This chapter contains abrasive language, awkward social situations, mild nudity and sexual content, brief and mild ableism, and mild comedic injury.
11th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E
Solstice, Armaments Hill — Sickle Airfield
Captain Sheba was running late. She had hoped they could have lunch at noon, but Homa’s predicament and all the resulting running around meant their plans were quite delayed. Despite this, she had one more stop she absolutely needed to make. With Homa in tow, Sheba navigated the interior of the base, crossing a few hallways before ending up in a small T-shaped dead end in the tunnels. There were several offices there.
“This is my office, where I do all my paperwork.”
Sheba took a key from her jacket and opened the door. “Want to come in?”
“I’m hungry.” Homa moaned.
“We’ll get you food, I promise. I want us all to eat together. I just need one quick thing.”
Past the door the office was dark. Since it was underground, it could only be lit if the electric switch was flipped on. There were mounds of dark shapes everywhere inside the gloom. Sheba would have to clean up before someone saw her office in all its fully lit ruin. Presently, however, she merely crouched and picked up her mail from the floor. Someone had dropped something very valuable through the mail slot.
She picked up the file folder, fingered it open, and scrolled past a few pages.
It was a file for Homa Baumann, scheduled to be delivered soon after her arrival.
“Alright, we’re ready. I’ll take you to the mess.”
Homa did not get a look at what Sheba picked up, so she made no comment.
She followed Sheba dutifully through the halls, the Captain reading the file and trying not to make any obvious expression. There were some impressive things in the file that Sheba would surely want to bring up later. Regional labor awards for crop dusting, then some military accomplishments, escort missions in the early Solstice War, aircraft tests–
Soon they passed by the officer’s mess. Sheba closed the file and turned to face Homa.
“How are you feeling? Be honest, we can save the introductions for later if you’re tired.”
“I feel like dying.” Homa moaned.
She craned her head and then sighed. “But I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Let’s just get all this over with.” Homa said.
Sound came out of her like she was deflating.
Sheba disliked her attitude, but she felt a similar desire to settle back into normalcy.
Records really did not tell the whole story. To think this irritable girl was a big hero.
“I see. Let’s get you some food. We can take it to the hangar and eat with everyone.”
Sheba had planned on this meeting from the beginning, but knowing her group, they probably ate all their own food already the instant the Captain ventured out of their sight. At any rate, at least Homa would get to sit down with everyone. The sooner Homa was integrated into the unit, the sooner Vulture could get back to their training.
Both the messes had the same layout, a lunch line accompanied by long row tables with ordinary chairs. The only difference was the size: the mess for the enlisted and non-commissioned soldiers was much larger, while the officer’s mess was smaller and more intimate in a certain sense. Air Forces Colonel Fareed often talked to the entire room from the head of the central table, his loud, deep voice carrying through the hall.
Ranks had been in a confused state during the start of the war. Demilitarization meant things like a Sergeant commanding a whole company could reasonably happen, so the idea of enlisted and commissioned personnel was thrown into chaos. After the regime change in Solstice, the traditional military structure was restored. The idea of Officer’s messes was not meant to give them privilege — everyone had the same food — but to acknowledge that the Officers had to work more closely together than the enlisted personnel. Captain Sheba needed to be in conversation with the other Captains, to schedule training and the use of certain equipment, to make handshake agreements on guard and cleaning duty, to share experiences, to coordinate joint exercises, and so on.
Soldiers like hers, like Anada and Sayyid, did not have such cooperation with the fellows in the other Squadrons. Perhaps they should have, but that was out of Sheba’s hands.
So they got to eat at the big mess where nobody had to acknowledge each other.
Presently, though, there was only one other duo eating in the mess.
The officer who had been escorting Homa, Benali, sat at the far end of one table, chatting excitedly with a rather handsome woman officer. Sheba thought of asking Homa if she wanted to call on her officer, but she got a good look at the other woman and decided against it. Her dark, olive-brown hair, half done-up with a ribbon and half down, and her bespectacled olive face were distinctive in the base; Sheba wanted nothing to do with it.
“Hey, lets not chat with them. Benali’s really tedious.” Homa urged.
“Good idea. Lets get our food and go quickly.” Sheba said.
Homa blinked at her. “Wow, Benali already made that bad an impression?”
She grinned as though she had uncovered some strange little treasure.
Sheba shook her head. “No, it’s that woman. Flight Instructor Zakkari.”
“Oh? What’s her issue?”
Sheba did not want to trot out all the gossip nor what she’d personally seen.
“She’s had some indecent interactions around the base.”
Homa once more put on a little grin like she was squirreling away a jewel into her hoard.
“Keep it between us, okay? Just don’t start to fancy her.”
“Ah. Roger. Not my type anyway.”
Homa chuckled to herself, bearing her fangs in delight.
