This story segment contains descriptions of chronic pain, and lavish, lingering details of food and very harsh vulgar language.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Town of Benghu, Chanda General School
Naya felt a sting in her calf seven hundred meters into the endurance run. She grit her teeth and ran with all of her might, trying to remember the strength and stamina that she used to have. It wasn’t so long ago. It was only three years ago that she had competed right in this track, for this very event. She had run for the whole two kilometers. She could run it! She grit her teeth with frustration. She had run it before! Naya kept muttering to herself.
Dashing across the track, arms pumping, taking long strides with her legs, the cold air washing over her, the sweat. None of these sensations measured against the pain. She felt sick to her stomach with anticipation. When it hit, she had to ready. She had to power through it. She couldn’t let it stop her–
It started in the muscles in her legs, but that was only the warning shot.
Any part of her that was sore and active could be struck by the pain first.
Moments later her whole body felt as though she had hit a wall of nails; the pain overtook her, coming from no wound and no apparent source. She slowed down. Sharp, puncturing initial pains gave way to a coursing electrical agony, low-key at first but spreading and gaining strength. Her body started to shake with it. Her teeth chattered, her fingers curled. She wept from it.
Naya tried to run through the pain, forty meters more, fifty meters, sixty, but then her knees shook, her legs locked. She took a bad step and she fell.
Just short of the kilometer marker on the orange track she collapsed. She reached out a shaking hand but she could not touch it, could not crawl to it.
There was nobody else on the field. Not even the sun was up to look upon her predicament. She had come out early, precisely to be alone. To struggle, to fight; and to fail without anyone there to panic at her plight. She curled up in a ball, clutching herself, sweating, weeping, gritting her teeth, dressed still in a hospital gown that just barely kept out the cold. Waiting; enduring the pain.
* * *
“Hey! You’re still under my care, so don’t run off without telling me.”
“I’m supposed to be out today.”
“You’re out when I clear you. Please follow procedure for a little bit.”
Naya had nonchalantly walked back to her room, hoping not to meet anyone along the way, but Dr. Chukwu had apparently come to take care of release procedures early. She had waited in front of the room, who knows for how long now. When they met she shook her head and ran her hand across her forehead. Naya could understand her frustration. She didn’t really intend to cause trouble for the doctor or anybody. She just had an impulse to satisfy.
“Are you cold? Your hands are shaking a little.” Dr. Chukwu said. “Ancestors defend; you shouldn’t have gone out like this in just your bed clothes!”
“I just had a bad night. It’ll go away once I get breakfast.” Naya said.
“If you say so.” Dr. Chukwu produced a file folder from her coat. She spread it open. There were photographs of Naya, taken not only within the past few days, but also a few from her teenage years. There were several documents, some looking worse for wear with age. Naya felt tense as the doctor leafed through them. She procured one specific page and handed Naya the rest.
Naya opened the folder. It contained medical records, her birth certificate, photographs, school evaluations. There were various sizes and descriptions. Of her current self, at age 20, Dr. Chukwu’s handwriting remarked things like, “lean build, some conditioning but a comparative decline in muscle judging by teen photos, average height, bit underweight, still visibly athletic.”
“What is this?” Naya asked, though she knew what she was seeing.
Dr. Chukwu explained. “After the storm two years ago a lot of records were damaged, including your own. You’ve not sought out any healthcare since, and your army fitness test was sloppily recorded; in short I’ve taken the liberty of starting a new record for you, based on what I could salvage from the remnants of your combined records, surviving school records, and the tests I’ve run the past few days. I apologize for my comments in advance; I’m supposed to supply a written description, and I’ve never been good at that.”
Naya searched through the documents and found no mention of persisting or chronic pains. She cracked a little grin. “I find them flattering, to be honest.”
After signing the medical records and release document, Dr. Chukwu gave Naya a fresh uniform to change into in a paper bag, and a meal card for the local civil canteen — in her case this meant the school cafeteria, unless she wanted to walk three kilometers to the town center of Benghu for her meals. Perhaps she could have made it on her own, but she didn’t want to risk it.
