Storm The Castle (68.1)

This chapter contains graphic violence and death.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — South Wall Defensive Line

Around the city of Solstice the Red Desert rolled into hills and valleys. It rose, and it fell, and patterns formed on its surface like ocean waves captured solid, an endless sea of windswept rust-colored dust parched by a brutal heat. Stones set on the ground in ancient times traced paths through the desert to the oasis that is Solstice, but these paths came and went with the winds, and with the shape and stature of the surrounding dunes.

Since the beginning of the war, the unkempt paths had all but disappeared into sand.

One of those vanished roads once led to the southern wall of Solstice, said to be the only one “touching ground.” On the famous eastern road the massive stone bridge of the Conqueror’s Way parted Solstice from the rest of the land, the Qural river flowing from the north and down underneath the massive fortification; to the west, sheer cliffs, wide pits and broad gorges, which had been filled with water artificially, blocked the city access.

And so, it was along the fated south, that the first grey shirts and the first black jackboots, climbed the sandy hills to stare face to face, for the first time, at the vast walls of the city.

Upon spying the wall for the first time, the men, already enervated by the stinging, relentless heat, grew quieter, and their muscles tensed, their whole bodies frozen still. Eyes drew wide at the distant sight of the ancient stone wall, dozens of meters tall. It was tall enough to keep the giants of nochtish legend out of the socialist’s streets. It was like staring at a cliff from far off, an obstacle one knew to be in one’s own future; it was the polished, brown stone face of a mountain that set itself on an adventurer’s weary trail.

Those who trudged up the hill without hope, simply collapsed at the peak, dead in spirit if not already dead. They had come for little reason or no reason at all, and nothing could drive them further. Months of campaigning in the desert had all but killed them, in spirit if not flesh. Those who had come to fight, loaded their weapons. Masses of men, broken up by tanks, backed up by the small, quick cars upon which their offices rode on, crested the hill, and assembled atop the sand. There were no horses. All of the horses were dead.

Some men were allowed to ride on the backs of the light tanks driving up to the wall. Many were old model light “Ranger” tanks, worn and pitted with bullets and discolored in places where old worn-out plate had been replaced with new armor. Even the most veteran of these tanks was obsolete now. It was a motley assemblage. On these tanks, men could ride atop the enclosed turret and in the back, over the engine, if they could stand the heat.

Many among the fighting men griped about the lack of sturdy, powerful M4 tanks in this crucial juncture. They suspected shortages, but did not suspect the nature of their mission.

Their true purpose was cleverly concealed by a few pieces of less expendable technology.

Among the old warhorses there were scattered signs of Nocht’s ruthless wartime evolution, enough to improve the general morale and to make the charge seem a little less doomed. These new tanks, moving at a faster clip, and with open-topped turrets boasting powerful 76mm guns inspired by the new Ayvartan tanks, were new model M3A3 R-K Hunter light tank destroyers, replacing the old, flawed Hunter artillery tanks.

Those men who got to ride on the “Rick Hunters” got a breezy journey to the starting line.

Trucks pulled artillery into place, engineers dug earthworks for the camps. Crucial water was stockpiled air-tight and under tarps. A village of tents rose to support the battle.

However, everyone’s eyes were taken by the gallantry of the front line.

Atop the hill, Nocht’s combat power arranged itself into neat, preplanned ranks.

Slowest first, fastest last, and in staggered waves down to the platoon level.

Back at the camps, numerous tents housed radio control teams, staffed by young women as had become customary, who worked the wireless boxes, set up antennae, and delivered orders from nearly endless slate of officers down the chain of command. Firing off hundreds of calls, the radio girls kept everyone on time, in place and organized, and kept their commanders appraised of the situation moment to moment. Everyone spoke in prepared codes on the radio, but officers in the tents allowed themselves to be candid.

“Bring forward the C-10 teams! We’re breaching that fucking wall!”

Thousands of men, hundreds of vehicles, assembled across a several-kilometer swath of desert, and faced the wall. Within fifteen minutes, not even enough time for the vast, long, multi-headed shadow they cast upon the sand to shift a degree, the command was shouted, and there was a convulsion along the body of this great beast, and it shrugged.

The 365th Infantry Division along with elements of the 25th Panzer Division would be the historic vanguard, the honored heroes who would initiate the 1st Wall Attack Operation.

First into the fray was the 3rd Battalion of the 365th’s 18th Regiment. One thousand men almost to the head broke off from the body of the Division and began to move across the ten kilometers of flat distance between the crowded divisional area and Solstice. It was a charge of the modern day, not a sprint of a hundred meters from speartip to speartip, but a tactical march against a fortification on a strict timetable. Some men ran as if they could cross the desert flats and fight within the minute, and those men fell ten minutes later.