Sheba led Homa to the lunch-line and handed her a feeding tray. Homa fiddled with her cuff, Sheba scarcely noticed what she was doing, but in the next instant the fingers on her one gloved hand were able to grasp the tray. There was a special counter along the wall with several pots from which food could be scooped up onto their trays. She was surprised to find a young girl manning the lunch counter instead of one of the older food service ladies. This was fortunate in a way. This girl, who knew nobody, made no ruckus.
All of the other lunch ladies would dismay at Sheba’s weight and beg her to eat more and put on a show that would have attracted unwanted attention. Thankfully, Benali and Zakkari were getting along so well that they seemed to be in their own world, chatting up a storm, touching each other’s hands, and laughing and gesticulating. Sheba thought she could maintain stealth just a little longer and decided to satisfy her curiosity.
“Say, are you new? Our lunch ladies are usually twice your age, and twice as big.”
Homa grumbled openly and averted her gaze.
“Um, I’m a volunteer, from the secondary school.” said the lunch girl.
“Oh! That’s neat. Thank you for your service, comrade.” Sheba said.
“Thanks.” Homa said, rolling her eyes.
Sheba wondered whether the old lunch ladies were working a job a teenager couldn’t.
Despite her age the lunch girl was adept with her many spoons and serving instruments, and soon the two officers had their trays full of carefully laid food and bread. Ayvartan-style trays even had a cup-holder slot in a corner for a paper cup of lassi, juice or water. It made it all the more convenient to carry the trays outside the mess and take their food elsewhere. In their case, they took the trays out to the runway and hangars, promising to return them before the day was out. An irregular request, but one casually overlooked.
Out on the runway the afternoon sun seemed to loom higher yet closer, visibly overhead. In the distance the heat rippled and distorted the surroundings. There was activity everywhere, but anyone outside in the sun was hurrying to the shadow of a plane, an anti-aircraft pillbox or the interior of a hangar or barracks. There were a half-dozen planes taking off, and a dozen more lined up outside a few of the hangars and awaiting their turn to fly. Sickle’s aircraft squadrons were divided up into training, patrol and mixed units: those that exclusively flew training exercises, those that exclusively flew out seeking enemy presence, and those that did some of both. Vulture was a mixed unit.
Sheba recognized the planes zooming past her as the aces, Ibis squad. Ibis were the base’s professional pilots, the patrol squad that flew every day. Their aircraft were recently repainted a ruddy brown with beige streaks. Everyone on Sickle was flying the Garuda I-bis, an improvement on the stock Garuda I. In 2030 the Air Force was mostly equipped with the Anka biplane, but tragic amounts of these aircraft and their pilots had been lost in the hundred days or so of war that had raged in 2030. Garuda Is existed alongside these Anka. Garuda I monoplanes were massive improvements in every way, but despite being fully in production, they never replaced the huge stocks of Ankas, and worse, the demilitarization era air force mostly trained people in biplane flight anyway.
Many Garuda I were shot on the ground in 2030, uncrewed and poorly maintained.
There were rays of hope however. While the Anka were being bullied in the air, Ayvarta proved its mettle in a few battles with the Garuda II. This next generation craft was starting production, largely for the nation’s growing naval aviation in its two aircraft carriers. It was used in many difficult missions like the end of the battle of Bada Aso.
Sickle had no Garuda IIs just yet; instead their upgraded Garuda I-bis had some of the advanced characteristics of the II, like their stronger engine and more robust internals and weapons. However, the airframes lacked the lighter streamlined design of the II.
Whenever she dwelt too much on the sight of the machines, the Captain’s mind was overcome by a newly embittered way of thinking. Sheba’s old instructor had once said that hardware is never the whole story, and that the skill of the pilot is the ultimate determining factor. Seeing Ankas smashed in the sky by Nochtish Archers made Sheba question such things as perhaps naive. But she also knew that the beloved Ibis squadron, flying Garuda Is, could certainly fly circles around any enemy H. 27 AL-9 Archer.
She thought she saw a girl wave at her from an open canopy and smiled to herself.
“Garuda I’s huh?” Homa said aloud.
“One-bis.” Sheba corrected her.
Homa narrowed her eyes at the planes. Now that Ibis squadron had taken off, Kestrel squadron’s planes began to move into the runway one by one. They were the second professional squadron that patrolled wherever Ibis was not. Homa scoffed at them.
“My plane should get here soon. There’s no point in me flying a ‘One’ so don’t ask me to.”
“What’s with you?” Sheba started to say this aloud but mostly murmured it by the end.
Hangar 13 then came into view.
Sheba heard a rumbling and whirring coming from inside.
The Hangar doors were closed. Sayyid was outside painting, but what was the noise?
She felt like her heart would explode from her chest.
She could not imagine what was happening but she feared nonetheless.
Sheba took off into a run, and Homa cried out in protest, not ready to follow.
When the captain entered the side door of the hangar she breathed a sigh of relief.
Anada, Malik and Mannan were together, safe and alive but standing around an aircraft engine, taken from the wreck, that they had fueled and rigged up on a gurney. As the cut-down propellers in the front spun out and the engine revved it produced an ungodly noise and white fumes. A pair of standing fans blew out all of the smoke through the back window. Oil was slowly leaking from its underside onto a pile of shotgun starters.
