Life In The Besieged City (74.2)

This scene contains mild violence and allusions to transphobia and medical violence.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Halwa Way

Weighing in at 52 tons, the Mandeha experimental self-propelled gun and its 152mm gun made an impression everywhere it went. It was loud, from the crunching of the tracks as they turned on their wheels, to the coughing of its engine and the rumbling in the dirt as it moved through the town. There was no subtlety to it: its too-tall turret and too-large body compared to the tanks common folk knew made it stand out far too much.

Having been given special provision to use civilian roads on its journey, the weapon and its crew trundled through the main street, down the old southern marketplace and out to the broader and wider-open historic neighborhood of Halwa Way. Known once for its confectioners and toy-makers, a little paradise for the city’s children, the war turned its eye on it as a source of open, under-developed space for military apparatus to expand.

Now there were no toy makers or candy shops. Confectioners produced canned and boxed food products for the military. Toy makers built guns and machined small parts.

The Mandeha headed for a workshop as part of an agreement to be examined in detail by a local cooperative and to apparently produce a limited run of extra turrets for it. Karima did not understand the purpose of doing such a thing but she did not question it.

She instead took in the sights atop the traveling tank, a soldier with nothing to shoot.

Clay brick houses, a few official-looking concrete buildings and many small wood-and-tin workshops were set on big plots of land spaced many meters apart, with waist-high stone divisions and broad dirt road between them. There were many empty, open parks and plazas and vacant, overgrown plots. All of it baking under the midday sun directly overhead. The heat was enough to cause ripples in the air ahead of and behind the tank.

Regardless, there were people on the street. Almost everyone in Halwa Way was dressed either in simple work clothes or some kind of uniform, though there were a few women in saris and one man in a robe and beads that Karima saw. The tank drove by a long line for certain rationed supplies, notably firewood and coal for homes and shops, handed out the back of a truck. They passed by a small clinic where a dozen soldiers in physical therapy practiced standing up on their prosthetic legs. They passed by a large school too.

Heads turned as the Mandeha neared. Older folk gaped and stared at the metal monster. Children clapped and danced and some of the misbehaving ones threw rocks and got scolded for it. There were still children, of course, even as Halwa Way metamorphosed.

To Karima, who was hanging half out of the top hatch, it looked like the children in the school were having a bomb drill. They were minded by a pair of military uniformed officers. After scolding them for the rocks their instructors had them practice ducking and crawling in the football field. There were shallow foxholes dug all over the field and a little sandbag wall. They were probably being taught to do basic earthworks too.

Past the school the Mandeha stopped and turned in place to go around a corner. Karima got a brief glimpse of a 37mm anti-aircraft gun and a group of teenage girls manning it.

Karima watched the landscape passing her slowly and gently by, resting her head on her arms.  It was miserably hot out, and the turret armor of the Mandeha was rather hot too. The long, smooth, shiny sleeves of her tight black tanker bodysuit protected her from being burned by the metal, but did nothing about the overall heat. She sweated profusely.

It was no better inside the tank. Though it was not worse — heat took much longer to penetrate the densely armored interior, so it was about the same temperature as just standing outside, even though it was a metal box cooking in the sun. Mainly, outside the tank at least Karima could feel the calm breeze sweeping up her long, brown arched ponytail and blowing the sweat off her olive skin. In the tank, it’d be cramped and while some air could come through the poor welding seams that was not an intended feature.

“Feeling down, Karima?”

A second hatch opened atop the Mandeha. A young blond woman pulled herself up half out of the hatch, and laid her head on her arms near Karima as if miming her.

“I’m fine.” Karima said brusquely. Lila was gorgeous and a joy but also annoying.

“This heat is monstrous isn’t it? I’ve never been anywhere so dry.” Lila said.

“It’s fine!” Karima said. She started raising her voice.

“You don’t look fine honestly, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You’re so noisy!”

Without responding, Lila turned her gaze on the surroundings with a smile.

Karima sighed.

“It’s not like I want you around. If you’re gonna be here, just take in the breeze quietly.”

She welcomed the company.

Karima snatched sidelong glances at Lila, thinking to herself that she liked when Lila was staring placidly at something other than her. She felt pressured when Lila stared at her, and resentful because Lila probably didn’t see anything good when she looked.

