The Drake Given Fangs In Benghu (27.5)

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50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — Solstice City, People’s Peak

A sharp cry broke the lingering silence in the chamber and sent its occupants cringing.

“What is it that compels you to fail so constantly?” Daksha Kansal shouted at the top of her lungs at the delegation, the room now a quarter empty compared to its attendance in her previous address. Her voice boomed across the room even without a microphone.

It was the first thing out of her mouth when she took the podium in the Council chamber, and nobody dared to speak over her or to assert their basic dignity in the face of her insults.

Most of the Councilors were juniors on their first terms in office, voted in a handful of years ago when the Council swelled in size; many had resigned after the speech of the 45th, bowing under the political pressure they were not trained to handle.

They had run for office on their dreams and ideas, but even simple proposals now carried with them terrifying responsibility ever since the Nochtish invasion.

“How much longer will you put your offensive, denigrating parliament circus before the people’s needs? When does this chamber plan to vote favorably on our survival?”

Though she knew that this Council wouldn’t last beyond the day, her words still took on a helpless, furious tone, open in its frustration. She couldn’t help but hate the position that they had put her in by following their political playbooks to their dying last. Those within the audience that knew, could see their insight plainly in her voice and expression.

Throughout her furies Councilor Yuba’s Liberal bloc, for once united almost wholly behind Kansal’s words and actions, stood in rapt attention, rubbing their hands together. Within them, a microscopic minority shuddered with the knowledge of the events likely to transpire that evening. Yuba was one who was shuddering. He avoided her gaze.

The Collaborator faction was just as quiet and just as shaken despite being in the dark about the true purpose of the night’s deliberations. After a wave of panicked reform in the mid 2020s they essentially ruled the Council. Proportional representation meant that the large territories of the south, historically more self-centered and rebellious, could put into power a mass of contrarian Councilors who thought they knew best for the Socialist Dominances as a whole. This mass allowed them much more room to work. They could pick up people from the Liberal bloc who agreed with them and supersede the weakened “Hardliner” bloc that housed the remnants of Daksha’s old communists (and a motley crew of anarchists, social-democrats and other similar artifacts with them).

The Collaborator’s 4-year-long dynasty was fast approaching its end due to the events of the month. After the Nochtish invasion, the Collaborator heartland was lost. Its first flailing attempt to save it claimed 50,000 and more Ayvartans in Tukino. Latest in a series of half-baked and disastrous Collaborator attempts to pull everything back together was the preparation of an offensive in the lower Dbagbo region. Though the Council had given itself military responsibility, they lacked the expertise. The Dbagbo offensive was already going poorly and had cost them significant credibility. Though everyone was appalled by the results and the farce that led to them, initiative was one thing the Council seemed unable to muster regardless of the circumstances — unless strong-armed toward it.

Yuba cordially provided the strong-arm by politely inviting Kansal to speak again.

Daksha Kansal was visibly furious, strangling the edge of the podium and shouting herself hoarse at the bowed mass of the council before her. “I warned you that our military was not yet in the proper shape to fight the Nochtish forces! I outlined several steps that had to be taken in order to repair our forces and prepare for battle! Perhaps I was not clear enough, but those steps were to be taken before a major offensive operation, not during or after! They were to be taken in whole and not piece-meal! It is completely ridiculous to think that a partially mobilized peace-time force can be ordered to start a general offensive!”

Kansal was a monument in the podium. She sported the full dress uniform of the KVW, prominently red with black and gold highlights, wearing a Marshal’s pins (for there were no unique pins for the Warden) and her medals, including the very first Hero of the Socialist Dominances medal ever produced; but instead of an officer’s peaked hat she wore a black side-cap, adorned with the hydra on either side of the head, and the hammer and sickle in front. Her long hair was still mostly black, her skin still a deep brown. A few wrinkles graced her eyes. Tall, slim, athletic and well-proportioned, Daksha still looked vibrant in her early 50s. Her hair was tied up in a neat bun behind her head, and a dab of red lipstick and some skin powder gave her a refined appearance that night that was rarely seen.

“None of the reserve divisions committed to this action were at full preparedness! You sent them to battle with basically no plan but to move forward against strong enemy positions! Across a river! Against Nochtish aircraft and tanks when Rhino’s reserves were almost bereft of equivalent forces! Your operation was pointless and unnecessary. You made a show of commanding our armed forces to seem as if you had the competence to continue to govern. Now you have ground away troops that are necessary to respond when — and I say when, mind you, not if — Nocht breaks through Dbagbo’s front line! It was this same kind of poorly thought massed attack that ended with our forces trapped in the heinous Tukino pocket! Clearly you were not paying attention then and neither are you now!”

On the far left of the room, the “Hardliners” snickered. They were only ones in the room with a reason to be smug. They knew this censure was not directed at them. They had abstained from every little congressional disaster that had unfolded the past week.

“Years ago, my office conceded to a peace-time draw-down in military forces and a restructuring of our military and political bureaucracy in light of the crisis brought on by the Akjer treason among others. Back then I cooperated with your operations to the fullest extent. I conceded to the Council in good faith, knowing that some action had to be taken in case of counterrevolutionary elements. I was foolish to believe then that you wouldn’t exploit my concessions as you do now!” Daksha said. She pointed a finger specifically at the rightmost set of seats where Collaborators twiddled their thumbs.

Though it could not compare to the tragedy unfolding now, from 2024 through 2026, little more than a decade after the establishment of the SDS, a wave of very serious troubles arose after several political leaders, including in the Council, in the Military and in the Civil sectors, were implicated in foreign-sponsored treason and potential sabotage. This crisis ended in the severing of ties with Nocht, the covert beginning of of interventions in Cissea and Mamlakha, the purging of individuals and the restructuring of the Council and Military in the wake of losing several top officials to KVW-supported investigations.

To its credit the Council responded quickly to the crisis — to its detriment, the response was aimless and in the worst possible faith. After thorough investigations and several executions, the reform process was run away with. Council was broken up into two chambers, one powerless. Proportional representation was introduced and swelled the Civil chamber in the Collaborator’s favor. The KVW lost its ability to dictate the policy of the Territorial Army. The Council lashed out at anything that could compete with its authority in a desperate bid to preserve itself against future treason. It was senseless.

Yuba’s faith in democracy led him, like a child, to walk hand in hand with that chaos, and to follow it to most decadent depths. His belief was only recently shaken. All of this situation still felt alien — to look back on his decisions with such regret frightened him.

Daksha continued speaking, her tone more moderated. “Ayvarta can never and will never be a ‘utopia without arms’ in a world where Nocht exists. I demand that this Council to rescind demilitarization, fully remobilize all reserve military assets, and return to the Military Council the command of the so-called Territorial Army. Put that to a vote!”

Daksha turned sharply around, walked off the podium and abruptly quit the room, leaving behind a dreadful and long quiet that the Liberal bloc did not move to disturb. A resurgence of activity was slow to come. The Collaborators, normally at the front of any motion, were at first in disarray. Their leader, Arthur Mansa, an old veteran of the Civil War and one of the founding members of the SDS, had vanished to Tambwe to support its regional Council, presumably at the behest of his son, who had only recently ascended to the regional council and now faced an invasion. His subordinates, perhaps not as capable as he may have imagined, seemed afraid to take any measure until he could be reached for consultation. This had put them a step behind everyone else in Council.

In addition, when his orders did come, they had inspired disaster after disaster lately.

As such the Collaborators had a crisis of leadership, and with them, the Council.

Little conversations started to rise in volume around the room. Dozens of debates in miniature sprang up as everyone thought of what to do. People stood up and crossed the room to discuss with counterparts they knew personally or to fetch their aides.

Finally, Councilman Yuba stood up with a few of the Liberals and took the stage.

With his appearance the Council quieted and returned to a semblance of order.

“Comrades; the most recent source of your contention has been the fact that the Standing Procurement Plan for the year has already been passed and approved by the central agencies.” He said. Around the room a packet started to make the rounds, passed around by Liberal aides. “However I have gone through great effort to compile Warden Kansal’s proposals and incorporate them into a quarterly Supply Bill that can be easily added to the Procurements Plan. I propose that we put this measure on the table and hold it to a vote. Let us end this debate once and for all. Give the Warden the courtesy of her proposal standing or falling, in whole, on its merits! This Council needs an immediate resolution to this issue.”

Only part of the room was aware that regardless of the outcome of this vote, the Civil Council they had known for the past 4 years was issuing its final motions.

It was not uncommon for Liberals to craft bills — everyone had projects to do. Most often, National bills were extensions of regional projects, because in a big way most of the blocs were very regional. Collaborators came from the south; Liberals largely from the North; Kansal’s “Hardliners” the few representatives voted in from Solstice itself. What was strange was for Yuba to go out of his way to introduce what seemed like a KVW project, and a radical, suspicious one at that. However, everyone was under too much stress to consider it deeply. Surprise supply bills happened; it wasn’t ominous by itself. In this instance it was easy to believe Yuba was just doing them the courtesy of getting the KVW out of everyone’s way. Liberals were known to be fairly diplomatic in that way.

Without further deliberation the machinery of the Council started to digest the bill.

Across the chamber, Whips ran around their blocs gathering up the votes and holding debates in miniature. There were problems abound — many of the junior collaborators for example had been “brought up” the past few years to believe that Demilitarization was good and that ceding power to Daksha Kansal’s faction in any way was essentially steps toward a coup. They didn’t say this, nobody said it directly, but their insinuations could only add up to that one picture. Many of the Liberals also thought this way in some form.

Among the Liberal bloc many wondered what had gotten into Yuba lately, but most of them deferred to his authority as a veteran. Even the older juniors believed themselves to lack the seasoned dedication of the few Council elders. In any case a unique feature of the Liberals that fateful night was being aware enough of the world outside the numbing labor of legislation to be more afraid of Nocht than a phantom coup by Daksha Kansal.

Among the few Hardliners there was no Whip and a Whip wasn’t necessary. They normally abstained from these kinds of votes but they would vote unanimously in favor of Kansal’s proposal. Many of them were ex-Military Councilors from when the Military Council actually had a say in government. They had run successfully in Solstice after the abolishing of the Military Council’s votes, and established themselves as the local political force.

After an hour’s worth of reading and discussing the plan, the fated instant arrived.

Votes were gathered, counted, and to a collective silence Kansal’s bill failed again.

Yuba took to the podium once again, this time alone. He turned his head from one side to the other, casting a hard, serious look around the chamber before speaking.

“Comrades, I used to believe strongly that any proposal made in this chamber was a proposal for the good of the country. Years ago I supported the reforms made after the Akjer incident. I feared that our beautiful nation could be toppled by a few tainted ideologues. I feared the militarization of our country, and how members in the military and the civil sectors had conspired to profit off our secrets and security and to collude with foreign powers. I feared the great power that officers and civil servants had gained.”

Around the room there were whispers, wondering what the point of this was. Kansal’s package had failed and it was time to move on to the next piece of business. There was a refugee housing bill for example that needed to be properly torn up among them.

“I learned to fear many things,” Yuba continued, “and to see this Council as a protecting light against the sources of that fear. I thought through our dialog here nothing could fail to be resolved — and I thought anyone who refused our dialog was being extremist. I was wrong. We were the extremists. We went to extremes to see ourselves as infallible. We went to extremes to see our own comrades as enemies. We went to extremes for our own power and rationalized to ourselves that what we did for ourselves was for the good of all. We went to the extremes of self-delusion and self-grandeur. We were like children playing a game with ourselves, holding our rules as sacred. Yes, we kept food going and kept the rain out. But as a whole we have regressed in our politics and organization.”

Yuba gathered up his papers on the podium, and then threw them away.

“The Socialist Dominances of Solstices was imperfect when it was founded, and our self-centered bickering has rendered it now near to destruction. I abide that project no longer. I am calling for a Motion Of No Confidence against the 7th National Council of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice in light of the defeat of Supply Bill AG-49-#1216.”

Thus the killing blow, that had been so carefully prepared, was finally struck.

Across the chamber there was gasping and the turning of heads. Men and women stood up and shouted immediately that this was impossible, that it couldn’t be done. But Yuba and his handpicked conspirators knew that it could be done, it simply had never been done before. Defeating a Supply Bill was one of the potential ways in which a Motion Of No Confidence could be introduced. After that there would be a vote to dissolve government, appoint an interim government, and announce special elections. All of this was constitutional protocol.

There was in fact, in the Constitution, even a protocol to reinstate a Premier, though the office of the Premier was slashed after the death of Lena Ulyanova. It had never been amended out of the Motion of No Confidence. Council had been too arrogant.

“Comrades! Order! This is your duty now! Do you think this government is worthy to continue? Within your hearts, if you truly believe this, then vote! It is that simple! But I beg of you; if you have even the slightest doubt, then this Council must be shredded. Without a will of iron our country will sink.” Yuba said. His face was stone, but in his heart of hearts he thought of himself as pleading to them. This was a final chance to absolve himself of the guilt and infamy of history. He was taking on a great burden now.

Slowly the Council quieted from an outcry to a murmur. Councilors regrouped and with their faces sullen, their eyes downcast, they readied themselves for the pivotal vote.

Everyone knew this would be the moment of truth. But there was no more climactic drama to be found. Collaborators started to split up among territorial lines. Liberals held together for once. Hardliners announced they supported the No Confidence motion completely, and they announced it before anyone else had a word in. Yuba, having called the motion, painstakingly acted as whip and went to each of the blocs. There was no trembling in his voice or in his movements. His bodily actions were like a voice in flesh, carrying out a fact; one did not shirk from facts. One just spoke them neutrally. That was his body, his mind, his voice, as he tallied the votes for the destruction or salvation of the 7th National Council. He was neutral; as Liberals often prided themselves in being. Objective, rational, emotionless.

His heart cried, however, from the stress of his duty. But it had to be this way.

Yuba had always been a firm believer in the process, in the strength of democracy, in its ability to rehabilitate humanity. Over the past few weeks, he told himself, he had been neutral. He bided his time and picked his people silently and carefully while the Council made itself look weak, foolish, incompetent. He had not instigated that. They had done it all alone. They reaped what they sewed. Doubt and disillusion was at its peak among the Collaborator councilors, and now he had given them the way out, one way or another.

There would be no more climactic drama. No more back and forth. One side had won.

Votes were tallied and the consequence read aloud — the 7th National Civil Council was dissolved, and deliberations began on an interim government. There was no better idea being floated than that which had already hung in the air before: assign Daksha Kansal a Premiership alongside a small interim Council with a mandate to resist Nocht at all costs.

Special elections would not be held; with the Collaborators dismissed, nobody could vote them in again because the territories of Adjar and Shaila were lost and perhaps soon Dbagbo and Tambwe would fall in addition. Yuba knew that for a time this meant the effective end of Ayvartan democracy as they knew it. It was all up to Daksha Kansal now.

It had to be this way, he told himself. Socialism would withstand it or fall.

“It is time then,” Yuba called out, “the Council yields, to Premier Daksha Kansal.”


 

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The Drake Given Fangs In Benghu (27.4)

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49th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya felt a tense mood around the camp that day as the regional news spread. People exchanged grim looks at the radio tent, and at the few gendarmes looking at the half-tracks and supply tents and planning for a quick evacuation if necessary. A few days ago, from what she understood, the Civil Council had launched an all-out offensive against the Nocht forces that had breached the border and occupied the area around Silb, and the southern Sandari.

But this offensive failed, miserably and painfully. Now the front was wide open.

Despite this, Captain Rajagopal had everyone continue their tasks as planned.

In every red-ringed eye around, Naya felt, for the first time, a muted doubt and fear. They didn’t perform these emotions as obviously as the average person, but she could nonetheless grasp the tension. Even the fearless KVW felt a measure of fear here.

Menial chores at least offered her a little distraction from the uncertainty around her.

Dbagbo’s rains persisted, pouring their way through the gaps in the camouflage netting and falling over the encampment. Across the camp the ground turned muddy and damp as water found its way through every orifice. Tubs were laid near the trees to collect water for clothes washing and other tasks. A series of tarps and tables went up around the chow line so people could relax and eat their food as intended, rather than as rainwater mush.

She helped a few engineers to set the latter. She worked for several minutes under the rain then took her place inside the kitchen tent, water dripping off her and soaking through her apron and cap. At least she could warm up near the oven while the flatbread cooked.

Despite the hardship, she offered a jovial smile along with every scoop of lentils.

After helping with breakfast she helped move some tools into the workshop, and then she started preparing for lunch. Most of the contents were the same as breakfast, except that a spicy seitan slice was offered to bulk up the portion. After 1300 everyone was fed there was nothing else to do — she didn’t have dinner duty or any remaining chores.

Though they could conduct tank tests under the rain, the Raktapata was in the workshop, behind closed doors. Ravan and her engineers were hard at work cutting and soldering and lathing. They had a lot of work: trying to bulk up the recoil buffers on the KnK-10, fixing the problems with the 85mm A.A.W, and mounting a 76mm KnK-3 on the Raktapata so it could have some armament. When delivering the tools she heard that regular maintenance on the wheels and the track, on the turret gear, and other parts, was also on the schedule. Any testing would have to resume tomorrow or the day after.

She had heard similar things yesterday and wondered, nursing a fear she felt was pathetic and childish, whether she would ever be able to sit in the Raktapata again.

For the past few days she had barely worked. She had no chores on the 47th and on the 48th the test hadn’t gone well. She had a few chores today but nothing else. Sitting alone in her tent trying staring at the stitched steam on its ceiling had gotten quite old.

Judging by Farwah’s presence in the kitchen tent, standing idly beside a boiling pot of barley porridge with an apron and cap, he was not destined for much work today either.

“Farwah, what do you do around here when you’re not working?” Naya asked.

“Sometimes we play football.” Farwah said. “I’m the goalie so I don’t have to run.”

Naya looked out at the muddy terrain and rainy weather and shook her head.

“We could gather some people and play Commissars in a tent.” Farwah said.

She narrowed her eyes, struggling to pierce his implacable expression.

“You’re suggesting we go play Commissars in a tent?” Naya asked.

She worded it slowly to make obvious her skepticism. Farwah was unmoved.

“Yes. We can play in that big tent, where they host briefings. We barely use it.”

“So we gather people, and we go — play Commissars? A little kid’s game?”

Naya gestured with her hands while very slowly repeating the words, because she wanted to confirm to herself that this was indeed their course of action. Perhaps at some point in the past few minutes she had grievously misinterpreted him. But again Farwah had no grand rebuttal and merely nodded his head to her, his face a portrait of calm.

She crossed her arms and relented. “I know two people who might agree to it.”

Farwah nodded. “I know two people I can bring as well, so that would make six.”

After closing up the kitchen tent for lunch, they picked up a pair of umbrellas and went their separate ways. When they returned each had two people in tow for the game.

Naya had found Lila and Karima hunkered down in their respective tents, Lila reading an anatomical manual, Karima doodling a girl in a dress on the back of a pamphlet about ‘Socialism In One Country.’ Tactically, Naya made sure to fetch Lila first since she was easier to convince, and was therefore able to get Karima out of her tent at all.

New among Farwah’s little cadre was a fetching young man, tall and dark with long, straight black hair tied into a braided tail. He had a smooth face and slender build, and a dignified, almost meditative kind of expression — there were no rings around his orange eyes.

Behind him, Captain Rajagopal tottered along, much to everyone’s confusion.

“You brought a Commissar to play Commissars?” Karima muttered through clenched teeth, pulling Farwah and Naya aside for a moment. Captain Rajagopal would have read her lips otherwise. Naya looked over her shoulder and the Captain waved happily.

“She was free, and she is a person I knew, who can play.” Farwah said simply.

Karima sighed and broke their little huddle. Everyone gathered inside the tent. There was a stack of chairs in a corner, and an unoccupied podium with a projector canvas behind it. There was a lot space in the tent. Maybe 30 people could have fit easily.

“We should do an introduction before we start.” Lila said, clapping her hands together.

Farwah’s friend smiled and raised his hand. “I’m Corporal Isa Bhaduri. I’m normally driving the water truck out to get refilled, but today, that’s unnecessary.” He said.

“He’s my friend.” Farwah said, gesturing to Isa as if unveiling a treasure.

“I’m Naya Oueddai, and I have nothing to do so that’s why I am here.” Naya said.

Karima introduced herself curtly; Lila with a skip and a hop and a giggling laugh.

Captain Rajagopal smiled, removed her cap, and set it aside. She raised her hands.

Naya reached up to her ears and realized she did not have her headset with her. She was not expecting to interact with the Captain significantly, and as such had forgotten it. It felt terribly oafish and inconsiderate of her — now she would not know what the Captain was saying. She also realized nobody else had any headsets either.

The Captain made a few gestures. Naya followed along but did not understand.

“She introduced herself and said someone should explain the rules.” Farwah said.

“Oh.” Naya nodded to the Captain. “I can do it. I played Commissars as a kid.”

Captain Rajagopal made a gesture that seemed like ‘go ahead’. Naya nodded again.

Naya laid out the rules. “First we have to vote to elect a Commissar from among ourselves. Then the Commissar, once elected, can either issue Commands or put you in Interrogation. Commands means you have to do what the Commissar says, and Interrogation means you have to answer the Commissar truthfully. After that, you become Commissar, and the last Commissar has immunity from the new one. However, if you fail or the group thinks you’re chicken and cheated on your tasks, everyone has to vote again for a new Commissar. You keep going until everyone’s too tired or someone’s mom breaks it up.”

Captain Rajagopal clapped her hands rapidly and cheerfully at Naya. Lila joined in.

“Wait a minute, everyone will just vote for themselves then.” Karima protested.

