The Gates of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of psychological distress.

21-AG-30 Early Morning

Adjar Dominance – Village of Mapele, 2da Infanteria zone.

Charging across the border the Cissean Cuerpo Azul or “blue corps” was the first Allied force to engage the Ayvartans in combat, absorbing the shrapnel from their mines and the shells spat by their cannons. Thousands of soldiers of Nocht’s client state died ingloriously to open the way into the enemy nation, starting the march to end Communism.

Supported by Nochtish armor, Azul breached the defenses, and was then relegated to silence. Both divisions in the corps, the Primera and Segunda Infanteria, had been downgraded to mobile reserve status, and were essentially given busywork and chores to do now several kilometers behind the advance as Nocht took charge of the attack.

The 1st Vorkämpfer, an elite Nochtish force of mobile Panzergrenadiers and Panzer elements, took the lead of Generalplan Suden in Adjar, claiming key cities such as Dori Dobo that the Ayvartans strangely refused to defend. Their air cover raced again and harried the Ayvartan evacuations where they could, though it was soon apparent the enemy military had largely escaped. Ayvartan rail was far more developed than they thought, and their forces counted on a large, previously unknown motor pool for support.

As the Nochtish line incrementally advanced, bombing air fields and capturing major roads, the Cisseans combed through the little villages, the backwater towns. They checked for mines, they confiscated weapons caches, inspected their new civilian subjects and claimed whatever food, tools and vehicles the fleeing Ayvartan army left behind.

Brigadier-General Gaul Von Drachen had no opinion of these maneuvers.

His soldiers found them degrading. Their morale had become quite low. They winced under the despondent, confused, wrathful gazes of the villagers and townspeople. They confessed that they felt like thieves and bandits, like lowlives; they, and Von Drachen in turn, had been relegated to the job of a security division in the rear echelon.

A picture had been painted for them of this conflict but with every brush stroke they made they failed to reproduce it. This was not their glorious battle for democracy.

Von Drachen responded to every subordinate officer the same: “You’ve come under a delusion about your role in this conflict that regrettably only you can solve.”

He did not say this with an air of malice, but a smooth, unaffected tone of voice. He did not believe he was necessarily right. Nobody was necessarily right.

Regardless of their feelings, they had orders to carry out, and they did.

Under an autumn shower, Von Drachen’s personal convoy followed a muddy road through a small village, consisting of a town hall and a few small tenements and granaries. But these were merely a backdrop for the large fields of grain, lentils and vegetables that led into the village. Everyone here worked on the farm, or supported the work of others there. Thankfully for Nocht, this small farming village had not been evacuated.

Von Drachen took in the scenery as he rode on the side-car of a motorcycle, followed by two other motor bikes mounting Norgler machine guns on their side-cars, and an Sd.Kfz B. “Squire” personnel half-track bringing up the rear, with its broad nose and long, tall armored bed, carrying over a dozen security troops and staff in its protective embrace.

This last vehicle was a prestige token: the only one of its kind among the Azul corps.

They rolled through the rural landscape, headed for the center of the town. Lined up on each side of the road were the villagers, silently watching the vehicles pass them by, while a few soldiers silently watched over them with submachine guns in hand. Von Drachen thought he would see the Ayvartans in rags, but their coats and robes, their shirts and trousers, their dresses, looked as good as anything worn in his home province of Gracia. They stood there, picturesque, soaking up rain, over a hundred sets of eyes in captivity.

Von Drachen dismounted in the middle of the village.

Dozens of his men were hard at work searching the tenements, the town hall, the granaries. Out to their trucks they carried boxes of village books for the Corps Headquarters to translate. Men with detection equipment tiptoed further uptown to check the dirt road for mines. Lightly armed gendarmes gathered any native stragglers, checked them for weapons, and sent them out to line up along the road where they could be easily watched.

Privates searched for anything that could be useful to the Corps right away, such as food for the mess company, and medicine for the hospital company.

There was one obvious problem. Though the fields had not been cleaned of all their veggies quite yet, the granaries were empty, the town hall ransacked before Azul could claim it. Garbage bins sat full to bursting with the ashes of sensitive papers.

Von Drachen walked among the men, tipping the peak of his hat to greet them.

General!” they responded in chorus. Those with their hands empty saluted physically.

Que han descubierto?” He asked them. What have you found?

An officer stepped forward. “Nada pertinente al objetivo, General.” Nothing.

Las ordenes no han cambiado. Continúen.” Your orders haven’t changed. Continue.

Von Drachen sat on the steps to the town hall.

Azul‘s busywork continued under his wandering eyes.

For a time the rain abated, but the sky was still dark and nasty.

Over the continuing labor Von Drachen soon heard the sound of an unfamiliar convoy, a mixture of trundling noisy tracks and the thumping engines of motor bikes and cars.

He looked out to the road, and first he saw dust and exhaust smoke kicked up by the advancing column. Ahead of the vehicles was a light tank, the M5 Ranger, with a short 37mm gun that seemed like it had been wedged into the horseshoe-like turret shape, and a steep glacis. This small, quick, dull gray vehicle escorted three more Squire Half-tracks, a number of motor bikes interspersed between vehicles and a long truck, followed by a more robust M4 Sentinel medium tank far in the back. Past the villagers the convoy rolled.

Inside the village proper the half-tracks and motor bikes found places to settle, while the long truck pulled up in front of the steps. Its crew wanted to greet Von Drachen.

Panzergrenadiers from the 1st Vorkämpfer’s elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division.

A procession of men in thick greatcoats and black helmets left their transports and approached Von Drachen on the steps of the town hall. He made no move to meet them.

He barely acknowledged them at all.

At the head of the Panzergrenadiers was a blond man with a round chin and slick, shiny hair. He stretched out a hand, a large grin on his high, sharp-boned cheeks. Von Drachen casually shook with him at arm’s length, and then retracted his hand and laid it on his lap in a stiff, slow motion. The officer laughed openly at his mannerisms.

“Whatever goes on in that head of yours, Von Drachen?” He asked.

“I can’t quite explain it myself.” Von Drachen easily replied.

“I’m sure you can’t. What are you doing in this grain pit, pal?”

Von Drachen was probably ten years older than the young officer, but this hardly mattered to either of them. Von Drachen’s sharp, rigid facial features slowly contorted into a small smile, and he stood up from the steps and dusted himself off.

“We have been assigned to security and cleanup. We are picking through this village.”

Von Drachen stood at least a head over the panzergrenadier officer when face to face, but if anything the young man seemed to find this detail amusing as well. He craned his head to stare at Von Drachen with a defiant, perpetually amused affect.

“I saw the folks you had lined up outside. Mighty colorful, aren’t they?” He said.

“Pigmentation naturally shades this far south.” Von Drachen replied.

Again the officer burst into laughter. He looked at Von Drachen as though he could not believe what he was hearing, with the kind of surprise reserved for a shocking comedian. He seemed to find the entire existence of Von Drachen quite hilarious.

“So, you found anything yet? They hiding some actual weapons in this dump?”

Lieutenant-General Anton Von Sturm cast looks around the village, raising his hand over his brows as if to shield them from a nonexisting sun. He made a series of noises, ooh’s and aah’s like he found himself impressed with the Azul corps at work all around him. Von Drachen’s unyielding seriousness seemed to prompt him to act out even more.

The Cissean men looked back at him quizzically, but his own men stood in attention, humorless. Whether Von Sturm’s mockery was cruel or friendly, Von Drachen could not tell. It did not altogether matter what the intention was. It was immature and emphatic and perhaps unbecoming. But it was what it was and Von Drachen would not interfere with it.

Finally Von Sturm laughed. “Lots of effort for a bit of hide ‘n seek eh?”

“I don’t expect to find anything dramatic, but we have our orders.” Von Drachen said.

“Of course, it’s still valuable work you’re doing, very commendable.”

“Quite. I believe I have another village due after this one.” Von Drachen dryly replied.

Von Sturm covered his mouth to stifle another burst of laughter.

“A credit to the war effort. But regrettably, I’m here to pull you off this crucial task.”

From his great-coat, Von Sturm produced an official assignment letter from the Oberkommando. When they had the time or impetus to print this over the past three days, Von Drachen did not know. He read the brief assignment quite diligently.

Azul was to be part of the infantry component of a two-pronged assault on the Ayvartan city (classified in their documents as a Festung or fortress) of Bada Aso.

Attached to the orders was a small preliminary map and a summary of the operation’s primary positions. After three days of attack by the Luftlotte, the 1st Vorkämpfer and the 2nd Panzercorps along with the Azul corps and the 6th Grenadier Division would target the city primarily from the south while also attacking from the southeast toward the flank of the city via the Kalu hilltops. It was a simple plan, made simpler by their superiority in arms over the Ayvartans. Encircle the city and secure the border.

Azul would be inside the city, upgraded from reserve to first line troops.

“You’re welcome, by the way. I recommended Azul for this mission.” Von Sturm said.

“I do welcome a return to active combat.” Von Drachen said.

“I’m part of the strategic committee for this operation.” Von Sturm declared.

“So you did!” Von Drachen said. “I must admit I am surprised.”

Von Sturm raised a hand to Von Drachen’s shoulder and patted.

“Prove your commitment to the fatherland, Von Drachen. You Cisseans should stand proudly among the forces bringing democracy and progress to this place. But remember: nobody else gave you that chance but me. In return, I hope I will have your support.”

Von Drachen smiled again. This time almost as wide as Von Sturm.

His eyes narrowed, and his cheeks spread as far as they would go.

From his lips, came a sonorous, morbid laugh like a demon’s howling. Democracy and pride! Politics in the middle of war!  Oh, the boy had jokes!  Von Drachen laughed until he was hoarse, and the panzergrenadiers watched him as if he were about to leap at them.

“I admit it,” Von Drachen said through his fit, “you’ve got some good material!”

