and in such desperation.
Though Adesh thought they would spend the day with the gun in the same way that the infantry spent the day at the range, putting dozens of rounds through their rifles as they sought to master their aim, he soon found the reality of the situation was quite different.
“We have been cleared to fire exactly three rounds of training ammunition, into a desolate beach exactly thirteen kilometers away. So everyone please huddle around near the gun; I will explain how to sight it, how to read coordinates, and how to fire.”
Corporal Rahani smiled brightly and stepped aside, ushering his students close to the gun.
A dozen people formed a half-ring around the back of the gun, crouching and standing on tiptoes and looking around and under each other’s shoulders. The Corporal explained the different types of ammunition. Adesh already knew. High-Explosive rounds had the flatter, rounder heads, and they mainly served to shred people with fragments; Armor-Piercing-High Explosive rounds were the preferred Ayvartan weapon against tanks, and would penetrate armor before detonating inside the tank with often catastrophic effects.
However, none of their rounds were those familiar types, even though Rahani explained them first. Rather, they were orange shells with strange, circle-tipped conical front end.
“These are actually incendiary, and are mostly meant to start smokescreens. Hopefully you’ll be able to see our handiwork rising in the west a few minutes after we fire!”
Nonchalantly, and while still facing everyone he gathered, Rahani unlocked the breech and slammed the shell into place with the back of his hand. Still smiling directly at his students as if without a care in the world, the Corporal tugged blindly on a firing chain. A terrible and startling noise issued from the gun, accompanied by a comical bang! from Corporal Rahani as the shell hurtled away. Smoke blew from the muzzle brake, the gun barrel slid on its carriage and was pushed back into position by the recuperator and buffers, and the breech opened, releasing the hot, spent casing back out onto a catcher where it could cool safely.
Everyone turned their eyes from the sky down to the smoking case.
It was a familiar scene for Adesh, but it still held some power nonetheless.
In the distance, a long, thin trail of smoke soon rose skyward.
“Ah, looks like we were a little bit off the mark, but within the acceptable margin.”
For the second round, Rahani divided the crowd into crews, and had one crew shoot.
It turned out be his own crew from Bada Aso.
Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe stepped forward from among the rest, smiled and waved nervously as the eyes fell on them, and went through the motions of loading the gun and shooting it again. They did not have to sight it, since Rahani had already done that bit of arithmetic. In that sense, it was exactly the same as when they fired the gun in Bada Aso.
Corporal Rahani clapped his hands at them. Nobody else joined him.
Though he stood before a tough crowd, his spirit was as strong as ever.
“You might think it’s a little dull to sit far behind the lines manning a gun.” He said. “But there is no role in the army that saves more comrades’ lives than that of the artillery.”
There were whispers of skepticism among the crowd. Adesh thought it must have been an exaggeration. Certainly the most lifesaving military profession had to be that of the medic.
“Artillery has a long history in armies, and is crucial to infantry attacks.” Rahani said, looking proudly at the gun and puffing out his chest. He put his fist to his breast with a smile. “Here at the artillery arm, we fight hand in hand with the infantry even though we are several kilometers away from them. We rely on them to see the enemy and to hold them in place while we aim and unleash our attacks. Our firepower is the infantry’s firepower — never forget that! Artillery without advancing infantry is vulnerable and useless. At the same time, in modern warfare infantry advancing without artillery support are sitting ducks.”
Everyone in attendance nodded respectfully, but their attention seemed to be flagging.
“Without us, infantry can only grapple with enemy positions through sheer brute force and numbers, fighting desperately with what little their hands can carry. Well-placed artillery preserves the health of our infantry comrades. Your success is truly lifesaving!”
Adesh was largely prevented from empathizing with this speech by the fact that he mostly fought defensive battles. By his own reckoning he had never fired a shot to cover an infantryman. Always he had been behind sandbags and metal shields, defending positions. Though it made him think for a moment, the speech did not quite get his blood pumping. At his side, Eshe and Nnenia looked about the same. Nobody was too impressed.
Rahani himself seemed to realize this, but his enthusiasm did not wane.
Looking over the shoulders of his troops, he smiled ever more broadly.