“You don’t have much faith in Democracy huh?” Naya said. Grinning, she crossed her arms and stated, matter-of-factly, “That’s why everyone has two votes, and everyone has to vote for two different people. Someone usually comes out on top that way.”

“Interesting! I wonder who you’ll vote for?” Lila said, cocking an eye at Karima.

Karima turned her head and crossed her arms and said nothing more.

Captain Rajagopal volunteered her hat, and they cast votes using paper from a notebook that Karima carried on her person. Once everyone voted, Captain Rajagopal tallied all of the votes and cheerfully pointed at Naya, silently declaring her Commissar.

Naya’s eyes narrowed and her face settled into a dark little grin.

She covered her mouth delicately with her hand and laughed. “Karima.”

“Should’ve known.” Karima shouted through gritted teeth, stretching the syllables.

“What should I have you do?” Naya wondered aloud.

Captain Rajagopal did something new and silently mouthed a few words.

“No obscenities or I’ll shoot,” is what Naya got out of the gesture.

She cringed and thought of something more innocent than before.

“Okay! Karima, let’s see if you can even lift! I command you to hold the podium over your head and jump around the tent on one foot while holding it up.” Naya said.

Karima looked like she wanted to strangle Naya, but put all that force into picking up the podium instead. She lifted it over her head, raised her leg behind her back like a ballerina and started hopping on her foot. Lila and Isa covered their mouths while laughing. Captain Rajagopal smiled. Farwah had seemingly no expression.

After several minutes of very aggressive hopping, Naya called for her to put it down.

“Now you’re the Commissar comrade! Enjoy! But you can’t target me!” Naya said.

For once Karima seemed to be above the goading. She put the podium back where it belonged, returned to the circle of acquaintances, and breathed a little sigh of exasperation. She closed her eyes and waved her finger around to determine a target randomly. When she opened her eyes she was pointing right at Farwah’s face.

“Farwah, I’m gonna interrogate you, tell me, uh, hmm.” Karima tapped her foot.

“Don’t ask just anything; It has to be something funny or bold!” Lila said.

“Not too bold.” Captain Rajagopal slowly mouthed to them.

“You’re no fun.” Naya said, surreptitiously trying to cover her mouth.

Farwah remained quiet but avoided eye contact. Perhaps he was nervous.

Karima nodded and thrust her finger toward him, poking sharply at the air.

“Tell me where you were conceived, Farwah!” She called out.

A sudden silence among the players punctuated moment.

Isa burst out laughing suddenly, breaking his previous dignified expression.

Karima looked around the room with a shrug. “You all wanted bold.”

“What the hell! I can’t believe you asked that question!” Naya shouted.

“An empty coal car in a Jomba rail yard.” Farwah unconcernedly said.

Naya gaped. “I can’t believe you answered! How do you even know?”

“I was a product of ardent love.” Farwah said simply. Naya scratched her head.

“Anyway,” Lila said aloud, interrupting the scene, “now it’s Farwah’s turn.”

Farwah immediately pointed out Naya, his dull eyes locked on to her own.

“I’m ready for you!” Naya declared. She bore her teeth and crossed her arms.

“I command you, Naya, to make the sound of your favorite animal.” Farwah said.

Isa burst out laughing again.

“You’re all a bunch of babies!” He said through his teeth, smacking his own knee.

Naya blinked. “Ribbit?” She said. Again the room fell silent for a long second.

Then Isa fell to the ground, kicking his legs and holding his belly.

Lila covered her mouth and Karima laughed aggressively at Naya’s expense.

“Your favorite animal is a frog? A frog of all things?” Karima shouted.

“Shut up! Frogs are very honest and earnest animals!” Naya shouted back.

Captain Rajagopal laughed suddenly aloud, a strange, spontaneous noise like a horse neighing. She signed fiercely, and mouthed “Ribbit,” puffing her cheeks up like a frog.

“She says you’re a bunch of babies!” Isa said, pointing at them from the ground.

Naya frowned at him. It seemed everyone knew the signs but her!

Lila spoke up. “It’s unfair to have Naya go again so soon. I want to go!”

“Let’s hold an informal vote.” Farwah said. “Raise your hands to vote for Lila.”

Everyone raised their hands but Isa, who was still chuckling behind everyone, and Naya, who had this vote sprang on her suddenly and resolved to vote for herself.

Lila clapped her hands, beamed, and pointed directly at Karima. “Command!”

“You jerk! Ugh!” Karima replied. She turned her back with an angry ‘hmph!’

“Oh good, you made yourself accessible! Ferry me to paradise, faithful steed!”

Her head up high and with a swagger in her step, Lila casually approached Karima and climbed onto her back, until she had her arms around Karima’s chest and her legs hooked around her waist. She pressed with her knees and spurred Karima on like a race horse. Sighing heavily, an unenthusiastic Karima walked around the room one step at a time, her rider’s spirits disproportionately high for the speed and energy of the steed.

“Well, then it’s also not fair that Karima gets another turn so quickly.”

Isa stood up from the ground and dusted himself off. His fit of laughter had worked itself down to short, periodic chuckling. He patted the Captain on the shoulder, smiling.

Captain Rajagopal nodded her approval. Isa then pointed at Naya.

“Again?” She sighed. She glanced at Karima, still going around the room.

“Naya, I command you to stand on your head.” Isa said.

“You were going on about how we were all babies and this is your command?”

“Baby commands for baby players!” Isa said, shrugging.

Without hesitation and in one fluid motion, Naya dropped to the ground, palms down, and kicked off, bending her back and keeping her feet balanced overhead. Isa took a step back in surprise, as if he was about to be hit. Naya grinned, and she walked toward him with her hands, gently tipping her feet forward and back to correct balance. She was once quite the prolific athlete in school — sprints, swimming, field sports, endurance, and a little bit of gymnastics. She was good enough that her body never forgot the motions.

Her body also never forgot the injuries, especially one in particular.

Captain Rajagopal and Isa and clapped and cheered but their voices started to dull. Naya felt something twist inside her, and her awareness of the world suddenly dimmed.

Then there was a sharp pain in her lower back, like a stake driven between the links in her spine. Her fingers dug into the canvas floor, she grit her teeth. Losing all balance, she fell forward on her own back and curled into the fetal position. An obliterating pain started to consume her entire body, as if a dozen knives plunging into her. Her lungs worked themselves raw but she found it hard to breathe. Her heart pounded in its cage of flesh and she felt her blood crashing in her veins as if stirred up by the pain. Her whole body shook.

Lila and Karima stopped fooling around. Captain Rajagopal crouched near Naya.

“What happened?” Lila asked. Her voice was growing distant.

Isa turned pale and watched helplessly. Captain Rajagopal signed something.

Naya closed her eyes, lost all thought and became swallowed by the pain.

* * *

A lamp hovered directly overhead, swaying, its metal cover clanking.

She heard the whistling of the wind and then thunder, hitting hard like a shell fall.

Breathless, Naya sat up suddenly in bed, scanning the room in a panic. She was in a hospital tent. She saw the beds, the stretchers, the blood packs and intravenous electrolyte packs and other such things, the tool trays, the crates with the red cross on them–

At her side, Lila stood and gently settled her back down against the pillows.

“Calm down, Naya. Don’t strain yourself. You might pass out again.” She said.

Naya groaned and raised her hands to her face. She pressed hard on her skin.

“Ugh. How long was I out? Did the Captain say anything?” She asked.

“Only a few hours, and no. You’ve been taking very bad care of yourself.”

“I’m just tired.” Naya said weakly. “I shouldn’t have done that stunt back there.”

From her side, she heard a familiar voice. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do it.”

She turned her head. Isa, looking down at his own feet, sat a few meters away.

“I’m sorry, Naya, it was foolish of me to ask that. You got hurt; and anyone any less athletic than you could have gotten hurt worse just for our childish horsing around.”

Isa looked like he had been sitting there a while. He had his hands clasped together as if in prayer, and he couldn’t lift his eyes off his shoes to meet her own. She felt sorry for making him worry. It was hard not to let her mind carry that thought and bludgeon her with it.

“It’s fine, don’t blame yourself for it. I just went too far with it.” Naya said.

Lila sat on the side of her bed, and took Naya’s hands into her own without warning.

They locked eyes. Lila looked at once both worried and very deadly serious.

“Naya, you’re not fine. You’re trying to pass that off as something minor, but that wasn’t a cramp or a pulled muscle. You blacked out from the stress and the pain that you went through. This isn’t normal and I want you to tell me the truth about it.”

There was no chance Naya that would tell her the truth about her condition.

That these pains had practically ended her life beforehand.

That they persisted as a dull aching that was so constant it simply became her default condition that she endured every second of her life even in this encampment.

That when she pushed herself too hard the pains would burst and destroy her.

There was no chance that Naya would walk out of that conversation a soldier.

She had retreated from so much already. This was supposed to be her new leaf.

This was the place where she became strong again like she used to be!

Where she was loved and admired and had a future, like before!

This was the place that would have to accept her masks.

With a smile, a wicked, almost ear to ear smile, Naya replied with a lie.

“I haven’t been sleeping. I’m sorry. I didn’t mention this before because I didn’t want to be taken off the Raktapata, but I’m really terribly exhausted and–“

Lila shook her head and crossed her arms. She sighed. “Alright, if you say so.”

“I’m fine, really. I just have to sleep it off.” Naya insisted.

Lila could definitely see through her lies, but she wasn’t pushing any furhter.

“Well, I certainly can’t detect anything wrong with you. So I’m going to clear you. I’ll put it down as a temporary fainting spell since that’s all I saw. May Hashem retain you.”

She signed something and ripped the form paper from a clipboard.

Dropping it on Naya’s lap, she stormed out of the tent, leaving her puzzled.

“Sorry about that, she means well.” Isa said. “She’s just worried, you know? She probably felt helpless as a medic. She’ll come around once she sees you’re ok.”

Naya sank back into the bed, and pulled up the brown sheets over her face.

Keep on sprinting little Naya. Until you’ve outrun everything and everyone again.


 

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The Drake Given Fangs In Benghu (27.3)

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48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya’s dull, persistent aching had not gone away over the past few days, but the relatively quiet life in the camp helped her to ease into it. She had lived with worse pain than this.

She thought to blame it on the rain. Unabated, it made the environment cold and humid.

In the forest she could feel a chill needling her skin. It was better inside the tank.

There was no bugle call for this particular exercise since Karima was holding a pair of large umbrellas over herself, Lila, Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan, shielding them from the incessant rain. Thankfully the wind was calm, so the deluge was surmountable.

“Let us begin testing of the 85 mm A.A.W!” Chief Ravan called out over the radio.

Naya responded affirmatively. Though it was less impressive, she thought she liked the 85mm better than the 100mm gun. All of its parts were much more compact, and the gunnery sight placement was more comfortable. She could reach for the spare shells more easily. Its AP projectile also weighed maybe ten kilograms and was only around 70 centimeters long — far easier to pick up and load into the gun. Naya was sure she could sustain a higher rate of fire on the 85mm than on the 100mm gun.

Across the clearing, 800 meters away, engineers prepared the 80 mm thick plate.

Once they were clear, Naya received the fire order, and launched a round downrange.

Brass ejected; the breech also belched a puff of smoke that smelled a bit strong.

Naya hardly paid it any mind. She was used to smoke; she was focused on the target.

In an instant a smoking hole the size of a fist appeared just off-center from the painted target. Though it was an easy shot to make — 800 meters, 90 degree angled plate — Naya still felt proud of her accuracy on the target. She would try for the bull’s eye next.

Switching from gunnery to periscope, she trained her vision equipment on her officers.

“What remained of the shell?” Captain Rajagopal asked over the radio.

Chief Ravan checked with her engineers using a hand radio and reported back.

“Fragmented after impact into four splinters. Most of the mass was lost on impact. The shard cone was tight, judging by the breach and the fall of the fragments.” She said.

Captain Rajagopal nodded her head toward the periscope. “Naya, status report!”

“Everything looks fine in here. Brass cycled successfully.” Naya replied.

“Good! We’ll hit the 100 mm plate and then test the endurance fire.”

Again the engineers set up the plate, but this time they tilted it at a steeper angle.

“This time the 100 mm plate is tilted at a 60 degree angle. Sloped armor provides more effective resistance against penetrators. Aim for the target nonetheless Naya.”

“Got it.” Naya loaded the next shell, and worked the elevation and turret controls. She stuck her tongue out, and felt a tension in her fingers as she prepared the gun. She aimed a little higher and off to the side than before, correcting for her last shot. Her fingers gripped the cannon trigger. Slowly and deliberately she pressed and depressed to fire.

In the center of the plate an ugly, irregular hole appeared where the shell breached.

“Excellent! Yes! Yes!” Chief Ravan cheered. “That 85 mm craves the steel!”

Bullseye! Naya adjusted the magnification of her sight as far as it would go and took in her handiwork. She had gotten the shell dead center. Due to the slope of the plate, the shellhole was shoddy looking and crooked. But she felt a swelling of pride nonetheless. In the cold cockpit of the Raktapata, she felt for a second the same strength that she had when she sprinted, when she kicked right past a goalie, when she cleared a jump.

Captain Rajagopal called and took Naya out of her reverie. “Private, begin endurance fire when ready. Launch ten consecutive AP shells through the gun as fast as you can.”

“Yes ma’am!” Naya said. “Beginning endurance fire! Clear the range for 3 minutes!”

From the ammunition rack she withdrew the first shell, put it down on the short extension connected to the breech, pulled the breech lever, punched the round inside, and pulled the trigger. She counted — it took her 12 seconds to complete this motion. Rack, carry, breech ring, load, shoot, 12 seconds. Second shell; she felt a sting in her shoulder that built as she slid in the third round. Third shell, and the smoke was starting to build. She coughed. Fourth shell, her eyes scanned the instruments while shooting, watching the cannon roll back in between the buffers with the recoil, the breech spitting back brass that fell under her and smoke that clouded up the turret. Fifth shell–

Naya loaded the shell and the breech closing nearly bit her hand off. Her trigger then stuck, and no amount of ramming it would dislodge a shell. Was her cannon jammed?

“Shit!” She cursed. She alerted everyone. “We’ve got a sticker! It’s not firing!”

“Get out of the tank right now!” Chief Ravan shouted. “Both of you!”

Naya gingerly removed her hand from the trigger and slowly backed away from the gun so as not to touch any instruments. She opened the hatch, letting in a trickle of rainwater. She climbed gingerly out of her hatch, and helped Farwah out of his. Both of them jumped off the tank hull, while Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan left their places under Karima’s umbrella, climbed on the tank and dropped inside. It occurred to Naya that if there was a truly dangerous malfunction, both of them could be killed in the tank.

“Please be careful.” She said. Neither of her officers responded one way or another.

Engineers kept their distance from the tank. Farwah pulled Naya along behind a tree trunk nearby that was just about thick enough to absorb metal fragments. There was no radio contact for several tense moments. Naya and Farwah surreptitiously peeked at the tank from behind the trunk. They saw Karima and Lila across the other side of the tank, similarly hiding. Finally there was some noise on the line — it sounded like a grunt, a rattling noise, and then a ripping noise as though someone was tearing sheets off a notebook in there.

“Looks like it’s just the electric fire control.” Chief Ravan said into the radio. “I can’t be sure whether it’s the trigger pressure, or if there’s a wiring failure or something.”

“Can we manually fire the cannon?” Captain Rajagopal asked.

“There’s a way — Naya, get me an adjustable wrench. It’s safe to approach.”

Naya felt a sudden relief. She strode out from behind the tree, crossed around the Raktapata’s back, since a cook-off misfire was always possible; she found Ravan’s toolbox, produced the necessary wrench, and climbed carefully on the tank. She leaned halfway down into the gunner’s hatch and found Ravan seated in her place, with Captain Rajagopal on the left-hand side at the back, waiting in the Commander’s chair.

Naya handed Chief Ravan the wrench. Ravan thanked her, unscrewed the head, and leaned over the gun and closed the wrench around an unseen piece of metal. She maneuvered on the turret basket, contorting herself to give the gun some clearance under her while still maintaining a hold on the wrench, and shouted a warning for everyone.

Twisting the wrench, Chief Ravan fired the gun. Naya nearly bashed her head against the turret roof and also nearly fell inside from the force. She watched as the gun slid just under the doctor’s chest and arm, while she shook in place from the force of the shot.

As if nothing had happened, the breech opened and spat out a little puff of smoke.

Chief Ravan sat back on the gunner’s chair, leaving the wrench stuck where it was.

“We obviously can’t conduct any more tests like this.” She sighed. “Let’s return to base. We’ll take out the 85 mm and replace it with the 76 mm KnK-3 or something.”

“I’m so sorry ma’am.” Naya whimpered, still hanging half-inside and letting in rain.

Chief Ravan waved her arms dismissively, as if fanning away the smoke in the turret. “Naya, it is not your fault at all. Personally, I’m blaming A.A.W in my report.” She said.

Owing to a defective trigger mechanism and, to a lesser extent, a heinous lack of obdurant solutions that resulted in the turret being full of smoke, the tests were once again called off. Farwah brought the Tokolosh back around and hooked the Raktapata on to it. Lila gave everyone involved in the turret situation a quick once-over as the resident medic, and then cleared them just as fast. Ravan and the Captain rode with the engineers on the Sharabha half-track. Karima and Lila made for the bed on the Tokolosh.

Naya requested to ride inside the Raktapata. Everyone gave her odd looks.

“Whatever for?” Chief Ravan said. “It’ll just be bumpy and uncomfortable.”

“Lila and Karima can ride up front on the Tokolosh. Everyone’ll be sheltered.”

Chief Ravan curled a lock of hair around a finger. Captain Rajagopal acquiesced.

When the Tokolosh got going, Naya was inside, seated on the gunner’s seat. She leaned back on the seat, casting lazy eyes about the turret. She felt like there was something that she was not getting. In a way she still thought that it was her fault, that she had brought something to this machine, like a curse. She looked around the turret as if she could find a solution to it. But then again, what could she even do? She was just an aimless brat with nothing to look forward to, nothing to hang on to in life, nothing special.

As the tank bumped along the forest floor, Naya felt the aching grow worse.

She pulled off her radio headset, because she was starting to weep again and she wanted to be by herself, completely cut off, when such things happened. It was only right.

“You’re just like me.” She said aloud. Her voice echoed in the empty, closed turret. “Anyone watching you would say you’re just fine. Some people might even be impressed with you. They’ll find potential and things to like. But you don’t live up to it. You’re all broken up inside. There’s so many problems– and even if you fix them, what would you do then? You’re a prototype. Something better will come to replace you in the end. It’s sad isn’t it?”

She wiped her face, but the tears wouldn’t stop. She ended up crying into the brass bumper at the end of the breech ring extension, as though into someone’s shoulders.

“We’re drakes with broken fangs. All we could do is bite, so what now?” She moaned.

* * *

Back at the camp, the Tokolosh deposited the Raktapata inside the workshop and drove off. Naya took her leave to go rest, Chief Ravan locked herself up in her work and everyone dispersed for the day. Dinner time passed peacefully by and night was falling.

It was this time that shifts were traded for any common overnight chores.

Captain Rajagopal entered the radio tent and found it mostly empty. Inside there was only Private Karima Faizan, doing one of the camp’s many odd jobs given its lopsided personnel roster — a bunch of one-track-minded engineers and a gaggle of replacements hastily procured through the slapdash efforts of Chief Ravan. At least it kept things lively.

Karima sat behind a desk with a large pair of headphones, a list of frequencies and secret codes at hand. Atop the desk was a radio unit. Beside the desk was a chair topped by a device that seemed like a chunky, ergonomically impoverished typewriter.

Spotting her superior, Karima stood up and saluted with a serious expression.

“Oh! Hujambo, comrade Captain! No important messages have come in, ma’am!”

Dhorsha Rajagopal smiled and signed at her subordinate. “At ease, private.”

Karima nodded — she had learned many common signs at an impressive pace.

“I’m willing to stay up to help if necessary.” Karima said. She spoke casually.

Casual speech was appreciated. It was easier to read than deliberately slow pronunciation. The Captain nodded her head back to the private in appreciation.

She signed again. “Not necessary. Get some rest. Your dedication is appreciated.”

Karima stood up from her desk and walked past the Captain to the tent door.

Suddenly the Captain raised her cane and blocked her. Karima looked surprised.

“Please leave that here.” signed the Captain. She pointed at Karima’s hand.

She was about to leave the tent with the handwritten note of secret codes in hand.

“I’m sorry ma’am! I just forgot!” Karima said. It would be serious if the codes got out.

“Don’t fret, I understand that it was a mistake. Have a good night.” the Captain signed.

Karima bowed her head to the Captain, gave her the codes, and left the tent without incident. The Captain put the piece of paper in her coat pocket and sat behind the desk.

Captain Rajagopal’s vision was better than most people imagined. Through her blue eye was blind to shapes and colors and contours, while it was open it could detect whether there was light or darkness. Her green eye could see fairly clearly up to two meters away or so. Some features looked indistinct, and she had problems with depth that she required her cane for. But she could read lips enough to communicate. From “Oh!” to “Captain” she could listen to every word that Karima was saying so long as it was spoken in Ayvartan.

Had she spoken them through the Captain’s special radio, the volume would have been boosted enough that the Captain would have heard it as tinny but audible noise.

These were methods that the KVW had helped her to train — they had told her they could improve her cognition, her focus, sharpen her, make her all that she could be. Most of their methods failed. But she helped develop new ones for people like herself.

There were no red rings around her eyes, but she was a KVW veteran nonetheless.