Von Sturm was no longer amused. He turned quickly around with a parting, “Just get moving.” He and his entourage returned to their characteristic half-tracks and disappeared down the road. Overhead, under the treacherously darkening sky, Von Drachen saw the planes of the Luftlotte on maneuvers, swooping over the villages spoiling for a fight.

He gave it perhaps a week until the city of Bada Aso was reduced to rubble, over which they could leisurely drive. Not because of democracy or honor or anything of the sort but simply mathematics, as Von Drachen knew them at the time. He was careful though not to be too certain nor too invested in these actions. He had a different set of goals than most of the Nochtish commanders, so he should not succumb to certainty.

21-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Over the past few days Bada Aso had seen exemplary weather, but on the 21st the clouds began to pack together across the sky and created an intermittent darkness. The Military Weather Service predicted a strong chance of rain on the 23rd and up. Parinita had heard Madiha wishing for rain to fall sooner, since any such disturbance would affect Nocht’s mobility and in particular the Luftlotte’s readiness in the air.

Despite Madiha’s wishes however, the rains had yet to visit ruin upon them.

Past the dawn the rays of the sun came and went at the whims of a gray sky, but there was still light coming into the office, and no pitter-patter yet on the glass. Parinita looked out the window to her new office, and released a long, deep, contented yawn. One shaking hand kept her pen hovering off her desk to prevent her writing unwanted lines. Her office overlooked an empty children’s playground, squeezed between two other buildings.

No children tumbled down the slides or climbed the bars.

They were either evacuated or with their families.

Parinita shook her head, trying to clear a cold fog that was settling over her mind, and she tried to regain her bearings. Table of Organization, right; she recalled that she was finishing a summary for the Major. She snatched the topmost folder from a nearby stack.

Labeled “Battlegroup Aviation,” it contained documentation about the air fields in the Adjar dominance: the planes kept there, state of readiness, and the number of trained crews and crews undergoing training, among dozens of other important facts. She flipped through the pages, yawning every once in a while, until she found where she had left off. She transcribed a number of things from the folder to series of templates on her desk.

This was her job; putting the final touches on Information Product for the Major.

Though she had another job, one self-imposed, it was much harder to explain rationally.

She returned the folder to the stack, and found another that was in need of transcribing. This one was a mess of gathered data on the Disposition of Armored and Motorized Forces. Her head began to ache as she looked through the data.

Several facts did not add up across her sources.

There was some mathematical game playing out before her eyes, where vehicles had been assigned overlapping categories like “cosmetic damage,” “extensive repair” and “needs replacement” all at once, resulting in confusion over the real disposition of many units. Though it was the duty of her staff to find ways to reconcile these kinds of problems, they had been rushed and stressed over the past few days. It was inevitable.

Sighing with frustration, Parinita reached out over the stacks of documents and folders populating her desk, and took the rotary dial phone there and pulled it up over all the mess. She rolled the numbers on the dial and pressed the handset to her face.

A young man picked up. There was a bit of commotion behind him. “Yes ma’am?”

“Bhishma, come up here and help me reconcile the auto-workers union archives with the data we collected from the engineers in Tiffils. One or the other is either wrong or trying to embellish the numbers. Put aside whatever you’re doing right now.”

There was acknowledgement over the line, and Parinita hung up, and waited.

As Staff Secretary, Parinita oversaw many professionals at work.

She controlled a Headquarters Company in the Army hierarchy.

Her company counted on a Signals crew who could be consulted on communication equipment and methods; Operations staff who helped to plan maneuvers (in this case the defense of the city); Administrative staff who gathered information from after-action reports and informed the staff at large of readiness and efficacy, as well as overseeing training and equipping of troops; Logistics officers of utmost importance, who tracked the flow of supply and the sustainability of operations; Intelligence specialists who compiled reports on the movements of the enemy, relying on data from scouts, and on various forms of surveillance; and even a Meteorologist who was in contact with the Weather Service and ready to advice the Army on the natural elements for or against their operations.

Bhishma worked in Administration, gathering much of the troubled vehicle data.

A few minutes after the call, Bhishma and his three aides joined her, pulling up children’s desks around Parinita’s grand wooden desk and looking over the data one more time. He was nervous at first, and shied away from eye contact; but Parinita was gregarious and easy-going and managed to diffuse the tension and get everyone working calmly.

She made sure that nobody was stuck thinking that it was their fault and dispelled any notion that punishment might ensue. Every problem had a solution, however belabored.

Working together they broke down their data back to its sources, isolated errors and made several more phone calls inside and outside the city to confirm and update their information. There was much shouting over the lines, back and forth, especially with the divisional maintenance crews that had been in charge of the materiel under Gowon, and were clearly unhappy with this level of scrutiny being brought upon them.

Thankfully, the staff was used to working over the lines.

Over the past two days they had been forced to gather data like this, talking with logistics and maintenance crews, with administration officials, with union managers, all of it over the radio, in the middle of evacuations, working out of the back of Madiha’s trucks. To do the same but in a comfortable office was child’s play in comparison.

Finally they were able to work out a much more accurate account of what Battlegroup Ox actually had to work with. Parinita wrote “793/217/490” next to Goblin tanks, for operational / undergoing repair / mechanical losses on her Table of Equipment and Organization. Similar but much smaller numbers arose for the Orc tanks. Spare parts availability for the Sharabha half-tracked truck was squared out. Fuel consumption and fuel availability for the diesel-engine tanks was determined.

In about an hour and spare change they had mostly fixed the data.

Parinita thanked Bhishma and his aides, and humbly they bowed their heads before they hurried out of the office and back to their original posts to continue their work.

Much of the morning was spent the same way.

Parinita looked over the work of her colleagues, cross-referencing sources and summarizing the information to produce Madiha’s Table of Organization and Equipment. Parinita was one woman, head of a staff, and a lot of the work on the document had been delegated. Much the same as she supported Madiha, who was just one woman and could never research and consume all of this data alone, her own staff gathered information to support her. Her logistics personnel, her administration personnel, her operational personnel; their disparate handwriting traded places across all these documents.

They worked relentlessly. She was supposed to have a staff of 70 to 100 people in war-time, including personal aides; there was no time to recruit more hands, so she made do with 30 people, and she was forced put in a lot of overtime work herself.

She started two days ago; now the table neared completion. After going through a stack of papers and figuring out a glaring discrepancy in the terms being used to refer to the formations documented therein, she put down three radar “units” each consisting, sadly, of only a single truck, into the ToOE. This detail completed the regional structure for the forces defending Bada Aso. Parinita had finished the product on time.

Parinita pulled up the papers and stared at them, half in a daze, numbers and figures still dancing in her head. This was her contribution to the war.

While her comrades prepared to die, she counted, and she wrote.

Sometimes it felt pathetic; but it was also all she could do.

And she wanted, desperately, to help.

She picked up the phone again and dialed the communications staff.

“We’ve got a Table ready to disseminate.”

“Yes ma’am, I will send someone to collect it. We’re still working on the printer.”

“No problem. Give my congratulations and thanks to everybody.”

She hung up the phone, and some childish part of her wanted to toss all of the documents, to throw them into the air like confetti, to kick down all the stacks and roll around in them like fallen leaves. But she couldn’t; this all had to go to Archives.

Instead she settled for knocking the phone off her desk with a mischievous giggle.

Promptly there was a knock on the door.

An expressionless KVW guard entered the room and saluted her.

Parinita stood up from behind the desk, feeling a cracking sensation in her back and knees as she moved. Cheerful and with a mind still bouncy and high with a sense of accomplishment, she approached him and exchanged pleasantries – a strange event when it came to dealing with the deadpan KVW, whom she had trouble reading.

Hujambo Gange, what’s new since I last left the comms office?” She said jokingly.

Hujambo. I am here to collect some documents.” Gange said.

His tone of voice was terse and dry though not in a rude way; KVW people had a knack for sounding both apathetic and courteous. Parinita handed him the documents, which he carried in his open arms as though he were a human library rack.

“Also: a shower-head was installed in the second floor bathroom.” Gange said.

Parinita smiled. “Ah, thanks Gange! Now I can freshen up!”

She clapped her hands happily.

Gange bowed his head deferentially, turned on his feet, and left.

Parinita was not far behind him.

She picked up the phone, tidied the desk a bit, and went on her own way.

The newly-formed Battlegroup Ox Headquarters Company had chosen to establish themselves in a four-story rectangular school building looming over a fork in the road toward the north-center of the city. The building’s forward-facing windows gave the occupiers a sight-line several kilometers to the south, east and north.

It was perfect not just for an HQ, but to defend the main street.

All of the front offices bristled with machine guns and even a few 45mm anti-tank guns painstakingly pushed up the stairs. Soldiers worked in the forward-facing rooms, piling sandbags around window frames and walls to provide additional protection against machine gun and anti-tank fire. An 82mm mortar had also been set up on the roof.

Lovingly, many of the workers referred to the place as “Madiha’s House” though the commander had not yet caught on to the nickname. Parinita had given the order to “decorate Madiha’s house to the best of their ability” last night, and it had stuck since then.

Defensive emplacements in front provided obvious targets to assaulting enemy forces, so the headquarters staff worked out of the back. Overnight, dozens of people gave up sleep in order to prepare the space for the interminable hours of work that would surely follow.

Staff members and troops relocated piles of office supplies, heavy old file cabinets, typewriters and radios to the classrooms. They combed the building for anything useful and dragged it toward the back. Parinita mostly cheered on those stronger than her.

Ultimately she had gotten about three hours of sleep in a stretcher she had pilfered from the school’s clinic, while her writing desk was taken from downstairs and pushed up.

Thankfully, Parinita had done enough work to not feel completely worthless.

Having, in her mind, earned a good shower and a little more rest, Parinita took a flight of stairs down from the third to the second floor, where she heard a bit of a racket. She found a few members of her staff struggled to push a printing press the size of a large office desk into one of the classrooms. Once used to reproduce educational materials, they could now put it to work printing military literature. They had found it in one of the front offices, and had spent the better part of the night and morning relocating it to a safe place.

