This scene contains violence.
10th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Socialist Dominances of Solstice, Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso
Despite knowing she was unwanted there, she took a seat at one of the parasol-shaded tables outside the Uttarakuru, a small cooperative restaurant, and she waited.
This was a place with a long history for her.
Too long; she had done too much in this city, and at these tables.
Her return was almost painful and she knew it would be brief.
She knew in the back of her mind that her visit was fruitless. It would change nothing. All that she had done was now burned into the inscrutable body of history.
Her words would not expiate for the sins she committed here.
She turned her head, away from the brick and glass etched with painful history.
People came and went down the old cobblestone streets. It was midday and they flocked to eateries: Civil Canteens, Ration Offices, and Restaurants like the Uttarakuru. They were in a hurry. There were always essentials like flatbread, fruit juice and lentils, but a few items were always first come, first serve. Especially the meat items.
Watching the crowds hurry under the sun exacerbated the heat that she felt in her military uniform, even while shaded by the parasol. The Adjar Dominance in general had a furious climate even in the autumn, and especially before the winter rains.
Around her the people coming and going wore loose overall trousers and tunics, cloth and silk drapes, long gentle robes and dresses, in all kinds of colors. All she had was her military uniform to wear; in more ways than one it was the skin that she wanted to show.
In many ways she had resigned herself to it — and to the consequences.
She looked into the restaurant.
No service had taken note of her yet; she waited, and she sighed.
Her heart beat furiously. Blood pounded through her veins.
Her very presence was an injustice.
As she sat and waited for the inevitable conclusion, her mind drifted. She closed her eyes and heard the voices around her. There was sound all around the city, and close by a dozen conversations traveled through the air, like the pulse of life in Bada Aso.
“Lubon only stopped trading with us only a month ago and it already feels like an eternity since I’ve had some good wine. Our people are hopeless about wine, let me tell you, comrade. We’re hopeless about a few things, but wine is the worst of them all.”
“You tacked on the comrade pretty fast, didn’t you, you bourgeois swine? Ha ha! Stop complaining about the wine. You’ve got a guaranteed roof over your head and food on the table and here you are, crying about wine? Some things never change, I suppose.”
“Wine’s never been a bourgeois thing! I always drank it, back when we could get it, it was cheap. It’s always been cheap. It’s always been proletarian. Until those backstabbing elves stopped trading it! That’s the problem. And the hopeless grape farmers in Jomba.”
“Drink your palm wine, your ancestors didn’t even have the grapes.”
Swirling away from the complaints of old men the wind began to carry the gossip of the young ladies, fashionable and energetic, streaming in from offices nearby.
“Looks like Nocht is trotting out the Empress on another pity party for the Old Empire. Some of those Noctish politicians have been saying the Warden and the Councilors should meet with her and discuss reconciliation. But the President still calls us terrorists.”
“Hmph. That so-called Empress is so tiring and so shameful. No Ayvartan cares for her except all the parasites and thieves who fled with her to Nocht and who ran away to Mamlakha and Cissea. She should give up and stay in Nocht. Do something useful there.”
“I would not be so quick to dismiss her. A lot of countries treat her and her retinue as a legitimate government in exile. There are even people here in Ayvarta who think things were better under the Empire than right now. I read a newspaper article about it recently.”
“What paper would say that? Stop reading the Cissean’s rags, it’s all Nocht propaganda to foment unrest here. No self-respecting Ayvartan wants that woman back here.”
She nearly lost herself while listening to others. Those people were meant to be here, meant to discuss their problems and feelings openly and cheerfully. That was why their voices had such strength, while her own was suppressed. She sighed painfully to herself.
Then, finally, the wind carried a heartbreaking voice to her ears.
Like a dagger to the heart, she heard her own name and felt like she would stagger.
