This chapter contains violence, death, fleeting ableism and humiliation.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Rangda Riverside
As darkness descended over Rangda, the skies slowly grew thick with black stormclouds. Bolts of violet light crackled and whipped in the distance, lighting up the night with their violence. From somewhere out north a seething weather swept down on the tortured city.
Soon after the assault of the elves and traitors finally ended, the assault of the rain began. Driven by strong winds, the storm seemed to come from out of nowhere, and the rain fell in torrents that swept across the ground like the fire of a machine gun, putting out blazes, seeping into the husks of tanks and ruined buildings. Spent casings rolled down ankle deep flood streams that began to accumulate on Ocean Road. Every drainage ditch was stuffed with the debris of the war, and the water seemed to suddenly have nowhere to go.
Off in the distance, there was a twofold thunder. Some of it came bellowing out of the wrathful skies, but in between the flashing and booming, there were explosions. Chunks of the legendary shining port blew apart and were swept up into the rising seas. Ayvartan engineers worked quickly to destroy the berths, sabotage port equipment, and render Rangda unusable to the Royal Navy or the Nochtish one. A stock of naval mines was emptied off port, and floated amid the debris in the harbor. Those fishing ships not already smashed by the weather were unanchored and left to float away from the ruins.
All of this transpired over open radio frequencies. Von Drachen listened from the cab of his stolen Ayvartan 4-ton truck. Colonel Gutierrez drove patiently through southeastern Rangda, ducking civilians come out of hiding and patrols from their victorious enemies. They were trapped now behind enemy lines, and there was nothing that could be done about it until they escaped the city. Von Drachen had escaped that lunatic elf and he and some of his loyal men were bound for the bridge across Rangda’s eastern riverside.
Listening intently, he found the Ayvartans had become conveniently chatty in the glow of their victory. He had largely avoided capture by being in the same wavelength as his pursuers. Over the radio Von Drachen heard sectors being cleared, supplies being moved. He avoided flashpoints and scurried away like a mouse.
No amount of running would avoid an actual wall however. Even the smallest mouse needed a hole. Walls had to be broken.
“Mijo, I don’t think they’re just gonna let us through.” Colonel Gutierrez said.
“We’ll ask them politely.” Von Drachen replied.
Idly at the Colonel’s side, Von Drachen started to load a Norgler machine gun.
“Politely.” He said amicably.
“That’s an even worse idea than what I thought you would do.”
“What did you think I would do?”
“Drive the truck pell-mell through the checkpoint. You’d say it’s unexpected or–”
“That’s actually a fantastic idea.”
Von Drachen turned the lever on the truck window and tossed the Norgler out of it.
“Drive through the checkpoint ahead, pell-mell.”
Colonel Gutierrez banged his head on the steering wheel. “Dios libera me…”
“Be careful with your head, old man.”
Von Drachen, smiling, put his feet up and leaned back on his seat.
Ahead of them, after one final twist around an urbanization, the road muddied up, and there was a grass and dirt and plentiful water pooling over the earth. A mechanical bridge connected the rural edge of South-Eastern Rangda to the near-literal jungle across the way, and it was the only thing standing between the Cissean troops and freedom.
There was a checkpoint indeed, with a hasty barrier of sandbags and a pair of guards.
“Floor it, Gutierrez!”
Heaving a deep sigh, the old Colonel slammed his foot on the pedal, and the wheels of the truck screeched, and water and mud flew everywhere as the truck accelerated toward the barrier. Von Drachen grabbed on to his seat, and behind him he could hear his men screaming in the bed of the truck, unaware of the plan. As the truck’s headlight flashed over them the guards at the checkpoint exhibited curious determination and held firm.
Behind them, the bridge’s motors began to whir, and it began to lift on hydraulic power.
“Unfloor it Gutierrez!” Von Drachen cried out.
Gutierrez took his foot off the accelerator pedal and forced back the brake lever.
Once more the truck screeched and protested, and it ground into the mud.
Its wheels mired in the muddy road, and it came to a halt meters away from the checkpoint.
From behind the sandbags, the Ayvartan guards stood tall once more, rifles ready.
Von Drachen, reeling inside the truck, withdrew his pistol and ducked.
Just as quickly and haphazardly he pushed Colonel Gutierrez down with him.
Over the two of them, a pair of rifle bullets pierced the glass on the truck.
In after the shattered glass came the storm rain, descending into the cab.
It was biting cold, sharper than the glass.
“Gutierrez, you take the left one, I take the right.” Von Drachen said.
Without warning, he kicked the door open, and rolled out of the truck.
Falling into the mud, Von Drachen aimed and fired his pistol over the sandbags.
He struck one guard in the chest, and she keeled over backward.
At her side, the remaining guard was mysteriously, and unfortunately, un-shot.
On the other side of the truck, Colonel Gutierrez fell like a lump into the mud.
Though the General heard him fall, he did not hear him respond nor even move.
Von Drachen was speechless. He stared at the guard, and the sky, and the truck.
Scrambling for cover, he rolled under the truck as more rifle shots struck near him.
Drinking up water and mud as he crawled through the muck in which the truck was partially embedded and submerged, Von Drachen crawled agonizingly to the other side of the vehicle. There was a flash of lightning and a loud, booming thunder. Von Drachen grabbed hold of Gutierrez, stood him up, and with one arm opened fire on the guard checkpoint. He hit the sandbags, and the remaining guard hid behind cover.
There was another flash and more thunder; but this came from behind him.
Von Drachen felt something rumbling and leaped forward even before feeling the blast.
An earsplitting detonation smashed the bed of the truck.
On the force of the blast, Von Drachen and Gutierrez were thrown to the river’s edge.
Face-first in the muck once more, Von Drachen struggled to push himself up.
He looked over his shoulder. His truck was burning, a decimated husk.
Where his men could possibly be in that heap of scrap wood and slag, burning off its own fuel, Von Drachen did not know. He immediately wrote them all off as a loss. Poor boys.
Much more pressing was the tank making its way from ambush through nearby shrubbery.
