This chapter contains mild sexual content and awkward and tense social situations.
12th of the Postill’s Dew 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Solstice City — Sickle Airfield
Inside the hangar, Sheba presented Homa with a skin-tight flight suit from a locker in the back. It was black and a bit snappy, stretching but coming back into shape almost as easily. A full suit was divided into a long-sleeved, high-necked top and a long bottom piece that fit together seamlessly. This kind of suit was known as a “bodysuit” for its quite form-fitting nature. Owing to its construction, the standard “small” size suit would easily fit Homa’s figure. Sheba was more of a “medium” in that regard.
“Have you worn these before? I can help you get in if you need it.” Sheba asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen these before.” Homa replied. She snatched the suit from Sheba’s hand, took a look at it and undid her shirt. Sheba said nothing and began to undress. She laid her clothes neatly into her locker as she undid the buttons. Beneath her shirt was a combat-type brassiere with hefty support, which she would retain; Homa discarded all of her clothes and underwear, tossed them in a pile and began suiting up.
Malik and Anada had gone to undress in their own little corner of the hangar, the view of them obstructed by their aircraft. For how loud she was, she was surprised Anada would shy away from being seen. Mannan boldly dropped her clothes before the rest of them had cleared the door, so they all walked in to the sight of her starkly naked as she slipped her suit on. Sayyid was then promptly exiled to another corner by herself.
Sheba and Homa had already left nothing to each other’s imagination, so there was no awkwardness between them. Though Sheba was curious whether Homa would need help with her prosthetics, it became quickly apparent that she was fine and the leg and arm were well fastened by themselves, and would function in any clothes she decided to wear. Satisfied, Sheba undid the suit’s adhesive lining and slipped into it, arms first, then squeezing her head through until it snapped shut around her neck and against her chest. Homa wordlessly helped her seal the back. She did Homa the same favor.
Flight suits had come a long way in Socialist Ayvarta. An abundance of petroleum products and an interest in developing pliable materials led to the discovery of new, flexible plastics. They were lightweight, aggressively standardized, and could fit almost anybody — the ultimate form of conveyor belt clothing that could be churned out in uniform pieces and slide over practically any body. They had begun to be issued last year, and Daksha Kansal’s tenure in government led to the acceleration of their development. Personally, Sheba questioned the wisdom of using bodysuits, but she had to admit they were reliable and comfortable enough. Nothing to get caught in anything, nothing that could be easily ripped, nothing that would catch fire by itself.
Over the suit, the pilots wore a tight black vest with one pocket, and a pair of black lycra padded shorts with a utility belt. These bodysuit outergarments served to pad vital places on their bodies and routed the cables and box for their miniature radios.
The original version of the bodysuit had a subtle shaped element on the groin for protection and modesty, but these small additions helped enhance comfort and utility.
A pair of shoes, gloves, an aviator’s cap or goggles, and the radio headset, completed the bodysuit ensemble. All suited up, Sheba felt quite modern, a woman of the age.
Once the Vultures were dressed, they helped each other to push their aircraft out of the hangar. Once all six aircraft were outside, and the leftover wreck was moved from the runway to its final resting place around the back of the hangar, Sheba breathed a deep sigh and pulled up her clipboard. It was time for a very extensive pre-flight check.
“Listen up! I know this stuff will sound perfunctory, but it is very important. So just have patience, do it right, and don’t mouth off. Okay?” She pointedly glared at Anada.
“What?” Anada replied, frowning. “I wasn’t even doing anything. I’ll be good.”
Her cat-like ears and tail twitched in response to her false, good-girl smile.
Sheba gave her a serious look and then began to go over the checklist.
An airplane was a serious piece of technology. It looked simple, and might not be so impressive once opened up, but the theory behind them was massively complex and numerous interconnected systems had to operate in perfect harmony to achieve optimal performance. Because the air was not the domain of the human race, it was absolutely necessary to be certain, without doubt, that the aircraft was properly maintained and ready to fly without serious defects. As it flew, a plane was besieged every second. Any disadvantage would only amplify with time and lead to tragedy.
