The Maw Of Hell (10.4)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central

For the first few blocks it appeared they might have a peaceful drive to Nyota Hill.

Would the heavy rain remain the only obstacle to their journey?

Unfortunately this was a notion they were quickly disabused of.

Driving the scout car, Sergeant Agni led the small convoy of anti-aircraft vehicles south on the main thoroughfare for a few kilometers, while Parinita watched the sky with an aircraft observer’s scope that she had to wipe down every few moments.

Profiting from her dedication she alerted them to the presence of enemy craft.

Standing behind the Khroda heavy machine gun, Madiha followed Parinita’s directions and spotted the Archer fighter planes, now acting as ground strafing aircraft and circling the sector in search of new prey. Madiha elevated the gun and began to follow them.

“Unless aircraft rocket technology has grown by leaps and bounds in a year, we should be able to avoid their ordnance. It is those machine guns that we must be wary of. Sergeant Agni, they will fire in long, tight lanes, and you will have to strafe around them to survive.”


Sgt. Agni sped up and switched gears, and expertly took the next corner, losing almost no speed from it; her driving certainly eclipsed Parinita’s, and she was likely a better driver than Madiha herself. Her eyes were locked on the road and nothing seemed to distract her.

At times it was as though the car drove itself perfectly without her input.

Confident in Agni’s ability, Madiha shifted her attention skyward again.

On a stationary position, the Khroda heavy machine gun, a relic in use by the Ayvartan army since 2000 D.C.E was rated at a maximum range of 4 kilometers and an effective range of 2.2 kilometers. Its rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute. On a moving vehicle, spirits only knew how accurate it was; of course, these were considerations for different eyes than Madiha’s. Kimani always told her: she could hit anything if she aimed.

“We’re coming up on them! They’re banking this way!” Parinita shouted.

Madiha caught a glimpse of the five planes speeding suddenly above the convoy.

One city block away the squadron split and the separate aircraft turned sharply in the sky, doubling back to run their lanes along the convoy’s path. They moved so freely that even Madiha found it difficult to keep up with them in the darkening skies.

Old roads limited the convoy cars to ungainly, predictable sidestepping, while the Archer planes could almost double over their own paths, banking and turning, diving and climbing, with very few obstacles in the way of their movement. There was only one consideration for them: because of the disparity between flying altitude and the convoy on the ground, the Archers would have to take shallow dives in order to shoot at them.

Like any attack on the ground it would happen across a series of dives and climbs, and against moving targets in an urban arena the lanes they could run were even more limited. Most of the planes were flying perpendicular to the road and circling around.

Above the convoy the formation broke. Enemies banked, twisted and doubled back.

“Open fire!” Madiha shouted, raising her hand and opening her palm.

From behind the scout car the anti-aircraft trucks began shooting, saturating the sky with machine gun bullets. Little came from it; the Archers maintained altitude, perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters in the air, and the cutting streams of fire seemed to almost intentionally miss the craft, so naturally did they fly away from danger.

Sheer volume seemed to do almost nothing against them.

Avoiding their fire the planes circled around the convoy, three lining up behind them, maneuvering themselves parallel to the road, and two others flying in eccentric patterns.

“Ahead, Agni, one of them is going to cut us off!” Madiha shouted.

Sgt. Agni veered sharply and cut their speed.

One of the circling Archers flew across and blasted the road ahead with its cannons, leaving behind a line of small holes before flying away. They would have been within its lane had they not slowed when they did. Free to move again Agni sped back to full speed as quickly as she could and drove over the lacerations on the road with ease.

Three planes behind them accelerated into their own shallow dives, quickly overtaking them, and opened fire with their Norglers, a modern equivalent to the Ayvartan Khroda. A stream of bullets chased the convoy and perforated the ground around them.

Madiha heard a loud, wet cry and found the windshield of the one of the trucks behind her splashed with blood. The truck veered violently, toppled over on the leftmost street and was no more, riddled with bullet holes and leaking oil, its crew butchered where they sat.

Overhead she heard a loud cracking and fizzing noise.

Rockets launched from under the wings of the craft, crashing around the scout car and kicking up columns dust and smoke and concrete, but Agni veered away from the volley and managed to avoid every potential hit. All of the ordnance was 30 kg rockets, too small to rely on indirect hits. While the car rumbled from the explosions they hardly lost speed or control, Agni was far too tight in her driving to be thrown off by the blasts.

Madiha hid behind her gun shield and waited.

Less then fifty meters overhead the planes leveled out and started to climb. She finally had a bead on them. Madiha raised her Khroda as far as it would go and opened fire.

