Coup De Cœur — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence, death, mild sexual content, social coercion and extreme mental and emotional distress.


51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.

Click.

Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.


Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ

Past the crack of dawn, a sleek dark figure swooped into the base.

Flying over sleeping guards in their posts, crossing over every fence and sandbag.

Through the window of an important building it blew in with the cool morning breeze.

Atop the main nest, Kali reappeared carrying a large, unmoving rat in its mouth.

Fire-Eyes, collapsed on this big wooden nest, did not notice the creature’s arrival.

Kali dropped the rat beside its sleeping friend and pushed it with its beak.

Fire-Eyes shook as Kali pushed the rat against it. Several times the morsel collided with its good arm, and Fire-Eyes swept it back mindlessly. Kali pushed it close to it again.

Obstinately, Kali continued to shove Fire-Eyes until it opened one of its eyes to see it.

It woke with a shock; these upright dragons seemed easily startled of late.

Then almost immediately it calmed, holding its hand against a mildly bulging chest.

Drawing deep breaths, Fire-Eyes picked at the straight, black follicles extending from its head to around level of its neck, and it arranged them behind one of its soft brown head-spikes. Sighing, it addressed Kali in its language, which Kali partially understood.

“Kali, you scared me. Where have you been? Just hunting rats?” It asked.

Kali turned its head to its side. It normally did this to try to catch a different view of Fire-Eyes’ aura. Unlike most upright-dragons, Fire-Eyes had a very complicated aura that was very attractive and textured and difficult to read without looking at it from various angles. Fire-Eyes seemed to try to mimic this by tilting its own head in response.

But Kali knew Fire-Eyes was probably too stupid to read Kali’s aura back.

It had never correctly ascertained anything from the aura, if it could even do so.

“Kali, I do not eat rats. Rats are not human food.” Fire-Eyes said.

From her aura, Kali could discern that she was distressed and disgusted by the rat.

Kali put on a disappointed expression, grabbed the rat, and chucked it off the nest.

It hit one of the guards resting near the door and caused it to fall down, startled.

Fire-Eyes palmed its strange, relatively flat snout and started to busy itself with the fake wood pulp leaves that upright-dragons liked to collect so much. It was a very odd trait.

To think it was trying to do all of this bizarre nest-making without eating even one rat.

Kali thought Fire-Eyes was a very stupid dragon despite its size. It desperately needed an experienced dragon like Kali to care for it. Kali was happy to oblige. Kali had taken care of many broods, mostly other upright-dragons who had complicated auras and could not take care of themselves. Of all these nestlings, Fire-Eyes was unique.

In fact, Fire-Eyes was very special.

It had found Fire, hence the name Kali gave to it, and why Kali accepted the name that it gave back. No Dragon had found Fire in a very long time, so Fire-Eyes was important. Kali’s siblings and the siblings of its elders had all passed into dust without having found the Fire again. Kali itself, accomplished as it was, could only blow Air. It was powerful and had felled many powerful foes, but it was not Fire. So Fire-Eyes was special.

But Fire-Eyes was also a very stupid dragon. It was a big and beautiful dragon but it was as stupid as it was big. It never went out to hunt. It seemed content to eat leaves and nuts and fruit all day. And it could not fly or float, which was the most puzzling thing of all. None of these dragons could fly. But Fire-Eyes had found Fire, so Kali assumed it would have been smart enough to fly. it was not and could not. It was very strange.

So Kali decided out of the infinite generosity in its lungs to find Fire-Eyes a nice rat.

Fire-Eyes reacted predictably. Upright dragons were very slow to learn to eat rats.

Some of them never quite picked up on the fact that rats were meant to be eaten.

Kali had seen many upright-dragons pass into dust without eating a single rat.

Regardless, Kali was a generous being with large lungs full of compassion and so it would wait another eternity for Fire-Eyes to learn to eat rats or to pass into dust.