It had been weeks since their last flight. Back then, Captain Shurelis had walked them through the pre-flight checklist quite thoroughly every time. Even Anada dared not talk during the checks. For the old Captain, this was the most deadly serious part of any engagement. It was solemn, like a ritual. Aircraft deserved respect, the Captain had taught her. And yet, despite this reverence, she had still met tragedy in the sky.
Sheba knew she would die of grief if something as simple as fuel mixture or gritty oil or a broken aileron took one of her girls from her. So she wanted to take this seriously.
She already had the Captain’s death on her mind. And that wasn’t even her fault.
“Alright, attention! First, check elevator and rudder!”
Everyone grabbed the elevators and rudders on the tails of their planes and gave them a good physical turn to make sure they weren’t getting stuck. They checked ailerons and flaps as well, but these they checked by climbing atop the wings and bending over into the cockpit. They began moving them with a tug of the control stick this way and that, and checked the balance with the cockpit levers. Everything looked correct.
“Check oil and test fuel for impurities!”
Sheba commanded, and so the group did. Everyone checked the fuel tanks under the wings, draining a small amount of fuel and using a little boxed chemistry set to test the fuel mixture. All of the fuel checked out: nobody had any significant amount of unwanted solids in their fuel, nor water or other undesirable substances. Next they checked their oil, and thanks to Mannan’s careful ministrations, it was not necessary to change anyone’s oil. Every plane was full up on clean oil. Sheba moved on after that.
“Inspect the propeller and wing surfaces!”
This step gave nobody trouble. It was easy to see that the propeller blades were brand new and the wing surfaces were smooth, freshly repainted. Not a pit or gash in sight.
“Can we go now?” Anada moaned.
“Shut up.” Sheba said. Her voice had a dangerously serious edge to it.
Anada put on the same serious face she did with Captain Shurelis.
Even if she hated her for it, it was for everyone’s good that Sheba be tough on this.
There were many other steps. Sheba went through her clipboard checklist quite thoroughly. Fuel levels were checked, ammunition was checked, the hinges on the flaps, ailerons and other control surfaces were closely inspected. There was an audible groan when Sheba told them to check the air filters and radiators for foreign matter, like bird’s nests or rats or insects. Finally the various instruments in the cockpits were tested to insure all the levers and switches worked. In all it took well over ten minutes for the girls to check their aircraft physically before they were declared fit to fly.
“Well, it seems that everything is in order. Maybe we should double check.”
“Let’s do the opposite of that.” Homa said, clearly sick of this.
“If we were under attack we’d have been shot on the ground.” Anada complained.
“And if you’d gone up into the sky with a defect, you’d have shot yourself to the ground.” Mannan said. “So quit being such a brat. Mechanical stuff’s important.”
Anada gave Manna a bitter look, her tail curling around one of her legs.
Malik patted her on the back in solidarity. She was back in good spirits soon enough.
Sheba felt a load lifting off her shoulders.
Her fingers and toes felt like a swarm of ants were crawling over them, inside them. She felt a rush, an electrical charge. They were taking to the skies again, called by the grand blue that Sheba had been so tempted by her entire life. That expanse contained the greatest beauty and the deepest cruelty on Aer. Sheba took a deep breath.
“I can see you’re all eager to go, but thanks for putting up with this.” Sheba put the clipboard down on a table near the hangar. She turned to everyone with a smile, and she raised one hand in front of herself, all five fingers outstretched. “Okay, this is your last chance to use the bathroom or get a drink from the fountain. We go in five.”
After saying ‘five’ she curled her fingers until she was giving them a peace sign.
She winked one eye at them as well.
She tried to put on a sunny face for the squadron. All of them recognized her gesture.
Captain Shurelis used to smile and sign like that before takeoff.
Perhaps they recognized the parallels. A lot of equally sunny faces turned back on her.
“Hooray!” Anada said. Malik mimed her in a far less energetic voice.
Mannan and Sayyid held quiet, confident, matured smiles together.
Homa looked indifferent. Of course; she wouldn’t have any nostalgia for it.
Indifferent seemed the best they could do with Homa, so Sheba settled for it.
Everyone momentarily dispersed. Five minutes, Sheba told them.
