Stoking Hell’s Fire — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of psychological distress.

20th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning

Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso Region, Foot Of The Kalu

Madiha found herself suspended in a void.

A dim and invisible light source allowed her to tell her own body from the infinite darkness. She sat, alone, in a soundless, mostly sightless place, holding her legs against her chest. An enclosure around her forced her head bowed, her legs squeezed in, and her arms locked tight. Her enclosure seemed to turn around her, and sometimes a corner would scrape her head, or an edge would brush against her legs. She was trapped in an invisible, moving cage. It was only big enough to hold her body, and not even her actual body.

She was a child inside the moving walls.

She was the androgynously-dressed little girl who passed beneath the notice of the guards in the city of Bada Aso to deliver key letters between the ideologues who would eventually overthrow the Empire; the child who would eventually be taken to the capital to see the start of the Revolution. To take part in it. Perhaps even to cause it.

Her heart was gone. In its place there was a candle. Her only light.

She felt it burning in her child-like chest. She was a child of the Revolution.

A child who was exploited; they used you until your flame was dead.

Her body started to grow. And the flame blew out. She was entirely in the dark. She felt her legs growing longer, her arms, her back, stressed against the gyrating walls. She was being crushed. Who exploited her? She didn’t remember anything about a flame, anything about being used. Her memories of the Revolution were vague. She was so young; she didn’t truly understand the death she saw. Skin brushed against the enclosure, pounded against it, stressed, ripped, bled; her body was her adult body, and it compacted.

She felt bone breaking and flesh splitting.

All of that death; she had forgotten it. She forgot that she caused it.

You had a spark of the World Flame. Your spark burnt so powerfully that the shine was seen through your eyes. But Warlord, your eyes don’t shine over the battlefield anymore, not like they used to. They used your spark to start their revolution; they burnt through all of you. That was not the conflict you were born for.

Now you are a shade of your true self. You will lose your destined battle.

Madiha started to choke. She could see a figure outside the box, watching.

There was a figure outlined in the darkness, featureless, sexless; all at once naked and in leopard bands and in in uniform, brandishing a club, a shield and a throwing spear, a rifle. When the all-being spoke it did so in a hundred voices at once.

You would not be the first. Many of us failed. All of us died. History went on.

As Madiha choked to death in her little box, the figure looked at her without pity.

At least, you are remembering a little now. Maybe you will die fighting.

Screaming, she woke, but only halfway.

Everything was rattling and moving and dark.

She was in the half-track, laying in a hammock tied up to the tentpoles holding the roof tarp, but she had no way of knowing this. She was trapped in a terrified haze.

She shouted, and cried, and flailed her arms, trying to pry apart that box which had held her. Memory of the box and the man dissipated, but the physical sensation of her prison seemed fatally real now. Suddenly she felt a multitude of hands reaching out and touching her, holding her, and she heard words, but whatever was being said her ears did not pick up. All sound was drowned out in a sharp whistling, and all sight was a blur.


Parinita’s light brown face appeared before her like the moon on a clear night.

Her gentle features and her strawberry-colored hair came into focus, and her voice rose above everything else, annihilating that horrible world from which Madiha had somehow escaped. She was like a spirit in the flesh, glowing in the dark, her innocent face and soft hands seeming to reach into Madiha’s very being.

Whatever rotten thing had latched onto Madiha, those hands had ripped it from her. Her touch registered in Madiha’s senses, and she stopped struggling.

She was not trapped in a box anymore, she was not choking; she was in the radio half-track, driving to Bada Aso for that fateful battle that she had ordered everyone to prepare for. All around her were the impassive faces of KVW rifle troops. Though they wore very deadpan expressions, she could tell they were worried by the intensity with which they stared at her, and the hesitation in their normally decisive and confident movement.

Having served with the KVW for so long, she was used to the way they behaved by now. They were even easier for her to read than Parinita, and “ordinary” people. Parinita’s proximity, the softness of her expression, Madiha found it hard to understand anymore.

“Are you alright now? Were you having a bad dream?”

Though she knew that Parinita meant well, the way that she offered her sympathy rattled Madiha. It made her feel like a child running from nightmares.

An Ayvartan officer, commanding an army group with tens of thousands of soldiers, crying in her sleep, weeping as she woke from a dream. As the content of her dream began to waver and become lost in the fog of her mind, Madiha felt more foolish receiving Parinita’s sympathy than she felt relieved. However she made no show of emotion.

She nodded cryptically and stood from the hammock.

“Did I say anything in my sleep?” She asked, wiping fibers from her uniform.

“You moaned a little at first. I went to sleep;; then I heard you groaning and begging.”


“It’s what you sounded like to me. Like you were pleading.” Parinita said.

Madiha shook her head. “I see. I apologize for disturbing you.”

“It’s fine.” Parinita said. She smiled. “I will pray for sweeter dreams.”

“I will pray for gods to actually answer.” Madiha replied, grinning a little.

She looked across the blank expressions of the KVW rifle troops around her.

They nodded their heads and sat on their benches again, leaning on their rifles and against the walls, understanding immediately that they were not to relate this event to anyone. Battlegroup Ox was already confused and demoralized enough; if in addition their replacement commander, whom they had been essentially coerced into accepting, was already breaking down in her sleep from shell shock, their fighting spirit would plummet.

For better or worse, Madiha had to present a strong front from now on.

Until the sun came up, Madiha rested in her hammock, but she no longer slept.

She felt a strange burning sensation in the back of her eyes, and though she tried to remember the exact content of her nightmares, it was beyond her grasp.

Knowing nothing was a familiar situation to her; in a way she knew nothing about herself first-hand. There was a stranger living in this flesh, and she did not know whether that was her, or someone else. Yet despite living with this insecurity for so long, it was always newly disturbing to realize the gaps in her existence.

As soon as the dawn came, the half-track slowed to a stop off the side of the road, and one of the KVW soldiers traded places with the sleepy driver. Two other soldiers disembarked with a toolkit, and together they checked the tires and refilled the fuel.

Parinita started making calls on the radio again, and her staff continued the difficult work of imposing order and efficiency on the scurrying elements of Battlegroup Ox, and organizing them to effectively carry out Madiha’s sweeping defensive plans.

Their work for the moment largely went on without the merest hint of oversight from their new commander. Madiha stepped out for a moment, settling down beside a withered old tree by the side of the road and catching a breath of air untainted by exhaust. She felt a tingle across her body, as though still seated against the shaky walls of the half-track.

Though she scratched her skin and scraped against the tree, she could not relax.

It grew into a discomfort in her own flesh that was familiar and disgusting.

She shook a little, feeling overwhelmed by the touch of cloth against her body, feeling trapped and tight. But even if she shook off her clothes it wouldn’t be enough: she couldn’t shake off her entire flesh. Her breathing grew a little labored and she remembered her mantras and her meditation therapy, and distracted herself from the anxiety by taking in the landscape. There was a strange comfort in the vastness and openness around her.

Between Dori Dobo and Bada Aso the terrain was flat and broad, covered in wispy grassland and a few sparsely wooded stretches. Strong winds began to blow from the north, and the skies were cloudy and foreboding. Despite the dismal weather, Madiha was easily captivated by the surroundings. There was a monumental green landscape stretching before her, with the edge of the Kalu Hilltops on the northeast, gently rising, and Bada Aso in the distance to the northwest, a long cluster of buildings rising to block her view of the coast.

She had spent the most significant years of her life in Bada Aso, and she had seen the terrain from so many angles. She had arrived to the city, starting from the rural southwest at Dori Dobo; she had come from inside the city and headed northeast to Solstice, across Tambwe straddling the foreboding mountains, and past the desert; and she had returned to Bada Aso, moving southwest again. She had left it and then returned to it from the Bakor isles. From every compass direction, it seemed, she had seen her city and its surroundings.

Familiarity never bred boredom; Bada Aso seemed new with every visit.

She cast eyes behind herself now, trying to focus on the movement of people.

It was an alien sight sometimes, to see others moving under their own power, existing apart from her. In a way though, this made them their own landscape in Madiha’s mind. She could watch them and keep herself calm. She could track them, the soldiers changing tires, the soldiers hauling fuel, the ones eating rations, the ones cleaning their rifles. Seeing them carry out their business without being under her power was strangely calming.

Soon Madiha’s suffocating anxieties had dissipated completely – for now.

Far as human landscapes were concerned, the one about to arrive at Bada Aso dwarfed anything Madiha had ever witnessed. Behind her was a convoy of thirty vehicles, many of them civilian trucks borrowed from local unions. Several such convoys, each with their own dozens of vehicles, traveled on different roads and paths, evading potential pursuit and aerial reconnaissance, ferrying the tens of thousands of soldiers that they would need.

Those soldiers who had been in a position to do so took the trains in their cities or towns and rushed ahead to Bada Aso and established themselves outside the city.