Fire-Eyes paced the room, playing at nest-making with her fake leaves. On the other nests, she found Fire-Eyes’ poorly-picked nestmate, whom Kali dubbed “Dawn” because its follicles were a sort of pink-orange color to Kali’s eyes, like the dawn sky. Kali had, when Kali first saw Dawn, dubbed her “Lumps” instead because of the soft bulges on her chest and hips, but then Kali met the other important upright-dragon, who had a very large belly. That one was then dubbed Lumps instead. Dawn and Lumps had their own nests with their own bundles of fake leaves. Both were asleep. Fire-Eyes checked up on Lumps briefly and then on Dawn.

Fire-Eyes stared fondly at Dawn quite a bit. Kali stuck out her tongue.

At first Kali thought Dawn was a bad influence on Fire-Eyes. Dawn had a mildly complicated aura that was made of sickly colors. Kali thought Dawn would make Fire-Eyes misbehave. But it had seen time and again upright dragons choosing terrible nestmates and Kali realized it was necessary to let them make these mistakes, perhaps forever. Now that Fire-Eyes and Dawn had noisily mated a few nights before, Kali awaited their first clutch of eggs, which it knew for some upright dragons took forever to happen. It knew not who would lay them.

It would be quite a sight, watching these very stupid upright dragons caring for eggs.

To safeguard their future nestlings, Kali was doing more lately than hunting for rats.

It was searching the city for those fake progenitors wrapped in plant skin.

When it saw one a few shadowfalls ago, Kali became quite anxious.

Kali had lived long enough that it knew the Progenitors and the hatred they had for the upright-dragons. Thankfully these were just fake Progenitors. They had nothing of the Progenitors but the body, all dried up, wrapped in plant skins and with fake faces. It knew not who dug them up from the dust and did this to them, but it knew that they could not be allowed to run rampant. One had already hurt Fire-Eyes very much.

Thinking about it made Kali’s lungs flare.

Very, very long ago, Kali had thrown its lot in with the upright dragons.

They were the only good dragons left, though they did not know it.

Kali wondered whether these fake Progenitors knew what they were doing, and whether some inkling of their past, buried in their dried-up sinews, knew that they had been wrong then and wrong now about the upright dragons. That they could have chosen to support them and in so doing perhaps extended the time of the great old power.

Kali had seen the Progenitors and their Progenitors come and go.

That was why it supported the upright dragons. Because it was in their blood now, that not only the dragon, but the Jinni, the Trull, the Dun, the Fae, the Mer, and even the Progenitors who warred with them all, now resided. They merely needed to learn this.

It knew that in the history of Aer only the upright-dragons could be united and eternal.

Only the upright-dragons could make peace happen, out of all the creatures who trod upon the land. It was only the upright-dragons who could celebrate life and avoid death.

All they had to do was to learn how. But first: rat-hunting, nest-making. Small steps.

Kali looked out the window to the wide open blue sky overhead.

There was one more of the things the upright-dragons knew as Majini out there.

Kali vowed to find it and kill it as it had many others.

For Fire-Eyes, and its great potential.


Rangda — 8th Division Base, Training Field

At the crack of dawn, the new Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion of the 1st Motor Rifles stepped out of the ordinary infantry barracks and walked to the field in their new uniforms. Gone was the battle dress and long pants of the infantry. Instead they wore tight green bodysuits that zipped down the front, along with a helmet that nobody put on. Corporal Rahani had a jacket that he wore over the suit, and it had his pins on it.

Adesh felt odd wearing the suit. It was made of a tight elastic material that Rahani described as ultra-modern, perhaps harvested from some kind of creature. It was unlike any article of clothing Adesh had ever worn, like sleek, shiny leather but much less rigid. It was soft inside, perhaps lined with cotton. It clung fairly close to the skin, markedly showing off the wearer’s limbs and figure (or lack thereof, in the case of him and his close friends).

From the long legs to the high neck, it covered all of his skin and felt very light.

Slightly thicker pads of material had been sewn in over the elbows, shoulders, knees and hips, and a belt went around the waist. An accompanying harness was worn over the chest, made up of two fairly lightweight belts, and it contained a few pockets for everyday use. Beneath all of this Adesh had been advised to wear an undershirt and soft cotton shorts.