Madiha Nakar turned on her seat clumsily, partially, whipping around to meet the woman that she had come to see. She was one of the recent owners of this old diner, Chakrani Walters, in her long brown jumper and dress shirt and her ribbon tie, her hair done up in long, luxuriant ringlet curls. She had just the expression that Madiha expected to see on her – shock, anger, disgust, hatred. Her green eyes seemed on the verge of tears just from having to meet Madiha. This was a cruelty that Madiha was inflicting on her.
But Madiha wanted– no, she needed to try one last time.
“Does the KVW have business with me?” Chakrani sharply asked.
“I have come to visit as a civilian.” Madiha said.
“Really? You don’t look like one.”
“I do not own very many clothes, so I am here in uniform.”
“So, you’re just here because you felt like it?”
“Okay. Then get out.” Chakrani said. “You’re unwelcome here. Go away.”
“Chakrani, I simply wish to speak to you.” Madiha said.
Many of patrons quieted and made a deliberate act of minding their business.
But they were all watching.
Some of their eyes probably shifted to Madiha’s lapel and to her breast, where her medals were proudly pinned, including her twice-earned title of Hero of the Socialist Dominances. On her shoulder, her pins indicated she held the rank of Captain.
“I have nothing to say to you.” Chakrani said. “Leave and don’t come back.”
“I wanted to say that I am sorry.” Madiha said. Her voice was faltering.
“You’re sorry?” Chakrani shouted.
She pulled some of her curls off from over her ears, as though she could not believe this and must have heard it wrong. “Sorry? You came to say you’re just sorry?”
“Please, listen, what happened has haunted me for a very long time–”
Chakrani reached out suddenly and with a quick, dismissive gesture she shoved Madiha on her breast, overturning her chair and throwing her on the ground.
“Poor miserable Madiha! I guess you’ll be haunted and hungry. Go away or I’ll shove those medals down your throat. I’m filing a complaint!” She shouted again, raising her voice all the more, until it seemed like all of the Dominance would soon hear her shout.
Madiha could not help it herself. She felt angry and frustrated; she thought she deserved a change to speak. She wanted to say everything she felt as gently as possible but her own anger conspired against her, and the words she thought would be convincing to Chakrani, words that might finally absolve Madiha of her sins, instead came out warped, twisted into a petty whimpering. What she said was all too far from what she wanted.
“You cannot refuse service to military personnel!” were the dreadful words.
Chakrani had been holding back tears; now she wept.
She wept openly and loudly and without hesitation.
Tears streaming down her anguished face Chakrani raised her foot and delivered the sharpest, most hate-filled blow that she could to Madiha’s stomach, as though she wanted the kick to push Madiha’s innards out her mouth. Madiha stifled a cry.
Chakrani’s foot came down on her again and again. She kicked her in the stomach, then swiped her in the hip, all the while shouting, “Out, out, out! You monster!”
Feeling like she would die if she remained, Madiha crawled away, to her knees and then to her feet, and she ran away from the diner holding onto her bruised stomach. She wept and sobbed and whimpered, while behind her Chakrani screamed even more, no longer able to say words. She screamed and roared and made noise just to let out the anger, as though the words might finish Madiha off as she retreated pitifully away.
Limping across the street, Madiha felt like she would drop dead any second.
18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Adjar Dominance — Cissean (Nocht) Border
Lately the guards at the entrance to the Ox army HQ building had grown used to unexpected visits. There were a lot of strange cars coming and going from the base. This latest visitor shocked them stiff and nervous, however. Helpless, they watched from afar the mysterious arrival of a half-track truck painted in the pattern of a KVW liaison.
They knew the name and its significance very well.
Kivuli Jeshi A Watu – known as the Shadow Army during the Revolution.
The vehicle drove around the garrison and the depots at a leisurely pace. It circled the border defenses, where abandoned anti-tank guns lay in slumber and barbed wire and tank traps formed a rust red line between Ayvarta and the woodlands at the edge of Cissea.
