Though technically a holiday for the armed forces in Rangda, bases and critical assets could not be left completely alone, and several lax guard shifts were established, often manned by younger officers and privates. As the night wore on, the guard shifts at the gates and barracks changed with merciful regularity, releasing more and more of the troops stationed at the 8th Division Barracks to allow them to experience the festival. Returning troops who exhausted the fun of the festival then took their place, and bid them a fond night in town.
It was one such shift that led to Corporal Rahani taking the place of Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe at their barracks, just an hour or two after the sun had fallen from over the base.
Their comely Corporal looked to be in good spirits despite this. He smiled his delicate smile, his lovely face lightly pigmented, with a little gloss on his lips and powders on his cheeks and around his eyes. Over his dress uniform, consisting of long pants and a spiffy jacket that was almost identical to the type worn by Adesh, Eshe and Nnenia, he wore a matching dark green woman’s sari as a personal touch. An orchid decorated his smooth dark hair.
“Did you have fun, Corporal?” Eshe asked.
Rahani beamed at the group, his steps all aflutter. “It was quite lovely!”
“Did you have a date?” Nnenia asked.
“Ah, no! I’m not in the market.” Rahani said. His voice took a coquettish tone.
Adesh wondered whether he was already sold or merely off the shelves.
Everyone around the base seemed excited to go out on romantic dates during the festival. There was some kind of urban legend about holding hands under the moon or somesuch — Adesh only barely interacted with these fantasies through osmosis, and he wondered how anyone had time for them with all the drills and lectures they were having.
He himself didn’t have a date. Nnenia and Eshe were apparently on the same boat.
Whether they failed to secure a date, or never even tried, Adesh did not know.
So they all decided to go together.
Corporal Rahani waved them off, and the trio walked down to Ocean Road themselves, taking in the spectacle of their surroundings. Upon turning the corner from the connecting street to Ocean Road, Adesh’s eye was immediately drawn by firebreathers on a moving float that was circling Ocean Road and the adjacent Silver Road. Men and women in diaphanous tops and loincloths, soaked in sweat, danced and breathed long tongues of fire that lit up the gravel and soared over the heads of astonished gawkers.
“Hot!” Nnenia said, pointing curiously to the float.
“You mean the fire or the dancers?” Adesh asked.
“Both.” Nnenia said, a little grin on her face.
Eshe winced, drawing back a step when he thought the fire would shoot near.
Perhaps his experiences with a flamethrower in Bada Aso were getting to him.
Adesh patted him on the back for support.
“Let’s get going, I’ve seen enough sweaty legs for tonight.” Adesh said.
“Pity.” Nnenia replied, staring wistfully at the sparsely-clad dancers.
Every float traveled Ocean Road and Silver Road through a particular path, to spread the crowd. Adesh did not follow any of the floats, but instead took to the roads and the nearby alleys and small adjoining squares, where static attractions and storefronts offered the night’s entertainment. There was still a sizable crowd on the streets, and the path became particularly thick with bodies wherever a storefront was hosting an event.
Ahead of them, a crowd formed so thick around an electronics union club that people began to push and shove to get through or make way past or toward the front. On a wooden podium, a group of men and women hauled out an enormous wooden box with various knobs and a seemingly rounded glass on the front. There was some commotion as the members put down the object and played with its instruments. Adesh saw little of the object when it was set down, because the crowd had gathered densely. He only saw a hint of light coming from inside the ring of people staring at the storefront, and heard only a little bit of music coming from the object as the crowd got excited and cheered.
It was a lot more vim and vigor than Adesh had seen even back at the firebreathers.
“I think it’s a television.” Eshe said. “They’re supposed to be uncommon outside of very big cities. In Bada Aso some of the tenements had a communal television to catch special broadcasts from the government. I saw a few broken ones during the fight.”
“Big crowd-pleaser.” Nnenia said. She stared furtively at the gathering.
Silently, Adesh felt a little offput by the noise and the density of bodies.
It reminded him a little too keenly of the ugly huddle in the Penance Cathedral.
He saw the crowd behind rows of benches, in cramped rooms, packed on the beds of rompo trucks headed behind the lines, or under the medical tarps in piles and columns.
They had no choice back then; but here, he did not want to feel trapped in place.
His feet brimmed with an urge to take him far from this place.
Looking at his side, searching for a way out of the street, he found that the road had also become congested, as a float truck with carnival performers and a lazy-looking tame drake made its way through. There were seemingly hundreds of people following, tossing food up for the drake to eat, and tossing flowers at the performers in gratitude.
Adesh felt a shudder and stared back into the thrashing crowd.
“I’m not keen on staying here, let’s keep moving.” He quickly mumbled.