Its main gun, a long, big bored weapon (76mm possibly?), trained on him.
From around the tank came a familiar woman, tall and fit, brown-skinned, with mid-length, messy dark hair and a face that was soft and pretty and contorted in the ways it could least be those things. She had the familiar Ayvartan uniform, coat and pants and all, one Von Drachen was wearing himself. At her side, a pleasingly figured woman, lighter in complexion, with colorful strawberry hair, carried an umbrella to shield them from rain.
“Give up this vain struggle, I outmaneuvered you.” said Madiha Nakar.
She snapped her fingers.
Behind her, the Ayvartan tank, of a type Von Drachen had never seen, unleashed a shot.
A shell soared across the river and exploded with such force Von Drachen felt it from afar.
Von Drachen drew his pistol.
In the next instant he felt something hard strike his hand, and the weapon flew from it.
It rolled over the edge behind him and into the river.
From the stormy sky, a scaly little creature with scintillating wings descended.
It perched on Madiha’s shoulder and growled.
“Gaul Von Drachen.” Madiha said. “Traitor to the anarchists in Valle Rojo, after selling out your side you caught the eye of Nochtish Grand Marshal Braun, who lobbied for you to be trained in Nochtish officer schools and to have a Nochtish command in the reformed Cissean allied military. Now a Cissean General. You were fast-tracked through to your current position out of need for Cissean strategic officers. You participated in the border battles, in Bada Aso. Now you are here. And you are conveniently at my mercy.”
“Did you read my book?” Von Drachen said, smiling. “How kind of you.”
Madiha ignored him. “Under the Helvetian accords I am taking you captive.”
“Ah, you want to make it official because the Helvetians are your allies now?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You will glean no insight from me.”
“I already have, Commander.”
“You talk too much.” Madiha rolled her eyes.
“I’ve barely talked at all.”
“There’s just something about your voice that makes me hate you.”
“I get that a lot. How come you understand me, by the way? I’m speaking Nochtish.”
“I speak Nochtish too.”
“You’re replying in Ayvartan.”
“Shut up Von Drachen.” She looked flustered. “This is a surrender negotiation, you fool.”
At her side the other woman frowned and shook her head.
“Is this something to do with the fireballs? Is it like science fiction telepathy?”
“I said, be quiet.”
There was something special about Madiha Nakar. She was strong and smart and gallant, a very princely sort of woman that one just did not see often at all. But it was not just that, not just the regal beauty and physicality of her as a specimen, but also, well, the magic, and the battling monsters, and those sorts of other things. Von Drachen had some idea now of what Madiha Nakar could do. She could shoot fire out of her hands. And she could understand any language, as if possessed of some supernatural mental abilities.
She was no ordinary soldier, and every part of her he could pick at was priceless.
Every little bit that he learned was a piece of the puzzle that would be helpful later.
And every contact he had with her seemed to teach him more and more of her secrets.
She was not very clever when it came to people. Perhaps some kind of autism?
No, that was uncharitable. He tried not to speculate too much. Speculation could run away with the mind, and in this crucial moment he needed rationality and focus. But– perhaps.
“Commander Nakar, I want you to know, I admire you. You strike me as a great woman. I believe, when Nocht wins this war, you may, properly medicated, have a place with us.”
Madiha averted her eyes. “I’m centimeters away from killing you.”
At her side, the woman with the bouncy hair and light makeup elbowed her gently.
Von Drachen did not fail to notice that gesture.
“If I may be so vain, as to ask what you think of me, your defeated enemy? You know I had this idea of us, of our cat and mouse game, our great chess match. Have I been worthy?”
Madiha frowned. On her shoulder, her little dragon pet made the same face.
“You’re an overrated little twerp.”
She was good at hurting people. Sometimes with guns; but also with words.
Von Drachen was genuinely hurt.
For a moment, he let his expertly choreographed conversation degrade to insult her.
“Well, you’re not very feminine.”
He turned his cheek to her. She frowned, as did the woman next to her.
“You owe your current state of health to the negotiation clauses of the Helvetian accords regarding enemy officers. Were it for me, I would have shot you already.”
She was rough, she constructed her sentences oddly, and was very on-edge.
That had not been the case in Bada Aso; but she had quite a terrible day today, after all.
And she had recovered somehow. That was also interesting.
At any rate, he could excuse her hitherto unknown bad personality on the torture.
Though he forgave her, that did not mean he would stop provoking her.
Von Drachen shrugged. “We’ve all been known to discard the Accords for expediency.”
“That is true. I expediently desire your surrender. I will tolerate no more nonsense.”
Von Drachen made a face of mock distress.
“Well, while we’re being dutiful, I would like to lodge a complaint, a violation of my rights. I cannot willingly consent to surrender in the ambiguity of my captor being a magic witch.”
“Shut up, Von Drachen!”
“You could take over my mind and force me to surrender. How is that balanced at all?”
Madiha was starting to sound more heated, and the woman behind her patted her on the shoulder and seemed to be reminding her of calm. Madiha sighed, and the woman smiled.
“You understand Ayvartan, right? I’m Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani. We guarantee you’ll be treated justly under the Helvetian accords.” said the young woman beside Nakar. “Please stop being so silly and surrender, so we can go somewhere warm. No matter where you run there’s only death around you. You might as well not die, right?”
She was addressing him because the two of them could not actually kill him.
At least, not without greater provocation than just words.
He was so much more valuable alive than dead. An informational coup in the making.
They knew he was a traitor once, after all. Maybe they wanted to turn him again?
Or maybe it really was the Helvetians? Who knew? Idle speculation was such a bad habit.
At any rate, it was an opportunity.
“Ah, the good cop.” Von Drachen said, amicably.
Parinita smiled a little. “It’s not like we practiced it.”
Madiha rolled her eyes again. “Don’t bother with him.”
On her shoulder the dragon also rolled its eyes.
Von Drachen held up his hand and tittered. “Oh, my. Are you two ladies familiar?”
“I’m going to kill him.” Madiha snapped.
“Please don’t, it’ll get the film banned overseas.” Parinita joked.
