EL DRAGÓN — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, Council District

From the steps into the Council building a fresh unit of soldiers charged down the front green, avoiding the six dead men strewn about the lawn and rushing toward the corner of Council Street and its central block. Scouting the area, their weapons up as they ran, they joined a pair of men hiding on the edge of the green, huddled behind a pair of benches.

Though the sky was black, several powerful searchlights shone from the roof and from several windows in the council building, providing targeting capability to the infantry. Every street lamp along Council Street was set again to full power, having been previously dimmed to support the curfew.

Carefully the men behind the benches and bushes on the edge of the Council lawn peered down the street, perhaps expecting gunfire. There was no retaliation against them. They assembled and prepared quietly.

“How many?” asked the squad leader, leaning out toward the road.

One man answered in a panic. “Just one sir! But she’s strong–‘

With a grin the squadron leader cut the man off.

He stood from behind the bench and held out his arm.

“You coward! Just one shooter has forced you back? Move out and–”

From farther down the street a rifle round struck the squadron sergeant’s adam’s apple as he berated his men. His head nearly came off as he fell.

There was immediate panic. Even with a tracer, it should have been nearly impossible for a shooter in the dark to kill this accurately with one shot.

An entire squadron dove and scrambled for cover around the corpse of their officer but found little they could use. In front of the large, square, u-shaped Council Building the green was wide open. There was nothing but small manicured bushes, stray benches made of widely spaced boards and a pair of flagpoles to hide behind on the lawn, and all of these were many meters apart. There were the torches on the street, but in the dark these posts immediately marked the men they covered as obvious targets.

Snipers could have hidden inside the western arm of the Council Building, but then they would not be able to see the fugitive. Even the men at the forefront of the gun battle could hardly see their target, only thirty meters away, save for a flash of movement in dim lamplight after her every kill.

Madiha Nakar had picked her position on the connecting Council Street to shield her from the sight of the Council Building. She was deep enough into the street that the arms of the building could not shine their lights on her, and she was distant enough from a torch post to hide in the gloom.

While her enemies had trouble targeting her, Madiha’s own field of view to the lawn was wide open, and she had reasonable cover from the old, thick steel mail bank box set on the side of the road. It was akin to a wall. Stray bullets bounced off the side and top of the box. Its exterior was made of fairly thick metal, and any bullets that penetrated would be slowed or diverted by the papers and boxes inside the bank. She had her pick of targets whenever she peered beyond the bank. Over the iron sights, she led her shots on the men even as they struggled to escape.

One shot through a mouth; clack went the bolt action; one shot through an eye; clack; one through a nose. Three men dropped to the ground in quick succession. Madiha retreated behind cover and felt the force of several shots transfer through the metal into vibrations against her back.

Taking a deep breath, she produced a new stripper clip from the pilfered ammunition bang slung over her shoulder and fed it into the rifle. Sensing a long delay between rifle shots at her back, she peered around the postal box. Selectively targeting the men in green uniforms she retaliated anew.

Through the space between the boards on the bench backrest she saw one of the panicked men that was shouting before. She shot him in the chest.

Tracers soared through the gloom like flaming arrows. Madiha took note of as many of the flashes and cracks as she saw and heard while shooting and before hiding, divining enemy positions and retaliating accurately.

As the exchange of gunfire continued, she saw less and less of the panicked blue-uniformed civil police in the vicinity. She had hoped they would finally break and flee after a show of force, and she had been thankfully correct. There was only a smattering of green uniforms on the Council Building front green and soon, not a single blue police uniform.

She hid behind the post box anew and worked the bolt. Mentally she prepared herself for the next volley of rifle shots launched her way.

In place of the cracking of Bundu rifles she heard a continuous noise.

Dozens of rounds struck the back of the box, many penetrating into the interior and striking against the metal directly at Madiha’s back. Chips of hot metal flew overhead like the shavings of an electric saw. Bright green tracers raked the street and the road at her sides. A spraying cone of lead showered the surroundings in hot metal, hungry for her flesh. It was an enemy Norgler. She could tell from the noise; she couldn’t risk peering out.

