Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ
Past noon a heavily-armored, six-wheeled car arrived at the Headquarters.
Madiha and Parinita stood at the door to the building, watching as the suitcase containing the original copy of Generaplan Suden was loaded into the armored car. Three black-uniformed KVW agents and Inspector General Chinedu Kimani presided over the loading process, while a pair of anti-aircraft guns stood sentinel nearby. Once the suitcase was secured in a bomb-proof compartment in the back of the car, the agents stepped in with it.
Kimani turned and walked back to the HQ door.
She saluted Madiha and Madiha saluted back with her good arm.
“We’ll head to the airport and then take a private plane to Shohr and then Solstice.”
Madiha nodded. “Thank you, Chinedu.”
Kimani smiled a little. “I hope the troops do not miss me too much.”
“You’ve done the best you could for them. And I’ve seen some results in just this short amount of time. Now it’s up to the battalion and company officers.” Madiha said.
“Will you be alright?” Kimani asked.
“Yes. I have to be. Those plans must get to Solstice and there’s only one person whom I can both trust and spare for that mission. You have to be the one to go.” Madiha replied.
She tried to present a strong front. Kimani could still decide not to go out of a sense of duty or familiarity. Madiha knew that she would not — she respected and trusted Madiha too much, and at any rate, it was her idea that the two of them needed to act with more independence of the other from now on. But still, sentimentality was difficult to predict. Even that smile attested to the fact that Kimani was still growing and changing as a person even now. Madiha herself felt trepidation assigning this task to her old friend.
Kimani was the only one who could deliver this object and vouch for it to every agency.
She was more respected than Madiha herself, and a more forceful speaker.
Throughout all of this mess her presence had been a background comfort. It was the confidence that a child possibly felt in the house of their parent, knowing that they could go about their days watched and protected. She felt this vague feeling erode all morning. Kimani was going again; and again she left as things were getting worse for Madiha.
But Madiha was not a quivering child in Bada Aso’s streets. She had no excuse now.
“I will be strong for everyone, Chinedu.” Madiha said.
“Yes. I will be strong for you too. Solstice will receive this package.” Kimani said.
Madiha strongly resisted an urge to embrace Kimani. Instead, the two of them shook hands, and Kimani turned around and climbed into the vehicle. Its engine started with a rattling bellow, and it bolted down the road toward the gate, disappearing from view.
She stood with Parinita at the door until the car vanished from both sight and sound.
There was no grand parting — Kimani merely left her sight, simple as that.
Madiha held back tears and turned to Parinita, returning to work.
“How many copies did we manage to make?” Madiha asked.
At her side, Parinita made a ‘v’ with her index and middle fingers on both hands, smiling.
Her cheerful response almost drew a chuckle from the vulnerable Colonel.
“Four full copies. We have a partial one too. I’m having Jakan, El-Amin and Burundi memorize some of the information as best as they can. I did a lot of reading myself too.”
Those three were Madiha’s new Battalion commanders. They had served in this capacity for a time already, but their formal promotions were still to come. She had picked them out of Battlegroup Ox and the 3rd Motor Rifles, mostly for their advanced schooling and training. For the most part they were mere organizational figures between herself and combat command. She was most impressed with Company level officers like Purana and Munira, but they were better off at the Company level, in more intimate contact with the troops.
“Let’s go back inside while it’s quiet and go over everything right now.” Madiha said.
The Colonel and her smiling Aide doubled back through the threshold and into the Headquarters building. They found the office mostly empty, with Minardo, Bhishma and Padmaja out on various errands. Illynichna and Chadgura had left with them to insure their security, which left Gulab Kajari as the office guard. The energetic young mountain girl busied herself by staring at Kali with a curious expression that Kali did not return.
Kali stretched out over the Colonel’s desk and laid with its claws one over the other.
Gulab spotted Madiha and Parinita upon their return to the office, and perked up.
“Colonel, this is your um– your dorge, right?” She cheerfully asked.
Kali looked sideways at Madiha with a concerned expression on its scaly features.
“It’s a drake.” Madiha replied.
Kali narrowed its eyes.
“It’s a dragon.” Parinita added.
Kali turned its head away from them entirely.
“Oh.” Gulab said.
While Gulab continued her hopeless attempts to befriend the odd little creature, Madiha and Parinita sat around Padmaja’s table and laid out maps and documentation on both Rangda and the 1st Motor Rifles. Madiha had requested an information package on the city and on their current disposition, but she had not yet confided in Parinita her worst assumptions on the situation in Rangda. She decided then it was high time she did so.