Parinita congratulated them on their progress so far and left them to their devices, squeezing past them, around the corner and into the adjoining hall with the bathroom.

Outside of it she found a rather moist-looking Madiha sitting on the floor.

She was fully dressed but only half-awake.

Hujambo!” Parinita said.

Hujambo,” Madiha half-heartedly replied, “I apologize for my current state.”

“Things finally caught up to you, huh?” Parinita said. “You should’ve slept.”

Madiha breathed in deep. “I went under the hot water and now I feel terribly sleepy.”

“Tut tut. You’ve got a busy day today, Major, you can’t just sleep in.” Parinita said, gently and cheerfully ribbing Madiha. “We have to meet Kimani at the rail yard, and inspect the anti-air defenses and the port. I can’t do that alone you know!”

“As of late I have come to regret much.” Madiha said, half through a long yawn.

Parinita beamed and patted her on the shoulder. “Take a little nap, I won’t tell anyone.”

There was a sense of relief, seeing Madiha this way.

Her eyes were in good condition. Parinita could not see the flames behind her eyes. They came and they went from the Major, working in ways no one knew. Thankfully they were dull now and Parinita did not need to worry. She could leave the commander there and know that she would not soon burn in her own flame as those old legends said.

Such thoughts were alien at first; now they flowed naturally with her new, strange task.

Past her commander, Parinita entered the bathroom and found the installation of the shower had been as barbaric as she had imagined. They had battered the sink off the wall and left it in a corner, and attached an extension to the water pipe that led up to an ordinary faucet. Sighing heavily, Parinita closed the door behind herself, undressed, and stood under the rushing water for a few minutes, scrubbing herself with hard bar of soap.

She understood how Madiha felt after a while.

Hot water pounding her head and back, steam rising all around; it was soporific.

When next she opened the door, she too was half asleep and barely through dressing herself. Gently she laid next to her commander, and they nodded off together.

21-AG-30 Noon

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

When Parinita first joined the army she was barely an adult, yet she could hardly read or write. To the callous Empire the education of the lower class was an afterthought; to the bold revolutionary in the civil war, the education of the lower class was an abstract thing that should first and foremost serve the revolution; when the socialists picked things up afterwards, they had a lot of ground to cover. Parinita was seven years old when she first spoke, and ten years old when she learned to read. Her early childhood had been chaotic.

Never had she been a prodigy, or outstanding in any way. To her, the military’s slogans appealed: “First and foremost a comrade; first and foremost in service of socialism.” It was noble and dignified in a way her life had never been until she joined.

It’s not like she had anything else to turn to for a future.

After graduating and earning her rank, Parinita had always worked diligently and put in the required effort to complete her tasks. There was a sense of tedium sometimes, but it came with casual purpose that motivated her to continue.

On some level she enjoyed the work she did. But there was a new sensation, now both terrifying and powerful, that she felt while walking astride Major Nakar across Bada Aso, a doomed city standing ominously still before a rising tide of flames. She brimmed with a strange, new purpose that made her old reality feel unreal.

She remembered the cackling words of her grandmother: you will see those eyes burning her alive, and like me you will be a witness to history. Was it on some level just inevitable that time would pass and slowly Madiha would die in front of her eyes?

Thankfully her days were distracting enough to keep those thoughts away.

Outside a car had been prepared for them. After their impromptu nap, a refreshed Major Nakar (she preferred just Madiha, but propriety made demands) bid farewell to the headquarters and ushered Parinita outside with her to conduct the long business ahead of them. First they drove out toward the airport in the northeastern district of the city.

For once, traffic was a little stiff; KVW Police from the city had been posted at key roads to direct the hundreds of trucks, tanks, tractors, bikes, horses and other vehicles on the asphalt. Everyone was in a hurry, and everyone’s tasks were important. Madiha waited patiently behind the convoys that, by her words, had been organized and put to work.

While they waited they went over the day’s business. Kimani and the evacuation; the Revenant, a large vessel in the port that Admiral Qote had given them command over; Anti-Air defenses organizing across the city; and the radar units in the airport.

“Each of these ‘radar units’ is actually a truck, according to this report?” Madiha asked.

Parinita nodded. “Well, the truck’s not alone. There are eight folks working inside.”

“So that’s why it was labeled a ‘unit’ I suppose. I had hoped we had more equipment.”

“Radar is a very new technology, I’m afraid.” Parinita said. “Those three trucks are it.”

“At least we have some means of detection. Better than staring skyward for days.”

Parinita stared at the sky. Any second now she could have heard a plane swooping.

“They’ll be hitting us soon, won’t they?” She said, in an idle, ponderous tone.

“We will interrogate that once we have the equipment available to do so.”

“Yeah. That’s right. We’ll be ready for them, I’m sure of it.” Parinita said.

She said this as much for herself as for Madiha. She needed to hear it. She only wished it had not been herself who said it. Coming from her it was less encouraging by an order of magnitude. There was no power in her that could sway these events.

They endured the traffic and worked their way further north. Soon the roads widened enough that they were free from the two-lane clog and could drive more leisurely. Bada Aso Air Base was outside the thickly urbanized areas in the center, northeast and south of the city. Nearer to the coast, the terrain became comparatively open.

Once a place of old capitalist villas with wide acreage, broad greens and a commanding view of the ocean, it had been enclosed just a bit when the opulent villas were demolished and the housing, factories, and social infrastructure went up to support a population of equal comrades. But the blocks were much less dense, and there was still grass and loose, natural dirt straddling the road and street. One could still get that commanding view of the ocean, but only by climbing a rooftop, or driving past the district and into the bay proper.

“Parinita,” Madiha began, while keeping her eyes on the road.

She let the statement hang.

“Yes?” Parinita said, smiling and friendly.

“I wanted to thank you for the work you’ve done. All the reorganization I desired demanded a lot from you and your staff. I did not ask you to undergo these tribulations lightly, and I could not provide you any aid. Your efforts have been splendid.”

Parinita was surprised to receive thanks.

She smiled and she held back a fit of giggling from Madiha’s long, discursive way of speaking. She couldn’t have just said a ‘thank you’ or a ‘congratulations’! Though the Major had claimed her words sounded unnatural and inhuman, Parinita did not think she had ever heard someone in the military speak in a more genuine fashion than Madiha. It was a quirk, a bit of her nature that war had done nothing to change. It was like a window to her heart. She had to revise just how much different Madiha was than other officers.

“Thank you! I am happy to help my comrades in the ways that I can.” Parinita replied.

“To each according to his ability.” Madiha said. She was smiling, too. How rare! “I am glad to have you. Doubtful that I will find the time to properly address each member, so I must also ask you to please relay to the general staff my congratulations as well.”

“I will! They will be happy to hear it. All the raw data came from them.” Parinita said.

Madiha nodded. “There will be Honors awarded as well, if we survive the ordeal.”

They rolled right over this grim reminder in their conversation, their spirits temporarily too high for it to affect them. This spectre of death was too weak to spear their hearts at that moment. After this they would all survive and they would all definitely buy themselves something nice from the restricted goods store with their Honors, war be damned!

Both of them even shared a little laugh about it as they drove.

Parinita was already planning what to do with her prize. Surely there was a good camera she could buy, whether it be a film or photo camera, whatever was available.

“I have not an inkling of what I would want to buy.” Madiha said.

“How about nice clothes? Are you a fluffy dress or a fancy suit sort of woman?”

“I believe I am a military uniform kind of woman.” Madiha awkwardly replied.

Parinita rubbed shoulders with her. “So you have an excuse to try them both on!”

Both of them were soon laughing like small girls.

It had become a rather pleasant drive.

Bada Aso Air Base was itself a monumental site compared to the confines of much of the city. The base was surrounded by high fences and barbed wire and its runways spanned almost a kilometer in length. There were four wide parallel runways, and several buildings, including the main control office for the base. A high capacity runway and several hangars and warehouses would have made it a perfect host for 10,000-plus kilogram transport and passenger aircraft, but there were no large guests in sight during Madiha and Parinita’s visit.

Solstice was still much more used to conducting its heavy transport using its large rail network, and its fleet of 300 or so cargo planes was contributing little to the operation.

In fact there were few planes on-hand in general. Madiha had ordered most of the small craft to evacuate further north and quickly reestablish themselves, away from potential Luftlotte assault, but close enough to respond in time to a threat on the city.

As they drove to the back of the airport they saw a skeleton screw on the runways, performing maintenance on a squadron of Anka biplanes that had been left in the base. These planes were going on seven years old now. They boasted a gulled wooden upper wing and a flat lower wing, with a body of mixed steel and duralumin. A skilled pilot could make them sing, but Parinita knew they were relics compared to Nochtish planes.

Crew on the runway stopped to wave at their car. Madiha and Parinita waved back.

There was a smaller hangar straddling the back wall where a group of people had been waiting for them. Madiha parked the car just outside the location and stepped out, and they were greeted by a handsome young man with dark brown skin who was dressed quite sharply in a suit and a tie, and had gelled his dark hair back sleek and shiny.

He addressed them from his wheelchair, and there was another young man following behind him, a colleague gently pushing the chair wherever needed. Behind the two of them a group of aides opened the hangar and drove out to the runway a long truck with a sizeable aerial projecting from the roof over its bed. The aerial was several meters tall.

“Thank you for visiting us, Major,” said the young man, shaking Madiha’s hand, “I am Chief Technology Officer Parambrahma. This is my colleague Narayam. And behind us is the ARG-2 or Argala. We are ready to demonstrate its operation.”

Madiha bowed her head, a little lower than normal due to the difference in height.

“Thank you for having me Officer Parambrahma, Narayam.” Madiha replied. Perhaps a little too humbly for the commander of an army, but that was not a bad thing, Parinita thought. “Is this vehicle our radar unit? Could you describe its function?”