Lila was beautiful. Her golden hair, tied up out of the way, and her eyes, and her peach colored skin; she looked so lovely, like an angel. Karima found her gaze sneaking down Lila’s slim shoulders and along her back. She had taken off the combat vest, and the bodysuit hugged her figure very well under it. Karima had to pull herself away and force herself to stare at the buildings. Lila would tease her relentlessly if she caught her.

It wasn’t that Karima disliked the teasing, but she disliked her own reaction to it.

Her head was just a big screaming mess all the time. It made everything so hard.

The Mandeha rolled through a small park. As they maneuvered the tank carefully under the decorative arch out the other end of the park, Karima spotted a small crowd gathered ahead of them. They seemed to be trying to push something out from the middle of the intersection. Once they were close enough to see through the heat haze, Karima found the small group of workers and soldiers trying to get a supply truck going again after it struck a nasty ditch in the dry, dirty ground, knocking one of its wheels out of sorts.

“Huh. I wonder if everything’s okay.” Lila said airily.

Karima groaned. “Of course it isn’t. Just look at that.”

Onlookers gathered around the stalled truck, watching as a few men tried to prop the truck up, bang its wheel back into place, or push it out of the way. They did not appear as if they had made much progress. The Mandeha stopped at the edge of the crowd, and the hatch in front of the vehicle opened up. Karima saw their driver walk out into the crowd.

He was a comely young man with a braided black ponytail, wearing a combat jacket and shorts over his black bodysuit. Isa was not the sort who would have offered to help himself. He was probably going to rope them all into pushing on the truck or something.

“Ugh, he’s gonna get involved, of course.” Karima sighed.

“Well, we can’t just go through them, and it is nice to help out.” Lila said.

She turned her smile on Karima again, who turned her own head away from it.

“Whatever.”

Isa returned from a brief conversation with the men pushing the truck, and waved to Karima and Lila from the ground. He walked around the back of the tank and pulled from one of the storage hatches a hook and a steel rope. He attached the rope to one of the metal handles around the side of the Mandeha’s chassis, and brought the rope over to the truck, and hooked it to the front of it. Then he returned to the tank and dove down into the front hatch. He did all of this without saying a word to Karima or Lila about it.

Lila whistled.

“Huh, I guess he’s going to handle it himself. Our Isa has grown into a dependable boy.”

“We’re his age.” Karima retorted. “And he’s just playing around with the tank.”

“I guess it’s neat to be able to drive it.” Lila said, giggling.

“Less effort than hauling up those awful 152mm shells.” Karima mumbled.

The Mandeha rumbled as Isa started the engine, and began to pull back. The rope stretched taut, and the tank began to force the truck away from the intersection. People moved out of the way, and the Mandeha retreated to the park with the truck in tow and left it in a grassy little square patch once intended for picnickers. The owners of the truck had followed along, and when Isa popped back out of the hatch, they shook hands.

From the back of the truck, one of the men produced a small box, and he handed it to Isa.

“Lets go see what that’s about.” Lila said excitedly, pinching Karima’s bicep.

“Fine.”

They climbed down the footholds on the side of the turret, and closed the top hatches. Karima was tall for an Ayvartan woman, so the Mandeha was about the only tank she felt somewhat comfortable in. Its turret was still cramped, but nowhere near as much as the flatter turrets on smaller tanks. Karima could crouch into the turret from above, sit down and spread her arms — a Goblin tank felt like being caged in comparison. Lila, who was shorter and lighter, fit perfectly well inside the turret along with Karima as well.

Once inside, they both leaned down past the turret ring to look into the chassis below.

At the front of the chassis, past the racks of heavy shells, was Isa’s driving compartment. He closed the hatch and turned around just as the women were coming down from the turret. Smiling, he presented to them a little cardboard box. A fantastic smell of bread and spices swept through the interior of the tank. Karima identified it immediately.

“They gave you pakoras?” She asked suddenly.

“Sure did! They’re setting up a food spot for the workers around here.”

Isa opened up the box for them. It was indeed filled with pakoras: crunchy, flaky pouches of fried bread filled with vegetables and spices. He had at least a dozen in the box.

“Half of them have potatoes and peas, the other half are paneer.” Isa said.

“Paneer please!”

Karima stretched out a hand and Isa, in a bit of shock, deposited a pakora in it.

Lila stared at Karima, blinking the whole time.

Paying them no attention, Karima took a big bite.

She smiled and closed her eyes. It was perfect, the crust was so crisp, the paneer tender.