Almost as soon as she settled in the seat and started taking in the residual warmth of the previous occupant there was a rattling noise from the teleprinter. After a moment’s worth of grinding noises, it spat out a paper with an uninterrupted block of letters.

Captain Rajagopal held it up to her eye, and pulled out the week’s code sheet.

“8th Rifles retreating in east Shebelle. 3rd, 4th, 5th Rifles retreating in South. Gollaprollou vulnerable. Line to Benghu weakening. Offensive has failed. Enemy building up.”


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The Drake Given Fangs In Benghu (27.2)

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46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Because of the surrounding forest, the elevation of the ground toward the east and the camouflage net, Camp Vijaya was still rather gloomy at 0600. This made it easy to sleep in; so Naya slept in. She muttered to herself, twenty more minutes, and snuggled up against a bundle of her clothes that she had brought into her sleeping bag for comfort. She smiled, a genuine smile, brought on by holding something warm while half-asleep.

Then at 0633, a severe and impassioned bugling erupted just outside of her tent.

Naya jerked away and crawled half out of the tent, her naked lower body still inside the sleeping bag. She was wearing nothing but a one piece lavsan-fiber combat bra. There was a dull aching in her body, punctuated by very sudden bursts of pain in her joints that came and went as she maneuvered herself around in the fog of half-awake cognition.

Outside she found herself staring at a dark green pants leg and black shoes.

She looked up and found a giant of a woman looking down at her with a brass horn.

“It’s 0634! Time to get up! I’m not gonna have two breakfast shifts in a row!” She said.

Naya nodded dimly and started to extract herself from the tent. The woman shouted.

“Put some clothes on first!” She said, bowing down and pushing Naya into the tent.

Back inside, Naya dressed sloppily in a clean white shirt and green uniform. She slapped her garrison cap on over her head, and then crawled back out and labored to stand.

Tapping her feet just outside the tent, the young woman with the bugle didn’t look so huge when both of them were standing, but she was still almost two meters tall. She was statuesque: tall, with a good figure, and probably pretty fit under the uniform.

“Private Naya Oueddai.” Naya said softly, introducing herself through a yawn.

Opposite her, the woman’s golden eyes were half-closed and her thin brows downturned. Her thin lips were curled into a frown. A tiny twitch shook her light olive skin and the smooth features of her face. Even the high, voluminous, brown ponytail on her head, tied with a silky brown scarf, seemed to twitch like an angry tail in Naya’s eyes. When she introduced herself her tone was curt and her voice a little deep, maybe in anger, maybe not.

“Private Karima Faizan. Come on, you have dishes to do, Lila’s got her hands full.”

Naya blinked and stared, still half-asleep and uncomprehending of her demands.

Karima took her by the hand and pulled her along. Naya silently complied, her head not fully switched on. They walked to the other side of the camp, behind the chow line and into the back of a big tent beside which the water half-track was parked. Inside the tent there was a standard field kitchen, with burners, a stove, cracked-open crates of food, most of it packaged or preserved in various ways — and a big stack of dirty dishes inside of a big metal storage basin. Ahead of them, behind the kitchen counter, a nymph-like young woman with a white apron over her uniform and a white cap over blunt cut blond hair served the day’s breakfast staples to a crowd: a flatbread with paste-like curried vegetables or a lentil stew, milky yogurt with added fruit jelly as a drink, and a grape semolina halva dessert.

When she heard Karima come stomping into the kitchen tent, the young breakfast girl turned from the line and started scolding. “Karima, don’t treat her so roughly! She’s new and honestly you should just do her shift for today. Don’t take things out on her.”

“I’m not!” Karima said. She parted through her swept bangs with a finger during the scolding, and cast her eyes at the floor, like a child met with the rhetorical force of an adult.

Naya raised her hand, a somewhat dim expression on her face, like a drunken smile.

“Where am I right now?” She asked through another involuntary yawn.

Karima and the serving girl looked at her, one scowling, the other amused.

“I’ll take her shift but just this once. She better pull herself together.” Karima said.

“Thank you, you’re a real sweetie, Karima.” the serving girl said.

“It’s not like I’m doing anything special.” Karima replied. She heaved the metal basin full of dishes and took it outside with her head up high as if turning up her nose.

Naya stood there staring. Her head was thick as the forest and her thoughts as lost in it as the camp was. She stood around uncomprehendingly for a moment, until the serving girl waved at her to come up front to the chow line. Naya ambled forward, and the girl pressed a little bottle into her hands. Unthinkingly, Naya removed the stopper and drank. A hot, disgusting, slimy liquid trailed down her throat, burning all the way.

Suddenly everything in her body woke at once, mostly in shock and disgust.

“It’s cayenne and tumeric and garlic. Wake up and lend a hand, please.”

In her own way this serving girl was as rough as Karima was! Naya quickly complied. There were a dozen people still lined up, waiting patiently for food. Most of them had the red rings around their eyes and the vacant stares like Farwah — they were eerily noticeable in the morning gloom. But not all of them had the rings; there were some ordinary folks among them. Everyone had a tray in their hands. Naya stood at her side and helped spoon in the lentils and yogurt, while the girl laid down flatbread and halva. With two people, the line thinned very quickly, and new arrivals started being fed as soon as they arrived at the tent. While she worked Naya heard water gushing from the half-track’s tank behind the tent, as well as Karima’s loud grumbling whenever the water subsided.

At around 0710 they had fed everyone and stood around waiting for any stragglers.

“Chow line opens at 0620 or so, depending on preparations; it closes at 0700 but we don’t want to be cruel to anyone who might have missed a chance to eat warm.”

Naya nodded. She extended her hand to shake, hoping to put a good foot forward.

“Naya Oueddai. Private. Sorry for the trouble. I’ll be more alert in the future!”

“I’m Private Lila Bennewitz.” the girl said. “Very pleased to meet you Naya.”

Naya suddenly honed in on her features, her skin, her eyes. She said nothing, because she didn’t want to put her foot in her mouth a second time and look insensitive by asking Lila if she was Nochtish, the way she had asked Farwah if he was Svechthan. It would be an especially sensitive subject for Lila given the current conditions — but that kind of foreign surname really stood out. Naya smiled and they shook hands like comrades.

“You did a good job! Tomorrow it’ll be someone else’s shift. I’ll get you a copy of the camp schedules ASAP. Every Private has a shift doing camp jobs, since the officers and the engineers have their hands full between all the tests, preparations, reports–“

“Is she mad? Karima, I mean.” Naya interrupted, whispering and covering her mouth. She looked over her shoulder and could see Karima furiously scrubbing trays.

“She’s always mad.” Lila giggled. “Don’t mind her, she truly means well.”

“I’m sure she does. Should I go help her, you think?” Naya asked.

“Oh no. No no.” Lila withdrew a tray from the stack, handed Naya some breakfast. “I’ll help her. You stay here, eat this, and serve anyone. You can leave in fifteen or so.”

With a cheerful wave, Lila skipped out of the tent. Still holding her tray, Naya watched from afar as she loomed over Karima, patted her shoulders, tweaked her ponytail. In response, Karima scrubbed more furiously and completely ignored her presence.

Naya smiled and wondered if she could become friends like that sometime.

* * *

A dispassionate, off-key bugle call sounded repeatedly through the middle of the forest.

Karima stood despondent and helpless while Chief Ravan made a nuisance of herself with the instrument. After about a minute of blowing fruitlessly into the brass, she nonchalantly gave it back. Karima wiped it off with a clean handkerchief, and played the correct call.

“Anyway!” Chief Ravan called out after a few notes. “We will now begin the first test of the Raktapata Medium Tank with the hundred millimeter KnK-10 high-velocity gun!

A little after noon the testing unit had left the camp on the Sharabha half-track. Farwah and Naya towed the Raktapata using the Tokolosh tractor. Driving eastward through rough terrain and thick jungle, the convoy eventually reached a perfect spot at a somewhat clearer area of the wood. Though there were still several trees, but they had big roots and thick trunks and created a lot of space between themselves. There was a clear firing range of several hundred meters that they could exploit, and it was all under canopy cover.

Vehicles parked, and the crews dismounted. Now everyone made ready for the tests.

Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan stood off to the side while Naya and Farwah unhitched the Raktapata and climbed inside. Lila was also there as a first response medic, holding a bag with a red cross on it just in case. Karima played the role of bugler. There was a small squadron of gendarmes with submachine guns patrolling the forest. They had red rings around their eyes too, quite easily visible if you were near them.

Naya felt a thrill standing beside the Raktapata. It was a titan of a machine. She had seen the insides of cars, locomotives, and even an old airplane once during a trip. In training she had seen the interior of a Goblin, as well as diagrams of an enemy M2 Ranger. She had climbed into a Goblin turret and shot a few rounds. But this was a different beast.

She felt equal parts excited and anxious to be involved with a machine like this.

There was a voice in her head telling her it was too much, that she would fail and she should run, but she didn’t listen to it. This time was different. She ran toward the tank.

Farwah climbed inside through a front hatch, while Naya took a running leap onto the track, climbed on the turret and dropped herself in from the top hatch. There were separate hatches for the commander and for the gunner, because the massive breech and the slide plates of the 100 mm gun almost divided the turret into neat halves. There was a cushioned seat to the left for the gunner, and further up and to the far right was the commander’s seat. Farwah sat further down and front, in a chair under a thick hatch that blended into the hull roof plate. Naya could see some of him if she leaned quite far down from her seat.

She waved at him eagerly, and he turned around and waved back.

Ravan was right to seek people of a specific size — Farwah fit comfortably, but he was less than 170 cm tall. Naya was around 172, and she figured she was just about the cutoff to fit comfortably in the gunner’s seat. Her commander would have to be a little smaller. Captain Rajagopal would be a good fit for the task if it was necessary. On the whole, the interior was cramped. There was not much space to go around. Beside her the gun’s interior mechanisms felt quite enormous. In front of her the instrument block was convoluted. Behind her, some long, heavy 100 mm ammunition was kept handy — reserve shots went under the gun block and required painful contortions to fetch. Crew comfort was a tradeoff for the Raktapata’s profile. Something had to be sacrificed for the tank’s compact size.

It was uncomfortable. Naya seemed to bang her arms on something carelessly whenever she turned, and the hard seat only accented the dull aching she had felt all day.

Despite all this, she felt a surge of enthusiasm as she checked the equipment.

Naya flipped down the eyepiece for her periscope and looked into it. She turned the scope, scanning around in front of her. She saw Ravan, Captain Rajagopal, Karima, Lila, the gendarmes; she scanned around the forest for a moment. She saw engineers farther ahead, setting up the first target for the gunnery test. Pulling back from the periscope, she leaned forward and to her right to peer into the lower gunnery sight.

Focusing the sight, she watched the preparations being put in place down the makeshift range. Engineers were hard at work, laboring to raise a metal testing plate using materials brought into the forest from the camp, withdrawn from the back of the Tokolosh. Held upright by a strong metal frame, the plate had a target painted on it.

Once everything was ready, they cleared the area and went a safe distance away. They had to remain near the target to watch and record results, but also out of shrapnel range.

Farwah started the engine, and the tank brimmed with noisy life. They would have to communicate exclusively over the short range radio while the tank was active.

Chief Ravan whistled a little ditty to test the radio and then made an announcement.

“We will commence the first test! Armor plate, 80 mm thick, 800 m distance!”

Naya pulled on the traverse gear lever and turned the turret while looking down the sights. Because the lever was single-speed, some additional correction was needed to get it just right on the target. She would have to complain about that to Ravan.

“Load AP and fire when ready, Private Oueddai!” Captain Rajagopal said.

She wondered how much of the operation the Captain could effectively experience.

From behind her, Naya withdrew a solid steel penetrator. Each 100 mm round weighed close to 16 kilograms, and was nearly a meter long. They were unwieldy, and Naya felt that she was handling them clumsily. She maneuvered the tip of the shell onto the extended breech ring, freeing up a hand, and pulled a lever, opening the gun up to accept ammunition. Naya then pushed the heavy shell into the gun — the breech snapped shut automatically, completing the loading motion for her. Could’ve gone much faster than it did; she would need more practice with loading big shells if she wanted to fire more than one a minute!

“Firing rigid armor-piercing shell!” Naya called out. She pressed her trigger.

Naya felt the sheer power inside the turret as she cannon fired. She felt a force deflected toward her, and heard a deafening cry. It was as if a ghostly hand were smothering her for an instant. As the cannon belched out the shell and spit back the empty casing onto the ground of the tank, she whistled admiringly. Down the gunnery sight she saw the effect of that simple trigger pull occur in a second — a hole on the edge of the target. Penetration.

“Yes! Yes!” Chief Ravan shouted into the radio. “Penetration! Take that! Take it!”

“Please don’t shout so much.” Captain Rajagopal said over the same system.

“How are things in there? You feeling powerful Naya?” Chief Ravan asked.

Smoke wafted up from the breech and scratched at the interior of Naya’s nose. She ignored it. Her skin tingled with exhilaration from operating such an amazing weapon.

“I’m feeling like a dragon breathing fire, ma’am!” Naya chirped happily back.

“Oh ho ho! So then, tell me about the interior, did it survive the big shot?”

“Ma’am, everything looks fine from in here. All my instruments took it well.”

“Was there a lot of shaking? I went through hell installing those recoil buffers.”

“There was some shaking.” Naya said. “But the breech cycled perfectly fine.”

“How are you doing, Farwah? Did you feel like a tomato inside a can?”

Farwah sounded wholly unmoved by it all. “I’m not a tomato.” He said simply.

Chief Ravan laughed in the radio and commanded the second target be raised.

Soon the engineers were back to work again. Naya rested her back on the seat, pulling away from her vision equipment. She wiped sweat off her brow. She drank from her canteen. It was getting hot inside the turret. But she felt good! She felt energetic and focused.

Next up was a 100 mm plate at 800 meter distance. She loaded the round.

“Fire when ready, Naya!” Chief Ravan said.

Naya pressed the trigger and launched the second round. It blasted through to the target, again in less than a second, and punched a head-sized hole into the outer rim of the painted target. A little off from before, but nonetheless, she scored a penetration.

“Splendid! Splendid!” Chief Ravan cried out.

“One more shooting test before the endurance fire.” Captain Rajagopal said.

“Yes! Naya, this next test will simulate 150 mm of armor plate by using concrete blocks. Sadly, we have yet to be supplied 150 mm testing plates. Can you believe we don’t manufacture those? I had to ask some be custom-made and they haven’t arrived.”

“I can’t believe it at all ma’am.” Naya said. She was playing along. “It’s an outrage.”

“Quite! Anyway once the blocks are prepared, please shoot right at them for me.”

“It’d be my pleasure ma’am! I’ll let those blocks have it alright!” Naya replied.

She had a big grin on her face. She was really getting into the spirit of things.

Firing from a tank was different than an AT gun. An AT gun was vulnerable, it had to be hidden behind bushes or sandbags. It projected no power; it felt like running away.

But the Raktapata was enormous, powerful. It didn’t have anything to hide.

Inside this machine she felt like she wanted to. Strong, honest, eager, brave.

With a grin on her face, Naya loaded the 100 mm AP round and pushed it in.

She hit the trigger and buried her face in the gunnery sight, smiling through the vibrations and noise inside the tank as she watched the tower of solid blocks become suddenly displaced. Pieces of concrete went flying as the penetrator punched right through the target, just off to its side. A block slipped and fell off the top.

“Good! We’ll get a better result once the plate comes in, but I have high hopes that the KnK-10 can penetrate 150 mm of armor at 800 to 1000 meter distances!” Chief Ravan cheered.

Naya pulled back from the gunnery sight and stretched her arms. For the endurance shots she would have to load and shoot as fast as she could in succession. She started to twist each way at the waist, and to bend her back, making herself ready for the task.

At her side however the breech was still locked tight. It hadn’t cycled out the casing.

She pulled the breech lever and though it slid back, the breech did not open.

“Ma’am, the breech looks like it’s stuck. I can’t open it up.” Naya reported.

Chief Ravan responded with more alarm than Naya had thought she would.

“Don’t touch it! There might be shell remnants in it. Get out right now.”

Naya complied, though a little perplexed about the reaction. It was only inert brass trapped in the breech! She stood up on her chair, pushed up the hatch, and climbed out of the tank. Farwah exited as well. Unrelated personnel took a few steps back from the tank. Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal climbed on the back of the tank. Ravan peered down the hatch, leaning in while Captain Rajagopal kept her from falling on her face.

“Nothing from the lever either? Damn it.” Ravan said. “Looks like it might be a problem with the hydropneumatics. Maybe the oil’s gone bad. How hot was the gun?”

The Chief turned her head to Naya, who raised her hands defensively. “Dunno!”

With that simple word the tests on the 100 mm KnK-10 were forced to conclude.

* * *

Back at the camp, the Raktapata was returned to the workshop. A squadron of engineers in fireproof clothing met the testing party as they arrived and immediately set to work on the Raktapata, separating the gun mantlet from around the KnK-10 gun, pulling off the barrel and removing the breech block and slide. Chief Ravan picked up a specialty wrench and unscrewed a few bolts herself alongside them, all the while Captain Rajagopal exhorted her to change into safety clothing first. Naya and Farwah stood off to the side, watching.

In about fifteen minutes the engineers had the entire shooting apparatus dismantled, but they still hadn’t opened the breech despite taking much of it apart.

Ravan finally picked up a sledgehammer and slammed the top of the breech-block.

At once the breech ejected the shell casing. Then the breech lever fell right off.

She sighed audibly.

“When it rains, it pours!” She cried out. “We’ll mount the 85 mm A.A.W. until we’re sure that the 100 mm’s hydropneumatics are up to snuff. This is such a disappointment.”

Naya almost felt like crying. The Raktapata looked like quite a sorry sight with a gaping hole in its turret and its gun in pieces on the oily, grimy floor of the workshop. And all of this because brass failed to cycle? It felt almost cruel, and somehow, all her fault.

She felt a swelling of emotion and approached Chief Ravan. She bowed her head.

In a pitiful voice she started to apologize. “Ma’am, I’m sorry! This was my fault and I–“

“What? No, dear, no! It’s got nothing to do with you!” Ravan responded.

She put her hands on Naya’s shoulders and smiled. “You did a fantastic job!”

Naya nodded her head but wasn’t convinced. Dark thoughts were saying otherwise.

To think that something so powerful would be pulled away, chastised, for something as simple as a failure to cycle brass. Suddenly she felt her heart sinking, and she had to fight with herself to stay in Chief Ravan’s presence. Her teeth chattered, her hands shook. She fought back tears. It was a snap response from her body, as if ice cold water were crashing over her head. She withered inside under Ravan’s interrogating gaze.

She felt pathetic; and pathetic for feeling pathetic. Her mind was spiraling down.

Despite her attempts to hide it, Chief Ravan could see through her furtive behavior.

“Naya are you really alright? Were you hurt during the test?” Ravan asked.

It was hard to speak, but at least when the words came out they made some sense.

“I’m fine ma’am.” Naya said, in a somewhat choked voice. “Just a little tired is all.”

It wasn’t entirely a lie. Ravan looked her in the eyes and then turned away.

“You should go for the day. Eat well and get some rest, Private Oueddai.” Chief Ravan said. “You can work on your report later. For now just take care of yourself.”

Naya nodded her head and turned sharply around. She headed back to her tent.

She was worried for you and you ran away, her mind screamed at her. You coward.

That wasn’t it at all! She didn’t need to know. It was better that she didn’t.

But still the thought kept recurring, torturing her all day. Nice job breaking it, Naya.

 


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The Drake Given Fangs In Benghu (27.1)

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45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Benghu

Everything with four wheels was committed to the war effort in Dbagbo, so Farwah got around the village in an artillery tractor. He left it parked in a meadow downhill from the school, and Naya saw it as she walked down the slope. Atop two full-length tracks with five road wheels each sat a metal cab that looked as if taken directly from a Rompo truck, and behind it a short wooden bed, the right size for four or five people or a few crates.

Naya climbed on the passenger side and settled onto her metal seat. Farwah sat behind the steering sticks and pedals. He pushed the windshield and window glasses out, so that they stuck up and let fresh air into the cabin. When he started the engine it made a series of choking noises before it ultimately settled into a consistent low buzzing noise.

“We’ll be travelling at a brisk 33 kilometers per hour.” Farwah said. His voice had a lukewarm tone, quite unexcited. “We should reach the workshop in 30 minutes or so.”

“Will we return in the evening for dinner or will we set up at the shop?” Naya asked.

“We have food and lodging enough for you, but if you want to return I can drive you–“

“No, no! It’ll be fine. I’ll stay with you all.” Naya said. “Nice tractor by the way.”

Farwah blinked. “It is a Tokolosh artillery tractor. It’s actually a prototype.”

Naya smiled and knocked on the metal. “Working with some neat stuff huh?”

Farwah nodded his head. He turned his attention forward, and worked the sticks, putting the tractor in reverse away from the slope and then setting off down the field.

Benghu was a town of decent size as far as its population was concerned, but it was spread out between the main town areas on the open terrain farther to the south, the school to the northeast, and an additional populated area to the west around the village train station. Benghu’s southern hamlets were separated from Chanda and the train station district by a broad stretch of meadow itself divided by shallow, sparely wooded hills. Thicker woodland ringed the village to the east and west, channeling traffic through the area.

Chanda’s buildings and its track were located on a fairly shallow hill, perhaps ten meters above the adjacent eastern half of the meadow that was a few kilometers wide and several more long. A small wooded series of little hills visible from Chanda split the broader meadow into two halves. As they departed, Farwah headed northeast, past the damp, green meadows, around the shoulder of Chanda’s hilly campus, and into the heart of the wood.