“Ah ha! Looks like reinforcements have arrived just in time to save me!”
Over the din of practice rifles and trampling feet and high-pressure hoses, Adesh heard the loud, steady whining of tracks and engines, and soon after, he felt the force of armored movement transferring through the ground. Dust shook over the surface of the training field, and there were was a weak but palpable rumbling. Almost at once, the crowd around the gun shifted their attentions, and found a pair of very unfamiliar armored vehicles painted in the familiar green colors of their army, both rolling their way.
One vehicle was significantly smaller and faster than the other. Both were tracked, but the smaller vehicle had a shorter, squatter and seemingly lighter chassis. It had a gun mounted at the back of the vehicle, with a barrel that stretched just over the tank glacis and ended in a muzzle brake. There was no “neck” on the smaller tank, so Adesh thought the vehicle must not have had a real turret. There was a gun mantlet, and walls, but no roof. A figure was visible, waving over the open top of the small tank. It was Lieutenant Purana.
Meanwhile the other vehicle was absolutely monstrous in size. It dwarfed its companion, but always lagged behind it, as if laboring to move at all. A gigantic, blocky turret with a thick neck played host to its very large gun, larger than any Adesh had seen. Though he recognized the smaller tank’s weapon as a 76mm gun, easily compared to the one standing beside him, Adesh was not well acquainted with the heavy gun on the larger tank.
“Behold, comrades! No longer is armor exclusive to the tank or infantry arms.”
Corporal Rahani stood aside and gestured toward the vehicles as they came to a stop.
Lt. Purana leaped out of the gun superstructure on the smaller tank, and saluted the troops.
Everyone saluted back, half-staring still at the massive tank overshadowing the Lieutenant.
“Glad to see you’re impressed. I’ve been told these exceptional comrades have taken quite a bit of effort to produce.” Lt. Purana said, gesturing to the two tanks. “Both of them are early production self-propelled guns intended to make the job of the artillery arm a bit safer and easier. Our smaller comrade is the Chimera EP/76 or early production, 76mm gun; and this tall fellow is the Giant EP/152 or early-production, 152mm gun.”
In Bada Aso, Adesh had shot a 122 millimeter gun, and it had seemed then like quite an incredible weapon, capable of blasting apart any Nochtish tank and killing scores of men. It boggled the mind to think this was an even bigger gun than that, more powerful.
“All of you are standing here before these weapons,” Corporal Rahani began, smiling, “because you have been selected to crew them! Once more of them arrive, your crews of five from Bada Aso will begin to train as a crew of five in either a Chimera or a Giant.”
Adesh felt a force, as if a stiff wind had blown his way. His heart swelled, anxiety mixed with elation and curiosity. He turned to Eshe and Nnenia and they turned to him and to each other in blank-faced, stunned excitement. There were many similar faces around.
Lt. Purana clapped his hands, and stood aside. The Chimera moved into their midst, and everyone climbed over the front and side plates and enthusiastically examined every part of the tank, and fired questions at the crew from all sides, which were bashfully answered. Adesh managed to climb over a tool basket strapped to the back of the tank and stayed there beside Eshe, while Nnenia got a choice spot atop the tracks. They looked over the fighting compartment, and examined the driver’s position through the front hatch, and then finally left the tank’s side to watch it speed off at nearly 50 km/h.
Though the Giant’s presentation was not similarly impressive as far as its mobility was concerned, several people got to climb inside and witness the massive gun mechanism, and the very large ammunition. Inside the Giant, those lucky few who go to see the turret also helped load the tank, and sight the gun at the predetermined beach. Accompanying the shot was a great roar and a discomforting rumble that rattled the plates on the tank.
“Nothing on Aer can withstand a 152mm shot!” Lt. Purana called out.
Everyone was suddenly excited to try out the Giant, and possibly to crew it in training. But owing to the unique concerns of operating the Giant’s enormous gun, only the most physically fit people would be selected for such a task, according to the Lieutenant.
“Not us.” Nnenia said, in her typically terse way.
“Not us.” Eshe mimed. He looked daunted at the very prospect of it.
Adesh thought to himself that it was quite alright. He was fine with a Chimera.
