This chapter contains crude, sexual humor and awkward social situations.
12th of the Postill’s Dew 2031 DCE
Solstice, Armaments Hill — Sickle Airfield
“I’m a weapon, so I will show no emotion!”
Homa Baumann said this to herself as she tried to confront the environment at the Officer’s Mess early in the morning. There were a few dozen people in attendance, and polite chattering was the background noise to Homa’s every thought and action. Her biological hand reflexively curled into a fist and then uncurled again several times.
Captain Sheba led her into the mess and directed her to sit near the middle of the table, and right next to her. There were two men directly across from them. Benali and her lover were farther up. No one sat beside Homa, and everyone else perched in an unapproachable position. There was no escaping their conversation, however. It was noisy and her inability to follow any one stray line of dialogue frustrated Homa’s brain.
So after taking up her post, Homa voided her face of emotion and cast a dull, aggressively disinterested face at everyone around her. She tried to purge her head of thought and to keep her eyelids from shutting, her lips from quivering. It was as if a mask had unfolded from beneath her very skin and captured into itself any trace of a muscle or sinew in her cheeks, jaw, or forehead. Her face was smooth and unmoving as a toy’s, save for a few instants where the tension of this facade wracked her neck.
This, she told herself, was her fortress in this land of chaos. This was her stand.
“Homa! How lovely of you to join us. I wish you could’ve been around yesterday. We had a fun time! Everybody here is so charming and well-bred! I love city positions!”
From a corner of the table, Benali hailed Homa. She brimmed with energy, her skin glowing, her voice like a song. Homa had never seen her happier than she was then. Beside her, Instructor Zakkari was much more familiar, touching Benali’s hands on the table or even sliding her fingers down her flank whenever she told a joke or gave her a compliment, so they could smile and giggle together like girls. It was quite a display.
“It’s nice to meet you Homa.” Zakkari said. She had a gentle voice, like a siren. “Benali has told me much about you. Your project sounds exciting. I can’t wait to see you fly.”
Knowing the reason for this couple’s good humor, and picturing again in her mind their lewd embrace, Homa’s beautiful, doll-like composure suddenly broke. A fiendish, horrific grin stretched like a scar across her face, and she cackled under her breath. So much for a weapon void of emotions: Homa had become like a gargoyle instead.
Before Zakkari or Benali could think to interrogate that antisocial response, someone else interjected in a confident, booming voice that overtook the chatter of the room.
“Indeed, indeed! Good to meet you at last, little lass.”
Captain Sheba interjected then, as a lanky man at the head of the table addressed them. She took Homa by the shoulders and turned her gently toward the voice.
“Homa, this is Colonel Yazmari Fareed. He is in charge of Sickle Airfield.” She said.
Homa’s smudged porcelain facade did not last even a fraction of a second.
She covered her mouth with her fingers to stifle a goblin-like laugh.
“Heh– Hujambo.” Homa replied, stifling a laugh.
Unbidden, her mind conjured the following description of the Colonel: time-displaced old fop. His hair was curled and slicked in some manner of way, and his uniform was so much more precious than anyone else’s, as if he had made sure he had a tailored coat to wear with appropriate tassels and folds, right out of the imperial period dramas. He was the shiniest person in the room, as if he covered himself in oil. His pencil thin limbs and long, lanky body boasted skin that seemed stretched out over it like a blanket on a pole. This was Homa’s brain at its most brutal, but the Colonel seemed nothing short of ridiculous. She assumed he was at least competent at signing paperwork all day.
“I’m Heh– Homa Baumann.” She added, again masking her laughter.
“So glad to meet you, darling.” Colonel Fareed said. “Your story should be an inspiration to everyone.” Homa felt like a fist had collided with her sternum until the man clarified he meant something far vaguer than what he suggested. “To overcome the obstacle of losing two limbs, and then continue outflying your peers. Marvelous. I dare say, this is socialism in itself. You, Homa, are a sterling example of the matchless talent that can only arise in a society that cares for its sick and injured with as much devotion as ours.”