It was a massive undertaking, and even these measures did not cover all the men and women and their equipment. Many soldiers rode on tanks, bikes or even on horses.

Fuel was plentiful, though it far outstripped the supply of vehicles. Being able to run their fuel supply ragged was the one advantage that Ayvarta definitively had over Nocht, who received most of their fuel from Lubon or the Higwe dominions. Ayvartan trains could run nigh-on endlessly, and the trucks could drink heartily, in a way that their pursuers could not afford. They could run and run; but Madiha only ran as far as Bada Aso.

Her beautiful city; she had finally returned to it.

Sadly it was to witness its destruction.

All of the vehicle crews went through their own paces, and many found a few things to fix. Their stop dragged on a little. As new tires were rolled out, engines oiled, tarps adjusted, Parinita walked out to Madiha, having completed her radio calls.

Since they had met two days ago, Parinita seemed to be tackling everything with a lot more energy than Madiha expected. Her skirt had gotten a little bit dusty in the truck, and she had tied her long, wavy, and increasingly messy hair up into a high, charmingly arched ponytail. In her hands she had a piece of paper, shaking in the wind.

Madiha could see furious scribbling all over it, including the margins.

For a secretary, Parinita took some incredibly untidy notes.

“I’ve got good news, and bad news! But I think the good news outweighs the bad!” Parinita jovially said. She withdrew a pair of glasses, lightly cracked from the battle they survived at the border, and perched them on her little nose.

Madiha sat up from leaning against the tree. “Bad news first.”

“Glass half-empty kind of woman, I see?” She said, cocking a grin.

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Madiha replied. “Tell me the news.”

Parinita waved her hands. “Just trying to be personable! Anyway here goes; the Regional Council at Bada Aso is displeased that the KVW has taken command of Ox, and they would like to have a word about it with you once you get to the city.”

“Ring them up again and tell them I will meet them soon, but I have other plans first.”

“Besides that, I have a lot of good news.” Parinita said. She sat down beside Madiha on the tree, legs up to her chest, and with her head resting on atop of her legs. Looking up at Madiha, she continued.  “Okay! Evacuations are going well in north Adjar. Despite objecting to your command, the Civil Council followed your evacuation orders completely. I wager because Inspector Kimani also called Solstice yesterday and they yelled about it. So the retreat to Bada Aso is going about as well as it can at the moment.”

“I notice you didn’t mention the Center and South.” Madiha said.

Pulling her legs in even closer, Parinata shook from side to side in childish distress. “Hmm. I guess I undersold the bad news. But in a way, this is good news too. Nocht’s forces are advancing slower than expected because they’re moving to capture and consolidate the resources we have been abandoning pell-mell as we retreated. We received messages in secret from the police in Dori Dobo and Hajal that Nocht was moving in slowly. Yesterday they hardly even tried to catch up with us. Instead they went for whatever industry and agriculture didn’t make it out, and they swept around it quickly.”

Madiha sighed. “I thought they would prioritize differently. Since they aren’t chasing us, this means they want to capture the port cities to use as bases for the war effort.”

Parinita nodded. “Yes. Unfortunately, we were unable to destroy or evacuate as much as we wanted to before they grabbed it. Thankfully none of it is fuel production. All of that is farther out, past Solstice and down the Horn of Ayvarta and all of that.”

“Agriculture helps them though. We could’ve stretched their food supply.”

“We did what we could.” Parinita lifted a hand from off her leg and patted Madiha in the shoulder. “It’s a miracle we managed to evacuate anything at all with just a few hours notice. For the circumstances, we’re as well off as we can be. Now we have time to plan.”

“I’ll take your word for it. You’re good with organization, aren’t you?”

“Gowon seemed to think so. As quick as he was to make me the idiot and toss me under the cattle to the Inspector, the old fool never spent a second organizing supply schedules, drafting response plans, or considering emergency policy. That was all the staff, under my direction. Not to brag or anything.” Parinita fidgeted with one of the temples of her reading glasses. “I always worked diligently. Gowon was hardly ever around. He would just tell us to research and write reports and organize fact sheets and maps. We developed the rhetorical and factual backbone of his ideas. I never thought he could be doing anything bad. I never analyzed it. I just wrote reports and edited plans and military papers.”

“It’s not your fault.” Madiha said.

Major Gowon, the previous commander of Battlegroup Ox, had been complicit in a lot of dirty deeds. Parinita’s staff had likely helped him, unknowingly, to realize a lot of projects that would have been unfeasible without the data and planning resources available to a military branch. He was suspected of smuggling arms out, likely for Nocht to study and take apart; of helping to hoard away silver and pushing iron and lead across the border into Cissea through his family’s old mining company, with which he had devious pull.

Now he was dead.

They would never know the true extent of his crimes.

She hoped Parinita would not have to bear the weight of that sin now that Gowon’s head was sprayed across a white wall in an old warehouse on the now occupied border.

Madiha gave her a weary smile. “Parinita, I appreciate your help. I’ll have to rely on you a lot from now. This is my first big command. But hopefully I can give you better direction where it counts. I would like to work closely with a good staff.”

Parinita smiled back. “I’m already feeling more confident, Captain!”

“I’m glad. And I have a curiosity, if you have a moment to spare.”

“Alright.” Parinita said.

She appeared puzzled by the request, but she innocently accepted.

Together they stood off the roots of the decayed tree and walked a few paces around the trunk. Madiha pointed Parinita towards a cluster of trees in the distance, some twenty or thirty meters away, taller and greener than the one nearby.

In other countries, the Aster’s Gloom was the first of the ravages of cold: but in Adjar there were always plants in bloom. Fruit grew prominently from the branches of this little grove, and it was plentiful and large, and its yellow and red gradation of colors helped it to stand out from the green leaves and gray bark of the trees.

Carefully, so as not to cause Parinita any fright, Madiha withdrew her sidearm, a fairly small revolver chambered for the 7.62mm x 38 caliber. Parinita looked even more confused at first, but Madiha just wanted to give her a little demonstration. She gently drew her attention to the grove again and asked her to to cover her ears with her hands.

Holding the weapon with both hands, Madiha aimed and pulled the trigger. Parinita watched the grove in the distance. In an instant, a lone piece of fruit, severed from its branch, fell from one of the trees and into the patchy grass below it.

“Now I want you to try it.”

Madiha took Parinita’s hand and deposited the weapon on her palm.

“Back at the border, you were shooting that BKV rifle; your stance was not very good, but I could see some potential. I’m wondering how accurate you could be in a more relaxed setting. Nobody is going to interfere, so take your time and line up the shot.”

Madiha closed Parinita’s fingers around the weapon.

Parinita began to stutter. “I c-c-certainly can’t land a hit like yours!”

“I never miss what I am aiming; but I’m telling you, I think you can do it.”

There were ulterior motives, but Madiha certainly did feel she would be able to do it.

Standing behind Parinita, Madiha instructed her on a better posture for target shooting.

She patted Parinita’s legs gently, coaxing her legs closer together, and bending her knees just a little; she pulled Parinita’s arms, which she had fully extended with the weapon, to a more relaxed position, so she could retract and extend more easily; and she taught her how to hold the revolver with both of her hands. Three fingers and thumb around the grip, index finger along the frame, and her off-hand over the main hand with the thumbs together on the side of the weapon opposite her shooting finger. Parinita’s hands were a little shaky, and when she fired her first shot, she hit the trunk of the tree.

“Don’t be discouraged.” Madiha said. “Try again.”

Madiha stood close by her and helped Parinita to align the gun’s iron sights and to properly aim at her target. All the while, however, her mind was on other matters entirely. Back at the border, Madiha knew that she had seen through the eyes of a soldier, and that she had subconsciously improved the aim of a gun team firing on the Nochtish assault guns.

This was no dream, she remembered it perfectly.

She had not passed out or had a shell shock episode; odd as it sounded, she knew that she had left her body behind entirely and occupied another mind. Though the sensation was all but gone from her memory, Madiha knew that she could do it again.

She had to coax out this strange ability.

Ever since she was little, Madiha had never missed a shot she took.

That much she remembered.

If somehow, she could make the aim of her own soldiers that good, it would be a coup.

Once again, Parinita aimed and fired.

She hit a branch this time and shook the fruits upon it, but nothing fell. No direct hit on the target. Parinita slumped a little and breathed quickly. “I’m just no good at this. Guns make me a little scared. I had a bad score with weapons in basic training. I’m thankful for the instruction; I just don’t see the point of it. I’ll never be able to hit the fruit like you can.”

“Simply relax and focus.” Madiha said, as gently as she could.

She said this just as much to herself as to Parinita. Dealing with something fully unknown, Madiha turned, begrudgingly, to Dhyana. It was part of the prescription for her anxiety and shell shock. Meditation was the only thing she felt applicable to this situation, and she felt comfortable tapping into it, so she controlled her breathing, relaxed her body as much as she could, and tried to separate her thoughts from her self.

