This story segment contains depictions of violence and death as well as psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.
Under incessant rain the revolver was cold, slippery and heavy in her little hands. They were hands not meant for weapons. No one designed weapons meant for those soft little hands. But those hands had been unknowingly destined for the wielding of weapons.
There was blood on her hands now to prove it.
She did not quite realize what had happened. Her mind filtered it differently.
Like any child who completed a task, she had simply returned to the adult who issued.
“I made the bad guy go away. He won’t hurt you now.”
It was almost like those words were not her own, but she had said it and had done it.
There was silence between them. There was only the rain and the cold and the tension.
She offered the gun back to its owner. It had done what it was constructed to do.
“I don’t like it. It’s heavy. It hurt my wrist. And it only has five things in it.”
A meter away from her lay the woman, against the wall of the alley, her own blood soaking down her clothes into a puddle. At first the child had thought her beautiful, and she still did, she still saw the beauty and power in that face, that grave expression, though now she understood that it was tempered with pain. She was wrapped in a ragged cloak, but her face was visible, that beautiful face with its long nose, red lips and striking eyes, eyes drawing wide with the realization of what had been transacted between them. The child knew that she had a complicated, adult beauty. She was not an angel or spirit.
From this woman’s hands the child had procured the gun and heard the desperate plea.
“Don’t let him kill me.” It was a tormented voice she spoke with. “Please.”
This child knew about complicated, adult things. So she was drawn to help.
Around the corner, out of their sight, was the corpse to prove the result.
For as long as she could remember, whether it be with sticks or stones, with paper airplanes or jars of glue, Madiha Nakar had never missed a shot if she had time to aim.
And she had learned that people stopped being trouble if you hit them in the head.
Slowly the woman forced herself to stand, pushing her back against the wall, stretching her legs, clutching her wound. She wrapped her free hand around Madiha and pushed her close. Madiha felt the blood getting on her from the woman’s body.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She mumbled.
Madiha could not see her face. The revolver fell on the ground, slipping away from them with the trickling water. Madiha returned the embrace, wrapping her arms gently around the woman. To her there was nothing to be sorry for.
“Police men here are bad. I didn’t want them to hurt you too.” Madiha replied. “I don’t want people to get hurt by bad men anymore. I wanted to get him back for being bad.”
The woman knelt in front of her, until they were eye to eye.
She looked shocked. But Madiha was determined and she knew what she was saying, and she knew it was an adult thing in a child’s words and she didn’t care how bad that was. She had never been afforded the peace needed to be an ordinary, innocent and pure child. She was a child of strict discipline and distant bells and bolted doors and a terrible escape. She was a child of splintered wood, broken glass, shattered stones.
Madiha was a child who rarely saw beauty and wanted desperately to guard it.
Back then there had been no greater motivation than that.
That was her forgotten origin.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”
On the dawn of the 28th Madiha awoke again with a nightmare.
Her reaction to these ugly visions was no longer fearful.
She did not jerk out of her sleep and seek a hidden predator.
All of that preternatural terror was replaced by a deep weariness.
Madiha situated herself quickly, and pushed everything else into a pit where it would not be seen. She focused on the material. She was in her office, the air was cool, and the atmosphere was quiet. She heard rain. Remembering the day’s business, she stood from her desk, adjusted her tie and uniform, the fabric and buttons slipping from her shaking hands.
Standing by the office window, Parinita watched the skies with obvious trepidation.
She had been watching the skies since the day before, when set out under the rain and exchanged a few forceful words. The Weather battalion was ambivalent about the growing intensity of the rain. Both of them knew this would not stop Madiha on this day, however.
Parinita turned briefly over her shoulder.
Their eyes met and then avoided one another again.
“Good morning,” Madiha said. Her mouth felt strangely heavy. She had a tic in her jaw, and felt her cheek spasm when she closed her lips behind the words.
“Good morning, Madiha.” Parinita said. She saluted, clipboard pressed against her chest. She was not so cheerful anymore, none of them were. Her disheveled strawberry hair was gathered into a ponytail. Her skin looked clammy. Her lips curled into a forced smirk.