On this ancient continent, Cissea was one of two independent countries connected to but outside the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, Ayvarta’s ruling government. Its border in the south was once sleepy but always necessarily guarded. Now that it was treated as a border with the Nocht Federation its protection was of the utmost importance.
Paralyzed in their booth, the guards tailed the vehicle with their eyes as much as they could. Soon its inspection took it uphill toward the headquarters.
When the half-track stopped at their gate, the guards scarcely knew how to react.
There was such disarray in the entry booth that both the guards had even gone so far as to salute the car without their hats or headgear and with their guns lying forgotten on the floor. Thankfully for them, the arriving Inspector overlooked these details.
“You are being inspected by the KVW.” She said. “I’m here to see Major Gowon.”
At the Inspector’s order the guards stepped out.
They pulled open the gates and stepped aside. The half-track car inched up the cobblestone driveway and around the elaborate statue fountain to the front entrance.
Gowon’s resplendent new headquarters brought to mind the bourgeois word Estate — this place was a massive ornate building flanked by a circle of thick hedges, originally constructed decades past as a capitalist villa. There was a thick scent of fresh paint about the courtyard, and indeed the rich facade of the estate glistened in the sun. Branches and fresh plant detritus lay under the hedge trees, suggesting a recent trim.
The Half-Track parked up on the concrete street before a series of pearlescent steps leading to the rich entryway. Two people dismounted from the vehicle.
Most notably among them was the Inspector General, a striking older woman, perhaps in her early forties, her tall black body and dark curly hair in sharp contrast to the bright red and gold KVW Officer uniform; the other agent seemed like a liaison or aide, a young woman, skin a muted brown, wearing the common troops’ green jacket and pants.
Madiha Nakar, the aide, seemed unassuming, despite the medals and pins suggesting her rank and accomplishments. She had a pen clipped over her neck-length, straight dark hair and she held a paper pad in her hand, many pages of which had already been folded back and filled with notes. Her expression was neutral and professional.
The Inspector approached the landing, and she approached always a step behind.
There was no established greeting party so they dismounted to no acclaim.
The Inspector scoffed at the top of the steps. There should have been a proper contact for them. Madiha wondered if Gowon’s staff had elected not to relay their messages.
A minute later the soldiers from the gate recognized their folly and ran all the way from the gate and past the two women, hurrying up to the door. They stood in front of the two arrivals and saluted, this time with their hats on and their rifles across their chest. They then ushered the new arrivals up the steps and took their places beside the doorway.
“You are trying my patience.” The Inspector said.
Her voice was devoid of emotion, but still menacing.
She tapped one of the soldiers on the nose with a light wooden truncheon.
“Madiha, take note of these soldier’s names and ranks. I will want to speak with them personally regarding the kind of discipline that has been instilled in this garrison, and the kind of training that they have been offered by their superiors.”
Madiha approached the guards with casual indifference and pulled their tags up to get a good look at the names and ranks etched upon them. The soldiers stayed frozen in their salute. In reality she knew all too well what must have been crossing their minds as this happened. They were only there to secure extra rations and get to shoot a gun.
As a whole the military was being treated like a game — it was not their fault that Adjar had been run ragged, exploited by the unruly, rebellious command of Battlegroup Ox.
It was not their decision to make or influence, they could not right these wrongs, if they even understood them. Something was rotten in these rebellious southern Dominances and it simply swept along all the naive youth. They did not deserve punishment.
She hoped they would receive none but she could not be sure of that.
These were trying times and there was a lot of friction.
“Yohannes Degbo, and Radama Malouf.” Madiha said under her breath while writing down the names in clumsy strokes. The men were so artificially stiff that their shaking looked all the more obvious. They were terrified of her; she hated that.
She did not smile at them, but she did nod her head thoughtfully at them once she had their names and ranks, and she hoped this was taken for the sympathy that it was.
Regardless, the men opened the richly carved wooden door for them to reveal a grand entryway flanked with treasures of jade and onyx and opal upon display pedestals. Captured from capitalists, ill-gained in some way, or merely original to the Estate? Madiha could not tell. She struggled to show no expression in the face of such opulence.
