1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E
Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City
More than ever before the walls seemed to dominate the landscape. Walking through the city on foot they were ever-present. They had always been visible from seemingly every stone and concrete street, every gravel road, every dirty alleyway. Before the war, however, it was easy to forget their purpose. Now they loomed ever larger with people’s fear.
Even as the sun came down and the walls cast their longest shadows, the sense of their presence never heightened or lessened. Madiha felt hyperaware of them, at all times of the day. It was almost distracting, to look at the horizon and see the stone. She had taken for granted the view of the ocean in Rangda. Solstice was like a world inside of a jar.
Madiha shook her head. She had been assigned a crucial mission and would not fail.
She checked her list, nodded to herself grimly, and proceeded on her way.
All of them would have to be taken out for her to succeed. Survival depended on it.
Thankfully for her, the streets never closed in Solstice. It was the biggest city in Ayvarta, big enough and populated enough to be its own state. There was always a crowd on the streets, there was always an open door where one could get a drink or watch a show, and there was always a stall to trade or buy whatever you wanted, in some fashion.
Her targets would be out there; but she would have to be swift.
Revolution street cut through the center of Solstice from north to south. Almost everything of military importance was built off-center from Revolution as part of the post-civil war city rebuilding, but it was seen as important for there to be a straight shot, door to door path where anyone could see a grand display of Solstice’s civilian bounty. Along Revolution there were all kinds of shops, theaters, parks; Madiha walked down several blocks, and quickly found her first Msanii, the traditional open air markets.
Madiha moved with intensity and purpose. Around her the crowd seemed to part.
Perhaps some of them knew her or one of her epithets; perhaps it was simply legible on her face that she was determined. Eyes forward, back straight, with a collected gait. Scouting the surroundings for her prey. They could be anywhere; they would not elude her.
All kinds of things were on sale at the Msanii. Handcrafted textiles, shoes; traditional dyes and makeup; limited amounts of food of various kinds. Journals and scrapbooks, hand-sewn, blank, with beautiful covers and thick sheets of paper. Mancala boards, beads and traditional jewelry; Madiha wondered the stalls, pretending, casual, all the while silently acquiring her mark, calculating a vector, bringing those killing instincts back to work.
She spotted her first target standing on a colorful carpet, amid a crowd of people.
Madiha took a deep breath, hands in her pockets, gripping a concealed object.
She approached the saleswoman’s carpet, honed in on her prey, and struck.
Pushing through the crowd she jabbed the honed edge of a fountain pen on a can.
“Two cans of tomatoes please! I have money and a market ticket!” Madiha shouted.
She tapped multiple times on a stack of tomato cans, full of oily, chopped goodness.
All around her the people she pushed past stared at her, confused at her passion.
“Um. Of course!” said the saleswoman, an older lady in a headscarf.
All of the stack was probably canned far away in Jomba; she was likely a union sales rep.
It was an sign of the cooperation between the states of Ayvarta, near and far.
Solstice was at the center of it all; everyone gave their share so it could survive the desert.
These relationships were sure to strain in the future. For now, Madiha had her tomatoes.
Madiha grabbed the cans out of the stack, and laid down the scrip and the money.
She retreated from the stall, marked off the first target, and hurried to secure the others.
This was a vital mission entrusted to her by her beloved Parinita; she could not fail!
She went from stall to stall, picking things up little by little in small quantities. Peppers here, spices there, a small bag of garlic heads, ghee, canned paneer. There was some finesse to it; several short supply items she snatched from the expectant hands of another person. She did not feel proud of it, but this was her mission and she would not fail it.
Everywhere she went, she quickly handed the sum in coins and paper, all out of her military wages. There was still currency, wages were still paid in shells, and things still cost money here and there. These were “market items.” Everyone could sell a small amount, and the selling and buying was regulated. Different places had different rules. In Solstice, where supply security was crucial to survival, market scrip proved compliance. During inspections and permit renewals, market scrip helped legitimize the seller’s books.
It wasn’t perfect Communism quite yet.
Though the Civil Canteens offered enough food for anyone to get by, prospective diners would always be limited to what was served that day. Everyone ate the same food, whatever was convenient to prepare for thousands, maybe millions across the city with whatever produce could be acquired or brought out from stock. But that wasn’t exactly what brought Brigadier General Madiha Nakar out to the markets on her time of leave.
“I want to cook for you! We’ll eat like a couple!” Parinita had said.
Madiha had been so surprised at her passion for something that small.
But she found it so endearing that she wanted to see it happen.
There was one item on the list that seemed to elude her. She traveled to several stalls and shops, fully aware of the turning hands of the clock, the descending sun at her back.
Whole cow’s milk, at least a half a liter. Not powdered; the wet stuff.
That was all in Parinita’s handwriting.
Something which she had taken for granted in Adjar, a land of milk and honey compared to Solstice, trapped in its circle of sand-blown walls amid the most arid place in the world. There were no cows around Solstice. There were yaks in mountainous South Solstice, closer to the sea; and in the coastal paradise of North Solstice there were elk. Tribal folk in Central Solstice herded camels. Cows required grazing; Cows lived in farming states.