Standing eye to eye with Parinita, her hands loosely holding the woman’s waist and arm, Madiha tried to clear her mind of thought, to try to rip herself from her body again.

Of course, the objective was not the same.

Her meditation focused on overcoming her anxiety and the stress she suffered. She had projected herself outward and tried to find some measure of peace around her to quiet the palpitations of shell shock. Meditation helped her extend her conscience. She felt Parinita’s pulse through their close contact, felt the warmth of the woman’s cheek against her own. She felt the outside. But she could not just waver off into the landscape now, vanishing among the grasses; she needed to slip into another person’s consciousness.

Parinita fired again. Madiha thought she felt as though one shaking flesh with her.

“No good, I missed again.” She said. Her words had grown hazy.

Madiha did not even see what she had hit this time. She closed her eyes.

“Parinita, I know you were a head secretary, but what was your rank before?”

“I was non-comish.” She stammered gently. “Chief Warrant Officer.”

“C.W.O Parinita Maharani; I believe in you. Try it one more time.”

It was the rank. Rank and name; that is how Madiha understood the people around her; that was how she related to them, how her consciousness sought out their own. That was how she entered their minds. It was a hierarchy; that was how she controlled them.

This alien realization, this almost inhuman thought, was what propelled Madiha’s power. She was suddenly out of her own body and staring over Parinita’s shoulder, and she was staring over her own shoulder as well but with ghostly, detached eyes.

Somehow she was inside Parinita and out of her, while also inside and out of herself.

Was this how those false spirits and ancestors and gods were supposed to act and feel?

She viewed the world perfectly as though through any ordinary lens, and she felt as free to move about the landscape as she ever had. But she felt veins, tendrils, appendages of some sort that seemed to connect her to everything around her, so that her touch could reach far beyond her body. Subconsciously those strands of thought with which she touched the world took Parinita’s arms and steadied them, took her eyes and guided them.

Parinita aimed and fired once more with confidence. A second fruit fell from the tree.

Madiha, both Madihas, however many Madiha; all of her distributed consciousness heard the gunshot. She felt a burning pain the back of her eyes and a rushing sensation, as though blood was about to burst through her sockets. Madiha’s projection raised her hand to her eyes, and found them covered in blood, hot blood as though freshly boiled in a kettle, burning her avatar’s hands, gushing through her avatar’s brain, causing an alien agony.

Everything started to spin, and all of the tendrils of thought retracted as though into a ball or a knot. Her extension cut off entirely. Though she once glided over the world like a god in the limited space occupied by Parinita, now she was shocked back to frailty.

No longer could she sustain the ghostly warlord.

A sudden pain forced her into retreat.

Once more, Madiha knew flesh. For a moment she was as dazed as when she woke in the morning, her arms letting go of Parinita, her feet shaking, her body taken from her own control. Beside her Parinita celebrated as though nothing happened.

“Did you see that? Wow! I did hit it!” Parinita said. She turned toward Madiha and threw her arms around the Captain in elation. “Incredible! I feel incredible, Madiha!” She held Madiha’s shoulders at arms length, and staring at her Captain’s confused, numbed, awkwardly expressionless face, she looked suddenly quite conscious of her impropriety.

She lifted her hands from Madiha’s shoulders as though they were poisonous, and stuffed them into her pockets. “I mean, umm, Captain! Thank you for instruction, Captain!” She saluted stiffly and averted her eyes, standing like a comical statue.

Once more, Madiha knew control. As though her spirit had fully filtered back into her, the pain subsided, and the fog clouding her mind was gone. Around her the world stopped spinning. Realizing her situation Madiha mustered a quick smile.

“I told that you could do it.” She said, a little slurred. Her voice recovered slowly.

Parinita held her salute stiffly. “Yes sir; I mean ma’am! Yes Captain ma’am!”

They heard someone approach from the other side of the tree, and turned their heads.

“Major, you mean. She is a Major now.” Inspector Kimani said.

The Inspector hung back from them, leaning against the trunk of the dead tree and lighting a cigarette after addressing them. She had her peaked cap in her hand, and the red and gold jacket of her KVW Officer uniform was half-unbuttoned.

Kimani evoked no exceptional feeling when delivering the news.

She spoke in a serious and factual voice that was hard to ascribe any emotion to. Everything she did seemed purposeful and planned. It was though Kimani moved through history with certainty. Madiha could hardly meet her eyes. She felt quite beneath her.

Kimani seemed comfortable enough leaving the news to hang in the air.

She continued to smoke casually in front of them.

“I was promoted?” Madiha asked, trying to draw further reaction.

“The Warden herself declared it and called me.” Kimani said simply.

“Is it so I can more appropriately replace Gowon?”

“Yes.” Kimani replied. “Among other things. You deserve it. Feel proud.”

Major Madiha Nakar, Commander of Battlegroup Ox.

It was a contested title, at the moment. But something about it still sunk hard into the pit of Madiha’s stomach, causing her to feel heavy and sick when she thought about it too much. And yet she had a plan for it, for Battlegroup Ox, for everybody in it. In the span of a few minutes she had begun to draft it, and over the past day she had fleshed it out.

Now it was official, it was on paper, and her staff knew all about it.

Everyone was preparing for it already.

Bada Aso, the city of her childhood, where she first learned of revolution, where she first found love, where the broken pieces of her heart and mind and soul had been painfully picked from the bloody earth and affixed again: she would turn it into Hell.

Three of them stood there, Inspector Kimani, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani, and Major Nakar, silently exchanging glances, waiting to get back into motion, with the city far away in the background. They would be the architects of this Hell.

Engines growled behind them, and exhausts coughed gray smoke into the air.

“Looks like the convoy’s ready.” Kimani said. “Let us depart then, Major.”

“Right.” Madiha said. “We’re taking a little detour. Have the rest of the convoy stand by outside Bada Aso, but do not enter the city yet. I don’t want any more potential panic or political friction. We’ll be going to the Svechthan barracks, instead.”

Kimani nodded. She took a final drag of her cigarette and then stepped on it.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She saluted her. Madiha found it a very bittersweet response. She was in power now, and Kimani could no longer protect her, neither from the scrutiny and ire of others, nor from the vacillating images of her forgotten past.

20-AG-30, Noon

Adjar Dominance Bada Aso Region, Kalu Coastline

Battlegroup Ox, under Lt. Purana’s overview, assembled outside of Bada Aso to gather their forces and await any updates on the political situation.

Madiha had given them instructions to await and support incoming elements, and if worse came to worse and they were not allowed into the city, to establish a preliminary battle line out of it. Meanwhile Madiha, Kimani and Parinita took their own small convoy of half-track trucks farther north, past Bada Aso and further along the coast.

Kimani’s half-track was in the front, leading two other trucks with Parinita’s Battlegroup Command staff. Even as they drove they were assembling information and making necessary contacts on the radio to smooth over Madiha’s grand defensive plans.

Near the front and the tail of the convoy were two smaller trucks, each with a quad-mount 7.62mm machine gun assembled on its bed: these linked machine guns were their only recourse for anti-air defense should the Luftlotte begin raiding the city and countryside. It was a poor defense, but it was all they could muster at the time.

Madiha worried that she had left too much work behind to Lt. Purana’s unproven divisional staff. Mobilizing the troops and handling what was essentially the front line, or as close to one as they had, was a monumental task to give the relatively green troops of Battlegroup Ox. But Madiha had work for her own staff that had to be completed soon.

So they drove, and they drafted, and even Parinita couldn’t take in the countryside passing them by, her face deep in tables of organization, warehouse manifestos, projected industrial output. Madiha had delegated everything as best as she could.

Her own work was for the moment disagreeably political.

She had to round up allies, and she had to coerce skeptics.

However, the drive allowed her to stare out into the open and take in the view.

Built across a gentle rise in the terrain at the foot of the Kalu Hilltops, straddling the coastline and the Umaiha River, Bada Aso was a major port to the Core Ocean, and even as war approached the city there were still fishing ships and merchant vessels visible on the open sea. It was a beautiful city, and Madiha loved every moment she could spend simply staring at it, burning its pristine condition into her mind. A rail hub, a hive of industry, a port, a place of culture, of history, of romance. Bada Aso was so much to her.

Yet along with these fond thoughts was the military mind.

Her plan would destroy the city.

Past the limits of the city the terrain on the Kalu along the coast began to rise a little more sharply, and soon Madiha could look to the distance behind them and see the port extending from out the cover of the northernmost city buildings.

There were several massive ships docked.