Dr. Chukwu then lead her to outpatient processing, where she answered a few final questions from a clerk. She handed in her documents and waited for them to be copied, sorted, and processed. She then received a bag of things she was carrying when she came in — her old weathered uniform, her pouch belts, her revolver and ammunition, flares. There was a fresh copy of the Comrade’s Companion, a little book of socialist philosophy, everyday wisdom and wilderness survival tactics, handed to new recruits in the armed forces.
“We wish for your continued health, comrade.” Said the clerk.
Naya nodded her head. She wasn’t so sure she had her health back at all.
She bid farewell to Dr. Chukwu, and used the privacy of her hospital room one final time to change into her green army clothes. She left the makeshift hospital rooms behind and made her way across the building to the cafeteria.
Sitting in a bench table, she caught the smell of mixed spices, coming from the kitchen. A basket of fresh baked flatbreads was already set on each table. Naya picked one of the breads and started to nibble on it for a moment, until she saw a man behind the counter waving at her. She raised her head.
“Don’t just sit there nibbling on bread!” shouted the man. He smiled and waved at her again. “Food’s ready, come on up and I’ll serve you some!”
Naya took her place at the counter, at the head of a line that had yet to materialize. Behind the counter, the man took a half-glance at Naya’s meal card and urged her to take a metal tray, already divided with sections for various meal items. Into the round bowl-like segment he spooned a hefty helping of orange curry with eggplant, potatoes, carrots and peas, topped with a handful of fried cheese cubes; a cup of simple stewed lentils went into a small scoop-shaped portion of the tray; and in a square, flat area he deposited a big piece of seitan covered in a sauce of nuts and butter.
Finally, the man gave her a little bag of creamy, drinkable yogurt with berry preserves mixed in. He had taken it from a box, from which he also took a straw and gave it to her as well. Water was also available if she desired.
Warm air wafted up from the meal, carrying fresh scents. Naya bowed her head to the cafeteria man. Behind the counter she saw two other people lounging near hot flat-tops, ovens and stoves, having prepared large batches of food meant to last the breakfast and probably lunch period. Maybe even the supper. All of it could sit and be reheated easily. She was lucky to get it fresh out of the kitchens. She thanked everyone and returned to her table.
Soon as she set her tray down, children began to trickle into the cafeteria.
Naya took the piece of flatbread she had been nibbling and dipped it in the lentils, taking a bite; she then punctured the bag of thin, milky light blue yogurt and drank. She took a wooden fork and knife from the center of the table and started to cut a piece of her seitan. A few soldiers came in to eat. She paid them no mind — she didn’t really know anybody here anymore.
She took her time with the food. It was the first nice meal she had been able to eat in weeks. She had spent far too much of the Aster’s Gloom eating lentils and dehydrated eggs and powdered milk out of boxes. Nutty, mildly spicy Seitan, firm vegetables in the curry, fresh, soft bread; it was like a dream.
Painstakingly tasting the eggplant, she caught a glimpse of a woman her age, striding through the cafeteria’s twin doors and skipping gaily toward a table full of children. Naya’s eyes fixed on her. At the table, children greeted her.
“Good morning Ms. Balarayu! Thank you for joining us!” They said at once.
Ms. Balarayu sat down among them and touched hands with each of them.
For a moment, a brief, foolish instant, Naya thought that perhaps she should tell Aarya that she was there, that she was back home, that there was nothing bitter between them anymore. But she found herself quickly unable to. The more she thought about it, the more the taste in her mouth turned to vinegar.
Naya averted her eyes, and shifted toward the end of her own table. She hunched, as though she could make her shoulders cover her whole head. It would not do to waste the food; so she ate quickly, desperately spooning lentils into her mouth and shoving big bites of the flatbread in with it.
Hearing Aarya’s sweet voice singing to the children was like a torment.
Her plate was soon empty save for remnants of the sauce at the bottom of each tray. She left that behind, an un-Ayvartan thing to do; everyone relished scooping up the sauces with flatbread, wiping the plate. Naya did not want to linger any longer. She was suddenly sure that she was not supposed to be here. She was an unwanted thing in this old place. She had to go now.
It was nothing like the nails in her legs that morning, but it still hurt.
Perhaps she was being childish but she couldn’t talk to Aarya Balarayu.
She just couldn’t talk to her about little dreams born and killed in Benghu.