After their disagreement yesterday, they behaved awkwardly to each other.
Outside the skies gradually darkened, and the drizzling gradually escalated.
A growing wind blew droplets against the window, blurring Madiha’s view of the street. Without breakfast or even a drink of water to assuage their dry throats, the Commander and her Secretary set out to their only planned business for the day. They gathered around the desk and spread open a map of the lower city and had their meeting, as fast as they could have it, before Madiha set out to carry out her “survey.”
On the ground the situation had not changed much from the day before.
Matumaini had been blasted out of relevance – it was almost literally a pit now.
Action would certainly focus on Penance Road and Umaiha, but thus far, nothing had happened for two days. Parinita briefed her on the state of the various units as quickly as she could, and outlined what the division commanders seemed to have in the works. A lot of nothing from Territorial Army officers, the paltry few that they possessed. These were men and women who had trouble enough with transporting troops in columns.
They would not be launching offensives.
They were barely able to organize reinforcements.
Penance Road was being held by a strip units in and around the old Cathedral. Umaiha had a mishmash of units straddling both sides of the river, hoping for the best. The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles was on standby, acting as a mobile reserve and defense. They could respond to any attack within the hour, if an attack had to be responded to at all.
“Your Motor Rifles Division has requested a bit of operational freedom today.”
“I approve. Leave them to their devices. I trust them to fight well.” Madiha said.
“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said dutifully. “Lieutenant Batuzi has told me he is following a few leads we got on Nochtish activity from the Signals Intercept Battalion today.”
“I trust he will perform admirably.” Madiha said.
She felt frustrated to have this conversation. At this point there was nothing she could do. The Strategic turn of the battle was over. Both sides were in position and following through to their general objectives. They had their supply lines set, and their general formation could not rapidly change. It was all real time tactics from here, and no matter how much she wanted it, that was not the domain of the Army HQ.
Madiha shook her head. She could not command eight divisions by herself. It was not possible. She could not even command one by herself – she needed to stay behind the lines and insure that the strategic plan was fulfilled by the army as a whole. Even the little excursion she had planned for today jeopardized her ability to respond to a crisis.
But she was sure she would lose her mind if she stayed in this office any longer.
“Is something wrong, Madiha?” Parinita asked.
She stared at her with a gentle expression.
“Nothing is wrong, Warrant Officer. I will go on survey with an Engineering company today, out to Umaiha. We must fuel the final act of the Hellfire plan. I won’t be long.”
Parinita raised an eyebrow. “Warrant Officer; what? Really?”
Madiha gave no reply, and made no eye contact.
This was one time when the words did not escape her mouth without thinking.
Parinita looked exasperated, clearly unsettled by the cold, distant reference. This was for her own good; for everyone’s own good. She had been too weak and let everyone come too close and it would take their toll on them in the end. They had to stay away.
They were more valuable than her – Parinita was more valuable than her. She did not want her to come close and find the thorns in Madiha’s hide, punishing her embrace. She had already seen too much of the monster. She had already wasted too much time worrying and weeping over a purposeless thing. Everyone needed distance now; nobody could be allowed to see any more of Madiha before the end of this. It was for their own good.
Bless her heart, Parinita tried – she was not giving up on Madiha so easily.
“I don’t mean to pry, but have you taken your medicine lately?” She asked.
“Not since that day.” Madiha clutched the side of her head. It was starting to hurt.
Parinita sighed. “Madiha, you’re really a creature of extremes aren’t you? I wanted you to stop abusing your medication not to stop taking it at all. Please take it.”
Madiha felt a chill hearing her name from those gentle lips. It was like a heresy.
And yet despite all her convictions she couldn’t form the words to stop her or resist.
She sighed inside. Her mind was torn in a dozen directions at this point.
“Wherever your medication ended up, please take it.” Parinita said. “You need it.”
“I do not need it.” Madiha said. “It was only a source of greater strife. I am fine.”