Of course, even for the old Captain, that five minute break could turn into ten minutes.
And that was fine.
You had to be friendly sometimes.
She breathed another girlish sigh and looked around.
Out on the runway, the paratroopers were loading something rather large into the back of the plane with them. It looked to Sheba like the carriage for an anti-aircraft gun; soon enough the gun itself followed, and once assembled, it was pulled up into the plane with a pulley and crane. Several parachutes were attached to the gun.
Captain Logia Minardo turned from this effort to report back to Sheba.
“We’re ready whenever, Captain.” She said.
“We’ll be ready soon.” Sheba said. “So what’s on the agenda today? We haven’t really discussed a mission profile, other than we’ll be escorting you to the Khet region.”
Minardo pointed her thumb over her shoulder at the cargo plane. She had on a big grin that was full of pride and confidence. “We’re going to be parachuting that platoon and the anti-aircraft gun down to the desert. We’ll be practicing getting the platoon back together after dispersing in the air, gathering up equipment, and setting up a position. If we do it right, they’ll drop right on target and their equipment only a hop and skip away. A few exercise like this, and they might let me take a whole company up there. “
“Even just a platoon sounds like it will take a lot of coordination.” Sheba said.
“We’ve spent every waking hour practicing for this.” Minardo said. “It’s been my dream for years to make this happen, Captain. It may seem silly, but this one desert jump will be an unprecedented step forward for us. I’ve made damn sure it’ll go perfectly.”
She was always smiling and never let any doubt slip into her tone of voice.
Sheba felt a little inadequate next to her. Minardo felt like a real captain.
Not somebody who had inherited the part because nobody else wanted to.
She was someone with vision, who had something she wanted to impart to her troops.
Sheba wished dearly that she could be that way. She needed to become that.
“Oh, that kind of expression doesn’t suit you, dear.”
Minardo must have noticed Sheba’s sudden worry shadowing her false smile. She had hoped it didn’t show on her face, but her emotional control was far from flawless.
“Hey, listen,” Minardo gave Sheba a gentle smack in the arm, “I believe in you as much as I do them. You’re an integral part of all of this too, and everyone here appreciates your support. There’s not one weak unit in this army comrade. We are all in it together.”
When Sheba thought of all the people they lost in 2030, who made such great effort–
She could not imagine herself standing among them.
“Not weak alone, but perhaps weak comparatively. I’ll always strive to get stronger.”
She said this in a downcast voice.
Minardo nodded. “That kind of response tells me you’ve got what it takes. Believe me.”
Sheba averted her gaze, a little unused to being praised by someone like Minardo.
There were not a lot of role models to go around for Vulture. Not since the Captain left.
When next Sheba looked up at Minardo’s face, however, her smile had faded.
She was looking past Sheba, her stance locked but her eyes adrift.
Sheba turned around and saw Benali and Zakkari approaching.
An unwelcome sight, not just for Minardo. Sheba did not like Zakkari one bit.
And the fact that Benali was stuck to her at the hip now was vexing.
Homa was not wrong in her thinking about Zakkari, but neither was she fully right.
There were rules against fraternization but everyone ignored them. When comrades were in constant danger together, of course attachments would form. In a stressful situation, when soldiers are obsessed with death — the ability to engage in romance or even just to have friendly sex can keep them in good spirits and hoping for the future. Especially since many people joined the forces already friends, or even already lovers.
This was doubly true for pilots, who had dangerous tasks and strong personalities.
Captain Shurelis used to say every pilot was a little unspooled in the brain.
Having someone at your side who was special to you was invaluable.
Sheba had no experience with on-base romances herself.
She had been too withdrawn from people.
And she had not wanted anyone to have feelings like that for her anyway.
She just knew, because people talked. People talked all through the armed forces.
Their officers must have known. Maybe they even had relationships like that.
Nobody wanted to be the one breaking up military couples when the enemy was bearing down on them, when food availability was getting shaky, when training times grew irregular and when the future of their entire way of life was looking ephemeral. It was at that point that you needed to find someone to protect, someone to cherish.
There was nothing wrong with that, she thought.
As long as it was conducted properly.