Archers had thin armor; they were protected mainly by speed and maneuverability.

Throughout the day they had proved this, but against Madiha it was a different story. Her machine gun bullets traced a line under the hull of the leading craft, drawing smoke and fire from its undercarriage and even striking one of its remaining rockets.

Seizing up and starting to burn the craft banked away from the formation and crashed, out of sight and over the rooftops. In the midst of firing Madiha turned the stream of bullets to the next craft and clipped numerous wounds into one of its wings, causing the remaining planes to split up and peel violently away from the convoy’s now accurate fire.

“Almost there!” Parinita shouted, huddling low in her seat.

While the pursuing planes scattered, circling planes tore suddenly from their paths and haphazardly laid fire on the road. Agni turned violently from the road and onto a connecting cobblestone path, avoiding desperate sweeping shots from the two circling planes.

Larger explosions sounded overhead, targeting the circling planes and forcing them back with smoke and fragments. Ahead of the convoy, Nyota Hill appeared and woke violently, seeking to reclaim the sky with hundreds of explosive shells from its guns.

Nyota Hill was an urban park built around a cylindrical hillock dozens of meters in circumference that also rose several meters over the buildings surrounding the park across the adjoining streets. Small for a hill, compared to the larger formations present in the Kalu, Nyota was nonetheless one of the highest places in Bada Aso, with a commanding view. A small observatory had been raised over its peak to study the constellations, but only a pair of walls and a thick plume of black smoke remained of this landmark.

A bomb had leveled it; much of the rest of the hill showed signs of violence.

Bomb craters and trails of Norgler fire pockmarked the once perfectly green hill, and the wreckage of a dive bomber rested at the foot. Nyota Hill bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the city’s open north, but Nocht’s fury had not yet broken the important positions across its surface. The trenches that had been dug across the slopes of the hillock to accommodate dozens of artillery and anti-aircraft guns still stood, and mostly intact.

From the cobblestone path Sgt. Agni drove over a fallen fence and onto the green, while the guns around the hill cast their explosive projectiles over the the roofs of the district, shooing away the fighter planes still marauding. Thanks to the altitude, the surroundings, the slope of the hill, and a varied placement of firing positions, Nyota Hill made a very difficult target for enemy aircraft. Within the range of those guns, no planes dared continue their pursuit. Everyone was safe in the shadow of Nyota, for the moment.

Sgt. Agni swerved to a stop, and Madiha dismounted.

She ran to the hill and dove into one of the artillery trenches cut into it, calling for the commanding officer to meet her immediately. Parinita and Agni took their own places in the nearby trenches, cramped with sopping wet men and women manning the guns.

In command at Nyota Hill was a middle-aged woman, comrade Lieutenant Munira, her light skin and dark brown hair dusty from the smoke and powder around the hill. She arrived promptly, dropping into the same shallow trench as the Major and directing the gun commander of the nearby 85mm to depart and run up to the Lieutenant’s old position.

Lt. Munira clapped her hands together and bowed her head as a greeting.

Salam, Major; we received your radio message an hour ago and have been fighting fiercely since. This was a dangerous journey you undertook; foolhardy even. I thank the Light that you were guided safely to us. What brings you to our little fortress?”

Madiha nodded. “Thank you for your blessing, Lieutenant; I believe we will soon be faced with renewed enemy attack. I hope to aid you in coordinating the defense.”

“Our observers spotted an incoming air fleet minutes ago. We are preparing now.”

“I shall join.” Madiha said. “I hope that my presence might reinvigorate the troops.”

“I defer to you, comrade commander.” Lt. Munira graciously replied.

“No, I wish for you to command.” Madiha said. “Address your troops as you see fit.”

Lt. Munira nodded her head. She stepped outside the trench momentarily, and delivered a speech to her batteries in a loud, fierce and very slightly accented voice. “Comrades, Major Nakar has joined us in the face of the enemy’s bombardment, having braved rockets and gunfire to bear witness to our victory today! As she did in the border, the Major is here to help us brave the odds, and together we shall become a legend of the city of Bada Aso! Fix yourselves toward the southwest, from whence the imperialist’s aircraft approach, and turn them back with all your fury! With Comrade Major Nakar at our side we will eject them across the seas once more! Man your guns, and fight bravely!”

Madiha hadn’t heard of Lt. Munira much, aside from the fact that she was one of the rare Diyam, worshipers of “the Light,” in the Ayvartan army. Perhaps she had been at the border battle, perhaps she was a convert to this odd legend going around.