Narayam pushed Officer Parambrahma closer to the truck, and Madiha and Parinita followed them. An aide opened the back of the truck, which was built like a chamber moreso than a standard cargo bed, enclosed with walls and ceiling and a door.

From inside the truck a ramp was pushed out, so that the vehicle became accessible to the C.T.O’s wheelchair, and together the posse climbed into the back of the vehicle. It was dim inside, and would be very dark indeed had the back door been shut and the ramp closed.

Visibility was provided almost exclusively by the lights on various consoles, and especially by an array of cathode ray tube screens that projected green color that, upon closer inspection, seemed to form a long scale, with lines superimposed on the screen that gave it a scale. Parinita examined the screens, and found the scale was in kilometers.

“Here is where the science of radar becomes something coherent to human eyes.” Parambrahma said. “Essentially, this truck will send out a wave, and then wait for that wave to bounce back to it, and here we can draw some crucial information.”

Narayam happily pushed the C.T.O closer to the CRT screens, and Parambrahma tapped on one to demonstrate, “On this screen, the presence of an object in the sky will be indicated by a blip on the screen, and we can determine its distance from us using the scale printed on the console. Thus we can be alerted to the presence of incoming aircraft.”

“Interesting,” Madiha said, “So from how far away can we detect incoming aircraft?”

“Depending on the target’s altitude, around 100 kilometers. Continuous detection and true distance is a little unreliable right now, unfortunately. So while it cannot act as a guide for gunnery quite yet, I believe it can provide an invaluable service to the city nonetheless.”

Madiha nodded. It was not perfect, but it was better than she expected nonetheless.

“A hundred kilometers should be more than enough to give us an effective early warning.” She said. “We can scramble aircraft in response with that lead. You have three units of ARG-2s, correct? Do you have the crew to operate them all at once?”

Narayam spoke up then. “We have enough crew, but only one C.T.O.” He said sadly.

“That’s fine.” Madiha replied. “I require two of the units in the southern districts, and one near Ganesha Arithmetic and Reading College. C.T.O Parambrahma can supervise them via radio from the Battlegroup HQ in the school. I’ll give him the equipment.”

“I can try.” Parambrahma said. “However, if something goes awry at a station

“We shall live with that.” Madiha interrupted. She tipped her head toward Parinita. “Ask Chief Warrant Officer Maharani for a copy of our operational plans, and organize your units to provide as much range along the south, around the coast, and over the Kalu.”

“Will do.” Parambrahma said. “You sure get to business quickly, Major. It took months of my time to convince your predecessor that Radar even worked as I purported it did. You on the other hand accept it immediately. I was wondering if you would have liked a demonstration of the system; we have an Anka ready around here somewhere.”

Parinita thought a test seemed sensible enough, but Madiha shook her head in response.

“You seem like a bright young man, C.T.O. I will put my faith in you.”

“I hope, if the system succeeds, we shall have your backing for future resources?”

Parambrahma had a big grin on his face, and Narayam seemed cheerful as well.

“For whatever my opinion is worth, if your system contributes to our survival, I shall support you.” Madiha replied. Parinita wondered how people interpreted the current political situation; Madiha’s word might not be worth anything in the near future.

In fact it might soon be worth a negative amount should the Civil Council decide to act out against her for the takeover of the city. Whether or not this was running through anyone’s minds in the room but her own, Parinita did not know. Madiha quickly returned them to the business at hand. “Right now though, I must ask you to set aside future ambition and focus on giving me as much coverage of the Dominance map as you can.” She said.

“Of course. I work within the military structure exclusively. I’ve developed many theories for the deployment of the ARG-2 in military combat. I can assure you that Nocht will not enter our skies without our knowledge once the ARG-2s are operational.”

Madiha nodded. Parinita could only hope Nocht was not flying overhead right then. If a bomb fell, she thought perhaps she would leap atop Madiha, and try to protect her from the blast. That was all she thought she could do. Perhaps Madiha would even live.

21-AG-30 Afternoon

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Once their business at the airport concluded, the next stop for the Commander and her secretary was the main rail yard in the northeast district, where trains came and went.

Kimani should be waiting for them there.

Yesterday Madiha had selected her to oversee the deployment of Ox in Lt. Purana’s place, and in tandem, to oversee the evacuation. After the councilors were shipped off, Kimani had been absorbed in this work and spent much of her time in the rail station.

Madiha knew Kimani wanted no part in the battlegroup command. At first she thought the reasons had been political, despite her saying otherwise. It was difficult to believe that she could consider Madiha more qualified for this task. Clearly it would have been outrageous for the inspector to take over herself, so she left a reliable old friend, Madiha, to take the reins symbolically. That emphatic support must have been meant to help Madiha cope with the political realities of the situation. However it was more and more borne out that Kimani truly believed what she said at the border and that Madiha had misread her intentions. Politics or not, Kimani was leaving full command of Ox to her, without strings.

Though she did not understand the decision, Madiha had no real choice in it.

Rails stretching from the east, north and south converged on Yhana station’s multiple platforms, feeding Bada Aso materials bound for factories and for the port, and taking from the city large amounts of fish and industrial goods from its factories.

Most of those factories were shipping out in pieces when Madiha arrived.

Vast and entirely open to the air, the station was incredibly busy.

Hundreds of workers loaded trains with tools and machines stripped from evacuated factories, and unloaded materiel that had been evacuated to the city from across the Dominance. Soon as Madiha parked the car she saw a train depart loaded with half-built trucks from the auto factory; and another train arriving full of tanks.

“Madiha, what are those? I’ve never seen that tank pattern before.” Parinita asked.

“It’s a Hobgoblin, they’re a new type commissioned by the KVW.” Madiha replied, staring at the train. She was puzzled. Who brought them here? “The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles had a small battalion of them as support, but I was not expecting to see any more.”

“Inspector Kimani is meeting us here, so I assume she must have gotten them for us.”

They approached the military cargo train, and took a closer look at the cars.

It was quite a long train, and loaded with over forty of the tanks.

They were far more impressive that the boxy Orcs or the small and outdated Goblins.

Colored a dull, fresh-out-of-the-factory green, the Hobgoblins had thicker armor in the front than either of the two common tank patterns, boasting a sloped glacis and a new turret, mounted closer to the front of the tank and composed of slanted armor plates with a tough, bulging gun mantlet. This tank could withstand much more punishment than the barely-armored Goblins. Armed with a medium-barreled 76mm gun, it boasted firepower unlike any other piece of Ayvartan armor. It mounted two Krodha machine guns as well, one on the front of the vehicle and one coaxial to the 76mm gun, to round out its impressive armament. Like the Orc, this was a medium tank, but it was much more effective in the role, being faster, better armored, and state of the art. There was not a tank like it.

Parinita whistled, admiring the new tanks. “To think we have a weapon like this.”

“Without the Civil Council behind it, production has been limited.” Madiha explained.

“Why don’t they support it? It seems far better than the Goblins.”

“Demilitarization; it’s a KVW project, so they see it as pointless and wasteful.”

Madiha crossed the length of the platform, and found an additional three cars at the back of the train, carrying five tanks that she did not recognize at all.

These were significantly larger than the Hobgoblins, with boxier riveted turrets that ended in a large, blunt counterweight. While the weaponry was similar, the tracks were longer, with eight, larger road wheels rather than the seven smaller ones on a Hobgoblin. If a Hobgoblin was a medium tank, certainly this model was a Heavy tank. Madiha guessed it must have weighed several more tonnes than a Hobgoblin, and a Hobgoblin already weighed 26 tonnes! Parinita knocked on the armor with her knuckles, in awe of its size.

“I take it you know as much about this one as I do.” Parinita said.

“I have never seen anything of its kind.” Madiha said.

They stepped off the platform and approached some of the laborers. From the glowing rings around their eyes Madiha recognized them as KVW agents. They quickly pointed out the next platform, where the automobile factory equipment was being loaded onto a train.

There Madiha found Kimani, signing off on the transport manifest and watching the work of both trains carry on. Tanks started to be crewed and unloaded little by little using ramps and heavy platform cranes. Kimani thought nothing of Madiha’s presence until she exhausted other things to pay attention, and then she greeted her apathetically.

“Afternoon, Major. How stand things? Have you visited the air defenses or the port?”

“What are those tanks, Kimani? Those larger ones?” Madiha demanded.

Changing the topic did not appear to faze Kimani. She responded to the questions as though the conversation had flowed naturally from her greeting. “A pick-me-up from Solstice. They’re a new Heavy tank pattern, called the Ogre. Fresh off factories in Jaati.”

Growing irritated, Madiha pressed her. “Why do we have them here?”

“I assume they will be firing at other tanks.” Kimani casually said.

“That’s not what I mean.” Madiha said. “I don’t appreciate you being coy.”

“I apologize if this upsets you, Major.” Kimani said. “I hesitate to mention that the 5th KVW Mechanized is joining us soon as well. I desire to command them in the defense of the Kalu to protect your flank. I hope that is not a problem. The KVW is simply gathering allies and materiel to support your plans. Nobody means for this to undermine you.”

Parinita raised her hands in sudden distress.

“Now my table of organization has to be redone!” She shouted. She sounded like she was about to cry. Kimani and Madiha both stared at her, and she started to sob.

Madiha could see that Kimani was trying to protect her. And on some level, she wanted protection, but not in the way Kimani wanted to provide it. She wanted her here, in the city. Close enough to advise Madiha should she lose her way. Not in the hills running a delaying action within a delaying action, losing materiel so Madiha would have more time to lose her own share of materiel. A kettle boiled over inside Madiha, a mix of emotions confused and strong that burned at her heart and brain. Her stress seemed to suddenly multiply.

She didn’t feel ready for this responsibility. She could carry out all the tasks that came with it, but when she tried to lift the entire edifice her spine shuddered from the weight.

Her brain was running away with her. Madiha felt a burning sensation in her skull.