“Parinita, doubtless you’ve figured it out by now, but I want it to be clear to you.”
“Huh? What is it?”
Parinita tipped her head and stared quizzically at her.
Madiha took in a deep breath. “I believe that the Government here in Rangda is responsible for our current predicament, and furthermore, I suspect they will launch some kind of operation using the 8th Division to either arrest us or to drive us out of Rangda. In preparation for what, I do not know. Perhaps mutiny; perhaps worse. I also suspect that Nocht is aware of this operation and may even have acted to facilitate it.”
From the documents on the table, Madiha produced a current local newspaper. Prominent on its front page was the headline Nocht Slowed In Rangdan Jungles. According to this report, the Nochtish advance from the Ghede river to Tambwe had mired completely in the jungles south of the Tambwean heartland, far short of its main cities. This news arrived just days after Nocht had supposedly encircled several divisions in the vicinity of those jungles, one of which then miraculously escaped and was now on its way back to Rangda.
Parinita read the paper and listened to Madiha’s words and nodded solemnly.
“I see. I suspected as much after what happened at that police station.” She said.
Madiha bowed her head low, unable to make eye contact after her confession.
“I’m sorry. I feared this since we arrived in Rangda. I did not share them because I thought they might upset you, and I wanted you to be able to work without distraction.”
“Well, I had plenty of distractions regardless.” Parinita said, smiling. “I won’t judge you harshly for this Madiha, but in the future, please confide in me your suspicions. I want to know, both as your subordinate and staff member, and for reasons you well know.”
Madiha nodded her head, feeling guilty about her behavior. She always expected some kind of argument or fight to break out when she approached Parinita with a confession. She still found it hard to believe they had consummated their relationship — it still felt fleeting and fragile and as if anything she did could break it. But Parinita always dispelled those fears so quickly and gently. She needed to trust her more strongly.
“At any rate: we must assume that Rangda could turn into enemy territory at any moment.” Parinita said, pointedly lifting an index finger. “And we need to discuss our prospects based on this assumption. So let’s go over it! I’ve got a few things ready.”
Parinita showed Madiha a few sheets of paper signed by Minardo this morning.
It seemed they were about as prepared as they could be for the moment.
Stocks of live ammunition and most of their remaining vehicles, save for their full compliment of trucks, had arrived today from Solstice, and were now quickly being brought to operational condition by their engineers. Infantry units were still in training, but it seemed that most of them had learned the very basics well enough. Coupled with their real experiences fighting in Bada Aso, they had a baseline level of knowledge that would hopefully help prevent the painful loss of life they suffered in earlier battles.
“Even in this short a span of time, we’ve drilled the infantry on concepts more advanced than what they practiced in regular training in the Demilitarization-style battlegroups.” Parinita said. “In Adjar what little training I saw units go through was defensive in nature. Building sandbag walls, manning guns, and holding down static positions, that kind of thing.”
“Now they have better fundamentals to build upon.” Madiha added, nodding her head.
“Not only that, they have at least a little experience now working as solid teams.” Parinita said. “Ox was so disorganized in Bada Aso that everyone was thrown together or working with whoever survived an attack. Our current organization gives everyone officers and comrades to depend on. Unit cohesion should hopefully improve as a result.”
“Good. So we’re both optimistic about our infantry. What else is there to celebrate?”
From a file folder, Parinita produced a flight schedule and a rather dense itinerary.
“Ah, good, very good.” Madiha said, reading the contents.
Generalplan Suden was on its way to Solstice, along with intelligence officers who had put together key supporting documentation on the battle for Bada Aso and the Nochtish forces that had come from south of the Ghede, in order to prevent the narrative of the situation from being distorted should anything happen to the 1st Regiment. In addition to these assets, unneeded experimental weaponry was being secured for transport as well. By the end of the day, only the 1st Regiment’s organic combat assets would remain at the Rangdan base, limiting the amount of sensitive material that could fall to enemy hands.
“Are the Lachy journalists being evacuated to Solstice too?” Madiha asked.
Parinita nodded. “We’re sending them in separate planes with their own copy of the Generalplan just in case anything happens. They should be leaving after Kimani.”
“Good. Keep me updated on their status until they’re safely en route to Shohr. Once they lift off that will be one less thing to worry about in this rotten city.” Madiha replied.
“Well, we’ve got one last thing. The ARG-2 radar is not ready for evacuation.”
Madiha frowned. “Can we increase security around it?”
