This scene contains violence and death.
City of Rangda, Council Building
“What do you mean it detonated backwards?”
From the inside of the M4D, Brigadier General Von Drachen was not quite having a great time of hearing his troops squandering his lovingly given artillery support and running into mines somehow, unable to hit the broad side of a rather tall young woman. And now they got caught in the flames! This was to be the resurgent dragon’s final victory! It was all gone awry!
He sighed internally. Giving in to desperation was not professional.
“I’m afraid anyone burned too badly by these shells is not going to survive long. Deliver them mercy. I warned all of you to give me some space!”
He argued with the man on the radio, working to be calm but stern.
In the back of his head, however, he knew that he was not off-target with his shells and that his men had not gotten caught in them. Rather, he had seen Madiha Nakar deflect an explosion before. He was sure she must have done something like that again. Her power; it made her highly dangerous.
But she was not immortal, he told himself.
Stopping that explosion inside the Council Building had hurt her arm.
He had seen it. He had seen her falter.
He grinned with the knowledge.
She had limitations. Those fires she could sling, those shields she could put up, her so-called ESP. They were not limitless. She could run out of fire, and she could certainly buckle and die under enough ammunition.
Madiha Nakar was no god; there was no such thing as a god on Aer.
At most, she was a monster. She had alien powers, but killable flesh.
He had seen powers and horrors tonight; but he had seen them falter.
More than anything that renewed his confidence in human strength.
He could not tell his men all of these things. It was not the right time.
But he was not ready to give up on them or on himself quite yet.
“Back off from her. She’s headed to Manban Park, yes? I’ll intercept from the south. Slip around her and cut off her escape from a distance.”
He switched from the long-range radio to the tank intercomm.
“Driver, take us to Manban at full speed!” Von Drachen commanded.
At once, the M4D started to move off the lawn of the Council Building.
Von Drachen had to admit she was a very worthy opponent. He had every advantage and she was still putting him on the defensive from afar.
Perhaps he was growing cocky and losing the sober precepts that carried him this far. Nobody could really tell what the outcome of anything was. All of their world was governed by a preternatural chaos that had only some grounding in arithmetic. And yet, inside the cockpit of this tank, fighting against his nemesis, he felt an eagerness and wildness in him.
He felt confident. He had prepared for an outcome, and he would effect it.
Her failures emboldened him. She was weakened now. He had a chance.
Through his periscope he observed the road as the M4D headed north and west along the various straddling the Council’s artery streets, hoping to reach Manban Park from the south. Men were running on foot alongside him, combing through the alleyways and charging down the streets.
As the M4D picked up speed along the roads, the men fell behind.
He had an appointment with a most troublesome young lady.
City of Rangda, Manban Park
Madiha laid down in the center of Manban Park, hiding behind a statue of Arthur Mansa. She caught her breath, holding a bundle of cloth she ripped from her undershirt tight against her wound. There were two streets she could take from her vantage, but one lead back south toward Council.
She was not sure the other would take her to Ocean Road.
Even if it did, she was becoming increasingly unsure she could make it back to the base. She had not planned on being shot along the way.
For the first few minutes of being shot, one focused on survival and escape, on the possibility of life. After enough bleeding, enough pain, enough struggling alone, the mind drifted toward the prospect of death.
Madiha shook her head.
She wanted desperately to live. But hope seemed ever farther away.
Had anyone been beside her, perhaps she would have the impetus to fight.
Instead she struggled to ignore the prospect of dying here alone.
With her injured arm she could not shoot full-size weapons anymore. It had already been a struggle to shoot when her arm was healing from the beating the Majini had given her days ago. Now she was shot through the shoulder. Danavas and Bundus were out of the question. She had a pistol.
She aimed her pistol around the side of the statue. She could aim back the way she came, and she could aim toward the south and north streets.
Her face was soaked in sweat. Long rivulets trailed down her nose and lips.
In front of her the landscape was dancing as if viewed through a haze.
She spotted men in the distance as warped, shapeshifting figures.
She pulled the trigger on her pistol once. One shape fell down.
Even absent the rest of her senses her trigger hand still went for the head.
She hid behind the statue and waited out the snapping of the rifles.
Bits of stone and iron from the plaque chipped off as the bullets hit.
She saw the fragments in the floor like dust.
Bits of Mansa; Mansa who vanished so suddenly.
Did these men think or know they were killing an empress?
Madiha shook her head. Everything was going out of focus.
Her brain was just regurgitating thoughts, independent of her body.
She stuck her hand out from behind the statue and rapped the trigger.
Images flashed in her mind with every trigger pull. Daksha Kansal, in the rain, shocked that a child had killed a man to save her. Lena Ulyanova teaching her about socialism and other subjects, as she had taught Daksha before. All of the people whom she had met as a Courier in Bada Aso. Chinedu, who took care of her and supported her with such devotion.
There was a long stretch of nothing. Then, more recent memories.
Sergeant Agni, back when she was Private Agni, still stiff and dull-spoken but excellent with tools and trinkets. Chakrani, fashionable and pretty and impressed with her uniform, who met her and bedded her quite quickly.
There were the missions, the spy-hunting, the military review.
Parinita, with those gentle eyes that saw worth in her.
Eyes that looked through her and desired to love her unconditionally.
Parinita who supported her without judgment.
