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.