Adesh reached out and grabbed his companions by the hand to keep everyone close.
Nnenia on the left and Eshe on the right, fingers intertwined.
He drew them closer, and started into the crowd before they could protest.
Closing his eyes, he felt himself bump into several people.
Elbows and hands and arms rolled over his head and shoulders with a few protests.
He squeezed his friend’s hands and pushed on to the other side.
Past the electronics club storefront the streets thinned out again, and Adesh calmed.
But both his friends walked a little stiffer after that experience, and remained quiet.
And he could feel a tremble in their grasp.
He wondered if he had done wrong to them — he had been desperate to leave.
Stopping, he turned to them, and let go of their hands.
“I’m sorry, I lost my cool back there.” He said.
Nnenia and Eshe laid hands he released behind their backs.
“It’s not your fault.” Nnenia said.
“You did nothing wrong.” Eshe said.
Both had spoken at once, and looked embarrassed for having done so.
Adesh crooked an eyebrow. They didn’t seem angry, but he couldn’t read them.
When they resumed walking, he felt his friends each take one of his hands again.
He glanced furtively at each of them. Eshe’s hair was turning slightly curly, he noticed, as it began to grow, while Nnenia’s was tied up in a bun. Adesh had combed his own, which was starting to pass his neck in length. Both wore their garrison caps. They had cleaned up for the festival night, but neither wore any pigments or accessories.
Adesh felt a comforting warmth from their hands.
He loved his friends so dearly. After he ran away from his home and entered the army, he had always clung to them, though they knew little about each other before the things they confided during their lunches at that fated border between Adjar and Cissea.
Adesh wanted to hold their hands and be with them forever.
He didn’t want tonight to be gloomy.
He wanted to have some levity with them for a change.
“Hey, let’s try a game!” Adesh said, turning his head to Eshe and then Nnenia. “What do you say? I see a lot of opportunities. Look, there’s a shooting gallery up ahead.”
Releasing their hands he pointed up the street, where a small woman from a local hunting and sporting club had set up targets and a little range in the alleyway between her store and the adjacent building. She stood on a podium next to it, and watched shooters try to plink at her targets with a small hunting rifle with a 6-shot clip of cut-down cartridges. It resembled the bundu battle rifle, but the ammunition was much smaller.
On a shelf near the range there were a variety of prizes for the shooters. There were clay flowers, boxes of candy, colorful photobooks of Ayvartan animals and biomes, plush toys of various sizes, culminating in a very large plush drake, stuffed with beans, pleasantly green in color and with a big, stitched smile and button eyes.
“It’s so cute!” Adesh said. “Come on, let’s try to win it.”
Eshe and Nnenia’s eyes were drawn to the prizes.
“I’ll win it for you!” Nnenia said aloud, looking at Adesh with fire in her eyes.
Adesh blinked, surprised by her vehemence.
“I’m a better shot, I’ll get you the plush Adesh!” Eshe butted in, determined.
Adesh tipped his head in confusion. He wondered if he had made a mistake again.
Both of them ran ahead to the shooting gallery. Eshe got slightly ahead of Nnenia and stood before the podium. Dressed in a shawl that resembled a coat of moss, the woman at the podium smiled and handed Eshe a rifle, as well as one 6-round clip to load into it.
“First game is free to play, but after that it’s 5 shells per bullet.” She said.
Eshe took the rifle, stood at the opposite end of the range, and took aim. Nnenia grumbled as he settled on the shooter’s platform and loaded his weapon to start.
There were several round targets arranged at the end of the gloomy alleyway.
Once Eshe had gotten ready, the woman at the podium pushed a button, giggling.
A series of dim lights lit up the end of the alleyway, and the targets began to move on a track previously hidden by the darkness in the alley. Plates moved from left to right in predictable intervals, transitioning seamlessly and without stopping from rightward movement to one end of the alley and then leftward movement to another by some mechanical trick. There were also several more rows of targets than previously visible, three ranks deep, with the larger ones at the front obscuring the ones at the back.
“Fire when ready!” shouted the vendor, amused by the sudden confusion on Eshe’s face. “Targets in the last row are worth more points! Try to score 100 for the big plushie!”
Nnenia joined her in snickering. Adesh stood off to the side, still a touch perplexed.
Eshe put the gun down on the platform frame, and bent down to operate it somewhat like a sniper. He pulled the bolt, closed one eye, and took a deep breath.
In quick succession he fired his shots, working his bolt between each and barely moving his rifle from its position. He adjusted the barrel only a few millimeters with each shot.
He must have been trying to get the targets to come to him, Adesh thought.
But it did not bear fruit. All six rounds flew right past the moving plates.
“Hey, you missed pal!” shouted the vendor in a mocking voice.