“We got some chutney also.” Isa said, pulling a little plastic cup from under the pakoras.

Karima snatched the cup, set it down on top of the turret ring divider, removed the lid and dunked her pakora into the spicy green mash. It was delicious: hot, minty, sweet.

She felt herself transported to an earlier, simpler time by the food.

“Just like mother used to make.” She said.

Lila and Isa stared at her.

Isa with a blank expression, and Lila slowly filling with delight.

When she noticed them, Karima shot a strong look. “What? Got something on my face?”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Lila said.

Isa crossed his arms and averted his gaze.

Karima turned her cheek on them and climbed back up out of the turret interior.

“She can smile sometimes, I guess.” Isa said.

“She’s great.” Lila replied.

Without the obstruction in the middle of the road, and with the crowd having dispersed, the Mandeha made its way steadily down to the Lower Yard, a series of wood and tin buildings with open walls. There were buildings on either side of the dirt road, forming their own little neighborhood here. In the past they would have been home to many cooperative workers tinkering with mechanical toys, karts, and other trinkets. Now the instant the Mandeha turned into the road, Karima spotted a table with a line of rifles in various stages of completion, and one little building housing a crane vehicle and a tank.

Several workers crawled around the tank as the crane lifted the turret off of it.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle, a sense of urgency, but also a sense of desperate haphazardness. Soon as Karima took her eyes off it, the crane dropped the turret off and almost took a man’s foot out. There were screams out of earshot. She grumbled.

“Karima~!”

Karima heard Lila calling up to her from below. “We’re stopping soon! Put on your combat jacket, we don’t want to run around in topless bodysuits in a public workshop.”

In response Karima stomped her boot on the foothold she was standing on.

She eventually did don her combat jacket. Her bodysuit was a bit tight up top.

The workshop was no more a building than the rest of Lower Yard. It did, however, house a plethora of machine tools. There were lathes and a smelting furnace and many molds. Everywhere that a shelf could be bolted to, they had bolted two, overburdened with tools and parts. It was busy; there were people running about who barely seemed to notice each other, all engaged in some manner of labor. Karima thought it was too noisy.

Several older men and women in tough, dusty leather work suits greeted them.

Lila, Isa and Karima stepped out of the tank and shook hands with the recently elected head of the cooperative, a stocky, bald older man with black skin verging on blue, by the name of Qeneb Yaibeh. He smiled a broad smile and laughed warmly at the Mandeha.

“Welcome! My, what a piece of kit you got there.” He said. “This is also little Ravana’s work? I did not expect it to be this extravagant. Her family used to be so conservative.”

“Perhaps that’s why she’s taking so many liberties now.” Isa replied.

“I’m glad little Ravana is still thinking about this place.” Qeneb said.

“She said, ‘Chief Yaibeh is the only man I trust with this project.'”

“Oh that’s a lie! I’m just the only man who would bother with that abomination she built! Come, let us talk about it. I wish she had come herself, but you seem lively enough!”

Before arriving, Karima and Lila decided to let Isa handle things at the yard, since out of all of them he knew the most about the machine and its technical details, being the driver and having some small mechanic experience. Whereas Lila was only supposed to be a medic, turned gunner in desperation; and Karima a bugler and general grunt.

Qeneb took Isa away to show him around the shop. Standing outside, Karima could see practically everything they had available and everything they were working on, a few cars, some radios; Lila looked delighted, but Karima was very unimpressed by the sight.

“Ugh. Why are we taking it here? This place is a dump.” Karima said.

Lila shot a suddenly aggravated look at her. Unprepared, Karima almost jumped.

“Chief Ravan trusts these men and women! Look at how hard they work!” Lila said.

Her tone of voice was rather harsh. Karima had rarely seen her become upset.

It made Karima feel defensive. “Working hard for what? Why bother letting them fix a few things here and there when M.A.W. could fix a hundred of them in a day?”

Lila turned sharply and stormed off into the shop by herself, leaving Karima suddenly.

Karima felt a powerful impulse inside her to be very angry herself; but she tried to control it. It was mixed with fear and anxiety. Her head was always mixed up in this fashion, but at the thought of Lila being mad at her, the chaos was all the more violent and cacophonous. She felt paralyzed, not knowing what to do but standing under the hot sun, her ponytail sweeping this way and that with the wind, sweating profusely.

She closed her fists so hard her gloved fingers bit into her palm.

“Fine!”

