This story segment contains violence and death.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School, Field
For several breathless seconds Aarya counted and counted the children in the supply depot. She had counted and counted them every morning and every night, counted them leisurely, counted them in peace. Never had she missed one of her children.
When the soldiers led them out of the classrooms by the hands she was sure that all of her children had followed. She counted again. She knelt into their little huddle and parted them, gently nudging them apart from one another as if they might be hiding one more child among their number. But try as she might she always came up short.
Aarya had led them all from the classrooms to the supply depot. There was food and water and a little sandbag fort where all the children could be kept. A soldier told her that metal fragments wouldn’t hurt them there — all within earshot of the children. Aarya gave him an intense stare and she felt like it was necessary and that doing it put her on the side of the children; who were bewildered and scared, many already weeping silently and trying their best to stay strong. But whenever she counted she was one short.
Always short one child. One precious child that was alone in the path of the war.
A teacher short one child; one child she should have been guarding with her own life.
Because of her; because she didn’t count them as she did every morning and night that day. She had wanted so badly to shield them, to insulate them from the terror in the air.
Taken out by the hand by the soldiers, she called out, she assumed they would come, she assumed they would follow her sweet singing voice, that they’d be comforted–
She raised her hands to her mouth and she felt nauseous. Her eyes ran with tears.
“Aarya? What’s wrong? Are you feeling ill?” Darshan said. Aarya didn’t respond at first.
In her mind, in that instant, she counted them children again. One short. Impossible.
Several of the children, those who were not staring despondently at the ground or seated with their faces to the wall, trying to ignore the environment; they looked at her.
She tried to smile for them and then turned to Darshan, leading him away from them.
“Zaheer.” Aarya said, struggling for breath. “Zaheer. He is back in the classrooms.”
“Zaheer?” Darshan said in a sudden and strong whisper, as if stifling a shout.
“Yes! He’s not here!” She whispered, her voice cracking with emotion.
“What do we do?” Darshan asked. “We can’t go out there and–”
He had asked a question, but she provided no answer. In place of a response and mostly without thinking, Aarya tore away from Darshan and rushed out of the door; she rushed past the soldiers, past the tank they had parked in the field to defend the supply depot. Her feet splashed in the puddles and mud, heavy, long steps, kicking sludge up to the skirt of her dress and over her yellow sari. Cold rain poured over her head.
It was like a jug of water emptying over her head at all times; but she didn’t look back.
There was shouting, and she heard someone fall and splash in the mud behind her.
But she was thinking about nothing but Zaheer, the little brown hairless boy whose father was almost certainly gone in the savagery now unfolding across Dbagbo.
She knew where he was and she hated herself for not thinking about him, for not realizing what he would need, how she should have prioritized him to prevent this.
He looked to her; he had nobody else to look to! She couldn’t believe she left him.
Aarya thought she would feel the tug of Darshan’s arm, stopping her and taking her back to protect her over the life of one child but she felt no such thing. She had outran him; she had outran the marathon runner who was second only to Naya in her prime. In her heavy, wet dress and with her ungainly, reckless gait, pushing one leg after the other completely without grace, she had outran him. She crossed from field to school.
Her eyes sought after anyone who could help, but there were no soldiers outside. Everything was eerily quiet to her. She ran along the face of the Auxiliary building, making for the only open door and the thick-walled stairwell that was just off the landing. She set foot inside and ran up the stairs without so much as glancing down the halls.
She fought against the impulse to shout Zaheer’s name — it would frighten him worse.
Halfway to the second floor the world shivered and shrugged Aarya off the ground.
A massive explosion nearby deafened her with its roar. She felt the force of it surging along the ground, crawling up the walls and into the stairwell steps. For an instant it felt enough like everything was shaking that her feet slipped and she hit the cement. She felt heat near the left-most wall and crawled away from it, stretching her hand to the highest step she could reach and slowly laboring to her knees. She hugged herself, her stomach, her ribs, her breasts; it was like she had been stomped on. She labored for air.