When the Lieutenant called her out from her trench, and held her hand in the air to show everyone that she was present, Madiha could not say much. Munira’s oratory was intense and the reaction from the troops was boisterous and determined like she had never seen. It was uncomfortable to hear such powerful and flattering words, and worse to feel flattered by them, and feel flattered by the synchronized cheers from the battery crews assembled around the hill. But Madiha had little time to feel uncomfortable.

She cleared her throat and said few words of her own.

“Comrades, I do not merely plan to watch you fight; I would be honored to join you in battle. As one, let us come together to resist the profligate imperialist invaders!”

She offered to take the position of gunner for Lt. Munira’s 85mm gun, and the Lieutenant and the previous gunner were equally pleased to cede the seat and gun shield to her. They returned to the trench, where Madiha took her new position. While everyone was setting up she asked for the names of soldiers in adjacent batteries, surreptitiously trying to collect and remember as many names as possible in order to awaken her latent potential.

For her plan to work, she could not simply have one gun at her disposal. She needed as many of the heavy guns as possible, firing the strongest fragmentation ordnance available. During the hustle and bustle, she identified most of the crews of the big guns.

“I admire your learning their names,” Munira said, “Should I die, you can honor the fallen in my place. Truly everything said about you is coming true before me, Major.”

Madiha nodded as though that was exactly what she had been thinking.

One could not have gone further from the truth.

Then across Nyota Hill the call sounded: “Enemy aircraft, from the southwest!”

Almost in tandem every crew adjusted their gun elevation. Sounds of twisting and sliding metal issued from every trench as gun elevation was adjusted, and clunking and thumping noises as shells and shell-clips went into breeches. Gun commanders pulled up their binoculars and issued coordinates to their crews.

On the horizon Madiha spotted the enemy air group, or fleet, approaching them in force. Fighters made up the bulk once again, and in groups of five; dive bombers and level bombers flew higher in the dark, rainy sky. Madiha’s own gun was not automatic, and could only fire one shell at a time. Thanks to its breech mechanisms it was a simple affair: dropping in a shell, locking the breech and pulling the firing pin to shoot the gun, then removing the shell remnants from the breech and repeating the process for the next shell.

The 85mm could manage 10 to 15 rounds a minute with a good crew.

Sadly, unlike the anti-tank guns, it lacked automatic shell ejection.

In minutes the two sides collided.

Nyota Hill opened fire with everything it had, and the Nochtish squadrons dispersed in the sky and whirled around the landmark like currents in a storm of metal. Fighter planes strafed the trenches with their machine guns and 12mm cannons, tearing up the green, kicking up dust, slamming gun shields and disorienting crews, but unable to put rounds on flesh. Dive-Bombers descended at steep angles, launching small bombs from their undersides and rising sharply away under constant fire. It was a trick that could not be repeated overmuch, and the hill was like a rock in the face of the bombardment.

Four bombers stricken by flak seemed to disintegrate mid-dive, while several smashed portions of the trench and threw back men and women but did no serious damage; two planes flew into heavy fire, lost their nerves and broke away with light damage; a single plane sped into the green, sliding uselessly downhill from the lip of a trench.

Lt. Munira raised a danava LMG over the top of the trench and riddled the cockpit of the fallen plane with bullets. Blood spattered over the cracked and perforated glass.

Nam jeyid.” She said under her breath.

The wreckage joined the other plane at the foot of the hill.

There were soon dozens more planes circling the hill, but Madiha focused skyward.

Shell into the breech; she turned the handle and locked it.

Lt. Munira and crew raised the barrel almost directly overhead.

Being behind an artillery gun was different than shooting a firearm.

As a child Madiha had fired a revolver. It was the first time she shot at anything.

She hit a man in the foot; there was one bullet left and she hit him inside his mouth. Both shots had been perfect, as though she had been born handling a gun. A firearm had a sort of texture, a grip, a series of motions. To her eyes there was something visible, guiding lines, a blue-print in the air that would guide her shots. Artillery pieces were impersonal. Even if you could see the target, the piece was stationary, and your body had no control over it. There was distortion in the lines. She was removed from the blueprint.

She likened it to moving her limbs with her eyes closed.

There was a unique feeling to one’s body moving without input from the eyes.

Time to aim was an abstraction. Madiha hardly aimed. She always simply moved.

An artillery piece didn’t allow her to.

Nonetheless, whatever monstrous thing twisted away her humanity, it was powerful. She felt that eerie, demonic strength course through her mind as her hand touched the firing pin and unleashed the fragmentation shell into the sky. Her consciousness traveled with the ordnance for what was to her a split second, but encompassed the whole of its flight; the shell flew straight into the air at a steep angle, crossing thousands of meters in tens of seconds. There was no contact with metal, no grand rending to pieces of the enemy.