Von Drachen continued talking with a smile on his face and a hand around Gutierrez.
He had found another thing he could use.
He continued to address Parinita, while his hand slid gently about.
“Are you technical staff? Is that sort of thing allowed? You have impeccable taste in military commanders, my girl, but as far as a romantic partner, I’m not so sure. Correct me, for I am most certainly wrong; but I had this imagining that homosexual women preferred partners with whom they could dress up together, and be feminine with? That seems like the thrust with women in my country, especially the feminist anarchists?”
Madiha stomped her foot.
“SHUT UP VON DRACHEN.”
Behind her, a lightning bolt flashed in the sky.
It struck so loudly it startled the dragon, and it flew away in distress.
Von Drachen, hand under the mud, pried loose from Gutierrez a grenade.
It went rolling out in the mud, visible, audible, dangerous.
Madiha immediately dove for her lvoer and pushed her to the ground for safety.
But there was no explosion, because Von Drachen never pulled the pin.
With every last ounce of strength, in one great herculean burst, Von Drachen seized Gutierrez and leaped amid sporadic fire into the river below. He crashed into the water as if striking a cement sheet, and the stormy current whisked him away in an instant. He couldn’t even see the look on Nakar’s face as he did it! What a waste to drown like this!
Somewhere between the water around and the water above, everything went dark.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Shining Port
“Keep moving! The faster your feet go, the sooner you’ll be warm again!”
A line of guards led the captives down to the port like a funeral procession.
Whenever the line slowed, the Ayvartan guards shouted, and the prisoners moved again.
Nobody wanted to march under this storm. Nobody except maybe Gulab Kajari, who had volunteered for the job and was visible all around the line, shouting and making a racket.
Maybe she, like everybody else, wanted to shout down something other than prisoners.
Nevertheless they all moved, under the driving rain, as one depressing mass.
Little was done to protect the prisoners from the storm, and for the guards there were only cloaks and rain tarps tied with rope to their shirts or bodysuit belts. Tied together by the hands, elven soldiers from the various airlanded units marched down Ocean Road, Council, and the other battlefields from which they had been taken or where they had surrendered.
Disarmed, partially disrobed, the prisoners were cold and downcast, their heads down, the long locks of gold hair characteristic of most elves now dripping wet and hanging over their faces. They walked as fast as their remaining strength allowed. At their side, under threat from Chimera and Hobgoblin escorts, their remaining vehicles marched with them, stripped of ammunition and with their gun blocks sealed up with glue. Guards rode with the drivers to insure compliance. This mixed parade made it was way to the coast.
Riding near the front, with its gun trained on a “Patriarch” tank ahead of them, was the Chimera belonging to Adesh Gurunath and company. He waved to Corporal Kajari whenever she neared and she waved back as she moved up and down the line. There was a tarp on tentpoles over his Chimera, but some water still go in. It was a dreary scene.
“Be gentle! I’m wounded and you take up so much space.”
“You’re spreading your legs.”
“It hurts when I close them!”
Behind Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe were having one of their petty rows about the one seemingly dry corner of the Chimera’s fighting compartment, and the limited space there for two young adults sitting side by side. They pushed up against each other, and even when quite would passive-aggressively shift their weight to annoy the other. Adesh could hardly stand to look at them, they were so frustrating. Rahani was gone; he was with the driver of the tank in front of them, pointing a gun at them. So Eshe nominally had command, but in reality Adesh was giving most of the directions to Kufu out in front.
As always Kufu had little to nothing to say and Adesh welcomed the lack of personality.
Soon the procession had made its way to port. Their arrival was heralded by a series of explosions out by the military berths. All around the port facilities, trucks and half-tracks full of engineers and their equipment drove up and down. Out by the waterside the port was a smoldering ruin. Adesh could see the smoke from his vantage, and when they drove along the coast he could see the piers in pieces, floating in the water. Rangda’s flotilla of fishing boats had been released out to sea to clog up the harbor. The Port’s cranes had their foundations blown up, and they were pushed into the sea as well. Coastal defense turrets opened fire on the lighthouse on the other end of the city and knocked it down.
All the while this sabotage and destruction was happening, the captives were marched to a series of depots, while their vehicles were set to run into the ocean at various points. There was so much junk floating along the port now that it seemed impossible for any ship to use it. They could not dock at the berths, could not get near the piers. Rangda’s shining port was now a rubble port. It would be the home of their captives for the next while.
Sergeant Chadgura and Corporal Kajari addressed the prisoners through an interpreter.
“You’ll stay in here until you get rescued by your side. You should be lucky we’re socialists and value life here in Ayvarta. There’s rations in this crate. If you’re seen in the street from now until our evacuation you will be shot. Stay here, until next we meet in battle.”
With that, the captives were locked, hands and feet still bound, in the shipping depots.
This task complete, the guards and escort crews took a moment to breathe and wait out the worst of the rain in their own little depots just off the main road of the port. It was warmer there. With more real estate to work with, Eshe and Nnenia gave each other a wider berth. The Chimera was parked outside, nearly out of fuel, to be towed by a tank transporter to the train station. Everyone would ride back to Ocean in trucks, trucks which command promised would drive out to meet them as soon as possible. Adesh waited.
He found it strangely difficult to leave the Chimera behind. Its smart green paint job was pitted and scratched and filthy with smoke and dirt and mud and rain, its side rails were broken, its track links battered and fraying, the muzzle brake was splitting, and the suspension could hardly cope with any kind of bump anymore. Over the span of a day it had been battered continuously, and was no noble beast anymore. But he felt attached.
This machine had saved him and his friends. It had won battles. It had claimed lives.
He had done all of those things too. And yet he felt like the machine would understand better than his fellows what that was like. Maybe he was something like a machine too.
Finding his own little corner of the depot to exist in, Adesh sat down on a small stack of empty shipping boxes. They reminded him of the sort that were filled with explosive shells for the Chimera. He sat there, apart from his friends, apart from the other soldiers.
Everything was quiet. Everyone was tired, wet and shaking from residual stress.
He did not feel great. His stomach was quite upset. He felt nervous tingling under his skin.