Madiha would have to remember to ask Admiral Qote about them. Any kind of firepower available in Bada Aso had to be used for their advantage. For the next few days, she would have to assemble a war machine to defend the city. Her role as both savior and destroyer weighed heavily on her, and even as she stared along the empty green and blue it haunted her. She had always found her emotions difficult. Now they seemed impossible.

“Major! I’m sorry if there was something on your mind, but I need your opinion–”

Thank the spirits for Parinita! She and Madiha quickly went to work together on breaking down Support Battalions in each division and how best to reallocate them for Ox’s needs. It was utter drudgery, and felt relatively pointless. Ox’s organization was a mess: 8 small Regiments per Division with no Brigade structure was unmanageable and impossible. She had to make it work somehow. It made a good tonic for Madiha’s depression.

Several dozen kilometers they drove along a steep cliff on the edge of the continent, until it gradually sloped and descended into the rocky berm of a very long beach. Straddling a few more kilometers of rainforest just off the shoreline, they found a complex of scattered groups of long buildings, arranged four or five a block surrounding a broad square field.

Madiha opened a slit in the Half-Track’s armored bed and spoke with the driver, giving permission to approach the base. A strange flag flew from a raised guard post just outside the entrance arch to the fenced-off camp. It was white and blue and had red rock in the center; nothing like the flag she knew, with its hammer and sickle and black hydra.

At the gate, the half-track was recognized from afar and quickly greeted.

Dobroe tovarich! May I take a look in the back?” said a guard with a heavy accent.

Parinita snuck a peek through the viewing slit to see the guard, but couldn’t see anyone at all from it. Madiha turned her around to the back of the truck. There a rather small individual had come to inspect them. He waved amicably and made an effort to climb aboard. Parinita looked taken aback. The person inspecting them was a Svechthan.

He was smaller than everyone in the truck, but fairly slender and well proportioned to his size. Parinita looked like she had never seen anything like him in her life. He took a quick head count, exchanged a few pleasantries with Madiha half in his language and half in theirs, and stepped off the truck, clearing them to pass. They drove deeper into the camp, and a few other equally small-seeming men and women waved them toward an unused parking spot near warehousing blocks for the 1st Joint-Training Corps.

“They’re like little dolls!” Parinita said, her hands raised to her cheeks.

“Don’t say that aloud, you fool.” Kimani hissed.

Parinita turned red in the face and made a gesture to cover her mouth. But she still had a mischievous look in her eyes. All around them there were more Svechthans coming and going about their business, and Parinita watched them like it was a show.

Madiha was very well acquainted with them, but to an Ayvartan who was not exposed to them, certainly they seemed a whimsical people, being very soft-featured, and pale like snow, with flowing hair of exotic, icy shades and that matched their white and gray-blue military uniforms. What most people tended to focus on was their height, however. They were proportioned like adults, but rather small ones altogether compared to other folk.

Hailing from the harsh frozen north, where food was scarcer and the sun all but vanished for months at a time, Svechthans had adapted their size. Adult Svechthans topped out at around 155 centimeters for the truly rare tall folk among them, and stopped growing at 145 centimeters on average. Average Ayvartan men and women tended to settle at about 170 to 190 centimeters; Madiha was about 185 centimeters tall, and Kimani 192. At 176 centimeters or so, Parinita was quite taller than all of the Svechthans around them.

It was a very visible and striking difference.

Madiha could see how Parinita might feel as though among fairytale folk. Despite the best efforts of both people to cooperate, and despite the great debts of friendship they owed, they were still somewhat rare sights to one another in their respective lands.

“Don’t stare so intently.” Kimani scolded again. Parinita sighed heavily.

“We’re headed for the main barracks over there. Try not to be rude.” Madiha said.

“I’m not going to be rude!” Parinita said, flustered. “Just little surprised is all!”

Despite its name the 1st Joint-Training Corps was actually a professional and fully-trained Svechthan formation deployed to Ayvarta, composed of a Tyazhelyy (Heavy) Division and a Pekhota (Infantry) Division. There were over 20,000 people in this complex, largely Svechthans, taking part in harsh weather training and other exercises that suited the Ayvartan climate and geography. The Svechthan Union was a very cold and gloomy nation and found the heat and constant sunlight in Ayvarta very unwelcoming.

Since each found the others’ homeland to be difficult terrain, the two countries exchanged units to participate in training for potential operations north or south, and thereby improve their readiness. During their walk to the main barracks offices, Madiha saw the field in the middle of the camp teem with activity.

Tanks fired test shots into armored target walls, men and women ran through obstacle courses in their full gear, and there were even a few games of Gorodki, a sport where a wooden bat was launched at a group of wooden pins. All these activities helped build the soldiers’ warm weather endurance, and strengthened their bodies.

She supposed the Ayvartans in Svechtha performed similar activities.

Madiha and Kimani ducked their heads to pass through the doorway into the main office building just off the edge of the training fields. Though buildings and objects made for Svechthans were not miniature to Ayvartans, and all of the buildings, the chairs and desks, possessed fairly relatable dimensions to them, particularly tall Ayvartans often had to bow their heads and curl up their legs to fit comfortably through doors and in vehicles. Madiha spoke with the desk secretary, and she stood up from her post and bid them to wait, while she walked through the office door at the back of the room. Moments later, she returned, and bid them to enter. Once again they bowed their heads as they passed through.

“Welcome, tovarich, I expected your arrival. Please, have a seat.”

Inside the office they were greeted by an older man, Kapitan Golovkin, judging by the nameplate on his desk. He was well built for his size, and had a rather stately mustache. Madiha thought he looked familial, like a small and pleasant uncle. And certainly he did seem to have been expecting them, having worn his full dress uniform that day, with all of his assorted honors clipped on it, in 35 degree heat. He was smiling and gracious, and offered everyone in the room a cigar. Madiha and Parinita begged pardon and passed.

Kimani on the other hand was quick to accept, and even quicker to taste the smoke.

There was a subtext to this action, beyond being a gracious guest or a lover of tobacco products. Madiha had never seen Kimani smoke in a meeting before. She assumed, then, that this was a gesture meant to push Madiha into the spotlight.

Kimani would be smoking, not speaking.

“Recent events have been unkind to us, haven’t they Mayor,” said the Captain, lighting his cigar and staring up from it at Madiha, “To think that scum of the North would launch an undeclared war upon you. Upon us. It is horrifying to consider.”

Eager to get to the main point, and to cut the chances that she might misspeak or grow nervous in the interim, Madiha quickly replied. “And it is our material reality, Captain. I assume that you know the purpose of my visit, then.”

“You seem sharp, and you get to business quickly,” Golovkin waved his cigar, jabbing sharply toward Madiha and grinning, “We appreciate that in the north.”

He looked directly at her.

“Yes, I know you wish the aid of the 1st Joint-Training Corps in the defense of Bada Aso. I learned of your ascension to battlegroup commander just yesterday, at the same time as I received in full the details of the border battle. So I assumed you would come here.”

“I need all the manpower I can get.” Madiha said. She felt a pang of guilt. Ayvarta seemed a poor host, incapable of protecting her guests. Instead she was asking them to risk their lives to protect her. On some level she felt this was not their fight.

“We cannot refuse.” Golovkin cheerfully explained. “After all, we are subordinated to Ayvarta’s territorial command. So you do not need to ask us for our consent.”

Madiha had rehearsed on the trip and spoke as directly as she could.

“I know that as a formation under my regional command in Ayvarta you would carry out my directives. But I do not merely want you and your forces to follow orders, Captain. I need your support. Battlegroup Ox is disorganized, and I can only stretch our professional forces so far among the vastly greater number of green troops. Your forces are more experienced. I need your cooperation Captain, not simply obedience. I need your forces to help lead my own in addition to fighting alongside them. I need a shared camaraderie.”

Golovkin blew smoke and suddenly devolved into a prolonged coughing fit.

Madiha raised her hand tentatively to help, though in what way she didn’t know, it was all a reflex; equally reflexively Golovkin seemed to wave her hand away, grinning through the violent coughing fit. He looked at her with a glimmer in his eyes, and he began to laugh all the while he coughed, and to smile as he choked on the smoke.

Eventually his voice returned, and he was only smiling and laughing.

Prekrasniy! Oh that was a wonderful entreaty, tovarich. Major Gowon would have never said something like that. I’ve only known you for a few minutes, but you are already a breath of fresh air. I am pleased to hear this; and do not worry. Any fight for Ayvarta is a fight for Svechtha. Nocht knows very well that it cannot fight in our territory. Our seas are stormy and difficult, and our land is rocky, icy, and inhospitable. They’ve tried to fight us before and it has been catastrophic for them. But they know that they can starve us out.”

Golovkin’s response was quite endearing; Madiha felt instant relief.

“I will do whatever is necessary, tovarich, for your food, and the food of my people.”

