46th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field
“Welcome, noble and brave soldiers of the Bada Aso Regiment! I am Inspector General Chinedu Kimani, and henceforth I will personally oversee your training!”
Underneath the searing eye of Rangda’s noon sky there was a mass movement of people in the 8th Division Garrison, the likes of which the empty plots of land on the base’s northern side had not seen since before the Demilitarization act. Assembled between foundation outlines hidden in sparsely grassy land, standing unknowingly over floor plans that had been smashed, and now reclaimed by the soft brown dirt, several hundreds of soldiers stood in rapt attention as a tall woman in a flashy red and black uniform hailed them.
“The Battle of Bada Aso is over! We were victorious; my precious comrades, you have accomplished many feats! However, we must wipe that slate clean! There are new, greater victories to reap, and to do so, we must all take hard steps beyond Adjar’s border.”
Many a fighter had glanced at or heard of Kimani in the past, but for most this was their first time coming face to face with one of the major commanding voices in their unit. She was an impressive sight — taller than any of them, black skinned, with dark, curly hair to mid-neck level and sleek, striking features. A hint of crow’s feet around her eyes was rendered visible only by the glistening of sweat crawling down her forehead, cheek and jaw under the hot Rangdan sun. She had an air of strength and exuded professionalism; a real soldier.
“Doubtless many of you have received basic training in your firearms and grenades, in first aid, in rudimentary battle tactics. Doubtless, all of you survived Bada Aso, and have seen and fought our enemy first-hand. Yet, regardless of your ranks, and your merits, for the next week, every man and woman in front of me is once more a green Private!” She said.
Behind her a fleet of nurses, construction workers, and computers labored to set up examination tents, establish medical stations and assemble tables behind which documents of all kinds would be handed out and filled for the records staff to archive. Preliminary tests would be conducted, and information collated to help Colonel Nakar and Inspector General Kimani understand just who it was that they would lead to battle.
“Nobody can diminish your struggles, nor the sacrifices you and your comrades have made. Your past has honed you into a blade. That you stand before me, means you have been drawn from your sheathe to do battle. But right now, though you desire to cut the enemy, your edge must labor to draw their blood. It is my duty to start sharpening you, so the same cuts you dealt in Bada Aso will do more than draw blood. They will slice Nocht to pieces!”
She spoke in a strong and serious voice, and even when she raised her pitch, her affect was subtle. The Inspector General always seemed to speak in a tone both calm and intense.
Her declarations moved through the hundreds of men and women in the crowd like a wave. Everyone stood straighter and tighter when they felt her eyes over them and quivered when they heard her her voice. In their green uniforms, stripped of whatever rank markings they earned in Bada Aso, the troops of the 1st Battalion of the Askari Motor Rifle Regiment “Bada Aso” watched her every move with tense attention, and a brimming of unused energy.
In the same field where the 8th Division would perform marching drills before the war, the troops of the Bada Aso Regiment prepared for a week of short training courses.
Though the Regimental command couldn’t offer them extensive training quite yet, they would not allow them to sit around. Everyone had already lounged too much at sea. Bada Aso felt distant; but the war wasn’t over. Command wanted to keep them on their feet.
Kimani explained. “From now to the month’s end, with a break for the festival on the 48th, you will clock in 100 hours of training in infantry combat, tank-infantry cooperation, signals discipline, and much more. My staff will give you a crash course on modern combat to give you an idea of the multifaceted duties, skills and responsibilities of a soldier in maneuver warfare! I hope that you enjoyed the peaceful voyage here — because I will make you sweat here in Rangda, comrades! And it will be an inkling of what awaits you in Solstice!”
For an instant, the Inspector General flashed a little smile at the crowd of soldiers.
There was a collective gulp in response. That was a lot of hours worth of training. It appeared command counted their days at sea as a vacation, but they had not had much of an opportunity to de-stress while crammed into a troopship or a cruiser. In whispers, the crowd started to lament being driven so hard after the chaos in Bada Aso. At least some of them, however, were excited for an opportunity to learn some new fighting skills.
One such person was Gulab Kajari, standing off to the side and back of the crowd with stars in her eyes. She looked around the field and through the fence to the base, catching glimpses of tanks and guns and other equipment being brought in or serviced, perhaps to participate in the exercises. She fantasized about this training both as an opportunity to show off her energetic strengths, and to be able to brag about her elite skills later on.