All communists were instilled with certain ethics toward other people. Even someone like Sayyid who was attracted to every skirt in the base, still treated the people she crushed on with humanity. Whether it was innocence, or professional regard, or genuine affection. As long as it was mutual and there was a connection, Sheba could not fault those relationships. Sheba, however, knew enough people who had been with Zakkari to know her passion for any one of them was playful, passing, and reckless.
Zakkari was a veteran with a deep well of experience, and an aircraft theorist who was well regarded professionally even if disdained personally. She was valuable to the war effort and politically sound. But Sheba had heard that she was a rotten person, with a rotten behavior in love. Nothing dramatic, nothing illicit, nothing violent; just cold and indifferent to the hearts that she had broken. She just took, and she gave little back.
Whatever her reasons, Sheba was wary of her.
And Minardo, it seemed, was wary too. Maybe even more than wary.
“Inhera Zakkari.” She said.
“Logia. Interesting to see you here.” Zakkari said. She smiled.
“It’s Captain Minardo.”
Minardo’s expression did not change. She was visibly unfriendly, visibly skeptical.
Zakkari glanced briefly at Minardo’s belly. “Congratulations, by the way.”
Her own expression was saccharine. It read to Sheba as phony.
Minardo narrowed her eyes and regarded Zakkari even more coldly.
“Oh, you know each other?” Benali said. She seemed unaware of the tension. Homa’s officer always seemed a little out of it to Sheba, but at that point she felt ridiculous.
Zakkari nodded to her, but did not respond directly. She kept talking to Minardo.
“Captain, huh? I’m glad. You– you deserved that double promotion.” Zakkari said.
This was the most genuine thing Sheba had ever heard Zakkari say.
She even felt a note of something in her voice.
A tremble; remorse perhaps?
“I’m at the rank I should have always held. If you’ll excuse me.”
Minardo turned sharply around and walked back to her troops.
Zakkari was left standing there. Sheba would not break the silence that fell then.
Though the sight of Homa following after Minardo nearly got her to leave also.
However she did not want to show open rudeness to either of these women.
Even if they had similar ranks, Zakkari and Benali were senior to her nonetheless.
“Oh, right. I came here to talk to you. You’re Homa’s Captain, right?” Benali said.
She had a big, bright-eyed expression that made her seem quite clueless.
“That’s right.” Sheba said. “We met yesterday, and this morning.”
“Of course we did.” Benali said. Zakkari held her hand over her mouth, laughing a little.
Sheba nearly glared at her. How dare she have a good mood all of a sudden?
Had she not seen what she had done to Minardo? How could she giggle like that now?
“Anyhow. Homa’s airplane is extremely valuable, one of a kind.” Benali said.
“I read the file.” Sheba replied.
“Of course you did. However, that doesn’t tell you what I’m about to. So listen: Homa is extremely special.” Benali’s tone was a mixture of humor and a deep, biting aggression. She reminded Sheba of a hyena. “Her aircraft is extremely special. You would do well to insure Homa flies fast and looks good. Homa will not fly any aircraft other than the Bennu. And though you think you can give her orders, you would do well to follow her lead when it comes to the Bennu and how it flies. Don’t slow her down.”
“Duly noted.” Sheba said. She was struggling to hold back rising anger.
Benali tapped on Sheba’s chest with a grin on her face.
“Here’s one thing the files won’t tell you. Homa’s aircraft has a few engine modes she can toggle through a throttle lock on her plane. She has three engine modes, and on the fastest, she will be unmatched in the sky. You’re supposed to approve of its use, and I encourage it. Homa can safely spend at least 5 minutes on her Overheat mode.”
Sheba blinked. “Ma’am, I’m not sure I understand the purpose of this conversation.”
“M.A.W. wants data on the plane.” Zakkari interjected. “Obviously what she’s intimating is that you must allow Homa to naturally collect that data by using her engine modes.”
“And why are you talking now?” Sheba snapped.
“She can talk. She’s fine to talk.” Benali said, frowning at Sheba’s reaction. “And she’s right. Homa is a thrill-seeker, a daredevil. Don’t get in her way. That’s all I’m saying.”