On a metal plate sitting atop the engine and gathering up heat, were several covered trays likely containing all of their food. When Sheba burst in they all stared at her.
Sheba went red in the face.
“What are all of you doing?”
She nearly dropped her tray, she shouted so loud. She shouted with her whole body.
In her mind’s eye, all of them had been hurt or killed in some stupid accident.
She felt embarrassed and angry, with them and with herself for being so paranoid.
Her tight self-control slipped for that moment and everyone was confused.
Behind her, Homa wandered into the hangar, sweating, an irritated look on her face.
After a moment’s silence, Sheba finally got an answer.
“Uh. Keeping the food warm?” Anada said.
“You told us we would have lunch by 0100, but you took so long.” Mannan added.
Sheba sighed. For once they were doing what they were told, just in an annoying way.
That was all. It was not that they had hurt themselves.
It was not that, let out of her sight for a crucial instant, they had been taken from her too.
Feeling ever more disappointed herself for her brief meltdown, Sheba raised her voice.
“Turn off that engine and introduce yourselves!” She demanded.
Mannan shrugged and pulled on a small lever that killed the engine.
This cleansed the environment of the noise and smell, and made the hangar habitable.
Sheba stepped aside and urged Homa to come forward in front of everybody.
Speaking to Homa, she moderated her voice again and tried to be inviting.
“Sayyid is outside, so I’ll introduce you later. For now, these jokers will have to do.”
Homa dragged her feet the few steps she needed to cast a disinterested gaze at the group.
“I’m Lieutenant Kibiza Mannan. Flight Leader of Vulture-2, Callsign Dmitri. Greetings.”
Mannan moved forward, removed a pair of gloves and stretched out a hand to Homa. She was no longer wearing her dress uniform. Instead she was dressed in a suit of worker’s coveralls with the chest zipped down and the sleeves hanging from her sides. She was thankfully also wearing a covering combat brassiere with it. All of her clothing was slightly grease-spotted, and she had a net over her hair that she also took off.
Out of all them, Mannan had the most womanly figure, and it was a sharp contrast between the bold beauty and the angular, somewhat short pilot across from her.
Sheba nodded her head at Homa, trying to signal for her to open up a bit.
Homa responded with both hands. Her biological hand fiddled with the controls while she stretched her metal hand to Mannan’s, and its fingers opened and closed over hers.
They exchanged a strong shake in this odd fashion, then her hand released Mannan’s.
Mannan stepped closer, and Homa drew back, but not in time to avoid her.
With a girlishly excited expression, Mannan carelessly grabbed Homa’s arm and pulled back the sleeve, revealing the ring cuff around the artificial leather sleeve covering the mechanisms of her prosthetic arm. This cuff contained a series of tiny lever controls.
“This is fascinating!” Mannan said. “I can scarcely believe we’ve come this far.”
“Hey, don’t touch it!”
Homa pulled back her hand.
Sheba stepped forward, arms crossed.
“Mannan, you oaf! Would you do something like that to anyone else?”
All of her crew were so coarse; she could not let such moments pass without correction.
Mannan seemed to realize her mistake and looked bashfully down at Homa.
“Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, I just got excited.” Mannan said.
“Ask for permission next time.” Homa said. “This is part of my body. Don’t just touch it.”
“Understood. I’m terribly sorry.”
Mannan bowed deeply. Homa sighed and averted her gaze. “Whatever.”
“I’m also doubling as a mechanic right now, so if you need anything fixed–”
“I have my own mechanic.” Homa said. “They probably won’t let you touch my plane.”
Mannan looked at her with surprise, and stepped back, embarrassed.
Sheba ordered the next person to introduce themselves.
Out stepped one of the younger two pilots, Lt. Malik, who was slender and fit and had a slightly vacant expression. Instead of her dress uniform she wore a pair of pants and a white shirt that was already a bit sweaty. “I’m Haritha Malik. Lieutenant. Flight Leader Vulture-3. Callsign Vasily. I uh, well, I played football in primary and secondary school.”
“I played the mandatory amount in school.” Homa said. Her voice was void of emotion. Sheba thought she must have been making the most perfunctory effort to relate.
For her part, Malik was trying to be friendly. “Oh, what position were you?”
“Goalie.” Homa said flatly.
“You know what they say: the goalie watches the game for free!”
Malik smiled. Homa’s frown deepened.
For a moment the two quietly stared at one another.
Malik turned right around and retreated with an awkward face.
Captain Sheba could not imagine things going any worse, but it was nearly over.
Of course, the worst had yet to come.
Finally the lively catkin at the back of the group came forward and piled on the cheer for Homa. She was wearing some of her dress uniform still. Her knee-length skirt and her button-down white shirt and tie were all part of the uniform. She was missing the jacket and hat. Her hair was down, her lips smiling, and her cat-like ears twitched inquisitively.