Madiha had a market ticket for cow’s milk and it was the same as any other legal scrip from the Commissariat. But being able to buy a certain amount of milk at market price meant nothing if milk was not available to market. That seemed to be the case that day.
She thought of Parinita’s beautiful smiling face, her eyes bright, her strawberry hair tied in a functional ponytail, an apron over her casual dress. Waiting back at the apartment for Madiha to return so they could use their blessed, gods-given personal stove oven to cook. So they could eat together, just the two of them at their own table. Like a couple in a film.
Madiha looked down at her market ticket and felt despondent. Would she fail her love?
Sighing deeply, she looked out onto the road, and saw a familiar face amid the crowd.
It had to be Logia Minardo; a visibly pregnant woman in a gorgeous little yellow sundress, her shoulder-length, slightly messy hair, under a straw hat with a red ribbon, carrying a bag weighed down with goods from the shops. She was walking down the road, along the very dry ditches, in the opposite direction from Madiha. They met almost at once.
Minardo pushed up a pair of sunglasses perched on her nose, and then put them away.
She smiled. Madiha tried to muster a smile of her own but was immediately distracted.
Hanging carelessly from the tips of Minardo’s fingers was a half-liter bottle of cow’s milk.
“Good evening General! Congratulations on your promotion!” Minardo said.
“Good evening.” Madiha said. “I hadn’t seen you in some time since the evacuation, Minardo. I was beginning to fear you might have been reassigned out of my headquarters.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Minardo said, cocking a little grin. “During the evacuation every single transportation resource was tapped out. There was a shortage of pilots in Rangda to help fly people out, so I stayed behind to help organize all of that. It was very close: we barely made the last flight out in time to avoid Nochtish patrol flights.”
“I see. I’m glad you managed to extricate yourself in time.”
“Hah! You forget, I cut my teeth in the air forces.”
“Yes, I often do forget.”
Madiha continued to fixate on the bottle of milk.
“Out and about on the town, Minardo?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve got a date.” Minardo winked.
“I met a serious, interesting man at the shops yesterday. He was forthright too–”
She started to chirp about this fellow and Madiha could not have cared less.
For an instant, Madiha almost thought of ordering Minardo to surrender her milk.
However, Minardo was a pregnant, expecting mother and as such, entitled by law to fresh cow’s milk. For a staunch, loyal socialist like Madiha, it was anathema to ask of her to make such a sacrifice for her own selfish needs. It took some struggling, but she managed to tear her eyes away from the milk and to stare Minardo in the face and smile.
“So why are you out and about, General? You always seemed an anti-social type.”
Her subordinate had a savage grin on her face as she delivered this projectile.
Madiha remembered then that this was Logia Minardo whom she was speaking to.
Again she felt a temptation to rip the milk from her teasing subordinate’s hands.
But such an action would’ve been against the eternal science of Lenanism.
Minardo paused for a moment, and seemed to notice something about Madiha.
“Oh ho! Is that a shopping list I spy? Oh I know what this is! How precious!”
She was always a very observant person, for all her various other faults.
Madiha wanted to sink into the earth. She averted her gaze meekly.
“My, what a spirited girl, that Maharani! She’s already on top of you!”
“Desist at once! That is an order!” Madiha said, feeling flustered.
“I can’t believe all along that goofy girl was actually such a powerful minx.”
Madiha waved her hand in front of Minardo’s face. “You never saw this!”
She accompanied the action with a mental push; but nothing transpired.
This act of desperation left her standing foolishly there for no good reason.
“Excuse me?” Minardo grinned.
Madiha flashed back to her childhood, and felt suddenly bereft of power.
“Damn it all. It was an effective tactic for my childhood self.” She mumbled.
Once more, Minardo seemed to have paid undue attention to every part of the scene.
Her hearing, her eyesight; for gossip-worthy things she was the perfect scout.
Minardo giggled, and squished Madiha’s cheek. “Oh, honey, oh sweetie; people played along with you because you were a cute little kid, not because you can control minds.”
Madiha felt the sudden strike of anxiety and excused herself. “I’m sorry. I’m uh. Drunk.”
Minardo patted her on the head. “I won’t tell anyone. Have a nice day, General.”
She waved, giggled, and went along her way.
Madiha watched her as she met a man around the corner, took his arm and led him away.
Sighing, having wasted more time with nothing to show for it, Madiha went her own way.
After an hour or two walking around the city, she felt exhausted, and sat down on a street-side bench next to a newspaper box. There were no coin-operated locks on the box; the newspaper was free. She picked up an issue and glanced over the cover and pages idly.
Tensions were high. There was a map of the front line. It was carefully drawn to show that there was still some southern territory technically in Ayvartan hands, because the front line with Nocht was uneven and there were bulges everywhere. But this only mildly papered over the reality that half the country was in foreign hands. Solstice stood sentinel now against the invaders, and it was unclear if the upper half of the country stood with it.