Something dawned upon Sheba then. Was Zakkari trying to get in good with Benali to become part of the M.A.W. union’s aircraft program? Whatever the case, Sheba was disgusted with both of them. She had gotten the implication quite well: regardless of her safety, Homa was the Bennu’s guinea pig and should burn its engine regularly. Even if Sheba thought it was dangerous, if Homa wanted to Overheat, she had to let her.
Was this solely the work of these two malcontents or was all of M.A.W. so rotten?
“We live in desperate times Captain Sheba. Not everyone can be accommodating to you. Don’t look so upset. It’s better if you follow the tide with a smile.” Zakkari said.
Both women took their leave of her, pretending as if they had been professional.
It did not suit them and Sheba did not buy it for a second.
Sheba closed her fist, but she would not allow herself to be helpless.
Did desperate times call for people to behave so terribly?
She would not put up with it!
Vulture would fly on their own terms, not as puppets for anyone.
“Tika Shurelis, give me strength.” Sheba mumbled.
She had to become a real Captain, an impeccable Captain; to protect them.
To protect Homa too, it seemed.
Homa had gone back inside for lack of things to do. She watched Janjid scurry back into the hangar with a mop and bucket, having been shamed into cleaning up after himself. That was amusing. She even offered to help for five minutes. He refused.
“Show me that eagerness to help some other time.” Janjid said.
“Don’t count on it.” Homa replied.
She turned right back around through the door, when suddenly she saw Captain Sheba, Benali, Benali’s new girlfriend, and the paratrooper captain Minardo all staring poisoned daggers at each other. She was surprised, but quickly her surprise became a muted amusement. Was there something dramatic afoot? Perhaps about her? She held her place, partially hidden beside the doorway, and watched from afar.
It couldn’t have been aircraft talk, because Zakkari and Minardo were dominating the discussion. She could see their lips moving but she could not read them and certainly could not hear them over the background noise of the airfield. Planes coming and going. Janjid splashing the mop in his bucket. Metal clanging against metal as the paratroopers pulled heavy equipment up the ramp of their cargo plane.
The tension was palpable. Homa was reminded of her parents.
Not a good memory.
She was soon more amused than perturbed, however.
Eventually Minardo pulled away from everyone and left the scene.
Homa started out the door and made for Minardo.
Part of her was curious because it opened up new avenues to undermine Benali, whom Homa found annoying and untrustworthy. Any intelligence she could acquire on Benali and her flighty behavior was worth it. She was also still bothered by the conversation about Zakkari over breakfast. Who really was this woman? She thought Minardo looked like she knew her more than Sheba did, from her visible irritation.
She did not admit that the grin on her face was also borne of a busybody streak.
She sidled up to Minardo, who took notice of the pilot trailing after her.
“Ah, the Lieutenant with the beautiful skin! I was so curious about you, you know?”
Minardo turned around and extended a hand.
She seemed eerily recovered from her previous irritations.
Homa shook her hand vigorously with her own mechanical hand, turning a switch.
She had hoped the classic trick would rattle Minardo too, but she was unfazed.
Homa found herself undoing the mechanical grip before Minardo noticed the hold.
“So, to what do I owe this pleasure? Do you perhaps aspire to become paratrooper too? I can put in a good word.” Minardo joked. They were standing out in the middle of Vulture’s hangar and the next one over, where the cargo plane was getting fuel out of Grouse squadron’s tanks. Nobody was paying attention, nobody could hear them.
Homa thought to herself that she should make polite conversation first.
She had to try to ease into current events. Conversations were like snakes. You had to either charm them or grab the head and control their fangs — or they would bite.
“I wanted to ask a question.”
“How many months?” Homa asked simply, pointing a finger at Minardo’s belly.
“Oh, of course you’d ask that. With all due respect, you don’t need to worry about it.”
Minardo seemed disappointed. Perhaps she hoped to dote on Homa in the way that she clearly looked after her troops, all of whom looked like teenagers next to her. Whether that spoke to Minardo’s maturity or their vibrant youth was another matter.
“I’m not worried, just curious.” Homa said.
Minardo looked momentarily exasperated.
It was the kind of question she probably received very often.