Those marching steady kept weary eyes forward, on the walls that came closer and closer.

Across the desert the cry resounded, unchallenged by the silent stone: Vorwarts!

Accompanying the cry and the charge were the sound of loud, intermittent blasts behind them. It was not enough to startle anyone; they all knew the plan. They had to. Over the heads of the men, artillery guns fired heavy shells that crossed the distance to the city in moments, and they struck the stone walls like iron fists. These were the first blows of the war directly at the walls of Solstice. Chunks of stone went flying, and smoke and dust blew up in front of the wall and obscured the obstacle. Each shot sent a triumphant thrill through the mass. The 3rd Battalion picked up the pace. Within the hour they had cut the distance to half. Several tanks caught up quickly, and the Pionier engineering teams and their explosives started to make ready. In an hour more they would be in the city!

Maybe in two or three, the war might be over! They could go home, triumphant!

Owing to the wind and the dust, and the contribution of their own artillery fire to both, a yellow curtain fell over the march. There was a foul wind picking up that was scattering sand into the atmosphere, an effect known to the locals as the “khamsin.” Within an atmosphere the color of parchment that howled and stung, the 3rd Battalion did not see the shells flying over their own head. They did not see the flashes atop the wall, nor the casings falling from on high. And when the blasts fell at their backs, those ahead believed it to be their own guns, and did not see the carnage that was creeping slowly back to front.

When the dusts ahead began to settle, and their own artillery quieted, and the wall again came to view, the 3rd Battalion saw minimal damage inflicted on the stone. They paled as they saw something glinting in the scorching sunlight: reinforced plates behind a false layer of stone. All of that howitzer fire had done nothing; Solstice was still untouched.

And then there was another flash, and another, these were no trick of the desert light.

Guns started flashing from several openings on the stone. With the dust clear and the distance cut, it was possible to see a hint of gun barrels protruding over the top wall, belonging to heavy rampart guns. These impressive weapons launched massive 100+ millimeter shells along the length of the column, with one or two startling shots a minute.

The carnage they wrought distracted the men from the guns in the wall itself.

There was an instant of silence. The advancing infantry seemed not to realize their fate.

Amid the khamsin a hail of gunfire met the 3rd Battalion. At first soundless in the wind, their red tracers masked by the haze, the machine gun fire was an invisible reaper that swept across platoons and companies and put to the ground dozens of men. They fell like they had fallen all along the trek through the desert, suddenly and mysteriously, as if the heat had finally dried out the last drop of their souls. They fell as they had fallen before and so they fell forgotten, and the 3rd Battalion marched on as it had learned to.

Hidden within the soundless stone, inside the face and the columned corners and interred at the base of the wall, were machine guns, anti-tank cannons, mortar emplacements.

When mortars and gun shells began to land, blasting skyward pillars of earth and gore, and the buzzing machine gun fire started to build enough to chop men to pieces as they stood, the urgency of the situation became horrifically apparent. It was then that the bullets became visible, and that death became less abstract. The disciplined mass of the 3rd Battalion split and scattered and charged the wall in haphazard patterns, and all across the carpet of flesh blossomed horrific circles of death where howitzer shells exploded.

There was still some semblance of a plan. Guide the C-10 to the wall. The C-10, the 10th of the Wall-Breaking Potentials. Those men who ran with hope ran with that hope in hand.

Around the teams of C-10 carrying engineers, the attacking troops rallied, and so the battalion coalesced into three distinct masses with gaggles of stray soldiers between.

There was no louder sound in the desert than the Ayvartan guns. Even the panic in the invader’s heads was quieter. Shells fell savagely around the advancing infantry. A near-miss would detonate in a hail of cruel metal fragments; if the concussive blast of a nearby explosion did not take an arm or a leg, a cloud of jagged metal knives would. Any group so unlucky as to have a shell land on them disappeared, a red mist and a red splash atop the ruddy-brown sand. It was as if the men were bubbles being popped by falling needles.

Hundreds died immediately, and hundreds more followed, as the shells and the machine gun fire and the guns swept forward and back, forward and back, leaving a trail to the wall.

Tanks, lagging behind the advance, were picked off by the large-caliber guns atop the walls. There were several M3s and few M4s, and none could withstand the concentrated fire of the wall guns. They moved implacably, an iron wall buckling at its supports, some tanks trying to swerve and zig-zag, others praying as their front armor took stray shots.

It was too much. Single shots to the front plate outright destroyed the light tanks, and even the brand new M3s would falter, their open tops exposing their crews to shrapnel and flame. M4 tanks shot in the cheek, would diffuse the blast across their hulls and rattle mad every man inside it. Whether or not the armor survived, the machinery inside was doomed, shaken to pieces. Many tanks were abandoned, serving no function but cover. The Ayvartan fire was accurate and ferocious, and when the line of tanks stalled, it joined the other human detritus of the operation, a vast graveyard soiling the southern desert.