“Are you sure? I think that you should take it, but if you insist, then I guess I can’t–”
“I am sure. Now, did you hear what I said before this? It is important.”
Madiha tried more forcefully to redirect the discussion to military matters.
“Yes, you’ve told me a few dozen times already about your ill conceived plan to survey the Umaiha tunnels, a mission that Sergeant Agni could command just fine by herself if you would let her.” Parinita pointedly replied. “I’ve already told you what I think.”
“I need to be there. I was the architect of this operation, I should carry it out.”
“If you say so,” the secretary dismissively replied.
Madiha felt inexplicably annoyed. “You have taken a liking to that response.”
“I have already told you what I think. I can’t actually stop you.” Parinita said. She sounded hurt. “Especially since you are making it a habit now not to listen to my concerns.”
She was the Staff Secretary; she had limited influence. Her role was crucial – she had to gather information and pass it to Madiha. She had to listen to an army’s worth of concerns and discoveries and intercepts and she had to compile it with her staff day by day, and she had to sort out what Madiha needed to know and then figure out a way to deliver it to her. Without Parinita and her staff, everything would be impossible. There would be too much information to handle. No single person could listen and respond to so much information.
So it was also professional, that she would feel hurt and impeded.
But Madiha did not pick up that hurt, or she ignored it. She was not sure what her mind was doing anymore. “Have some faith in me.” She said. It came out more strongly than she wanted. It sounded like a demand more than a plea, like asking her to turn a blind eye.
It sounded like she was saying she would destroy herself and Parinita would watch.
And the secretary knew it. “You keep saying that and you’ve no idea how unfair it is.”
Neither of them said anything more.
Madiha focused on the maps, though there was nothing new there for her to see. Parinita waited for a response, but finally admitted defeat, and picked up several papers from the desk, clipped them on her board, and went on her way. She paused at the door and put a hand on the frame, as though she needed to hold on to it to prevent being swept away by a current. Her fingers tightened around the grooves on the wood. She looked over her shoulder for a brief moment and whimpered a few words before departing.
“Good luck on your mission, Commander.” She said, unsmiling, eyes moistening.
Madiha was left alone in the room, her cruel mind quickly filling in the silence.
Parinita’s voice bounced off the walls of her cranium, and she felt the agonizing palpitations. Her thoughts were a whirlpool of Parinita’s words blending together. Things she had said in their meetings, across the ten days they had been together, came to Madiha unbidden, booming like howitzer shells and setting her thoughts ablaze.
Her smiling lips, her concerned eyes, her warm hand on Madiha’s shoulder–
She crouched behind her desk, opened a drawer, and withdrew a little container.
She produced a little white pill and she swallowed it dry.
She laid with her back against the desk and kicked closed the door to the office.
“There. I listened to you. I’m listening.” Madiha whimpered. She felt sick and weak.
They had to be distant – it was for everyone’s good.
It was for everyone’s good. Even when the tears came to her eyes, when the pounding in her head grew unbearable, when the shaking in her hands would not stop, when everything broke down – she was alone and this was for everyone’s good. For the good of every soldier out there fighting and dying while she read her maps and felt her deep shame and hid her face and averted her eyes. Until she joined them in the earth she did not deserve their lips speaking her damnable name. They had to see nothing of her but her cold confidence, so that they would meet the bullets feeling bold as they could.
To the shaking, the agony, the tears, only the stone could be a witness.
It was for everyone’s good. Even hers, she thought– she was sure.
“You won’t have to watch, Parinita. You won’t have to watch.” She mumbled.
Sergeant Agni was on her way out of the building when Madiha composed herself enough to leave her office and travel downstairs. Her timing could not have been better. Barbiturates pumping through her blood, the facade reconstructed, she confidently intercepted Agni on the steps outside. The Engineer had a bit of oil on her brown cheek, and her long, black hair was gathered in a haphazard bun behind her head. She had left the lobby briskly and with a purpose, her tool box dangling from the fingers on her left hand.
“Hujambo, Commander.” She said. “I was going to eat breakfast before we left.”