She shouted after Lila, and then turned around and made to leave.

Then she heard a loud crash from the side of the shop.

There was a scream.

Karima cast a glance at her side and then without thinking threw herself forward.

She interposed herself between an older woman and a shelf poorly bolted onto a pair of wooden building supports. Several steel tools crashed against her arms and shoulders and fell harmlessly on the floor. When the shelf itself fully collapsed Karima pushed it back, throwing it off herself and onto the floor. Several glass tubes blew up at her feet.

When it was all over, she felt like her arms had been trampled by caribou.

She looked behind herself, smiling weakly at an old woman in a headscarf and work suit.

“Please be careful ma’am.” Karima said, her voice and hands quivering.

She put her arms down, with some effort, and started to collect the tools that had fallen.

“Oh no dear! Please!” Said the grateful woman, bending down next to her to help.

“You all need to clean up this place! It’s a hazard!” Karima said, growing annoyed.

She turned to the woman and found her staring at her.

“You’re bleeding, dear.”

From her work suit pocket the woman produced a scarf and put it to Karima’s forehead.

Karima ignored it. She collected several drill bits, hammers, and a few pairs of very large bolt drivers, and collected them into a nearby basket and lifted it up. At her side, the old woman was nearly speechless at the effort Karima was putting in for practically no reason. Karima herself, having been struck in the head, was not especially thinking her actions through, but some part of her justified it as ‘showing them how to do things’ and ‘being the decent person in the room’ and other excuses to retain her personal aesthetic.

No sooner had she taken a few steps into the shop that Lila reappeared.

She looked at Karima, first with confusion and then with wide-eyed shock.

“Hashem protect you, what happened?”

She rushed up to Karima with a bandage that quickly turned red as it touched her head.

“I’m fine.” Karima said brusquely.

“Ugh. You don’t have to be so– so you all the time.” Lila said in a defeated tone of voice.

She eventually forced Karima to sit down in a corner and hold a towel up to her wound.

She sat down next to her, sighing.

They watched the people come and go. Karima still didn’t get it.

But she thought, if Lila respected it, then she should just do it too.

“I’m sorry for being me. Please don’t hate me.” Karima said, admitting defeat herself.

Lila rested her head against Karima’s side. “Oh, just– You’re fine. Be quiet.”

Karima pressed the towel harder on her wound.

She guessed that everyone was trying their best to help the way they could.

She guessed there was no reason to stop them.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Ulyanova Medical Research Center

In the “special treatments clinic” the walls were painted a relaxing peach color and there was a piece of art hanging on every one of them. They were paintings of landscapes, with tiny cheerful trees, sweeping mountains and shimmering lakes and rivers, all in oil paints, with a quirky little signature that read something like “W. Kapp.” There was a corner with a large pillow with big cartoon eyes on drawn on it, and a smattering of random toys. On the pillow there was the same quirky handwriting: umarmung.

There was a reception desk, at which nobody sat, and a door into the office.

That afternoon there were only two patients waiting on the long couch by the door.

“How long have you been waiting?”

A young woman spoke first; she asked the young man at her side.

“Not long.” He said.

“I just got here.” She said. “Have you been here before?”

“It’s my first time.” He said. “But this doctor is very well regarded! So I’m hopeful.”

“I see. I came to get the results of some tests I took in the other hospital. How about you?”

For a moment, the boy hesitated. “I need a prescription for a new drug.”

She did not press him further. “Oh, well I hope you get it.”

For someone sitting in the special unit, the young woman certainly looked healthy. Dark-skinned, with black hair tied into a short tail, she was svelte and fit. The muscular tone of her legs was visible even through stockings, and she had strong shoulders. She wore a long-sleeved, knee-length blue dress and had a pink and blue band around her wrist.

She had the body of an athlete; but nobody would’ve known her true heroism by sight.

At her side the young man was slightly shorter and less physically impressive, with ruddy brown skin and short dark hair. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and suspenders, and twirled a little hat around on his fingers. His face was delicate and pretty, of an ethnic character the young woman thought, but otherwise he looked plain enough; nobody could have told at a glance his unique condition or achievements.

“I’m Leander Gaurige.” He said first, extending a friendly hand.

“Naya Oueddai.” She replied with a quick shake. “Nice to meet you.”

No sooner had they been introduced that the door to the office opened.

Out stepped a red-headed woman wearing a white coat, twirling a pen in her fingers. She was rather dexterous with it, and it spun like a wheel between two fingers and a thumb.