But while the battle raged on, the landscape was shifting.

Wind and war moved the sand and the earth, creating craters, mounds, features otherwise missing in the flat terrain between the Division and Solstice. While their heavy machinery and thick formations crumbled, individual men clung to life within the storm like dogs hurled into ocean water. Within one or two kilometers, a step away from their destination, the men of the 3rd Battalion could huddle in holes and against the shadowed parts of their ephemeral sandy hills and found a measure of safety. Machine gun fire was sailing above them, and shells striking safely behind them. They now had a foothold.

“This is Storm-Two!”

At the head of the bloody march, a captain from a C-10 team picked up a radio.

“Repeat, this is Storm-Two! We’ve made it to the shadow of the wall!”

“Acknowledged, Storm-Two,” replied a dispassionate female voice. She was speaking in code, but the Captain knew her words immediately, having memorized the ciphers, and so in his mind he heard her speaking crisp Nochtish. “1st and 2nd Battalion will move forward soon to reinforce the approach. Ready to deploy the C-10 against the wall.”

“Division, I don’t think we can advance in this condition. We’ve lost almost everything up here.” the Captain grimly said, huddled behind a boulder unearthed by a fortunate wind. Around him were maybe a dozen engineers and riflemen, and the big packs of C-10 bombs.

“Losses are within acceptable parameters,” corrected the voice, “continue the attack.”

The Captain knew that as that radio went dead, another dozen of his men went dead too.

Still, he turned to them, and he raised his hand and waved to the wall with conviction.

“Huddle around the engineers! We’re taking that C-10 to the fucking wall!” He shouted.

There were stares of disbelief, even as the men’s bodies slowly went to work.

Back in the rear, the 1st and 2nd Battalions started to retrace the steps of the 3rd. Little had changed for them. In this battlefield even the veterans among them knew nothing. Without having seen the fire falling first-hand, without the intimate yet split-second knowledge of the good shell-holes, the blind spots, the good cover, these men were butchered the same as before. It was only Ayvartan reloading and refitting, which became more frequent as ammo cycled and barrels overheated, that allowed many to escape.

Those at the front threw themselves at the wall. Escorting the C-10 explosive teams, stray platoons and even impromptu squadrons of survivors organized, shouted their last words, and charged with rifles up. Machine guns on the base of the wall opened fire, cutting dozens of them down in plain sight. For the last 1 kilometer dash of the fight, there was little cover, little sand, no boulders, no shell-holes. Just dry, packed dirt, a wall and death.

“Run! Run! Run!”

Storm-Two was reduced to near-incoherence the slobber from his visceral screams evaporating in the heat and the scorching wind of the khamsin. Ahead of him he saw the bullets, the screeching red tracers flying by him like fiery arrows, and each one could have been for him and each one wasn’t. At his side one of his men took a bullet in the eye and collapsed. Another’s helmet flew off his head from a dozen shots, and the thirteenth blew his nose apart. Storm-Two could barely register what was happening. He ran, and he ran, clutching the explosive pack, charging into the curtain of bullets, and not one hit him.

With a final, guttural cry he stamped the pack against the stone of the wall, maneuvering himself so that he stood between two obvious firing ports built into the stone and hidden by the sand. He slammed the C-10 pack against the wall, and he reached inside of it.

There was a mechanism, wires, string, a tiny snap lever, attached to thick, gray blocks.

His entire body shook and rattled as hundreds of thousands of bullets flew out from the wall. He thought he could feel every instant of recoil, every muzzle burst, every click of the trigger, through the cold stone of the southern wall. He kept the pack up, fumbled with the mechanism. He wasn’t even thinking that if it exploded, it would take him.

He was at the wall. Nobody knew. Nobody was alive to know. But he was there.

He took the C-10 home, and he was going to blow a hole in the fucking wall.

Storm-Two linked the wires, waited for the tell-tale sign of an electric charge.

Around him the gunfire intensified. Overhead the wall cannons fired, and he felt the massive energy of several heavy guns transferring down the wall, shaking up his guts. He thought he would throw up. He shuttered his eyes. Had he heard the fizzing noise?

He looked at the C-10 pack, and he saw no smoke, no sparks.

Had he missed it? Storm-Two was too deep to back off.

At least he would die a hero. He would destroy the wall. He would win the war.

He held the pack against the stone and put his head head to it.

In a few minutes, certainly–

Nothing.

Far behind him several artillery shells exploded, wiping out more men and machines.