He stood up from the platform, looked down the alley, and shook the gun in his hands.
“It’s rigged! You rigged the game!” Eshe shouted, pointing at the vendor.
“What? How dare you!” she replied, puffing up her cheeks in childish anger.
“Sore loser.” Nnenia said tersely, moving up and snatching the rifle from Eshe’s hands.
“Tell you what, if you pay for six more rounds, I’ll stop the targets.” the vendor added.
Eshe promptly turned his back and walked back to Adesh’s side, gritting his teeth.
Adesh was beginning to realize what a terrible idea this had been.
All he had done was just stoke Eshe and Nnenia’s natural antagonism again!
At the shooter’s platform, Nnenia took the gun up to her shoulder and readied to fire from a standing position, rather than leaning in with a stationary weapon like a sniper.
“Same offer to you. Pay up front and I’ll stop the targets.” said the vendor.
Nnenia loaded her clip, pulled the bolt, and held the weapon with a hand up front, one around the trigger, and the stock to her shoulder. She moved from the waist up, tracking the targets as they moved across the width of the alleyway. Adesh thought she was probably trying to predict their patterns and fire ahead of them. She spent almost a minute just looking down the alleyway. People started to form up behind them — perhaps they were the first soldiers, dressed as such, to try their hands at the game tonight.
Given the attraction, the vendor looked delighted, and did not hurry Nnenia along.
Finally, after over a minute, Nnenia took her first shot.
Her rifle cried out with a sharp pop!
At the other end of the alleyway a plate broke on the front row.
“Five points!” said the vendor, clapping.
Nnenia turned to the vendor with fire in her eyes.
“Well, you hit a big, easy target! Those in the back are worth thirty.”
Smiling mischievously, the vendor finally revealed the true nature of the game.
Angrily, Nnenia focused her attention on the targets once more, but her fortunes quickly turned. She fired several more times to no avail, the large plates in the front shielding the smaller plates in the back. To achieve the big, luxuriant drake plushie, it was necessary to score three shots at least on the smaller plates. Nnenia found it impossible.
Again Adesh watched one of his friends dejectedly leave the platform in defeat.
Though the little crowd around the store cheered, Nnenia frowned, demoralized.
“Hey, you got fifteen points at least. Here’s a clay flower for ya.”
From the shelves, the vendor plucked a fake flower.
Nnenia snatched it out of her hands as she walked by the podium.
“Here. Like Rahani.”
She approached Adesh and put the clay flower in his hair.
She then walked past with her head head down.
Adesh felt like trying his hand at the range too; but he also wanted to keep moving. His plan to lighten up the evening had clearly failed, and Nnenia and Eshe stood three meters from each other, staring at neither the shooting range nor each other, with their arms crossed and their faces flushed an angry, perhaps ashamed, red color.
He should’ve guessed that they would have turned it into a fight; but why?
As he prepared to grab both of them and go, he heard a familiar voice in the crowd.
“Ah, kids, oh kids, so young and inexperienced!”
From behind the well-dressed gawkers arrived Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura. They too wore their dress uniforms to the festival, but Adesh thought they looked a damn sight better than the private’s uniform. Corporal Kajari looked impressive, sleek and polished to a fine honey-bronze, her characteristic braided ponytail looking silky and shiny, and her pretty, soft-featured, smooth face decorated with an ear-to-ear smile as she laid eyes on her juniors.
During Bada Aso, Corporal Kajari had been a positive influence on them.
She had even saved their lives once with her bravado and quick thinking.
Adesh lit up with a smile as he saw her coming through.
Nnenia and Eshe, hearing the voice, turned around too. Eshe looked ambivalent, but Nnenia was beaming with youthful glee just the same as Adesh. They approached the Corporal, and Adesh wondered if he should go in for a hug. It almost felt natural. Instead Corporal Kajari saluted them with a little grin, and the three privates saluted back to her.
“You three looked defeated back there! Allow me to show you how it’s done.” She said.
Corporal Kajari turned about-face, and took the rifle from the vendor’s podium.
“Well, well! More soldiers lining up! It’s almost unfair to me.” the vendor said.
“You set yourself up for this fall!” Corporal Kajari said.
Behind her, Sergeant Chadgura nodded to the younger privates and stood aside, waiting silently and without expression for Corporal Kajari to be done with her little show.
Standing at the shooter’s platform, Corporal Kajari did not exhibit any signs of having a concrete plan. She did not lean down to aim more deliberately, and she did not spend much time plotting the trajectory of the plates. Instead, once the vendor had replaced the front plates destroyed by Nnenia and got the targets moving again, Corporal Kajari loaded, and with her eyes off the iron sights, she fired the rifle haphazardly, holding it to her hip with one hand, slamming the bolt down with the palm of her other hand.