She tried to stomach it all and continue, as she seemed to be doing with terrible frequency these days. Feeling anxious shivers just under her skin, she pushed forward with her original agenda, mustering as firm and emotionless a voice as she felt she had.

She had visited the rail yard to quickly assess the evacuation.

“I put you in charge of overseeing the evacuation here, so I hope you would complete that work before leaving. So, with that in mind, tell me: how proceeds the evacuation?” Madiha said. “Are we moving at a good pace? Could we do any better?”

“We are making as much progress as we are able to.” Kimani said. “Militarily speaking there are a few stragglers, maybe two or three Companies worth that simply haven’t made it back. I believe air patrols might have gotten them. Where materiel and civilian evacuations are concerned, we have about 80% of our vehicles accounted for, and our supplies have been distributed along the city and are hidden underground or in caches to hopefully survive bombing. It also appears that our rail capacity is at its limits. Already the councilors that we evacuated yesterday are marooned in the Tambwe Dominance with thousands of other refugees for the next week or so, because we need the lines clear for industrial evacuation toward and beyond Solstice. Tambwe is the major chokepoint for traffic right now. No matter what we do here, Ayvarta as a whole cannot do any better.”

Madiha felt a pang of guilt for Chakrani. “I assume the council will be provided for.”

“Obviously they won’t starve; whether they’ll have nice offices is another story.”

“So it is out of our hands to move the evacuation any faster?” Madiha asked.

“Committing more resources is untenable. Let the unions handle it from here.”

Delegating sounded good. It was a bit less weight on Madiha’s shoulders.

“Speaking of, is the Port Worker’s Union willing to become city authority?” She said.

“I’m afraid the union has voted to evacuate. You are still in charge.” Kimani said.

Madiha sighed. “Find me another union. I don’t desire to rule this city any longer.”

Kimani’s expression turned to the closest thing to a smile that Madiha had ever seen on her. Kimani stared at her, directly into her eyes, and laid hands on her shoulders as though preparing to pull her into an embrace that she knew would not be returned. Madiha did not understand the expression. Was this some kind of a joke to her?

Was she condescending to Madiha? It didn’t make sense.

“You’ll deal with the responsibility well. I’m sure of it, Major. May I return to work?”

Stunned, incapable of reading the situation any longer, Madiha simply nodded her head, knowing that she would make no headway talking to the Inspector any more.

Kimani, with that unfamiliar expression, turned on her heels and crossed the tracks to supervise the unloading of the tanks. Her stride and stature was unshaken by the conversation. She walked tall and confident as ever, as though it was any other day.

Madiha wanted to scream at her. Do you or do you not want to protect me? Do you or you do not care about me? But she had that common sensation that the words coming from her mouth would be different and worse. So she let it all go. There was no point.

Behind her, Parinita sulked at the prospect of having to produce another entirely new Table of Organization and Equipment to accommodate the new equipment.

“You do not have to incorporate them.” Madiha said.

Parinita perked up at once hearing those words.

Putting her mind off the disastrous spiral of thoughts that threatened to consume it, Madiha returned to the car and drove herself and Parinita around the designated air defense zones in the city. She had been meaning to make an appearance at a few of them. Though their coordination was out of her hands, she had given overall guidelines and felt it would help the troops to see her actively involved in their training and readiness.

It was a simple plan, largely because air defense with their equipment would not have benefited from a genius sleight. Barrage balloons had begun going up over precious areas of the city, dragging steel cables that would make the air around them a hazardous terrain for craft, but there were not enough of them to make a world of difference. Madiha ordered the balloons they had to be raised over important monuments and buildings.

Guns still made up the bulk of the air defense.

In parks, on rooftops, along large intersections and broad thoroughfares, they had established searchlights and anti-aircraft posts. Powerful 85mm guns would put in the bulk of the anti-bomber work, with their delayed-action explosives and higher combat ceiling. To cover for their slower rate of fire, each team of three 85mm guns partnered with two 57mm guns and some 37mm guns. These smaller guns would engage lower altitude targets.

All of these guns were relatively new and technically sound, but unproven. Ayvarta’s cities had never needed to fend off a sustained aerial attack, and like their Infantry and Armored formations, their Anti-Aircraft Batteries had seen no real combat.

Compounding these problems was the fact that all of their positions were completely fixed in the grand scheme of things. Their only mobile anti-aircraft defense was a platoon of trucks armed with quad-mount machine guns on their open beds. Operated by two soldiers, these were nothing more than four Krodha heavy machine guns firing 7.62x54mm rounds, stuck together on a mount and mechanically tethered so they would all fire at once. It was unwieldy and the round had poor impact and range compared to real AA guns.

While there had been some suggestions with regards to mounting a real AA gun on a tank turret, nothing had been done about it. At best she could hitch her heavy guns to trucks and drag them between positions, but this took so long that changes to the defensive plan could not be feasibly made in the middle of an air battle. In desperation she could also bolt a gun to the bed of a truck, but this feat of engineering was sloppy and unsound.

Her plan called for the guns to be dispersed to cover as much of the air as possible.

Inevitably, as some sectors faced stronger air presence than others, these would be forced to engage disproportionately larger amounts of aircraft. Perhaps her strange powers could support those forced to carry that burden, when the time to do so came.

In the northern district, a large urban park had been quickly taken over by an anti-air battery. Here Lt. Bogana oversaw deployment of a battery of three 85mm guns, five 57mm and three 37mm guns, each with a crew of four to six people to load, traverse, fire and an additional, relatively more experienced gun commander who would handle communication and complex sighting. Together they would cover a whole neighborhood from air attack.

Bogana had survived the battle along the border with Cissea several days ago, where Madiha had relied on him to command guns holding a hilltop along the border against an armored assault. He had met her expectations then, and she had elevated him to the role of battlegroup artillery commander and gun crew trainer, a demanding task.

He was pleased with her visit. When he saw her car driving up the multi-purpose path along the center of the park, Bogana had everyone stand in attention.

“Greetings, Major!” He said. “The 6th Ox Anti-Air Battery is at your disposal!”

Behind him the men and women (some closer to boys and girls) saluted at once.

“Thank you!” Madiha replied. “I am pleased with your dedication and discipline, comrades. While I speak with your commanding officer, please ready your guns for a fire exercise. I hope to impart some of my own knowledge to you this day.”

Parinita had a clipboard in her hand and seemed to be pretending that she was busy.

“Hear that comrades? Bring out the air targets and the launcher!” Bogana called out.

Everyone seemed excited, especially the younger soldiers. They looked as though they had been biting their nails waiting for a chance to get behind their guns. They quickly scrambled to their positions and prepared themselves, while Bogana’s aides crewed a small aircraft catapult from the back of a nearby truck. This launcher would deploy small wooden planes, launching them one at a time straight into the air to serve as the “fast moving” targets for practice. Kites were gathered as well to represent “slow moving” targets.

From afar it probably looked like a hobbyist gathering in the middle of the park: flying kites, tossing gliders, having fun. Though perhaps the cannons ruined the imagery.

There was a lot of energy in the air, and Madiha was glad for it.

Even Parinita found something to do.

She produced a stopwatch and had begun “gathering data.”

At first Madiha knew precious little in detail about crewing an anti-air gun, but the moment she laid hands on one of the guns she knew that she would not fail to employ it correctly. Ever since she was a child, that was one thing that never flitted out of her memory, one thing she could hold on to and know for certain. She would pick up a weapon and never fail to employ it. In visiting the battery, she hoped to test those out of body experiences of hers with multiple people and more complex gunnery, as well as play the good commander.

Instruction was a good cover: she figured if she used her ability in the future, soldiers would not be so keen to suspect the rapid improvement in their aim if they had previously received training. They would believe they had improved organically.

While the gun crews prepared, Lt. Bogana beckoned Madiha aside.

“Great to see you here major. Lt. Purana and I have been spreading the word about you, and how you took command in the border, and I think it will do our comrades good to see their commander walking among them in these uncertain times.”

“Your support is invaluable.” Madiha said. “How are the troops holding up?”

“Most of them know up from down, at least, and they’re keeping busy enough. I’ve heard a couple words of discontent, but I sorted them out right quick. I think most people just don’t know what makes a good commander these days. We barely ever got see or hear a word from Gowon, but when we most needed it, you were right there. Folks around here might silently doubt you, but the people at the border, we know, Major.”

Madiha wondered what exactly she did that was so revolutionary.

At the border she gave simple instructions that basically any commander should have known. Lt. Purana had gathered much of the gun line on his own. When she took command she barked orders that should have been instinctual. Fire at the enemy, hold the line, hit the sides of tanks, organize artillery and fight back; what part of this made her a good commander? She was not about to give herself undue credit for that.

Of course she could not doubt herself in front of the troops, so she graciously accepted every compliment Lt. Bogana wanted to throw her way. However she could not help but wonder if it was her strange power that influenced them. Perhaps her only genius was being born some kind of monster, and not anything learned or practiced.

Perhaps it was nothing that she could be proud of.

She knew so little about what was happening to her.

Never had she been so uncertain about everything.

“Thank you.” She said. “Keep the troops focused Lieutenant, but please do not be harsh to those who disagree with me. I can understand their point of view. I have already taken actions and made decisions that I know I will regret, and be made to regret further.”

“Well, it’s not as if I am swatting their heads. But it’s important they respect you.”

“Avoid pushing the subject too far. I hope to win them over in time.” Madiha said.

“I understand.” Lt. Bogana said. “I’m sure it will happen once the cheese starts frying.”

Madiha feigned a little laughter at his metaphor.

Parinita, meanwhile, laughed raucously.

Soon the demonstration was ready. First the crews fired at large kites and balloons, hitched on tough cables and thrown into the strong wind around Bada Aso. They were raised to different altitudes, some several kilometers high. Crates of practice ammunition with low amounts of explosive were cracked open and the rounds distributed among the crews. They would explode, but less violently than real ammunition.

