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.
“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?