“Starting tomorrow, we will have enough of these units to begin training with them!” Lt. Purana declared. “You will focus on maneuver, gunnery, and self-propelled gun tactics. Having a gun that moves is different than having a stationary weapon. I know you’re up to the task of using these weapons to their fullest effect! Make us proud, comrades!”
Lt. Purana held up his fist, and the artillery crews mimicked him.
Rahani clapped again and giggled.
Adesh felt his heart rising at the prospect of crewing these weapons.
He felt like he was floating, filled with pride and amazement. At first the machines had not seemed like real things that would be given to them. It was always Nocht that had the weapons, the technology. He always saw the back end of years-old artillery guns. Now he was watching a brand new tank running around the field, with a gun that he knew could kill Nochtish armor. He touched it, he looked into the fighting compartment.
It was real; Ayvarta was waking up to fight. It was mustering its forces. It was all real.
Watching the Chimera made his training, and every day at this camp, feel worthwhile.
He felt so vulnerable with a stationary gun — now he would have a tank!
And so would his comrades! Technology was ready to support them now.
Those M3 Hunters and M4 Sentinels would not scare him ever again!
50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Police Station
8th Division Escapes Encirclement!, read the headline of the latest edition of the Ocean Bulletin. Logia Minardo turned the first few pages — she had become largely unaware of the situation at the front of late, so ostracized was the 1st Regiment from the rest of Tambwe’s operations. Reading, she found that Nocht had apparently overcome the Argu barrier, a range of forest just beyond the Ghede that separated Tambwe and Adjar, and in so doing managed to encircle several divisions of Battlegroup Ram guarding the area.
One division, however, had managed to plow its way out of the trap, and that was the 8th Ram Rifle Division of Rangda. It was reported that much of its troops and equipment had survived and would be returning to Rangda shortly. Much praise was lavished on its commanding officers, who had pulled such a miraculous victory from the jaws of defeat, and could now continue to fight for Rangda’s safety. Troops would come in by train starting on the 51st, and the first of the heavy equipment would be delivered on the 53rd.
For the average person there was much to be thankful for, but Minardo could not help but become uneasy at this improbably triumphant story. How had they escaped so quickly, when this battle was only begun days ago? And why was the 8th Division being pulled off the line? Surely that would only invite Nocht to pursue them through the gap. Furthermore, why were they being relocated to Rangda, and not a defensive line? Knowing that this theater was all under the control of Tambwe’s Council in Rangda, Minardo could only read the unorthodox relocation of this unit from the front as an antagonistic move by Mansa and his ilk.
Sighing, she closed the newspaper. Things would soon get rough.
Whatever training Madiha wanted to get done would have to get done rather quick.
Minardo set down the newspaper on one of the chairs in the interrogator’s room and laid back. Beyond the glass, Bercik Scheldt seemed to have nodded off. Behind it, the nurse and the presiding officer both fell asleep over the desk. All of the lights had been slightly dimmed for the night. Every hall in the station’s underground cells was silent. Minardo was in the mood to raise her feet up on the desk and balance on the chair, as she once frequently did while listening to briefs from the aviation commander in the old Rangda airport.
But it would have been an uncomfortable position to take in her present state.
She laid a hand over her own belly, rubbing it through the fabric of her uniform. Often she seemed to others like she had forgotten the little life that was being nurtured in there — but for a mother, there was ever a keen awareness of a second presence. It faded into the background of daily life after a while. She was no longer nauseous and enfeebled, so it was relatively easy to live with now. But it was there, and it needed special care.
Since realizing her pregnancy, Minardo had changed many of her old habits. She had stopped drinking. She had not gone out on a date in over a hundred days. She was still rather popular, and still quite fond of friendly sex; but she turned down every proposition. It was easy to turn down the men, in her condition; it was harder to turn down the women, especially owing to her own predilections. Still, she committed to this deprivation. For the duration of the pregnancy, she wanted to be a little conservative. Particularly owing to the circumstances of her pregnancy, which still strongly stung. She had thought she found again the love and trust she once relished and reciprocated — but no such luck.
She didn’t want to think of what she was doing as “living with the consequences” of anything; pregnancy was not her fault, and it was nobody’s fault. All of the fault, and the conflict, was that the coward who had led her to commit was unwilling to commit himself.