Soon as she heard a lull Madiha fled from cover, ducking stray rifle fire to run into an alley. She put her back to the bricks of a shop wall, and closed her eyes. Hundreds of flashing green fragments blew in toward her from the edge of the alley wall as the automatic tracer fire chipped at the bricks. Stowing her rifle she withdrew her pistol and stuck out her hand, shooting blindly back into the road and toward the green, unable to tell the effect.

Before she could even think to peek again the Norgler fire resumed.

She was trapped in an alleyway. Everything was dark owing to the distance from the street lights. There seemed to be no civilians around, not on the street, in the alley or in these buildings. Nobody there to be hit by the shots but her. It was the only comforting thought she had the entire night.

There was scarcely a pause between volleys. Automatic gunfire perfectly sited the street. Her muscles tensed and she grit her teeth, flinching from bits of brick and lead flying sharply off the corner and stinging her cheeks.

She crept farther into the alley and hid between a garbage can and a set of steps into a side door. Her original intention had been to fight until she thought she had a good chance to flee to safety. She had perhaps stuck around too long; the showers of tracers made her plans impossible.

Under the cover of the Norgler there were likely men moving in against her, combing the gloomy streets. They would find her quickly even in the dark. She would be hard-pressed to deal with a rifle squadron while cornered in an alley. All they had to do was throw grenades into the alley.

She had to take action first; she could not sit here and wait to die.

From her stolen pack she withdrew a flare gun and fired it into the sky.

A canister launched heavensward and exploded with a red flash.

Under the moonless sky the flash was enough to light the entire alley.

It was a signal for help. But it also exposed her location to the enemy.

On the street six men rushed past and stacked on both sides of the alley.

Madiha crouched behind the garbage can with her head almost in her legs.

As she feared she heard a shout. Grenades came flying into the alleyway.

Over the shouting of the men Madiha heard a high-pitched roaring.

As she hoped, the grenades flew right out as a stiff gust blew into the alleyway from above. Three grenades bounced back out into the street along the ground and detonated simultaneously on top of their owners.

Madiha felt the detonations and huddled in place until she heard the last of the spraying fragments settle. When she lifted her head again, she found Kali beside her, having descended from the heavens. Even in the dark her scales seemed to glint with their own dim luminescence.

Her little dragon looked worse for wear.

Bullets had become lodged in its scales in various locations, cracking “plates” of armor but seemingly not drawing blood. Where blood had been drawn was its underbelly and wings, where shards of glass had become embedded, and bruises and blood spots had formed wherever Brass Face had managed to strike in their combat. She was clearly quite wounded.

Kali did not seem disturbed by her wounds. It sat on all fours like a cat, with its head raised, staring blankly at Madiha in the same way as usual.

“Kali, you’re hurt!” Madiha said sadly.

No response from the little dragon. It stared expectantly.

Madiha reached out and petted it on the head as Parinita had taught her.

Kali purred and closed its eyes.

Madiha felt foolish; what she said before was obvious, but she felt strongly compelled to acknowledge it to herself. Kali had been hurt. Her actions and decisions had not just affected herself or the enemy. Her little friend had been badly beaten around. She did not even know how much Kali really understood things. Though it had the aptitude to fight, and some apparent knowledge of how its enemies were fighting her (what shooting was, and how to deflect big projectiles) she felt strange attributing that much agency to it. Madiha still thought of her as a pet that needed care.

And as far as caring for Kali went, Madiha had failed miserably.

She was about to punctuate her failure even further.

From her bag she withdrew a thick bundle of grenades.

“Kali, can you understand me?”

Kali stared at her, craning its head to one side.

Madiha reached out her hand to pet her head again.

She settled her palm over Kali’s head and projected an image.

“Can you see this man too?”

She tried to gently push into Kali’s mind the image of a male soldier with a Norgler. She focused on the size of the weapon, on the way a man would be holding it, on the noise and visual effect of the weapon. It was akin to drawing a sketch for a trainee to help them visualize an enemy target.

There was no protest to the psychic display.