He looked desperately inside the pack for signs that it was armed, that it would blow.

He prayed for death, and he could not have it. His C-10 remained unexploded.

It was a dud. He had a dud bomb.

Storm-Two dropped the pack, collapsed onto his knees.

In front of him, a stone slid on the wall.

For a brief instant, Storm-Two saw a face in the wall.

Clean, soft, with large eyes and little expression. Long hair, lovely lips, dark brown skin.

He was regarded, quizzically at first, by the Ayvartan behind the defenses.

Storm-Two looked up in futility.

He put his fist to his chest, and then he raised his arm to sign the eagle’s wing.

He died patriotically as the Ayvartan behind the stones shot him in the face with her rifle.

She closed the stone, locked the armored hatch behind it, and returned to her post.


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The Calm Before (43.1)


48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Night

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Ocean Road

Colored streaks and bursts filled the night sky with fleeting color.

Amid the sky several payloads blew apart with a sharp crack and a dazzling display.

Hurtling heavenswards from racks set up around the city, propelled by fizzing, crackling trails, the pyrotechnics munitions exploded into grand displays of fire and light that remained in the air for several seconds before dissipating into smoke and dust.

Patterns burst into being far above the crowds, and special rockets continued to pop again and again in colorful chains of sub-munitions. To the black and blue the whimsical blasts added bright blooming flowers of green, red and yellow, spiraling orange lines, and purple concentric detonations. This sustained barrage indicated the start of the festivities.

To the civilians it was a beautiful and captivating technical display.

For some onlookers however, it was eerily reminiscent of a coming death.

Beneath the flashing skies on Ocean Road, Parinita and Madiha clung together in fear, bowing their heads and closing their eyes as they felt the air and sky growing livid with lights and smoke and a deathly cacophony. They huddled near a lamp post then dashed into an alley for safety. Madiha’s mind hyperfocused on the sounds, the whistling, the crack of the shell as it burst. As if in a war zone, the pair took cover behind a phone booth.

In their minds those pyrotechnics were hurtling earthward to kill.

Madiha envisioned for a brief second the middle of the road going up in flames.

She averted her eyes from a bright orange flash.

Parinita, gasping for breath, looked out onto the road.

There was recognition in her eyes.

“Madiha, I think–”

Around them the cheerful crowds walking down the open road and across the dimly-lit streets started to clap and whistle and celebrate the fireworks displays.

Madiha raised her head. She met Parinita’s sympathetic eyes.

“I think it’s over,” Parinita whispered, “they’re…they’re just fireworks displays.”

She was unnerved too — Madiha could see it in her face and voice.

“My heart skipped a few beats there.” Parinita said.

“Mine almost stopped. I expected a real barrage.” Madiha replied.

Her skin continued to shiver with every blast she heard, but she tried to keep her reflexes under control. Despite this she and Parinita still winced whenever the sky flashed. It did not seem to bother the festival-goers marching down Ocean Road; on the contrary, it delighted them. They had never heard a comparable whistling and blasting. To them, it was exclusively associated with the joy and levity of an exciting fireworks display on a cool evening.

Madiha tried to get the roaring of artillery guns out of her head.

She had a long night ahead and did not want any of it spoiled.

Everything but the fireworks was splendid. Gracing the festival evening were clear skies, fresh, sweet-smelling air, and a vast, vivacious display of humanity before them.

Arm in arm with Parinita, Madiha traveled down Ocean Road, looking over the colorful storefronts, the grand floats and the street decor. All of the preparation had paid off, and Ocean Road was dressed in her best attire, same as everyone walking over it. Hand-sewn banners stretched over the streets, and a variety of signs and posters and drapes were fitted to trees and buildings and posts to draw the attention of the many passersby.

Civilian and business automotive traffic was temporarily halted for the festival. In the middle of the road there was instead a fleet of slowly moving vehicle floats, heavily decorated, that served as rolling stages for singers, dancers, firebreathers and magicians, or other acts. Some also carried religious displays for local, regional and common deities.

All of them were built on old M.A.W trucks, heavily modified to support their purpose. Firebreathers had racks for their rings, magicians had their curtains and mirrors and smoke, dancers and singers had audio equipment built-in. On the religious floats there hung vast bouquets of symbolic flowers, and canopies over the truck beds protected statues of the deities that looked on at worshipers following in their wake, signing and dancing.

Every vehicle was meticulously engineered, and the makeshift parade was stunning.

On either side of the road there were long lines of kiosks and open storefronts taking over the streets with goods and games and (approved, appropriate) forms of gambling, and all manner of food and drink. It was the latter that seemed to draw the most attention. Most curiously, exotic fruits and nuts and other produce from across the continent were on sale, or sometimes simply on offer by local farm unions as a way to attract potential new members to collective farms. While they tasted, the kiosk manager lectured.