Naya left her tray, and as surreptitiously as she could she ambled out of the cafeteria, hands in her pockets, head bowed low so as not to be recognized. She got past the doors, through a hallway and out the lobby, exiting the building. Her pace did not slack. She felt like she was being chased.
On the short flight of stairs down from the rearmost school building, Naya bumped into someone in her hurry, causing them to drop a file folder and scatter its contents. She realized then that she was clear of the building, and felt foolish for her lack of attention. She took her hands out of her pockets and kneeled beside the soldier, helping them to gather up the papers.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking, it was my fault,” Naya said. Across from her the soldier shook their head quietly. She saw the soldier’s eyes — dull grey but with clear, bright red rings around the iris. She wasn’t just imagining them.
“Oh, I know you,” the soldier said in a dry, dull voice, looking at her more closely, wiping some of their neck-length gray-blue hair behind one ear. Naya however did not know this person at all. This soldier had a smooth, gentle, light face. Probably a zungu; from the hair color she had to guess Svechthan ancestry might play a part. Slender and a little shorter than her size, the soldier dressed in the green of the territorial army with an engineer’s badge.
“I don’t believe we have met.” Naya replied, handing them the documents.
“We haven’t before; I’m Farwah Kuchenkov. This file is about you.”
From the name, she thought she could pin down a bit more about him.
Naya and Farwah stood up together. Farwah bowed his head at her in thanks.
She took the gathered-up file from his hand and looked through the pages. It was indeed about her, a military record. It also contained her medical record from earlier — there was a copy of what she had signed just a few hours ago. Ayvartan bureaucracy could apparently be very speedy when it wanted to be.
“I’m a KVW Engineer, with a research unit stationed nearby.” He said. His voice was wholly devoid of affect. It sounded a strange mix of eerie and comical. “My superior requested someone of particular dimensions.”
“Excuse me?” Naya said, looking up from the file with an eyebrow raised.
“We’re testing equipment and need someone of particular height, weight; strength requirements in general must be taken into consideration too.”
“You’re a Svechthan, right?” Naya asked suddenly. “Sorry, just, this would be my first time meeting a Svechthan if so. Not that I avoided your kind or anything, Mister Kuchenkov, just that I’m pleased to be able to meet–”
“I’m Ayvartan.” Farwah said. “My mother was an emigre who found love.”
Naya scratched her hair nervously. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I’m not offended. My mother was a Svechthan, but I wouldn’t be considered a naturalized citizen of that nation. I wanted to clear that up. Facts are important.” He said. His voice sounded even more monotonous now.
Naya closed the filed and returned it to him. “Facts are indeed important.”
Farwah nodded. “Would you be willing to start working today, Ms. Naya Oueddai? We are under a bit of stress due to the current circumstances.”
“Sounds good to me. I haven’t a thing else to do.” Naya replied. It was not exactly what she had hoped, but it was a military position away from here. At the moment, she was feeling empty and aimless. This would be good for her.
Farwah stretched out his hands and took hers, shaking them vigorously, with a small smile. He seemed as excited as someone like him could get.
“Good! I’m very glad. The RKS-57-P Raktapata awaits us then, Naya.”
# # #
Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, 8th Panzer Division HQ
“Reiniger! What is your problem, huh? Answer me right now!”
Schicksal rushed down the dirt paths of Silb village, trailing after the irreverent lieutenant in command of their R-company. He had a head start on her, but he wasn’t running. She caught up quick; but he kept walking as though there was no problem at all, coolly smoking a cigarette. Halfway through the march he dropped it, stomped it, and kept right on.
She continued to follow him and to berate him all the way down a side path toward a workshop he had occupied as a roof over his M4 Sentinel tank. He walked into his makeshift garage, threw his hat in a corner and sat down on a bench, staring at the bogeys and the return rollers as if there was anything at all there that he could tweak at the moment. Schicksal followed him in and hovered around him, hands on her hips. Both were wearing full dress uniforms — Schicksal even had a peaked cap with a silver eagle.
“Reiniger, answer to me! I’ll be writing a report for General Dreschner on your disrespect and it behooves you to cooperate!” She shouted.
“Jeez! Stop shouting in my ear you banshee!” He shouted back. He slammed his fist aggressively on the tank’s track but she was not intimidated by it.
“Why did you run out on the honor’s ceremony for Kunze?” She asked.