“I’m Lieutenant Avana Anada! Wingman, Vulture-3! Callsign Gregory! I’m Vulture Squadron’s ‘Queen of the Skies!’ It’s such a pleasure to meet someone as cute as–”
Homa stepped forward without a word and delivered a swift kick to Anada’s shin.
Anada immediately toppled over, falling to the ground and holding her foot.
“Ahh! Why?” She cried out. Malik and Mannan stared without sympathy.
“That’s for making fun of me earlier.” Homa said brusquely.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Agh it hurts! It’s like your foot’s made of metal!”
Crying on the ground, Anada’s pathetic gaze met Homa’s merciless eyes.
“That one was made of metal. This one is not–” Homa reared back.
“Homa, stop!” Sheba said, covering her face with frustration. “Anada, apologize.”
“I said I’m sorry!” Anada cried, rubbing her stricken shin. “I was just teasing her before!”
“By calling me a Panda? When I fell down? What even is a Panda?”
Homa raised her voice and put her foot back down.
“Your teasing can go too far. Think about what Homa must have felt.” Sheba replied.
“A Panda’s a bear.” Malik said. Nobody paid her any attention.
Had Anada not completely deserved the kick, Sheba would have disciplined Homa too. Though Sheba did not want to start allowing the Vultures to fight, Homa was new and clearly the victim. For Anada it was probably just amusingly cute, when Homa was humiliated in front of her and her appearance was made fun of. However, Homa might have spent much of her life being called names for her appearance. Animal names could be especially upsetting; Anada most of all should have known to be sensitive about that.
Perhaps she was being overcautious, but everything had to be perfect from now on.
They could not afford to let their various dysfunctions bring down the whole squad.
This was a critical juncture. Homa had really stepped in at a bad time. But she had to.
“Let us all forget this ever happened and start over, okay? We need to cooperate.”
Everyone had heard this spiel before, but Sheba felt she must say it anyway.
Homa sighed, in perhaps the first show of contrition Sheba had seen from her.
“That’s all I ever wanted to have happen.” Homa said wistfully.
“Then why did you kick me?” Anada shouted up from the floor.
“Like I said, we’re starting over.” Sheba said. “That goes for all of you. Homa is our new comrade, and all of us are going to make her feel at home and look out for her.”
Everyone was staring at her skeptically, even Homa.
Truly, this introduction could not have gone worse. It was an unmitigated disaster.
“From this point on, we let bygones be bygones. Let’s start lunch.”
Sheba said this one last time and everyone hung their heads for a moment.
Despite the rough start everyone was soon cooperating nicely. There was something about sharing a meal that brought together even the oddest people. Once Sheba got them to move the airplane engine out of the way, everyone opened the hangar doors and all of the windows. They set the food down and sat in a circle on a bed made of soft mats that mechanics laid on the floor when they were working under a piece of equipment.
Homa had to fiddle with her leg a little, but she did manage to sit with everyone.
Everyone had stewed yellow lentils and several pieces of flat or round bread, the staples, as well as two other meal items and a desert item. Sheba got khichdi, a dish of lentils and rice stewed in creamed greens, as well as fried cheese in a thick tomato and cream gravy. She liked the soft vegetable dishes, and she always got extra bread. Out of all of them, only Sayyid and Anada ate meat. Anada had roasted chicken and big samosa with her.
“Please eat more vegetables.” Sheba told her.
“There’s peas and potato in the samosa.” Anada said in a matter-of-fact voice.
“I want to see greens on that plate soon. Like that.”
Sheba pointed to Mannan’s plate. Aside from her lentils and bread she had a chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and chillies. Though everything seemed moist and fresh, glistening as it was with lemon dressing, in reality almost all the vegetables in Solstice were either dried or came from cans brought from Jomba. Ayvartan cuisine was good at transforming such things, however. There were so many curries, gravies and stews that no dried food could stay dry, nor could any “canned taste” survive in it.
“Everyone’s picking on me today.” Anada said, her tail standing up straight.
“We don’t want you to die from scurvy.” Malik said. Her own plate had pureed greens and a slab of seitan cutlet with a red sauce spooned over it. She also got extra bread. Sheba thought Malik had little room to talk about vegetable consumption herself, but at least she ate greens, and she also did more physical training than anyone else.
Anada stuck her tongue out. “So how’s the greenhorn’s plate looking– oh my god.”
Homa’s dishes were similar to the others, a vegetable curry and a cheese dish. For Sheba, however, they had become unrecognizable. Because while everyone else was mixing their bread into their wet dishes, what Homa had been doing was pouring bright red hot sauce over everything to a truly frightening degree. Her green curry was turning yellow, and the chili oil in the hot sauce was glistening heavily over the paneer swimming in it.
Everyone watched as Homa dipped her bread in the hot sauce magma that had become of her curry, and then took a bite out of it. Her jaw trembled, but she kept eating.
“Homa, what are you doing?” Sheba asked. “Your stomach’s going to melt!”