Ayvarta and Svechtha were incredibly close partners in the modern day. Where other nations either ignored or preyed upon Svechtha and its small and unique people, Ayvarta had little history with them before the new millennium. Svechtha was the birthplace of Socialism, and it inspired the ideals of the current Ayvartan administration. The Revolution came as a shock to the world, and only the Svechthans welcomed it.

Both nations found themselves in a world where they were each other’s only real lifeline. At first the approach was tentative and contact almost alien. Gradually, as their friendship with the Ayvartans deepened, the two countries exchanged military and resource aid. Ayvartans supplied Svechthans with much of their food, in return for raw materials and an open exchange of ideas and expertise. They met each other’s needs well.

So therefore Golovkin certainly viewed this as his people’s fight as well.

Ayvarta’s fall would create a food crisis in Svechtha. Though they could grow some food, and they certainly did, their existence would become bleak and meager once again. Decades of heavy rationing and food insecurity had ended when those first ships full of grain and dried produce arrived on their shores from Ayvarta.

To return to darker days after experiencing such joy and freedom from want would be a tragedy. Regardless of Madiha’s efforts, their commitment was guaranteed.

There was a thrust of history behind this meeting that neither could escape.

Regardless, for the sake of her own conscience Madiha asked again. She knew that she had secured his help, but in a way, she still felt a little like she was taking advantage of him. She wanted to hear him say it again, to lift the final burden from her.

“So can I count on the strength of your people, Captain? Will you join me?” She asked.

“Major,” Golovkin stretched his small hand over his desk, “Let us not tarry.”

Madiha took his hand into hers, and shook gently.

He laughed heartily and praised her strength.

She was almost forty centimeters taller than he, but they were seeing eye-to-eye over that desk. In an instant, Madiha added two divisions to her effort. It had been an easy conversation between two people who had wanted to trust and cooperate, and perhaps had no other option but to do so. It lifted her morale, and for the first time it made her feel that she had a handle on the situation, that she grasped at the pulse of war with a master’s hand.

However, she had one more crucial meeting to attend, and it was very clear from the smoke ring blowing from her lips that Kimani would not interfere with these affairs.

She had lifted her wings from over Madiha; it was time the chick learned to fly alone.

20-AG-30, Late Afternoon

Adjar Dominance City of Bada Aso

More of Ox’s troops had arrived outside the city by the time Madiha returned.

They had followed her and Parinita’s instructions marvelously, and the mobilization was efficient. Trucks and tanks were strewn about the open field straddling the edge of the city creating a makeshift encampment that stretched out a few kilometers.

Along the dirt roads connecting to the city minor officers had been posted to direct incoming traffic. Staff had organized arrival, food distribution and medical stations for incoming divisions. Temporary headquarters areas had been established. These were little more than tarps slung over the sides of radio trucks and pinned up with tent poles.

Around each temporary HQ the divisional staff was hard at work organizing the arrival and debriefing of Ox’s ten divisions. To protect them, anti-aircraft artillery guns of 37mm and 85mm calibers had been unhitched from vehicles and set up to watch the skies.

Visually it was all a mess. But it functioned and everyone who came in had directions to follow. Madiha was pleased with the results of her orders. Now she had make good on getting all of these soldiers into the city that they were supposed to defend.

Arriving at the camps, Parinita radioed their presence to Lt. Purana, left in charge of the mobilization temporarily. Kimani’s half-track was marked, and so they escaped the scrutiny of the checkpoints and advanced briskly into the heart of the camp; past parked trucks arrayed like houses on a block; down a long line of Goblin and Orc tanks from the Independent Ox Tank Battalions that accompanied every Rifle Division; turning a corner around a battery of artillery pieces being hastily inspected and cleaned; and past stray gaggles of soldiers cracking open crates and distributing basic kit to platoons.

Madiha’s own convoy had grown as well.

Two more small trucks trailing her carried some of Golovkin’s seasoned Corps staff into the camp, as well as a 76mm gun towed behind each. Svechthans went nowhere without their precious artillery, Golovkin had explained. They loved artillery.

The Half-Tracks drove past the 6th Ox Rifle Division area, where Lt. Purana was established, and looked for a good spot to park out of everyone’s way.

While they established themselves, Madiha looked out the back of the half-track and saw the Lieutenant working outside of a nearby radio half-track, going over documents and maps and listening in on various calls. He looked quite busy: several people seemed to be vying for his attention, while he himself was moving between various radio stations and makeshift war room tables. It was a very hectic time. Nocht was on their heels, and they had to manage the evacuation, reconnaissance efforts made against the Nochtish advance, the mobilization of their own troops from all corners of the dominance, as well as keeping Solstice appraised of the unfolding events. Lt. Purana had been temporarily left with it all.

He looked as effective as he could be given the circumstances.

“Inspector, we’re going to meet with the Lieutenant. I want you to help him.”

“Aye aye, Major.” She said simply. She lay against the wall of the half-track with her arms crossed, meeting Madiha’s eyes effortlessly. That confidence of hers, that bluntness, it came so easily. Madiha resented it a little, now that it was deployed on her.

Once all of their trucks were well situated within the encampment, Parinita and Madiha disembarked, the former trotting behind the latter with a thick folder in her arms.

They approached Purana and waited for him to finish with one of the radio operators. Once his attention was drawn he made his way past the staff and saluted the two of them.

“Glad to see you return Commander!” He said.

“Glad to have returned.” Madiha said. “I’ve secured the cooperation of the Svechthan troops, Lieutenant. That’s 15,000 soldiers and around a thousand additional medical, communications and logistics and planning staff. Show them camaraderie.”

“Yes ma’am!” Lt. Purana said. “I assume I needn’t worry about sorting them out?”

“My staff and the Svechthan’s will take care of things from here.” Parinita said.

“Ah, that’s good.” Lt. Purana breathed deeply. “I read books and received all kinds of training; but that never makes it easier actually coordinating forty people on signals and logistics and intelligence who all need me to look over their work.”

Parinita laughed. “Well, your staff is just as anxious and new at it as you. Don’t worry; my Battlegroup Command staff will take everyone under their wing and show them the way. We’ve done things like this in the past. I’m sorry we had to dump it all on you.”

She looked quite chipper being in a position of seniority for once. Madiha found herself fond of her expression and energy. She was a lot more reliable than Madiha had initially thought, and both in the sense of her professional skill, and her willpower.

“I understand.” Lt. Purana said. “You had work to do, and you deferred the rest to us. That’s how the army works. Frankly, while we’re a bit ragged, I think everyone’s pleased to have a chance to do something serious and important in these dire times.”

“I’ll make you put that training to use.” Madiha said. “Soon you might make Captain.”

Lt. Purana rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. “I’m happy with Lieutenant, ma’am.”

“Indeed.” Madiha put on an amicable face.

Lt. Purana, however, turned a grave expression. “Back to business then.”

“Did something happen?”

“Yes ma’am. I’m afraid the situation with the city took a bad turn.”

Madiha raised an eyebrow. “How bad?”

“The Civil Council in the city is holding a meeting, and have denounced us.”

“I can’t believe they would play politics at a time like this. What have they done?”

“From what I’ve been given to understand they’re not only preventing us from entering the city, they are preparing to move military stockpiles and surplus food, fuel and materials out of the city against your evacuation orders.” Lt. Purana said.

“They can’t do that.” Madiha said. It took all her strength not to tremble. She was wholly unprepared for such a thing. “We need those stockpiles to hold the city. That’s the food and ammunition that Ox is depending on. Without it we can’t do anything.”

“I tried telling them that. Even I could see what a nonsensical situation this was; but they weren’t keen on listening to me. This happened maybe thirty minutes ago, so I think we have plenty of time still. But they really want you in a room with them.”

Madiha gritted her teeth.

It was all Council bickering, and though she had foreseen it, she had no foresee the extent to which it would hinder her efforts. Even if they did not intend to go through with this – and Madiha could not know for sure – politically the Civil Council of Adjar had to look like they were retaining their authority in the face of the KVW’s overreach.

Kimani had executed Gowon, which had been the start of a figurative coup.

The Regional Battlegroup was not supposed to be administered by the Military Council. The KVW controlled the Navy and their ten divisions. No more than that.

Demilitarization had stripped the Military Council of the power to control the state army, and had made that a civil power. Technically the KVW had certain rights such as inspecting and vetting state commanders, giving them some de jure influence over the state army as a whole. However, appointing a KVW officer, even a Civil Liaison like Madiha, was a bold step into the territory beyond the Military Council’s legal borders.

Madiha was not KVW anymore as of a few days ago, technically speaking, but for all anyone knew, Kimani was pulling the strings. And behind Kimani was Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote and the Military Council, marginalized and weakened but still very active.

After the inspections, it could definitely be seen as the beginning of a military coup.

“This is a constitutional minefield. I expected them to object.” Madiha said. “But I didn’t expect them to take such drastic action. I thought they would bicker in a room for a few hours then agree we had to defend the city. Not put all the ammo on a train.”