Naya watched the world slide gently away as the tractor navigated the terrain. She used to live in the little community around the train station. She heard the train coming in every few days, bringing in food and materials from the south for the canteen and factory, and leaving with textiles and lumber and fish from the village, bound for the north.

Everything around her was so familiar; she could insert herself anywhere she looked.

Benghu would have been mostly unchanged, save for the war and what it brought. Chanda, the town, the meadows, everything was unchanged enough these past few years that she found it hard to suppress the unwanted memory of her follies.

“So how does this research, workshop, engineering place work?” Naya asked, pausing between the various descriptors Farwah had used so far. She tried to act a little cute about it. In a way this was a chance to build a healthy rep. “Never done union stuff.”

Farwah replied dispassionately. “We’re not technically union, at least not on the whole. We’re a testing unit, Vijaya, affiliated with the MAW mechanical works union but also with the army. Right now we just help test and maintain early production vehicles. Primary assembly is done in Chayat and Jomba, and then models are field tested in various places under the supervision of a design engineer and a political officer.”

“You’re KVW aren’t you? I can see it in your eyes, that red ring.” Naya asked.

“Well, KVW is an affiliation; so at the moment, I am not a part of the KVW.”

Naya crossed her arms and smiled mischievously. “Well, if you say so.”

She could understand his reticence. After all there were rumors of significant political turmoil in Solstice at the moment. But he had to know that nobody was going to buy his act — nobody was going to take his “affiliation” excuse for granted. Perhaps he just didn’t care. She supposed he was there for security. MAW probably required the KVW around to guard its prototypes, because the KVW were known to be loyal and reliable, and would never spill its secrets. Or maybe it was the other way around and the KVW required MAW to take its agents in exchange for help realizing their prototypes and keeping them secure.

Either way, Naya had no choice in the matter. She put it all out of her mind.

“You must know by now that I haven’t got any mechanical experience.” Naya said.

“We don’t need any.” Farwah said. “We just need a gunner, our last one was hurt–“

Naya stared at him and held up her hands as if defending herself. “Hurt how?”

“During testing a gun’s breech-block became unstable and dislodged a part into the crew compartment. It struck him in the chest. He’ll be fine — nothing fatal at all.”

“How big was the gun?” Naya asked, trying to imagine the sequence of events.

“It was a 122mm but don’t worry, we’ve scrapped it since then.” Farwah said.

Naya suddenly felt somewhat less excited about the job she was taking on.

The Tokolosh veered off the meadow and plunged deep into the forest. Following a muddy path, shaded by the overgrown canopies of trees wrapped in the forest’s damp green tangle, the tractor made its way through indistinct verdure for several minutes. Naya spotted a few animals in the lush underbrush, and birds and lizards hanging from the vines and the wildly curling branches stretching from tree to tree. She had barely seen a creature alive other than humans since the invasion began, not even birds in the sky. She wondered if they had sensed the danger and left without warning them. Escaped to sanctuaries like the forests around Benghu, thick and (mostly) empty.

At the end of the path there was a clearing covered by several camouflage nets, entwined in branches and leaves to try to mimic the surrounding canopy. A little village of improvised lodgings occupied the clearing, built from tent canvas and sandbags and tin sheets. A half-dozen people stood in a chow line in front of a big kitchen tent, while a dozen others worked on tool stations or patrolled the perimeter with submachine guns in hand.

She saw a few red ringed eyes on guards and laborers as the tractor drove past.

One particular building stood out as having more effort put into it. This was a tin building, large and square with a flat roof, visible wooden supports on the walls and corners, and a sliding tin doorway with a chain. It lay at the center of the encampment like a sun, the tents orbiting. Naya guessed that was where they kept the important machines and the tools and parts for them — safely out of the elements, locked up and accountable for.

Farwah drove slowly around the building and around the back of the encampment.

Three half-tracked utility trucks were parked in a line just outside the clearing and under the natural canopy of the trees. One was equipped with a large tank of water on its bed; a second bore the weight of a large armored enclosure topped with a circular radio aerial, a command post; the third half-track was the ordinary Sharabha carrier, with enough space for over twenty men and women, its side panels holding up a canvas that covered the utility bed and a small steel platform from which a light machine gunner could shoot.

Farwah parked the Tokolosh tractor beside the half-tracks and sounded the horn.

“Follow me. We’ll meet with the chief engineer and the politruk.” Farwah said.

“Politruk?”

“Political officer. A Military Council observer is required to report on projects.”

Naya nodded silently and with a little trepidation she dismounted the vehicle.

Together they walked along the southern edge of the camp, to a large green tent pitched opposite the workshop and partially enclosed in sandbags. Farwah announced their presence in a restrained tone of voice and pulled up the tent flap for Naya. The inside was roomy. There was a table, several chairs, and a desk stacked with radio equipment.

Waiting in the tent were the two women in charge of the encampment. Naya took in a breath and waited for them to approach first. She had to be respectful in a new base.

“Dr. Vimala Ravan,” stood first and out front, an eyecatching, mature woman with pleasantly wavy honey-blond hair and blue eyes, and a lightly freckled, soft brown complexion. She spoke her name in a slow, self-indulgent tone with a delicate smile.

“I’m Private Naya Ouddeai, ma’am!” Naya introduced herself quickly and tried not to stammer or blush. She had not expected the chief engineer to be so– comely.

Chief Ravan casually plucked a cigarette from her lips and balanced it between two fingers, while extending her other hand to Naya and exchanging a vigorous shake.

“Pleased to meet you! I’m elated to have a new gunner. I looked at the reserves files of every neighboring village and you seemed perfect, and conveniently close, so I sent Farwah to get you. I also read about your recent misfortunes. Condolences for your unit. How are you feeling dear?” As she spoke a little smoke seeped from her lips. Her white coat, red dress shirt, undone buttons and tie, black skirt and black seamed leggings, accented by the glossy red lipstick and purple eyeshadow on her face, made her seem both messy and elegant all at once. Naya was absorbed in the moment, the words more a sweet song than a message.

In Naya’s mind she became a cigarette-and-roses scented queen of a tin castle.

“I’m Naya, ma’am!” Naya said again, suddenly and awkwardly. Her head blanked.

Chief Ravan chuckled. “Ah, well, I bet that’s a good condition to be in, sweetie.”

Naya felt like sinking into a hole with embarrassment. She had opened her mouth without thinking at all because her puerile imagination was running away with her. She had wanted to come off as energetic and positive and instead just looked stupid!

Farwah stared vacantly as if he had seen nothing — that at least was reassuring.

“Now then, I’ll yield the floor to our commissar, but first,” Chief Ravan started waving her index finger at herself beckoning Naya, who at first interpreted the gesture in a puerile way and stood motionless. But then she realized that the Chief just wanted her to bow her head, and she complied. Chief Ravan slipped a pair of headphones over her head and clipped a little tank crew radio microphone to the collar of her uniform jacket.

She then half-turned, smiled and made a strange hand gesture to her companion.

A woman wearing a similar headset waved from the table behind Ravan.

She stood from the table but maintained her distance. “Can you hear me?”

Naya heard a soft, sweet voice in her ear through the wireless headphone set.

“I am Captain Dhorsha Rajagopal. Before we continue: how’s the volume?”

Naya self-consciously pulled her collar up. “I can hear you Captain.”

“Don’t tug your shirt,” Chief Ravan said, “it’s not necessary. Speak casually.”

“Alright.” Naya let go of her shirt and simply spoke. “I can hear you Captain.”

Captain Rajagopal nodded and approached, periodically tapping the ground with a long green cane. She made her way to Ravan’s side, and handed her the cane for her to temporarily hold. The Captain then smiled and extended both of her hands to Naya.

“I am pleased to meet you, Private Oueddai. I’m the political officer in this unit, but please don’t fret. I trust we will be great comrades in the time to come.” She said.

Naya extended a hand, and the Captain took it with both of her own, and felt the palm and knuckles with her fingers. Naya was sure her cheeks had exploded into red as the captain’s bare fingers pressed on her and felt her skin. Just as with the Doctor, Naya felt quite taken by the Commissar. It was hard not to, when locked in such a sentimental gesture.

“I salute you and your comrades, Private. Thanks to your gallantry at the border battle, the Territorial Army has bought enough time to mount a defense of Shebelle, and maybe hold the line at Dbagbo. I hope that we can maintain a united front there.”

Naya nodded dimly at her, trying to part the fog in her head. She could see the woman’s lips moving when she spoke, and she thought she heard tiny whispering and intakes of breath, but she couldn’t hear the words clearly except through the radio headset.

The Captain had her own set of headphones, thicker than Naya’s, and a microphone extending from a choker on her neck. A slack cable ran from the choker to her headset and also down her uniform to a green portable radio box belted to her hip.

Naya looked her up and down as subtly as she could, perhaps a bit star-struck.

Dressed in the impressive black and red dress uniform of a Military Councilor, with its peaked cap and golden epaulettes, Captain Rajagopal projected an air of orderly elegance and maturity all her own. Her hair was arranged in a neck-length bob, cut perfectly even on the sides and back, with her fringe divided in half and swept to either side. Heterochromic eyes, one blue and the other a bright green, struck a contrast with her deep brown skin.

“My blue eye is blind,” Captain Rajagopal said sweetly, “my green one close to it.”

“Are you also hard of hearing ma’am?” Naya said, feeling a bit oafish for asking.

“Quite,” replied the Captain, “but I can read lips if people are close enough to me and speak casually. Furthermore this handy short-range radio system helps me communicate enough for work. I can speak, but it is difficult for me to raise my voice.”

She raised one hand and made a few signs with the fingers. Naya didn’t understand, and looked helplessly to Farwah and then to Chief Ravan in turn for an explanation.

“She just signed to say, ‘I can also speak sign language.'” Chief Ravan said.

Naya nodded. “Sorry, Captain! I’ll try to learn it too when I am able!”

“Do not feel pressured to, Private Oueddai.” Captain Rajagopal replied. She rubbed her fingers over Naya’s knuckles again and smiled at her. “You have somewhat rough hands. I get a thorny feeling; but I can tell you’re soft on the inside.” She added.

“Thank you.” Naya said. She felt a momentary panic at the thought of being read through, but naturally the Captain had no preternatural ability to tell her demeanor.

When their hands parted, Ravan returned her cane. The Captain thanked her.

“Anyway, introductions done — I’m sure you met Farwah, right?” Chief Ravan glanced briefly at the boy and he nodded his head quietly. She nodded back. “Good, good. So, Private Oueddai, henceforth, you’re part of a testing battalion, and that entails a few things.”

Chief Ravan reached into her white coat and produced an extendable stick. She patted Naya on the shoulder with it, and pointed it out of the tent. Naya winced reflexively.

“This site is called Camp Vijaya because we are here to win! But mostly what we will do is not win, but write reports.” Chief Ravan smiled mischievously. “We brought you here to perform gunnery and write gunnery reports. You will write reports on so many things! It’ll be like school again. When you use a machine in this camp, Naya Oueddai, you will do so with your brain as in tune with its surroundings as possible.” She started making such impassioned hand gestures that Naya thought she was going to hit her with the extendable stick, and shied a few steps away. Ravan continued. “I want every detail of your experience.”

“When you shoot a gun, sweet Naya, I want to know — what was the grip like? How much did the trigger yield? How were the vibrations in the turret? What did you smell? Did the recoil disseminate through your body in part, in whole? How was the noise? How heavy did the shell feel? How heavy was the shell in actuality? What was your experience with the gun sights? Are you feeling sick? And that’s just the gun. I’m also interested in the turret! Was it cramped? How comfortable was your seat? Did the spent shells fall neatly into the case basket? Do you feel any prolonged back-ache? I’m forgetting some things, surely. But I believe I have made my point clear. Thorough feedback is essential.” She said the last word in such a sultry tone of voice that Naya would have describe her as thirsty for feedback.

“Oh my! Did you get all of that, Private?” Captain Rajagopal added sweetly.

“Yes ma’am!” Naya replied, almost dizzy from the barrage of theoretical questions.

“Well that is good. I have only one important rule for you. You see, perhaps regrettably, I must inform you that if you leak any confidential information outside of this camp, you will be punished very severely.” Captain Rajagopal said, patting Naya on the shoulder.

Naya smiled awkwardly back. This lady had some hidden depths under that hat!

“Don’t worry, that has never happened.” Farwah said, raising his hands a little.

“You’re more likely to be injured by raw prototypes than our time-tested and lovely commissar.” Chief Ravan said, patting Captain Rajagopal on the shoulder.

Naya did not find that reassuring at all, but she kept flashing them a fake smile.

After the introductions and her impassioned speech, Chief Ravan took Naya by the shoulder and pushed her gently out of the tent, walking behind her and leading her toward the building in the center with Farwah and Captain Rajagopal in tow. Naya stood in front of the sliding tin door, and Farwah took the handle and pulled it open for her, slowly revealing the spacious interior of the camp’s workshop. Two monumental objects, rendered amorphous by the amount of tarps covering them, prominently occupied the sides of the room.

There was a large work space between them. A tracked crane tank was parked in the back and several wheeled drawers lay about where they were last left, each presumably full of tools. Everywhere the floor was a mess of scattered miscellaneous parts: rolls of track links, spare wheels, anonymous bolts and rivets meant for ancestors-know-what, large, barrel-less cannon blocks, spent shell casings, bulbs for headlights, ripped out periscope parts and more. It was dusty and oily and grimy everywhere and a mild chemical smell lingered inside.

“Don’t worry about the stains and the smell, most of it’s petrol, paint and solvents.”

Ravan walked past the door with her hands in her pockets and her cigarette between her teeth. She stepped nonchalantly over a black puddle in her high-heeled pumps, standing beside the shortest of the two massive objects. Whereas the other one was almost four meters tall, the one next to Chief Ravan was maybe 2.5 meters. She ripped the tarps off the object with a flourish, and looked back over her shoulder with a smile.

Voici!” Chief Ravan declared. “Mon œuvre maîtresse!”

Naya had only barely interacted with Goblin tanks in the past, but she had been given a run-down on the kinds of tanks active in Battlegroup Rhino, and there was no tank in that briefing that was quite like this one. Naya knew tanks well enough — she had to in order to kill them. This one was no Goblin; it was a tank, a real, substantial battle tank.

It was obvious now why there were so many “unaffiliated” KVW in the camp.

Even to the naked, untrained eye this would have been a much more robust machine than a Goblin. Though noticeably a stouter tank than the Goblin, it was wider but not that much taller, and it had a long, sleek, streamlined profile overall. It looked efficient rather than heavy. A sloped, thick glacis plate tapered sharply at the level of the track idler — on Goblins this plate was flat, and practically shouted at the enemy ‘shoot here for a perfect angle.’ Goblins had turret rings so tall they were almost a pedestal the turret sat on — this tank’s thick, hexagonal turret sat right on the hull center. Five substantial road wheels, along with an idler and a return roller, gave the treads a more robust appearance, covered at the top by a thicker track guard tapering over the front, offering better protection for the idler.

And of course the gun — oh what a gun it was! Naya thought it must have been at least three meters in length, and the bore looked to be at least 100 mm in diameter. It dwarfed any tank weapon Naya had seen, on either an Ayvartan or Nochtish tank.

This was technology that was perhaps unmatched in the world, not just in Ayvarta.

She looked at it with her mouth hanging open, taking dazed steps into the workshop. This vehicle was tapping into something at the core of her being. She could not help but to think that this was a vehicle that could cause the world to quake under its tracks.

“It’s amazing!” She said aloud, clapping her hands. “Never seen anything like it!”

Naya rushed to the side of the tank, looking at the treads, at the gun, at the glacis.

“Like your new pal? This is the RKS-57-P. I call it the Raktapata.” Chief Ravan said.

Still dumbstruck by the craftsmanship and the unique qualities of the design, Naya spoke without tearing her eyes from the machine. “Ma’am, did you invent all this?”

Chief Ravan crossed her arms and laughed a self-indulgent little oh ho ho.

“Tanks are designed by committee, dear! I was primarily responsible for the hull design. Still, I consider this Raktapata my baby nonetheless; I’ve made some tweaks.”

She pointed out the gun mantlet. “It was originally supposed to carry the 57mm high-velocity gun, but I’ve been trying to go up from that. I know we can do better!”

Touching the smooth green hull, Naya felt more excited than she had been in years.

“How successful have you been so far?” Naya asked, peering over the tank.

“Thoroughly unsuccessful,” chirped Captain Rajagopal’s voice from the headset.

Naya looked over her shoulder; the Captain and Farwah waved from the entrance.

Chief Ravan frowned and poked at the collar of her coat. “Have some faith!”

Laughing a little, the Captain approached, Farwah in tow, and everyone gathered around the tank. Naya almost felt like asking to climb on, but showed restraint.

“Our tests at this point will focus primarily on the gun.” Captain Rajagopal said.

Naya nodded. “I’m ready to go at any time!” She said. She felt a thrill in the tips of her feet as though she could jump five meters in the air. She wanted inside that tank!

“Your enthusiasm is appreciated.” replied the Captain. “For today, however, you should just get situated. Have some food, put up a tent; we can resume work tomorrow.”

Chief Ravan sighed audibly into the radio and clicked her heels in frustration.

“Ma’am– but I would rather have a task today, if it’s all the same!” Naya said.

Captain Rajagopal smiled, reached into her coat, and withdrew a pair of little books.

“Here’s some literature. Brush up on the revolutionary science, for today.”

She pressed the books into Naya’s hand and closed her hands around them.

Naya stared at the books despondently but said nothing at all about them.

* * *

There was a good spot at the edge of the camp where a tree grew low enough and lean enough to come in under the camouflage nets and provide a bit of natural cover.

Naya settled under it and started putting down the posts and stakes to stretch and hold her green canvas tent in place. After pitching her tent, she crawled inside. She laid on her back, feeling the individual bumps of the uneven earth beneath the canvas floor.

Looking at the stitched roof seam, she smiled a little to herself. It was peaceful here. Back at the battery command near the border she slept in a barracks and it was always noisy and she never had privacy. This reminded her a lot of being back in school.

For better and for worse, but she could endure the latter for the former.

Outside, the grass rustled as someone came closer. Naya turned around on the floor.

Farwah arrived with a big steaming metal mug in one hand and a big bag in the other. She crawled out to meet him, her upper body half out of the tent. He knelt and handed her the mug. She ate on her belly like a snake, kicking her legs up and down. She drank the pea soup in big, hungry sips, nibbled on the cheese cubes, and took a bite out of the flatbread crisps that had been dipped into the mug. It was all just a little bland.

Farwah dropped the large green bag beside the tent and sat down on a stump nearby.

“I went and got you some camp essentials, since I saw you setting up your tent.”

“How thoughtful!” Naya said. She gave him a thumbs-up. “You’re a true comrade!”

He withdrew a bedroll from the bag and dropped it on the ground; he was not so nonchalant when he withdrew few packs of clothing, including an underwear bundle. These he picked up with a bit of reticence and deposited them very gingerly.

“Standard sizes. Ask the supply officer Devaki if they don’t fit properly.” He said.

“I will.” Naya replied, pulling the two bundles into her tent and setting them aside. “Hey, you’ve been here longer than me, give me a little orientation. Anything I should know?”

“We wake up every morning at 0600 for breakfast.” Farwah said. He seemed to give little consideration before deciding to offer that piece of information. Naya chuckled.

“Do you have to do a lot of work around here? Is it really grueling?” She asked.

“I would characterize it as calm. Unless there’s a test, we all work at our own pace.”

“That’s good to hear. You’re an engineer right? So what do you do specifically?”

She thought she was pushing her luck with the small talk, but Farwah was unmoved. She tried to read his reactions, though he had very little visible reflex. His vacant expression never changed, and he answered every question calm and politely.

“Mainly I work as a mechanic. I help with repairs and maintenance. But I also run errands when they’re needed, because there’s never that much repair work to do.”

Naya held her head in her hands and tipped it to one side. “How good are you?”

Farwah paused for a moment. He raised a finger to his chin. “I would say I am still learning, but I can perform field maintenance on vehicles like the Raktapata and Tokolosh.”

“Ah, that’s handy– I take it then you’re the Raktapata’s driver, too?” Naya said.

Farwah nodded. “We have a few capable drivers, but I’m usually the test driver.”

Naya nodded. She supposed she would be taking the seat over him in the tank then.

“That’s neat. You know, I was around mechanical work a lot as a kid.” Naya said.

“Interesting. You told me you had no experience before.” Farwah said.

“Well, not first-hand. Nothing I can put in a union reference sheet or something. But my parents are engineers.” Naya said. “I was really fond of machines as a kid, but you know, the heart wavers and all. It’s odd to find myself here now to be honest.”

“I understand perfectly. When I was a child, I wanted to be a railroad worker. Now I’d very much rather not do that. Where are your parents right now?” Farwah said

“Not around.” Naya said. She punctuated it by cocking a little smile.

It helped that Farwah was tactful enough to move on. “I can’t say something like ‘I think you’d like it here’ because I truly don’t know. But I don’t find it displeasing.”

“Facts are important, huh.” Naya said, looking at him with her fists against her cheeks.

He nodded. “In the spirit of camaraderie, what would you say to your own questions?”

Naya held out one hand, wiggling her fingers. “I’m an average girl dreaming of love.”

“Fair enough.” Farwah replied. He averted his eyes a little awkwardly.

Farwah left soon after, and Naya was left to her own devices for the rest of the day. She lined up for dinner, walked around the perimeter, and then went back to her tent. After 1900 all lights had to go off, except for dim electric torches. She laid on her back, and read about dialectical materialism out of a cheap paper pamphlet with choppy type.

It was an excuse not to think about the real answers to her own questions.