“I can take it.” Homa said, her eyes tearing up and the pale parts of her face reddening.
“Besides the fact that it’ll kill you, that’s really wasteful, you know?” Mannan said, tapping on the hot sauce bottle in Homa’s prosthetic hand. “That 80 milliliter hot sauce bottle should last you almost forty servings at the recommended serving size.”
Malik and Anada stared at Mannan. Homa quietly ate a big spoonful of volcanic paneer.
“She’s right, you know.” Sheba said. “Those bottles are rationed. It’s in fact a privilege you can have one at all. I’ll let you have mine if you promise not to eat like that anymore.”
Homa turned an irritated expression on Sheba and nodded in a stiff, unfriendly way.
There was a bit more small talk about the food. Whenever anyone tried to turn the conversation on Homa, however, she met them with an iron wall of silence and a disinterested glare. Sheba started to reach out and flick her fingers at Homa’s shoulder every time happened as if to say ‘come on, do better.’ Homa scarcely responded.
Finally the conversation turned naturally from foods to food regions, since Mannan was trying to school Anada on the rich produce of Jomba and its benefits. And of course, everyone eventually became curious as to the origins of their mysterious hot sauce girl.
“So Homa, give us something.” Mannan asked. “Where did you come from?”
It was with a great sigh and a dramatic show of effort that Homa responded.
“I was born in Jomba, but I was in Dbagbo when the war started.” She said.
“You ever fly a plane before?” Anada asked, plucking a piece of chicken with her fingers.
“I was a crop-duster in my teens.” Homa said.
Mannan whistled. “So you flew pretty young, huh?”
“Did you fly any combat missions before?” Malik suddenly asked.
Everyone gave her a look as if she was steering the conversation wrong.
To Homa, however, it seemed as if all conversation topics were equally annoying and none was more offensive than the other. Sheba thought she looked unbothered by it.
“Only escort missions. I did fly in combat during the Cissean war.” She replied.
Homa stuffed her mouth full of oily, burning bread as if to avoid the next question.
At that point, Sheba felt it was a good time to use some of what she had learned and advocate for the new pilot. She wanted her to integrate, after all. And she wasn’t doing it!
“Homa might look a bit young, but she’s 23 years old and has a sterling record.” Sheba said. “Several recorded kills, proficiency with all aircraft types. She’s a real ace.”
There were a few gasps and some blinking eyes that were thrown Homa’s way.
So surprised that her eyes seemed like they would bulge out of her head, Homa turned around to Sheba and blurted out something. “It’s nothing! Don’t make it a big deal.”
“How do you even know all of that? I thought she was new.” Anada said.
“I read her file. She’s new to us, new to Solstice, but not new to planes.” Sheba said.
“Well, I look forward to your instruction, upperclassman.” Anada said, putting on a teasing expression and brushing her fingers gently against Homa’s shoulder.
“My instruction won’t help if you die of scurvy, furball.” Homa said.
Homa picked up a canned lime wedge that had been part of the condiment ration for her meal and flicked it at Anada. It hit her nose and slid down her lips onto her chicken.
She silently picked it up and put it to the side of her plate.
Eventually the teasing and laughing at Anada died down and everyone emptied their plates over some more small talk. With drinks of lassi, fruit juice and cold tea in hand the vultures reclined and relaxed. Homa barely said anything nor acknowledged anyone, but Sheba thought she at least seemed less ill at ease, or more resigned to her current fate. Homa put her back to an empty drum and watched the rest of the group with an empty expression. Everyone else got along in their typical way. Anada was again chattiest of all.
“So who is everyone voting for in the election? We got a few reps for this district.”
“Voting’s this soon? I completely forgot.” Malik said.
“What’s going on in that head of yours all the time, honestly?” Anada crossed her arms, went ‘tsk, tsk,’ and put on her best ‘I am educating you‘ voice. “We’re going to the polls on-base on the 13th, so don’t forget it. We even get to vote for the Adjar council member.”
“Even Solstice folk can?” Malik asked.
Malik came from Adjar and seemed to think the voting for the councilors-in-exile was going to be done on the basis of refugee status. However, the government had decided to assign the councilors-in-exile to various districts and have anyone there able to vote for them. Sheba figured they were trying to make it easy on themselves so they would not have to single out the refugees. Sheba herself was from Shaila, so she would not be voting for her own province’s councilors-in-exile. Since the district housing Armaments Hill, her current residence, was assigned the councilors from Adjar instead.
Perhaps they had done things this way because Madiha Nakar’s division, who were mostly Adjaris and had fought decisively in that province, resided in this district too.
Sheba did not particularly mind. This Council was supposed to work for everyone, and would not fall into the regional partisan politics that the old Council had suffered from.
That was the line from the Government, and Sheba trusted it.
After all, they could not afford to have another corrupt and useless Council right now.
“Is anyone promising to increase the hot sauce ration?” Homa asked jokingly.
“Everyone’s promising to increase every soldier ration.” Mannan said.