Already she was a military hero! Now she could rise to the level of a battlefield legend!
“Charvi, do you know anything about this? Do you know what we’ll be doing?”
Gulab nudged her constant companion, Charvi Chadgura, but the Sergeant was nearly inanimate. On a good day, Charvi was still emotionless, but at least a little sprightly. Yesterday the two of them had helped out at the headquarters, walked around the whole base, and been yelled at by a variety of guards about where they should and shouldn’t be. Through all of that, Charvi had the same face, but her demeanor at least felt lively.
Today she slumped forward, mumbling to herself in that dry, affect-less voice of hers.
She barely seemed to pay Kimani any attention. She was mostly staring at her feet.
Acknowledging Gulab, she clapped her hands twice, softly, in quick succession, but she said nothing. Her eyes seemed fixed on her own feet, and her shoulders drooped low.
“Are you ok? Do you have heatstroke?” Gulab asked. Charvi clapped to relieve stress.
“I want to go to the post office.” Charvi replied in a barely audible voice.
Gulab crooked an eyebrow. She had not seen a post office anywhere, but she had also not seen much of the city in general — she and Charvi were bused in on the 44th along with fifty other soldiers from the port, and dropped off at the base. All they had time for (and all they were allowed to do) was registration, two meals, equipment check-in, and bunking. The day after that, on the 45th, they still weren’t allowed off-base, and took a tour of the facilities.
That must have been it; after yesterday’s tour, Charvi must have realized that the base had no available post office, and it must have made her a little depressed. Her precious hobby was stamp collecting, and being in Rangda there was an opportunity to collect new pieces. Putting all of this together, Gulab thought she had an idea of how to cheer Charvi on.
“Hey, look, we have the festival day off! You can go to the post office then.” She said.
Charvi bolted upright suddenly. She stood at attention, staring forward inexpressively.
Her head turned stiffly toward Gulab. “Are you sure? Will we really be allowed out?”
“Positive!” Gulab replied. “She said we had a break on the festival day, right? Obviously that break is for the soldiers to go out and join the festivities, otherwise what’s the point?”
Charvi pressed her hands against her cheeks. “You’re correct. You must be.”
“Trust me! We’ll have a party at the post office on that day. Just cheer up a bit, ok?”
“Yes. I admit that I felt and still feel restless, but I will be fine now. Thank you.”
When it came to Charvi, emotion was never written on her face, but it could be evident in the air around her. Her words hinted at a renewed intensity of feeling. Charvi turned her head again, and stood straighter, her legs set, her back erect, her chest out.
“I must live until that precious day.” She said.
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t live until then, but ok.”
“You never know. I must try extra hard to live until then.”
Her deadpan expression made Gulab smile. She raised a thumbs-up.
“As long as you’re feeling chipper! I’ll help out.”
Gulab petted Charvi on the shoulders and turned back around with a grin on her face.
At the conclusion of the Inspector General’s motivational speech, the soldiers were divided into several groups and pointed toward the newly-raised tents far behind them. They were big green field tents. Many of them had the telephone symbol, a handset in a black circle. A soldier who saw it was supposed to interpret that as a communications, liaison or headquarters tent, but there were a dozen strung up. So then, what did it mean?
“What the heck are those?” Gulab asked in whispers.
Charvi shrugged. “I think they’re conducting some sort of test there.”
Gulab soon found herself in a line stretching out from one of these impromptu offices.
She felt her heart thumping as everyone started to move forward into it. She could not see anyone inside, but she could see a light shining briefly through the canvas as someone exited out the back of the tent and let in sunlight. There was a little bit of chatter inside. Gulab could make out words like “official” and “documentation” and felt anxious.
“I think they’re checking papers in there.” Gulab said, looking behind herself at Charvi, who had been a step behind Gulab in the press of bodies that formed their waiting line.
“Well, they’re out of luck, because I don’t have mine.” Charvi said.
It was easy to see how those could have been lost given the events of the month.
As someone from the Kucha, where Solstice’s reach was weak, Gulab had no official papers to begin with. Her only documentation was her army sign-up forms from years ago, which she was told would be, cryptically, “good enough for anything.” She had no birth documents. This was a blessing, because it meant nobody could contradict her on anything about her identity but her family, who were far away; but might become a curse. She didn’t know.