“Good evening you two– Oh!”

She bumped her heeled shoes on a small toy on the ground and nearly fell.

From her fingers, the pen launched like an arrow toward the patients.

Leander gasped and ducked.

Naya thrust out a hand and snatched the pen out of the air before it could strike.

For an instant the room felt like the air had been sucked out.

At the other end of the room the woman sighed with relief. “Mein gott. I apologize.”

She approached the waiting patients, and Naya handed her the pen with a grin.

“Goodness, what reflexes. You must be quite popular at parties.”

There was no mistaking her appearance, she was absolutely the doctor. Her professional dress consisted of a white coat over a button-down shirt and tie with a pencil skirt and black leggings. She looked well into her adulthood, with a striking face, sharp-featured and elegant with well-applied dark eyeshadow and lipstick. Her wine-red hair was collected in a bun in the back of her head with a few clips. A pair of thin spectacles covered her grey eyes. She was tall, slender and broad-shouldered, with a subtle figure.

Leander smiled at her as if meeting a celebrity. Certainly she was well made-up as any star, and she carried herself just as confidently, but the reaction from him was far more than any doctor seemed to merit. His face lit up with anticipation. Naya put her hands behind her head and reclined on her seat. She was sure she had a bit more of a wait on her hands. It definitely seemed to her that Leander knew the doctor and was set to go in.

The doctor bent down close to the two of them and put a hand on Leander’s shoulder.

“I know you’re full of anticipation, Leander, but Naya here will only take a few minutes, and I don’t want to delay her results longer. Can you wait just a little more?”

She spoke with a thick accent and her voice was a little deep and a little nasal.

Leander’s mouth hung open for a moment in response. He nodded his head.

He looked completely deflated, and Naya almost wanted to say he should go ahead.

But the doctor seemed to sense her reticence and comforted Leander quickly.

“We’ll have more time to talk if I’m not worried about another patient. I promise.”

She gave him a thumbs up, and then gestured for Naya to stand.

Naya gave Leander a sympathetic look and followed the doctor to the office.

Leander however looked a little more lively again with the doctor’s reassurance.

Past the office door was a large room built around a complicated fixed chair with several instruments attached to it. There were four large workspaces with multiple drawers and cabinets affixed high on the walls over them. Atop every one of these spaces there were baskets with tools wrapped in clear plastic, as if they were candy at a shop. There was one basket that seemed to actually have candy. One open drawer had several stuffed bears wrapped in clear plastic also. Each bear had a heart with the word for ‘hug’ on it.

Hujambo! I’m Doctor Willhelmina Kappel. Have a seat, and have a bear!”

Doctor Kappel shook Naya’s hand gently, and then ripped a stuffed bear free from its plastic packaging and handed it to her. She instructed Naya to sit on the fixed chair and hug the bear, and though she felt terribly silly doing so, the bear was soft, comfortable, almost therapeutic to hug. Her heart was beating terribly fast as it began to sink in that she would see the results of the tests on her back to see what could be troubling her.

“Though it is the one revolutionary idea I have for which I possess no evidence, I think that hugs are very powerful. I have all my patients hug a bear while we talk about tests.”

“Are all the toys out there for your patients too?” Naya asked cheekily.

Dr. Kappel smiled warmly. “I get a lot of children, mothers with children, so on. I think it is important to make spaces for children in ominous places like this. It might make adults feel silly, but adults can handle feeling silly. Children can’t help feeling anxious.”

Naya got the sense that Dr. Kappel was a genuinely thoughtful person.

Even if she did end up tripping on the toys she so kindly set out for the children.

This was her first time meeting her, even though she was getting the results here.

She had run her tests in the main building, but they referred her to special treatments for the results. Dr. Kappel seemed good, but the very fact that she had to come here and meet her felt ominous to Naya. Special Treatment did not ring as very hopeful to her.

Dr. Kappel sat in a little wooden chair across from Naya and leaned forward, smiling.

“Run any laps recently, Naya Oueddai?” Dr. Kappel asked.

“I’ve been keeping up on my exercising.” Naya said demurely.

“Set any good times on the local tracks?”

Her accent was thicker on some Ayvartan words than it was on others. Though she had command of the language, Willhelmina Kappel was still just a little more difficult to listen to than normal. Naya felt like she had to pay very strict attention to really get every word that she was pronouncing. It was not unpleasant, just different — she was used to such things with her commanding officer, who was partially deaf and partially mute.