She sounded exasperated. Many candidates had come to the base to campaign before.
It had put off some people from trying to vote at all. Mannan was one of them.
“Unfortunately, soldiers are easy to campaign to.” Sheba said.
“It just sounds so insincere. Reminds me of my old C.O. Just a bunch of ass-kissing.”
With her history, Mannan had good reason to be wary of political climbers.
Soldiers were several hundred thousand in number and they had issues dear to them that could be targeted as a monolithic bloc, and all the rhetoric flying around through the war centered them. So of course, several candidates for the Council campaigned around making things better for the soldiers. It brought an uneasy feeling to something that should have felt revolutionary. Sheba did not quite like the candidates who made everything about sacrificing for the army’s good. She preferred some of the outliers.
“We’re not supposed to talk about who we’re voting for.” Sheba said.
“Blind ballots are overrated. I think I’m voting for that Walters girl. She sounds nice. I like that idea she’s got for cultural exchange programs between the provinces.”
Anada put on a big smile and shut her eyes as if imagining what that would be like.
“Everyone should be able to travel at least sometimes. See all of the nation’s beauty!”
“Isn’t that just another a freebie you’re being promised?” Malik asked.
“It’s not the same as just getting more hot sauce or meat. I think it’s visionary.”
“I’d like to see someone campaign on updating the trams.” Mannan said.
“You’re all so dreamless.” Anada said. “As a worldly traveler myself, I appreciate Representative Walter’s vision for a more connected Ayvarta. Breakfast in Rangda, Lunch in Solstice, Dinner in Jomba! Can you imagine the culture that could arise?”
“All of that is physically impossible.” Mannan replied.
Anada vacated the political conversation right there and then and turned to Homa.
Homa gave her an adversarial look but Anada seemed to ignore it.
“Homa, I bet you’re dying to know why a lush, curvy beauty like myself, would be in a joint like this? Why someone with my imagination, charm and culture would be among these louts?” Anada said, running her hands down her belly and hips. “Aren’t you?”
“Not one bit.” Homa replied.
Again Anada ignored Homa and hugged herself, pouting and put on quite a physical drama. “I said before that I’m a traveler, and I meant it. I left my home of Solstice and all of my people behind in search of the arts. Though born in the desert, I dreamed of the stars! Before the war started, I was far away from home, in the beautiful port city of Rangda. I had hoped to attend Rangda University, and become a theater actress!”
“Huh?” Sheba looked at her. She hadn’t heard this story before. “This is new.”
“Yes, I’m baring my heart and soul to you, Homa. I wanted the golden beams of the spotlight, the red cascade of the curtains, and the thunder of an applauding crowd!” Anada said. “However, I simply could not turn my back on my country when the war started and the college, unfortunately, shut down and left me in the cold. So I enlisted!”
Sheba thought she must have enlisted to remain away from the tribe she ran from.
Though perhaps Anada was already more a city-slicker than an indigen to begin with, given that she had enough ‘culture’ to want to become a theater actress to start. She also seemed to know a lot of stories one wouldn’t find in the desert. Far too many of them.
“Did any of you hear this before?” Mannan asked, casting a suspicious eye on Anada.
Malik raised her hand. “She’s told me this story before, but for uh, other reasons.”
Mannan seemed even more confused now than she was before.
“Can any of you guess why I decided to join the air forces specifically?” Anada said.
She again ignored everyone’s skepticism and confusion and was continuing her act.
“I think I have an idea.” Sheba exhaled with a bit of frustration. “But do go on.”
Anada puffed her chest up with encouragement.
“At first I thought about the infantry, perhaps even the noble cavalry, but I simply could not bear the ignominy of the frontal assaults in vogue at the start of this war. Hearing tales of men running at machine guns to their deaths, it sounded too tragic!”
“Those are all exaggerations!” Sheba said. “Don’t go disrespecting our infantry!”
Her Captain’s visible anger caused Anada’s ears and tail to stand on end.
“Besides, the only part of it that’d give you pause is the running itself.” Malik said.
“How rude! Here I am, making myself vulnerable to our precious new comrade–”
Mannan raised her hand to interrupt. “The Air Force has the least PT requirements.”
Sheba put her hands up over her face. Malik’s eyes brightened. “I knew it!” She said.
Anada started turning beet red. “Why I never! No! It’s because of the beautiful machines, the chariots ferrying us through the skies free as birds! It’s the poetic nature of flight!”
“I’m just sayin’, I wouldn’t like the 40-hour a week PT the Army’s up to.” Mannan said.
She shrugged and put her hands behind her head, reclining against the engine gurney.
There was a look on Anada’s face that suggested she agreed but could not admit it.
“I think it would be funny if I exploded in a fireball in mid-air. That’s why I joined.”
Homa spoke up and immediately cast a pall over the entire room.
Mannan gave her a concerned stare; Anada and Malik exchanged awkward glances.
The Captain’s heart skipped a beat. A horrible sight intruded inside her mind.