“Working hard?” Madiha asked. Her voice sounded close to lifeless as Agni’s.
“I spent the morning preparing the equipment for today’s trial.” Sgt. Agni said.
“Far more work than I did, I’m sure.” Madiha said. She meant it as a bit of friendly self-deprecating humor, but some of that shame was still poisoning her words.
“Perhaps, but I managed it on a full night’s sleep, and I know that you did not.” Sgt. Agni said. Quickly she added. “Would you like to join me, Commander? I suspect we will be out in the field for several hours. Best to leave the base with a full stomach.”
Madiha nodded. “Sound advice. I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”
Sgt. Agni blinked and stared for a moment before leading the Commander away.
Outside the headquarters, in a surviving old drug store across the street from the school building, civilian volunteers ran a makeshift field kitchen for the defending soldiers.
From behind the old drug store counters they ladled stews and sauces onto serving trays, handed out bread and drinks, unpacked dried vegetables and stock powders from trucks and mixed them with oil and water, and perhaps most importantly, they offered encouragement and camaraderie to the passing soldiers on this rainy, miserable day.
Many of these rear echelon laborers, the ones unloading, preparing and serving the food, were volunteers, who had chosen to stay behind and become involved in the defense. When not serving hot rations they also set down sandbags, loaded trucks, manufactured ammunition, manned the phones, and performed light repairs; among a myriad other tasks.
There were a few thousand city residents who remained behind and remained busy.
Without them, Madiha’s difficult effort would have become close to impossible.
Among the civilians there was a sizeable contingent of reservists – soldiers who had been stripped from the Territorial Army by Demilitarization downsizing policies. They thought of themselves as warriors still, unable to abandon the front now that there was finally war. They knew more than most about what needed to be done in a theater of battle, so they mobilized more quickly and took on more responsibility without complaint.
These were the most energetic and useful folk. Perhaps they needed to be.
Though they did not have uniforms to spare for them, Madiha thought it right to bolster their confidence by issuing them small arms. But there were no pistols brandished in the field kitchen. Instead the reservists heaved big pots of dal and curry, baskets of flatbread, boxes of hard candies and dried fruits, and large pitchers of fruit juices and flavored milk. They served soldier and civilian alike, engineers, laborers, signals staff, frontline soldiers, resting tank and truck crews, and they smiled equally at every face before them.
Sometimes they broke into a few verses of marching song while the line organized and moved. Many of these were marching songs from their days in basic training.
Sgt. Agni and Madiha picked trays from a stack near the door, and stood in line with men and women dressed in traditional tunics, robes and cloaks, in dust-covered overalls, in jumpsuits with masks dangling off their necks, in military uniforms with weapons hung over their backs. There was little chatter among them, but everyone seemed to be in good humor, rocking their heads and tapping their feet to the marching songs of the servers.
Some of the people in the line even joined in the songs. They were simple songs, often repeating uncomplicated rhymes about equipment and landmarks. One popular song in Madiha’s House was about a soldier going down to the train station to drink while watching Goblin tanks loading into train cars. One whole verse was about the tank’s equipment.
In their current circumstances that particular verse took a somewhat macabre character, but nobody but Madiha seemed to think of it that way. Everyone was enjoying it.
Normally Madiha ate whatever Parinita or other staff brought to her office.
But she had to admit, this was an invigorating atmosphere. She was among her people.
Though the line seemed long from the outside, there were multiple servers and people were moving to the tables next door very quickly. Briskly the Commander and Sergeant made their way to the counter. Sgt. Agni held out her tray, and received a crisp green salad with citrus slices, a large spoonful of lentil dal, a pair of flatbreads and a tomato curry over rice. Sgt. Agni opted for water. At the same time, Madiha was about to receive the same service from another server, but the young man looked captivated with her and paused.
“You’re Commander Nakar aren’t you? Everyone, the Commander is here!”
Around the room there was a singular voice, delivering a warm Hujambo! to Madiha.