When enough targets had gone up, and enough ammo around, Madiha blew a whistle to order the crews to begin firing. At once the battery lit up the sky – for a very restrained definition of ‘lit up.’ It was not a terribly impressive showing.

Crew performance was extremely homogenous against the relatively stationary kites and balloons: the inexperienced crews encountered similar problems when loading and firing the smaller 37mm as they did loading the larger 57mm and 85mm.

As such none of the guns covered each other; furthermore Madiha found them all aiming at the same targets and altitudes. She saw tracers fly quite sloppily overhead.

“Comrades, do not aim directly at the targets!” Madiha shouted in a firm but well-meaning voice during the exercise. She had noticed all of the crews traversing their guns and trying to aim directly for the stationary targets. It was a very bad habit to pick up, as it would lead them to waste time trying to score direct hits as if they were shooting at a tank with AP rounds. “In a real combat situation you would be firing high explosives! It is fine to ‘miss’ because the fragmentation will harm the target on a close ‘miss’. Shoot near your target, lead into it. Furthermore, 37mm guns should aim at the lowest altitude targets, while the 85mm guns should focus on the highest altitude targets. Let me show you!”

Madiha rushed toward one of the guns and placed herself among the crews.

When she closed in on a 37mm gun, the second her fingers brushed the metal she was already adept with it. All of the information came to her immediately. She picked up a shell, loaded it, traversed the gun with the help of the crew, and she opened fire. She “missed” one of the low-flying kites, but the small fireworks pop from the gun struck it. From the 37mm she hopped to an 85mm and repeated the process. Within moments everyone in the park was clamoring for the commander to help them with their own gunnery.

Her insights were limited, she thought, and this was all basic stuff.

But everyone was impressed.

“Let us pass on the kites,” Madiha called out to Lieutenant Bogana, “Launch the moving targets, and load some real ammunition this time. They need to see the effect their real rounds will have. I think that will do far better to prepare them.”

Lt. Bogana grinned. “You’re in for a treat, troops.” He called out.

The target truck drove out of the park and out into the street, towing a cart full of extra planes. An aide pushed a wheeled table with several radio consoles out into the field.

Bogana took one of the consoles, and from it he could control the little planes sent out from the catapult, via radio-remote-control, a relatively new technology that had found little military use save for target practice. He seemed quite enthused.

From what Parinita told her about the little targets, Madiha understood why live fire exercises on moving targets such as these were not often performed under Gowon’s leadership. Certainly it seemed wasteful to destroy these clever little machines using live ammunition. But the experience would be invaluable for the crews. It had to be done.

Honking the truck’s horn, the aides signaled to the crews their intention to launch.

They raised the catapult ramp and launched the first plane into the sky.

Lt. Bogana twisted knobs and pulled on sticks on the console, causing the plane to zip around in the air. It was small compared to real piloted plane; about the size of a human being, and also slower than a real plane. Its maneuverability was similar, however.

Madiha joined a 57mm crew and waited for the plane to fly up two or three kilometers. Still visible against the gray sky, but a challenging target due to its size, at the limits of her vision. Bogana banked and dove the craft the way a real plane would attempt, and the crews were mesmerized by the speed of their new target compared to the ones before.

Again with the help of the crew Madiha lead her aim onto the target.

The 57mm made a loud snapping sound when it fired.

Overhead there was a large explosion and a cloud of smoke.

Pieces of the little plane fell over the field a few kilometers away, shredded by fragments. Soldiers began to clap and cheer for her, clamoring for another go.

She felt quite uncomfortable with the accolades.

Soon more planes started to go up, and more consoles brought out to control them, more staff to coordinate the exercise, and Madiha stepped aside. She had given the crews enough instruction. Standing back from the guns, she and Parinita watched the crews open fire. Dozens of shells went up in the air, many overflying their target and exploding uselessly, many more undershooting, and several exploding meters away from effective range. Madiha tried to recall the people she had briefly met while going from gun to gun.

Names like Private Adebe and Sergeant Rutva. Names and ranks, letter by letter, she concentrated her mind on them. It became easier to lose herself in each name now that she knew the trick to it, and her ghostly exported self flitted from person to person with new alacrity: but the impossible task now was seeing through their eyes.

She felt as though lying down near the ocean, her body pushed and pulled with the invisible rhythm of the tides. But it was not the moist, cold embrace of water but fire that swept over her, somehow exerting strength and heat over her mind and body.

Her consciousness projected outside again. She had “switched on” her strange power.

At the border she knew she had seen through the eyes of Private Adesh Gurunath, she had been directly inside of his mind. Now however she was like a ghost, haunting bodies but unable to emphatically connect with them. Her point of view floated over and around people but could not tap into their essence, could not fully immerse herself in them.

Over the shoulder of a certain Private Panchala she looked up at the plane, and the tendrils sweeping forth from her pushed his hands, guiding him gently so that he traversed the gun just enough, so that he helped just enough to load a round faster, so that the crew could fire – and then hit. Everybody celebrated, congratulating the crew that scored the hit. Madiha felt the explosion rattle her brains. Her phantom body both became incredibly heavy and immobile, while also turning fluid and incoherent. It was distressing.

Her vision swam, and she got the sudden, sick sensation of seeing her body from outside it. Yet her body was also seeing, and it saw the projection, like a wraith of smoke, like the outline of a body cast by the only light in a dark room. She felt disoriented.

It was her and it wasn’t. It looked at her, and she looked at herself.

This was the monster inside her; was it becoming easier to control it?

Or was the pain worsening?

Forced back into her flesh, Madiha staggered back, covering her nose and mouth with her hands. She thought she would bleed or vomit. She felt her eyes and head burning and her stomach and chest retching and shuddering as if sucking something down.

Parinita caught her. She had nearly fallen over from the pain and disorientation.

“Whoa! Major, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“I’m feeling a touch dizzy.” Madiha lied. “It might be smoke from the shells.”

Parinita withdrew a handkerchief from her jacket and handed it to Madiha.

“We might want to get going then.” Parinita said. “We have to go to the port also, remember? And you should talk to a medic too, I think, if you’re still feeling unwell later. All the stress and lack of sleep might be catching up to you, Major.”

“A few minutes more. I will be fine.” Madiha said.

She stood again, and she heard Bogana’s voice warp and waver as he shouted to continue the exercise. Madiha felt nauseous and weak as she tried to lose herself again, to separate that avatar of her power from her flesh. When her perspective ripped from her body and took flight again it was weak and blurry, its eyesight terribly diminished.

She reached out to the nearest familiar gun crew, and she tried to touch all of them at once with her tendrils, but to no avail. Helplessly Madiha watched her mental appendages dissipate in front of her, and she found herself propelled again into her body.

As though struck by a cannonball she fell back into Parinita once more, who gasped loudly as she caught her weak, limp-limbed commander for the second time.

Lt. Bogana noticed the commander’s collapse, as did many of the soldiers, and he shouted for the gun crews to keep focused on the sky. Handing his remote control console to a staff member he rushed to the Major’s side and snapped his fingers near her.

“Commander, can you hear me? We have a clinic not far from here, are you unwell?”

Madiha’s mind was swimming. She could hardly see in front of her face, and could barely hear voices speaking to her. Vaguely conscious of her surroundings, she mustered the presence to shake her head and say, “I have been working too hard, that is all.”

She would not leave abruptly. She stood again, on legs that keen observers saw lightly shaking under the weight of her upright body. Unsupervised, the troops had managed to knock down the test planes on their own after going through many explosive rounds.

Lt. Bogana called them to attention again, and Madiha congratulated them, and reassured them that they were prepared to face the enemy. She told them to pass on what they had learned to all of their comrades and to become good officers themselves in the future. Parinita stood close as the Major spoke, in case her hands were needed. Soldiers clapped for the Major, though on many faces there was clear concern for their leader.

21-AG-30 Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

“Madiha, are you sure you want to do this? I think we should go back and rest.” Parinita said. Her stuttering had grown pronounced, and she was practically shouting every word as though it would be her last. She was driving now, was constantly correcting and overcorrecting on the steering wheel, shifting the scout car to the wrong gears, and she could only turn corners by braking to a snail’s pace and accelerating into them little by little.

Madiha would not have been surprised if this was her very first time driving a vehicle outside of basic instruction. Nonetheless she had insisted in driving, and insisted that Madiha keep her head tipped back against the seat, with a wet, warm cloth over her forehead. They ate peanuts, strips of flatbread and dry, roasted chickpeas out of a box, and it seemed to Madiha that more of the food flew from the box than was actually eaten.

“Madiha, I asked if you were sure–”

“I’m becoming gradually certain that I do not want you to drive.” Madiha replied.

Parinita blinked hard and took her eyes off the road. “Oh, wow; I can’t believe I’d hear a sarcastic joke from you of all people! I meant if you wanted to go the port or not! Now it’s my turn to tell to you not to be coy and to consider my words, Madiha!”

“I was not being sarcastic! Please, Parinita, park the car and surrender the wheel!”

“No! You need to rest. If we’re going to the port, you need to be fresh and relaxed.”

No sooner had Parinita completed the sentence that both of them jumped from their seats as the scout car took a sudden bump in the road very roughly. Parinita hit the steering wheel with her chest, and Madiha’s head snapped forward and back against the seat.

Had the road defect been any worse they might have been completely ejected from the car! It had no canopy and the windshield was not of great quality.

Still, Parinita refused to cede the wheel to Madiha.

She drove them out to the waterfront, stopping and starting and swerving side to side whenever she sped up, going over every bang and bump. She had navigated using a map of the city and took several wrong paths. They were further south than they were meant to, atop the stone ramparts overlooking the low, sandy beaches of the Ayvarta’s western coast.

Embarrassed but determined, Parinita switched gears needlessly and drove them up the coastline for forty-five minutes. Gradually the beach receded, and the water rose. From quite afar they spied the port along the large artificial harbor, a projection composed of thousands of tons of concrete straddling the old stone ramparts on the coast.