Homa thought he sounded like he believed her crippling was the sole reason for her flight record now. However she was too full of mockery and contempt to reply peacefully. So she decided not to reply to him at all. Sheba, quiet at her side, looked like she would twitch herself off her chair with nervous energy at any moment.
With the Colonel’s attention soon drawn away, breakfast was finally served. Sheba sighed with relief, and began to handle a little small talk from her own flank. Homa told herself another fiction then. She was tough, aloof, and a master of herself. No matter what, she would not kowtow to all these suck-ups surrounding that ridiculous man.
Once she established herself as a mysterious loner, she would surely be released from these communal inanities. Then she could put her back to a wall and smoke all day.
She did not smoke normally but she would do so if meant some peace and quiet.
From her side, a chirpy voice called out, “Baumann, can I have the hot sauce?”
Homa looked in front of herself and spotted the bottle and mindlessly passed it on.
On the table, the served breakfast was a snapshot at many corners of Ayvartan breakfast food. The central component was a big tray of sweet and savory flatbreads, or rice in big leaves of lettuce for those who preferred that style of eating. For stuffing and dipping their wraps or breads, they had small cups of lentil curry, humus, spinach puree, a sweet fruit and semolina mix, crumbly eggs, and just plain melted butter. There was one cup of chicken curry for the meat eaters among them. And while they normally had yogurt or milk to drink, there was some kind of delivery error and the canteen girl could only serve them watered-down juice made from spare canned fruit.
One partook of the spreads by grabbing either rice stuffed in a leaf or a piece of bread, and then spooning some of the spreads on it, or dipping directly into the cups. This made eating quite communal as the cups of different spreads went around the table. One would receive the cup, spoon the contents onto their bread or wrap, and pass it on. Homa had grabbed the hot sauce early and was sad to part with it. On her bread, she had spinach, eggs and so much butter it dripped right onto her disused plate.
“I’m above all of this, and I don’t care what people think. I go my own way.”
She told herself this as she politely passed the cups and sauces as they landed in front of her, giving them to those who requested. Sheba took a quick glance at her plate.
“Don’t eat too much hot sauce.” Sheba said.
Homa nodded idly and passed the hot sauce up the table once again.
There was nobody more prompt in passing cups. Everyone in attendance would have easily come away with the impression that Homa was a very pure and polite person who could be counted upon to be proper when needed. She acceded quietly to each request made of her, and at the end, even agreed to help Sheba put away the plates.
“Thank you so much Homa. You’re actually quite darling, you know?”
When they returned to the table and sat down again to catch the last of the morning table chatter, it sunk into Homa how much more social she had been than she wanted to. In turn, it struck her how much more social she might have to be from now on too.
Everyone was in their own little groups, walled off from the rest, but Sheba did seem to have a little clique around her with whom she was openly socializing. Homa sighed.
Where had it all gone wrong?
She sank against the table, feeling aggravated with herself and everything.
Homa had gone through two of the stock characters she told herself that she was in order to not care about things, and no more seemed forthcoming. However, this was all known only to herself in the end. Not one soul was putting in the effort to psychoanalyze her, so these vagaries of her personality remained her secret.
Captain Sheba certainly did not realize the confused inner battle Homa waged.
“Homa, these men right here are some of the top pilots of Ibis squadron, our aces!”
Sheba finally introduced her to the two men who had been sitting opposite them at the table. Both of them had been chatting away animatedly the entire time, but there had been no room for personal introductions during the meal. Or, perhaps, Sheba had not wanted to test Homa’s patience as she squirted hot sauce on her flatbread. Now that the meal was done and the little cliques had formed, Sheba introduced Homa into her little universe. Everyone began to talk openly as if without fear of being heard.
“Nice to meet you, Homa. I’m Abeer, and this here’s my partner Parveen.” One of the men hooked his arm around the other’s shoulder. His ‘partner’ put on a bashful face.
“I can introduce myself.” Parveen said, in good humor. He pulled Abeer off him.
Both of the men were tall, slender, clean-shaven. Abeer had his hair cut close and even around his jaw and Parveen had his in a ponytail. Both looked similar in ethnicity, with sand-brown skin and round noses. They looked comfortable around one another, trading little jabs and constantly patting or clapping each other all through breakfast.