Bullets hit the walls and the floor and sent a pair of huddling rats panicking away.
At the far end of the range, a single small plate was grazed and pushed off its track.
It shattered on the floor as it fell.
“That’s uh, thirty points, I guess.” said the vendor, glaring at Corporal Kajari.
Behind them the crowd was silent with confusion.
Adesh had expected a show of skill.
He did not know what to think of what had actually transpired.
However neither the crowd’s reaction, nor the vendor’s, nor the privates’, seemed to bother Corporal Kajari. Casually, she put the gun down on the platform and stepped off.
Corporal Kajari then turned to her youthful subordinates and shrugged.
“It’s obviously rigged, so who cares?” She said happily.
Behind her the vendor’s face developed an angry twitch.
“THAT’s the lesson you wanted to show us?” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.
“Yeah. Lighten up and don’t be so intense.” Corporal Kajari said.
Exasperated, Eshe turned to Sergeant Chadgura, who did not even acknowledge him.
He then turned his back on the shooting gallery in a huff once more.
“Oh boy, that was something. Any more challengers?” shouted the vendor.
Once more the crowd parted to allow someone to the front.
This time it was a vibrantly dressed couple. One was a woman with lightly bronzed skin and luxuriant strawberry hair in an exquisite dress and sari drape, and she partnered with a sharply-dressed, rather tall, slender lady in a suit and a fedora. They almost looked like actors out of some exquisite drama film. It took some doing for Adesh to recognize them, but he realized this was Colonel Nakar and her aide, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani.
“Do you want the big plush toy?” asked Colonel Nakar.
Chief Maharani clapped her hands with delight. “I’d cherish it forever!”
“Consider it yours.”
Colonel Nakar stepped up, with Chief Maharani cheering for her in front of the crowd.
Grinning, the vendor warmly welcomed her. “My, my, confident, are we?”
Without indulging in her sense of humor, Colonel Nakar took a gun from the vendor.
Wordlessly, she loaded the gun en route to the shooter’s platform.
She held it out with one hand, as if it was a handgun and not a rifle.
“Ha ha, we’ll see how that works out for you.” shouted the vendor.
From the podium she started the targets moving once more.
Colonel Nakar barely waited a second before she started firing.
Adesh thought it would be a repeat of Corporal Kajari’s stunt, but Colonel Nakar had incredible precision and technique. She had the gun in one hand, but she controlled the barrel with the other, and she paused for a second to work the bolt between shots, rather than hammering it recklessly like Corporal Kajari had been doing. She shot, turned the bolt, quickly snapped the barrel a few centimeters to the side, and shot again.
Untouched, the two closest rows of plates continued moving.
“Hey, you missed pal– what?”
Behind them, the back row had been completely depopulated of its tiny, quick targets.
At the podium, the vendor stared down the alley with her jaw hanging, speechless.
A long silence reigned after the last gunshot.
Adesh and friends were stunned. Even Corporal Kajari was mouth agape.
Not a single shot missed, and every single shot hit a 30-point target.
“That’s one hundred and eighty points, I believe.” said Colonel Nakar.
She ambled down from the shooter’s platform and grabbed hold of the big drake plush.
“Yay! Go, Madiha! You’re invincible!” Chief Maharani cheered.
Once it had dawned upon them that the Colonel had won the game, improbable as it seemed, the crowd around the shooting gallery roared with delight, clapping their hands, throwing flowers. Colonel Nakar presented the plush to Chief Maharani, who boldly gave her a kiss on the cheek in public. This only seemed to fire up the crowd even more.
Everyone seemed to expect some words out of Colonel Nakar as she prepared to leave.
Awkwardly, she scanned the crowd and rubbed her shooting arm, staring downward.
“Practice with many cartridges.” She said hastily.
Chief Maharani put her arm around the Colonel, and the pair disappeared up the street.
Behind Adesh and friends, the hunting club vendor began to close up shop in anger.
Once the excitement died down, the crowd started to wander away.
Nnenia and Eshe stood around for a minute and seemed to forget their competition.
“I’m hungry.” Nnenia said, out of the blue. She rubbed her stomach.
“We should go eat then. You can pick what you like.” Eshe said.
“Okay. Kulfi?” Nnenia replied.
“Oh, that would hit the spot! Let’s get some.” Eshe said, smiling.
“Did someone say Kulfi? We found a nice cart for ’em!” interjected Corporal Kajari.
Adesh stared at them and exhaled, letting out the tension caught in his chest.
He felt relieved and decided to put his worries out of his mind.
They might be at each other’s throats again soon, but at least they could get over it.