Minardo sighed deeply. She would carry the pregnancy to term. After that, though–
Down the hall echoed a long, low sound like a bucket dropping.
There should be no one in those halls at this hour, she thought.
Drawn out of her bleak reverie, Minardo stood carefully from her chair and crept toward the door, cracking it open. She looked down the hall and saw nothing outside. She blinked. It was quite late at night, and she was still awake; perhaps she had imagined it? But the noise had felt so palpable and distinct. It had startled her. She took a step out.
Behind her and in the hall the lights began to dim and then to blink.
On and off, dim and bright, flashing in a cycle that was hurting her eyes.
Minardo drew her revolver from its holster and quickly checked the cylinder.
Though she could have woken the nurse and the officer for aid, her anxious reflex was always to do something herself. She could not trust that they wouldn’t get in her way.
Both of them were unarmed and inexperienced anyway.
“Logia Minardo, getting into another mess all by her lonesome.” She whispered.
She crept forward down the hall as the lights continued to blink around her.
As she neared the corner, she saw something flit at the edge of her vision.
She turned her head.
One last blink and the lights went completely dark.
They did not appear keen to come alive again.
Pitch darkness swallowed her sight.
She dared not take another step into the indistinct void before her.
Tripping on something no longer affected only her.
Holding her gun in one hand, she reached into her coat with the other.
She withdrew an electric torch, and held it up to the side of her revolver.
With a flick of a switch she cast a beam of light down the hallway.
Something flashed in the light of the torch.
For a frightening instant she saw an abominable shadow on the door ahead.
It turned a mouth full of teeth and an ivory face on her and it shrieked and–
She blinked and it was gone; she suddenly found it hard to retain memory of it.
It was a masked bundle of tattered cloth with several arms, hanging like a bug on a wall.
Minardo shrank back, but the vision had left her so immediately that she felt foolish for having feared at all. Though she felt a chill, there was nothing corporeal anywhere nearby. She sighed, turning her beam and gun on every surface and finding nothing in the dark corridors. She walked forward step by measured step and examined the door to the interrogation room, near where she thought she had seen something. She found no evidence of tampering with the door. She turned the knob with her torch hand.
Inside the interrogation room, Bercik Scheldt remained seated behind the table.
Crossing his arms, he looked at the door and said, “Was ist los?”
Minardo understood more or less that he was asking what was happening.
“Nichts.” She replied.
Bercik stared at her quizzically as if awaiting further explanation.
Smiling, she shut the door, and continued down the hallway, keeping her guard up.
A little ways from Bercik’s door she opened the second interrogation room, where she found Kirsten Susalla, a slight, boyish-faced young man, sleeping soundly at his table, oblivious to the events. She shut the door carefully so as not to wake him, and proceeded out to the lobby, having secured all of the high-value people in the area.
Out in the front lobby and the security station, she heard someone banging their fists.
Shining her light on the bulletproof glass, she found the door guard trapped in his booth.
He opened a sliding slit on the door to his station so that they could communicate.
“Staff Sergeant, the power’s been acting up and now I’m stuck in here. I can’t open the heavy doors without electricity. All of them have special emergency locks.” He said.
“Calm down.” Minardo replied. “We can use the land-line or the radios to call for help.”
“Yes ma’am. Sorry ma’am.” He said. She could feel the desperation in his voice.
“You won’t be trapped there much longer, I promise.” She said.
No sooner had she raised her voice again that she felt a chill breeze blow behind her back.
Reflexively she turned around and pointed her flashlight up and around her.
“Did you feel something?” She asked.
“No, nothing.” Replied the guard, his voice trembling.
She waved her torch across the lobby, and toward the entrance to the secured area.
Beneath the sealed metal door she thought she saw inky tendrils vanishing.
But that could not have been anything; just a trick of the light on her gloom-addled eyes.
“Can the front door be opened without power?” She asked.
“Well, you would have to blow it off with compound explosives.” replied the guard.
Minardo turned to look at him sternly. “So no.”
“No. But nothing has come in or out. I’ve been watching, ma’am.”