Had she anything to eat, Homa would have greeted them through a mouthful of food, but all of it had been put away by then save for the drinks. So Homa just nodded at them and saluted facetiously. Neither of them picked up on her malice, and laughed.
Sheba seemed a little wary but said nothing herself. Abeer and Parveen were simply too energetic and cheerful to even think someone could be as petty as Homa was.
“Homa’s an accomplished pilot.” Sheba said. “You two better watch your backs.”
“Hey, don’t make this competitive.” Parveen said. “We’re not keeping score, we’re just humble patrol pilots defending the capitol. Homa’s our comrade, and that’s that.”
“She won’t be outscoring us if she doesn’t get deployed!” Abeer said, fired up.
“Abeer, spirits defend.” Parveen rolled his eyes.
“What? We’re patrol and she’ll be in training. It’s not even a contest.”
“You don’t have to go and make it one then.”
Sheba grinned at them. “We’ll see about that. Game on, gents.”
Homa stared into space while they were all conversing around her.
“It wouldn’t be fair anyway.” Parveen said.
“Why’s that?” Sheba asked.
Homa piped up then. “He must be talking about Bennu.”
Bennu was her airplane, it had arrived yesterday night.
Jet-Testbed “Bennu” was the M.A.W. industrial union’s attempt to leapfrog the A.A.W. union in the development of combat aircraft. With a super-advanced engine that did not operate like any standard plane in the arsenal, no Garuda could match the Bennu.
In theory, anyway.
“Bennu?” Sheba asked. “Oh, right. I almost forgot about that.”
Abeer leaned over the table with a grin on his face.
“I saw her plane this morning, out at the Vulture’s hangar. A real beauty, and the thing poking out the back looks dangerous.” Abeer put an excited edge on the word ‘dangerous’ that made it sound positive. “I wanted to get a closer look but your man with the braids shushed me right off it. What secret are you keeping there Sheba?”
“Braids? That’s Janjid.” Homa said. “The Bennu’s like his wife. He’ll break your spine over his knee if you mess anything up with it. Only I am allowed to bust it up.”
Abeer and Parveen stared at Homa for a second, taking in her casually frank words.
They looked at one another, unconsciously agreed this was hilarious, and cracked up.
“Well then. Polyamory’s never been my thing, but good luck with that.” Parveen said.
“I’m not into guys or polyamory, so shut up.” Homa said, her voice turning whiny.
“Ah, sorry, I was just joking.”
Homa gave the two men a deadly glare.
She felt rather annoyed that anyone would think she would be in a relationship with an inanimate object and with Janjid, two things she was very much not in love with. That rather literal thought crossed her mind and became a little pus-filled sore in her brain. She turned a passively unfriendly aura on Abeer and Parveen the rest of the morning.
It had started to dawn on everyone just how petty Homa could become.
Sheba changed the subjected quickly. “So hey, you two, I heard the paratrooper escort mission has fallen off your laps. What happened? Who is supposed to do it now?”
Abeer and Parveen turned to Sheba, and their jovial mood chilled ever so slightly. They had been fully clowning about with Homa, but they seemed to feel Sheba demanded a more sobered tone of voice. Abeer answered her this time. “We’ve gotten orders to be on patrol duty every day from now on. Apparently we’ve getting enemy recon flights closer than anyone wants them. I take it any training stuff will be on you girls now.”
By that, he must have meant Vulture. Sheba sighed openly and put on a sour face.
“I hope it’s not Zakari. I know she was looking at some of us funny.” Sheba said.
“Ah, come on, everyone knows what to expect from her. ” Abeer said.
“I’m always afraid one of the younger girls will get her heart broken.” Sheba said.
“They’re smarter than that, I’m sure. Even Sayyid knows about it.” Parveen said.
Homa found this entire conversation quite ridiculous and spoke up bluntly about it.
“If you dislike her so much, why don’t we get her written up.” She said. “We’ll tell the Commissar to clean up all the adult comedy happening in this shop once and for all.”