About the selfishness and the cowardice she hid behind a flighty smile.

A voice hissed in the back of her head. When will you run from here too?


 

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The Drake Given Fangs In Benghu — Unternehmen Solstice

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 45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Benghu

Everything with four wheels was committed to the war effort in Dbagbo, so Farwah got around the village in an artillery tractor. He left it parked in a meadow downhill from the school, and Naya saw it as she walked down the slope. Atop two full-length tracks with five road wheels each sat a metal cab that looked as if taken directly from a Rompo truck, and behind it a short wooden bed, the right size for four or five people or a few crates.

Naya climbed on the passenger side and settled onto her metal seat. Farwah sat behind the steering sticks and pedals. He pushed the windshield and window glasses out, so that they stuck up and let fresh air into the cabin. When he started the engine it made a series of choking noises before it ultimately settled into a consistent low buzzing noise.

“We’ll be travelling at a brisk 33 kilometers per hour.” Farwah said. His voice had a lukewarm tone, quite unexcited. “We should reach the workshop in 30 minutes or so.”

“Will we return in the evening for dinner or will we set up at the shop?” Naya asked.

“We have food and lodging enough for you, but if you want to return I can drive you–“

“No, no! It’ll be fine. I’ll stay with you all.” Naya said. “Nice tractor by the way.”

Farwah blinked. “It is a Tokolosh artillery tractor. It’s actually a prototype.”

Naya smiled and knocked on the metal. “Working with some neat stuff huh?”

Farwah nodded his head. He turned his attention forward, and worked the sticks, putting the tractor in reverse away from the slope and then setting off down the field.

Benghu was a town of decent size as far as its population was concerned, but it was spread out between the main town areas on the open terrain farther to the south, the school to the northeast, and an additional populated area to the west around the village train station. Benghu’s southern hamlets were separated from Chanda and the train station district by a broad stretch of meadow itself divided by shallow, sparely wooded hills. Thicker woodland ringed the village to the east and west, channeling traffic through the area.

Chanda’s buildings and its track were located on a fairly shallow hill, perhaps ten meters above the adjacent eastern half of the meadow that was a few kilometers wide and several more long. A small wooded series of little hills visible from Chanda split the broader meadow into two halves. As they departed, Farwah headed northeast, past the damp, green meadows, around the shoulder of Chanda’s hilly campus, and into the heart of the wood.

Naya watched the world slide gently away as the tractor navigated the terrain. She used to live in the little community around the train station. She heard the train coming in every few days, bringing in food and materials from the south for the canteen and factory, and leaving with textiles and lumber and fish from the village, bound for the north.

Everything around her was so familiar; she could insert herself anywhere she looked.

Benghu would have been mostly unchanged, save for the war and what it brought. Chanda, the town, the meadows, everything was unchanged enough these past few years that she found it hard to suppress the unwanted memory of her follies.

“So how does this research, workshop, engineering place work?” Naya asked, pausing between the various descriptors Farwah had used so far. She tried to act a little cute about it. In a way this was a chance to build a healthy rep. “Never done union stuff.”

Farwah replied dispassionately. “We’re not technically union, at least not on the whole. We’re a testing unit, Vijaya, affiliated with the MAW mechanical works union but also with the army. Right now we just help test and maintain early production vehicles. Primary assembly is done in Chayat and Jomba, and then models are field tested in various places under the supervision of a design engineer and a political officer.”

“You’re KVW aren’t you? I can see it in your eyes, that red ring.” Naya asked.

“Well, KVW is an affiliation; so at the moment, I am not a part of the KVW.”

Naya crossed her arms and smiled mischievously. “Well, if you say so.”

She could understand his reticence. After all there were rumors of significant political turmoil in Solstice at the moment. But he had to know that nobody was going to buy his act — nobody was going to take his “affiliation” excuse for granted. Perhaps he just didn’t care. She supposed he was there for security. MAW probably required the KVW around to guard its prototypes, because the KVW were known to be loyal and reliable, and would never spill its secrets. Or maybe it was the other way around and the KVW required MAW to take its agents in exchange for help realizing their prototypes and keeping them secure.

Either way, Naya had no choice in the matter. She put it all out of her mind.

“You must know by now that I haven’t got any mechanical experience.” Naya said.

“We don’t need any.” Farwah said. “We just need a gunner, our last one was hurt–“

Naya stared at him and held up her hands as if defending herself. “Hurt how?”

“During testing a gun’s breech-block became unstable and dislodged a part into the crew compartment. It struck him in the chest. He’ll be fine — nothing fatal at all.”

“How big was the gun?” Naya asked, trying to imagine the sequence of events.

“It was a 122mm but don’t worry, we’ve scrapped it since then.” Farwah said.

Naya suddenly felt somewhat less excited about the job she was taking on.

The Tokolosh veered off the meadow and plunged deep into the forest. Following a muddy path, shaded by the overgrown canopies of trees wrapped in the forest’s damp green tangle, the tractor made its way through indistinct verdure for several minutes. Naya spotted a few animals in the lush underbrush, and birds and lizards hanging from the vines and the wildly curling branches stretching from tree to tree. She had barely seen a creature alive other than humans since the invasion began, not even birds in the sky. She wondered if they had sensed the danger and left without warning them. Escaped to sanctuaries like the forests around Benghu, thick and (mostly) empty.

At the end of the path there was a clearing covered by several camouflage nets, entwined in branches and leaves to try to mimic the surrounding canopy. A little village of improvised lodgings occupied the clearing, built from tent canvas and sandbags and tin sheets. A half-dozen people stood in a chow line in front of a big kitchen tent, while a dozen others worked on tool stations or patrolled the perimeter with submachine guns in hand.

She saw a few red ringed eyes on guards and laborers as the tractor drove past.

One particular building stood out as having more effort put into it. This was a tin building, large and square with a flat roof, visible wooden supports on the walls and corners, and a sliding tin doorway with a chain. It lay at the center of the encampment like a sun, the tents orbiting. Naya guessed that was where they kept the important machines and the tools and parts for them — safely out of the elements, locked up and accountable for.

Farwah drove slowly around the building and around the back of the encampment.

Three half-tracked utility trucks were parked in a line just outside the clearing and under the natural canopy of the trees. One was equipped with a large tank of water on its bed; a second bore the weight of a large armored enclosure topped with a circular radio aerial, a command post; the third half-track was the ordinary Sharabha carrier, with enough space for over twenty men and women, its side panels holding up a canvas that covered the utility bed and a small steel platform from which a light machine gunner could shoot.

Farwah parked the Tokolosh tractor beside the half-tracks and sounded the horn.

“Follow me. We’ll meet with the chief engineer and the politruk.” Farwah said.

“Politruk?”

“Political officer. A Military Council observer is required to report on projects.”

Naya nodded silently and with a little trepidation she dismounted the vehicle.

Together they walked along the southern edge of the camp, to a large green tent pitched opposite the workshop and partially enclosed in sandbags. Farwah announced their presence in a restrained tone of voice and pulled up the tent flap for Naya. The inside was roomy. There was a table, several chairs, and a desk stacked with radio equipment.

Waiting in the tent were the two women in charge of the encampment. Naya took in a breath and waited for them to approach first. She had to be respectful in a new base.

“Dr. Vimala Ravan,” stood first and out front, an eyecatching, mature woman with pleasantly wavy honey-blond hair and blue eyes, and a lightly freckled, soft brown complexion. She spoke her name in a slow, self-indulgent tone with a delicate smile.

“I’m Private Naya Ouddeai, ma’am!” Naya introduced herself quickly and tried not to stammer or blush. She had not expected the chief engineer to be so– comely.

Chief Ravan casually plucked a cigarette from her lips and balanced it between two fingers, while extending her other hand to Naya and exchanging a vigorous shake.

“Pleased to meet you! I’m elated to have a new gunner. I looked at the reserves files of every neighboring village and you seemed perfect, and conveniently close, so I sent Farwah to get you. I also read about your recent misfortunes. Condolences for your unit. How are you feeling dear?” As she spoke a little smoke seeped from her lips. Her white coat, red dress shirt, undone buttons and tie, black skirt and black seamed leggings, accented by the glossy red lipstick and purple eyeshadow on her face, made her seem both messy and elegant all at once. Naya was absorbed in the moment, the words more a sweet song than a message.

In Naya’s mind she became a cigarette-and-roses scented queen of a tin castle.

“I’m Naya, ma’am!” Naya said again, suddenly and awkwardly. Her head blanked.

Chief Ravan chuckled. “Ah, well, I bet that’s a good condition to be in, sweetie.”

Naya felt like sinking into a hole with embarrassment. She had opened her mouth without thinking at all because her puerile imagination was running away with her. She had wanted to come off as energetic and positive and instead just looked stupid!

Farwah stared vacantly as if he had seen nothing — that at least was reassuring.

“Now then, I’ll yield the floor to our commissar, but first,” Chief Ravan started waving her index finger at herself beckoning Naya, who at first interpreted the gesture in a puerile way and stood motionless. But then she realized that the Chief just wanted her to bow her head, and she complied. Chief Ravan slipped a pair of headphones over her head and clipped a little tank crew radio microphone to the collar of her uniform jacket.

She then half-turned, smiled and made a strange hand gesture to her companion.

A woman wearing a similar headset waved from the table behind Ravan.

She stood from the table but maintained her distance. “Can you hear me?”

Naya heard a soft, sweet voice in her ear through the wireless headphone set.

“I am Captain Dhorsha Rajagopal. Before we continue: how’s the volume?”

Naya self-consciously pulled her collar up. “I can hear you Captain.”

“Don’t tug your shirt,” Chief Ravan said, “it’s not necessary. Speak casually.”

“Alright.” Naya let go of her shirt and simply spoke. “I can hear you Captain.”

Captain Rajagopal nodded and approached, periodically tapping the ground with a long green cane. She made her way to Ravan’s side, and handed her the cane for her to temporarily hold. The Captain then smiled and extended both of her hands to Naya.

“I am pleased to meet you, Private Oueddai. I’m the political officer in this unit, but please don’t fret. I trust we will be great comrades in the time to come.” She said.

Naya extended a hand, and the Captain took it with both of her own, and felt the palm and knuckles with her fingers. Naya was sure her cheeks had exploded into red as the captain’s bare fingers pressed on her and felt her skin. Just as with the Doctor, Naya felt quite taken by the Commissar. It was hard not to, when locked in such a sentimental gesture.

“I salute you and your comrades, Private. Thanks to your gallantry at the border battle, the Territorial Army has bought enough time to mount a defense of Shebelle, and maybe hold the line at Dbagbo. I hope that we can maintain a united front there.”

Naya nodded dimly at her, trying to part the fog in her head. She could see the woman’s lips moving when she spoke, and she thought she heard tiny whispering and intakes of breath, but she couldn’t hear the words clearly except through the radio headset.

The Captain had her own set of headphones, thicker than Naya’s, and a microphone extending from a choker on her neck. A slack cable ran from the choker to her headset and also down her uniform to a green portable radio box belted to her hip.

Naya looked her up and down as subtly as she could, perhaps a bit star-struck.

Dressed in the impressive black and red dress uniform of a Military Councilor, with its peaked cap and golden epaulettes, Captain Rajagopal projected an air of orderly elegance and maturity all her own. Her hair was arranged in a neck-length bob, cut perfectly even on the sides and back, with her fringe divided in half and swept to either side. Heterochromic eyes, one blue and the other a bright green, struck a contrast with her deep brown skin.

“My blue eye is blind,” Captain Rajagopal said sweetly, “my green one close to it.”

“Are you also hard of hearing ma’am?” Naya said, feeling a bit oafish for asking.

“Quite,” replied the Captain, “but I can read lips if people are close enough to me and speak casually. Furthermore this handy short-range radio system helps me communicate enough for work. I can speak, but it is difficult for me to raise my voice.”

She raised one hand and made a few signs with the fingers. Naya didn’t understand, and looked helplessly to Farwah and then to Chief Ravan in turn for an explanation.

“She just signed to say, ‘I can also speak sign language.'” Chief Ravan said.

Naya nodded. “Sorry, Captain! I’ll try to learn it too when I am able!”

“Do not feel pressured to, Private Oueddai.” Captain Rajagopal replied. She rubbed her fingers over Naya’s knuckles again and smiled at her. “You have somewhat rough hands. I get a thorny feeling; but I can tell you’re soft on the inside.” She added.

“Thank you.” Naya said. She felt a momentary panic at the thought of being read through, but naturally the Captain had no preternatural ability to tell her demeanor.

When their hands parted, Ravan returned her cane. The Captain thanked her.

“Anyway, introductions done — I’m sure you met Farwah, right?” Chief Ravan glanced briefly at the boy and he nodded his head quietly. She nodded back. “Good, good. So, Private Oueddai, henceforth, you’re part of a testing battalion, and that entails a few things.”

Chief Ravan reached into her white coat and produced an extendable stick. She patted Naya on the shoulder with it, and pointed it out of the tent. Naya winced reflexively.

“This site is called Camp Vijaya because we are here to win! But mostly what we will do is not win, but write reports.” Chief Ravan smiled mischievously. “We brought you here to perform gunnery and write gunnery reports. You will write reports on so many things! It’ll be like school again. When you use a machine in this camp, Naya Oueddai, you will do so with your brain as in tune with its surroundings as possible.” She started making such impassioned hand gestures that Naya thought she was going to hit her with the extendable stick, and shied a few steps away. Ravan continued. “I want every detail of your experience.”

“When you shoot a gun, sweet Naya, I want to know — what was the grip like? How much did the trigger yield? How were the vibrations in the turret? What did you smell? Did the recoil disseminate through your body in part, in whole? How was the noise? How heavy did the shell feel? How heavy was the shell in actuality? What was your experience with the gun sights? Are you feeling sick? And that’s just the gun. I’m also interested in the turret! Was it cramped? How comfortable was your seat? Did the spent shells fall neatly into the case basket? Do you feel any prolonged back-ache? I’m forgetting some things, surely. But I believe I have made my point clear. Thorough feedback is essential.” She said the last word in such a sultry tone of voice that Naya would have describe her as thirsty for feedback.

“Oh my! Did you get all of that, Private?” Captain Rajagopal added sweetly.

“Yes ma’am!” Naya replied, almost dizzy from the barrage of theoretical questions.

“Well that is good. I have only one important rule for you. You see, perhaps regrettably, I must inform you that if you leak any confidential information outside of this camp, you will be punished very severely.” Captain Rajagopal said, patting Naya on the shoulder.

Naya smiled awkwardly back. This lady had some hidden depths under that hat!

“Don’t worry, that has never happened.” Farwah said, raising his hands a little.

“You’re more likely to be injured by raw prototypes than our time-tested and lovely commissar.” Chief Ravan said, patting Captain Rajagopal on the shoulder.

Naya did not find that reassuring at all, but she kept flashing them a fake smile.

After the introductions and her impassioned speech, Chief Ravan took Naya by the shoulder and pushed her gently out of the tent, walking behind her and leading her toward the building in the center with Farwah and Captain Rajagopal in tow. Naya stood in front of the sliding tin door, and Farwah took the handle and pulled it open for her, slowly revealing the spacious interior of the camp’s workshop. Two monumental objects, rendered amorphous by the amount of tarps covering them, prominently occupied the sides of the room.

There was a large work space between them. A tracked crane tank was parked in the back and several wheeled drawers lay about where they were last left, each presumably full of tools. Everywhere the floor was a mess of scattered miscellaneous parts: rolls of track links, spare wheels, anonymous bolts and rivets meant for ancestors-know-what, large, barrel-less cannon blocks, spent shell casings, bulbs for headlights, ripped out periscope parts and more. It was dusty and oily and grimy everywhere and a mild chemical smell lingered inside.

“Don’t worry about the stains and the smell, most of it’s petrol, paint and solvents.”

Ravan walked past the door with her hands in her pockets and her cigarette between her teeth. She stepped nonchalantly over a black puddle in her high-heeled pumps, standing beside the shortest of the two massive objects. Whereas the other one was almost four meters tall, the one next to Chief Ravan was maybe 2.5 meters. She ripped the tarps off the object with a flourish, and looked back over her shoulder with a smile.

Voici!” Chief Ravan declared. “Mon œuvre maîtresse!”

Naya had only barely interacted with Goblin tanks in the past, but she had been given a run-down on the kinds of tanks active in Battlegroup Rhino, and there was no tank in that briefing that was quite like this one. Naya knew tanks well enough — she had to in order to kill them. This one was no Goblin; it was a tank, a real, substantial battle tank.

It was obvious now why there were so many “unaffiliated” KVW in the camp.

Even to the naked, untrained eye this would have been a much more robust machine than a Goblin. Though noticeably a stouter tank than the Goblin, it was wider but not that much taller, and it had a long, sleek, streamlined profile overall. It looked efficient rather than heavy. A sloped, thick glacis plate tapered sharply at the level of the track idler — on Goblins this plate was flat, and practically shouted at the enemy ‘shoot here for a perfect angle.’ Goblins had turret rings so tall they were almost a pedestal the turret sat on — this tank’s thick, hexagonal turret sat right on the hull center. Five substantial road wheels, along with an idler and a return roller, gave the treads a more robust appearance, covered at the top by a thicker track guard tapering over the front, offering better protection for the idler.

And of course the gun — oh what a gun it was! Naya thought it must have been at least three meters in length, and the bore looked to be at least 100 mm in diameter. It dwarfed any tank weapon Naya had seen, on either an Ayvartan or Nochtish tank.

This was technology that was perhaps unmatched in the world, not just in Ayvarta.

She looked at it with her mouth hanging open, taking dazed steps into the workshop. This vehicle was tapping into something at the core of her being. She could not help but to think that this was a vehicle that could cause the world to quake under its tracks.

“It’s amazing!” She said aloud, clapping her hands. “Never seen anything like it!”

Naya rushed to the side of the tank, looking at the treads, at the gun, at the glacis.

“Like your new pal? This is the RKS-57-P. I call it the Raktapata.” Chief Ravan said.

Still dumbstruck by the craftsmanship and the unique qualities of the design, Naya spoke without tearing her eyes from the machine. “Ma’am, did you invent all this?”

Chief Ravan crossed her arms and laughed a self-indulgent little oh ho ho.

“Tanks are designed by committee, dear! I was primarily responsible for the hull design. Still, I consider this Raktapata my baby nonetheless; I’ve made some tweaks.”

She pointed out the gun mantlet. “It was originally supposed to carry the 57mm high-velocity gun, but I’ve been trying to go up from that. I know we can do better!”

Touching the smooth green hull, Naya felt more excited than she had been in years.

“How successful have you been so far?” Naya asked, peering over the tank.

“Thoroughly unsuccessful,” chirped Captain Rajagopal’s voice from the headset.

Naya looked over her shoulder; the Captain and Farwah waved from the entrance.

Chief Ravan frowned and poked at the collar of her coat. “Have some faith!”

Laughing a little, the Captain approached, Farwah in tow, and everyone gathered around the tank. Naya almost felt like asking to climb on, but showed restraint.

“Our tests at this point will focus primarily on the gun.” Captain Rajagopal said.

Naya nodded. “I’m ready to go at any time!” She said. She felt a thrill in the tips of her feet as though she could jump five meters in the air. She wanted inside that tank!

“Your enthusiasm is appreciated.” replied the Captain. “For today, however, you should just get situated. Have some food, put up a tent; we can resume work tomorrow.”

Chief Ravan sighed audibly into the radio and clicked her heels in frustration.

“Ma’am– but I would rather have a task today, if it’s all the same!” Naya said.

Captain Rajagopal smiled, reached into her coat, and withdrew a pair of little books.

“Here’s some literature. Brush up on the revolutionary science, for today.”

She pressed the books into Naya’s hand and closed her hands around them.

Naya stared at the books despondently but said nothing at all about them.

* * *

There was a good spot at the edge of the camp where a tree grew low enough and lean enough to come in under the camouflage nets and provide a bit of natural cover.

Naya settled under it and started putting down the posts and stakes to stretch and hold her green canvas tent in place. After pitching her tent, she crawled inside. She laid on her back, feeling the individual bumps of the uneven earth beneath the canvas floor.

Looking at the stitched roof seam, she smiled a little to herself. It was peaceful here. Back at the battery command near the border she slept in a barracks and it was always noisy and she never had privacy. This reminded her a lot of being back in school.

For better and for worse, but she could endure the latter for the former.

Outside, the grass rustled as someone came closer. Naya turned around on the floor.

Farwah arrived with a big steaming metal mug in one hand and a big bag in the other. She crawled out to meet him, her upper body half out of the tent. He knelt and handed her the mug. She ate on her belly like a snake, kicking her legs up and down. She drank the pea soup in big, hungry sips, nibbled on the cheese cubes, and took a bite out of the flatbread crisps that had been dipped into the mug. It was all just a little bland.

Farwah dropped the large green bag beside the tent and sat down on a stump nearby.

“I went and got you some camp essentials, since I saw you setting up your tent.”

“How thoughtful!” Naya said. She gave him a thumbs-up. “You’re a true comrade!”

He withdrew a bedroll from the bag and dropped it on the ground; he was not so nonchalant when he withdrew few packs of clothing, including an underwear bundle. These he picked up with a bit of reticence and deposited them very gingerly.

“Standard sizes. Ask the supply officer Devaki if they don’t fit properly.” He said.

“I will.” Naya replied, pulling the two bundles into her tent and setting them aside. “Hey, you’ve been here longer than me, give me a little orientation. Anything I should know?”

“We wake up every morning at 0600 for breakfast.” Farwah said. He seemed to give little consideration before deciding to offer that piece of information. Naya chuckled.

“Do you have to do a lot of work around here? Is it really grueling?” She asked.