She was not trying to intrude on Kali’s mind like she did to Brass Face’s. Through the tenuous connection she conveyed her non-aggression as strongly as she could. She tried to evoke a one-way conversation, a giving of information, a telling of facts. Madiha took not even a trickle of Kali’s thoughts. In turn the dragon was calm and gentle, completely trusting.

In a few seconds she was satisfied with the picture she had projected.

Madiha removed her hand from Kali’s head and smiled at her pet.

“Kali, I need you to drop this on that man. Can you do that?”

Soon as she was done speaking the exterior alley lit up with green tracers.

Kali seized the bundle of grenades from Madiha’s hands and took off.

In the preceding days Madiha had only ever really see Kali float and glide, but today she was flying as though propelled by her own little engine. She flapped her wings once and generated enough wind to lift dust from the floor and to lift her whole body into the sky. She elevated without concern, flying directly up and down as if unburdened by the physics of aviation.

She disappeared from over the alley. Madiha crouched along the edge of the wall, hurrying toward the street. She pulled on the leg of a corpse, drawing the remains into the alley and pilfering ammunition. Just a meter overhead and scarcely a meter of brick from the street, the Norgler’s fire resumed slicing the pavement and the corner of the shop. Hundreds of bullet holes had scarred the street and the lips of the alleyway walls.

Madiha sat against the wall, pistol in hand, waiting for a sign.

There came another volley of Norgler fire, chipping at the walls anew.

Then a loud blast quieted the gun mid-spray.

Madiha charged out of the alleyway, firing her pistol up the street. She found a trio of men running from the lawn and attacked them, shooting two before ducking back behind the mail bank. She spotted several more men that had been assembling on the green, and were now stumbling around wounded and dazed from the explosion. Amid a circle of burnt grass and running blood were a pair of bodies lying on a mangled pile of metal tubing and cooked ammo that had once been an automatic weapon.

Overhead Kali circled like a vulture smelling carrion in the air.

With the Norgler suppressed and the men scattered, now was the time to flee. Madiha withdrew her flare gun, popped a new canister into the weapon and aimed further down the street. She unloaded a flare, set her sights on Ocean Road at the end of the block, perhaps a kilometer away, and took off under the red flash, hoping that Kali would see it and follow.

As she left cover and ran Madiha felt a closer, hotter flash behind her.

Chunks of metal flew past her as the box exploded a dozen meters back.

Eyes drawn wide with terror, Madiha looked over her shoulder mid-run.

She found herself suddenly turning gold under a pair of bright lights.

Blinded at first, she caught a glimpse of her aggressor when the lights moved from over her body and instead illuminated the road ahead.

Moving into the green from beyond Council Street was a Goblin light tank, the ubiquitous main tank of the Territorial Army. Characteristically angled tracks bore it forward, its three-section glacis with a flat front plate facing Madiha. Atop its thinly armored, riveted hull was an off-center turret with a thin gun and a linked machine gun, and atop that was a pintle-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun, rarely seen equipped.

One 45mm high-explosive shell was all it took to smash the mail bank.

Against other tanks it was lacking, but a Goblin was deadly to infantry.

Madiha saw the gun barrel light up as she glanced again over her shoulder.

In an instant a second shell flew past, infinitely faster than she could run.

Had it deviated a meter toward her it would have struck Madiha directly.

Instead thirty meters ahead it exploded on the road, scattering fragments.

Madiha shielded her face with her arms, turned on her heels and dove blindly into the nearest alleyway. She felt a sting on her flank; a fragment must have bitten into the back of her ribs somewhere. Flinching from the new pain, she found herself scarcely a few dozen meters from where she had started, stranded in a wide alley mostly adjacent to her last refuge.

Behind her she heard the loud whining of the tracks as the Goblin neared.

The Cisseans must have cried out for help to the rogue 8th Division.

Or perhaps they had just pressed a captured Goblin into their own service.

Regardless Madiha now had to contend with a tank.

She cast wild eyes around the alley and found a large dumpster belonging to the shops on this block. She put down the lid and climbed atop, and leaped up. Her hands barely seized a second-story windowsill, and she pulled herself up. Over the smaller building at her other side she could see the tank coming closer. It thankfully could not see her, not with its optics.