When the gunfire began it sounded like nothing she had ever heard. She had imagined something much more ominous, organic, divine, like the hard steps of a tusker or the cry from a dragon of myth. But it was such a tinny, petty noise! Every report sounded eerily like a child slamming palms on a hard tabletop, and in quick succession from multiple men the gunfire seemed more an eerie, chaotic percussion than the sound of death.
This was warfare. It was not some grandiose dance performed by the gods. It was small and pathetic and close and human. It was snapping and cracking and invisible flying lead and awful smells. There was no great flashing of color, no awe-inspiring magics.
She had been exposed to it for a little over a minute and she felt her mind unraveling.
It frightened her; she felt the rattling of the guns in her chest as if the rifles were discharging right beside her. She felt a gross, primal fear that shook her more than the cold of her wet clothes. Despite her pain she bolted up to her feet and started running up the stairwell again, gasping and moaning to relieve the pressure in her chest.
At the top of the stairs she turned a corner and found the familiar hall down all of her classrooms. Every door was closed; the soldiers had shut them all when they left.
Despite all the noise, the incessant back-and-forth of the rifles, the chopping noise of the bigger, faster automatic guns; Aarya shuffled quietly to the first door and gently nudged it open. Throwing open the door, screaming, making a greater panic, would only cause Zaheer even greater distress. He was a gentle boy, who was easily overwhelmed.
Aarya stifled a curse as she let the door swing gently open, stepped inside and found a classroom in disarray, and no sign of Zaheer. All of the desks had been stacked near one of the walls and away from prominent windows. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw something creep — her head turned to the open shutters and she spotted great vehicles moving along the meadow. She ducked reflexively, as if they had eyes as big as their guns that might have seen her, and she crawled out of the room.
“They can’t see me. They’re thick tractors, nothing more.” She whimpered. In the hall she stood, feeling again that she was safe and unseen, and walked to the next door.
The door slid slowly open, its hinges creaking loud. A pistol thrust toward Aarya.
She raised her hands; in control of the gun was the woman soldier from before.
“Lady, what are you doing here? It’s dangerous! You have to go!” She shouted.
She had an instrument, standing on a tripod in front of a half-open window shutter. It looked like a camera with a gauge and a ruler and a radio box all bolted together. Aarya had no idea what this was, what role it played. She was not a soldier. Soldier’s things looked ever more alien and strange to her. She stood dumbfounded in the door.
“You can’t be here!” Continued the soldier. “This area is coming under fire!”
Aarya’s lips quivered, and she muttered a few hasty little things in her defense.
At once the soldier waved her away with the pistol, irate and refusing to listen.
“I don’t care! You need to go! You will just get in the way here! Go back to–”
A distant gun howled and deafened Aarya to the woman’s final words.
Through the shutters blossomed a cloud of orange flames and black smoke.
At once the soldier was thrown forward and crushed under a mound of rubble.
A sudden push threw Aarya back meters away and slammed the door shut.
She hit the ground and slid on the floor. In front of her she saw dozens of holes on the door, and its upper hinge snapped. It hung just slightly off-frame, enough that she could see the dancing lights from the fire inside the classroom playing across the hallway wall.
Breathing hurt; the rising and falling of her chest hurt. But it didn’t hurt in her chest.
There was a slicing pain in her upper leg and hip. She slipped a finger over the wound.
Aarya bit her lip. Stinging pain shot through all the sinews in her hip. She writhed.
There was blood on her hand. She was bleeding. Something hit her, like a bullet.
She felt it embedded in her flesh. Biting her lips, she touched it, pulled it out.
A piece of jagged black metal, covered in her blood, the size of an arrowhead.
Was this the real effect of a cannon attack? Jagged metal that speared through flesh?
Her head swam. She shifted onto her back, staring at the ceiling. It looked like liquid, a puddle, rippling with a fluidity that started and ended in her eyes alone. It was unreal.
There was no sound, only a tinnitus, a muffled, continuous whistling. That too was all in her head but it was so powerfully present that she could not make out any other sound.
In a few minutes she had felt what must surely have been a lifetime’s worth of agony.
She had never felt anything like it before. A cold fear gripped her heart. It felt so easy to give up, to stop moving, to lay on the ground in the hall and just become an object.
The metal fragment slipped out of her fingers. She didn’t hear it falling on the floor.