Building it had been quite a project, and the Empire did not fully complete it before falling. The Socialist Dominance of Solstice, however, had quickly finished the job after the Revolution, and for a time had very busy trade with the outside world.

Almost no commercial vessels occupied the harbor now. Many had fled.

In their place there was one very visible heavy cruiser, the Revenant.

Almost 200 meters across, the Revenant had a long thick hull, ungainly but reliable and heavily armed. A main turret containing two 300mm guns was supported by six 37mm guns organized in three pairs that acted as an anti-air defense, and six 100mm dual-purpose guns organized in pairs for both air and surface combat, as well as several machine guns.

Bristling with weapons, packed with sailors ready to fight, it was one of the proudest ships of the Ayvartan navy, more effective perhaps than even its capital ships.

Parinita whistled again, the same as she did seeing the tanks.

Madiha was not planning on keeping this gift.

“Are you feeling hot, Madiha?” Parinita asked out of the blue.

“No, I am not.” Madiha replied. “I am room temperature, I suppose.”

“Alright, good. I think your condition is bettering then.”

“I already told you it was. I’m driving on the way back.”

They parked along the water and Parinita offered to help Madiha walk to the ship, but the help was not necessary. Madiha had recovered fully from her bitter failure to reengage her powers. Though overwhelming at first, the pain and confusion was shorter-lived than she imagined. As soon as they pulled away from Lt. Bogana’s air defense zone Madiha recovered her senses. She hesitated to say that she was becoming more used to employing her eerie, nameless gift, but she nursed that secret hope. Parts of her hated and feared this power and what it meant; but her pragmatic side believed that if she could channel it and use it sparingly and without discovery, she might inflict brutal damage on Nocht.

But that was not the plan, not right now. It could not be. It was simply too uncertain.

Madiha led the way up the steps to the bow of the ship, where five marines, the captain, and her executive officer. Captain-At-Sea Monashir was a younger woman than Madiha would have thought would be in command of such a vessel.

She was dressed sharply in her full uniform, with her hair in a bun and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. Madiha and Parinita looked disheveled in front of her.

“Good evening, Major.”

Evening it was. Madiha had scarcely taken notice of the growing darkness. She was running out of time and simply could not muster much eloquence anymore. She was exhausted and had a heavy heart and mind. She made her case quickly.

“Evening, Captain. I’m afraid I haven’t much time. But I must insist that you depart.”

“We’ve just barely arrived, Major.” Captain Monashir explained.

“Then it will be that much easier for you to depart anew.” Madiha continued. “Our air defenses cannot protect the Revenant from a sustained bombing by the Luftlotte. I must request that you leave for the ports in Tambwe, and return in two weeks time with any naval resources that the Admiral can spare. Right now it is too dangerous for you remain.”

Captain Monashir shook her head. “Do you know if you will control the port by then?”

“You can smash it back into our grasp if necessary.” Madiha said.

Parinita handed the Captain a copy of the operational plan as well as the now slightly inaccurate Table of Organization. Captain Monashir glanced at them before handing them to her XO and crossing her arms. She sighed a little bit.

“Admiral Qote ordered me to follow your orders, and I shall. I will attempt to remain in radio contact with your office as much as I can, but I cannot promise anything at sea. I hope you understand what you are doing, Major.” The Captain said.

She had reason to be wary. She was not with the army, and not at the border; she was not one of those few people with a glowing view of Madiha. She had every right to be skeptical and she exercised those rights. Clearly this was what people outside the situation thought. Madiha was unprepared and foolish and making poor decisions.

“Godspeed, Captain.” Madiha said. She and Parinita departed the heavy cruiser.

21-AG-30 Late Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

The Major was burning again. Whenever they were together, the burning was less terrible to behold, but the fire behind her eyes was so bad now that blood was seeping from the sockets. Could nobody see this but Parinita? Could nobody help her?

While Madiha spoke with the Captain, Parinita had tried her best to do what she learned from her grandmother’s superstitions. Surreptitiously she blew on the flame, she swiped away the flame. Why was this something only she could do?

In a panic all those questions seemed to flood her again. She could not let Madiha know about the burning; it was too crazy, too horrible. But it all bore out; the burning was really getting worse all this time. Madiha might go up in flames.

But her labors seemed to bear results. By the time Captain Monashir had accepted her orders, Madiha’s eyes had returned to their dull, sorrowful old facet. Parinita breathed a sigh of relief, and tried to ask if she felt hot. There was no response.

Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since they arrived at the port before they were off the ship again. Standing over the edge of the pier they watched the Revenant prepare again to sail into the darkness. An hour passed, and the ship was off with the last hints of the sun.

Slowly becoming a sliver of lights playing about the moonlit surface of the sea, the ship’s departure was a strange sight on which to hang up another day.

Madiha looked exhausted.

They climbed into the scout car and then started the drive back, but Madiha soon stopped again and parked along the ramparts overlooking the sea.

She stepped out of the car and leaned on the edge barriers.

Parinita joined her.

She did not ask when they were going to return to the headquarters. She knew that Madiha needed a little break, and that it had been a heavy day, and given no combat had occurred, heavier days yet awaited them. After a long quiet period she decided to speak up.

Perhaps it was time again for a film night!

Anything to try to distract the both of them from their situation.

“Is it fine if I call you Madiha?” Parinita said. “While we’re away from work.”

“I don’t mind. You’ve been doing so all this time.” Madiha said.

“True. Just making sure!” Parinita replied. “So, what was the first film you saw?”

Madiha stared at her for a moment, but then she smiled and complied.

“I cannot remember the name. I was about five or six years old at the time. One day the nuns at the orphanage took us to see it as a treat for some holiday. It was a very tedious religious film, even worse because it was silent, so I nodded off a lot.”

“Ah, yes, talkies didn’t exist back then. We’ve only had talkies for ten years or so now.”

“As a teen and adult I watched films mostly on dates or out with friends.” Madiha said.

Parinita nodded. She took a deep breath and she laughed a little telling the long story of her first film. It was something she had rehearsed a little in her own mind.

“When I was a kid I went to the theater multiple times a week. I practically lived out of the theater. My grandmother took care of me while my mother was out, and she thought I was tedious to look after, so she would send me to the theater with money to ‘get looked after.’ And nobody at the theater really cared who watched what films.”

She took a little breath, all of the sights flashing in her mind. She continued. “So I always watched grown-up pictures and not the kiddie shows. My first was a silent slapstick movie from Nocht, Well-Mannered Mr. Krauss. Mr. Krauss was clumsy and he hurt himself a lot. He fell down pits and got hit by doors and he tripped and smashed into a cart full of cabbages. At the time I laughed. I feel bad about it now that I’m a clumsy adult.”

Madiha looked surprised and elated with her. She seemed on the verge of laughter, but just controlled enough to appear merely fond of the anecdote. “You have an incredible memory.” She said, holding her hand up to her mouth for a fraction of a second.

“For remembering slapstick movies, maybe.” Parinita laughed.

“I would probably laugh at some simple slapstick. I don’t like deep comedies much; especially social comedies. They make me cringe when I watch them.”

“Ah, so something like The Wedding of Dr. Franz would not please you?”

Madiha smiled. “I have actually watched that, and no, it did not please me.”

“I knew you had to have seen it. It has been extremely popular these past few years. Even aired dubbed on the television in Solstice and Bada Aso and a few other cities that have television service. It’s seen extremely wide distribution for such a fool’s film.”

“I must say I despise those kinds of films. I hate humiliation and social comedy.”

“I agree! Slapstick is cruel, but you can write slapstick so other people aren’t to blame.”

“Perhaps that’s what it is. I lack an explanation for my preference. I simply feel discomforted by humiliating situations. I can’t laugh at them at all.”

“On the other hand though, slapstick has more violence. You can draw blood in slapstick. So when you watch a slapstick flick, if it gets too intense, like when they try to incorporate guns going off, it can make you a little sad too. So I don’t know if it’s better.”

Madiha laughed nervously. “Talking with you makes me feel that I am the type of person who pushes aside introspection too much. I’ve never really thought about this.”

“Oh, well, don’t worry about it. I think we all do that a lot. Especially in times like this, we need to push through the bad brains and focus on the job at hand don’t we? But when it comes to films, I’m always thinking on what I got out of watching.”

In truth Parinita simply channeled her own runaway mind into a hobby, so that the spectacle of film would drown out her innermost insecurities when work could not be called upon to do so. She supposed Madiha did the same but she either channeled them into work, or when work was not available, she allowed them to devour her. At least now Parinita could occupy her with silly things about film and waste both of their time.

And it gave her an opportunity to try to dull the flames otherwise gnawing at Madiha from within. She could see it behind her eyes, like in her grandmother’s stories.

When she first saw those eyes she felt a sense of urgency.

To her grandmother these stories had been so important; more important than Parinita herself. They had been her grandmother’s life. But now, what could Parinita even do? How could she save Madiha? She hadn’t even known Madiha at all when she first saw those burning, sorrowful eyes. Did she even know her at all right now? One thing she knew was that her presence seemed to dull the flames. Grandmother had been incredibly cryptic and cruel, and her stories full of poison, but Parinita was too kind. She could not write off Madiha’s fate as some superstition, and the more she partnered with the Major the more that felt driven to do something about her condition, to support her however she could.

The burning was not as intense now, but a tiny flame was nursed again in Madiha.

Parinita reached out while Madiha was fixated on the moon shining in the water. She grabbed some of the flame. She smothered it in her hands. Parinita could do this too. At all costs she could not allow Madiha to burn up like that. It was too horrible a fate. If only she had paid more attention to those wicked old stories; she would know more of what to do.

Quickly, she changed the subject to gossip that Madiha could contribute to.

“I was wondering, how do you know Inspector Kimani? Not to sound untoward, Madiha, but you two seem to have more than a working relationship, to me.”