“Hey, we’re evacuating, kid! We won! Why are you so gloomy all of a sudden?”
Gulab Kajari’s gentle face suggested a weariness like Adesh’s own, despite her loud cheer.
She appeared and sat down beside Adesh, and threw an arm around him with a smile. She was the same woman as always, slight and fit, with black hair in a long braid that was coming apart from the rain, and honey-colored skin dripping with rainwater, sweat, and slick in places with the grime of battle. She had a face that was pretty in the way his own was said to be pretty, in its smoothness and softness, perhaps more sharply featured.
He could not help but smile in her presence, but it was a smile as sad as her own seemed.
“You’re tired? Aren’t we all! Just do some work to get it off your mind. It’s what I do!”
“With all due respect Corporal, I think that’s the opposite of what you should do.”
“I’ve always done the opposite of what I should’ve done!” Gulab replied.
Adesh wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. He looked down at the floor and saw his own reflection in a puddle of water that had dripped and dripped down from the roof.
“What’s on your mind?” Gulab asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t see anything, to be honest. I feel like I’m not thinking.”
“Huh. Think of it this way, if your cousin could see what was in your head–”
Adesh cut her off gently. “I don’t know what you could see in the head of a boy so lost he doesn’t even know who he is anymore, or what being is, or what, I don’t know, he is.”
“God, I’d be so envious of someone who doesn’t know what he means.” Gulab said.
Adesh blinked at her quizzically.
“I’ve felt similarly to you before, I think. I might’ve been that boy.”
Adesh thought he understood, on some general level.
“My head is full of fog. I used to think of myself one way, but lately, it feels like I’m becoming someone terrible.” Adesh said. “And I’m in a situation where I can’t stop.”
“What terrible things have you done? You’ve saved my life so many times today.”
Adesh sighed deeply.
“I’m not– I shouldn’t be a soldier.” He said. “Listen, Corporal: I joined the army when it was just a joke. It was just another labor union. We had soldiers and police who didn’t have to fight; it was communism, right? I thought I could use it as an escape. But it’s changed me. I know I’m capable of killing. I’m good at it. That– that really hurts, you know?”
Adesh looked out over the depot. He could see Nnenia dozing off in a corner; Nnenia who had said in the middle of a besieged church, that she had seen worse than a room full of injured men and women moaning for help. He could see Eshe, talking with the bubbly and flowery Sergeant Rahani. Eshe, who had picked up a flamethrower and killed a score of men who were coming to kill them all, burned them horribly alive while they screamed.
Eshe and Nnenia were properly horrified, stressed, injured, by what they experienced.
All of them had done horrible things. But none of them with as much comfort as Adesh.
“I’m really dangerous, Corporal Kajari. I can protect them; but I can also get them killed. Today I’ve been reckless, and I’ve been eager, and it’s scary, all of the things I’ve done.”
Adesh had been so angry. Every time the enemy threatened. He was full of anger, and he yelled, and he fought, and he begged for the chance to kill and kill and kill them again. He told himself he was protecting his friends. But he thought there was a monster in him, and it was so strong. He felt like all of his senses were awakening solely to be used for killing. Nnenia and Eshe had taken to soldiery with a hidden strength that was admirable, but neither seemed to possess the unflinching talent with murder than Adesh had found.
“You keep looking at your friends.” Gulab said. “With, I dunno, it looks like a kind of pity? Distance? I’m not sure what’s going through your head, but do you see me the same way?”
Adesh was not sure how to respond. He sighed. Gulab took him into an embrace.
“Have you asked them how they feel about that? About themselves? Have you shared what you think is happening to you? I wager they feel the same way. I think we all gotta do.”
“How do you feel about it?” Adesh weakly asked.
Gulab took in a deep breath as if she was about say something she rehearsed.
“I feel that I was living an impostor life, and for the last little while I’ve been trying to be true to myself and who I want to be, and I don’t know if other people see me as I want to be seen, or if there even is a legitimate person who can be seen that way at all. It hurts a bit. I want people to see a brave and feisty mountain girl who is reliable and lovable. I don’t know what they see, and it scares me. But the fact is, Adesh, fighting to defend yourself, and your friends, and things you believe is, doesn’t rob you of the guts of that person. Struggling to survive, wanting things to be better, and fighting for it, that’s noble!”
Adesh was surprised. He felt an eerie familiarity with everything she was saying.
He also had to wonder whether it really had been rehearsed or not!
Gulab seemed to notice his change in demeanor.
She took him by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes with a big smile.
And with tears in her eyes. She looked as if she had discovered something miraculous.
“I can be a girl and you can be a girl if you want to! Us fighting like this doesn’t preclude it and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. We’re struggling for something beautiful!”
Adesh blinked. He felt his face turning hot. “Um.”
“Um!” Gulab looked suddenly nervous. “I mean, you can be anything you want to be.”
Adesh nervously played a little with his hair.
“Sorry, I get carried away! But um. What I meant to say is that being a soldier doesn’t mean you’re a monster. Whatever your original intention, you’re in this army now, you’re staying here, and you’re becoming stronger, yes at killing, but also, because you care about your people and your home, and your friends, and the civilians who depend on you now.”
It was a strange word to hear. Depend. People depended on him?
“I’m not some hero, Ms. Kajari.”
“Yeah you are! Like I said, you saved me a lot today. And maybe that person, the way they save others, maybe that scares you. Because you might think you’re not worthy of the things you’re fighting for anymore. And I think it’s fine to be scared. It means you care so much, it means you’re really, truly, good. But give yourself some time and space, y’know?”
She patted him in the back, with an awkward little laugh.
Clearly Corporal Kajari was losing the plot on her own advice at the moment.
Adesh felt a little relieved to have talked to her, however.
He would still have to sit down and consider many things for himself.
But he felt a sense of relief knowing he wasn’t alone. He didn’t have to be alone.
“Thanks Ms. Kajari.” He said. He meant it. He felt the fog in his mind clearing a little.
Enough that he could, at least, create a facade of calm that could fool even himself.