“I would characterize it as calm. Unless there’s a test, we all work at our own pace.”

“That’s good to hear. You’re an engineer right? So what do you do specifically?”

She thought she was pushing her luck with the small talk, but Farwah was unmoved. She tried to read his reactions, though he had very little visible reflex. His vacant expression never changed, and he answered every question calm and politely.

“Mainly I work as a mechanic. I help with repairs and maintenance. But I also run errands when they’re needed, because there’s never that much repair work to do.”

Naya held her head in her hands and tipped it to one side. “How good are you?”

Farwah paused for a moment. He raised a finger to his chin. “I would say I am still learning, but I can perform field maintenance on vehicles like the Raktapata and Tokolosh.”

“Ah, that’s handy– I take it then you’re the Raktapata’s driver, too?” Naya said.

Farwah nodded. “We have a few capable drivers, but I’m usually the test driver.”

Naya nodded. She supposed she would be taking the seat over him in the tank then.

“That’s neat. You know, I was around mechanical work a lot as a kid.” Naya said.

“Interesting. You told me you had no experience before.” Farwah said.

“Well, not first-hand. Nothing I can put in a union reference sheet or something. But my parents are engineers.” Naya said. “I was really fond of machines as a kid, but you know, the heart wavers and all. It’s odd to find myself here now to be honest.”

“I understand perfectly. When I was a child, I wanted to be a railroad worker. Now I’d very much rather not do that. Where are your parents right now?” Farwah said

“Not around.” Naya said. She punctuated it by cocking a little smile.

It helped that Farwah was tactful enough to move on. “I can’t say something like ‘I think you’d like it here’ because I truly don’t know. But I don’t find it displeasing.”

“Facts are important, huh.” Naya said, looking at him with her fists against her cheeks.

He nodded. “In the spirit of camaraderie, what would you say to your own questions?”

Naya held out one hand, wiggling her fingers. “I’m an average girl dreaming of love.”

“Fair enough.” Farwah replied. He averted his eyes a little awkwardly.

Farwah left soon after, and Naya was left to her own devices for the rest of the day. She lined up for dinner, walked around the perimeter, and then went back to her tent. After 1900 all lights had to go off, except for dim electric torches. She laid on her back, and read about dialectical materialism out of a cheap paper pamphlet with choppy type.

It was an excuse not to think about the real answers to her own questions.

About the selfishness and the cowardice she hid behind a flighty smile.

A voice hissed in the back of her head. When will you run from here too?


46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Because of the surrounding forest, the elevation of the ground toward the east and the camouflage net, Camp Vijaya was still rather gloomy at 0600. This made it easy to sleep in; so Naya slept in. She muttered to herself, twenty more minutes, and snuggled up against a bundle of her clothes that she had brought into her sleeping bag for comfort. She smiled, a genuine smile, brought on by holding something warm while half-asleep.

Then at 0633, a severe and impassioned bugling erupted just outside of her tent.

Naya jerked away and crawled half out of the tent, her naked lower body still inside the sleeping bag. She was wearing nothing but a one piece lavsan-fiber combat bra. There was a dull aching in her body, punctuated by very sudden bursts of pain in her joints that came and went as she maneuvered herself around in the fog of half-awake cognition.

Outside she found herself staring at a dark green pants leg and black shoes.

She looked up and found a giant of a woman looking down at her with a brass horn.

“It’s 0634! Time to get up! I’m not gonna have two breakfast shifts in a row!” She said.

Naya nodded dimly and started to extract herself from the tent. The woman shouted.

“Put some clothes on first!” She said, bowing down and pushing Naya into the tent.

Back inside, Naya dressed sloppily in a clean white shirt and green uniform. She slapped her garrison cap on over her head, and then crawled back out and labored to stand.

Tapping her feet just outside the tent, the young woman with the bugle didn’t look so huge when both of them were standing, but she was still almost two meters tall. She was statuesque: tall, with a good figure, and probably pretty fit under the uniform.

“Private Naya Oueddai.” Naya said softly, introducing herself through a yawn.

Opposite her, the woman’s golden eyes were half-closed and her thin brows downturned. Her thin lips were curled into a frown. A tiny twitch shook her light olive skin and the smooth features of her face. Even the high, voluminous, brown ponytail on her head, tied with a silky brown scarf, seemed to twitch like an angry tail in Naya’s eyes. When she introduced herself her tone was curt and her voice a little deep, maybe in anger, maybe not.

“Private Karima Faizan. Come on, you have dishes to do, Lila’s got her hands full.”

Naya blinked and stared, still half-asleep and uncomprehending of her demands.

Karima took her by the hand and pulled her along. Naya silently complied, her head not fully switched on. They walked to the other side of the camp, behind the chow line and into the back of a big tent beside which the water half-track was parked. Inside the tent there was a standard field kitchen, with burners, a stove, cracked-open crates of food, most of it packaged or preserved in various ways — and a big stack of dirty dishes inside of a big metal storage basin. Ahead of them, behind the kitchen counter, a nymph-like young woman with a white apron over her uniform and a white cap over blunt cut blond hair served the day’s breakfast staples to a crowd: a flatbread with paste-like curried vegetables or a lentil stew, milky yogurt with added fruit jelly as a drink, and a grape semolina halva dessert.

When she heard Karima come stomping into the kitchen tent, the young breakfast girl turned from the line and started scolding. “Karima, don’t treat her so roughly! She’s new and honestly you should just do her shift for today. Don’t take things out on her.”

“I’m not!” Karima said. She parted through her swept bangs with a finger during the scolding, and cast her eyes at the floor, like a child met with the rhetorical force of an adult.

Naya raised her hand, a somewhat dim expression on her face, like a drunken smile.

“Where am I right now?” She asked through another involuntary yawn.

Karima and the serving girl looked at her, one scowling, the other amused.

“I’ll take her shift but just this once. She better pull herself together.” Karima said.

“Thank you, you’re a real sweetie, Karima.” the serving girl said.

“It’s not like I’m doing anything special.” Karima replied. She heaved the metal basin full of dishes and took it outside with her head up high as if turning up her nose.

Naya stood there staring. Her head was thick as the forest and her thoughts as lost in it as the camp was. She stood around uncomprehendingly for a moment, until the serving girl waved at her to come up front to the chow line. Naya ambled forward, and the girl pressed a little bottle into her hands. Unthinkingly, Naya removed the stopper and drank. A hot, disgusting, slimy liquid trailed down her throat, burning all the way.

Suddenly everything in her body woke at once, mostly in shock and disgust.

“It’s cayenne and tumeric and garlic. Wake up and lend a hand, please.”

In her own way this serving girl was as rough as Karima was! Naya quickly complied. There were a dozen people still lined up, waiting patiently for food. Most of them had the red rings around their eyes and the vacant stares like Farwah — they were eerily noticeable in the morning gloom. But not all of them had the rings; there were some ordinary folks among them. Everyone had a tray in their hands. Naya stood at her side and helped spoon in the lentils and yogurt, while the girl laid down flatbread and halva. With two people, the line thinned very quickly, and new arrivals started being fed as soon as they arrived at the tent. While she worked Naya heard water gushing from the half-track’s tank behind the tent, as well as Karima’s loud grumbling whenever the water subsided.

At around 0710 they had fed everyone and stood around waiting for any stragglers.

“Chow line opens at 0620 or so, depending on preparations; it closes at 0700 but we don’t want to be cruel to anyone who might have missed a chance to eat warm.”

Naya nodded. She extended her hand to shake, hoping to put a good foot forward.

“Naya Oueddai. Private. Sorry for the trouble. I’ll be more alert in the future!”

“I’m Private Lila Bennewitz.” the girl said. “Very pleased to meet you Naya.”

Naya suddenly honed in on her features, her skin, her eyes. She said nothing, because she didn’t want to put her foot in her mouth a second time and look insensitive by asking Lila if she was Nochtish, the way she had asked Farwah if he was Svechthan. It would be an especially sensitive subject for Lila given the current conditions — but that kind of foreign surname really stood out. Naya smiled and they shook hands like comrades.

“You did a good job! Tomorrow it’ll be someone else’s shift. I’ll get you a copy of the camp schedules ASAP. Every Private has a shift doing camp jobs, since the officers and the engineers have their hands full between all the tests, preparations, reports–“

“Is she mad? Karima, I mean.” Naya interrupted, whispering and covering her mouth. She looked over her shoulder and could see Karima furiously scrubbing trays.

“She’s always mad.” Lila giggled. “Don’t mind her, she truly means well.”

“I’m sure she does. Should I go help her, you think?” Naya asked.

“Oh no. No no.” Lila withdrew a tray from the stack, handed Naya some breakfast. “I’ll help her. You stay here, eat this, and serve anyone. You can leave in fifteen or so.”

With a cheerful wave, Lila skipped out of the tent. Still holding her tray, Naya watched from afar as she loomed over Karima, patted her shoulders, tweaked her ponytail. In response, Karima scrubbed more furiously and completely ignored her presence.

Naya smiled and wondered if she could become friends like that sometime.

* * *

A dispassionate, off-key bugle call sounded repeatedly through the middle of the forest.

Karima stood despondent and helpless while Chief Ravan made a nuisance of herself with the instrument. After about a minute of blowing fruitlessly into the brass, she nonchalantly gave it back. Karima wiped it off with a clean handkerchief, and played the correct call.

“Anyway!” Chief Ravan called out after a few notes. “We will now begin the first test of the Raktapata Medium Tank with the hundred millimeter KnK-10 high-velocity gun!

A little after noon the testing unit had left the camp on the Sharabha half-track. Farwah and Naya towed the Raktapata using the Tokolosh tractor. Driving eastward through rough terrain and thick jungle, the convoy eventually reached a perfect spot at a somewhat clearer area of the wood. Though there were still several trees, but they had big roots and thick trunks and created a lot of space between themselves. There was a clear firing range of several hundred meters that they could exploit, and it was all under canopy cover.

Vehicles parked, and the crews dismounted. Now everyone made ready for the tests.

Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan stood off to the side while Naya and Farwah unhitched the Raktapata and climbed inside. Lila was also there as a first response medic, holding a bag with a red cross on it just in case. Karima played the role of bugler. There was a small squadron of gendarmes with submachine guns patrolling the forest. They had red rings around their eyes too, quite easily visible if you were near them.

Naya felt a thrill standing beside the Raktapata. It was a titan of a machine. She had seen the insides of cars, locomotives, and even an old airplane once during a trip. In training she had seen the interior of a Goblin, as well as diagrams of an enemy M2 Ranger. She had climbed into a Goblin turret and shot a few rounds. But this was a different beast.

She felt equal parts excited and anxious to be involved with a machine like this.

There was a voice in her head telling her it was too much, that she would fail and she should run, but she didn’t listen to it. This time was different. She ran toward the tank.

Farwah climbed inside through a front hatch, while Naya took a running leap onto the track, climbed on the turret and dropped herself in from the top hatch. There were separate hatches for the commander and for the gunner, because the massive breech and the slide plates of the 100 mm gun almost divided the turret into neat halves. There was a cushioned seat to the left for the gunner, and further up and to the far right was the commander’s seat. Farwah sat further down and front, in a chair under a thick hatch that blended into the hull roof plate. Naya could see some of him if she leaned quite far down from her seat.

She waved at him eagerly, and he turned around and waved back.

Ravan was right to seek people of a specific size — Farwah fit comfortably, but he was less than 170 cm tall. Naya was around 172, and she figured she was just about the cutoff to fit comfortably in the gunner’s seat. Her commander would have to be a little smaller. Captain Rajagopal would be a good fit for the task if it was necessary. On the whole, the interior was cramped. There was not much space to go around. Beside her the gun’s interior mechanisms felt quite enormous. In front of her the instrument block was convoluted. Behind her, some long, heavy 100 mm ammunition was kept handy — reserve shots went under the gun block and required painful contortions to fetch. Crew comfort was a tradeoff for the Raktapata’s profile. Something had to be sacrificed for the tank’s compact size.

It was uncomfortable. Naya seemed to bang her arms on something carelessly whenever she turned, and the hard seat only accented the dull aching she had felt all day.

Despite all this, she felt a surge of enthusiasm as she checked the equipment.

Naya flipped down the eyepiece for her periscope and looked into it. She turned the scope, scanning around in front of her. She saw Ravan, Captain Rajagopal, Karima, Lila, the gendarmes; she scanned around the forest for a moment. She saw engineers farther ahead, setting up the first target for the gunnery test. Pulling back from the periscope, she leaned forward and to her right to peer into the lower gunnery sight.

Focusing the sight, she watched the preparations being put in place down the makeshift range. Engineers were hard at work, laboring to raise a metal testing plate using materials brought into the forest from the camp, withdrawn from the back of the Tokolosh. Held upright by a strong metal frame, the plate had a target painted on it.

Once everything was ready, they cleared the area and went a safe distance away. They had to remain near the target to watch and record results, but also out of shrapnel range.

Farwah started the engine, and the tank brimmed with noisy life. They would have to communicate exclusively over the short range radio while the tank was active.

Chief Ravan whistled a little ditty to test the radio and then made an announcement.

“We will commence the first test! Armor plate, 80 mm thick, 800 m distance!”

Naya pulled on the traverse gear lever and turned the turret while looking down the sights. Because the lever was single-speed, some additional correction was needed to get it just right on the target. She would have to complain about that to Ravan.

“Load AP and fire when ready, Private Oueddai!” Captain Rajagopal said.

She wondered how much of the operation the Captain could effectively experience.

From behind her, Naya withdrew a solid steel penetrator. Each 100 mm round weighed close to 16 kilograms, and was nearly a meter long. They were unwieldy, and Naya felt that she was handling them clumsily. She maneuvered the tip of the shell onto the extended breech ring, freeing up a hand, and pulled a lever, opening the gun up to accept ammunition. Naya then pushed the heavy shell into the gun — the breech snapped shut automatically, completing the loading motion for her. Could’ve gone much faster than it did; she would need more practice with loading big shells if she wanted to fire more than one a minute!

“Firing rigid armor-piercing shell!” Naya called out. She pressed her trigger.

Naya felt the sheer power inside the turret as she cannon fired. She felt a force deflected toward her, and heard a deafening cry. It was as if a ghostly hand were smothering her for an instant. As the cannon belched out the shell and spit back the empty casing onto the ground of the tank, she whistled admiringly. Down the gunnery sight she saw the effect of that simple trigger pull occur in a second — a hole on the edge of the target. Penetration.

“Yes! Yes!” Chief Ravan shouted into the radio. “Penetration! Take that! Take it!”

“Please don’t shout so much.” Captain Rajagopal said over the same system.

“How are things in there? You feeling powerful Naya?” Chief Ravan asked.

Smoke wafted up from the breech and scratched at the interior of Naya’s nose. She ignored it. Her skin tingled with exhilaration from operating such an amazing weapon.

“I’m feeling like a dragon breathing fire, ma’am!” Naya chirped happily back.

“Oh ho ho! So then, tell me about the interior, did it survive the big shot?”

“Ma’am, everything looks fine from in here. All my instruments took it well.”

“Was there a lot of shaking? I went through hell installing those recoil buffers.”

“There was some shaking.” Naya said. “But the breech cycled perfectly fine.”

“How are you doing, Farwah? Did you feel like a tomato inside a can?”

Farwah sounded wholly unmoved by it all. “I’m not a tomato.” He said simply.

Chief Ravan laughed in the radio and commanded the second target be raised.

Soon the engineers were back to work again. Naya rested her back on the seat, pulling away from her vision equipment. She wiped sweat off her brow. She drank from her canteen. It was getting hot inside the turret. But she felt good! She felt energetic and focused.

Next up was a 100 mm plate at 800 meter distance. She loaded the round.

“Fire when ready, Naya!” Chief Ravan said.

Naya pressed the trigger and launched the second round. It blasted through to the target, again in less than a second, and punched a head-sized hole into the outer rim of the painted target. A little off from before, but nonetheless, she scored a penetration.

“Splendid! Splendid!” Chief Ravan cried out.

“One more shooting test before the endurance fire.” Captain Rajagopal said.

“Yes! Naya, this next test will simulate 150 mm of armor plate by using concrete blocks. Sadly, we have yet to be supplied 150 mm testing plates. Can you believe we don’t manufacture those? I had to ask some be custom-made and they haven’t arrived.”

“I can’t believe it at all ma’am.” Naya said. She was playing along. “It’s an outrage.”

“Quite! Anyway once the blocks are prepared, please shoot right at them for me.”

“It’d be my pleasure ma’am! I’ll let those blocks have it alright!” Naya replied.

She had a big grin on her face. She was really getting into the spirit of things.

Firing from a tank was different than an AT gun. An AT gun was vulnerable, it had to be hidden behind bushes or sandbags. It projected no power; it felt like running away.

But the Raktapata was enormous, powerful. It didn’t have anything to hide.

Inside this machine she felt like she wanted to. Strong, honest, eager, brave.

With a grin on her face, Naya loaded the 100 mm AP round and pushed it in.

She hit the trigger and buried her face in the gunnery sight, smiling through the vibrations and noise inside the tank as she watched the tower of solid blocks become suddenly displaced. Pieces of concrete went flying as the penetrator punched right through the target, just off to its side. A block slipped and fell off the top.

“Good! We’ll get a better result once the plate comes in, but I have high hopes that the KnK-10 can penetrate 150 mm of armor at 800 to 1000 meter distances!” Chief Ravan cheered.

Naya pulled back from the gunnery sight and stretched her arms. For the endurance shots she would have to load and shoot as fast as she could in succession. She started to twist each way at the waist, and to bend her back, making herself ready for the task.

At her side however the breech was still locked tight. It hadn’t cycled out the casing.

She pulled the breech lever and though it slid back, the breech did not open.

“Ma’am, the breech looks like it’s stuck. I can’t open it up.” Naya reported.

Chief Ravan responded with more alarm than Naya had thought she would.

“Don’t touch it! There might be shell remnants in it. Get out right now.”

Naya complied, though a little perplexed about the reaction. It was only inert brass trapped in the breech! She stood up on her chair, pushed up the hatch, and climbed out of the tank. Farwah exited as well. Unrelated personnel took a few steps back from the tank. Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal climbed on the back of the tank. Ravan peered down the hatch, leaning in while Captain Rajagopal kept her from falling on her face.

“Nothing from the lever either? Damn it.” Ravan said. “Looks like it might be a problem with the hydropneumatics. Maybe the oil’s gone bad. How hot was the gun?”

The Chief turned her head to Naya, who raised her hands defensively. “Dunno!”

With that simple word the tests on the 100 mm KnK-10 were forced to conclude.

* * *

Back at the camp, the Raktapata was returned to the workshop. A squadron of engineers in fireproof clothing met the testing party as they arrived and immediately set to work on the Raktapata, separating the gun mantlet from around the KnK-10 gun, pulling off the barrel and removing the breech block and slide. Chief Ravan picked up a specialty wrench and unscrewed a few bolts herself alongside them, all the while Captain Rajagopal exhorted her to change into safety clothing first. Naya and Farwah stood off to the side, watching.

In about fifteen minutes the engineers had the entire shooting apparatus dismantled, but they still hadn’t opened the breech despite taking much of it apart.

Ravan finally picked up a sledgehammer and slammed the top of the breech-block.

At once the breech ejected the shell casing. Then the breech lever fell right off.

She sighed audibly.

“When it rains, it pours!” She cried out. “We’ll mount the 85 mm A.A.W. until we’re sure that the 100 mm’s hydropneumatics are up to snuff. This is such a disappointment.”

Naya almost felt like crying. The Raktapata looked like quite a sorry sight with a gaping hole in its turret and its gun in pieces on the oily, grimy floor of the workshop. And all of this because brass failed to cycle? It felt almost cruel, and somehow, all her fault.

She felt a swelling of emotion and approached Chief Ravan. She bowed her head.

In a pitiful voice she started to apologize. “Ma’am, I’m sorry! This was my fault and I–“

“What? No, dear, no! It’s got nothing to do with you!” Ravan responded.

She put her hands on Naya’s shoulders and smiled. “You did a fantastic job!”

Naya nodded her head but wasn’t convinced. Dark thoughts were saying otherwise.

To think that something so powerful would be pulled away, chastised, for something as simple as a failure to cycle brass. Suddenly she felt her heart sinking, and she had to fight with herself to stay in Chief Ravan’s presence. Her teeth chattered, her hands shook. She fought back tears. It was a snap response from her body, as if ice cold water were crashing over her head. She withered inside under Ravan’s interrogating gaze.

She felt pathetic; and pathetic for feeling pathetic. Her mind was spiraling down.

Despite her attempts to hide it, Chief Ravan could see through her furtive behavior.

“Naya are you really alright? Were you hurt during the test?” Ravan asked.

It was hard to speak, but at least when the words came out they made some sense.

“I’m fine ma’am.” Naya said, in a somewhat choked voice. “Just a little tired is all.”

It wasn’t entirely a lie. Ravan looked her in the eyes and then turned away.

“You should go for the day. Eat well and get some rest, Private Oueddai.” Chief Ravan said. “You can work on your report later. For now just take care of yourself.”

Naya nodded her head and turned sharply around. She headed back to her tent.

She was worried for you and you ran away, her mind screamed at her. You coward.

That wasn’t it at all! She didn’t need to know. It was better that she didn’t.

But still the thought kept recurring, torturing her all day. Nice job breaking it, Naya.


48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya’s dull, persistent aching had not gone away over the past few days, but the relatively quiet life in the camp helped her to ease into it. She had lived with worse pain than this.

She thought to blame it on the rain. Unabated, it made the environment cold and humid.