Once she mulled over what Dr. Kappel had said for a second she responded.

“I haven’t really been trying, and I’ve never run the tracks around here before anyway.”

“You have the potential to beat some records. Solstice has mediocre runners. The South has always been better than Solstice at running.” Dr. Kappel said, grinning.

Did she mean Naya would be okay? Was that what she was insinuating?

“I’ll give it a go sometime, I guess.”

“Try the medical college track.” Dr. Kappel said.

“Duly noted.”

“How has your back been recently? Has your pain subsided?” Dr. Kappel continued.

“I’m managing, thanks to the drugs.”

“Between dosages, do you feel the pain returning?”

“Not much. I mean, my back is not going to be fixed by painkillers, and I know that, but as long as I take the drugs, exerting myself does not hurt like it did before.” Naya said.

“Would you have characterized your pain before as fleeting attacks, or constant pain?”

Naya felt tired just remembering the pains from before. “They would come and go.”

“And when an event transpired, it was debilitating, yes?”

It felt shameful to admit it, but Naya was honest. “I couldn’t even move sometimes.”

“And you noticed certain triggers for your worst pain events.”

She was starting to wither under the questions.

“I was usually exerting myself when they happened.” Naya admitted.

Dr. Kappel nodded, and reached for a thick file folder on a nearby countertop.

“Naya, would you appreciate a blunt assessment, or a softer delivery?”

Naya felt that request like a hammer to the chest.

Willhelmina Kappel practically held Naya’s life in her hands. Everything that Naya was and cared for could ride on this result. So few people would look at that girl in the ill fitting, borrowed dress with the thick legs and realize the sort of struggle she was in.

Naya was a successful tanker, and recently a medal candidate for her heroism during the evacuation of Benghu a few weeks ago. She was part of an experimental tank unit, and more importantly, she considered herself an athlete still, even if she had not run very much recently. Her physicality was important to her self image, esteem, and identity.

Thinking about it brought a pinprick of phantom back pain that nearly made her panic.

“Are you alright?” Dr. Kappel asked.

“I’m fine.”

She had reached to rub her back, but she stopped.

It distressed her to think that her prized body that she had grown so proud of was failing her. She was managing her mysterious back pains with pain medication, but she knew that she could not depend on her unit medic slipping her painkillers under the table.

“Be as blunt as you have to be.” Naya said. Her eyes were tearing up. The air in the office felt cold and forbidding. She gripped her own dress and grit her teeth and waited.

Dr. Kappel nodded. “It is difficult to determine exactly when, but if you keep going on your current trajectory you will lose the use of your legs. Take a look at this–”

She spread open the folder and showed Naya a strange photograph. There was a human form, and the photograph was specifically of a lower back, with the spine and the hip bones visible and the flesh a flat, blue transparent plane. There were various blemishes on the bones. Dr. Kappel pointed out a few spots along the slightly crooked spine.

“You have a rare condition affecting your spine that is damaging your nerves. Right now, it is only painful, because the nerve is affected in brief, violent events that subside with rest. You can manage it with drugs, but if you continue to push yourself, you will damage the nerve permanently. You will find yourself unable to run, then walk unsupported, and then stand. I cannot tell you exactly when but this is a certainty in your current state.”

Naya felt surprisingly empty of emotion. There it was, the punch to the jaw that she had been expecting. Her eyes were as tearful as they had been — only mildly so. She could not muster the strength to scream. She looked at the images of her compromised bones with weariness and a sense of resignation. Perhaps Dr. Kappel’s bluntness did pay off.

“Is it possible to fix with surgery?” Naya said. She found herself hugging the bear tight.

Dr. Kappel reached out and put a reassuring hand on Naya’s shoulder.

“We have options. For right now, I can schedule for you to receive spinal injections. Though painful and temporarily debilitating, they will give you enough of a respite to remain active and give us options. We can then consult and think about things like disc reshaping and bone grafts, but I must warn you that these are very invasive.”

“But if it can help me–”

Dr. Kappel gave Naya a serious look that chilled her suddenly.

She reached out and held Naya’s hand.

“I know from seeing you and reading about you that you are a fighter, Naya.”

Nodding her head, Naya couldn’t think of a verbal response to her sudden seriousness.

Dr. Kappel looked her directly in the eyes.