“Even when the power started going? You were perfectly attentive?”
Inside the booth the guard sighed deeply. “I may have panicked for a while, I admit.”
“But nevertheless, we can logically agree that the door was not compromised.”
Behind the bulletproof glass the guard helplessly nodded his head in agreement.
Minardo tapped her feet impatiently. Her boots sounded across the underground.
“And you say the door won’t open when the power’s out?”
“Yes. It’s a safety mechanism so that prisoners can’t easily escape or attack the guard.”
“So then, whoever cut the power wants you and us to remain stuck in here for a while.”
“Cut the power? It could just be a brownout or something.”
Minardo had thought so too at first.
However, her mind could not square one fact in this whole situation.
“Then what about the backup generators?” She asked. “There should be backup generators not only at the grid level but also in secure facilities like this, in any major city.”
She shone the light briefly on the guard and found his jaw hanging with realization.
“Spirits defend.” He said. It was an apt reaction that confirmed everything she thought.
Whoever cut the power to this station did it right and cut all of its available power.
Even the diesel-powered generators that should have triggered to keep them running.
That is what distinguished this situation from any other outage.
Minardo turned around and bolted down the hallways back into the interrogator’s quarters behind Bercik’s room. Her stomping and slamming the door woke the nurse and the officer. She dashed past them, ignoring their startled responses, and she seized the radio, switching it to battery power. Thank everything that it was not reliant on the station generators or the grid; she tuned the radio to the Headquarters frequency and called out in desperation.
“Colonel, the station has been sabotaged! Raise the alert level immediately!”
City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
By the dimming light of an electric desk lamp, and viewed through increasingly heavy lids, Generalplan Suden took on an entirely different character. From a murderous omen its pages instead became a bizarre, almost humorous design. Its intricate maps became modern art, playing host to undifferentiated blotches of varying shades. Long lists of names and dates and shortform orders blended together so that the rough language of Nocht seemed like utter gibberish, amusing guttural sounds without civilized meaning.
Madiha found herself cracking a tired smile, a sign she was truly losing her faculties.
She did not notice the lights, dimming like lit candlewicks struggling against a breeze.
Instead her mind wavered from the document to her beloved companion, across the desk from her. She had collapsed entirely over her work, her head invisible beneath wavy locks of strawberry hair. Her back rose and fell with her heaving breaths, which started as raspy noises and then turned into cute whining sounds as she expelled them. Parinita had worked the hardest out of anyone in the office once Madiha explained the documents.
They had spent all day copying as much of Generalplan Suden as they could, trying to preserve its information should anything happen to the original. Padmaja and Bhishma had been dismissed for the day, for reasons of information security. With Minardo at the station, the two lovers spent the afternoon, evening, and up until midnight feverishly copying the most important facts from hundreds upon hundreds of pages. They had brought a drum mimeograph machine in from the staff office and copied with it until they ran out of ink and wore out their stencils. From there they hand-copied. For the maps, they drew all the lines on their own operational maps and on a hastily procured Atlas.
Despite all their efforts, they had perhaps only copied about half the total information, and that was ignoring all of the information on their own forces, as collected by the enemy, that they chose to outright ignore for the moment. They were thoroughly exhausted. Parinita had fallen asleep and Madiha could hardly keep her head up. Her vision swam, and her pen hand was starting to sway and scribble nonsense on the paper. She was trying to copy over a table of organization for the 8th Panzer Division.
Even dazed as she was, she was beginning to see that she would not complete her work today. Her fingers loosened from around the pen and allowed it to drop, and her eyes flitted open and closed, remaining shut for longer and longer periods as her head dipped, and her shoulders slackened. Slowly she bent over the desk and laid her head down.
She reached out a sluggish, shaking hand to Parinita and took her fingers for a moment.
Around them the lights pulsed rapidly and then the room went completely dark.
Before she was fully at rest, Madiha heard a scratching sound in the room.
Mustering her strength, she raised her head and found the sound coming from the direction of the radio. Slowly she pushed herself up by her hands, and blearily she ambled toward the radio on the other side of the room, and she picked up the receiver. There was at first only loud static on the line and intermittent snatches of crackling and whining noise.