Adesh had never seen a Goblin tanker wearing something like this.

Perhaps it was a brand new design.

It certainly could not take a bite of shrapnel, but then again, neither could his uniform.

To match their new attire, Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe would not be firing a static 76mm gun anymore, and would instead be crewing a Chimera EP/76 self-propelled gun. In the morning, the trio followed Rahani out to the training field, along with a handful of other crews. It was their last scheduled training for some time, according to Lt. Purana, who walked out with them to supervise. Events in Rangda meant they had to rush this one out.

In the middle of the field they found the Chimeras waiting for them in a line, with their hatches open. Every crew performed a quick checkup, and found that the vehicles had been fueled, oiled and warmed up for them by the mechanics, left ready to shoot.

“Climb aboard! Kufu, you’ll be inside as the driver. Adesh, Nnenia, Eshe and I will be up top.” Rahani cheerfully said. His own bodysuit, black and green, looked rather flattering. On his hair this morning he wore a bright chrysanthemum. “Though the tank is meant for four people, ours will have five because it is a command model. So in addition, to issuing commands to you, I’m also section leader for two other vehicles. Eshe, you’ll be gun commander for this particular tank. Oh, don’t give me that look — I’ll still be nearby!”

Eshe had pointed toward himself, incredulously, upon hearing this nonchalant promotion.

Nnenia whistled and patted him briefly on the back.

Adesh smiled. If there was anyone who should be an officer, it was Eshe.

Though this was mostly based on an unflattering conception of officers as rules sticklers.

“You’re now Corporal Eshe Chittur! I’m due for a promotion myself, but I don’t yet have my new rank insignia. I think I you will be seeing Sergeant Rahani within the week!”

Rahani handed Eshe his own pin to clip on his harness pockets for now. There was little time to celebrate. After a quick clap, both for Eshe’s odd promotion and Rahani’s expected one, they saw Lt. Purana come walking out in front of the vehicles. He blew a whistle, urging everyone to get to their vehicles and to get acquainted with their use.

Adesh dutifully climbed atop the Chimera, and found a few too many people following.

“Cramped.” Nnenia winced.

It was like sitting in the middle of a large closet with three other people.

Atop the Chimera, the space was limited enough that Corporal Rahani often sat uncomfortably atop the shell racks, or traded places with Eshe and stood on the left-rear side of the crew compartment. Though both of them could stand in the rear of the vehicle together, they would be pressed against one another in uncomfortably intimate contact. Meanwhile just centimeters away at the front of the interior gun superstructure, Adesh handled the shooting and targeting of the gun, and Nnenia picked up shells to load, and helped orient the gun and adjust its sighting equipment. They had twenty practice shells, all high-explosive, allotted to their tank and already on their racks in the back.

Inside the chassis, Kufu drove the vehicle. His compartment lay under the barrel of the gun, inside the sloping front of the tank. Because he could barely hear them when the tank was in operation, they relied on the intercomm to shout commands for him to turn this or that many degrees in a direction. In order to fire their first few practice shots against columns of cement, they first had to bark degrees at Kufu to get him to turn the gun, because the superstructure traverse was limited to a range of ten degrees.

To communicate, everyone had headsets with padded earpieces and throat microphones. It helped not only to talk, but to dull the sounds of firing around them.

Shooting was quite easy; Adesh already knew everything he needed to about the gun because almost nothing about it had changed from the ordinary, immobile model. The 76mm shells still weighed around six kilograms, but Nnenia carried most of that weight. Adesh felt a little guilty watching her exert herself, twisting around, picking shells off the rack and handing them to him to shove into the waiting breech. She wiped sweat off her brow more than once after letting go of a shell. However, he knew that in the middle of battle it was necessary to divide these responsibilities. He had to focus on shooting.