“I’m afraid it’s more complicated than just sending Gulab over there or something.” Parinita replied. “Because the ARG-2 is not manufactured by a military-affiliated group, but a civilian union. According to them, if we take it into military custody it will raise negative attention. Right now the ARG-2 is being housed and tested in a civil lab in Rangda, and it is being worked on by both Rangdan and evacuated Adjar scientists.”
“We should have expropriated it.” Madiha said. In her imagining of the situation those Rangdan scientists were a liability at the moment, judging by the actions of the local civil government that supported them. They could be leaking info or plotting to snatch the project away whenever Mansa finally decided to crack down against the 1st Regiment.
“Should anything happen to it, the Waveform Research Center in Solstice will be receiving copies of the data from Bada Aso, so the project can continue.” Parinita said.
“Hopefully there’s an ARG-3 somewhere in the works.” Madiha said.
“The Navy have their own larger shipborne radar projects. It should be fine.”
“Shipborne radar is one thing, but the ARG-2’s ability to relocate is important.”
Parinita nodded. Together they allowed the topic to fade as they checked their maps.
Conditions at the base were as good as they would ever be. They were on borrowed territory that could become enemy territory; they possessed fresh and rested units that were perhaps technically inexperienced but had been bloodied and survived real battles; and they had safely ensconced all of their intelligence assets away from Mansa’s grip. Now the question that naturally surfaced was the capabilities of their mysterious enemy.
“Let us pretend for a moment we must fight the 8th Ram Rifle Division.” Madiha said.
“Gosh, I hope it remains pretend.” Parinita said, putting on a glum face.
Madiha continued, unperturbed. “Owing to the position of the base, we have access to both the port and to northern Rangda as potential escape routes. There are commercial vessels at the port we could take; and our mobility allows us to simply take all our vehicles north if we desire and escape the city without hardship. By that same token however, if the enemy wishes to do so, they could attempt to encircle and trap us here.”
“Were that to happen, the base would offer little protection for us.” Parinita said.
“I agree. To prevent that trap, we may have to strike first. It will be a test of the enemy’s organizational skills. We have word that the 8th Division will begin arriving between today and tomorrow, with heavy equipment coming in two days time. Can they muster enough combat-ready forces to pressure us, and how soon? Can they form a line?”
Parinita shook her head. “I know nothing about the 8th Division other than what Minardo has told me. They led a mutiny years ago, and they were based in Rangda. Judging by how messy the base was when we got it, I don’t think they were particularly well-organized. They’re probably about as well equipped as Battlegroup Ox was back in Adjar. So a lot of horse-drawn guns, Goblin tanks and old rifles, and not much combat experience.”
Given how well Battlegroup Ox performed under Madiha’s command despite their disadvantages against Nocht, it would be foolish to underestimate Ram. Madiha agreed that they were technologically inferior, but when pressed, they would still be dangerous. Particularly if they entrenched around the city. That would be a nightmare scenario.
“We have the upper hand in equipment and experience, but they will likely enjoy a sizable numerical advantage.” Madiha said. “We’ve barely scraped together a couple thousand troops here. Every soldier they can gather against us gives them an advantage in a cauldron battle. By the 54th, the fight may become unwinnable.”
“And it’s not like we can attack now. It would be unjustifiable force.” Parinita said.
Madiha nodded. She had already set the town ablaze with her actions at the police station. She could never have abandoned Minardo and the Lachy journalists to the custody of Mansa, whom she did not in any way trust to carry out justice or conduct himself with decency.
But she had also acted rashly and turned to the threat of force to get her way. There were now people talking about her “flagrant abuses” in the radio and in the papers, likely at Mansa’s direction. Normally Madiha would not have cared, but it was a sensitive time in Solstice too. Should the KVW be seen as instigating open combat against fellow Ayvartans it could have harsh consequences for Daksha, who was enjoying success right now in the High Council after the battle of Bada Aso. Madiha needed to be Daksha’s star pupil now.
“So even if we wanted to, we cannot take advantage of a first strike.” Madiha said.
She grit her teeth even as she admitted it openly. In a pure and pragmatic military environment, perhaps a scenario of this very situation created years down the line, the most efficient choice would have been to attack the 8th Division as its units arrived. Separated, they could be eliminated piecemeal. Then she would carry out deep operations against Rangda’s Council structures and the 8th Division’s mobile headquarters. She had a firepower and mobility advantage; it remained to be seen whether it would be effective against an 8th Division fully deployed and entrenched throughout Rangda’s streets, without striking first.
That was a moot point. For everyone’s sake, she had to stay her hand for now.
“This is all assuming the worst. They might not attack at all, or even mobilize. It might just be a bluff to try to get the upper hand in a negotiated withdrawal.” Parinita said.