For those who wanted a little less socialism in their food, there were traditional street foods on sale for a few shells each, items like pav, potato fritters, and valleyappam, fermented coconut and rice pancakes for dipping in a cup of soup. For the sweet tooth, halva, a semolina dessert, and kulfi, a type of ice cream, were available by the scoop or in big cups.

Other storefronts attracted crowds by hosting games. People watched professional chess and mankala games from known regional players, participated in skill tests like knife throwing and fish catching and shooting galleries, and competed in simple games for prizes. Most clubs and stores had some kind of attraction to catch the crowd’s eye.

Around all of these sites the streets were packed with people.

Some crowds grew so thick one had to navigate around them, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Wherever Madiha turned she saw cheer and levity, whether spying on lone attendants, big groups of friends or small intimate couples. Everyone who was not attired in a fresh uniform was dressed formally, in colorful drapes and robes and skirts, in sharp modern suits and tight form-fitting dresses or in dazzling traditional coats.

There was an infectious energy in the air. Even Madiha, who was prone to be gloomy, felt the life sparking all around her, and kept her lips turned up in a small smile as she escorted her date to the humble Ocean Theater for a special show for the festival night.

“Had I known it would be this amazing just outside, I would not have sprung for those tickets.” Parinita said, giggling at the spectacle unfolding all around her.

Madiha smiled. “It’s lovely, but I’m still keen for some quiet time together.”

Parinita covered her mouth to stifle a charmed little laugh, her face reddening.

Ocean Theater was like a regal elder, tall and broad, a rectangular building of bleached and pitted cement with a complicated facade, perhaps a leftover from the city’s earlier incarnations. There was a small plaza in front of it, that made it stand out more from the two stucco and masonry buildings between which it was wedged. There was a small crowd gathering at the foot of the steps into the theater. All of them were dressed for an event. Madiha and Parinita looked quite at home among the crisp attire of the trendy socialites.

For once, Madiha was very satisfied with her appearance. She thought she looked quite handsome, a tall, slick, modern woman, perhaps a bit roguish, in the way she recalled Daksha being like in the past. Daksha’s suit did not fit altogether perfectly, but the slightly short coat sleeves and the somewhat tight dress pants and shirt buttons seemed to lay over Madiha’s skin in a way Parinita found pleasing. She told Madiha that it had a casual, lived-in, natural sort of look that was very dashing. Madiha was unfamiliar with fashions, and so did everything to please her date. Atop her head lay Daksha’s old fedora, the only perfect fit. Apart from her shoulders, most of her slim, toned physique did not quite shine through the suit, but that was fine with her. She looked slender and sleek in form.

She had made many preparations for the date. She had showered twice, scrubbing every slender curve of her brown body, and combed her shoulder-length dark hair while wet. It would need a trim back to its usual neck-length bob soon, but for now, it looked just enough between orderly and messy and between long and short, to fit the rest of her look.

After all the trouble she went through, she wondered now how her date made comeliness seem so effortless. Parinita was absolutely gorgeous. Had she been projected on the screen all evening instead of a film, Madiha would have cherished every second of film.

Her hair was wavy and bouncy and long, and its off-orange, off-pink strawberry color was as attractive as ever. Over the bridge of her delicate nose there was a stripe of yellow pigment, while her eyes were painted a light flushing red and her lips a soft pink. She had a lovely shape. Though all of them had come out of Bada Aso a little bonier than before, Parinita managed to retain much of her pleasant figure, and any new slenderness was well worn.

Her attire was exquisite too. A filmy, blaring red and gold drape fell over a form-fitting light purple dress that accentuated her body, with one bare shoulder and arm exposing soft, light bronze skin. She wore traditional cloth shoes and long, diaphanous leggings that peered through the slit on the right side of her long skirt. Around her slender neck there was a necklace of wooden beads, tied over itself again and again. Her look was a mix of traditional and modern that fit her stunningly well. Madiha was blessed to be with her.

Hand in hand, they were quite the eyecatching couple even among this crowd.

Standing behind the pack, the pair waited with the others for the theater to open, and then slowly ascended the stairs as the gate keepers beckoned the guests into the theater. Over a red carpet and into an archway door the couple calmly trod, pausing in front of a gold rope hung before the entryway to bar access. They were stopped by a gatekeeper in a traditional sherwani coat, purple with gold strips framing the buttons and tracing the length of the sleeves, who checked their ticket and smiled at them, tearing off half of it for them.

“Enjoy the picture. You’re in room two on the third floor.” He said.

Madiha and Parinita smiled and nodded their heads in response. Then the gatekeeper undid the golden rope and allowed them entry, setting it back in its place behind them.