She blinked, staring dumbly at the box. Finally, words started to come out of it.
“Colonel, the station has been sabotaged! Raise the alert level immediately!”
At first Madiha could not make heads or tails of what she was hearing.
It was as if the words were in another language. They made less sense than the blurry Nochtish she saw through half-closed eyes back at her desk. Minardo repeated her pleas with greater and greater vehemence, and suddenly Madiha felt something snap into place, a puzzle piece filling a gap in her brain. Her eyes drew open, and her back straightened.
“Sabotaged how?” She shouted, her senses slowly returning, her body shivering.
She noticed then that the entire headquarters was cast in a gloom, and that aside from errant beams of moonlight filtering through curtains there was no light anywhere. Not even the lamp posts out in the field seemed to be working. Everything had been knocked out.
“All of the power is out!” Minardo shouted. “It must have been deliberate, because–”
An airless chill blew through the room and sunk deep into her skin.
Madiha gasped for breath as if the air had suddenly been struck out of her.
Behind her the window burst, and she felt like a blizzard had swept over her.
Reflexively she seized herself, and her knees shook, and she bowed.
Over her shoulder she saw a figure come from the oldest recesses of her mind.
Standing over the desk, the robed creature looked down at her, a small smile glinting at her from the mask within its mask. Two tattered stumps hung from the front of its body, while a long arm ending in a burnt, cracked, stiff-looking hand curled over its shoulder like a scorpion’s tail. Much of its cloak was burnt, but what wasn’t was red, flapping in the winds, and the rest of it was covered in a twisting roll of fabric that trailed behind it like a tail.
In one swift move it lashed its longest arm out, and Madiha flinched.
Nothing struck her; instead the creature smashed through another window and fled.
When she opened her eyes it was gone.
Minardo’s voice was still coming out of the radio in panic.
Parinita bolted upright, startled, and began to hold herself from the cold.
“What was that?” She asked, turning her head every which way.
She looked down at the desk and gasped.
“Madiha, the plans! Generalplan Suden is gone!” She cried out.
Majini. It had taken the documents. That was its objective all along.
Without word, Madiha thrust upright and leaped through the window herself.
She hit the dirt and grass outside and charged after the monster.
In the rush of adrenaline she shed the evil chills; her inner fire had awoken once more.
Recalling the streets of Bada Aso as she walked them in her childhood, recalling the fearful nights spent fighting or evading these hideous fiends, Madiha drew upon every power and tactic that she had developed. It all came rushing back to her at once.
Find it, catch it, trick it, burn it.
Fighting a sharp, cutting sensation in her brain, she focused her mind on the field.
Her vision left her eyes, and she was looking from on high at a world of inverted color.
Several hundred meters ahead she spotted the Majini gliding through the air.
Haste was the beast’s forte; it wriggled above the ground like a worm in water, flying as fast as a downhill bicycle, its arms and ribbons spinning like the propellers on an aircraft.
Mid-run, Madiha drew back from her ghostly perception and returned to her body.
Blood trickled from her nose and ears as she pushed on herself.
As a child she had little control of this ability. It would destroy whatever she manipulated.
But she quickly became aware that it would not destroy herself.
Using the power she hurled herself forward after the Majini like a tank shell.
In an instant she left the blurry surroundings and smashed into the monster at mid-field.
Madiha and the creature both hit ground in a bonecrushing roll.
Only by subtly pushing and pulling on herself did Madiha avert the worst of it.
She skidded to a stand, the muscles on her right foot twisting painfully under her weight.
Ahead of her the Majini rolled like a tumbleweed, smashing its arms and its face and its cylindrical, raggedy sock-like body against the dirt. It righted itself slowly by the stumps on its maimed arms and by spindly legs that peeked briefly from under its cloak. Turning around, it sniffed loudly from its mask as if hissing at her.
Hoping to end the battle quickly, Madiha drew upon the fire, extending her fingers.
Sending danger, the creature stood up as if on tip-toes and swung its body side to side.
Madiha released a brilliant, fiery dart that flew right past the Majini’s head.
She missed; she never missed. Except where Majini were concerned.
Taunting her, the Majini continued to move erratically.