Madiha nodded her head. She would have liked to believe such a thing, but her instinct told her that it would not be the case. No rational person acquired a firearm to negotiate with it. Mansa was bringing rifles to the table to shoot. She was almost sure of this.
It wracked her brain. What could she do to get out of this situation now?
Parinita suddenly reached out a hand and touched Madiha’s shoulder.
Her soft caress broke Madiha from her dark reverie.
“Let’s talk about you. How do you feel? How’s your arm? Your head? Are you okay?”
She beamed gently. Madiha smiled wearily back. She felt a surge of affection for her. Giving Madiha an out from the endless hypotheticals she was mired in was an angelic mercy. At the behest of her lover she could safely put away the topic of the 8th Ram.
“I’m exhausted. I don’t want to fight Ayvartans. I want to fight Nocht.” Madiha said. “I know it sounds strange, but I become energetic at the thought of defeating Nocht. I really want to give them a black eye. When I sit idly and stare at the walls of this office, all I see are huge fields with grey coats and tanks. Then we rush out and crush them all.”
“I’m also itchin’ to take a bite out of Nocht. You’re not alone in that.” Parinita said. “I think we’re all thirsting for revenge. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother with all of this training.”
“I suppose so. Still, it feels like such a savage thing to think about sometimes.”
Madiha averted her eyes briefly. She often felt ashamed to admit it, but she had war on the mind so often. Every day she thought about that little blank book she was building up, about her theory of Deep Battle. She should’ve had an elite unit out there fighting Nocht already. Instead she was set back at every turn by crooked people and politics.
“How’s your arm doing? You seem limber compared to yesterday.” Parinita asked.
“I should be able to use it again by tomorrow. I’ve always healed quickly.”
“Sounds handy. I remember breaking my leg as a teen. I was down for a month.”
“I’ve taken some bad bumps in my day, but I’m always up and around in a few days.”
“And in here?” Parinita pressed a hand between the impression of her breasts.
Madiha quieted. She did not understand the gesture.
“I know seeing that woman again was hard on you. I can tell.” Parinita explained.
“I try not to think about Chakrani.”
“I saw you when she was here. To me, it feels like you think she’s justified in how she treats you. I know you’re hurting, Madiha. But you shouldn’t let her do that to you.”
“I think she is perfectly justified.”
“Well, I don’t.” Parinita said. “I think it’s downright rotten of her.”
Madiha shook her head. “I’ve hurt her very badly in the past, Parinita.”
“You didn’t hurt her!” Parinita snapped. She sounded almost outraged.
“Is there a difference? I killed her father. I destroyed the life she led up to that point.”
“You didn’t do it just to be cruel to her, no matter what she thinks. There’s a world of difference. Madiha, you were protecting her! Maybe you don’t see it that way and obviously she does not, but her father was dangerous to everyone!” Parinita said.
Madiha appreciated the gesture, but she could not agree with it. “I was in a relationship with Chakrani, an intimate one, you know this; and yet still I never really knew her father. I lived under a roof that was nominally his, for years, and even as I doomed him to execution, I couldn’t tell myself that I knew anything about his true character.”
“So what? You weren’t in a relationship with her father. She is choosing to–”
“I made a choice too. I chose my convictions over her. Of course she’d be hurt.”
For that matter, Madiha was coming to realize she never really knew Chakrani either. She did not know how hard she held a grudge, did not know her real convictions or dreams, did not know anything except that they once loved each other. Back then they were just girls — they were like partially-formed people. They were playing house. Everything from the dates to the arguments to the sex seemed distant and ephemeral.
“You didn’t doom an innocent man. He sold us out to Nocht.” Parinita said.
“I don’t regret his death.” Madiha said. “But I don’t want to deny Chakrani’s grievances.”
“I don’t care what Chakrani or anyone says, you don’t deserve this, Madiha. We’ve all been thrust with something big and awful and we’re all dealing with it however we can. I support you, and everyone supports you. We’ll stand loyally behind you. You’ll see.”
Parinita leaned closer until their foreheads and noses were touching, as if coming in for a kiss. Perhaps sensing her lover’s dark turn, she was gentler and calmer than moments before. Her cooing voice and warm, close breath were reassuring. Madiha felt the energy of her lover transferring through her skin and it was a rejuvenating sensation.
Quietly they held their positions across the little table, holding hands, locking eyes.
Madiha felt an uncommon vulnerability and volatility. Her emotions were becoming easy to sway. Parinita made her feel happy and light-headed, for a time. Her situation made her angry and exhausted; the people she had to confront, like Mansa and Chakrani, made her anxious and miserable. It was easier before, when she felt little about any given thing except for a stone-faced misery, droning in the background of her life.