His first shot struck the ground around the column and kicked up dust. Adesh chalked it up to rust. After fighting moving targets in Bada Aso, the cement column felt like an unworthy opponent. He felt confident as Nnenia handed him his next round. On the second shell, Adesh hit the column dead-on and punched a crater into it the size of a fist. Had the shells been full charges, perhaps it would have blown the column in half. He found the learning curve on the Chimera nonexistent — the breech-locking lever and the firing pin and every other instrument was where he expected it to be on his old gun.

Unlike his old gun, Adesh caught some nasty smelling gases leaving the breech when it opened, but the open top of the vehicle at least allowed the smell to vent skyward.

Nnenia was at the ready with another shot. Rahani called for an elevation check.

“Try to hit the top of the column, if the center is that easy!” Rahani said amicably.

Turning the elevation mechanism, Nnenia under Eshe’s supervision adjusted their aim.

Adesh fired, and the shell soared over the cement column and flew off somewhere.

All three of them stood in stunned silence. Rahani giggled.

“Keep an eye on the range instruments! It’s important not to go off instinct here. The Chimera’s traverse is limited, but you can use those few degrees to make fine corrections to Kufu’s overall direction.” Rahani advised between shots. He had on a headset connected directly to a large radio that took up their tool storage on the tank’s side.

While watching them, Rahani also coordinated with other crews via his command set.

He seemed poorly practiced in this. He definitely paid Adesh’s unit the most attention.

Meanwhile, poor Eshe just felt redundant as their new commander.

“Load HE! Target is 500 meters away! Fire when ready!”

Though he shouted orders, mimicking how Corporal Rahani conducted himself in Bada Aso, Eshe had no moving targets, and indeed, no targets other than the column at all. He had no ammunition save for HE training rounds. It was an inadequate test of any command skills he might have had. He could not properly practice target priority, tactical awareness, and shot and movement calls to the gunner and driver, not without a much more complicated training ground than what they had. He shouted just to have something to do.

“You’re doing fine, Eshe!” Rahani said. “Keep making decisions!”

Eshe smiled nervously, tugging on the neck of his suit.

There were three Chimeras in their section, though Adesh knew nothing of the crews of the other two, and he had a nagging sensation Rahani did not know them well either. Their section of three vehicles was part of a larger battery of nine vehicles. All of them fired in different intervals during the practice. Their shots went off in a rhythmic series of booms and bursts like a vivid drum concert, the worst of the noise muffled by the headsets.

After firing seven of their shells at the column, Rahani had everyone pause for a breather. Other crews seemed to have similar ideas. Lt. Purana stepped off his own Chimera at the back of the formation and signaled for every unit to cease fire at once.

“We’re going to test mobility! Make a lap around the field!” He shouted.

Lt. Purana ran back to his own vehicle, and took the lead as the Chimeras formed into a column and started to drive toward the edge of the field. At this point, Adesh and Nnenia removed their headsets and laid against the gun, sighing and sweating from their efforts. Eshe stood ramrod straight with his eyes to the fore, while Rahani spoke in choppy sentences to the other two crews. He took some time to ask for their names then.

Kufu was the one getting a workout now, but characteristic of him, he said nothing.

The Chimeras drove along the cement barrier at the edge of the field, achieving speeds of 40 kilometers per hour within thirty seconds of acceleration and maintaining that speed as they traveled. Bumps in the terrain were hardly felt by the tankers, but this was more owing to the general rattling and vibrations from the tank’s crunching engine. At the northern edge of the field the procession slowed, turned and took off again due east.

On the radio, they heard Lt. Purana. “Head toward the practice trench and cross it.”

Adesh looked over the gun mantlet and spotted the trench in the distance.

“Can we make that?” He asked.

“Tracks can do it.” Nnenia replied.

Eshe nodded. “We won’t even stumble, you’ll see. Just watch.”