Pressed precariously against the shop window, Madiha withdrew her pistol and shot the glass, creating an opening. Using her knife she smashed off as much of the sharp glass as she could from the bottom half of the window and slid herself inside. She found herself in a dark storage room that seemed empty, dusty and cobwebbed. There were windows on the other end of the room, and she rushed toward them and crouched.

On the street below she heard the tracks and the engine come closer.

She heard the road wheels, characteristically slamming in protest as the Goblin tank tried to navigate the ten centimeter step up from the flat road to the alley street. Goblin road wheels were quite poorly arranged and any change in elevation caused them to lift violently and issue a harsh noise.

It was likely trying to turn into the alleyway below to corner her.

Giving chase in such a way was quite an amateurish mistake.

In such a tight melee the tank was under as much danger as its prey.

Madiha stood up against the corner of the room, between windows.

She peeked outside and confirmed her suspicions.

The Goblin had turned into the alley to search for her.

Madiha withdrew a lone anti-tank grenade from her ammunition bag.

She cracked open the window, primed the grenade and threw it.

Landing atop the engine compartment, the grenade’s cylindrical explosive head detonated violently. A cloud of smoke billowed from the back of the tank as the roof of the rear hull practically melted. Immediately the Goblin’s tracks ceased to whine and the engine ceased to rumble.

Fires burst from within the ruined grates once covering the engine.

There was no movement from within the tank. Had anyone survived they would have bolted out of the hatches. But judging by the detonation and the fires, and the slag that had become of the rear hull roof, it was likely that a shower of metal spall had killed everyone inside, if not the heat of the initial detonation. The Goblin tank was completely paralyzed.

Soon the fire would reach the ammunition and explode a final time.

Madiha pulled the window open the whole way. Enduring the stinging at her side, she gingerly leaped onto the Goblin’s turret. She misjudged the jump; she hit the turret roof hard, and nearly slid off with her momentum. Groaning, she sat up and began to pull free her prize. Madiha took the Danava machine gun from the simple mounting atop the turret.

Now she had a real weapon on her hands.

Faint and distant, she heard the trampling of boots over the hissing fires from the tank’s engine. Madiha cast a quick glance overhead, making sure that Kali was still airborne. Finding her dragon flying over the alleys, Madiha signaled to her, leaped down from the tank and ran further into the dark alleys and around the backs of the shops on Council Street.

She had a good weapon, a head start and the night.

She was sure she could get away now.


City of Rangda, Council Building

Around the back of the Council Building pair of Cissean men stood on either side of a heavy-duty steel shutter at the bottom of a concrete ramp descending between the green and street. They pulled on a pair of levers to unlock the shutter and lifted it to gain access. A pair of headlights shone from inside as a heavy truck with a massive, canvas-covered steel bed made its way out of the garage and toward an expectant Von Drachen.

Two wheels in front and six in the back bore the weight of thirty tons of cargo. The Tank Transporter crawled up the ramp at the direction of the two men. At the top of the ramp turned around on the back green of the Council Building. Both men supervising the transporter pulled a slide out from under the bed, attached it to the lip of the bed and allowed it to drop.

From within the tank transporter a spotlight shone and an engine blared.

Tracks distinctively whined as an M4 Sentinel made its way out of the transporter. Painted an absurdly gaudy red with a golden stripe around the turret, this M4 Sentinel was in most ways a standard production M4 with its armored contours gently curving, its rounded turret, and a steep front with a characteristically bulging plate protecting the lower front hull.

Rather than a longer-barreled anti-tank gun, however, this M4 boasted a shorter gun with a wider bore. On the gun mantlet there was a searchlight.

Upon seeing the vehicle fully displayed on the lawn, Von Drachen clapped.

“Leave it to the Barbaros to make silk out of peasant cloth!” He cheered.

Nocht had been loath to provide much in the way of armored vehicle assistance to Cissea, despite pressuring them to support the invasion. Von Drachen’s Azul Corps in Adjar had made do with the Escudero, a variant of a common export market light tank produced in Occiden. Madiha Nakar had then made quite sure that he lost his limited stock of them. When Nocht finally approved M4s for Cissea, they gave up their older early production stock that had been languishing in warehouses, like this big fellow.