“No problem, kiddo! And call me Gulab! Enough of the ‘miss this’ and ‘rank that’ stuff.”
Gulab jumped up from the crates they were sitting on, and walked proudly away.
Adesh watched her return to her partner, the gloomy silver-haired Sergeant Chadgura, and start hollering about something or other in a distressingly loud fashion. He smiled.
Soon a covered truck arrived, and the driver ushered everyone into the back.
Gulab, Chadgura, Nnenia, Eshe and Rahani, along with Adesh, crowded into the bed.
There were already two people there. A pair of young women, one curly-haired, tomboyish, the other long-haired and a bit fairer, holding hands, wrapped in a little blanket. They were sleeping soundly and occupying a corner of the truck with their legs outstretched, taking up an unfortunate amount of room for all the people coming in.
“Don’t disturb them.” Gulab ordered. “Those two lovebirds earned this.”
She sat down with her legs under her, and Chadgura did the same, conserving some space.
Adesh was respectful, and did the same.
Nnenia and Eshe continued to quarrel for space.
Rahani gave everyone a dangerous look; they settled down immediately.
He leaned forward. He had replaced the flower on his head with a poppy taken from an elf.
“I wanted to tell all of you how proud I am. Thanks to your efforts today, we won this battle. There are many shapes to victory, but the sweetest one, is to live on. Remember it.”
He smiled, spread his arms, pulled Nnenia, Eshe and Adesh close and kissed their heads.
Everyone chuckled, quietly, so as not to wake Caelia Suessen and Danielle Santos.
Rahani sat back against the wall of the truck bed.
“No matter what anyone tells you of this inglorious day, my precious crew. You won.”
He sighed deeply, and soon seemed to fall asleep himself.
Adesh, having found some small enough measure of peace, was soon sleeping too.
Rangda City — Ocean Station
“I can’t believe he escaped. I let him escape. After all of this.”
“Escape? Madiha, he jumped into a roaring river in a storm. He’s dead.”
“I wish I could believe you, but I’m almost positive he escaped.”
“Calm down. Move on to the next plan, okay?”
“Right.Right. Yes. We have to get moving. We can’t stay here.”
Everything felt completely wasted. Victory here was very hollow.
Despite everyone’s efforts it was clear that Rangda had fallen as a defensive position and as a livable city. Farther south the front line with Nocht was moving, Lubon was coming from the Ocean, that much was confirmed, and the defense of the city was in disarray. Coastal defenses had been compromised, and the rout of the airlanded Elven force only delayed the inevitable. No one wanted a naval confrontation with Lubon at this vulnerable juncture. On the eve of victory an evacuation was called. Tambwe would be abandoned.
Fighting in the city had all but died down. Though many Lubonin knights and air troops had fled and hidden in the city ruins, or even fled the city altogether, the bulk of Lubon’s remaining airlanded forces surrendered to the Ayvartans and their materiel was destroyed. Officers were taken prisoner, soldiers disarmed and left bound at the remains of the demolished port, to be rescued by their own navy whenever they arrived at the city.
Some food was furnished for them, but that was the only courtesy they would get.
Meanwhile citizens were freed from Mansa’s so-called “curfew.” From the airport, the University and other places, refugees from their own home were walked out by Ayvartan soldiers, briefed on what had transpired, and escorted to train stations and bus terminals. All land-based transportation in the city was slowly summoned, in a herculean effort of coordination, to begin a three-day evacuation of the city and its surrounding villages.
No one was happy with the arrangement, but there were no riots or upheavals. Time was given for things that could be carried to be collected, for old homes to be picked clean of anything that could find use in a new home. Exhausted soldiers traded places guarding civilians, keeping traffic going, keeping people moving. This effort started on the very night after the Battle of Rangda, as soon as the first civilians demanded the privilege.
No one was happy, but everybody worked, and everybody moved on with living.
“Colonel! Congratulations! It’s so good to see you here!”
“It’s good to be here, Private.”
“We’ve really only just started, but the evacuation is moving swiftly, I feel.”
“That’s good. It is thanks to your tireless effort. Keep up the good work.”
“Always ma’am! I’m proud to serve under you! Glory to the socialist peoples!”
Across the street, a private looking after some old folks smiled, called out, saluted.
She was full of vigor, but the people at her side were glancing askance at the Colonel.
They were picking through the rubble of what was once their home.
In light of that, the fabled Colonel, the savior of Bada Aso, was no hero to them.
But they said nothing. They were moving on.
For Madiha Nakar, it was hard to move on from being the hero. As she watched tragedy after tragedy transpire under the rain and the intermittent glow of the streetlights, she felt no sense of triumph. She had absolutely failed. This was not Bada Aso; this was not Adjar Dominance. Her soldiers still viewed her with respect and glowing eyes, and all of them veterans of Bada Aso, they knew hard fighting, and though exhausted, and hurt, and driven to extremes, they were thrilled now to have achieved another battle. But this was not a depopulated city used for a setpiece battle. This was a home. And she had ruined it.
When she blew up Bada Aso, everyone had left it. They had left in an orderly fashion. Those who remained, wanted to. They remained to fight with her, and to help her fight.
These civilians were not those civilians.
“You’re being real hard on yourself. I can tell.” Parinita said.
She wrapped an arm around one of Madiha’s own and curled up near her.
On her other hand she was holding open a muddy, slightly ripped umbrella.
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“I always have to worry with you. It’s right on your face. You’re hurting yourself.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Parinita looked out over the street. They were walking to Ocean Station, having hitched a ride on a Hobgoblin tank back from the riverside, where their secret mission had failed to achieve its intended results. Both of them were a little gloomy; Madiha knew that for all she tried to play it off, Parinita was affected by everything too. She glanced over the ruins around them, and the people sifting through them for any remains of their old lives.
It was not so much valuables; nobody really had much need for them. It was memories that were important. People searched for records, and keepsakes, and family heirlooms. From houses, crumbled by shells or burned down by flamethrowers, they dug for old gifts, for priceless art, for their baby’s first boots, for the ashes of a venerable elder.