Moving was so hard; breathing so hard. It could all stop and it would be so peaceful.
She was battered by thoughts of surrender, like hands pulling her through the floor.
Aarya was falling and falling. But there were chains keeping her from the pit. She considered them, considered all of the little innocuous things that made up her life. Over all of this time, what had she built? What kept her moving forward with her head high?
She thought of Benghu, of Chanda, and the school. All of the children. Darshan. When he confessed his love to her she didn’t know what to think. She left him in the air for days. But over time, she started painting a picture in her head. And she liked it.
Now like the blood coming out of her, she felt color draining from that picture.
Why ever did she come here? What brought her to this place? But then, she had never gone anywhere. All of her life had revolved around this little town and she liked that because it was stable, peaceful. She had dreamed of making a beautiful life here. A life full of color that would make her feel remarkable and loved and needed. She always thought — was always plagued by the thought — that she was never strong like her friends. She was never ambitious or skilled. She just wanted simple little things that felt within reach.
One boy told her once that she was precious and powerful and she loved that.
At the time her head started to swim with colorful things that she desired so much.
A little house; children; things at least some silly little girls still had in their heads.
Naya hadn’t; but that was Naya. What would Naya think? Seeing her like this?
Would she cry? Would she remember her at all? Would she act the soldier that Aarya had in her mind and think she was weak for taking a hit and falling and lying there? Had Naya gotten so strong now, in some far away exotic place, with her guns, the guns that the men outside shot; had she gotten so strong she would overlook her? Forget her?
No; Naya would definitely lend her a hand. That was Naya. War couldn’t change that.
Naya, who had her own pains and losses, would never judge one for failing or hurting.
But Naya, who set records with her feet, who trained every day, who pushed herself just to see where she could go, how far her feet would take her; Naya would stand back up.
Aarya shook her head, and she felt as if each movement of her neck was made through a puddle of mud. She turned on her side. Gritting her teeth, she struggled to rise.
Zaheer; she had to find him. He was in here, listening to this monstrous cacophony, and he was all alone. Huddling in a corner in a dark room somewhere because everything was happening too fast and nobody had reassured him. She hadn’t reassured him.
All it took was one mistake, one mistake from her. She was not a monument. She was just human. But she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. She was the only thing in the world that was still right and good for these children, that was still consistent.
Her own stability, the stability of her life, of the life around them, didn’t matter.
As long as she was there they could be okay. She had to go on for that reason.
Aarya forced herself forward, step by step, one hand on her injured hip.
She pushed open several doors, and found nothing inside. Then she saw it; the door that the soldier had shut before and that she and Darshan had opened again. It was shut. She must have returned and found it open, the only open door, and shut it again.
Aarya pushed it open. She walked inside, shuffling in carefully, making no noise.
In a corner, under a little mountain of stacked school desks, there was a little boy with his head to the floor, shaking in his tunic and pants, his cloth shoes cast aside.
“Zaheer, it’s Ms. Balarayu.” She said gently. She sang a few notes. “La la la la la.”
Slowly the boy stopped shaking. Slowly he turned his head to stare into the center of the classroom, as if he had to convince himself that there would be something there worth expending the effort to see. Aarya kept a hand over her bloody hip and the red splotch on her clothes around it. She knelt down slowly and gingerly and smiled at Zaheer.
“Everything will be fine, Zaheer. Is it alright if I give you a hug?” She asked.
She stretched out her arms. Zaheer threw himself into her chest, weeping.
“I was so scared Ms. Balaryu, there were so many people and so many people with guns and everyone was talking at the same time.” He started speaking faster. “I stopped listening to the soldiers and to you Ms. Balarayu, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I sneaked away, I wanted–”
“Shh. It’s not your fault.” She said. She stroked his hair and kissed his head. “Let’s settle down here and wait for all of this to pass, alright Zaheer? I’ll sing you a song.”
Perhaps she wasn’t strong, but maybe she had her strengths. Maybe living through this could be one of them. Looking at Zaheer’s bright eyes, thrilled for a song, perhaps uncomprehending of the magnitude of the carnage unfolding around them, she knew that surviving this had to be her strength. She couldn’t accept a world where it was not.