However, the engineers of Barbaros Valley always came through. Even the heavy purges of their labor force and academics, hundreds tried and made examples of for supporting the anarchists, did not stop them from largely reconstructing the M4 bottom-up in a few weeks. Von Drachen lovingly called it the M4D Dragoon Sentinel. Without a word more he leaped onto the back of the engine and skillfully climbed atop the turret.

Gutierrez seemed much less impressed by the machine at his side.

“Why is it red? It blends in with nothing. There’s no red terrain.”

Atop the turret Von Drachen looked over his shoulder with disdain.

“Excuse you.” Von Drachen said. “Solstice’s red sands are almost red.”

“They’re a ruddy brown, they’re not watercolor red like this thing.”

Von Drachen shrugged. “We will agree to disagree on the aesthetics.”

Gutierrez stared at him with growing confusion and concern.

Mijo, where are you going? You’re gonna drive that thing yourself?”

“Of course not. I’m only the gunner and commander! I don’t drive.”

Von Drachen smiled and descended into the interior of the machine.

At the front, his driver was already at his post and prepared to move.

He would not be too necessary. Von Drachen intended to do most of his fighting from the Council Building lawn, supported by the mechanisms in front of him, taking up much of the M4’s turret interior. In place of the 50mm anti-tank gun, the Dragoon Sentinel possessed a 75mm howitzer. There was an elevation dial sight for laying, a compass, a telescopic sight, a periscope sight for naked eye perspective on the battle. Von Drachen also brought an urban map of Rangda, and pinned it to the turret wall.

He sat behind the controls of the gun and felt himself surge with energy.

Finally he would be able to challenge Nakar in a military arena. No swords, no standoffs, no barbarity, just two prodigious intellects clashing at last. Granted, he accepted the imperfections of this contest. Madiha was alone, or supported only by a strange pet according to certain whimsical reports. Von Drachen counted on the support of over a hundred men and he had this tank, and, gods willing, he had Mansa’s 8th Division at some point.

Surely once he crushed Madiha Nakar that command would easily be his.

Nonetheless, it was as close as they would come to a real battle of military wills before Nakar’s untimely demise. Von Drachen was quite positive.

He pulled off his officer’s cap and donned a radio headset, connecting himself to the tank’s radio system on his right-hand side. He flicked a switch on the audio control box clipped to his chest and made a call.

“This is General Von Drachen. I want a front-line report of Nakar’s last known position along Council Street and the time of the sighting.”

As he spoke, the M4D started to move across the grass, rounding the corner of the Council Building and around the west wing before moving onto the front lawn toward Council Street. Through his periscope sight, Von Drachen spotted his men huddling near their dead. Many drew their eyes away from the fight to gawk, presumably impressed with the color.

After a few minutes, Von Drachen had marked on the map every spot where Madiha Nakar had been seen. From the ruined mail bank box, he shone his spotlight on the burnt-out wreck of a Goblin tank, half-turned into a nondescript alleyway. Marking that on his map as well, he quickly came up with an appropriate firing solution. He signaled his driver to stop.

“I’ll handle the rest. You leave the tank right in this spot.” He said.

Von Drachen grabbed hold of the turret control handle and began turn the gun toward the interior of the block of buildings just off Council street. He made some rapid-fire calculations in his head. Judging the performance of Madiha Nakar’s young and hale body against the thing in the Council Building, and the state of exhaustion in which she must have been; and judging by the layout of the map, and her goal of reconnecting with her own troops; and judging by the wind, the dark, the cold, and lady luck–

Numbers, numbers, numbers; none of them mathematician approved.

Von Drachen’s internal monologue was mostly a series of half-formed gut feelings that he represented with arithmetic that made sense only to him.

From the rack at his side he grabbed hold of a heavy yellow-tipped shell.

He laid it on his lap like a babe, while he turned the elevation wheel on his gun, a slow and laborious process. He triple-checked the elevation dial as well as his compass. Satisfied with his siting, Von Drachen popped open the breech, and held the shell aloft in front of him. After adjusting the base fuse for timing, loaded the shell and locked the breech securely. He lifted his hands, sat back, and took a deep breath. Firing was done by his foot using an electric pedal system, so he could relax for a brief moment.

