Stoking Hell’s Fire (8.3)

20-AG-30, Late Afternoon

Adjar Dominance City of Bada Aso

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha’s own convoy had grown as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed.” Madiha put on an amicable face.

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

“Did something happen?”

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

Madiha raised an eyebrow. “How bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha gritted her teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dozen divisions could potentially brawl inside of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita hugged her documents close to her chest.

No one offered them a seat.

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

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

No one at the table seemed content with the information.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an instant it seemed the matter was dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another councilor spoke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha blinked. “Diplomatic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chakrani was turning red in the face.

With an opportunity to speak again, Madiha continued.

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

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

There was no other choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was their desperate last resort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Along the way everything broke down from repetition.

The mantras warped in her mind.

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

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

The Battle of Bada Aso had ingloriously begun.

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