Her composure returned quickly.
“Well, then lets just say I’m on the cusp of motherhood.” She put on a warm smile.
“I’ll accept that. Got a name yet?”
Homa had an incorrigible grin on her face as she asked another casual question. She was genuinely trying to smile, but there was only one smile she could put up on a whim. She was trying to make the sort of small talk that a young girl probably would. Just a normal young girl curious about normal young girl things, of course.
Though she hoped for a simple answer, the Captain had other ideas.
Minardo poked Homa’s name, etched into a steel tag hanging from her vest.
“How’s ‘Homa’ sound?”
Homa blinked slowly at her, taken aback.
“That’s too sudden.” She said. Minardo shrugged.
“I’ll put down ‘Homa’ on every field in the certificate. Name, gender, ethnicity.”
“Your child would curse you for that.”
“Impossible. The only word I will teach them to say is ‘Homa’.”
Homa was becoming concerned that her mischief was being bested. Minardo’s expression was pleasant and delighted, her tone of voice was animated, and she loved to gesticulate as she teased Homa. Clearly she was an expert, and perhaps, had some experience with troublemaking. But maybe it was still working in Homa’s favor. She might have been surprised tactically, but her overarching strategy was still in play.
Her normally controlled expression showed a hint of determination.
Minardo laughed. “You’re a good sport.”
Homa had no idea what Minardo was talking about. Surely Homa just seemed like an innocent young girl with a pretty smile, asking simple questions that any girl would.
“Yes, well, there’s something else.” Homa said.
She had made enough small talk. It was time to get the goods.
“I’m new at the base, and I was hoping for an unbiased opinion.”
“Oh, ask away. I’ve been here months.”
“Could you tell me about that Zakkari lady? What is she like?”
“Yes, I had heard–“
She was cut off. Minardo’s eyes narrowed at her. Homa expected a reproach, though she didn’t care whether she received one. However, Minardo put on a grin, chuckled, and lowered her eyes to Homa’s level, staring at her almost nose to nose.
“I thought you looked like an angel, but in reality, it seems you’re a demonic little gossip just like me aren’t you? You were watching that little altercation, huh?”
One gloved index finger aggressively poked Homa’s chest as Minardo whispered.
She was perhaps angry, but more than that, she seemed far too amused.
Homa was shaken by the response and wanted no part of this drama anymore.
She did not know what she expected, but it was not that sort of face.
Just like me. Was this the same kind of smile other people saw Homa make?
Homa’s lips weren’t quite so full; Minardo’s luscious red grin went quite farther.
“Unreal, for you to try to antagonize me like this and then just back off.”
Minardo stood back up to her full height. Her wide grin was unchanged.
“I must admire your boldness though. I would punish you, but I see so much of myself in there, I just can’t bear it. I’ve never felt so maternal even toward my own child.”
Homa said nothing, and felt a quiver run down her back.
Minardo was too strong.
Homa began to speak in a fast, mechanical voice. “Well then I will be taking my–“
Before she could leave, Minardo pulled her into a little huddle.
“That woman is evil Homa. She will gobble you up. In a way, I’m glad you asked.”
“Words can barely describe Zakkari. She’s really one of a kind. Everyone thinks she’s so beautiful, special, approachable, intelligent. Loves a chat. All you need to know, Lieutenant, is that she’s a prime, grade-a, inspected and approved by the aircraft board of ayvarta, complete bitch. And that I despise her guts. Satisfied?” Minardo replied.
“Well. Thank you for your time.”
Homa said something very uncharacteristic of herself, before she even realized it.
“In fact, I’ll tell you and only you the truth. Can you handle it?”
Minardo clapped a heavy hand on her shoulder and squeezed a little.
Homa thought she saw a hint of tears in her eyes.
“She broke my heart. That’s genuinely it. I’ll just never forgive her for it.”
She pulled up Homa’s flesh a little in her fingers, like a massage.
Then she let her go and patted her shoulder.
“Don’t tell a soul. That’s your reward for making me laugh today, Homa.”
Minardo smiled at her again. Homa did not feel rewarded at all.
This was so much more than an antisocial like her had bargained for.
“Homa, are you ready yet?”