Von Drachen laughed, grinning viciously to himself.

Nakar wasn’t the only one with a command over fire.

With his free hands he broadcast his voice over the radio once more.

“All units currently combing the alleys, keep your eyes peeled and beware the sky. Give it a one minute window before you resume your pursuit.”

He then lifted his shoe, and started to bring his sole down on the pedal.

Suddenly he received a call back.

“But sir, aren’t there civilians in Council block?” cried a scared man.

Von Drachen scoffed. “Please trust me better than that. Mansa had them moved to air raid shelters hours ago. Besides, I’m not firing explosives.”

“Sorry sir! Yes sir–”

Von Drachen cut his audio receiver off to quiet the man.

He sighed deeply and slowly worked his way back into his zone.

“Anyway. Firing for effect! Incendiary Airburst going out!”

He slammed his shoe on the pedal and the gun fired.


City of Rangda, Council and 2nd Block

Portable torch in hand, Madiha hurtled through the alleyways and into a tight concrete path a block up from Council that linked a few small shops and a canteen. She was flanked on all sides by two-story buildings. Cars would have been cramped in the one-lane byway serving as both road and street; most tanks would not fit between the buildings into the alleys.

Madiha soon found herself with a dead end ahead, represented by a tall brick wall and an enormous stack of crates blocking her way. She could have tried to climb, but she had lost her sense of where Ocean Road was in her rush to escape — and she feared snipers. Keeping low was for the best.

She turned around and headed up between a shoe shop and the canteen.

She had expected to see men hot on her heels by now but there were none.

As she ran she raised her head to the rooftops around her, to the windows; she peered into adjacent alleys, through half-open doors. There was not a soul around. Either people did not live in these shops, only manned them during work hours; or everyone had been taken somewhere. She supposed it would have been easy to round people up with the curfew and the police and military presence. They could not have used the air raid alarms — Madiha would have heard those and been alerted to the evacuations.

Hopefully those people were safe and would remain so through what was to come. At least Madiha could rest easy knowing that. But the question then remained: where were the police and soldiers who were chasing her?

She heard her answer in the form of a dire song whistling overhead.

That she heard the shell at all usually meant it had overshot her.

Those destined to die heard nothing. They were simply crushed.

Those in the vicinity would have heard an instant of sharp, eerie rushing noise before the deep rumble of the shellfall. It was the signal of a low-velocity, high-arc weapon like a mortar or howitzer. Ordinarily it was safe.

Madiha’s gaze immediately shot skyward.

Amid the dark clouds she saw the dim trail from the shell.

It would not merely overfly her.

In a split-second it burst into hundreds of trails of falling fire.

She was reminded of the fireworks during the festival.

Except the trails of color were all hurtling earthward.

She dropped her torch.

Madiha ducked under an awning as hundreds of fragments of burning metal struck the rooftops and the ground in the alley. She found herself surrounded by knife-point sharp chunks of steel casing, embedded into the ground at high velocity like throwing daggers hurled by an invisible hand. One of the closest struck just off of her foot, millimeters from her.

At once the dark alley had lit up. Wisps of fire started to spread across the ground, along the brick walls and over the concrete floor. Discarded crates and trash-filled drums caught by the fragments burst into wild flames. It was as if someone had poured gasoline around every fragment of metal.

Madiha felt an instant of sharp pain and raised her boot from the ground.

She found a trail of fire dancing over a drop of gelatinous substance on her boot. It melted the plastic and heated up the steel insert protecting her toes. Immediately she pulled off her shoe and hurled it away. Gritting her teeth, she pulled off her worn-out sock and found a boil had formed on her toe from the heat. Struggling not to weep from the pain, she sidled on one foot along the wall of the alley, trying to escape from the raging fires.

Spreading over the floor in long, golden lines of crawling death was more of the same gelatinous chemical, rolling off the red-hot fragments that bore it to the ground. Thick white smoke trailed from the fires it caused.

An acrid reek accompanied the rising fumes. Madiha started to feel dizzy. Her stomach was turning. She felt bile rise to her throat from the smell.