Inspector Kimani looked very briefly stricken with disgust. She narrowed her eyes.
Stray staff members passing the entryway took notice of them, and quickly guided the Inspector and Madiha upstairs, and through a hallway with a wonderful view of the countryside, the scope of its defenses, and of the intermittent line of red made by the old barbed wire, gun shields and tank traps. Madiha thought she could see a few people along the defensive line now, like ants appraising the guns and pillboxes.
Perhaps the half-track driving around had momentarily awoken them.
Perhaps they just had lunch on the trenches everyday, as if it was picnic scenery.
Gowon’s staff hung back while the Inspector and Madiha ambled into a princely office, heavily decorated, its centerpiece a desk made of exotic woods and painted glass.
Behind this desk sat Major Gowon, soaked in sweat and developing a cough. He was a very tall, broad man – the half of him visible above his desk was an ample display of his physical power even in uniform. And yet, he was struck dumb and sick with horror, able to say or gesture nothing to acknowledge the Inspector and Madiha in his Estate.
He offered no seat to either of the inspectors.
They nonetheless sat before him, and the room remained deathly quiet while the Inspector appraised the Major, giving him more time to quiver. She drummed her black fingers on the desk, and turned her red-ringed golden eyes from the Major to the golden dishes and ivory trinkets hanging on his walls. Madiha took down a few idle notes.
Inspector Kimani was the first to break the silence.
“The Adjar Dominance is a valuable command, Major. Nocht-controlled Cissea lies beyond the woods. I was dispatched by the Military Council to insure this Dominance is above the standard of the rest, as it must be. Yet, I appear to have found a garrison far below the standard of even the sleepiest and most rural of the outer Dominances.”
Gowon choked suddenly. He started to cough and hack with increasing harshness. He raised his hand and gestured for the Inspector to give him a moment. He was forced to withdraw a fancy silver flask from his desk drawer and suck down several drinks from it.
Once he regained his voice it was coarse and frog-like.
“Perhaps we could discuss this in greater detail without the Captain in the room?”
Madiha blinked. She moved to stand. Kimani gestured for her to remain.
“She is my subordinate, Gowon. Since this is an official action taken by the KVW to discipline the Territorial Army she outranks you, whatever the bars on her shirt might say.”
There was a brief, vicious turn in the Major’s disposition. His eyes wandered over her with a violence in them. Madiha remained composed despite the fleeting scorn directed at her. Working in the shadow of the Inspector she had learned to keep a strong front and in a way, Kimani’s immense authority over ordinary enlisted personnel served to shield her from the scorn of many older officers. She had been seated in several meetings like this before, characterized by the desperation and terror of slack officers. But those meetings had been about minor things: circulation of subversive materials, or of failures to participate in patriotic programs. Gowon was definitely worse than merely slack.
“I just thought we could speak more comfortably one to one.” Gowon said.
Finally Inspector Kimani seemed finished with tormenting Gowon. “Let us cut through to the heart of the matter. You have allowed Adjar to fester. Your tanks all lay forgotten in depots; across the defensive line your guns have been left ajar in seemingly random sectors with little strategic forethought, and the men and women sleep away the days without nearing their pillboxes. Static defenses have been rusted and crippled by who knows how many seasons of rain, without a hint of repair. A week ago, Military Council General Order 43 declared that the borders were to be garrisoned through two twelve-hour rotations.”
“The Military Council’s General Orders are just a suggestion; comrade, I must gently remind you the Territorial Army answers to the Civil Council. I heard about this recent tour the KVW was doing of the military bases but certainly I didn’t think it was so pressing–”
Kimani interrupted him again, growing almost visibly furious at his rebuttals.