“Surgery can keep you walking. However, it would put you permanently out of the war. You would go through a very long recovery process that would involve a group home and regular therapy. Even if I succeed I doubt you would be able to run as you used to.”

Naya was surprised that she brought up the war.

“Am I going to be medically discharged?” She asked.

“I never said that.” Dr. Kappel said. She patted her on the shoulder. “I read your military file. That is why I’m telling you all of this right now. I want to give you a chance.”

Naya blinked, momentarily speechless. Her heart skipped a beat.

“So, Doctor, are you saying that if I just walk out of here–”

“You are gambling with your ability to recover from your condition. Naya, the more you fight, the more you will risk causing harm to yourself that will never repair. You must understand that. I need to be sure you understand the full depth of your options.”

Naya’s mind was racing as fast as her heart was thrashing.

“But I can fight? You will let me walk out and I can fight?”

“I’ll clear you for action. Spinal injections and painkillers can keep you going, for now.”

For a moment, Naya was silent. She wiped her tearful eyes and whimpered.

“But if I keep going–”

“You now understand what will happen.”

“It’s almost cruel how difficult this is, doctor.”

“I understand.”

Dr. Kappel nodded her head. She had a grim look on her face again.

She started to reminisce, as if both to Naya and herself.

“I was born in the Nocht Federation. I pioneered an amazing treatment that would have allowed many people to lead the life they desperately wanted. Because of the stigma against it, I was my only test subject. Soon it became impossible to mask the treatment’s efficacy.” She smiled again, but she looked bitter. “For my efforts, I was subjected to electroshocks and other abusive psychotherapy. When I started, I knew that I wanted to fight not just for my future, but for others. Even if it harmed me or killed me in the end.”

Naya knew what that felt like lately. Even if it broke her back, she made herself keep fighting all those weeks ago. Even when things felt the most hopeless, and when she had no idea whether she would or could succeed or change anything, she still climbed into the Raktapata and took action. She begged to be inside the machine, to be able to fight.

“So that’s why you’re not just forcing me to take the surgery.”

“I want you to take some time to decide what you want. When I came to this country, I wanted to become a doctor who gives people control of their life. Not somebody who creates an unhappy life for them based on my own prejudices. This is part of that. Especially with the current national situation. I don’t want to deny your convictions.”

It was an unbelievably heavy consideration for Naya. To forego surgery for the chance to fight, but perhaps give up recovery by the war’s end; or to surrender the Raktapata and her place in Vijaya for good, but lead something of a normal life by the end of the war.

If there was an end to the war; if after her retreat, her comrades managed to win.

Naya started to tear up again. For the first time, she thought ‘what am I?’ and it was not just a child’s aesthetic considerations, not just a dream for tomorrow. It was a heavy and troubling adult decision that would indelibly shape her. Could she be happy knowingly abandoning the battle? Could she be happy knowingly abandoning her health?

“Doctors are not supposed to do harm.” Dr. Kappel said. “But all the time, Doctors in Nocht did harm to me by treating me the way society expected me to be treated, and not how I felt I should. Naya, you’re the only one who can decide your future. It need not be now. I will schedule your injection. You will have time to think. Take that time.”

Naya stared at the doctor, tears flowing down her cheeks, her nose dripping.

She grinned, the same little shithead grin she gave for her joke about the toys.

“We should race sometime.” She said.

Dr. Kappel laughed. “We had such a heartfelt rapport, and now you want to bully me?”

“How bad were your times on the track, doctor?” Naya said, her voice choking up a bit.

“Oh dreadful. When I fled here I thought I could beat the fields like I did in college. My hormones must have ruined my running. But it was worth it to look as good as I do.”

She struck a little pose, sitting with one leg over the other and wearing a fox-like smile.

Naya clapped. “You look lovely.” The hormone stuff flew over her head.

“Thank you. For that, I’ll open up a spot for you this weekend.”

Dr. Kappel produced a clipboard and put Naya’s name down on it.

“Give yourself some time, Naya, before you decide permanently. As long as you can walk, you can still come back here.” Dr. Kappel said, handing her the clipboard. “It’s your future. Find a way to live it without regrets. I know you can do it. I did it myself.”

Naya took the clipboard and signed next to her name. She nodded, still weeping.

As she handed it back, and brushed the doctor’s gentle hand, she thought that Dr. Kappel was very strong. She was starting to feel the admiration that she saw in Leander’s face.


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