Abeer and Parveen seemed not to like that suggestion. They both shook their heads.
“It’s not like she’s doing anything necessarily illegal. She’s just a jerk who sleeps around.” Sheba said. It felt like something she felt she had to admit to but was nonetheless unhappy to say. Homa thought as much, anyway. “And starting a fight about fraternization just because of one lady’s messy life would affect everybody.”
Once again Abeer and Parveen put on bashful expressions.
“I guess so.” Homa said. “Sounds irresponsible to me, but I don’t care.”
Sheba closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “You clearly don’t want to understand.”
Homa had heard the Colonel was a real jerk here. So perhaps everyone had a little stress relief relationship here that they needed to safeguard. Homa idly wondered if Sheba had a girlfriend. She was quite pretty, quite attractive; Homa probably knew that more than most, given she’d seen her out of uniform. It would have been funny, Homa thought, if after judging Zakari like this, Sheba had a cozy gang of girlfriends herself.
Funny; but, looking at Sheba’s dour expression as Homa’s unguarded, fantasizing eyes sized her up, it was clear that Sheba’s attitude made her a tough romantic prospect.
“What are you looking at?” Sheba asked.
“You?” Homa replied.
Parveen defused the tension. “Ah, don’t worry girls, at any rate I don’t think it’s the carnivore for you. There’s a new lady in charge of the paratroopers now. She’s nice.”
“Well, that’s good.” Sheba said. She sighed and dropped her head against the table.
“Poor Sheba, got a lot on your mind, don’t you? Well, don’t worry. We’ll keep the skies safe while you protect all the young girls in the city.” Abeer said in a grandiose voice.
Homa wanted to say she thought they were all weird, but she kept it to herself.
Sheba took her leave of Homa after breakfast and sent her ahead to the hangar. Homa made nothing of it and went on her way, mostly forgetting the tension she had with the Captain and the two guys on the other end of the table. Feelings just came and went; in the end, Homa told herself, she would blow past like a breeze and nobody would care whether she came or went. So it truly did not matter what anyone felt.
There was a lot of activity. Whole Flights worth of planes were stationed outside their hangars for routine inspection. Air traffic personnel out on the asphalt waved down a liaison plane using handheld signals. Homa’s eyes lingered on a gaggle of young people in uniform being led to the anti-aircraft gun emplacements around the airfield. They looked as young as the girls in the cafeteria now — seventeen or eighteen years.
Homa saw Manaan emerge from one of the gun emplacements. Thankfully she was modestly dressed when meeting the teens. Each turret was a concrete block on a swivel with two 37mm guns poking out of it. The Officer leading the children around seemed pleased to see Manaan. Though too far to hear anything, Homa thought she must have been introducing the children to Manaan. Was the lieutenant a fixture around those gun turrets? Maybe she performed maintenance on those too.
All of that had to mean they were preparing those turrets for teens to man them.
Homa supposed they could not spare too many airfield personnel for a task like that. Especially since, on average, it took hundreds of shots for flak to have meaningful effect on enemy aircraft, and aim and technical skill didn’t make much difference. Even a kid could add to a curtain of saturation flak. Homa guessed that was the theory.
There was also a large cargo plane taking up space off the side of the main runway.
This object was much closer to the Vulture’s hangar, and its wheels were moving, slowly bringing it even closer. It seemed to walk with Homa all the way ‘home’ to the Vulture’s hangar. Sitting side-by-side outside the shuttered hangar doors, Malik and Anada watched the cargo plane inch toward them with bored expressions on their faces. Accompanying them was one pile of aircraft wreckage and what seemed like oily spare parts, glistening in the sun, and a tall, short-haired woman inspecting it.
“Oh, hujambo!” she said. “We didn’t get to meet yesterday. I’m Lieutenant Haida Sayyid. I hope these clowns didn’t cause you too much grief.” She took Homa’s hand.
“You’re the biggest clown of them all!” Anada called out, her cat-like ears twitching.