Adesh nodded, and continued to peer over the gun. He saw the trench come closer and closer, and he saw the vehicles ahead almost upon it. He thought they would fall forward with their guns sticking into the dirt like stakes — that was a trench, a hole in the ground! Instead, as if moving over their own iron carpets, the Chimeras crossed the trench one by one without even shaking up. As their own Chimera neared the trenches, the long scars in the ground vanished under the bulk of their vehicle. They did not slow, and Adesh felt nothing as they crossed. It was the same as when they trod the open field.

Before he even realized it, the trenches lay behind him rather than ahead of him.

“I thought for sure we would fall inside. That trench was almost two meters wide!”

Rahani chuckled. “A continuous track wouldn’t fall into a trench like that!”

Having traveled the trenches, the Chimeras ran three laps around the field. Once the drivers had gotten some time to be used to the turn speed and acceleration, the procession doubled back toward the barracks. By then, more men and women had arrived on the training field to commence their own practice drills. On the opposite side of the field from them, the practice stronghold was once again falling under infantry assault. Near the southern edge of the field, troops started bounding through cover once more.

“We’re going to practice some rudimentary tank-infantry cooperation!” Lt. Purana said over the radio. “Rifle-armed comrades will be riding on your vehicle! Mind them as you go!”

In the distance, six trucks arrived on their side of the field to meet the Chimeras.

Several fully-kitted infantry squadrons dismounted and ran toward the tanks.

Vaulting over the tracks, the troops quickly climbed and clung on to the Chimeras wherever they could. Men and women sat around the gun mantlet and atop the front hatch. Others stood on the track guards while hanging on to the fighting compartment.

“Hey kids! Did you miss me?”

On their Chimera, Adesh and Nnenia were happy to find Corporal Gulab Kajari sitting just in front of the gun mantlet, along with her usual companion Sergeant Charvi Chadgura. Corporal Kajari turned around and looked into the gun structure, smiling at the crew she routinely called “her kids.” She was looking quite radiant, with her honey-brown braided tail swinging in the strong morning breeze, and a friendly, pretty face.

“How’s this big lump treating you?” She asked.

“It’s a proud fighting vehicle, I’ll have you know.” Eshe replied in a huff.

Corporal Kajari stared at him for a moment.

Eshe crossed his arms.

“It’s been reliable.” Adesh said, trying to dispel the tension.

“And smelly.” Nnenia added.

“Ah.” Corporal Kajari playfully sniffed the air. “Yep, I can smell it.”

From the back of the tank, Rahani noticed the girl hanging over the gun.

“Hello, Corporal!” Rahani said. “In combat, your position would be very precarious! Perhaps you should return to the front of the tank where you do not risk falling!”

Though he said it sweetly, Rahani clearly wanted everyone to refocus.

Corporal Kajari nodded. “Yes Corporal! I just wanted to give the kids something.”

She reached into her bag and produced a newspaper she dropped on the gun.

“You’ve all been here through the morning, so you probably haven’t seen this.”

Adesh took the newspaper and unfolded it, staring at the front page.

There was an old photograph of Colonel Nakar, dated back to 2025 when she was only Lieutenant Nakar. She had longer hair, and looked a touch less mature, with a slightly rounder-seeming face and a petulant expression. Her gentle features were distorted by shadows — it was not a flattering photograph. Above the photograph was the headline, “Akjer extremist draws ire in Rangda.” Adesh found it terribly confusing. He skimmed some of the leading paragraphs with Nnenia and Eshe looking over his shoulder.

“Harsh.” Nnenia said. Eshe shook his head as they took in the story.

Judging by this paper, Colonel Nakar was being eviscerated in the press.

While the thrust of the story was the confrontation with the police yesterday, of which Adesh had heard much about from the returning troops at the barracks and the canteens, the framing was very hostile. There was a collection of quotes from various persons who called the Colonel an extremist, rabble-rouser, tinpot tyrant, and worse.

She was being attacked; in turn Adesh felt himself being attacked too.

After all, Colonel Nakar was a hero! Their hero; she saved them all at the border!

Just one page later the editor was calling for the 1st Regiment to leave Rangda.

It was almost too much to bear. Nobody in the tank knew what to make of this.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I just thought you ought to know. I was part of the scuffle at the police station yesterday. That didn’t get ugly, but it’s going to get worse.”