Her own Captain called out to her.
Thankfully, Sheba was soon reconvening with the squadron, and with little more than a smile and a wave, Minardo let her go. Homa made a mental note not to be difficult with Minardo, who clearly had experience in dealing with troublemakers — and being one.
She had not known at the time that Minardo, as a former Staff Officer in an army division, was a veteran of many a verbal spar with insubordinates and miscreants.
And of starring in many such odd scenes with her somewhat antisocial superior.
Homa would quickly forget this defeat, but Minardo would reemerge in her future.
Ayvarta, Red Desert — Khet Airspace
Vulture took to their cockpits at last.
Homa’s canopy was sleeker and more aerodynamic than those of her peers. For this mission they were flying with canopies closed, but sometimes it was advisable to open them, because they were impossible to open at high speeds. An open cockpit caused drag amounting to a 15-20 KPH loss, but being able to eject at all was a good trade.
She chose to close it of course. Homa did not care for her life enough to go slower.
There were still things to do before flying. Homa plugged herself into the radio system on the aircraft itself, checked her seat, and got reacquainted with the Bennu’s cockpit.
Inside the cockpit were several instruments. In between Homa’s legs was a long stick with a big handle that made up much of the physical control. There were two triggers, one for the 20mm cannon and one for all of the guns at once: one cannon and one 12.7mm heavy machine gun, propeller-synchronized along the center-line of the craft.
The Bennu’s center-stick governed its movement. Pull back or forward for pitch, pull side to side to control roll. Rudder pedals at her feet controlled the aircraft’s yaw. In the middle of flight, all of these controls would be rapidly used in a desperate, visually ungainly fashion to carry out the graceful, fluid maneuvers in the popular imagination.
Homa normally controlled the stick with her biological hand, which could operate the triggers. Her mechanical hand had a special position for flying. It could easily operate the throttle at her side that controlled engine power, as well as the levers that controlled fuel mixture, supercharger state and the engine mode for the jet at the back. All buttons, dials and levers around her were made so her metal hand could quickly hit them or hook them without needing much precise finger control.
Right in front of her face there was a gun sight, obscuring some of the instruments. She had to bend slightly to see the compass, altimeter and a few other gauges. There were two fuel gauges on the wings too. She had to look out from canopy to see them.
There were two radiators, for oil and water, with intakes on the wings near the cockpit. They could be opened or closed with wheel-shaped instruments in the cockpit that could be quickly spun with any hand. Open radiators created drag but vented heat. Homa’s Bennu was a particularly hot craft, so radiator management was vital. She made sure her radiator levers turned and kept an eye on the temperatures.
Crucial to a successful takeoff was the engine oiling. Homa switched on the battery inside the craft and then she pulled back a lever when Sheba, over the radio, instructed everyone to pre-oil their engines. Homa heard a thrumming and felt the aircraft shake lightly as the oil pump lubricated the engine. A pungent smell filled the cockpit but Homa barely noticed it. She was used to the smell of gas and oil in the Bennu.
Homa gave it a minute to oil, let it sit for a few seconds after, and then switched mixture control to the idle position. She then primed, using a pull-back lever to pump fuel into the engine to begin the starting procedure in earnest. After priming she started the engine, which seemed to struggle at first until she switched the mixture control again. She flipped another switch for the magnetos to keep voltage going. Once all of this laborious work was accomplished, the Bennu was belching fire and finally ready for takeoff. Homa’s eyes came to rest on her engine mode lever.
This box interrupted or released the throttle lock that controlled the motorjet on the back of the Bennu. It was unnecessary for takeoff or coasting or general operation, but if Homa wanted to showcase the Bennu’s true abilities, she would have to move that special lever and engage the advanced engine modes for jet engine thrust.
“Vulture-3 will go first, then 2, then lead.” Sheba said over the radio.
In the next few minutes, they had moved to the middle of the runway. Anada and Malik taxied down the runway and gained speed and then elevation. Once they were bound for the sky, Sayyid and Mannan followed. Finally, Homa flew out, and then Sheba rose behind her. Homa felt the whole aircraft thrumming, its power coursing through her own body as she fought gravity and lifted the nose off the ground. She almost felt like giving it a little jet during takeoff because it felt like the Bennu really struggled to get off the ground, but she knew that was a childish impulse and inadvisable mechanically.