“Please don’t listen to these children.” Sayyid said. She stroked Homa’s hand gently, taking with both of her own, one stroking, one holding the underside of her gloved palm. “Know that if you ever feel lonely, or tense, or in need of a mature ear to listen to your concerns, I’m always here. Haida Sayyid is a knight to all girls in Sickle Airfield.”
Homa flicked one of the levers on the side of her metal hand. Since this happened to be the hand Sayyid was so lovingly holding and stroking, Homa felt none of her gentle touch. Instead she nonchalantly clamped her fingers down on the maximum grip setting. Sayyid’s eyes drew wide and she smiled nervously, trying subtly to pull back.
“Hey, yes, I’m glad you feel so strongly too– ouch, okay, you can let go, comrade,”
“Nice to meet you too.” Homa said, cocking a little grin. She released Sayyid.
Sayyid drew back her hand and shook it front of her, trying to wave away the pain.
Despite this, she maintained a little smile herself and seemed to take no offense.
“I deserved that, truly, I recognize it. But how can I help it? You’re absolutely stunning.”
Homa played with another lever and her fist closed. “I can punch with this, you know.”
“Fuck her up, Homa!” Anada cheered. Her crass interjection earned her a reproachful glare from Homa, and she scurried behind Malik at that point and quieted down.
“Surely I don’t deserve a full-on punch?” Sayyid said. She had a weaselly look to her.
“I guess not. Anyway. I’m truly not interested, so please go away.” Homa said.
Her voice was as rudely dismissive as she could possibly affect it.
Sayyid scratched the back of her hair and looked bashful. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“If you two are going to fight, let me know so I can get the Captain.” Malik said.
“Oh, good idea. That’ll keep her busy for a bit.” Anada said.
Homa nearly sighed. But she caught herself before visibly showing her irritation.
She, herself, was almost on the verge of exasperation with them already.
“Do you all explicitly make trouble just for the Captain?” Homa asked.
“Uh huh. It’s tradition. It’s healthy for her, even.” Anada said.
Sayyid closed her eyes and hugged herself dramatically.
“I don’t try to make trouble. I act my natural self and you all punish me for it.”
“I don’t even know what you did, but you deserve it.”
From behind them, Lieutenant Mannan appeared, carrying a toolbox. On the runway, the cargo plane waltzed on by as if it did not want to wait to see what developed.
Sayyid had a different look to her when Mannan arrived. While trying to woo Homa, it felt like Sayyid was only giving a passing glance, compared to full on feast her eyes were having at the sight of Mannan. Being fair to all involved, even Homa was staring.
Mannan was dressed in a tank and work pants, and was dripping with sweat from head to toe as if she’d been in a sauna. Her clothes clung close to her figure. Her long, dark hair fell thickly wet at her back. She had been in that concrete gun box, or perhaps in a series of them, for quite a long time, judging from the state of her clothes. Her breathing was a little accelerated too. Her chest rose and fell with her breathing.
Soon as she got close, she shoved brusquely past Sayyid, nearly knocking her down.
“Hello to you too.” Sayyid said dejectedly.
She watched Mannan’s back as attentively as she had watched the front.
Mannan pulled up the shutter doors.
Arms fully outstretched overhead, she pushed the shutter the rest of the way.
Then a heavy object flew right past her and struck the ground beside Malik.
In response Malik jumped up in fright, her strong legs raising her to an instant stand.
Between them all, the object, an airplane part, finally came to rest.
Had Mannan been a few centimeters off, it would have dug right into her belly.
A voice came from within the hangar. “Oh, crap, sorry, I wasn’t looking–“
Mannan grit her teeth, dropped her toolbox and closed her fist.
“Watch where you’re throwing things! You maniac, you could’ve killed someone!”
On the other side of the raised shutters was Janjid, his braids dirty and messy, his work jumpsuit oily. Clearly he had been working for a while on the Bennu. There was a collection of trash all around the hangar; what he had thrown so carelessly was a crusty, worn-out carburetor. A solid chunk of metal larger than his own meaty fists.
“Killed? I don’t– It was just a carburetor– Really I–“
Janjid stuttered because between his every statement Mannan took a massive stomp toward him. Seeing the bull charging for him, his words started to catch in his throat.