“She was one of the first people I ever really knew.” Madiha said. “I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and then on the streets. Such a situation precludes truly knowing anyone; other people are enigmas one must beware. Kimani was the closest thing I had to an acquaintance or friend; everyone else was a guardian or a mentor, or gone.”

“I suspected it was something like that based on how you talked to each other. In Gowon’s office everyone had to be really stiff to each other. You cultivate a lot of familiarity around yourself. Not that I mind. I like being able to talk to my boss.”

Madiha stared at her for a moment as though unsure of how she should feel about this.

“Well, if you are comfortable with it, then that is fine with me. I don’t really try to do anything untoward or casual with my command. It is merely that I have no opinion of how I am addressed.” Madiha said. “My rank has never really meant anything, as I was always subordinate to Kimani. I was staff to her in the same way that you are staff to me. I still have that kind of relationship to most soldiers I suppose.”

“You don’t have to explain it! It’s nice, that’s all. So how did you meet Kimani?”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to sigh and to attempt to construct a narrative.

“We were working together during the revolution. I was a courier, when I was seven years old or so. She was one of the many people to whom I brought letters. One of the revolutionaries. We had our own code; certain people wrote letters in it that contained organizational plans, sabotage, intrigues, and so on. I delivered letters to many people. Each of them had their own predilections that I would come to discover. Kimani was much more concerned for my well-being than the others. We would sit and talk, and she would teach me things. She would give me changes of clothes and food. Other people just took my letters and looked the other way as I struggled out in the world.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad you had someone like that. Kind of like an older sister to you?”

“I can’t really say. I never had siblings or parents. Kimani was just Kimani to me.”

“Well, if it means anything, she sounds like a better parent than mine! My mom would have looked the other way. She might have even thought I was a nuisance to take care of. Heck, sometimes she even pretended I wasn’t her child. So hey, you dodged a bullet!”

All those words had come out so easily. They were bitter and didn’t hurt anymore. Parinita had gotten too used to the taste of that vinegar. Others would have been shocked, but Madiha, whose life had been so irregular, did not seem to understand their magnitude. Her eyes were still cast on the water off the coast. Sorrowful and unchanging, hiding that fearsome, eroding fire. She was a strange woman. Her grandmother had never made it clear what kind of person the Warlord could even turn out to be in any given era.

Parinita thought it would have been a man, like a knight.

Or nobility, like the former Emperor.

Instead it was Madiha, gazing sorrowfully at the sky and water as though trying to find something buried in the dark, something that fire in her eyes could not illuminate. Slowly burning, dying, with no knowledge of what was really happening.

“I like to think that I have progressed past the life of that child,” Madiha said, presumably referring to herself. “But I don’t really know a lot about her life so in turn I can’t really know if I’ve changed. I was told I was very precocious during the revolution.”

“People don’t change a whole lot, I don’t think. You probably weren’t that different!”

“Perhaps they don’t and perhaps I wasn’t. It simply gnaws at me not to know.”

“Well, maybe life just doesn’t work that way for anyone. Maybe time is just nonsense outside of a film story.” Parinita said, guiding them haphazardly back into Film Night, and away from that minefield of personal anguish. “In films everything is all neat and tidy and happens in a line. People get stronger, they learn new things; it’s really dramatic, isn’t it? People in real life don’t experience things like that, and that’s okay! Unlike in the films we have more than the sixty or ninety minutes to make up for problems along the way.”

“Perhaps.” Madiha said. Her eyes smoldered again. Sorrowful, burning; slowly dying.

“We’re limited.” Parinita said sadly. “But we can still change the course of things!”

“I suppose so.”

“Your plan, for example. I’m confident we will give Nocht a good whacking!”

From the look on the Major’s face this was not a happy topic. She had seen Madiha concoct the plan in the back of their half-track, bitterly and tentatively, agonizing over it. In the end it appeared that she had accepted the plan, and everyone in the staff agreed. To them it was just words on paper, positions on a map, an order of battle, a route of supply. These were things pinned to a board that they had to make reality, they were abstract.

You could put your faith in abstractions, like you could with the plots of fantastic films.

To Madiha though, the defense of the city was probably a lot more real. Parinita realized her insensitivity then and her gregarious, cheerful nature was muted for a moment.

“I would not be so quick to throw your hopes behind Operation Hellfire.” Madiha finally said, in a dull, detached voice. “It is brutal and bloody, heinous, wasteful. I never thought the first operation I would command would be a defense in depth. There are times where I wish I could die in place of all the people who will be thrown against Nocht; and not just in this operation but in the coming months. I feel weak, Parinita.”

“Don’t say that Madiha! You are very important! As important as any rifleman!”

“They sacrifice blood and flesh, while I hide behind them. I am unimportant.”

“Then what about me?” She asked clumsily. “How important is someone like me?”

Parinita shocked herself with the response, and how easily she had said it, and Madiha was shocked even more. Her eyes drew wide and her expression bore a note of horror. It was a Madiha unlike any she had ever seen looking back at her. She was turning pale. Those simple words had invoked something terrible in her mind.

“I am so sorry.” Madiha said. “Forgive me. I was a fool. In no way did I mean–”

“Nah, it’s okay!” Parinita hastily said and patted her shoulder. “It’s okay!”

Her eyes did not burn any harder despite the clear anguish building in her face. So it was not hardship that made them burn. Thank the Spirits for that. Had it been, Parinita thought to herself that she might have killed the Major on this night.

Both of them pretended to move forward from that, but Parinita knew that neither of them would think of anything but that painful exchange until morning. They returned to headquarters after hours of staring at the water and sky, finishing their trail ration along the way. Departing the scout car they exchanged awkward goodnight wishes and went their separate ways. Parinita felt very stupid lying on her stretcher in the office, covered in a medical blanket, feeling cold and weeping lightly about everything.

She knew she had cost Madiha a night’s worth of sleep and she felt grotesque for it. She had said something haunting. It was something that had haunted her for very long and now she had set it on Madiha atop all of her other problems. She bit the flesh on the side of her thumb in frustration, and managed very little sleep herself.

22-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Rail Yard

Rail traffic showed no signs of slowing down the following morning. Several new trains passed through Bada Aso, including a very long train carrying numerous tanks and half-tracks for the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. This train was immediately ordered to ship out to the middle of the Kalu and deploy its cargo there. Thirty minutes later a passenger train carrying the infantry component of the 5th Mechanized arrived as well, and Kimani was about to set foot through its door when a car pulled up behind the platform.

Madiha Nakar quickly exited the vehicle and climbed the platform, breathing heavily. Dark bags had developed under her eyes, but they were hard to see due to her brown skin. She had at least taken the time to comb her hair. But clearly she was upset.

“Chinedu, at least have the heart to wait a moment for me to properly see you off!”

Kimani turned to her. Her face was inexpressive. “Apologies. I didn’t expect this.”

“I suppose I should have other priorities; but you cannot blame me for this.”

“I would not do that.” Kimani said. “But it is very pernicious for you to prioritize me.”

“I understand you’ve lost feelings for me; but I can’t lose them for you. I just can’t.”

“I have not lost all feeling. Only some. Everyone in the KVW still has feeling.”

Madiha balled up her hands into fists and avoided eye contact. She felt like a child.

“I understand why you’re leaving.” She said. “I’m not small. I can’t hide behind you.”

“That is part of it, yes. But you are wrong: I am not leaving you, Madiha.”

Madiha shook her head. Her voice started to crack. “You know what I mean!”

“No. I am not, in any way that you imagine, leaving you. I will never leave you.”

Madiha scarcely allowed her to finish speaking.

She threw herself at Kimani, wrapping her arms tight behind the woman’s back and throwing her head into her chest. She was weeping, and she did not want Kimani to see it, even if the heard the sobs, even if she felt the quivering. She did not want Kimani to see the tears. Kimani in turn wrapped her own arms around Madiha, and brushed her hair like a mother would to her child. She felt Kimani’s chin and nose against her head and she wondered whether the Inspector was weeping too. She never confirmed it.

“I only wish I could have been a real protector to you. Perhaps I will yet make that up.” Kimani said. “All I have done is wrong you. Perhaps I will make amends for everything that has happened. Please understand Madiha; I’m trying to make things right.”

They stood on that platform for close to fifteen minutes.

It was hard to let go. It was near impossible to watch the train depart.

She never even saw Kimani’s face as the train separated them. Madiha was not sure that she left the station any better or worse than she entered it. She was hollowed out, and she was not done crying. She knew there would be many more tears to come. She knew none of this was definitive. None of this was a forging experience. But she left it, and she breathed, and her heart thrashed. Time passed. She still stood upon the earth.

There was a burning inside her, and a monster yawning to life.

She was not ready, but not yet gone. Her heart was faltering, but not broken.

22-AG-30 ????????

Adler 1, reporting in.”

Adler 2, reporting in.”

Reports came in. All Adlers reported. Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

Frequencies toggled.

Falke 8, let’s show them the Blitz part of the Blitzkrieg huh fellas?”

Falke 9, just shut up and fly Falke 8 for Messiah’s sake.”

“Falke 10 just quietly following the luftgruppe.

“Affirmative luftgruppe, all of Falkegruppe is ready. Milans, report.”

Milan 3, going steady, ready to dive on target on mark.”

One by one the calls came in and were logged by flight command.

All Call-Signs reported in. Dozens of planes in groups making up hundreds of planes.

Quick Archer monoplanes speeding forward with their cannons ready to shed blood. Thicker, slower, more heavily armed Warlock dive-bombers and ground-attack craft followed, waiting to take their precise bites out of buildings and armor. Wizard bombers lumbered somewhere far overhead, bearing their apocalyptic payloads of hundreds of heavy bombs that would not spare the innocent from the guilty. The Luftlotte was bringing its force to bear. Flight command cheered that they had the planes to darken a clear sky, and they had a dark sky already. Soon the Battle for Bada Aso would begin in earnest.

“We are approaching our attack vectors. City is in sight, over.”

“Roger. Give them commies some hell for us, boys.”

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Maw of Hell

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