“Where are your troops Gowon? What are they doing? You won’t answer me but I have some ideas. Perhaps they working in your family’s quarry a few kilometers away? Perhaps they have left their uniforms behind to more easily travel where you need them for your black market. How do you prioritize their labor nowadays? More theft? Less theft?”
Major Gowon spoke with a clumsy, shifting pitch, like a weeping child screaming at a parent. He avoided Kimani’s eyes and gesticulated with zeal. “I gave up the quarries during the nationalization! I am a member of the Council myself and I resent these unwarranted and unverifiable accusations. I have had trouble with incompetent subordinates and unmotivated troops! But I assure you, everything here is under control!”
Kimani replied with unconfined scorn. “Under whose control? I have traveled through your defenses, where you’ve let your troops fester in barracks, receiving almost training and performing no drills or defensive rotations. I traveled through the city, where supplies earmarked for you continue to flow, and yet where they end up I am not sure. I see no advancement or improvement in this place. Except of course within the grounds of your lovely estate. I love the smell of fresh paint; you surely have your priorities in order.”
While Gowon further choked and shifted in his chair, a young woman entered the room from the adjacent hall, holding a thick folder full of documents in her hands. Encountering guests in the office, she stood at the threshold and stared, seeming oblivious to what was happening. Madiha thought the woman was probably a part of the intelligence or logistics staff: she wore her strawberry-colored hair long and flowing, in a casual fashion, and she wore a mid-length skirt with her military uniform instead of the standard infantry pants.
Major Gowon gave her an impish look, and then gestured the Inspector toward her.
“Look, here comes my incompetent Chief of Staff now. Parinita, it appears your poor oversight has brought shame upon Battlegroup Ox once again. Explain the rusty defenses and the missing supplies to the Inspector, and to me for good measure, post-haste!”
Parinita’s eyes drew suddenly wide.
Her light honey-brown face flushed a bloody red. She stared at the Inspector in horror, several times trying to defend herself but making only small sounds through quivering lips.
Madiha felt her own heart burn. A fury built within her that was barely restrained.
She uttered the first words of a vicious attack on Major Gowon for his craven cowardice, but she halted her assault instantly when Kimani shot her a glare instead.
Madiha was paralyzed. Rarely did the Inspector become infuriated with her.
Thankfully Kimani then turned her attention to Gowon once again.
“You will not escape my wrath by throwing your staff into the open jaws, Gowon. It is you and you alone upon whom I lay down judgment for this mess. My division, the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division, is inspecting all of the Dominance as we speak for standards compliance. You know the punishment for military incompetence, Gowon, and it is light, considering; but how does treason sound? That rusty barbed wire and sleeping garrison looks like treason, and it is not the only treasonous thing. You have run wild since the demilitarization policies, contrary to their stated intent — more corruption has bloomed under them than ever before. But of course, you knew this. You were one of the architects!”
“This is outrageous,” Gowon mumbled, his tongue tying as he spoke, “Accusing me of treason? Of theft from the people? Extreme; the KVW have become extremists!”
Parinita remained frozen still at the door, and Gowon pulled on the neck of his uniform as though it were it that which would bring him to death, and not the rifles of a KVW squad.
Gowon was poised to continue, but a rattling atop his desk gave him pause.
In the distance Madiha heard a rising cacophony of harsh and recurring noise that startled Parinita. Gowon’s secretary clung to the door frame as though she expected an earthquake. The Major looked around in confusion. Suddenly a series of blasts boomed somewhere far away, creeping closer and closer, as if sweeping across the landscape.
A picture fell from a weak hanger on the wall and burst on the floor.
As the blasts abated the room grew silent for a moment.
“What was that?” Kimani seized Major Gowon by the neck of his shirt.
“Is there anything else I need to be aware of Major? Strip-mining? Clearing yourself grounds for a park using earmarked explosives?” Madiha shifted her chair back from the Inspector, nearly falling over and bewildered by the sudden fury.
Major Gowon cried and croaked. “I don’t know what is happening! Those sounded like shells falling!”