The shell reached fuse altitude and flew past an unsuspecting level-bomber.

It did not miss; the shell exploded just over the wings.

One by one the engines on the bomber’s wing began to fail, stricken with shrapnel. Rapidly losing altitude, the machine fell from the clouds, its propellers fanning flames spreading across its wings and hull. Minutes later every man and woman in the trenches watched the massive bomber crash to earth, another wreck at the foot of Nyota Hill.

There were more targets. Now it was Madiha’s chance.

While everyone was distracted, she touched that power again.

Her head grew hot, hot enough to draw sweat. Her eyes burnt, and her vision wavered.

Bomb bay doors opened far in the sky, and lines of ordnance dropped on the surrounding streets. A massive bomb struck the top of the hill and pulverized the remains of the observatory. Dive bombers and strafing planes swarmed over them like bees and came down in their twos and threes, sweeping across the hill. Norglers blazing, under-wing rockets bursting across the hillock, artillery flak answering each blow; Madiha felt the power erupt from her body, hyperaware of the tumultuous environment.

Fire and smoke and a ceaseless cacophony, and the burning, the infernal burning; her tendrils reached across the hillock, touching every gun she could identify with the power.

Soon as shells left muzzles Nochtish planes immediately began to fall.

Quick-firing 37mm guns rent apart whole fighter squadrons and dive bombers; 85mm and 57mm guns fired directly skyward and sliced through level bombers and their escorts. She sustained perhaps thirty seconds of fire, enough for a few hundred shells, before she slumped on her gun, weeping, blinded, immobilized. She saw the wraith again, forcing its way back inside of her, bleeding back into some unseen wound in her very humanity.

“Major? Major!” Lt. Munira pulled her back from the gun and laid her back on the trench. She smacked her gently in the cheek as if to wake her. “Major, are you alright?”

“Yes, yes,” Madiha gasped, starting to recover, “Yes, I am fine. It’s the smoke.”

She looked out from the trench and through her wavering, blurry vision she saw a sky still filled with enemy planes. Two squadrons of fighters took turns strafing the trenches. An instant later a dive-bomber plunged from the sky and dropped a bomb right into a trench several meters above Madiha’s own, casting dirt and rocks and metal down on her and Lt. Munira’s crew. It was like fighting a swarm. How many had she managed to kill with her power? Fifty or sixty? Nyota Hill was throwing thousands of rounds of ammunition into the sky and seemed to make no gain. Madiha started to hyperventilate again.

Could she reach for a barbiturate in front of her troops?

Could she sit here, the legend they counted on, and fail them?

“Major, are you sure you’re not injured? You look disoriented.” Lt. Munira said.

Dirt and rocks slid down from above, covering Madiha’s head in a tiny stream of debris before she could reply. Something larger dropped from above; Parinita slid clumsily down, almost crushing the loader under herself. In her hands she gripped one of the few hand-held radios distributed to the battery. Moments later Sgt. Agni appeared overhead as well, firing uselessly into the sky with a Danava LMG, before casting it aside and dropping down onto the unoccupied gunner’s seat of the 85mm gun. Lt. Munira looked puzzled by their appearance. The emplacement trench was getting cramped now with their presence.

“Major! You’re looking pale!” Parinita said. “I have some good news–”

An explosion drowned out Parinita’s voice, but she continued to speak.

Madiha made out a phrase from her voiceless lips: Ox Air Army.

Two fighter planes circling the hillock burst to pieces as if spontaneously. Four smaller green biplanes took their place, collectively casting a hail of bullets over the Nochtish planes. Across the park and over the district Nochtish fighters found themselves torn from their strafing attacks and forced into sudden dogfights with the arrival of dozens upon dozens of Anka biplanes from over the city. Slower, but numerous and dogged, the biplanes surrounded their enemies and shot at them from every direction, taking several down.

As the rain abated, the Ayvartan air force joined the battle.

Lt. Munira leaped out of the trench and shouted across the hillock for the batteries to watch their fire, because now they might hit friendlies participating in pitched dogfights.

Madiha joined her, not to give orders, but to watch the sky temporarily clearing, both of the dark clouds, and of the beleaguered enemy fleets, swarmed by hundreds of Ayvarta’s weak but numerous planes, blasted from below by hundreds of guns, and again unable to break Nyota Hill and conquer the skies over the city. Above them the sky was ablaze.

Bada Aso burnt, with fury, with agony, with courage, with defiance.