She hard talk around her, from the benches, from the streetgoers. It was all about food and films and dates and books, about the soccer rivalry between Yayatham and Dhurna; but she could feel in her heart and in her mind the anxiety of the moment. So many things had changed for them seemingly overnight. Council was dissolved, Daksha Kansal was in power; the shining port of Rangda had rebelled, been put down, and lost to Nocht; the vast Southern dominions with their huge populations and wealth fell with weak fight to an invader. There was an invader. Nocht had invaded them. Attacked them on their own soil.
All of them, these people with her, and she herself: they were the front line now.
Madiha put down the newspaper. She rubbed her hands across her face. Milk.
She had to get milk, she remembered. For Parinita; that was her mission then.
“Oh oh! Hey, look there Charvi! It’s the General! It’s the General!”
Madiha blinked and looked up from the road. Approaching down the edge of the street were a couple of young women whom she easily recognized. They were a reliable pair for Headquarters security and clandestine jobs; Corporal Gulab Kajari, a honey-brown skinned girl, short but fit, with hair in a long braided tail, and her partner, the curiously silver-haired and short of words Sergeant Charvi Chadgura. While Gulab opted for a vest and dress pants ensemble that reminded Madiha of her own style, Charvi wore a strapless, sleeveless sun-dress of a bright crayon-orange color with a sunflower-studded sun-hat.
“Ma’am!” Gulab said happily, tipping her fedora at the General.
Madiha waved meekly. She had left her own fedora, Daksha’s old one, at the apartment.
“Out on the town alone?” Gulab said, rather carelessly.
Charvi waved half-heartedly.
Madiha nursed a mild resentment at everyone assuming she was being anti-social.
Then again she did not want to be too loud about her relationship to her aide, either.
“I’m shopping.” Madiha replied.
“Oh, nice. Me and Charvi are just taking in the sights. We got a whole week’s leave!”
“And a whole week’s pay.” Charvi said, toneless but at the same time eerily blunt.
“Hey, be grateful.” Gulab interjected nervously.
Madiha, too, was still owed some back-pay from the Aster’s Gloom.
With all that had happened, however, she was not up in arms about receiving it anymore.
“It’s fine. I’m mad about it too. But I understand these are hard times.”
“We do also!” Gulab was quick to say. “I uh, I wanted to. Honestly, ma’am, I’ve been wanting to thank you for very long. Charvi can tell you, you’re uh, very inspirational.”
“I can indeed attest to that, Commander.” Charvi dispassionately said.
Smiling, the General put away her paper and gave the two a good look.
“Thank you. It is an honor to be able to serve our motherland alongside such fine soldiers. I’m happy for you two. You seem to have struck a great friendship. Hold on to it dearly.”
Madiha thought she was saying something profound to her younger subordinates.
Gulab seemed to be respectfully holding back a laugh and Charvi had averted her eyes.
Sighing, Madiha averted her own gaze briefly, only to find it lingering on Gulab’s hand.
She was holding a bottle of milk, an unopened half-liter bottle.
This was it; this would certainly be her last chance to complete the mission.
Madiha called out with such force Gulab reflexively saluted.
Charvi blinked, and then with a stoic face saluted also at Gulab’s side.
“Corporal, you want to do everything in your power to aid me, correct?”
“Yes ma’am!” Gulab enthusiastically replied.
Charvi remained quiet.
“Corporal, I have a vital mission that I must complete. I must make use of your milk.”
Gulab mechanically extended her hand and handed Madiha the milk.
Madiha handed her ten shells and a market ticket.
“At ease soldiers! Your service in this hour of need shall be remembered!”
Gulab and Charvi seemed to deflate, all the tension leaving their bodies.
There was a short silence as Madiha carefully read the label. It was not exactly fresh, it had been laced with preservatives for transportation and was kept in ice. In fact it was still cold to the touch; it must have once formed part of the stock that the government produced locally and held for children, the sick and for pregnant mothers. There was no other answer. Either Gulab knew somebody who could supply it or she or Charvi must have–
“Congratulations to you two.” Madiha said. “Have a good night.”
She stood up from the bench, turned sharply and departed, while her baffled subordinates stared at her from the middle of the street, speechless at first, and then exchanging looks.
“Do you think she thinks that you or maybe that I am–?” Gulab began.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it.” Charvi replied.
“Yeah. Right. Hey, let’s go get an ice cream bar. No tricks this time!”
“No tricks. Gulab, did you know that if you spice an ice cream bar with chili–”
“You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re trying to trick me!”
“No, I am serious. You will access a world of flavor with just a dash of hot–”
“I wasn’t born yesterday! Just because I hadn’t eaten an ice cream before–”
Their chirping soon vanished into the background, along with the streets of Solstice.
Madiha Nakar declared her victory; perhaps her first non-Pyrrhic victory of the war.
Unfortunately, a key detail of her adventure was once lost to history.
So ecstatic was the great General to leave the streets with all of her goods in hand, that she did not catch even the tiniest hint of the commotion just a block down from her little meeting bench, where an engineering firm working on electric ice boxes had been giving away cold milk. Such was luck for the long-suffered and ever calculating Madiha Nakar.