The Gates of Hell (9.3)

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.

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