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

At “Madiha’s House” not a soul seemed to welcome the relative silence of the new day.

Stillness gave everyone nothing but a painful moment to contemplate, to fall prey to discomfiting thoughts. As if to fill in the sounds of bombs and guns, everyone seemed to speak louder and step harder on the ground. Everyone worked hard to fill in the silence in their hearts and minds, the cruel silence of a world that had been blasted emptier and stiller.

“It appears the Luftlotte has stopped running sorties since the attacks this morning. The ARG-2 haven’t picked up a thing in hours! So their continuous attacks are over.”

Madiha sat behind a cafeteria table, turning over her curry dinner with a spoon. Parinita tried to smile at her while giving her the news. After what seemed like interminable bombing and strafing, they had somehow expelled the Luftlotte. Unfortunately, massive damage had been dealt to the city infrastructure. Only a big portable petrol generator provided power to the headquarters now, and the lights flickered even without bomb blasts and shockwaves to disturb them. Half the city was without water service or lights.

“Do you want to take a look for yourself, or just the highlights?” Parinita said.

Across from her, the secretary pushed forward a file folder with a fresh strategic report.

“I will confess a touch of fear at the prospect of reading that.” Madiha said.

“Well the news is about as rosey as it can be.” Parinita shrugged. “On the bright side, judging by the wreckage, and from reports from the flak batteries and from pilots, over the course of the fighting we downed almost 300 Nochtish aircraft, including large amounts of the fighter craft they used for strafing. So future dogfights will be a little easier on what’s left of our Anka planes. Which brings me to the downside, which is that we’ve maybe got 100 planes left, if that. The Luftlotte flew twenty times the sorties we did, and it cost them, but it also practically destroyed our air force too. Nobody’s got the skies anymore.”

Madiha raised her hands to her face. That first day of air battles was a large boost in morale for the troops, but then the reality set in. There was massive attrition of planes on both sides. The Ox air army was decimated in two days. She had no idea how much Nocht had left, but the Luftlotte had gotten the message. From 600 sorties the first day, to 200 sorties the second, and now not a single enemy plane over their skies.

She could only hope that both their air forces had been broken by the brutality of the air fighting, and not just hers. Swallowing hard, she cracked open the report.

It was more or less what she expected to see, and she wanted to weep and scream and stomp her feet from the sight of it. Casualties were massive. They had to bury 10,000 bodies. There were thousands injured. Civilians had taken the cruel brunt, maimed and killed in collapses of shelters that had proven inadequate, but the stationary troops, gun battery crews and observers were hit hard as well. Materiel loses were minimal, and she still had the overwhelming majority of her eight divisions in Bada Aso.

One ARG-2 had been damaged in an evacuation accident.

One miraculous bright spot: the forces in the Kalu had gone entirely unmolested.

But the more she thought about it the more she felt personally responsible for this failure, for the debacle of this air defense, for how poorly ready the city was for the attack. What had she known about air defense, about air battle; what did she even know now? She knew that if she personally fired an artillery gun, she could hit a bomber.

She was worse than useless as a commander.

She was no genius, no hero of the border or any of that nonsense her troops desperately clung to in order to view themselves as anything more than pawns in an abstract political game between their bickering government and the bloodthirsty imperialists from overseas who saw them as a threat to the peace of the world. With a shaking hand she reached into her jacket and withdrew a barbiturate pill to calm her nerves.

Parinita reached out her hands, holding Madiha’s with both of hers.

“Please, don’t.” She said. “I saw you drink one just thirty minutes ago Madiha.”

Madiha didn’t struggle.

She dropped the pill, and collapsed over the table, burying her face in her arms.

She was a monster more useless than the human she had once thought she was.

A monster that could not even wield her monstrous power against anybody.

All she had left was the pain and the plan. Parinita was right.

Taking the pills was just useless.

“Schedule a briefing with the captains from each division. We need to go over the defense plan and deploy. Nocht’s land forces will not be far.” Madiha said.

She was speaking without affect, like someone from the KVW.

Not because of conditioning, which she had never received, but exhaustion. She was just too beleaguered to feel anymore. What use were the tears of a monster in commemorating the dead? The pity of a monster for the people she herself had condemned? There was no point in living in this shell of humanity any longer. She was Major Nakar, a freakish thing in human form given pitiless command over an army.

Parinita nodded obediently and stepped away from the table.

She rounded it, pulled up a chair beside Madiha.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”

“Not now, please.” Madiha mumbled.

Again, Parinita nodded obediently. She laid her head on her arms as well.

For a moment, they just sat there together. It felt nicer than Madiha wanted to admit.

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