It swung its only complete arm as if in a dismissive gesture.
Entwined in its remaining fingers was Generalplan Suden.
That was its prize of the night.
Madiha closed her hands, unable to risk shooting fire at the moment.
She shouted out, raising closed fists. “You do not frighten me anymore! All you can do is creep in the dark! Try preying on a woman instead of a girl, you pathetic animal!”
She heard the sounds of teeth gnashing behind the blank face on the mask.
Curling its head forward while rearing up its shoulders, the beast lunged for her.
Madiha grinned — it fell for the provocation. Perhaps its fallen limbs stung in her presence.
Entering her space in a second’s rush, the creature swung its stumps like clubs. Madiha avoided the left arm and brought her own fists up to block the right. She felt the strike on her forearms and shoulder like a wooden baton, like the beating stick of the sister rectors in the orphanage. She nearly fell from the force, and she could feel the bruise already. But the creature had put all its strength in its bony arms, and swung itself off-balance.
Stepping past it, Madiha seized the monster’s flailing third arm and bent it double.
Like a twig the arm snapped, with a crunch that drew bone out of leathery skin and rags.
An airless, eerie wail escaped the monster’s mask and it retched and thrashed.
From its fingers, Generalplan Suden fell to the ground.
Madiha stepped on the folder to prevent its contents from flying away in the air.
She knew this would seal her own movement and grit her teeth in preparation.
Turning immediately, the Majini seemed as if standing on air instead of ground.
It charged into Madiha, and she brought her arms up and pushed against the weight.
Both of the monster’s fists struck her like hammers, but recoiled from her skin.
She felt all of the impact against her guard, and thought her bones would break, but what remained of the creature’s hand-less arms shattered into pieces, fragments of bone and parchment-like pieces of skin hitting the ground. Black dust escaped from the wounds in place of blood. She remained standing, shaken, her arms twin knots of agony.
Audibly panting, the Majini drew back, coiling like a snake.
Madiha brought down her arms and brought the thought of fire to the fore.
The Majini curled what was left of its three arms against its body.
Raising its head, the rags around it expanding as if following an impossibly long neck, the Majini hurled itself forward into Madiha, and its mask then met the side of her face.
She felt the cold, the infinite, ineffable cold from its body transfer into her own.
Again she felt all of the impact, but she also felt the malevolence, the sheer hatred.
Reeling from the blow, her vision swimming, Madiha’s concentration waned.
Instead of a dart, as she had wanted, Madiha summoned a wave.
Like the jet from the end of a flamethrower, an endless spout of fire escaped her hands.
As soon as her flames touched it the Majini lit up like a rag soaked in gasoline.
Madiha fell back, and closed her fists, drawing back the power in her hands.
Before her the Majini became a pillar of swirling flames.
It had survived the fires of her youth, but it would not live through those of her maturity.
She felt the cold in it instantly vanish. She felt the hatred die away.
Everything bound up in those rags and behind that mask, burnt instantly.
Standing in place, writhing, screaming, the rags turned to ash. Beneath them, a body, a maimed, stretched, unnaturally warped body that she could not place as anything alive.
She realized that the rags and the mask had been generating the cold, the sound.
Beneath the mask she saw something that should have been a face and perhaps wasn’t.
Something with holes and with teeth and with features in an alien configuration.
For the briefest instant, she saw something that met her eyes almost with emotion.
Lit by the pyre that consumed it, the Majini’s form revealed itself and vanished in a blink.
All of the fire blew away, and there was nothing but dust flying in the wind.
At once, the gloom parted as the electric lamps and street lights across the base turned on.
In the middle of the field, amid the dim light from far-away posts, Madiha was alone.
She tried to stand from the floor and found it impossible.
As the adrenaline left her, her knees buckled, and her arms locked up, shaking.
Her eyes were forced open from the incongruous thing she had been forced to witness.
Everything was blurry, and the images were burnt into her brain.
Constantly she pushed and pushed on her own mind to keep herself in order.
She was frozen in place, unable to right herself physically or mentally.
Parinita’s desperate screaming barely registered in her mind. Madiha hyperventilated, sure in the last rational recesses of her brain that she was in the throes of some kind of psychotic attack. Her nose and ears started to bleed and even her eyes filled with red.