Her mind filled with nightmares in miniature, playing and replaying before her eyes as the line pushed her toward the tent flaps under the muggy heat of a Rangdan morning.
Soon Gulab stood in front of the tent flaps and heard a female clerk calling out, “Next!”
Looking over her shoulder at Charvi, Gulab wiggled her fingers in the air as a little wave. Swallowing with a gulp, she closed her eyes briefly and stepped through the tent flaps.
When she opened her eyes, the place was a little gloomy, but uncrowded and neat.
Gulab took seat at a little table, one of six. Across from her sat a dark-skinned clerk in a pristine uniform. Her frizzy hair was styled big and round, and her friendly blue eyes were heavily magnified by the lenses on her thick glasses. With a big smile on her lips, the clerk pulled a form letter from a box and set it in front of Gulab along with a loaded ink pen.
“Good morning, comrade! I’m Warrant Officer Keisha Tamsi, and I just need a little moment of your time to insure we get a good form we can file for the Regiment.” She said.
Her tone of voice was pleasantly deep. Gulab’s anxiety at being seated in such an official-looking tent, with such official-looking person, very slightly diminished. She felt less scared and more sheepish at being in front of a nice stranger on this strange errand.
“Now, before we begin, I’d just like to know your home region. Can you tell me?”
“I come from the Kucha mountains.” Gulab said.
“I see! So that means you have no official papers. Am I right?”
Gulab felt an icy stiffness going through her chest. “Yes, sorry. I have none.”
“No birth certificate or anything like that, right?”
“My birth was handled fairly sloppily. I don’t even know my exact age.”
Gulab’s voice trembled. She expected to be told to pack her bags and leave the army.
Comrade Tamsi nodded her head in response and smiled.
“I understand. It’s perfectly fine, comrade. Your army sign-up forms, and any forms we fill today, can be used as your official papers henceforth. So don’t worry about it!”
“Oh, good.” Gulab sighed with relief. That had been easy; she had worried over nothing.
“There are many villages and unincorporated territories that have less than stellar documentation. So over time, we’ve learned not to be sticklers for stamped papers.”
From the box, Tamsi withdrew a few additional forms, stacked them neatly together, and pushed the stack forward. Gulab picked up the top form. It had basic things like name, date of birth, gender. That last one gave her a fresh shot of little anxieties, but she figured she could put anything on it and that nobody would check it or care. She was right.
“Answer with anything you want for any of the fields and we will consider it wholly official with the state’s blessing — if you want to change your name even, go for it! As far as The Socialist Dominances of Solstice is concerned, everything you write there today is your official paper information as valid as anything a doctor writes at the side of a birth table.”
Comrade Tamsi sounded almost excited for Gulab to invent herself in this little tent.
Gulab, however, was not feeling terribly creative. Though she could have chosen a more feminine name, perhaps, she was rather fond of Gulab. And while she hated her father and brother, her beloved grandfather had been a Kajari, and her fun and helpful cousins were all Kajaris too, so she had nothing against her maiden name either. Thus she made her decision.
Atop the form, she proudly wrote “Gulab Kajari” and beside it, “24”, her best guess for her age, and “M” for “Mwanamke” or woman. Her hand shook a little after that. She set her birthday as the 23rd of the Lilac’s Bloom, the date she came down from the mountain.
There were other fields, such as any conditions she had, or any levels of schooling earned.
“I don’t remember exactly what I wrote on my army sign-up forms. Is that ok?”
She knew back then she had signed up as a woman too. She had made the decision to live that way a long time before she came down from the mountain. However, she still felt a little scared that the two forms would be cross-referenced in other ways. Again she overestimated the importance of the forms and the bureaucracy’s level of efforts here.
“Not at all! As a matter of fact we don’t even have access to those! They were probably burnt in Adjar to keep them from Nocht. Write anything with confidence.” Tamsi replied.
Gulab realized how perfunctory all of this was, and her heart and stomach finally settled.
No one was trying to kick her out of the army. In fact they seemed to be making every effort to keep her, and everyone in the regiment, in the army. That was reassuring. She had nowhere else to go — though she could have settled down anywhere, that meant she would not have been able to fight alongside her comrades. Alongside Charvi; she was glad to stay.
Smiling, she started scribbling down whatever came to mind for the rest of the papers.