Corporal Kajari waved her hand and then sank sadly back in front of the gun mantlet.

The Chimeras then started moving, each vehicle over-loaded with infantry.

Adesh passed the paper around. Eshe crumpled it up and discarded it in anger.

No wonder then that this was their last scheduled training for a while.

It was the first time they had gotten to acquaint themselves with the Chimera.

And it might even be their last within this training field.


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?

“Madiha,”

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.


Rangda — Serene Park, North Road.

Even under the cover of a moonless night there were obvious signs of military build-up.

Those who could not see through the darkness of the unlit roads and streets could still hear the sounds of pounding hooves and rolling track and chugging engines, and they could smell the smoke and gunpowder and the acrid reek of years-old reserve diesel.

Rangda’s trolleys remained silent in their stations, and there was not a cab or consumer vehicle on the road. Every lane of traffic was wide open. Conspicuously taking the place of commuter vehicles, processions of horses galloped down Ocean Road. They ferried cloaked men whose garb bulged with weaponry, carrying them down the main street and through the secondary roads, into alleys and toward parks and sports fields and other open mustering grounds. Occasionally the dark streets would light up with the beam from the headlights of a Goblin tank or an artillery tractor towing a covered-up bundle.

Police patrolled street corners and ushered stray civilians toward residential buildings, mumbling about a curfew that they would not explain to those confused by the news.

“Ma’am, stay off the road. Didn’t you hear about the curfew?” one shouted, at the corner of North and Ocean near the high point of Rangda city. At their side, a horse-drawn carriage trundled past, its contents fully enclosed within a canvas, its driver faceless.

“Excuse me?”

Tearing open her trenchcoat, the woman confronted the volunteer officer.

When the woman’s fiery eyes met the weary gaze of the police officer, there was a flash of recognition. Not precisely of the woman’s identity, nor the eerie power behind her glare, but of the quality of her police uniform, of the numerous awards on her shirt, and the great silver badge over her breast. To the police officer, this woman was perhaps not Madiha Nakar, but rather a big-shot police Inspector, probably from the Marshal’s office.

“I’m so sorry ma’am!” He saluted. “I was unaware we’d be under inspection, ma’am!”

“That’s the point of an inspection. You arse.”

Owing to Minardo’s dubious contacts and methods, this ruse was proving effective.

But though she had the uniform, it was the attitude that would sell the part.

Madiha found it difficult to feign the antagonism necessary to play the part of a nasty, snake-like police inspector come to ruin the life of a young, organizationally mobile police volunteer. It took effort to demean and intimidate the police volunteer, and she felt rather uncomfortable. Judging by his terrified reactions as she invaded his personal space, staring down at him, she played the part better than she thought she would.

“What are you doing out here, you idiot?” She shouted.

She poked his chest and acted as if she was smelling his breath.

“You reek of booze, you dope!” Madiha shouted.

She tore his truncheon from his belt and pretended to swing it at him.

The police volunteer’s jaw hung and quivered. He raised his hands defensively.

“That’s- That can’t be! I haven’t had a drop ma’am, I swear!”

“You’ve had so many drops, you mackerel! How dare you? On this night of all nights?”

“Please ma’am, I wasn’t, I– I only had a little, hours ago! I swear it!”

In reality Madiha had smelled nothing; the confession was quite welcome, however.

She turned a vicious expression on the man, now with cause to do so.

“You disgust me! Kiss your promotion goodbye!”

“Wait, please, no– I won officer of the month in the Dahlia’s Fall! Please!”

Almost groveling at her feet, the officer burst into tears.

“Get out of my face, cuckold.” Madiha hissed. “And maybe I’ll forget your indiscretion.”

She was starting to reach a little too far for insults; nonetheless the man believed her.

“Yes ma’am! Thank you ma’am!”

Without stopping to request his baton back from her, the police volunteer took off down the street like a lost soul turned by a crucifix, choking down his sobs and cries as he went.