That was the crux of the evening’s problems. Reiniger had stormed out of the ceremony in the midst of it, in a way that was public and untoward and so very Reiniger. Everyone knew he was a rough, irreverent guy, but this was too much. His fellow soldiers could very well wonder whether he’d run out on their own funerals and posthumous honors. And as a commander in battle it may someday be his duty to arrange such things. How would he fare then?
“I’m not payin’ any respects to that piece of shit. I’m glad he’s dead.”
“That’s far too much Reiniger! You shouldn’t say such things!”
“Oh come on Karla! You hated him too! Everybody did! Not a single, goddamn soul in the division liked Kunze, because he was an idiot, a blowhard, a good-for-nothing, who just went and got people killed!”
Reiniger stared at her briefly, sighed loudly and went back to staring at the bogeys and the track, running his fingers along the segmented metal.
“This a service that everyone expects of everyone else.” She said. “Just as you are expected to protect your fellow soldiers in battle, you need to be there for them when they’re gone. What would you say to his wife, Reiniger?”
“She ain’t here; and that’s different! That’s completely goddamn different! You think I’d tell her all this? I’m not a goddamn monster, Schicksal!”
Schicksal squeezed her own forehead. What a stubborn, difficult fool!
“So you don’t feel an ounce of remorse for your actions at all?”
“Nah, write me up, Schuldirektorin Schicksal. I’ll take a detention.”
“You know this is really easy! You can just say you are sorry!”
“I ain’t sorry for making up fake shit to say about a useless gasbag.”
Schicksal felt like she was dealing with a literal child at the moment.
“So if he’s so worthless as you say, how did he become a lieutenant?” She said, hands on her hips, leaning Reiniger like a teacher to a student.
“Dumb luck. You don’t know him? I’ll tell you all about him.”
He turned his chair around to face her with a big grin on his face.
“Our dearly departed son-of-a-dog Kunze was part of a light platoon scouting out a village in Santa Vista. His unit came under attack, and he found and shot the AT gun that had them pinned. Made a 2000 meter shot with his pokey 37mm. Suddenly everyone’s lining up to hump his leg.”
Schicksal crossed her arms. “That sounds like an achievement to me.”
“To you, yeah, and probably anyone who hasn’t shot a tank gun before, probably why they promoted him.” Reiniger said dismissively.
Schicksal pouted. “So what’d you do for your rank then, mister?”
“I earned it!” Reiniger shouted, raising his voice sharply. “I fought the goddamn Cissean Civil War since it started. I was part of the so-called ‘volunteers’ who got sent in 2026; then because the volunteers’ Nochtish ties couldn’t be acknowledged, all my work before 2028 didn’t count for shit. I was fighting the anarchists while Kunze was sitting his ass in a school chair and earning below averages on his officer tests! Fuck that guy!”
Reiniger looked like he wanted something to throw to the ground to complete his tantrum, but there was nothing in the way. He settled for a back-handed kick against one of the bogeys on his tank, making a loud noise in the shop.
“Reiniger you are very overly impassioned about this.” Schicksal said.
“I hate people who just glide to success overnight.” He said. He turned his chair back around, giving Schicksal his back. “Leave me alone already.”
“Even if it’s crap, just give me an apology! We need you on the field!”
Schicksal was raising her voice now too. Reiniger shouted back.
“Shut the fuck up and leave Schicksal, before I make you!” He shouted.
Before he could air anymore heated invective they were interrupted.
“Hi~! Hey~! Hello~! What’s all the commotion huh?”
They heard a sing-song voice coming from outside the shop — the doors were left open to the air, and their row could probably be heard from afar with everyone else attending the ceremony. Reiniger and Schicksal turned their eyes on the doors and outside, where a panzer officer strutted closer.
A panzer officer with a lot of medals, pins and a fancy black dress uniform.
“Oh wow! I’m so lucky~! I found exactly who I wanted to see!”
Approaching them, the youthful, slender, pretty officer smiled and tipped his head in a cute gesture with his hands behind his back. Reiniger snorted.
“And just what brings you here, fairy?” He said under his breath.
In an affected voice, sweet and self-indulgently cruel, the officer said, “After all the whining that I heard, I’ve decided I came here to laugh at you.”