“Yes, this is more than an objection, ma’am. They’ve taken off their gloves and slapped us.” Lt. Purana replied. “The Civil Council never stepped over Gowon’s toes in this way, even if they did boss him around sometimes. You should go talk some sense into them, Major. While the troops around here are rattled, they all know that it was your decisions that saved us at the border. And every division that arrives here, I’ll them the same thing. We’re all behind you, Major. We want to stop running and protect our comrades.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Madiha said. “It means a lot to me. Disseminate orders to all arriving divisions to keep their guns hitched and their trucks loaded. I want six divisions ready to relocate into the city with all their materiel by tonight. Come what may.”

“Yes ma’am.” Lt. Purana said. He saluted, and reached out his hand and shook Madiha’s, before turning around and heading back up into his radio half-track, and gathering the attention of the divisional staff there to appraise them of the situation.

He looked so much more confident than before. Back at the border, Lt. Purana had gathered up his barracks and gone out to fight Nocht in a near total absence of leadership.

When Madiha arrived to take command he was a little rattled, but the bravery it took to walk out and fight without orders sustained him through the battle.

Clearly his comrades believed in him, and so Madiha had promoted him to lead the remnants of the 6th Ox Rifles Division that survived the border battle.

Seeing him around the staff gave her hope; perhaps she was a better judge of character than she thought. And perhaps Ox was not as hopelessly scattered as she had hastily thought. Given some time to think, they were settling into their roles well.

Now the only one who needed to fully accept their role in this conflict was herself.

Kimani and Parinita’s staff members arrived, carrying their equipment and documents.

“Remember our contingency. Defending this city is paramount.” Kimani said.

She put her hand on Madiha’s shoulder, and just as quickly seemed to brush past her.

The Battlegroup Command staff led by Parinita walked among Lt. Purana’s staff, rechecking information and becoming appraised of the situation. They were a team of 25 people, small but with a variety of professional backgrounds. Signals specialists, engineers, mathematicians, technical writers, logistics personnel, and more.

Their counterparts in Lt. Purana’s divisional staff made space for them, and looked relieved to have more support. Parinita herself would not be joining them for long; Madiha quickly pulled her away from the work at the camp, and together they departed the field of military vehicles and headed toward the Council at the heights of the city.

They took a small and fast scout car, half the size of the half-tracked trucks, and Madiha drove them up the gentle slope that separated the dirt and grass from the paved edge of the city. She pored over her options on the drive there, while taking in the sights.

Around its southern and eastern borders Bada Aso was a collection of humble old buildings; the skyline rose with the hill upon which the city had been built, and receded again on the western and north-northern edges, downhill and straddling the coast.

It was a fairly tight city despite its wide roads, with few parks and truly open stretches of land. Alleyways and thoroughfares, blocks of buildings, dominated the space. It was a large city as well, of many square kilometers, occupied by hundreds of thousands of people. Though it was no Solstice it was a major city, and its layout and architecture commanded respect. This was not currently evident in the streets, but the city teemed with life.

A dozen divisions could potentially brawl inside of it.

“Do you have copies of the plans we worked out yesterday?” Madiha asked.

Parinita nodded her head. “Rough copies, but y’know, it’s been a rough time!”

Madiha smiled. “As long as they can hold them in their hands and read them, it’s fine.”

They drove over the Umaiha River and past the richly developed center of the city, and north, uphill, to the Council Building, an old capitalist palace that dominated the city skyline with its domed tower and dominated the hilltop with its broad, columned facade.

Madiha parked the scout car at the foot of the building staircase, helped Parinita off the car by her hand, and the two of them ventured inside, past swaying flags and a hectic mob of personnel and citizens taking care of last-minute affairs of the city’s evacuation.

From a world of light they seemed to transition to a stage of shadow.

Stiff police guards led them through the building to a broad office that faced away from the sun, cast into a gloom by the early evening sun. Six people turned their heads to the door from a square table in the middle of the room.

Electric torches on the wall, their bulbs and handles mimicking real torches, cast a dim light that seemed only to accentuate the shadow. Police guards took their places along the shuttered windows at the back of the room, and along the door. They had the emotionless demeanor of KVW, and saluted the Major when she entered the room.

Parinita hugged her documents close to her chest.

No one offered them a seat.

“The Council acknowledges Captain Madiha Nakar.” said an older man.

“Correction, I’m now a Major.” Madiha said.

No one at the table seemed content with the information.

Madiha looked across their faces. At first she glossed them over and found nobody familiar. She was not looking for anyone familiar after all.

From the first pace she took through the door she was aware that there would have been a new Council since she was last living in the city some four years ago. And with all the recent developments she had not had the time to study up on them: that had been delegated to the KVW office staff. But it slowly dawned upon her, working through a sudden and fierce denial, that there was one person in the room she did recognize.

A young woman, her hair styled into luxurious curled ringlets, her green eyes narrowed. She sat in a corner, as though shying away from notice, with her arms crossed and her gaze averted from where Madiha stood. She tapped her feet in frustration.

Since when had Chakrani Walters been given a seat on the Council?

Heart pounding, chasing her own breath, Madiha could only suppose that she had been appointed Vox Populi, the extra seat that was rotated between prominent citizens who had made great contributions to the city. Everyone else in the room was a career bureaucrat that had been voted into political office on two-year terms as Regional Representatives.

“I must raise one objection,” said one of the younger men, “Representative Walters had connections to the Major in the past. The Council should rightly scrutinize whether it would be a conflict of interest for her to rule on this issue right now.”

Chakrani spoke up quickly and bluntly. “I’ve no depth of feeling left for the Major.”

“There are records of cohabitation and even preliminary paperwork for a marriage–”

“That is all in the past.” Chakrani interrupted. “We have been separated for years.”

In an instant it seemed the matter was dropped.

Of course, nobody in the Council seemed to care that Chakrani likely harbored ill will toward Madiha; so long as she did not love her, everything in the meeting room was fine. Parinita squirmed a little behind her documents, and Madiha strained to control her own breathing, still her thrashing heart and present a stony expression before the Council.

“Then let us deliberate,” said an older councilor, “Major, we the Council hold that your ascendance to Battlegroup Commander of Ox was an illicit move that oversteps the boundaries of the Military Council’s power, and interacts antagonistically with the Civil.”

Madiha wished she knew anyone’s names there. They would not introduce themselves.

They just wanted this meeting out of their way. She could tell that they were not about to listen to her. However she had to make her case and pray they listened.

“The Military Council has the power to replace officers of the state army.”

“Yes, but to replace them with KVW agents is a decision clearly driven by agenda. There were likely suitable and qualified candidates in the regional military pool that could have taken proper command. Why did Inspector Kimani appoint one of her own?”

“We were being fired upon by the enemy. We had no room to deliberate.”

Another councilor spoke up.

“Then after your escape, the decision should have been reopened.”

“I am not a KVW agent, by the way. I was found incompatible with the training scheme. I am a planner and a civil liaison. I do not have an agenda here but to stop Nocht.”

Now it was Chakrani’s turn to speak, and she found quite cutting words with which to rebut Madiha’s statements. “But you’ve worked alongside Kimani for your entire tenure and have not participated in any reconciliation activities with the Civil Council, therefore your impartiality is obviously suspect.” Her tone was indifferent. Madiha would have preferred outright hatred and anger. Something about the way she was addressed and spoken to seemed to paste over that anything had existed between them.

At least the anger would have acknowledged and condemned Madiha’s sin.

“Have you any reply to that, Major?” Chakrani pressed on.

“No, I do not. That is factual. Having said that, I believe interrogating my loyalty is a waste of precious time. Nocht is advancing on the city with military force, and without its defense they will walk right into Tambwe and from there set foot on Solstice’s sand.”

The only older woman out of the six councilors in the room took this opportunity to interject, speaking in a gentle, motherly tone of voice. “We understand this point of view. However, there are diplomatic and military concerns to consider first.”

Madiha blinked. “Diplomatic?”

“That aspect is not your particular arena.” Chakrani said, her voice dripping with self-righteous sarcasm. “But yes, we’re considering diplomatic channels.”

Madiha struggled to hide her outrage. “I have a proposal for the defense of the city.”

“Your actions have rendered a defense of the Dominance impossible by our accounts.” Replied the older woman councilor. She sneered at Madiha and Parinita.

“Excuse me? What would you have done? What are you implying?” Madiha said.