From the door the couple entered a spacious and comforting lobby. Beyond a pair of red curtains on the far end of the room was the main theater space on the ground floor, reserved for plays, concerts and ballet. There was a bar-style counter behind which a cabinet of drinks was kept, and on the opposite end of the lobby there was also a counter serving snacks. Staircases and elevators were set into the walls on either side of the red curtain.

“Madiha, could you pick up some food before we go? I can get the drinks while you’re at it. It’s a ninety minute film, after all.” Parinita said, pulling gently on Madiha’s arm.

“Certainly.” Madiha said, bowing her head deferentially to her date.

For the first time that night, the women parted arms and went separate ways.

Madiha navigated the throngs of people. There were many small islands, little groups of film-goers discussing pictures near the posters on columns and walls, or clusters of four or five drama enthusiasts waiting for the main stage to be open to them, all dressed exquisitely for the night. Making her way through, Madiha arrived at the snack counter. There was a glass display case with baked goods, kept warm on electric racks, and a line of candy boxes, branded with the state company or candy factory that produced them. Behind the young man tending the counter, a deep-frying machine in the back bubbled with oil. A very large popping corn cart set into a corner continuously crackled and snapped.

Nobody around seemed very interested in the snacks, so Madiha was first and last in line when she arrived at the counter. She gave everything a quick glance, and then decided to bet on the staples she knew to be closely associated with the film experience.

“I’ll have popping corn, in the large bag, and two Jomba Sugar Company caramel boxes, and an ‘Inspiration’ chocolate bar.” Madiha said, raising her arm as if pledging an oath.

Behind the counter the young, sharply dressed attendant nodded in acknowledgment.

“That will be thirty shells, comrade.” He said.

Madiha blinked her eyes. She looked down at the candies, and back at him.

“Oh. Thirty shells? So it is not, um, free?” Madiha asked.

“No, sorry. None of these are essential foodstuffs, so they’re charged for.”

He scratched his head awkwardly as if put on the spot by her confusion.

“I can offer you a complimentary small bag of popping corn.” He then whispered.

Madiha shook her head, feeling embarrassed herself. “No, no! I’ll pay, it is fine.”

She fumbled in her coat pockets, and before the attendant’s eyes withdrew the massive wad of paper bills that constituted Daksha’s book royalties. She fumbled through the small fortune in her hands, quite unused to money. Every bill she had was either in the 100 shell denomination or the 500 shell denomination, and she could not for the life of her even conceive of what would happen if she gave such large bills to the man. Would she receive the difference back? Would the remainder disappear into oblivion?

While the attendant bagged her goods and set them on the counter, Madiha worked up the courage to drop a 500 shell paper on the counter, and push it hastily toward him.

“Ma’am, this is–”

“Just keep it! Thank you!”

Madiha quickly seized her popping corn and candies and fled the counter.

At the door to the elevator, she rejoined Parinita, who had in her hands a pair of bottles labeled ‘Dream’, common soft drinks with an apple-like taste. Parinita was in good cheer, and Madiha tried not to let any residual awkwardness show. She handed Parinita a box of caramels and the chocolate, which she graciously took. When the elevator came down, they stood to the side of the operator, a young woman in a bright coat, like the other workers.

“Third floor, please.” Parinita said.

Nodding, the elevator operator turned to a button panel and got the gears moving.

Shaking, the elevator box slowly rose to the top of the building.

In front of them the elevator doors opened.

Smiling, the operator extended a hand.

Madiha went for a hand-shake, but found herself interrupted.

“It is customary to tip the operator.” Parinita said, squeezing Madiha’s hand.

Madiha screamed internally.


Though they had not even sat down for the film yet, Parinita was already having an incredible time. Just walking beside Madiha, all dressed up, hand in hand and arm in arm, under the festival skies and across the festival streets, was so much more than she ever thought she would have. It was as if all of her impossible, childish little fantasies that she nursed over the thirty days she had known the Colonel were finally coming true.

There was still a pang of embarrassment, a nagging thought that everything was too unreal, too crazy. Parinita rarely ever acted on her impulses. She was supposed to be analytical, rational, reliable; but Madiha had tugged at her heart in a way she couldn’t explain rationally, in a way she couldn’t quite analyze. In the midst of an unreal situation, in the midst of unreal feelings and memories and sensations, Madiha kept her alive.

Not only physically, but in spirit, emotionally, in every way that mattered.

Seeing Madiha existing, casually, out in the world, seemed to confirm everything she had thought she was foolish for feeling. That gravity that drew her to the tall, gloomy, soft-hearted woman with the fiery, tormented eyes, became three times as strong that night. She felt silly thinking of love at first sight, but she could describe it no other way. Perhaps it was their shared destiny that forced them together, but Parinita wanted to think it was her own heart, her own desires and lusts, that had naturally grown this strong.