“If this was a scene in a color film, it would still be shot in grayscale.” Parinita said.
She turned her head from it and did not look at it again as they approached the station.
There were trains coming and going at an accelerated schedule. Rolling stock from all over Tambwe had been ordered to move to Rangda. Trains full of grain taken from collective farms near the front lines passed through, picked up as many passengers as could be stuffed with the food and around it, and took off overloaded as fast as it was safe to. Empty cars on obsolete engines were brought hastily back on duty, filled, and sent off again.
Everything was moving to the desert, to the eternal city of Solstice, the next battleground.
“There will be color again, Madiha!” Parinita said with a sudden energy.
Madiha nodded. She was downcast, but not defeated. Her heart was gripped with a great misery, but there was a fire inside that was burning up every depressing thought, and nursing a deep anger, a fiery hatred that was ready to burn bright, to lash out, to consume.
“I’ll make sure of it.” Madiha said.
“We will! Together. Alright?”
Parinita gripped her on the shoulder. They did not want to kiss in public.
Both of them knew it was a moment for a kiss, and they would have one when they could.
For now, they held hands on the way into the station.
Parked along the platform was a peculiar train that had come screaming into Rangda shortly after the battle was over. It was a KVW-marked armored train, bristling with guns and troop compartments, carrying a compliment of KVW rifle infantry, a super-heavy Vajra howitzer, and an amusing holiday car for the caboose. It was a quaint wooden car painted with warm colors and boasting a line of clear glass windows, much unlike the thick, enclosed, workmanlike armored sections of the train. There were lights shining brightly from within, and a sound like a gramophone record playing from inside.
“That looks like our stop.” Parinita said, laughing a little to herself.
“I would love for it to not be our stop.” Madiha replied.
“It’s the most picturesque thing here, it’s gotta be.”
Madiha sighed. She looked behind her.
Around one of the columns holding the platform roof, Kali was hiding.
She could see the little creature’s tail and wings peeking from the column.
It had been following them awkwardly ever since they left the riverside.
Perhaps the lightning and Madiha’s temper had made it nervous.
“Kali, stay there. We’ll come get you before we leave, okay?”
Kali’s head peeked out from around the platform. It blinked.
“Stay, okay? We’ll pick you up.”
Kali blinked again.
“I hope it doesn’t leave us. It’s so fun to have it around.” Parinita said.
“Kali’s also tactically useful.” Madiha replied.
It made no move to leave them, however.
Satisfied their pet was obeying, Parinita and Madiha walked around the back of the train.
They found the caboose door open. Inside was a colorfully decorated room with a table, furnished with a beautiful tea set. There were cakes, and tea, and coffee, and a pungent-smelling milk or cream, Madiha could not tell. On one end of the table, chained up, her wounds only slightly patched from when Madiha had first found her, was Paladin Varus, the highest value among the Elven captives. Across from her, seated on a cushioned chair, was a KVW officer, in the full red and gold regalia. Her dark hair was collected into a pair of long ponytails, and her skin contrasted with the bright color of her heterochromic eyes.
“Good evening, Colonel! You’re just in time.”
Standing up from the chair, KVW Commissar Halani Kuracha introduced herself.
She was a young woman, energetic, with a lithe figure and a strange ease of motion.
“Good evening, Commissar.”
Kuracha promptly took a cup of cream from the table, and poured it over Varus’ head.
“I’ve been trying to have a conversation with our guest here, but she’s so stubborn!”
Kuracha started twirling Varus’ cream-covered hair in one of her fingers.
She was laughing gently all the while, a tittering coo-hoo, like a bird.
Under this humiliating treatment, Varus bowed her head with a miserable expression.
“You should tell her, Colonel, maybe she’ll listen to you, after all, you did best her in glorious battle,” with a vicious grin, Kuracha pulled Varus’ head up and stared into her eyes, as she spoke, “tell her that were it not for Helvetia’s opening of diplomatic talks with us on this crucial evening, her rudeness would be strongly corrected by my presence.”
“You should stop making playtime of this interrogation.” Madiha said.
Everything about Kuracha was far too twee, childish and deliberately affected and Madiha was immediately growing to hate it. From what she knew of the woman, thought they had seldom met before this night, Kuracha gained repute as an administrator, prisoner processor, labor camp taskmasker, and some dabbling in military command. She was trustworthy, loyal, if eccentric. Her methods, though, could certainly be rebuked.
Once called out, Kuracha let go of Varus’ hair.
“Don’t worry, that cream was cold. It was sitting out for a while.” She said.
Kuracha walked around the room, and came to a stop with a little twirl in front of Madiha.
“Burning someone would be against the accords.”
Madiha was over a head taller, so Kuracha had to crane up to look her in the eye.
She looked like she had something vicious to say; but it was swallowed by a sweet smile.
“But there are forms of duress which have fallen through the cracks.”
“Why was I summoned here?” Madiha asked.
Kuracha blinked, and clapped her hands together with a sweet expression.
“I had been monitoring your progress in Rangda, Colonel. My unit did what we could to preempt 8th Division reinforcements coming in by train. We could’ve never predicted the Elven attack, however. We believe the Royal Navy to be a ways out; our air force will be scouting in the coming days. So that is why I called you in. I will be taking command of the evacuation here. You are required at Solstice: you will fly out there post-haste.”
Kuracha, having delivered her message, twirled back around and walked back to the table.
Madiha watched her go quietly, and spoke up again as the Commissar sat down.
“I would like to put in a request.”
Kuracha did not even turn around to meet her eyes again.
“I would like you to leave my car now.” she dismissively replied.
Her tone was still dripping sweet, but it was just harsher enough than before.
Madiha started to feel a pressure in her temples.
“I want my troops to be evacuated first. They fought hard. They deserve it.”
“Hmm? Excuse me?”
“i see no reason to repeat myself.”
“I’m afraid I’ll need a refresher.”
“My troops will be evacuated first.” Madiha said again, more sharply. “They have spent far too long already in this hole; I want them on the first train to Solstice. They earned it.
Kuracha started speaking in a machine-like, procedural sort of voice.