“She means we’re retreating.” Chakrani said. “We have already begun plans to move materiel out of the city and into Tambwe. You elected not to fight Nocht at all, and fled from the border; so now we have no recourse left but to flee as well. We are not staying. We will relocate to Tambwe and attempt to get world leaders together in discourse; or failing that we will mount a defense from a position of greater readiness–”

“Councilor, you, perhaps, are not staying. You, perhaps, wish to beg the imperialists for mercy. Battlegroup Ox is standing here and fighting until the Imperialist’s blood and gore decorates our streets.” Madiha shouted. She began to talk over the Councilors as they tried to respond. “I retreated because the terrain between Dori Dobo and Bada Aso was indefensible. Mobile units would have trounced us in such featureless open terrain and encircled any fortified settlement. However the conditions around Bada Aso give us a unique opportunity to score a blow against Nocht. To encircle the city they must advance over the rough and defensible terrain of the Kalu. We have a port through which we are linked to the outside world in case of a siege; and the city itself will disadvantage Nocht’s mechanized and armored forces. We can fight them here and we can win!”

“Order!” Chakrani shouted. “Major do not disrespect the Council again!”

Madiha laughed bitterly. “Of course. I shall watch my tongue in the face of this.”

“Walters, do calm down,” said the older woman councilor.

Chakrani was turning red in the face.

With an opportunity to speak again, Madiha continued.

“We can’t just keep running now. Nocht’s forces, fully organized along Tambwe’s border, will outnumber even two intact Regional Battlegroups. Right now we have a shot at drawing in their forces into terrain where we have advantage. I ran because it was necessary to fight another day; but if we don’t fight now, we will give them free reign to recreate the border situation again, where their entire force will be fully ready to attack us at will with their supply lines established and all of their formations in supporting distances. They will crush us on open terrain again. I ran so I could pick my fight, and consolidate all of the strength I could get. I did not run just to get a head start on more running.”

“The Council understands your fervor to fight, Major,” the younger man councilor said, “But a more level-headed decision has been taken. Your proposal is too little too late. The Civil Council in Solstice is in agreement with the Civil Council here in Bada Aso.”

There was no other choice.

Madiha had a plan; Madiha had to construct the Hell which would consume Nocht. Something inside her burnt, and she felt the injury as though her flesh was really ablaze. She felt that other mind pushing her to make a difficult decision, a monstrous decision.

In a second all of her hesitation was obliterated, burning up over the all-consuming pain in her mind. From there it was as simple as snapping her fingers, a voiceless command, pointing the guards toward the table. Within an instant of seeing the gesture and hearing the cracking noise, the Regional Police drew their rifles and surrounded the table.

Those guards standing outside the door did nothing to stop anything. Councilors raised their hands in stunned defense; Chakrani screamed and covered her head. Madiha ordered the police to stand around and kettle the councilors at the table with their guns.

“Ayvartan Republican Guards Police, the kind that guard VIPs such as you, receive a form of the conditioning given to KVW agents. They are actually loyal to me above you.”

“What is the meaning of this, Major?” Shouted the old woman councilor.

Madiha’s expression was as void as those of the police. Parinita looked from side to side, scanning over the faces to see if any of them might betray a hint of emotion. She was not let in on the plan; nobody was except the KVW High Command, Kimani and Madiha.

It was their desperate last resort.

“You will act to temporarily dissolve Council, on account of a successful censure motion that will happen right now. All ordinances drafted within the past five days will be annulled and reversed. Social functions will continue to act as normal for citizens who don’t evacuate. In 15 days we will hold a special election with the Unions which you are welcome to attend, though if we’re still fighting, I’ll have it pushed back another fifteen days.”

“I can’t believe you! You disgusting thug! You’re staging a coup!” Chakrani shouted, weeping. “You destroy everything you touch! Can you perform nothing but violence?”

It took all her strength not to weep alongside Chakrani. With every word she said she wanted to break down. “A rather humble coup, I suppose. You will be all ferried out to Solstice by train directly after your vote. You can complain all you want there.”

Blue-uniformed Police stood silent with their rifles partially raised. For the next fifteen minutes Madiha and Parinita quietly oversaw the dissolution of the Council.

Executive authority was temporarily granted to Madiha, and her first act if possible would be to find a Union representative to whom she could shunt that authority toward.

Without the evacuating public finding out most of the details, the Council was escorted by the Police and fast-tracked through the lines of evacuees as a special exemption. Madiha had hardly left the Council building by the time the train had ferried all of her enemies safely out of her grasp. Flanked by the KVW-aligned police, she sat on the steps in front of the scout car, and for a moment she went wholly numb over what she had done.

In her mind she reminded herself of the mantras her therapist had told her: she was a good socialist, an honored soldier, a valuable person; she had worth, she could be happy.

Along the way everything broke down from repetition.

The mantras warped in her mind.

She was a petty dictator of a city soon to be ruins; she was a murderer and a liar; she never even got to look at Chakrani in the eyes again before the police led her out and onto a train, helplessly away from the city that she loved and the old lover she hated.

Parinita sat beside her, quiet, still a little stunned.

The Battle of Bada Aso had ingloriously begun.

21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight

Adjar Dominance City of Bada Aso

Battlegroup Ox was finally moving into the city.

Once again the streets were alive at night.

Trains kept running as people fled, but many decided to stay behind for their own reasons. Come daylight, Madiha would have to find them useful work.

While the staff was setting up according to the plans, the Major simply walked alone.

Madiha did not smoke and she never drank to get drunk. Given a brief respite from her responsibilities by the fall of night, she nearly always chose to walk as a distraction, alone, over any other potential diversion. She would stare at the landscape, and try for a brief moment to internalize the life that she saw in it, and to feel as though a part of it.

Often she committed herself to fanciful thoughts of swelling streams, eternal fields of tall, uniformly green grass, vast cities of red clay and brick and blue cobblestone, sharp and vibrant in her fantasies; and always she would try to imagine her form enmeshed within the grand tapestry. Lost in the colors, she thought she could feel closer to something genuine and alive. She would recite her mantras and try to feel good about herself, to combat that anxiety and doubt and even a surreptitious ideation of suicide.

These daydreams hardly ever lasted long. There was always something off about the landscape in reality that all too easily distinguished it from her fantasy.

And furthermore she felt too apart from the creation of some loving force. Whoever was responsible for those fields and streams and monuments, they would not want her around them. She was an alien existence, alone and apart from creation.

Even in the depths of her own mind she was not safe.

Thoughts smoldered, burning her brain.

In those moments alone, it seemed like all the worries she kept suppressed would come rushing back. Every moment of tranquility forced her to confront all of the wounds that she worked to bury under titles like Major and Battlegroup Commander.

She walked along the Umaiha river, like she used to do with a certain someone who was forever gone. It brought along painful recollections. All of her few memories seemed to hurt now. For a long time Madiha barely had reliable memories of anything.

As a teenager she felt like she was an empty goblet, and she tried to fill it, but always with the fear that there were droplets of poison leftover from another drink. People told her about events she had participated in. She was the youngest person ever to receive the commendation Hero of the Socialist Dominances and a few others.

She never wore the medals.

They meant nothing to her. All she wondered about was the identity of that person that had done those things and whether she would ever return. Certainly she was more authentic and desirable than the person standing there along the river.

For a time, living in this city, her beautiful and vibrant city, Madiha had filled the goblet. She had seen studied in a school with people she once considered friends; she had seen films and went swimming and learned to drive a car; she had taken a clerical position and worked peacefully; she had lived with someone whom she thought she loved, and consummated the relationship. She thought that she could construct a love and friendship and community so powerful it would drown out the rifles and fires going off in her head.

Little by little everything fell apart– no, not by itself, she destroyed it all, she thought.

Now the entire goblet was poison. All of her stable memories just brought her pain.

That little candle inside her was still burning, and it hurt.

It always hurt, just more or less.

“Major! Wait a moment, I’ve almost caught up!”

She heard Parinita’s voice long before she saw her, along with the cracking and grinding of a pair of treads. She turned her head to see a little over her shoulder, and found her riding desant on the back of a Goblin tank that was headed for the regional depots.

The Goblin switched its lights on and off in order to offer its own greeting to the Major.

Parinita hopped off the machine with a big grin on her face and a lot of dust and even a few bugs on her uniform. Brushing herself off, she insinuated herself into Madiha’s little walk. Somehow Madiha found it even easier to drown in her own melancholy even with the oblivious cheer of a recovered Parinita at her side, humming and strutting along.

“If it means anything to you, I think that could have all gone much worse.” She said.

“I see. So you think it was that terrible?”

“Well, by any honest metric it was. Not exactly democratic. But it was bloodless.”

“Thanks for the kind words.” Madiha ambivalently replied.

“I support you nonetheless.” Parinita said. She clapped her hands together and her tone of voice grew quite perturbed. “Anyway. Anyway! Anyway: that lady used to be your lover then? Was all that true? I was very shocked by her attitude. She was so nasty to you.”

Her gossipy chirping was a little more amusing than Madiha wanted to admit.

“It was true. I’m homosexual; we were going to marry.”