Words and images; voicelessly, soundlessly screaming in her mind.
“Don’t joke about that.” Sheba said.
Homa seemed momentarily surprised at their reactions, but then wrapped her arms around her knees and put her face out of sight. This brought on a deafening silence.
Soon, the little gathering broke up.
All the current Vultures had things to do and Homa had to get situated.
Everyone exchanged pleasantries as they parted, but there was a clear friction in the air.
As Homa followed her to the barracks, Captain Sheba didn’t want to look back at her.
There was a brief dinner in the Officer’s Mess that was mostly unattended by any actual officers. Not even Benali was there anymore. It was just Homa and Sheba staring past each other, toying with vegetables at the end of their forks for thirty minutes.
Though both welcomed the quiet, it was all rather depressing.
All day long Homa had felt irritable. Beginning with the oil dilemma, the awkward shower, and the noisy little lunch, everything seemed like a punishment. What’s more, her behavior was all over the place and she herself knew it. She had wanted to put on the first impression that she was a mysterious distant loner who could not be messed with or ordered around. She did not know how well her new leaf had turned.
Her leg stump was sore. She was shifting her weight onto it a lot.
When she did it too much it rubbed up hard against the metal prosthetic’s base.
Doing this hurt. Perhaps she did it specifically because it hurt.
Homa grit her teeth.
It was because of her emotions, her stupid, out of control emotions.
She should have been nothing but a weapon! Instead she was on the verge of crying.
She wanted to punch herself or put her head against the wall out of frustration.
Thankfully she managed enough not to do any of those things.
Instead, she followed the Captain around all day, getting a tour of the facilities, doing this and that. Her plane failed to arrive, so it was not like she could be of any use yet.
At some point, she had let slip the wrong thing to the Captain, and so the strict, elegant, ponytailed girl was cold and silent. She spoke curtly and quickly and had found an economy of words that was clearly not natural to her. Homa did not begrudge her.
After all, Homa hated herself so it was only natural everyone hate her too.
As night fell, and it became evident they shared a room and would have to cooperate closely, the Captain seemed to come to some understanding with herself. She started to meet Homa’s gaze again — and Homa always made a point to stare directly into the eyes of people she thought were avoiding her. In front of the bedroom door, she handed Homa a key, ushered her in, removed a plaque from the door and pocketed the object.
“Welcome home.” Sheba said. “Pilots share bunk rooms, but officers get bedrooms.”
Homa cast a brief glance around the room. It was not much of a privilege. The only difference from a bunk room was its relative privacy. Instead of twelve or sixteen people there were only two, each with a plain, spartan bed and a dresser. That was all.
Sheba took a deep breath, audible in the silence of the underground base.
“Homa, I know this probably sounds insincere, but if something’s wrong, I want to help.”
That was quite a thing to say from the person who had been avoiding her for half the day and who had been bothering her and bossing her around for the other half. Still Homa did not think it was insincere now. On the contrary, its sincerity is what bothered her.
Captain Sheba’s face had a gloom over it that was rather annoying.
Nobody should become invested in her. Nobody should want to help her.
That could only be bad for them.
She had hoped to create an aura around herself in this new venue that would keep these people from imprinting on her. Clearly she failed. She had been too erratic and pitiful.
“I don’t need help. I just need to be left alone a little more.” Homa said.
“In my experience that does the opposite of helping.” Sheba said.
“You said we’d start over, so lets start. I’m Homa Baumann.”
Homa reached out a hand. Surprised, Captain Sheba shook it.
“I’m Sahana Sheba.” said the Captain. “So what does this mean now?”
“Forget I said anything, and just act like nothing’s happening.”
Homa pulled off her jacket and pulled down her pants until she was wearing only her brassiere and her thin white underwear shorts. She was quite able to relax in the combat-issue bra, with its wide, sturdy straps and a uniform cup with just enough compression and lift. It was like wearing the only necessary part of a tanktop shirt.
“I’m going to bed.” Homa said.
Without her shirt and pants, the black leather sleeves covering her prosthetic arm and leg were visible. Around the end of her severed leg and arm there were circular fasteners that kept the sleeves attached. Inside the sleeve of her arm there were a few mechanisms that allowed her false hand to assume different positions, controlled by levers on her cuff. Her leg was far simpler and stiffer, basically a base to put weight on.
It could bend if she loosened a bolt on the side, which she would do in order to sit.
“Homa, listen, I’d like if we could talk–”
“I’m going to bed.”
Homa loosened her prosthetics and hid under her blanket.
Sheba looked disappointed in the exchange but said nothing more.
She dropped into bed herself in her shirt and tights, and switched the lights off to sleep.
There was a soft whirring in the room from a blower unit bringing in cooler air.
Homa waited about an hour before donning her jacket, buttoning it up, sticking her leg stump on the prosthetic’s base and screwing it tight, and then sneaking pants-less, barefoot and arm-less out of bed and across the room. She snuck around Sheba, and picked up the little plaque from her jacket pocket and then carefully slid out the door.