Trying to defend his careless actions seemed to make everything worse.
Mannan descended upon him like an eagle snatching a mouse. She started shouting into his face with such zeal that the larger Janjid was crawling back from her, throwing glances at Homa for support in between mumbling some half-formed word. Homa effected no rescue, watching from the door as Mannan mimicked his steps, her hands on her hips, calling him every insult she could think of in various formulations of ‘what were you thinking, you–‘ and ‘who do you think you are, we just cleaned up here–‘.
Janjid withered, timid and defeated under this repeating barrage until he was backed up into a corner. His pleas of mercy, his cries for forgiveness, went utterly ignored.
Like a bullet, Mannan’s pointed index finger dug into the nameplate and insignia on Janjid’s work uniform. He looked absolutely tiny next to Mannan, his goggles askew, his hands trembling. It was no use trying to understand what she said anymore. Clearly whatever language she was speaking now, it was only for herself to hear and translate.
Homa whistled, impressed, as if watching a strongman lift a motorcar over his head.
She turned a casual glance toward her squadmates.
Anada, Malik and Sayyid just averted their gazes and twiddled their thumbs.
“You just gotta weather the storm with Mannan.” Sayyid said, as if from experience.
“Typhoon Mannan.” Malik said, a quiver in her voice.
Anada shook her head. “A level of Mann-anger rarely seen. He truly messed up.”
Mannan did not stop shouting until she was hoarse and red as a tomato in the face. Sweating profusely, she turned sharp as the blade on the Garuda’s propellers and gave Janjid her back, storming off as fast as she had come. “He better clean up!” Was the last word she said as she went around the side of the hangar. Homa heard a faucet open and the hose going off. Presumably Mannan was literally cooling herself off now.
Homa nonchalantly walked up to Janjid and sat next to him against the wall of the hangar. She offered him no comfort, sitting a good meter from him and not even looking him in the eyes as she talked. “Even mechanics can see combat.” She told him.
He offered no response.
Anada and Malik entered the hangar, drawn in by the new airplane suddenly occupying the space where there had once been a half-burnt wreck. They stood around the wings of the Bennu, and Anada even went around the back to poke at the conical piece at the back, a feature not present in any of the other planes. She whistled.
“Whoa, never seen that before.”
“Please be careful with it.”
Janjid finally spoke up again, recovering from his shock.
“Feeling alive?” Homa asked.
“Nobody’s shouted at me like that since my mom. It was more of a surprise than anything.” Janjid said. He sighed audibly. “But I guess I deserved it though.”
“You were really careless.” Anada said. “But Mannan will probably forget soon.”
Anada patted Janjid on the shoulder reassuringly. He took a step back from her.
“Homa, this is your plane, right? I saw it with you last night.” Malik said.
She tapped her fist on the Bennu’s chassis. There was a metal clang in response.
Anada looked surprised, and started to rub a bare hand on the aircraft.
“Yeah, this is mine.” Homa interjected, speaking over a nervous Janjid.
“Oh gosh, is it all-metal? That’s incredible.” Anada said.
She started tapping on the side of the plane.
Janjid raised his arms in alarm.
“Hey, please don’t just do that–“
“What’s different about it?” Malik asked.
Anada gave her a disappointed look.
“How can you not get it?” She asked.
“Besides the obvious, I mean!” Malik replied.
The ordinary Garuda I monoplane had a shorter, flat-fronted, and stubbier design than the Bennu, but these girls piloted Garuda I-bis that boasted a lengthened chassis and rounded nose. The Bennu seemed like a I-bis in that respect, but the chassis was actually closer to the Garuda II. It was subtly streamlined, with an aerodynamic cockpit and smaller and more efficient tail segments and slats. Fully appraised by a keen eye, the Bennu put into contrast the blunt, workman-like qualities of the Garuda I-bis.