In the forest she could feel a chill needling her skin. It was better inside the tank.

There was no bugle call for this particular exercise since Karima was holding a pair of large umbrellas over herself, Lila, Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan, shielding them from the incessant rain. Thankfully the wind was calm, so the deluge was surmountable.

“Let us begin testing of the 85 mm A.A.W!” Chief Ravan called out over the radio.

Naya responded affirmatively. Though it was less impressive, she thought she liked the 85mm better than the 100mm gun. All of its parts were much more compact, and the gunnery sight placement was more comfortable. She could reach for the spare shells more easily. Its AP projectile also weighed maybe ten kilograms and was only around 70 centimeters long — far easier to pick up and load into the gun. Naya was sure she could sustain a higher rate of fire on the 85mm than on the 100mm gun.

Across the clearing, 800 meters away, engineers prepared the 80 mm thick plate.

Once they were clear, Naya received the fire order, and launched a round downrange.

Brass ejected; the breech also belched a puff of smoke that smelled a bit strong.

Naya hardly paid it any mind. She was used to smoke; she was focused on the target.

In an instant a smoking hole the size of a fist appeared just off-center from the painted target. Though it was an easy shot to make — 800 meters, 90 degree angled plate — Naya still felt proud of her accuracy on the target. She would try for the bull’s eye next.

Switching from gunnery to periscope, she trained her vision equipment on her officers.

“What remained of the shell?” Captain Rajagopal asked over the radio.

Chief Ravan checked with her engineers using a hand radio and reported back.

“Fragmented after impact into four splinters. Most of the mass was lost on impact. The shard cone was tight, judging by the breach and the fall of the fragments.” She said.

Captain Rajagopal nodded her head toward the periscope. “Naya, status report!”

“Everything looks fine in here. Brass cycled successfully.” Naya replied.

“Good! We’ll hit the 100 mm plate and then test the endurance fire.”

Again the engineers set up the plate, but this time they tilted it at a steeper angle.

“This time the 100 mm plate is tilted at a 60 degree angle. Sloped armor provides more effective resistance against penetrators. Aim for the target nonetheless Naya.”

“Got it.” Naya loaded the next shell, and worked the elevation and turret controls. She stuck her tongue out, and felt a tension in her fingers as she prepared the gun. She aimed a little higher and off to the side than before, correcting for her last shot. Her fingers gripped the cannon trigger. Slowly and deliberately she pressed and depressed to fire.

In the center of the plate an ugly, irregular hole appeared where the shell breached.

“Excellent! Yes! Yes!” Chief Ravan cheered. “That 85 mm craves the steel!”

Bullseye! Naya adjusted the magnification of her sight as far as it would go and took in her handiwork. She had gotten the shell dead center. Due to the slope of the plate, the shellhole was shoddy looking and crooked. But she felt a swelling of pride nonetheless. In the cold cockpit of the Raktapata, she felt for a second the same strength that she had when she sprinted, when she kicked right past a goalie, when she cleared a jump.

Captain Rajagopal called and took Naya out of her reverie. “Private, begin endurance fire when ready. Launch ten consecutive AP shells through the gun as fast as you can.”

“Yes ma’am!” Naya said. “Beginning endurance fire! Clear the range for 3 minutes!”

From the ammunition rack she withdrew the first shell, put it down on the short extension connected to the breech, pulled the breech lever, punched the round inside, and pulled the trigger. She counted — it took her 12 seconds to complete this motion. Rack, carry, breech ring, load, shoot, 12 seconds. Second shell; she felt a sting in her shoulder that built as she slid in the third round. Third shell, and the smoke was starting to build. She coughed. Fourth shell, her eyes scanned the instruments while shooting, watching the cannon roll back in between the buffers with the recoil, the breech spitting back brass that fell under her and smoke that clouded up the turret. Fifth shell–

Naya loaded the shell and the breech closing nearly bit her hand off. Her trigger then stuck, and no amount of ramming it would dislodge a shell. Was her cannon jammed?

“Shit!” She cursed. She alerted everyone. “We’ve got a sticker! It’s not firing!”

“Get out of the tank right now!” Chief Ravan shouted. “Both of you!”

Naya gingerly removed her hand from the trigger and slowly backed away from the gun so as not to touch any instruments. She opened the hatch, letting in a trickle of rainwater. She climbed gingerly out of her hatch, and helped Farwah out of his. Both of them jumped off the tank hull, while Captain Rajagopal and Chief Ravan left their places under Karima’s umbrella, climbed on the tank and dropped inside. It occurred to Naya that if there was a truly dangerous malfunction, both of them could be killed in the tank.

“Please be careful.” She said. Neither of her officers responded one way or another.

Engineers kept their distance from the tank. Farwah pulled Naya along behind a tree trunk nearby that was just about thick enough to absorb metal fragments. There was no radio contact for several tense moments. Naya and Farwah surreptitiously peeked at the tank from behind the trunk. They saw Karima and Lila across the other side of the tank, similarly hiding. Finally there was some noise on the line — it sounded like a grunt, a rattling noise, and then a ripping noise as though someone was tearing sheets off a notebook in there.

“Looks like it’s just the electric fire control.” Chief Ravan said into the radio. “I can’t be sure whether it’s the trigger pressure, or if there’s a wiring failure or something.”

“Can we manually fire the cannon?” Captain Rajagopal asked.

“There’s a way — Naya, get me an adjustable wrench. It’s safe to approach.”

Naya felt a sudden relief. She strode out from behind the tree, crossed around the Raktapata’s back, since a cook-off misfire was always possible; she found Ravan’s toolbox, produced the necessary wrench, and climbed carefully on the tank. She leaned halfway down into the gunner’s hatch and found Ravan seated in her place, with Captain Rajagopal on the left-hand side at the back, waiting in the Commander’s chair.

Naya handed Chief Ravan the wrench. Ravan thanked her, unscrewed the head, and leaned over the gun and closed the wrench around an unseen piece of metal. She maneuvered on the turret basket, contorting herself to give the gun some clearance under her while still maintaining a hold on the wrench, and shouted a warning for everyone.

Twisting the wrench, Chief Ravan fired the gun. Naya nearly bashed her head against the turret roof and also nearly fell inside from the force. She watched as the gun slid just under the doctor’s chest and arm, while she shook in place from the force of the shot.

As if nothing had happened, the breech opened and spat out a little puff of smoke.

Chief Ravan sat back on the gunner’s chair, leaving the wrench stuck where it was.

“We obviously can’t conduct any more tests like this.” She sighed. “Let’s return to base. We’ll take out the 85 mm and replace it with the 76 mm KnK-3 or something.”

“I’m so sorry ma’am.” Naya whimpered, still hanging half-inside and letting in rain.

Chief Ravan waved her arms dismissively, as if fanning away the smoke in the turret. “Naya, it is not your fault at all. Personally, I’m blaming A.A.W in my report.” She said.

Owing to a defective trigger mechanism and, to a lesser extent, a heinous lack of obdurant solutions that resulted in the turret being full of smoke, the tests were once again called off. Farwah brought the Tokolosh back around and hooked the Raktapata on to it. Lila gave everyone involved in the turret situation a quick once-over as the resident medic, and then cleared them just as fast. Ravan and the Captain rode with the engineers on the Sharabha half-track. Karima and Lila made for the bed on the Tokolosh.

Naya requested to ride inside the Raktapata. Everyone gave her odd looks.

“Whatever for?” Chief Ravan said. “It’ll just be bumpy and uncomfortable.”

“Lila and Karima can ride up front on the Tokolosh. Everyone’ll be sheltered.”

Chief Ravan curled a lock of hair around a finger. Captain Rajagopal acquiesced.

When the Tokolosh got going, Naya was inside, seated on the gunner’s seat. She leaned back on the seat, casting lazy eyes about the turret. She felt like there was something that she was not getting. In a way she still thought that it was her fault, that she had brought something to this machine, like a curse. She looked around the turret as if she could find a solution to it. But then again, what could she even do? She was just an aimless brat with nothing to look forward to, nothing to hang on to in life, nothing special.

As the tank bumped along the forest floor, Naya felt the aching grow worse.

She pulled off her radio headset, because she was starting to weep again and she wanted to be by herself, completely cut off, when such things happened. It was only right.

“You’re just like me.” She said aloud. Her voice echoed in the empty, closed turret. “Anyone watching you would say you’re just fine. Some people might even be impressed with you. They’ll find potential and things to like. But you don’t live up to it. You’re all broken up inside. There’s so many problems– and even if you fix them, what would you do then? You’re a prototype. Something better will come to replace you in the end. It’s sad isn’t it?”

She wiped her face, but the tears wouldn’t stop. She ended up crying into the brass bumper at the end of the breech ring extension, as though into someone’s shoulders.

“We’re drakes with broken fangs. All we could do is bite, so what now?” She moaned.

* * *

Back at the camp, the Tokolosh deposited the Raktapata inside the workshop and drove off. Naya took her leave to go rest, Chief Ravan locked herself up in her work and everyone dispersed for the day. Dinner time passed peacefully by and night was falling.

It was this time that shifts were traded for any common overnight chores.

Captain Rajagopal entered the radio tent and found it mostly empty. Inside there was only Private Karima Faizan, doing one of the camp’s many odd jobs given its lopsided personnel roster — a bunch of one-track-minded engineers and a gaggle of replacements hastily procured through the slapdash efforts of Chief Ravan. At least it kept things lively.

Karima sat behind a desk with a large pair of headphones, a list of frequencies and secret codes at hand. Atop the desk was a radio unit. Beside the desk was a chair topped by a device that seemed like a chunky, ergonomically impoverished typewriter.

Spotting her superior, Karima stood up and saluted with a serious expression.

“Oh! Hujambo, comrade Captain! No important messages have come in, ma’am!”

Dhorsha Rajagopal smiled and signed at her subordinate. “At ease, private.”

Karima nodded — she had learned many common signs at an impressive pace.

“I’m willing to stay up to help if necessary.” Karima said. She spoke casually.

Casual speech was appreciated. It was easier to read than deliberately slow pronunciation. The Captain nodded her head back to the private in appreciation.

She signed again. “Not necessary. Get some rest. Your dedication is appreciated.”

Karima stood up from her desk and walked past the Captain to the tent door.

Suddenly the Captain raised her cane and blocked her. Karima looked surprised.

“Please leave that here.” signed the Captain. She pointed at Karima’s hand.

She was about to leave the tent with the handwritten note of secret codes in hand.

“I’m sorry ma’am! I just forgot!” Karima said. It would be serious if the codes got out.

“Don’t fret, I understand that it was a mistake. Have a good night.” the Captain signed.

Karima bowed her head to the Captain, gave her the codes, and left the tent without incident. The Captain put the piece of paper in her coat pocket and sat behind the desk.

Captain Rajagopal’s vision was better than most people imagined. Through her blue eye was blind to shapes and colors and contours, while it was open it could detect whether there was light or darkness. Her green eye could see fairly clearly up to two meters away or so. Some features looked indistinct, and she had problems with depth that she required her cane for. But she could read lips enough to communicate. From “Oh!” to “Captain” she could listen to every word that Karima was saying so long as it was spoken in Ayvartan.

Had she spoken them through the Captain’s special radio, the volume would have been boosted enough that the Captain would have heard it as tinny but audible noise.

These were methods that the KVW had helped her to train — they had told her they could improve her cognition, her focus, sharpen her, make her all that she could be. Most of their methods failed. But she helped develop new ones for people like herself.

There were no red rings around her eyes, but she was a KVW veteran nonetheless.

Almost as soon as she settled in the seat and started taking in the residual warmth of the previous occupant there was a rattling noise from the teleprinter. After a moment’s worth of grinding noises, it spat out a paper with an uninterrupted block of letters.

Captain Rajagopal held it up to her eye, and pulled out the week’s code sheet.

“8th Rifles retreating in east Shebelle. 3rd, 4th, 5th Rifles retreating in South. Gollaprollou vulnerable. Line to Benghu weakening. Offensive has failed. Enemy building up.”


49th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya felt a tense mood around the camp that day as the regional news spread. People exchanged grim looks at the radio tent, and at the few gendarmes looking at the half-tracks and supply tents and planning for a quick evacuation if necessary. A few days ago, from what she understood, the Civil Council had launched an all-out offensive against the Nocht forces that had breached the border and occupied the area around Silb, and the southern Sandari.

But this offensive failed, miserably and painfully. Now the front was wide open.

Despite this, Captain Rajagopal had everyone continue their tasks as planned.

In every red-ringed eye around, Naya felt, for the first time, a muted doubt and fear. They didn’t perform these emotions as obviously as the average person, but she could nonetheless grasp the tension. Even the fearless KVW felt a measure of fear here.

Menial chores at least offered her a little distraction from the uncertainty around her.

Dbagbo’s rains persisted, pouring their way through the gaps in the camouflage netting and falling over the encampment. Across the camp the ground turned muddy and damp as water found its way through every orifice. Tubs were laid near the trees to collect water for clothes washing and other tasks. A series of tarps and tables went up around the chow line so people could relax and eat their food as intended, rather than as rainwater mush.

She helped a few engineers to set the latter. She worked for several minutes under the rain then took her place inside the kitchen tent, water dripping off her and soaking through her apron and cap. At least she could warm up near the oven while the flatbread cooked.

Despite the hardship, she offered a jovial smile along with every scoop of lentils.

After helping with breakfast she helped move some tools into the workshop, and then she started preparing for lunch. Most of the contents were the same as breakfast, except that a spicy seitan slice was offered to bulk up the portion. After 1300 everyone was fed there was nothing else to do — she didn’t have dinner duty or any remaining chores.

Though they could conduct tank tests under the rain, the Raktapata was in the workshop, behind closed doors. Ravan and her engineers were hard at work cutting and soldering and lathing. They had a lot of work: trying to bulk up the recoil buffers on the KnK-10, fixing the problems with the 85mm A.A.W, and mounting a 76mm KnK-3 on the Raktapata so it could have some armament. When delivering the tools she heard that regular maintenance on the wheels and the track, on the turret gear, and other parts, was also on the schedule. Any testing would have to resume tomorrow or the day after.

She had heard similar things yesterday and wondered, nursing a fear she felt was pathetic and childish, whether she would ever be able to sit in the Raktapata again.

For the past few days she had barely worked. She had no chores on the 47th and on the 48th the test hadn’t gone well. She had a few chores today but nothing else. Sitting alone in her tent trying staring at the stitched steam on its ceiling had gotten quite old.

Judging by Farwah’s presence in the kitchen tent, standing idly beside a boiling pot of barley porridge with an apron and cap, he was not destined for much work today either.

“Farwah, what do you do around here when you’re not working?” Naya asked.

“Sometimes we play football.” Farwah said. “I’m the goalie so I don’t have to run.”

Naya looked out at the muddy terrain and rainy weather and shook her head.

“We could gather some people and play Commissars in a tent.” Farwah said.

She narrowed her eyes, struggling to pierce his implacable expression.

“You’re suggesting we go play Commissars in a tent?” Naya asked.

She worded it slowly to make obvious her skepticism. Farwah was unmoved.

“Yes. We can play in that big tent, where they host briefings. We barely use it.”

“So we gather people, and we go — play Commissars? A little kid’s game?”

Naya gestured with her hands while very slowly repeating the words, because she wanted to confirm to herself that this was indeed their course of action. Perhaps at some point in the past few minutes she had grievously misinterpreted him. But again Farwah had no grand rebuttal and merely nodded his head to her, his face a portrait of calm.

She crossed her arms and relented. “I know two people who might agree to it.”

Farwah nodded. “I know two people I can bring as well, so that would make six.”

After closing up the kitchen tent for lunch, they picked up a pair of umbrellas and went their separate ways. When they returned each had two people in tow for the game.

Naya had found Lila and Karima hunkered down in their respective tents, Lila reading an anatomical manual, Karima doodling a girl in a dress on the back of a pamphlet about ‘Socialism In One Country.’ Tactically, Naya made sure to fetch Lila first since she was easier to convince, and was therefore able to get Karima out of her tent at all.

New among Farwah’s little cadre was a fetching young man, tall and dark with long, straight black hair tied into a braided tail. He had a smooth face and slender build, and a dignified, almost meditative kind of expression — there were no rings around his orange eyes.

Behind him, Captain Rajagopal tottered along, much to everyone’s confusion.

“You brought a Commissar to play Commissars?” Karima muttered through clenched teeth, pulling Farwah and Naya aside for a moment. Captain Rajagopal would have read her lips otherwise. Naya looked over her shoulder and the Captain waved happily.

“She was free, and she is a person I knew, who can play.” Farwah said simply.

Karima sighed and broke their little huddle. Everyone gathered inside the tent. There was a stack of chairs in a corner, and an unoccupied podium with a projector canvas behind it. There was a lot space in the tent. Maybe 30 people could have fit easily.

“We should do an introduction before we start.” Lila said, clapping her hands together.

Farwah’s friend smiled and raised his hand. “I’m Corporal Isa Bhaduri. I’m normally driving the water truck out to get refilled, but today, that’s unnecessary.” He said.

“He’s my friend.” Farwah said, gesturing to Isa as if unveiling a treasure.

“I’m Naya Oueddai, and I have nothing to do so that’s why I am here.” Naya said.

Karima introduced herself curtly; Lila with a skip and a hop and a giggling laugh.

Captain Rajagopal smiled, removed her cap, and set it aside. She raised her hands.

Naya reached up to her ears and realized she did not have her headset with her. She was not expecting to interact with the Captain significantly, and as such had forgotten it. It felt terribly oafish and inconsiderate of her — now she would not know what the Captain was saying. She also realized nobody else had any headsets either.

The Captain made a few gestures. Naya followed along but did not understand.

“She introduced herself and said someone should explain the rules.” Farwah said.

“Oh.” Naya nodded to the Captain. “I can do it. I played Commissars as a kid.”

Captain Rajagopal made a gesture that seemed like ‘go ahead’. Naya nodded again.

Naya laid out the rules. “First we have to vote to elect a Commissar from among ourselves. Then the Commissar, once elected, can either issue Commands or put you in Interrogation. Commands means you have to do what the Commissar says, and Interrogation means you have to answer the Commissar truthfully. After that, you become Commissar, and the last Commissar has immunity from the new one. However, if you fail or the group thinks you’re chicken and cheated on your tasks, everyone has to vote again for a new Commissar. You keep going until everyone’s too tired or someone’s mom breaks it up.”

Captain Rajagopal clapped her hands rapidly and cheerfully at Naya. Lila joined in.

“Wait a minute, everyone will just vote for themselves then.” Karima protested.

“You don’t have much faith in Democracy huh?” Naya said. Grinning, she crossed her arms and stated, matter-of-factly, “That’s why everyone has two votes, and everyone has to vote for two different people. Someone usually comes out on top that way.”

“Interesting! I wonder who you’ll vote for?” Lila said, cocking an eye at Karima.

Karima turned her head and crossed her arms and said nothing more.

Captain Rajagopal volunteered her hat, and they cast votes using paper from a notebook that Karima carried on her person. Once everyone voted, Captain Rajagopal tallied all of the votes and cheerfully pointed at Naya, silently declaring her Commissar.

Naya’s eyes narrowed and her face settled into a dark little grin.

She covered her mouth delicately with her hand and laughed. “Karima.”

“Should’ve known.” Karima shouted through gritted teeth, stretching the syllables.

“What should I have you do?” Naya wondered aloud.

Captain Rajagopal did something new and silently mouthed a few words.

“No obscenities or I’ll shoot,” is what Naya got out of the gesture.

She cringed and thought of something more innocent than before.

“Okay! Karima, let’s see if you can even lift! I command you to hold the podium over your head and jump around the tent on one foot while holding it up.” Naya said.

Karima looked like she wanted to strangle Naya, but put all that force into picking up the podium instead. She lifted it over her head, raised her leg behind her back like a ballerina and started hopping on her foot. Lila and Isa covered their mouths while laughing. Captain Rajagopal smiled. Farwah had seemingly no expression.

After several minutes of very aggressive hopping, Naya called for her to put it down.

“Now you’re the Commissar comrade! Enjoy! But you can’t target me!” Naya said.

For once Karima seemed to be above the goading. She put the podium back where it belonged, returned to the circle of acquaintances, and breathed a little sigh of exasperation. She closed her eyes and waved her finger around to determine a target randomly. When she opened her eyes she was pointing right at Farwah’s face.

“Farwah, I’m gonna interrogate you, tell me, uh, hmm.” Karima tapped her foot.

“Don’t ask just anything; It has to be something funny or bold!” Lila said.

“Not too bold.” Captain Rajagopal slowly mouthed to them.

“You’re no fun.” Naya said, surreptitiously trying to cover her mouth.

Farwah remained quiet but avoided eye contact. Perhaps he was nervous.

Karima nodded and thrust her finger toward him, poking sharply at the air.

“Tell me where you were conceived, Farwah!” She called out.

A sudden silence among the players punctuated moment.

Isa burst out laughing suddenly, breaking his previous dignified expression.

Karima looked around the room with a shrug. “You all wanted bold.”

“What the hell! I can’t believe you asked that question!” Naya shouted.

“An empty coal car in a Jomba rail yard.” Farwah unconcernedly said.

Naya gaped. “I can’t believe you answered! How do you even know?”

“I was a product of ardent love.” Farwah said simply. Naya scratched her head.

“Anyway,” Lila said aloud, interrupting the scene, “now it’s Farwah’s turn.”

Farwah immediately pointed out Naya, his dull eyes locked on to her own.

“I’m ready for you!” Naya declared. She bore her teeth and crossed her arms.

“I command you, Naya, to make the sound of your favorite animal.” Farwah said.

