Stoking Hell’s Fire (8.4)

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

Adjar Dominance City of Bada Aso

Battlegroup Ox was finally moving into the city.

Once again the streets were alive at night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts smoldered, burning her brain.

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

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

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

She never wore the medals.

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

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

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

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

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

It always hurt, just more or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human words were supposed to force meanings from the brain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did the staff fit into anything?

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

Touching as it was, the facts were fundamentally unaltered.

Madiha was at a loss for what to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was helpless to keep it in her own grasp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Parinita cut through the silence.

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

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

“What is this about now?” Madiha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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