Because Ayvarta was a socialist nation, the Garuda designs made by A.A.W. could be legally built upon by the M.A.W. union that developed the Bennu. In the end, it was the people, through their stewards, the central government in Solstice, who owned all of these things in common. As such, M.A.W. had taken the Garuda II chassis as the start of their Bennu project. A.A.W. could not object, but the silent agreement that A.A.W’s workers ruled the skies while M.A.W.’s plants built land vehicles was broken by this act.
M.A.W. was confident of their success in the ensuing rivalry because of their focus, not on strictly propeller-driven monoplane designs, but on the power evinced by the conical object in the back of the Bennu. That was the biggest difference: the futuristic Motorjet design that provided much of the Bennu’s thrust. One could see a glimpse of the mechanism beneath the propeller on the Bennu: there was a small inlet gap for air. The most obvious sign was that conical aluminum-coated steel exhaust in the tail.
Homa was not about to give this whole story to Malik, so she instead said:
“It can go a lot faster than a Garuda. It’s made of metal so it doesn’t burn up.”
“The cockpit’s also recessed a bit farther back.” Anada pointed out.
Homa looked at her and she flinched. But Homa only nodded without expression.
“That too.” She said, in a not particularly unfriendly way.
“How fast can it go?” Malik asked.
Janjid interjected. He spoke with a misplaced sense of pride.
“Over 1300 kilometers per hour!” He said, raising his hands in a sudden gesture.
Anada and Malik looked at each other with surprise.
“Sure, if the fuel line doesn’t break.” Homa said, shrugging her shoulders.
“Oh.” Malik and Anada said in unison.
“I fixed that!” Janjid said. “And it was your fault anyway. Listen, we strengthened the fuel line. We also added a throttle limit so you won’t go crazy and burn it out this time.”
“Oh!” Malik and Anada said, again in perfect synchronicity.
“Whatever.” Homa replied. She turned her back and started back out the hangar door.
Out on the runway, Mannan, sopping wet, sat on the concrete with a towel on her shoulders. Sayyid sat beside her, waving at every girl who stared while walking by.
“Oh finally. There she comes.” Mannan said.
She pointed her hand farther along the runway. Homa followed her pointing finger and found Captain Sheba two hangars down, at the head of a crowd of beige-uniformed soldiers, with goggles, strapped helmets, carrying large packs and shortened carbines. There was another woman beside her whom Homa couldn’t place. There were enough people there to constitute a platoon, and all were headed toward the Vulture hangar.
Homa looked over her shoulder at the cargo plane that had crawled up the runway and come to rest around the corner from Vulture’s hangar. She recalled the exchange this morning about paratrooper training. Those packs on the soldier’s backs were probably parachutes, and they were probably an airdrop platoon going for a training mission.
So it was probably up to Vulture to escort them.
They were going to fly.
Homa felt a thrill in her chest, the invisible hairs on her body standing on end. She felt energy thrumming in her biological fingers and toes, a gentle current of exhilaration.
Anada and Malik left the hangar when Captain Sheba approached.
“Oh good, you’re all here.” She said. “I won’t ask why you’re all wet, Mannan. It wont matter anyway since you’ll all be changing to flight suits soon. Get ready to sortie.”
Behind her, the men and women in the rifle platoon looked nervous. Their own attention was on the cargo plane wheeling closer, tail-first. There was certainly enough space in it for them, and the rear bay ramp was coming down, like a tongue waiting to drag them into its maw. All of them looked young, but not flak turret young.
For Homa, the officer she assumed to be in charge of them was the real feast for the eyes. She had an organized, professional beauty to her that was astonishing, well groomed and made up with an elegant coat of red on her lips and dark shadow that made her eyes pop. Her dark hair was tied up in an orderly, braided bun. Even in the dense combat uniform of the rifle troops, she managed an air of precise elegance.
However, the most striking feature was her quite pregnant belly.
Homa knew this was not the kind of belly one had when one’s natural plumpness was besieged by the rigor of military life. It was not like Anada’s belly. There was something inside her that was at work. Homa could not tell how pregnant the woman was, but it was one of those things she might have responded to with ‘that seems irresponsible.’
She did not care enough to do so in this particular situation.
After all, the officer seemed more energetic than all of them anyway.