Her eyes and nose watered. Madiha concentrated on her escape. Should she tumble forward into the fires she would have certainly, horribly died. Even now her boot was still burning on its own just from that drop of jelly.

That substance could not be put out easily — perhaps not at all.

Step by step along the wall she crawled, setting down her foot only on its heel to regain balance. She stood as if on the edge of a precipice, hardly able to open her eyes, her back ramrod straight. Everything inside her hurt and protested. She held in her breath as much as she could.

Step by step; she opened her eyes briefly again. She was close.

Her side stung; her foot throbbed with agony. Her senses swam.

Step by step–

A sudden noise forced her eyes open.

Madiha was almost out of the burning alley when she heard rifles crack.

She saw the bullets impact the opposite wall and the floor around her.

Desperate to escape she set down her injured foot and staggered out of the alley and behind a corner, scarcely avoiding the last thick concentration of burning jelly. She quickly checked her whole body to make sure nothing was burning. Peering back through the smoke and the dancing red light from the incendiaries, she could just make out men on a distant rooftoop.

Behind the corner, she took a knee and quickly bandaged her toe.

Just beside her the rifle bullets continued to fly past and against the wall.

Standing up again, and setting down her foot, she withdrew her machine gun. She had only a pair of 45-round drum pans, top-fed into the Danava.

This fact made her no less conservative about her ammunition.

Peering around the corner and into the smoke, she aimed high and opened up on the rooftops with a long automatic spray from the DNV. Where the bullets went, she did not know; the white smoke had risen high enough to block any possible view of her enemy. Red tracers flew off into a void.

From within the smoke a short series of rifle shots responded.

Louder than the rifles and the crackling fires was the whining of a shell.

Far greater than the whining was the inevitable detonation.

Madiha experienced a flash much closer to the ground than before.

She reflexively turned her back and shielded her face from the source.

Behind her the hot fragments struck the earth and caught fire.

She felt the wind, crawling through the alleys, bringing the heat to her.

There was no new pain; she had avoided the fragments.

When she turned quickly back around she found the alley ahead blocked off by a wall of golden yellow fire. Flames clung to brick, to stucco, even to windows. A massive conflagration raged in the middle of the alley and barred any access past it. Stray boxes in the vicinity seemed to vaporize of their own accord; copper pipes running along the wall glowed white-hot.

Her whole body was soaked in sweat, and the fumes irritated her skin.

Madiha had no time to marvel at the terrifying flames.

She loaded her final canister into her flare gun and shot it just over the alley. Almost instantly, she saw the body of a man swept off the roof fall and smash back-first into a barrel, horribly contorted. His neck broke.

Overhead, she heard shots and growls and the sounds of invisible combat.

Kali was taking care of the men on on the roof. She had to trust her.

Madiha heard footsteps from around the corner, and more gunfire struck the wall past her and the wall at her side. There were men coming at least as close as the fires she had left behind; the rooftop runners were not her only pursuers. More incendiaries were likely on their way as well.

Reaching into her pack, Madiha withdrew two stick grenades.

Quickly she tied them by their handles with a bandage.

She primed both, threw behind her and ran.

There was a detonation but no way to tell its effects.

Avoiding the wall of fire in front of her, Madiha turned toward a back door into a squat building. It was made of some kind of metal; judging from a quick knock from her fist it was thin. There was no padlock she could see, but the door definitely had at least a simple interior lock on its knob.

Thankfully, nobody in Ayvarta focused on defending against break-ins.

One padlock and she would have probably died here.

Backing off a few steps, she stood on her good foot and kicked the door as hard as she could with her injured foot. She aimed near the knob and lock, as she had been taught. Instantly she felt pain shoot through all of the sinews in her foot and her ankle. She felt the knob and lock give. Rearing back, she bit down hard to endure the pain and delivered a second kick.

Under the strain of this second kick the door finally burst open.

Madiha put her injured foot on the ground and felt the pain once more.

Nearly limping, she made her way into the building.

Through the door-frame she could see the fire spreading outside.