“Unfortunately priority is materiel first, then units, but don’t worry, there will be–”
“Why are you making this a problem?” Madiha said.
Kuracha turned back around and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Madiha did not budge from the doorway. Parinita looked uncomfortable beside her.
But she was seeing too red to move now. Kuracha blinked hard and shook her head.
“You are the one becoming over-emotional here, Colonel. Though the distance will be only a few hours, no, they will not be first, I’m afraid. This has been left under my authority.”
“Commissar, there is precedent for this–”
“Not under my command.” Kuracha cut in.
Madiha closed her hand into a fist.
“It would vastly recover the morale of this nation’s finest soldiers if–”
“You are dismissed, Colonel. Your troops will be safe and home, in an orderly fashion.”
Kuracha continued to act as if she had gotten the final word, and turned back to Varus.
“So, my dear, who was this Gwendolyn you kept mumbling about, hmm?”
Madiha walked up to the table.
Parinita gasped, but was not quick enough to stop her.
In a flash, Madiha raised a leg and kicked Kuracha’s backrest, knocking her down.
For an instant it seemed as though she would kick the dainty woman in the chest.
Such a blow would have broken bones. Knocking down the chair was merely surprising.
Nevertheless Kuracha hit the floor hard.
She scurried onto her back with great quickness and stared up at Madiha.
Her hands were shaking slightly, and it seemed like she wanted to reach for a gun.
Something, however, stayed her hand, and she recollected herself.
“You forget your place, Colonel.” She hissed from the floor.
“No, you’re confused as to your own.”
Madiha took a knee and stared down, as if to say, ‘I’m still bigger even doing this.’
She loomed over Kuracha, making herself a dangerous physical presence.
“This is not your personal playground anymore, Commissar. This is not a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells for you to boss around. This is not a KVW political office for you vault ranks through parroting a party line. While you were hunting stray trains my troops were in this city steeped in its death and treachery. They will be evacuated first. I’m very short tonight, Commissar. And I know for a fact, right now, I am more valuable than you.”
Kuracha stared at her defiantly. She was not threatened, not in the least.
In fact, she looked just as flighty as ever. Her words dripped with sarcasm and skepticism.
“Colonel, has anyone ever taught you the power of please? It is a magic word.” She said. “I am a person of respect, and this frankly. It is beneath you; beneath your legend.”
She practically spat out the last word like venom.
Madiha remembered a pair of ruffians some time ago who told her, while withholding information she needed, that if she made friends and asked nicely, instead of demanding, she would have gotten what she wanted. That was back before she knew these people would betray, kidnap and torture her, and that she would ultimately murder them all.
Kuracha was someone she would come to blows with. She knew this already.
There were all kinds of communists. Even those who agreed politically may not personally.
Madiha had hated many of her own people. But Kuracha was something else altogether.
She felt it, as if it was being carried in the air around her. Kuracha was dangerous.
She radiated something unseemly, something vitriolic to people.
Was this part of her power too? She had felt Varus’ weakness, felt the blows that the Paladin had taken, felt her defeat enough to almost see it. Now from Kuracha, she smelled the wantonness, and felt the frustration, and the casual application of power, the lust for dominance over others. Kuracha was cloyingly, sickeningly sweet, and she turned sweet like the sugars in a plantain: activated by fire, by violence, by the application of force.
Kuracha loved to have others under her power. That love was sweet as death was dark.
And perhaps some part of her loved to be captive and to be forced and driven down.
It confirmed to her the power she still had, even towered over by someone stronger.
Madiha shook her head. All of these things had flooded her mind in an instant.
She was almost reeling from the shock of it. Like a lightning bolt outside had stricken her.
A bolt of insight, of empathy, all of it unwanted.
“I will evacuate your troops first. But only because this isn’t worth fighting over.”
Kuracha acquiesced, and perhaps in her mind, it was all a sign of her strength.
Madiha had lost control.
She stood, turned her back, and made for the door.
“Colonel, I can be an angel or a devil. It’s entirely your choice.” Kuracha said.
“I’ll consider it, Commissar.”
Madiha did not look at Kuracha’s face as she pushed through the doorway.
Parinita bowed her head respectfully at the door and followed right after.
Walking aimlessly, in a random direction, Madiha was stomping her feet. She went out under the rain, slowly soaking. She felt the shame sinking in with the water, and started moving faster. Everything about Rangda, everything that had happened, she realized it was all characterized by a lack of control. Madiha’s impulses had driven her through all of it. She felt suddenly as if at no point had she truly mastered herself, and been a willing pilot in her own life. She projected that anger, that frustration, that recklessness, to everything that had transpired. From the Mansas, to the Elves, it was all wanton id.
Soon she was running through the rain, as if trying to outrun her thoughts.
“Madiha, are you okay? Talk to me!”
Someone came running in from behind, struggling with an umbrella.
Catching up, Parinita laid hand on Madiha’s shoulder and tried to slow her down.
“This isn’t the way to the airport.”
“I apologize. I made a fool of myself, of you; of us.”
Madiha stopped dead under the storm. She felt tears starting to gather in her eyes.
Parinita ran around her and stood in front, holding her hands.
“That was reckless back then, but you were doing it for deserving people.” She said. “Please don’t hold yourself in contempt for it, Madiha! You had good intentions, and that woman was definitely trying to get under your skin. I don’t hold any of it against you.”
Madiha could not bear to look at her. She felt like a monster.
“No. It was all my own self-righteousness and stubbornness. It’s always been.”
It seemed totalizing; she projected this event throughout all of her life.
She felt like she was realizing how wrong she had always been.
It was not liberating. It was like falling in a pit. It was like dying.
“First Mansa’s subordinates got a rise out of me; then Chakrani made me lose my composure; Von Drachen put me off balance; and now this. This is all such a mess.”
“Those were all infuriating things. You’re human. It happens. You’re not perfect!”
Madiha sighed, and it came out as a heavy sob, and shook the tears out of her.
Parinita looked around to see if anyone was there.
She seemed satisfied; they appeared to be deep in the station, amid empty, waiting trains.