Her impulsive kiss the day before felt like the seal to a pact, but she wanted it to be a pact of her own creation, impulsive and mad as it was. She could only hope that it stuck.

But they were having so much fun, she thought, that they had to be meant to be.

Ocean Theater’s film rooms were much smaller than the main stage. Each film showroom sat thirty people in three rows lying a meter or two above a small stage, perhaps originally intended for lectures or speeches, over which the film canvas was stretched.

At the back of the room, a booth had been built for the film projector.

Parinita led Madiha to what she considered the best seats in the room, just below the projector and with nobody behind or around them. They took seat on stiff wooden frames with stuffed cushions and backrests. Madiha laid back and sighed audibly.

“I have so much money, and yet I’m in a tighter spot than ever.” She moaned.

“Well, you’re doing a good deed by spreading it around.” Parinita giggled.

Madiha mumbled a little, looking with disgust at her own coat pocket.

“I don’t think I’m doing the world much of a service here.”

“Don’t worry, somebody is bound to have change for 100 shell bills!”

At the elevator, Madiha quite literally threw money at the operator and then promptly ran away, unable to simply tell the person to keep the change, or to accompany her to the cash box to break the bills. Parinita had walked out laughing heartily until she caught back up to her date, and nobody else seemed keen to understand the situation.

“Maybe you can shrug it off, but I’ll be replaying that moment in my head for months to come.” Madiha said. Parinita gave her a sympathetic look and rubbed her shoulder. For someone who was so clever and tough for certain things, Madiha was surprisingly soft and vulnerable in so many others. She was rather naive in certain respects. It was cute.

“You can let me pay instead, I still have some money.” Parinita said.

“We shouldn’t have to pay anything.” Madiha grumbled.

“Someday, Madiha; but we’re not quite there yet I’m afraid.”

“I blame Nocht for this too.”

Parinita smiled and turned her gaze back to the film canvas.

There were perhaps eight or nine other people in this particular show.

Their tickets did not say what the film was. They were generic papers generated by a machine that only had a room number and entry fee listed. When purchasing them, Parinita had picked the movie she wanted to view, and she let Madiha know in the morning that it was a special, secret picture. Her imagination could fill in the rest.

She grinned to herself, and relaxed on her seat, laying her hand over Madiha’s.

Madiha glanced at her, and held her gaze. She seemed puzzled.

Parinita could hardly wait to see Madiha’s cute face respond to her devious ruse.

“So, Madiha, ready to see how brave you are?” Parinita sweetly said.

“Hmm?”

“I picked a special film for us to see together. I wonder who will cling to whom?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Oh ho ho!”

Around them the lights in the room dimmed, and the door was shut.

It became almost pitch black in the room, until the projector came on.

Before the picture began, an animated short explained certain safety measures that the audience should take, and exhorted them to pick up snacks, to be careful walking down the aisles while the room was dark, and to keep quiet during the picture. After this, the room grew very still as a melancholy tune brought to their attention the fact that their projector was equipped for sound. The tune brought in the title screen for the picture.

“Rampage of the Opaque Man?” Madiha said to herself.

Parinita covered her mouth with the back of her hand, delicately stifling a laugh.

“What kind of film is this? I expected lighter fare.” Madiha asked.

“I refuse to spoil it! You’ll soon see.”

Parinita giggled internally. This would be so much fun!

Like most Ayvartan horror films, the picture was black and white, by choice more than technical limitations, and appeared rather gloomy. Madiha and Parinita watched, hand in hand, as the film began to tell the story of Doctor Sanjay Gujarat, an outgoing and kind man whom they followed as he slowly became consumed with an obsession to cure the ravages of death itself using newly-synthesized chemicals and terrible drugs.

Though he might have been mistaken for a hero at first, it was an illusion that soon wore off. After several uncomfortable scenes with his friends, his family and even a lady love, whom he neglected, screamed at, and behaved erratically toward, all because of their concern and skepticism, the doctor was marked to the audience as quite the villain himself.

His true motives were soon revealed: he wanted eternal life for himself!

“I can understand his motivation.” Madiha said, self-seriously.

Parinita raised a finger to her smiling lips, urging her to keep quiet.

On screen, the doctor deteriorated before their eyes. He ate less, and bathed not at all, and sores appeared on his face, and his hair fell, and it seemed as if months of slow rot were overcoming him before their eyes. It was quite a graphic, sickening display.

Feeling her date’s hand, Parinita could tell that Madiha was on edge. The film score was brooding and tense, and lingering shots, panning across unappealing rooms, vile surfaces, and even a cadaver, made one anxious for what was to come. She heard Madiha gulp down, and saw her crunching very deliberately on popcorn and candy to relieve her stress.