She was in a restaurant kitchen. There was an old brick oven, wood-fired, and some more modern conveniences alongside it. She scanned for chemicals she might have used to improvise an explosive. Nothing stuck out to her. She would have to make do with the last of her stolen supplies.

As she struggled out the kitchen door into the dining area, she seized a delicate prize from her ammunition bag. She stowed her last magazines inside her coat and on her belt, before discarding the bag in the trash.

In front of the kitchen door was a small, charming cloth carpet with the words Hujambo! sewn in colorful letters. She left the kitchen door open, lifted the little mat and gingerly slid an anti-personnel mine under it.

Hefting only her machine gun now, she shot the glass front door open and ran outside. She came out into a wider-open one-lane road that could support cars and perhaps even a tank. Directly in front of her there was seemingly no open connection to Ocean Road. To her right there were nondescript buildings. To her left, she saw a small park in the distance.

Moments later she heard a detonation at her back.

Madiha took off running as well as her foot could support.

She had nowhere else to go but that park.

She fixed her eyes on the green that she could see ahead through the distant illumination of street lamps. Her whole body was protesting her every move. She was exhausted; she had been poisoned and drugged and she felt the effects on her brain and in her sinews, a burning, prickling feeling. Her hands were shaking, her knees shaking, her foot was burnt. She felt the fragment dug in her flank. All of her was crying but her eyes.

A dozen meters from the restaurant, there was a sudden new pain.

It was accompanied by the sound of a rifle.

Glancing over her shoulder, barely cognizant that she had been shot right through it, Madiha spotted the men — mountain climbers, Gebirgsjager. They were on the rooftops. They had easily climbed the urban terrain.

Had they gotten Kali? She could not see her anywhere around.

Fearing the worst, Madiha swung around her Danava to retaliate. She flinched violently. When the butt-stock hit her shoulder, blood spurted out. Her whole body was shaking from the pain. She could not aim.

She heard a cartridge discard, and a bolt pull from the rooftop.

Then she heard the singing of an artillery shell.

There was no other choice.

Madiha dropped her machine gun and raised her good hand.

Spotting the shell in the sky she pushed on the detonation.

Instead of tumbling toward her the shell detonated backwards from the tip of its nose and spewed all of its fragments and flaming jelly over the Gebirgsjagers on the rooftop. Soaked in the incendiary chemicals, the men screamed with a haunting agony that shook Madiha to her core.

She stood and watched, dumbstruck.

Doused in liquid flames the men rolled off the rooftop and onto the street, still burning. They ripped at their clothes, stamped, scratched, and could not stop burning. Their uniforms melted; the incendiary coated their skin.

Those men still trapped on the roof in the middle of the dire gold flames seemed to disappear into white smoke themselves, vaporized slowly.

Madiha ripped herself away from the sight and shambled toward the park.

That was a malevolent power her own flames could not match. No matter what magic did, the ingenuity of men and technology was always worse.

She clutched at her gunshot wound and focused on breathing and walking.

 

There was no singular experience of “being shot.” Every gunshot was unique. Madiha had been stricken by bullets both stray and malicious. She had been grazed in the side in a training accident; she had been shot in the hip by a fleeing spy. As a child she had been shot in the chest and almost killed. Sometimes the bullet felt like a fist blow followed by burning and cutting sensation in the wound. Sometimes it seemed like the metal melted in the flesh and slashed its way through every strand of sinew.

Madiha felt almost nothing of this bullet now. When struck she had felt a shallow stab. Her body was shaking, and she was bleeding. She could not move her arm, partially out of unconscious fear, partially due to injury. There was a slight stinging. But she was not wracked with agony. It was as if the experience of the gunshot had stabilized the rest of her pains.

Any agony she felt now was purely in her own mind, she thought.

All of the images that wracked her as she escaped.

For all the horrors she had seen tonight, those burning men left a scar.

Much like the transformed man in the Council Building; too cruel a fate.

Those were powers stronger and more terrible than any of her own.

She had to live; she had to see Parinita again. She had to return to her soldiers. They could not face that kind of fate. She would not allow it.

Trying to keep a clear head, she staggered slowly away. Step by step.

Stepping to live, stepping to breathe, stepping to step.


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.

Then–

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.

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