“Greetings comrades!” She said. Her voice had a childish enthusiasm that struck a sharp contrast with her well-organized, mature appearance. “I’m Captain Logia Minardo, and these kids are the future of war. We’ve been training and biding our time, and finally we get a chance to take to the air. Everyone, thank Vulture for their help!”
As one unit, all of the paratroopers bowed their heads in deference to the rag-tag assembly of Vulture squadron’s pilots. Mannan and Sayyid clumsily scrambled to their feet, and Malik and Anada straightened suddenly like they had been electroshocked. All of them knew it was the worst sort of rudeness to stand lower than another’s bow.
“Thank you so much, comrades!” said all the paratroopers at once.
None of the Vultures’ regular pilots knew how to respond. All seemed confused at being treated like heroes or like they had done anything worth this kind of gratitude.
Captain Sheba was visibly taken by the display, and smiled, perhaps a little forlorn.
Even Homa had to admit to herself she was impressed by the discipline they showed.
Not one of those soldiers bore visible resentment. All seemed genuinely pleased.
Captain Minardo must have been quite a commanding officer to instill this discipline.
“We’ll take our leave to prepare, Captain Sheba. Make those flight suits look good.”
Minardo winked at Sheba, who in turn quickly withered and smiled nervously.
“We’ll give it our best.” Sheba replied. It was a nonsensical reply to a nonsensical thing.
Smiling mischievously, Captain Minardo led her troops over to the cargo plane, and started organizing them into ranks and files, going over proper seating in the cargo area, and running a last minute equipment check. Meanwhile, the Vultures looked back at their hangar. They would have to dress the part of pilot, then drag their aircraft out.
“It’s been a while since we’ve done this, hasn’t it?” Sheba sighed. There was an uncharacteristic tremor in her voice she had tried to hide. “And it’s my first time doing it solo. I used to help the Captain, I guess, so I’m qualified.” She shifted on her feet.
“I’ve been keeping up on the maintenance.” Mannan said.
“And I just got done painting them all pretty! Praise me, Captain!” Sayyid added.
Captain Sheba did not acknowledge either of them. She sounded distant.
“They say a mission can go awry at any time and twice as many times on the preflight check.” Sheba said, her eyes drawing a little wide. “But don’t worry! I’ve got a checklist on my clipboard. We’ll go over everything nice and slow. Nothing to be nervous about.”
Her fingers were shaking as she raised the clipboard to her face.
“Oh dear, a rare sight.” Sayyid muttered. Homa blinked in confusion.
Anada did not seem to get it either.
“Who are you talking to? I’m not nervous at all. Who’s nervous?”
Sheba put the clipboard closer to her face and ignored Anada.
“I’m a little nervous.” Malik added with a timid tone.
She received a sharp pat on the back from her wingmate.
“Such a muscle-for-brains, and yet you’re surprisingly vulnerable.” Anada said, fondly.
Mannan turned around and walked without obvious intention back toward the hangar.
It did not go unnoticed that she did this while the resident cat-kin was teasing people.
“Hah! You’d think a nudist wouldn’t run timidly ahead to the dressing room!”
Anada put her hands around her mouth like a loudspeaker and shouted after Mannan.
Her tail twitched and stretched out. Mannan was unmoved as she crossed the doors.
“That’s not what she’s doing.” Sayyid replied into Anada’s fluffy cat-like ears.
All of them quieted and stared at the hangar.
In the next instant, there was a clatter like a pile of cans had fallen.
Janjid ran out of the hangar, nearly falling head-over-arse trying to get to the runway.
He put his hands up in exasperation.
“I’ll wait out here! Jeez! I didn’t know you wanted to dress up!” He cried.
Nobody had heard Mannan say anything. Homa imagined she must have stomped in, given Janjid the look God gave the Devil before his expulsion, and thus driven him off.
This brought a cruel, proud smile to her face, which she turned fully on Janjid.
Through her teeth, she chuckled in a voice akin to a goblin skinning a babe.
A Captain sighing helplessly behind her clipboard; a shouting cat; a grinning demon.
This was the sort of scene that presaged Vulture’s first flight of the year.