“I see.” Parinita smiled. “I can relate a bit; I’m more the type that goes both ways.”

Madiha laughed. For a moment she had thought she might experience prejudice; it was extant, still, but it was very rare. One could mostly tell who still held fondness for the last days of the Ayvartan Empire by their resistance to varying sexuality or gender.

In the distance they heard the whistling of a train leaving Bada Aso.

Between them there was nothing but silence. Much of the city had evacuated.

Those that remained had better things to do now with their time than walk outside and air their footsteps and breathing to fill in the void. Soldiers were gathering in places other than the edge of the Umaiha right now, and the occasional passing tank and half-track had a destination in mind and no time for two women walking side by side along the river.

Water, the occasional insect flying by her ear, breathing, and the small idle noises of two people with nothing to do. It was easy to cast all of this as a pure, content-less silence, because it was all devoid of human words and filled only by simple sounds.

Human words were supposed to force meanings from the brain.

Though Madiha questioned whether her own speech had any such powers.

Soon Parinita broke their silence. She stopped walking, and reached out to the Major, waving her over to the guard-rails directly overlooking the river. Standing over the water, she drew Madiha’s attention with those gentle amber eyes.

“Major, may I speak freely to you? I have a concern.”

“You weren’t until now? Then, you may, if you wish.” Madiha said.

“I am concerned about your health. Your eyes hide a deep sorrow.”

Parinita had seen her tossing and begging in her sleep, trapped in nightmares that she had only a vague imagining of. So, Madiha expected her to be curious at some point, to approach her and ask her in how many pieces she was broken, and whether she could hold.

It was not so much the content of her words that surprised Madiha, but the delivery.

Parinita met her, bluntly, with a presence that she had never mustered in any other context. She was cutting through the fog that kept them professionally distant. And yet her expression was delicate, as though she wanted to understand pain equal to Madiha’s.

Her entreaty lacked the scrutiny and flagellation Madiha felt she deserved.

All Madiha could rally in reply to those alien words was, “My eyes?”

“Window to the soul and all.” Parinita said. She crossed her arms and averted her gaze, perhaps with embarrassment. Her behavior was uncharacteristically forward and determined. As Madiha’s secretary, in a traditional setting it would be improper for her to pry. Her work was simply to prepare informational products for the Major’s benefit.

However, Madiha thought she sensed a kindness in Parinita that was too deep for the secretary to suppress. Soon their eyes met again and Parinita continued.

“Your eyes really struck me when I first saw you.” She said. “You looked so hurt. But during the battle at the border, you looked more at ease with yourself. In a fight, you feel at home; I can tell. I want to help you feel at ease – around the staff, too.”

She delivered the last part with a building embarrassment, her voice trembling before the white lie. That was obviously an excuse to hide away her true intentions.

Where did the staff fit into anything?

They had been quite absent at the beginning of the conversation. Clearly Parinita was worried about her, and she was worried about the extent of her worry and whether it was right and proper. Madiha felt touched by it all. Even her fumbling to cover herself up was very endearing in its own way. Parinita was a far kinder person than she had known.

Touching as it was, the facts were fundamentally unaltered.

Madiha was at a loss for what to say.

“I find it difficult to speak plainly about it.” She said. “Anything I say would be incomplete, Parinita. My self, my life, is very complicated and strange.”

“Then speak to me how you would usually speak. I just want to listen.” Parinita said.

At the edge of the river a silence fell between the two women for a moment. The Umaiha rushed beneath them, both physically and beneath their notice. This was the spot indeed; Madiha remembered. She had come here with Chakrani so many years ago.

Here she had lied in a caring voice, trying desperately to salvage some depth of feeling between them. Back then they had drowned out the noise of the river in their own silence, the same way that they suddenly did now. In the days after that meeting, when Chakrani’s father was condemned to execution, both of them tried to continue, they tried desperately to pick themselves up, but their relationship was too tainted at that point.

Chakrani’s hatred built every time they saw one another.

Back then, her voice, however much she spoke, could not overcome the silence.

“I can’t speak easily or plainly about this.” Madiha said. “This is the voice that I’m cursed with. I sometimes wish I could speak with a voice more genuine and full of emotion. But I’ve never been able to do that. I feel like I speak and think in the way a telegraph does. A series of clicks on a board. I’m like a machine. Keys strike in my mind and words escape, and none of it feels warm or alive. I say things but they do not come out of me.”

“That’s a very dehumanizing way to think about yourself.” Parinita said.

“Everything about me has been very dehumanizing.” Madiha said.

Her face was reflected in the water. Just like that time.

And although it attested to the fact of her existence at the moment, to the configuration of her flesh in a face that had more than once been regarded as living and well and even beautiful, all of it felt false, muddled. It felt like a plastic skin that hid some ungodly horror, a real Madiha that reflected the condition of her mind. Everything about her felt wavering and false, and she feared what might have been more genuine about her and less constructed in a bid to live. It was not just her speech, though that was an obvious part of it.

Madiha had always felt as though her very humanity seeped through her fingers.

She was helpless to keep it in her own grasp.

“My entire life has occurred outside the scope of anything which I could consider human, Parinita.” Madiha said. “I have not lived a human life. Just today I coerced my way into control of a city. At the tips of my fingers is a war machine that could ravage this entire dominance. As a child I participated in a revolution. I might have killed people as a child. I definitely did as an adult. And yet, much of it is hard to remember.”

“Well, you’re in the army, Madiha. That’s a business that needs to get done, at the moment.” Parinita replied, nervous but visibly empathizing. She put a gentle hand on Madiha’s shoulder, and they both looked down at the water again.

“I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and my recorded age was seven years old at the time of the Revolution. But how can I know that this was the truth? Years of my life have gone from my recollection: what was my origin, what happened during the Revolution and after? It’s all faded from my head. I lost years and years. I feel that I have flitted in and out of my own existence. It’s disgusting. I feel downright monstrous, Parinita.”

“Madiha, everyone struggles with memories. It’s as human as it gets.”

She remembered the dreams. People don’t have these dreams, do they? People, ordinary people, they do not get tortured to death in their own dreams. They do not wake feeling a flame burning their brains to ooze. Madiha felt a shiver, a horrifying disgust and fury at her entire existence. Was her mind so thoroughly in pieces?

Had it always been this way, or were there some happy figments in her life?

Perhaps her time with Chakrani. But she had destroyed all of that as well.

“Not in the way I do. You don’t understand how alone I am in this.” Madiha said.

She was pleading now, she even had her hands out, as though she expected to be given something that could calm her. Madiha stared, for once appearing as broken as she felt. Parinita averted her eyes and looked out to the water again. Both of them grew silent for what seemed like the hundredth time. Starting and stopping, running into walls, unable to communicate. That was Madiha’s experience with humanity.

But Parinita cut through the silence.

“Do you like films, Madiha? I love them, you know.”

Did she like films? It felt like a complete non-sequitur. Who was she talking to?

“What is this about now?” Madiha said.

“C’mon, just answer me simply, okay? Do you like films? Moving pictures?”

“I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of films.” Madiha replied with marked confusion.

Parinita beamed at her, clapping her hands together with joy.

“Good! We have that in common. I think everybody likes films. They’re very novel.”

“I suppose so?” Madiha could not help but voice it in the tone of a question.

“Would you like to get together every once in a while to talk about films? It would give us both a break from the war; and I feel it beats drinking away our sorrows like my recruiter used to suggest I do back during officer candidate school.”

Parinita patted her jovially in the back and shoulder, her body language cheerfully insisting upon an answer. Her energy and directness was refreshing to Madiha, and it imparted on her a surprising sense of relief. Just from talking to her in this way she felt a burden lift. All those psychic fires burning away Madiha’s soul began to recede.

That fury and disgust with herself, that storm that pulled her from her flesh and cast her away into the void was passing away, for the moment. Her own skin felt familiar again. She felt less wretched and more alive within herself. There was a soul in her bosom, and while it could burn and hurt and alienate her, she was rediscovering comfort, fondness.

Someone just wanted to talk to her about films. It was dumb, in a way; in a good way.

Soon the pain would return. But for the moment she felt a little restored.

Her head had been pulled out from the smoke and she could breathe without coughing.

Though her lungs may still be blackened, she had earned a respite somehow.

“I probably don’t know as much as you do. But I would be happy to.” She replied.

“Great! Have you ever seen Life Blossoms On the 17th Terminal?” Parinita said.

“Well, no, not really. I know it’s popular. I’m not fond of love stories.” Madiha said.

“But it’s so much more than a love story! It has so many charming subplots!”

Faces reflected on the river below, for over an hour that night they ceased to be Major and Chief Warrant Officer and were simply two people talking about the behavior of an eccentric train guard and the stowaways he encountered day by day.

For once Madiha felt that if she slept tonight, she would not wake haunted.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Gates of Hell

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