As Doctor Gujarat stabilized his mixture through the horrifying addition of human blood, the film score intensified, punctuating the moment with cutting strings that could be felt like a pinprick at the base of the spine. The Doctor raised the potion to his lips, and a long shot focused on his throat, grotesquely bulging with each gulp of the putrid drink.

At once, he vanished from the screen in a trick of light and a well-placed film cut.

Madiha blinked, and Parinita thought she saw the horror dawning on her face.

Doctor Gujarat had become invisible.

More susceptible than even Parinita had thought, Madiha seemed puzzled at first, but as objects in the lab began to shatter by themselves, as a disembodied, croaking laugh echoed across the darkened halls, and as men and women became victims of an unseen assailant, the horrible possibilities of the invisible man seemed to grip her heart with a cold fear. Unblinking, Madiha stared, frozen, neglecting her snacks. She bit the tip of her thumb.

As the film crept with evil intent toward its conclusion, Parinita readied for the climax of her own plot. Sarsala, Dr. Gujarat’s lady love, traced back the man’s rampage to the place where everything began. She snuck with a held breath into his ruined laboratory, floors glistening with glass shards and thick pools of chemicals, electric wall torches sparking from the violence inflicted by the doctor as he reached his monstrous apotheosis.

Behind them the projector’s sound speakers cut out. There were minutes of dead silence in the film, and in the theater as well. It felt as if the heavy breathing of the audience was amplified, and became the new score for the film. Miss Sarsala, an innocent in her sari and long, monochromatic dress, walked step by step toward the table where the doctor had imbibed his draught of hell. Her eyes teared up at the remnants of her lover’s work.

Parinita felt a quiver through Madiha’s hand with each of those steps.

Suddenly, a sweeping shot and an unexpected string!

Dr. Gujarat charges into the scene, and for once he is partially visible, rendered opaque in a flash of light and sparks, his fleeting form twisted and monstrous and inhuman.

Blood and violent death filled the theater screen, causing a profound shock.

Madiha jerked up, a scream caught in her throat.

She swung her arms around Parinita in a frightened reflex, and drew her face close.

Parinita beamed, her strategy bearing fruit, and she stroked Madiha’s hair.

Until the end of the film, they remained cheek to cheek in this fashion.

It had worked! Madiha really did have a cute side buried under that soldierly spirit.

After the picture, they walked back out of the theater, arm in arm. There was a weak quiver across Madiha’s skin, felt across their connection, even as they departed and headed back up Ocean Road. It was much darker out now than when they entered the Theater, and the throngs had spread out farther, so there were less people in any given place. There were less fireworks going off — but Madiha nearly jumped at each one.

“Madiha, are you ok?” Parinita asked, becoming less amused and more concerned.

“I’m fine,” Madiha said, unconvincingly, “the film just tapped into a childhood fear.”

“Of invisible men?”

“Things watching me.”

Parinita’s heart sank with guilt. “I see. I wish I had known before.”

“Be honest with me: are invisible men possible?”

“Of course not! They’re just fantasy.” Parinita replied, patting Madiha’s back.

“And yet, dragons are real. I even left one at home!” Madiha said.

Parinita smiled. “That is completely different from invisible men!”

Madiha seemed quite unsettled by the idea despite this ironclad argument.

“An invisible man has too many tactical advantages. I never even considered it.”

“I guess I should’ve bought different tickets.” Parinita said.

Madiha’s eyes drew momentarily wider, and then her usual gloomy expression settled back in. She shook her head, and rubbed her forehead and her temples with one hand.

“I apologize.” She said. Perhaps she realized her own vulnerability then.

Seeing her date prostrated in this way, Parinita felt alarmed. Had she ruined the night?

“No! Don’t! It’s my fault, I didn’t think it’d scare you this much.”

Parinita thought Madiha was being rather cute; but she was aware she had gone too far, if Madiha was this shaken up by a film. She only expected her to jump a few times, preferably into Parinita’s warm, welcoming arms. It was a crass scheme on her part, she realized.

Madiha raised her hands. “It’s alright. It’s not you at all. I should be more–”

“Stop that, it’s not your fault. Come on, let’s lighten up.” Parinita replied.

She pushed herself up to Madiha’s flank, pressing her face against her.

It was a desperate attempt to inject some levity, but it seemed to work.

“Next time, we should see a romantic movie.” Madiha said, sighing.

“Oh, it was perfectly romantic for me.” Parinita said, clinging more tightly to her.

Madiha sighed ever more deeply. “We should just stick together in a room then.”

Parinited winked at her. “Consider it a date.”


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