She felt Parinita’s soft, warm hands against her body, felt her comforting embrace.
She heard her voice, cooing, soothing, perhaps singing a little rhyme.
There was an instant of relief before her consciousness entirely collapsed.
50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Noon
Tambwe, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
After last night’s power outage and security breach, all of the 1st Regiment was on alert.
Training would continue, but reliable personnel were rotated in and out to guard the HQ.
As engineers replaced the windows on the front and side of the headquarters building, a labor squadron laid down sandbags to form two semi-circular walls in front of the building.
A pair of rotating tripod mounts had been procured for top-loading Danava light machine guns, which were to be manned at all hours of the day. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns of 45 and 37 mm calibers guarded the surroundings. Newly-arrived, a Hobgoblin EP/76 tank patrolled in a circle close to the little building, its crew “training” in it.
Inside the headquarters, an infantry squadron stood with rifles ready to defend the tiny Regimental command staff. Gulab Kajari and Charvi Chadgura were obvious mainstays of these missions, and were soon joined by some familiar faces — Nikka Illynichna and a pair of dour little Svechthans rounded out the crew. Though the trio clearly desired to chat, the atmosphere in the headquarters was too intense for that. Everyone was on edge, and there was no sound in the building but that of copy machines and scratching pens.
Word had gone out quickly about the attack. Everyone needed only to look at the Headquarters, and to find its windows shattered, and the frames hurled out of the apertures as if by an explosion, to realize that something serious had transpired.
No assailant had been caught, which was the worst part.
Though the High Value Assets had been recovered, this could happen again.
And the circumstances surrounding it were disturbingly mysterious.
Everyone at the base had experienced the outage the night before. Power had returned to the base (and police station) fairly quickly. Electrical disruption had been confined only to those two locations, and only for about twenty-five minutes each around midnight. There was no explanation from the power company as to why this would happen, and the rest of the city had experienced no anomalies. An official investigation was promised.
Nobody had much faith the Council would honor that promise.
Most of the Regiment knew that the attack’s target was a High Value Asset in the hands of the Headquarters staff. None of them had gotten a good look at it — none of them needed to. It was enough to know where it was, who had it, and where it should remain.
Nobody knew the character of the enemy after that, except Colonel Nakar.
She had fought off the assailant and recovered the Asset personally.
Since doing so, she had not left the Headquarters.
Those who hadn’t seen her, had their admiration for the Colonel swell considerably.
Those who did see her, worried about the caliber of the enemy.
Madiha sat behind her desk as always, overseeing Bhishma, Padmaja and Parinita as they hurried along, copying the mystery documents as fast and faithfully as they could. She looked quite worse for wear. She had her arm in a sling, and a thick bandage around her forehead and over one eye. Nothing was broken; but there was swelling and bleeding that needed to be controlled. She was coughing frequently, and nodding off at times.
“I will be fine in a few days.” She said, deflecting worry whenever asked.
Meanwhile the base continued its operations with increasing fervor.
In the distance, artillery guns fired training shots. Trainees stormed the fake stronghold for the first time and died to red-water guns by the dozens. Tanks arrived at the base by the dozen, courtesy of Solstice. They were shy of their peak strength of 100 Tanks, 200 Personnel Vehicles and 25 Self-Propelled Guns, as promised by Solstice, but steadily rising.
Tanks and trainees, however, were not the only arrivals.
Around noon, the guns behind the sandbags, and the turret on the Hobgoblin, all turned on an approaching light car that had not been authorized to appear before the Colonel. Everyone on guard exercised considerable restraint, and the occupants of the vehicle were allowed to dismount and approach and identify themselves as alleged friendlies.
Colonel Nakar bid them in with a sigh of annoyed resignation.
Through the door crossed a pretty young woman with skin a very light brown, dressed professionally, her wavy dark hair in ringlet curls, and familiar green eyes; at her side was a shabby, curly-haired man, his military uniform worn with an aesthetic of casual disorder.
“Colonel Nakar, the Adjar Government-In-Exile demands audience.” Chakrani Walters said.
Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — Conspiracy City