“I’m sorry if it’s awkward, but we’ve been waiting to see you here! We thought you’d be too busy and that we would never be able to see you in the flesh, ma’am.”
Madiha could hardly respond. She was surprised by the reaction. “I have been busy.”
“I’m sorry for taking up your time but we all owe so much to you, Commander,” said the Server, “we’ve all been wanting to thank you. A week ago we thought everything was hopeless, that there was no resisting Nocht. We felt like it was all coming to an end. They defeated the Cisseans and the Mamlakhans so a few years ago. Major Gowon never instilled much confidence in us. We heard rumors that the Council was going to give up on the city, that Solstice was ready to desert us, but we are still holding on to our city.”
Madiha felt herself wither under his gaze. She could feel the eyes of the room on her.
“Your courage has saved so many of us. Were it not for you my brother would have never made it back from the border. He’s just a kid, and yet Gowon kept him in the army, and kicked me down to the reserve. If we lost him like that, spirits defend, my family would have been heartbroken – he’s such a good boy, and so loyal to country and comrades. I’m sorry Commander but I’m just,” he looked very emotional, shedding tears.
Everyone in the room seemed uplifted by the man’s speech. He saluted the Major.
“I’m so glad for you, Commander. So glad we all have someone like you now.”
One by one everyone in the line, soldier and civilian, raised a hand to their forehead.
All of the room was saluting. Even Sergeant Agni felt compelled to raise her hand.
Madiha was stunned, and a thousand evil thoughts raced to her mind all at once, and she almost teared up in front of the serving line. What did they see in her? What made them think she deserved their admiration; what made them think she was worthy of praise; what conditions had she fulfilled to become their heroine all of a sudden? How could they put these hopes in her and in no other? How did they even see a person before them, and not monstrous coward? Through what eyes did these delusions turn so rose-colored?
Her command? She had drafted a map and given orders that killed thousands!
At the border? She spoke through a radio and gave artillery coordinates!
Why did they see her this way? Why did they burden her with their hope?
But she said none of these things. She said nothing at all. She couldn’t.
Instead she raised her hand in salute. Around the room, salutes turned to claps.
Triumphantly the server who spoke to her filled her plate.
She received her yellow vegetable stew and red curry and her lentils, an extra flatbread, as much drink as she wanted – which was no more than anyone else.
Plate fully loaded, she followed the line out a side door to an adjacent building, where the laborers had erected as many tables as they could. This was a half-ruined space that still had enough of a roof to block the elements, and many of the tables were uneven, but nobody complained. Madiha and Sergeant Agni sat at the same table as a few quiet privates, who took bashful peeks at Madiha over their food. Sgt. Agni opened a pack of plastic utensils and basic condiments, likely drawn from a ration crate, and distributed them.
Madiha nibbled her food and tried to clear her head, to remain solid, upright.
There were eyes everywhere that needed to see something powerful, however false.
They could not see her faltering. They had made it clear that they depended strongly on her now. She was their Hero. Everyone saw her as The Hero of the Border and those among them old enough to remember the Civil War might even know she was a Hero of the Socialist Dominances, an award given to her while catatonic in a hospital.
She felt like a liar, a manipulator, but she needed to be.
Despite this necessity it still haunted her that these people saw her so glowingly.
She had always been the goblet, the thing to be filled, with the will of others, with the loyalty toward others, with the strength of others. She sought people to complete her, to give her a purpose, to fill her with themselves where she had nothing. When did she become those others, who filled people’s hearts with their grace? She did not want this.
She felt like she had deceived everyone. If they saw inside her, they’d recoil from it.
They would lose their will; like her they would become shaken with despair.
She was not a hero, not a worthy commander; they wished too hard to see this in her.
Other people were suffering in her cowardly name right now. Maybe even that man’s brother. She had not saved him, she had acted like any military officer, with the calculating coldness to see that he died correctly on another date. She could not possibly be a Hero.
Heroes defied death; they prevented it. They found a way to obviate sacrifice.
Whenever Madiha pinned a unit on a map she demanded sacrifices she could not stop.