Removed from the situation, Madiha covered her mouth, shocked at her own malice.

She hoped the officer would be able to go on with his life, somehow.

Across the street, another patrolling officer pretended it was none of his business.

Sighing, Madiha turned around and faced back the way she came.

Surreptitiously she signaled two Gendarmes in volunteer uniform to follow at a distance.

They would play the part of patrolling officers while acting as her security detail.

From Ocean Road, Madiha traveled unmolested up the tighter streets in the densely populated northern quarter of the city, uphill from the rest of Rangda. This was the original city, founded higher up on the hills and around a slim tributary that stretched toward the ocean. There was little time to see the sights. Madiha hurried to Serene Park, a simple field of green grass wound through by cobblestone paths and dotted with trees, a fountain and several benches. It was a fresh-smelling, open space within the endless urban landscape of Rangda, and despite its humble character, it was a welcome sight.

Near the entrance to the park, seated on a wooden bench, Madiha spotted Chakrani.

Before engaging her, she shed the police disguise in a nearby bush, from which it could easily be retrieved. Beneath the collared police shirt, she had worn her battle dress.

She signaled for the Gendarmes to spread out and keep an eye out.

Then she approached the bench, and called out to the woman, seizing her attention.

Chakrani seemed almost shocked to see her. She appeared surprisingly bedraggled. Madiha always conceived of Chakrani as a very fashion-forward young woman, but found her in the same shabby suit she had worn the day before. Her normally luxurious ringlet curls were looking a little frayed, and her face glistened in the dim illumination from the lights around the nearby fountain. She was sweating, and short of breath as she acknowledged Madiha.

For a moment neither of them spoke. There was only the howling wind among them.

Chakrani stared at her and opened her mouth slightly. Not a sound came out.

“I apologize. I know you never wanted to see my face again, but you did request my presence, so I have complied.” Madiha said. She tried to sound affable. Like before, this too was an act that she found difficult to sustain. Especially owing to Chakrani’s hesitation.

“Yes. Okay.” Chakrani said. “Madiha, I– I’m not going to lie–”

She hesitated again, as if the word lie had caused her to trip and to fall mid-speech.

“I didn’t want things to end up this way, Madiha. I just wanted to do something, anything, to try to make up for the time I felt I wasted. I wanted to feel like I mattered.” She said.

That was certainly one way to start a conversation about their differences.

Madiha didn’t know whether it was appropriate to talk, but she couldn’t stop herself.

“You haven’t done anything wrong.” Madiha said. “I may disagree politically, but–”

Chakrani raised a hand to her own face.

“Madiha, you– you haunt my thoughts so bad. I, I hate you but– but also–”

Her eyes teared up. Madiha fought back her reflex to try to comfort someone crying.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to approach Chakrani like that.

She might even see it as an aggressive act.

So Madiha stared at her from two meter’s distance, the size of a whole other human.

“I’m afraid. I’m afraid you’ll–”

It hit her like a dagger in the chest. Afraid. As if in the presence of a monster.

“I won’t hurt you.” She mumbled.

“Shut up! Just shut up, Madiha. Just listen.”

“I’m sorry. I’m listening.”

Madiha averted her eyes. She felt like a glass window under a deluge of stones.

“I know you’re not gonna hurt me. I know. I know you, Madiha. I mean– I thought I did. I still do! I know some of you. There’s a lot– there’s a lot I never knew.” Chakrani said.

Her voice was so choppy between the sobbing and choking-up.

“Maybe, maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I kept the real you at arm’s length. Maybe I just wanted to take you out and dance and drink and fuck and feel good, I don’t know!”

It was painful to listen to. Madiha filled in every pause with curses she expected to hear.

“I’m not afraid of you! It’s not you that I’m afraid of. There’s parts of you I– I wish I could still feel something! Parts that I want! And I’m afraid of that, of what’ll happen now–”

Chakrani grit her teeth and raised her hands to her face. She looked at once furious and in agony. Her whole body was shaking, and tears were cascading down her cheeks.