Her face was fuzzy in her memory, like a bad picture on a television.
It was torment; she wanted so badly to see Parinita again–
Madiha shook her head again, more harshly this time.
Before she knew it her pistol was empty.
Had she been shooting all this time?
Was this what it felt like to die? Slowly losing control of oneself?
She peered around the statue. Briefly she saw the men closing in.
A stray bullet struck near her cheek and sent dust into her eyes.
She retreated. From her belt she withdrew a new magazine.
She slipped the magazine into the pistol from the handle.
Again she stuck her hand. She slammed the trigger quickly.
She heard the report of her pistol far louder than usual.
Long bursts of loud gunfire tore through the park.
There was something else too. She heard a whirring engine.
Shocked from her stupor, Madiha stood slowly from behind the statue.
Overhead she spotted a plane, its side door open.
Streams of automatic gunfire dropped from the side of the plane like red darts, chopping up the grass and chopping up the men. Someone was at the door and firing a machine gun. The Stork passenger biplane swooped over the park in tight circles, slashing across the enemy column.
Under this aerial attack the men scampered away.
Madiha felt a surge of energy. She reached her hand up and signaled.
The Stork blew past overhead and dropped something.
On the nearby grass, a bundle hit the ground.
Madiha scrambled for it and ripped it from its canvas covering.
There was a harness and heavy backpack that rattled as if full of metal.
Attached was a note that read Fuchs Recovery System.
On the back was a diagram.
Madiha pulled the bundle from the ground and strapped on the harness.
She found standing straight difficult. The Fuchs pack was very heavy.
When she finally managed to make it upright, a shell soared past her.
It struck a tree on the other end of the park and set its crown ablaze.
Madiha turned around in shock.
From the southern approach, a bright red M4 Sentinel approached.
Making minute corrections, its cannon zeroed in on her.
She could not escape from it.
Not on foot. Not with this bundle at her back.
Madiha grabbed hold of a pair of handles on the harness.
She stood defiantly before the tank.
As the M4 trundled forward, its cannon likely reloading, the old Stork flew over the southern road and turned, headed in a straight path over Madiha.
Madiha pulled the handles.
At her back, a pair of metal rods extended skyward in a v-shape.
Another pair extended toward the ground with feet to stabilize the weight.
It was just like in the diagram.
Slung between the two top poles was a sturdy line.
As the M4 Sentinel fired its second shot, a hook from the stork snagged Madiha’s line. Both rods were pulled closer as the plane flew past at hundreds of kilometers per hour and the line instantly stretched to its limits; Madiha soared off the ground, snatched suddenly by the plane.
Below her the incendiary shell detonated harmlessly on the ground.
Overhead the stork pulled back its hook via a winch, lifting Madiha higher.
Her hair flapped every which way with the buffeting winds.
She felt an intense pressure on her body. Her consciousness wavered.
She heard a rushing noise. Something big and warm seized her in the air.
Though the pressure waned then her mind was still too weak.
Everything went black as the hook pulled her up in fits and starts.
She felt an incredible stillness, an eerie sense of peace.
Suspended in mid-air, moving without need of her own power.
Her mind seemed to fall out of the world for a time.
Everything was dark and soft like the inside of her own eyes.
Her body felt cold. Her back was especially cold.
Her chest was warm, however. It was an odd mix of sensations.
Slowly that peace she had achieved was giving way to the chaos of living.
Madiha saw a light in front of her, above her, somewhere.
She opened her eyes with a start.
She was lying on a floor, staring up at the ceiling lamps on a green cabin.
There was a big, dark, warm bundle near her. It was Kali, purring softly.
Madiha weakly stretched her hand to pet her.
“Sergeant Minardo, ma’am, it looks like she’s coming to.”
Into her hazy view came a person.
Looming over her was a dull-eyed, unsmiling brown face with dark hair.
“In the interest of disclosure: that could have easily killed you.” Agni said.
Madiha burst out laughing, and then stopped immediately to cough.
Her ribs and shoulder protested horribly at this reaction.
She was alive. Badly injured, but alive.
“Who is Fuchs? I could kiss them!” Madiha asked weakly.
“You couldn’t. He’s dead.” Agni said. “I completed the system but–”
“I’ll kiss you!” Madiha said, tears in her eyes.
“Please don’t.” Agni dryly replied.
Atop the M4D the cupola hatch swung open.
An incredulous Von Drachen climbed half out of the tank and leaned slothfully against the back of the cupola, resting on the high seat.
His lips spread, first in bewilderment.
They then curled into a smile.
He burst out laughing.
Overhead the plane grew distant, pulling Nakar farther away.
As easily as he found her, she had again slipped from his grasp.
At his side there was a loud and unexpected screech.
From the southern road a vehicle had charged into the park.
“Von Drachen, what in hell is that? What happened?” Mansa shouted, pointing at the plane from the back seat of the arriving liaison car.
He was red in the face, distraught by the carnage around the city no doubt.
Von Drachen smiled gently at him.
“That, good governor, is all our troubles shooting across the sky.”
Aksara Mansa stared at the horizon with a blank gaze.
Once more the prospects forced a laugh out of Von Drachen.
Against all rationality, he wanted more badly than ever to fight her.
He had thought he was the chaos that had arrived to accelerate this stagnant world, but no, it might just be her. She was exceptional.