With the coast clear she raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks, parted her hair, and tiptoed.
Madiha did not resist the kiss.
She did not reciprocate with much energy, but did not resist.
“Madiha, please calm down. You’ve been through a lot. Give yourself some space. Please.”
Madiha sighed again, feeling frustrated with herself for this weakness.
“I fear I am devolving back into the impulsiveness of my youth.” She whimpered.
She locked eyes with her lover, and found an unruly sort of stare meeting hers.
Parinita grinned coquettishly, one hand over her lips. “Oh~ really~? Well, I for one am excited at the prospect of a more passionate and hot-blooded Madiha Nakar.”
She moved her hands in a cute little flourish.
Madiha burst into an involuntary chuckle.
“I can’t believe you’d tease me when I’m this vulnerable.” She said.
“Aww. I’m sorry. I was trying to make you smile.”
Madiha turned her head awkwardly, her face flushed from crying and from kissing.
“You nearly got me.” She said. Her mind was slowly clearing, just a touch.
Perhaps it was Parinita’s influence over the flame of Madiha’s power, like magic.
Or perhaps, Parinita was just that sweet and that good.
Madiha’s distress started to turn into embarrassment.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got us both soaking wet. I’ve been acting like a child.”
Parinita backed away a step, still holding Madiha’s hands, and smiled.
“Forget it. At any rate, you said in Bada Aso you reconnected with lost memories, right? It’s only natural you’d change after that; and after everything else that’s happened too. You’ve been hurt and exhausted and you’ve never once thought of yourself in all of it.”
Parinita sighed and looked out over the trains.
“I’m so worried, and I just, don’t know what to do sometimes. But I’m here for you.”
Madiha squeezed her hands. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to worry you.”
“Just let me take care of you every once in a while. Okay? If you can’t do it for yourself.”
They started to walk again, this time the right away to the airport. Parinita held up the umbrella, but they were both dripping wet, and cold, shivering, and the storm was making them struggle to keep the thing over their heads. Once more they had to pick up their space and start running, until they returned to the platform. Making sure to remain out of sight from Kuracha’s car, the two of them sought shelter at the station. Dripping all over a bench, they waited for a car to come that could be hailed and pick them up.
It was a pathetic scene, but not every battle ended gloriously.
Probably most events in history simply transitioned to inglorious peace without warning.
Madiha sighed deeply.
“Hey, don’t. Just cuddle up to me for warmth and stop thinking about it.”
Parinita seemed to readily preempt Madiha’s dark thoughts.
Wrapping themselves up in a towel provided by a nearby soldier, they clung close.
“I meant what I said, by the way. You’re taking some time off to recover.”
Madiha tried to work up a little smile. “I will readily acquiesce.”
“I’ll schedule a relaxing film just for us. And a warm bed right after.”
Parinita whispered in a sultry voice.
Madiha felt a momentary titillation at the thought.
“I’d like that.” She said awkwardly, remembering their last time.
Parinita, meanwhile, had a face like a fox poised to devour.
“Please calm down about it though.” Madiha added.
Together they waited, for the car, for the plane, for a change of clothes.
And in the sky, and off in the distance, and with time, they saw the edge of the desert.
One more inglorious transition in history.
Overhead, a livid sun bore down on a white, rocky beach beset by a turbulent ocean.
Gaul Von Drachen sat up, and spat out sea water.
His entire being hurt. Everything hurt. Being himself simply hurt.
His whole existence was hurt. But it was fine enough. He was alive.
Recovering some sense of what had transpired, he stood up.
Farther down the shallows on the shore, he saw another, familiar body.
Absentmindedly, he picked up a crab from the sand and threw it at the man.
Gutierrez cried out and struggled monumentally with the crab on the wet shore.
Von Drachen walked past him, reassured knowing that he was still alive in some form.
He started to walk.
Time had lost most of its meaning to him. Owing to the heat, and maybe thirst and now perhaps malnutrition, depending on how long he had been out, Von Drachen’s world was a blurring, shifting mess, and the seamless, endless landscape of the Ayvartan beach seemed to play endless tricks on his mind. For example, in the distance, he thought he saw a pair of beautiful young girls, in shining silver outfits, waiting on the beach.
They were not waiting for him; he figured they would know right away he was just not interested. Nymphs must have had some way to parse which men were worth eating.
As he walked past, however, he tripped on a stone, and nearly fell.
However, the taller of the nymphs seized him, and they laid him down on the beach.
“Is it an enemy soldier?” asked one.
“Without a gun he’s not an enemy anything. He’s just a victim.”
“You’re far too kind Gwen. Jeez. He could be dangerous.”
“He looks like you could snap him in half. Come on.”
One of the girls loomed over Von Drachen. She had a shining face and golden hair.
“I am known Gwendolyn.” She said, in tormented, slow Ayvartan. “Are you forsaken–”
“Good god, the word you want is lost. Lost. Potea.” He shouted in elvish.
Gwendolyn drew back and kicked sand in his face.
She stormed off.
“Now, now.” said the other girl, darker-haired, more severe-looking. “Things just got interesting here. So you speak Lubonin, huh? Where did you wash up from, stranger?”
Von Drachen spat out the salt on his tongue, and delivered a surprisingly swift reply.
“I’m General Gaul Von Drachen of the Cissean-Nochtish combined Allied forces–”
“Forget that Drachen jerk Lydia; Lydia, look!”
On the beach, that awful Gwendolyn girl suddenly pointed out to sea.
Lydia looked over the ocean and smiled.
Von Drachen struggled to crane his head to his side.
When he did, he saw in the distance the massive figure of a Vittoria-class battleship.
He grinned. He laughed.
He laughed with such cadence Gwendolyn and Lydia were disturbed.
Both of them seemed ready to kick sand in his face again.
And yet, lying on the sand, injured and dehydrated and defeated, Von Drachen laughed.
“You won this time, Madiha Nakar! But there will be such a splendid infinitude of battles! So much chaos! Is it the sun, or does it look like a glorious future is ahead of us?”
It was not the most rational thing to do, but he reveled in it.