“Fuck! What is wrong with me? Why am I falling apart now?”

She stomped her feet.

“Why did you have to come back to try to apologize, you idiot? Why did you have to get involved in all of this? Couldn’t you have just stayed away? I didn’t need to see you!”

Her voice nearly cracked from the shouting.

“I thought I could make up the hurt I caused.” Madiha weakly said. “But you’re right, I was an idiot. I was being selfish when I showed up in Bada Aso. When I appeared at your establishment. You didn’t have to suffer through that. I just caused you more pain and I made a big scene for no reason. I am truly sorry for everything, Chakrani.”

She made a mistake. She said her name. She had been trying to avoid doing so.

But it was hard not to say it. It was too hard to accept all of that hate and its prohibitions.

“Shut up!” Chakrani shouted back. “Stop acting like you’re above all of this now!”

Despite the downward turn of the conversation Madiha found it hard to show emotion.

“I’m not trying to. I just want you to know that I realize what I did. I will stay away.”

Chakrani’s eyes lit up suddenly. She almost smiled amid her misery.

“Good! Good. Just go away, Madiha. Even if I call you back, just go!”

“I’m sorry.” Madiha said. She felt like she couldn’t just leave now. Not after all of this.

There had to be something more she could say, something that would expiate.

She didn’t want to think of where Chakrani would go now in this state of mind.

But Chakrani desperately seemed to want her gone from her sight.

“Madiha, just, please, go away. Get out of Rangda, right now!”

Rangda?

This was not just a pair of hurting women shouting down their hurt now.

Madiha caught the word Rangda and found it so incongruous with the rest.

Why specifically Rangda? It was innocuous and yet it felt like it made no sense.

It felt like a warning as opposed to another cry of desperation.

She thought over the conversation and realized that Chakrani was not afraid of her.

“Chakrani, what is it that you’re afraid of–”

Her voice choked mid-sentence.

She felt a sharp jab into the back of her neck. She reached fearfully for her nape.

In front of her Chakrani froze and started to weep.

Madiha’s shaking fingers plucked out a hand-carved dart, dripping with something.

Wavering eyes glanced over drooping shoulders at a nearby tree.

Madiha saw it, clad in a black robe with a brass mask that split down the middle.

Teeth, rows and rows of teeth, the mask cut across like a jagged mouth.

It was laughing, laughing mockingly and soundlessly.

Majini.

Two arms holding the old blowgun.

Two more arms lifted from under its cloak, holding the gendarmes, their necks snapped.

She did not even feel its presence approaching or nearby. She never felt the cold of it.

It was a master of its foul arts.

This was perhaps the oldest one, perhaps the first one. Perhaps the worst of them.

Stunned, Madiha turned back around to Chakrani, who was on the floor, weeping.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of this. I’m so torn up. I can’t hold it anymore. I just want to stop hurting Madiha. I’m so sorry.”

Gasping for breath, Madiha smiled dumbly as her faculties left her.

“You didn’t do anything, Chakrani.”

Everything went dark and she felt herself hit the floor, and Chakrani screaming.


It was a small room and everything was dark.

She opened her eyes, but she couldn’t see anything.

There was an impression of light just beyond her eyes. Was she blindfolded?

Feeling in her body had not yet fully returned.

“Ah, there goes your chest, rising and falling. Quite a relief.”

It was Mansa’s voice.

“So, since she’s not going anywhere, can I shoot her now, or–”

“Quiet, you babbling fool.”

Was that the man from Bada Aso? Drachen? Madiha felt dizzy.

There was a pause in the room, a silence.

Madiha felt a cold breath at her side.

“At any rate. Pardon the uncouthness of my new associate. Welcome back to the world of the living, Colonel Nakar. Or, I should say, Empress Nakar I? It is an honor.”

That cold breath turned into a hateful hiss.

There was a Majini very close. Too close. It was barely restraining itself.

“You didn’t give me a proper opportunity to talk before. Let us talk, your majesty.”


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