Isa burst out laughing again.

“You’re all a bunch of babies!” He said through his teeth, smacking his own knee.

Naya blinked. “Ribbit?” She said. Again the room fell silent for a long second.

Then Isa fell to the ground, kicking his legs and holding his belly.

Lila covered her mouth and Karima laughed aggressively at Naya’s expense.

“Your favorite animal is a frog? A frog of all things?” Karima shouted.

“Shut up! Frogs are very honest and earnest animals!” Naya shouted back.

Captain Rajagopal laughed suddenly aloud, a strange, spontaneous noise like a horse neighing. She signed fiercely, and mouthed “Ribbit,” puffing her cheeks up like a frog.

“She says you’re a bunch of babies!” Isa said, pointing at them from the ground.

Naya frowned at him. It seemed everyone knew the signs but her!

Lila spoke up. “It’s unfair to have Naya go again so soon. I want to go!”

“Let’s hold an informal vote.” Farwah said. “Raise your hands to vote for Lila.”

Everyone raised their hands but Isa, who was still chuckling behind everyone, and Naya, who had this vote sprang on her suddenly and resolved to vote for herself.

Lila clapped her hands, beamed, and pointed directly at Karima. “Command!”

“You jerk! Ugh!” Karima replied. She turned her back with an angry ‘hmph!’

“Oh good, you made yourself accessible! Ferry me to paradise, faithful steed!”

Her head up high and with a swagger in her step, Lila casually approached Karima and climbed onto her back, until she had her arms around Karima’s chest and her legs hooked around her waist. She pressed with her knees and spurred Karima on like a race horse. Sighing heavily, an unenthusiastic Karima walked around the room one step at a time, her rider’s spirits disproportionately high for the speed and energy of the steed.

“Well, then it’s also not fair that Karima gets another turn so quickly.”

Isa stood up from the ground and dusted himself off. His fit of laughter had worked itself down to short, periodic chuckling. He patted the Captain on the shoulder, smiling.

Captain Rajagopal nodded her approval. Isa then pointed at Naya.

“Again?” She sighed. She glanced at Karima, still going around the room.

“Naya, I command you to stand on your head.” Isa said.

“You were going on about how we were all babies and this is your command?”

“Baby commands for baby players!” Isa said, shrugging.

Without hesitation and in one fluid motion, Naya dropped to the ground, palms down, and kicked off, bending her back and keeping her feet balanced overhead. Isa took a step back in surprise, as if he was about to be hit. Naya grinned, and she walked toward him with her hands, gently tipping her feet forward and back to correct balance. She was once quite the prolific athlete in school — sprints, swimming, field sports, endurance, and a little bit of gymnastics. She was good enough that her body never forgot the motions.

Her body also never forgot the injuries, especially one in particular.

Captain Rajagopal and Isa and clapped and cheered but their voices started to dull. Naya felt something twist inside her, and her awareness of the world suddenly dimmed.

Then there was a sharp pain in her lower back, like a stake driven between the links in her spine. Her fingers dug into the canvas floor, she grit her teeth. Losing all balance, she fell forward on her own back and curled into the fetal position. An obliterating pain started to consume her entire body, as if a dozen knives plunging into her. Her lungs worked themselves raw but she found it hard to breathe. Her heart pounded in its cage of flesh and she felt her blood crashing in her veins as if stirred up by the pain. Her whole body shook.

Lila and Karima stopped fooling around. Captain Rajagopal crouched near Naya.

“What happened?” Lila asked. Her voice was growing distant.

Isa turned pale and watched helplessly. Captain Rajagopal signed something.

Naya closed her eyes, lost all thought and became swallowed by the pain.

* * *

A lamp hovered directly overhead, swaying, its metal cover clanking.

She heard the whistling of the wind and then thunder, hitting hard like a shell fall.

Breathless, Naya sat up suddenly in bed, scanning the room in a panic. She was in a hospital tent. She saw the beds, the stretchers, the blood packs and intravenous electrolyte packs and other such things, the tool trays, the crates with the red cross on them–

At her side, Lila stood and gently settled her back down against the pillows.

“Calm down, Naya. Don’t strain yourself. You might pass out again.” She said.

Naya groaned and raised her hands to her face. She pressed hard on her skin.

“Ugh. How long was I out? Did the Captain say anything?” She asked.

“Only a few hours, and no. You’ve been taking very bad care of yourself.”

“I’m just tired.” Naya said weakly. “I shouldn’t have done that stunt back there.”

From her side, she heard a familiar voice. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do it.”

She turned her head. Isa, looking down at his own feet, sat a few meters away.

“I’m sorry, Naya, it was foolish of me to ask that. You got hurt; and anyone any less athletic than you could have gotten hurt worse just for our childish horsing around.”

Isa looked like he had been sitting there a while. He had his hands clasped together as if in prayer, and he couldn’t lift his eyes off his shoes to meet her own. She felt sorry for making him worry. It was hard not to let her mind carry that thought and bludgeon her with it.

“It’s fine, don’t blame yourself for it. I just went too far with it.” Naya said.

Lila sat on the side of her bed, and took Naya’s hands into her own without warning.

They locked eyes. Lila looked at once both worried and very deadly serious.

“Naya, you’re not fine. You’re trying to pass that off as something minor, but that wasn’t a cramp or a pulled muscle. You blacked out from the stress and the pain that you went through. This isn’t normal and I want you to tell me the truth about it.”

There was no chance Naya that would tell her the truth about her condition.

That these pains had practically ended her life beforehand.

That they persisted as a dull aching that was so constant it simply became her default condition that she endured every second of her life even in this encampment.

That when she pushed herself too hard the pains would burst and destroy her.

There was no chance that Naya would walk out of that conversation a soldier.

She had retreated from so much already. This was supposed to be her new leaf.

This was the place where she became strong again like she used to be!

Where she was loved and admired and had a future, like before!

This was the place that would have to accept her masks.

With a smile, a wicked, almost ear to ear smile, Naya replied with a lie.

“I haven’t been sleeping. I’m sorry. I didn’t mention this before because I didn’t want to be taken off the Raktapata, but I’m really terribly exhausted and–“

Lila shook her head and crossed her arms. She sighed. “Alright, if you say so.”

“I’m fine, really. I just have to sleep it off.” Naya insisted.

Lila could definitely see through her lies, but she wasn’t pushing any furhter.

“Well, I certainly can’t detect anything wrong with you. So I’m going to clear you. I’ll put it down as a temporary fainting spell since that’s all I saw. May Hashem retain you.”

She signed something and ripped the form paper from a clipboard.

Dropping it on Naya’s lap, she stormed out of the tent, leaving her puzzled.

“Sorry about that, she means well.” Isa said. “She’s just worried, you know? She probably felt helpless as a medic. She’ll come around once she sees you’re ok.”

Naya sank back into the bed, and pulled up the brown sheets over her face.

Keep on sprinting little Naya. Until you’ve outrun everything and everyone again.


50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — Solstice City, People’s Peak

A sharp cry broke the lingering silence in the chamber and sent its occupants cringing.

“What is it that compels you to fail so constantly?” Daksha Kansal shouted at the top of her lungs at the delegation, the room now a quarter empty compared to its attendance in her previous address. Her voice boomed across the room even without a microphone.

It was the first thing out of her mouth when she took the podium in the Council chamber, and nobody dared to speak over her or to assert their basic dignity in the face of her insults.

Most of the Councilors were juniors on their first terms in office, voted in a handful of years ago when the Council swelled in size; many had resigned after the speech of the 45th, bowing under the political pressure they were not trained to handle.

They had run for office on their dreams and ideas, but even simple proposals now carried with them terrifying responsibility ever since the Nochtish invasion.

“How much longer will you put your offensive, denigrating parliament circus before the people’s needs? When does this chamber plan to vote favorably on our survival?”

Though she knew that this Council wouldn’t last beyond the day, her words still took on a helpless, furious tone, open in its frustration. She couldn’t help but hate the position that they had put her in by following their political playbooks to their dying last. Those within the audience that knew, could see their insight plainly in her voice and expression.

Throughout her furies Councilor Yuba’s Liberal bloc, for once united almost wholly behind Kansal’s words and actions, stood in rapt attention, rubbing their hands together. Within them, a microscopic minority shuddered with the knowledge of the events likely to transpire that evening. Yuba was one who was shuddering. He avoided her gaze.

The Collaborator faction was just as quiet and just as shaken despite being in the dark about the true purpose of the night’s deliberations. After a wave of panicked reform in the mid 2020s they essentially ruled the Council. Proportional representation meant that the large territories of the south, historically more self-centered and rebellious, could put into power a mass of contrarian Councilors who thought they knew best for the Socialist Dominances as a whole. This mass allowed them much more room to work. They could pick up people from the Liberal bloc who agreed with them and supersede the weakened “Hardliner” bloc that housed the remnants of Daksha’s old communists (and a motley crew of anarchists, social-democrats and other similar artifacts with them).

The Collaborator’s 4-year-long dynasty was fast approaching its end due to the events of the month. After the Nochtish invasion, the Collaborator heartland was lost. Its first flailing attempt to save it claimed 50,000 and more Ayvartans in Tukino. Latest in a series of half-baked and disastrous Collaborator attempts to pull everything back together was the preparation of an offensive in the lower Dbagbo region. Though the Council had given itself military responsibility, they lacked the expertise. The Dbagbo offensive was already going poorly and had cost them significant credibility. Though everyone was appalled by the results and the farce that led to them, initiative was one thing the Council seemed unable to muster regardless of the circumstances — unless strong-armed toward it.

Yuba cordially provided the strong-arm by politely inviting Kansal to speak again.

Daksha Kansal was visibly furious, strangling the edge of the podium and shouting herself hoarse at the bowed mass of the council before her. “I warned you that our military was not yet in the proper shape to fight the Nochtish forces! I outlined several steps that had to be taken in order to repair our forces and prepare for battle! Perhaps I was not clear enough, but those steps were to be taken before a major offensive operation, not during or after! They were to be taken in whole and not piece-meal! It is completely ridiculous to think that a partially mobilized peace-time force can be ordered to start a general offensive!”

Kansal was a monument in the podium. She sported the full dress uniform of the KVW, prominently red with black and gold highlights, wearing a Marshal’s pins (for there were no unique pins for the Warden) and her medals, including the very first Hero of the Socialist Dominances medal ever produced; but instead of an officer’s peaked hat she wore a black side-cap, adorned with the hydra on either side of the head, and the hammer and sickle in front. Her long hair was still mostly black, her skin still a deep brown. A few wrinkles graced her eyes. Tall, slim, athletic and well-proportioned, Daksha still looked vibrant in her early 50s. Her hair was tied up in a neat bun behind her head, and a dab of red lipstick and some skin powder gave her a refined appearance that night that was rarely seen.

“None of the reserve divisions committed to this action were at full preparedness! You sent them to battle with basically no plan but to move forward against strong enemy positions! Across a river! Against Nochtish aircraft and tanks when Rhino’s reserves were almost bereft of equivalent forces! Your operation was pointless and unnecessary. You made a show of commanding our armed forces to seem as if you had the competence to continue to govern. Now you have ground away troops that are necessary to respond when — and I say when, mind you, not if — Nocht breaks through Dbagbo’s front line! It was this same kind of poorly thought massed attack that ended with our forces trapped in the heinous Tukino pocket! Clearly you were not paying attention then and neither are you now!”

On the far left of the room, the “Hardliners” snickered. They were only ones in the room with a reason to be smug. They knew this censure was not directed at them. They had abstained from every little congressional disaster that had unfolded the past week.

“Years ago, my office conceded to a peace-time draw-down in military forces and a restructuring of our military and political bureaucracy in light of the crisis brought on by the Akjer treason among others. Back then I cooperated with your operations to the fullest extent. I conceded to the Council in good faith, knowing that some action had to be taken in case of counterrevolutionary elements. I was foolish to believe then that you wouldn’t exploit my concessions as you do now!” Daksha said. She pointed a finger specifically at the rightmost set of seats where Collaborators twiddled their thumbs.

Though it could not compare to the tragedy unfolding now, from 2024 through 2026, little more than a decade after the establishment of the SDS, a wave of very serious troubles arose after several political leaders, including in the Council, in the Military and in the Civil sectors, were implicated in foreign-sponsored treason and potential sabotage. This crisis ended in the severing of ties with Nocht, the covert beginning of of interventions in Cissea and Mamlakha, the purging of individuals and the restructuring of the Council and Military in the wake of losing several top officials to KVW-supported investigations.

To its credit the Council responded quickly to the crisis — to its detriment, the response was aimless and in the worst possible faith. After thorough investigations and several executions, the reform process was run away with. Council was broken up into two chambers, one powerless. Proportional representation was introduced and swelled the Civil chamber in the Collaborator’s favor. The KVW lost its ability to dictate the policy of the Territorial Army. The Council lashed out at anything that could compete with its authority in a desperate bid to preserve itself against future treason. It was senseless.

Yuba’s faith in democracy led him, like a child, to walk hand in hand with that chaos, and to follow it to most decadent depths. His belief was only recently shaken. All of this situation still felt alien — to look back on his decisions with such regret frightened him.

Daksha continued speaking, her tone more moderated. “Ayvarta can never and will never be a ‘utopia without arms’ in a world where Nocht exists. I demand that this Council to rescind demilitarization, fully remobilize all reserve military assets, and return to the Military Council the command of the so-called Territorial Army. Put that to a vote!”

Daksha turned sharply around, walked off the podium and abruptly quit the room, leaving behind a dreadful and long quiet that the Liberal bloc did not move to disturb. A resurgence of activity was slow to come. The Collaborators, normally at the front of any motion, were at first in disarray. Their leader, Arthur Mansa, an old veteran of the Civil War and one of the founding members of the SDS, had vanished to Tambwe to support its regional Council, presumably at the behest of his son, who had only recently ascended to the regional council and now faced an invasion. His subordinates, perhaps not as capable as he may have imagined, seemed afraid to take any measure until he could be reached for consultation. This had put them a step behind everyone else in Council.

In addition, when his orders did come, they had inspired disaster after disaster lately.

As such the Collaborators had a crisis of leadership, and with them, the Council.

Little conversations started to rise in volume around the room. Dozens of debates in miniature sprang up as everyone thought of what to do. People stood up and crossed the room to discuss with counterparts they knew personally or to fetch their aides.

Finally, Councilman Yuba stood up with a few of the Liberals and took the stage.

With his appearance the Council quieted and returned to a semblance of order.

“Comrades; the most recent source of your contention has been the fact that the Standing Procurement Plan for the year has already been passed and approved by the central agencies.” He said. Around the room a packet started to make the rounds, passed around by Liberal aides. “However I have gone through great effort to compile Warden Kansal’s proposals and incorporate them into a quarterly Supply Bill that can be easily added to the Procurements Plan. I propose that we put this measure on the table and hold it to a vote. Let us end this debate once and for all. Give the Warden the courtesy of her proposal standing or falling, in whole, on its merits! This Council needs an immediate resolution to this issue.”

Only part of the room was aware that regardless of the outcome of this vote, the Civil Council they had known for the past 4 years was issuing its final motions.

It was not uncommon for Liberals to craft bills — everyone had projects to do. Most often, National bills were extensions of regional projects, because in a big way most of the blocs were very regional. Collaborators came from the south; Liberals largely from the North; Kansal’s “Hardliners” the few representatives voted in from Solstice itself. What was strange was for Yuba to go out of his way to introduce what seemed like a KVW project, and a radical, suspicious one at that. However, everyone was under too much stress to consider it deeply. Surprise supply bills happened; it wasn’t ominous by itself. In this instance it was easy to believe Yuba was just doing them the courtesy of getting the KVW out of everyone’s way. Liberals were known to be fairly diplomatic in that way.

Without further deliberation the machinery of the Council started to digest the bill.

Across the chamber, Whips ran around their blocs gathering up the votes and holding debates in miniature. There were problems abound — many of the junior collaborators for example had been “brought up” the past few years to believe that Demilitarization was good and that ceding power to Daksha Kansal’s faction in any way was essentially steps toward a coup. They didn’t say this, nobody said it directly, but their insinuations could only add up to that one picture. Many of the Liberals also thought this way in some form.

Among the Liberal bloc many wondered what had gotten into Yuba lately, but most of them deferred to his authority as a veteran. Even the older juniors believed themselves to lack the seasoned dedication of the few Council elders. In any case a unique feature of the Liberals that fateful night was being aware enough of the world outside the numbing labor of legislation to be more afraid of Nocht than a phantom coup by Daksha Kansal.

Among the few Hardliners there was no Whip and a Whip wasn’t necessary. They normally abstained from these kinds of votes but they would vote unanimously in favor of Kansal’s proposal. Many of them were ex-Military Councilors from when the Military Council actually had a say in government. They had run successfully in Solstice after the abolishing of the Military Council’s votes, and established themselves as the local political force.

After an hour’s worth of reading and discussing the plan, the fated instant arrived.

Votes were gathered, counted, and to a collective silence Kansal’s bill failed again.

Yuba took to the podium once again, this time alone. He turned his head from one side to the other, casting a hard, serious look around the chamber before speaking.

“Comrades, I used to believe strongly that any proposal made in this chamber was a proposal for the good of the country. Years ago I supported the reforms made after the Akjer incident. I feared that our beautiful nation could be toppled by a few tainted ideologues. I feared the militarization of our country, and how members in the military and the civil sectors had conspired to profit off our secrets and security and to collude with foreign powers. I feared the great power that officers and civil servants had gained.”

Around the room there were whispers, wondering what the point of this was. Kansal’s package had failed and it was time to move on to the next piece of business. There was a refugee housing bill for example that needed to be properly torn up among them.

“I learned to fear many things,” Yuba continued, “and to see this Council as a protecting light against the sources of that fear. I thought through our dialog here nothing could fail to be resolved — and I thought anyone who refused our dialog was being extremist. I was wrong. We were the extremists. We went to extremes to see ourselves as infallible. We went to extremes to see our own comrades as enemies. We went to extremes for our own power and rationalized to ourselves that what we did for ourselves was for the good of all. We went to the extremes of self-delusion and self-grandeur. We were like children playing a game with ourselves, holding our rules as sacred. Yes, we kept food going and kept the rain out. But as a whole we have regressed in our politics and organization.”

Yuba gathered up his papers on the podium, and then threw them away.

“The Socialist Dominances of Solstices was imperfect when it was founded, and our self-centered bickering has rendered it now near to destruction. I abide that project no longer. I am calling for a Motion Of No Confidence against the 7th National Council of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice in light of the defeat of Supply Bill AG-49-#1216.”

Thus the killing blow, that had been so carefully prepared, was finally struck.

Across the chamber there was gasping and the turning of heads. Men and women stood up and shouted immediately that this was impossible, that it couldn’t be done. But Yuba and his handpicked conspirators knew that it could be done, it simply had never been done before. Defeating a Supply Bill was one of the potential ways in which a Motion Of No Confidence could be introduced. After that there would be a vote to dissolve government, appoint an interim government, and announce special elections. All of this was constitutional protocol.

There was in fact, in the Constitution, even a protocol to reinstate a Premier, though the office of the Premier was slashed after the death of Lena Ulyanova. It had never been amended out of the Motion of No Confidence. Council had been too arrogant.

“Comrades! Order! This is your duty now! Do you think this government is worthy to continue? Within your hearts, if you truly believe this, then vote! It is that simple! But I beg of you; if you have even the slightest doubt, then this Council must be shredded. Without a will of iron our country will sink.” Yuba said. His face was stone, but in his heart of hearts he thought of himself as pleading to them. This was a final chance to absolve himself of the guilt and infamy of history. He was taking on a great burden now.

Slowly the Council quieted from an outcry to a murmur. Councilors regrouped and with their faces sullen, their eyes downcast, they readied themselves for the pivotal vote.

Everyone knew this would be the moment of truth. But there was no more climactic drama to be found. Collaborators started to split up among territorial lines. Liberals held together for once. Hardliners announced they supported the No Confidence motion completely, and they announced it before anyone else had a word in. Yuba, having called the motion, painstakingly acted as whip and went to each of the blocs. There was no trembling in his voice or in his movements. His bodily actions were like a voice in flesh, carrying out a fact; one did not shirk from facts. One just spoke them neutrally. That was his body, his mind, his voice, as he tallied the votes for the destruction or salvation of the 7th National Council. He was neutral; as Liberals often prided themselves in being. Objective, rational, emotionless.

His heart cried, however, from the stress of his duty. But it had to be this way.

Yuba had always been a firm believer in the process, in the strength of democracy, in its ability to rehabilitate humanity. Over the past few weeks, he told himself, he had been neutral. He bided his time and picked his people silently and carefully while the Council made itself look weak, foolish, incompetent. He had not instigated that. They had done it all alone. They reaped what they sewed. Doubt and disillusion was at its peak among the Collaborator councilors, and now he had given them the way out, one way or another.

There would be no more climactic drama. No more back and forth. One side had won.

Votes were tallied and the consequence read aloud — the 7th National Civil Council was dissolved, and deliberations began on an interim government. There was no better idea being floated than that which had already hung in the air before: assign Daksha Kansal a Premiership alongside a small interim Council with a mandate to resist Nocht at all costs.

Special elections would not be held; with the Collaborators dismissed, nobody could vote them in again because the territories of Adjar and Shaila were lost and perhaps soon Dbagbo and Tambwe would fall in addition. Yuba knew that for a time this meant the effective end of Ayvartan democracy as they knew it. It was all up to Daksha Kansal now.

It had to be this way, he told himself. Socialism would withstand it or fall.

“Alright then,” Yuba called out, “the Council yields, to Premier Daksha Kansal.”