Her leg made a little noise, but Homa found she could silence it by sliding it on smooth floors. Because the underside of the leather hoof that should have been her “foot” was nice and smooth and had a bit of rubbery ‘give,’ it could be dragged along quietly.
Outside the room, she could read the plaque. “Captain Tika Shurelis.”
That must have been the person Homa replaced. Owner of that one wrecked plane.
Did Sheba succeed her as Captain?
Homa pocketed the plaque and felt a hint of sympathy and regret just then.
Everyone was asleep, but there were dim lights on in the hallway, since everything was underground and without some illumination there would have been pandemonium (or a shortage of portable torches) if anyone had to go to the bathroom, or if anyone was working late. The hallway was lined with officer’s bedrooms and some facilities.
Keeping wary of guards, Homa descended the halls, mentally retracing her steps.
Homa froze, thinking she was caught.
However, the sharp exhalation she heard did not result in a surprised guard coming behind her and grabbing her. It had been drawn out of a woman in an adjacent room.
Smiling to herself, Homa put her head to a nearby door and held her breath.
That cry was followed by breathing, moaning and a bed creaking.
Consulting her mental map of the hallway gave her some fleeting, puerile glee.
This was Benali’s room wasn’t it?
Perhaps now Benali and Zakkari’s room?
She was not about to check the plaques and risk making noise, but it was a funny idea.
Homa chuckled to herself.
Perhaps this was the indecent base activity of that Zakkari lady — done right on top of that vapid snob Benali. Who would have thought she was so easy? Lunch to bed in a day?
Filing this moment in storage for the future, Homa slipped away from the officer’s halls.
She found the ramp leading up to the runways and the airfield blacktop. There was a single guard posted, yawning as he marched, rifle in hand, up and down the ramp.
Homa put on the friendliest expression she could. She was a little cute, wasn’t she?
Plus, she had remembered to bring a trump card with her in her jacket.
Soon as she revealed herself, the guard paused. His half-open eyes twitched.
Homa produced an emergency bar from her pocket — buttery chocolate and oats.
“Peace offering?” She said.
The Guard blinked at her. He took the bar. “I admit I’m half asleep, but you’re really distinctive, you know. If you do anything untoward I’ll know who to rat out.”
He motioned past the ramp with his rifle, and Homa went on her way.
She walked up the ramp in time for four planes to charge onto the runway before her and out into the night. The air torn in their wake blew Homa’s hair back. There were several searchlights and their crews practicing night detection. A series of small reflectors along the edge of the runway made the asphalt look delineated by light.
Overhead the sky was dark blue and cloudless, but she could not see stars.
There was too much light pollution to make out anything. Still, the deep blue was pretty.
Homa took a deep breath. There was a faint smell of smoke, but at least it did not smell as mechanical as the air in the underground barracks. She had felt trapped in there.
Some part of her really, truly, yearned to be flying again. To be flying with purpose.
Even if only for the chance to scream into immortality.
“Hey, is that you? Homa?”
Behind her, Homa heard approaching footsteps.
She half-turned and looked over her shoulder. From farther down the runway came Lt. Malik, dressed in a tanktop and a pair of pants, her hair tied in a short tail. She was running, and broke into a faster run after calling out. When she neared Homa, she came to a stop and bent over, holding her knees and breathing heavily. Sweat dripped down her forehead. Up close and with the light from the hangars, Homa could see that Malik’s shirt was quite wet around her chest and along her flanks. She glistened with sweat.
“Are you ok? What are you doing out here this late? Where’s your arm?” Malik asked.
“I’m fine. My arm’s back inside. Are you ok? You look terrible.” Homa said.
“Gee, thanks.” Malik said. She laughed between breaths. “I’ve been running; 40th lap.”
“Gotta get stronger.” Malik said. She smiled a little. “Can’t keep letting people down.”
“If you say so.”
“Wanna run with me– ah. Sorry. I ask everyone that.”
Malik looked down at Homa’s leg.
“I could run, but it’d be slower than you and make me a little sore.” Homa said.
“Well, I bet you could do some killer pull-ups with that arm then.”
“I really couldn’t.” Homa said.
“Ah. Sorry. I’m kind of an idiot, I guess.”
She was almost amused with Malik. She seemed like the humblest person in Vulture.
Somewhere across the runway a vehicle repeatedly blared a very loud horn.
Malik snapped up and turned her eyes to the road at the opposite end of the airfield.
Homa cast a disinterested glance and then fully turned, recognizing the truck coming in.
A massive, flat-bed transporter drove past, its cargo bundled under cables and cloth.
Only a bit of the motorjet engine was visible along the back, if one knew what to look for.
Here came the marvelous and mysterious JTB — Jet Tester “Bennu.”
Homa watched the transporter bringing her plane in with a small smile.
“Ah well. Looks like I’m finally going to have to be useful, Lieutenant.”
Malik gave her a brief look but kept anything she wanted to say to herself.