It felt strange to be pieced back together enough now to hurt so bad again.
But at least there was a contrast; the joy she felt in the hands of her lover.
She would not have had that before the fateful days of the Aster’s Gloom.
Madiha felt like childish; and perhaps, some part of her had never grown from that little girl hurling herself blindly toward revolution. That part of her was exhausted by the injustice plainly visible when her naive and optimistic imaginings clashed with a rigid and real world. Weary because her people were still fractious, still reliant on currency, still not safe from deprivation. In the beautiful world she had lost her childhood for, and that so many had lost their whole lives for, she was contemplating killing her own people.
Not since Akjer had she had to fight her own people so grandly on the stage of history.
It always seemed to fall on her to make these decisions.
And she always chose the same.
Because it was always the right choice. She had to believe that.
Still the responsibility felt crushingly heavy. It bowed her body and sapped her will.
And yet, she was capable now of feeling a great surge of life within her.
Madiha felt Parinita’s hand, and the invisible energy coming from her.
She felt a surge of electricity from staring into her eyes and taking her into her soul.
And Parinita was not alone; Madiha had the support of Agni and Kimani and the troops and even Minardo. She was not alone. She would not have to handle these things alone.
This knowledge kept her drawing breath, and prevented her from turning back to stone.
“Oh! Colonel, someone’s at the door for you!”
Gulab’s voice tore the two lovers from their subtle embrace.
Parinita backed away from the Colonel with a little smile on her face, trying still to comfort her. She had largely succeeded. Madiha was calm and her mind was freed of anxiety. She bore a characteristically stoic expression as she met with a man at the door to the headquarters. He was very well-dressed in a bright blue uniform with a feathered cap.
She was handed a piece of paper.
A message sent by courier from Hotel Rangda in North Rangda by Chakrani Walters.
Madiha felt a brief convulsion in her chest as she unfolded the paper.
She read the contents, thanked the courier, and returned to the table.
She handed the paper to Parinita, who read it with a much more emotive response.
“What could she possibly want now?” Parinita asked.
Plainly, the letter requested Madiha’s presence at Serene Park in Northern Rangda.
Chakrani wanted to meet with her at night and alone to discuss “their differences.”
“At night? Why at night?” Parinita said.
“Chakrani’s always been a night owl. I think it gives her more courage.” Madiha said.
“And why alone?”
“Well, she probably wants to discuss intimate things. We shared a private life once.”
“It’s still sounding fishy to me. What will you do?” Parinita asked pointedly.
“I don’t know. I don’t think Chakrani is the kind of person who would concoct a plot like this. I don’t think she would expect me to show up. I believe her request is genuine.”
“Whether or not she’s plotting something, Rangda’s too tense right now for this.”
Parinita was right — just leaving the base grounds right now could be troublesome. But Madiha felt an urge to take action and this was an action she could take. She could sit here in the headquarters and await Mansa’s next move and leave Chakrani waiting in the park. No harm would come from avoiding this meeting. She was unsure she and Chakrani would ever bury their shared history, no matter how genuine their desire to move on from Akjer. And yet, such an approach would change nothing of how the following days transpired. Madiha would still be waiting passively and losing time.
Going out and talking to Chakrani might give her a foot in the door within Rangda.
Or at least, a foot in the door out of her own lasting burdens.
“You want to go anyway. I can see it in your face.” Parinita bluntly said.
“I’m thinking about it. But I will stay if you want me to.” Madiha said.
She meant it. She wanted to know how Parinita felt, and she wanted to assuage those feelings. Parinita had been silent during the confrontation with Chakrani the day before. It was the same in Bada Aso. Always she stood behind Madiha as the tragedy of her past reappeared, and she said nothing. She had a right to be unsettled by all of this. They were lovers now; Madiha did not want Parinita to suffer on account of Chakrani.
Parinita, however, did not look like one suffering. She turned a smile on Madiha.
“I want you to follow your convictions, Madiha. That’s what I fell in love with, you know?”
She met Madiha’s gaze with determination in her eyes.
“I can’t solve what happened between you and Chakrani, and it wouldn’t be right for me to demand a resolution for my own sake. I trust you; and I’ll support your decision.”
Madiha felt a palpable easing of tensions in the room. She smiled happily back.
“I feel like the luckiest woman on Aer.” Madiha said, light-headed with fond feelings.
“You should.” Parinita replied, flipping her hair with a flourish and winking one eye.