Then finally her landing gear raised off the tarmac and she retracted them. Overhead, the sky opened up to her, enveloped her. As she ascended she saw blue, all around her, as she quickly left behind Solstice’s buildings and the ruddy sand and brown earth.
“Roll call. This is Vulture Lead, callsign Anatoly.” Sheba said over the radio.
“Vulture 3-wing, the beautiful one, callsign Gregory! Over!” Anada said.
Her voice came through the radio with great cheer.
In comparison, Malik was far more muted. “Vulture 3-lead, Vasily.”
“So nice to be flying with such angels today. Vulture 2-wing, callsign Emeric.”
That could only have been Sayyid.
Mannan was next. “Uh, I’m Vulture 2-lead, callsign Dmitri. Everyone’s RPM looking good? Be careful with the fuel mixture lever if we decide to practice aerobatics.”
“We will not be practicing aerobatics.” Sheba said.
“Still, you could easily smack it with your shoulder when giving some hard stick.”
Homa was starting to be able to tell them over the radio by voice alone.
Even though the audio quality was rough, they had enough personality for it.
“Boris, are you there?” Sheba asked.
“Vulture 1-wing, callsign Boris.” Homa replied.
“Aaah!” Anada sighed happily into the radio. “We’re finally in the sky again!”
The Garudas and Bennu linked up into a loose arrow formation led by Sayyid and Mannan. Sheba and Homa were farther back from everyone. As the fighter lead in Ayvartan doctrine, it was advised for Vulture 1 to be able to spot Vulture’s aircraft to issue commands. Such things would fly out the window in a dogfight, of course.
In order for Homa to fly at the same rate as the Garuda I’s, she had to keep her engine on fairly low power modes. However, she could not go too slow. Thankfully the radiator vent created some mighty drag, and the weight of the all-metal craft and its motorjet meant that without jet assistance it was pegged just a little bit faster than a Garuda. So maintaining their speed was not too taxing on either her machine or her patience.
Following about half a kilometer behind was Minardo’s cargo plane.
Flying over the red-brown sand of the Solstice desert was an eerie experience. There was so much emptiness beneath them. At a height of 3000 meters, it was hard to see details below, when there were any. In the desert, however, there was nothing but the river in the distance, the sweeping lines of the dunes below and Solstice far, far behind.
Such a vast expanse of nothing. Was this all that they were fighting for?
Of course, the village of Khet was out there somewhere.
“Vulture, this is Sickle. Come in, Vulture lead.”
They received a message from the air base. Sheba answered quickly.
“This is Vulture lead.”
“Mikhail Mikhail is at watch.”
After the coded phrase, the radio operator told them a series of numbers.
This meant that ‘M’ squadron from ‘M’ base would be patrolling their sector shortly, and that they should keep an eye out to avoid accidents. In this case, ‘M’ stood for Mallard on the squadron level and “Hammer” (Molotok in Svechthan) at the base level. Mallard was one of Hammer airfield’s squadrons, from what Homa understood. Those numbers meant nothing to Homa, but Sheba probably knew them as grid coordinates.
She had barely read the briefing files that morning.
“Woo hoo!” Anada shouted into the radio. “Lets do some stunts! Come on!”
Those coded phrases were not the full extent of their radio doctrine, but they were about as much as pilots were expected to learn. Rarely did pilots have to communicate mission critical information over the radio. It was fine to goof off on it as Anada was. Sheba gently chided her and said that they were on mission, not just doing training.
“Aww. Well, I guess I can always do this.”
Ahead of them Anada pulled ahead of Malik for the space to execute a quick roll.
Sheba shouted, scandalized. “I said no! Keep yourself level and in formation, now!”
“Yes ma’am.” Anada sighed.
For Homa, flying in formation did not deliver too much of a thrill. However, the act of flying at all filled her with a brimming energy. Perhaps it was only the transference of vibrations from the craft into her flesh, but she felt power coursing through her skin. She was defying nature as the Bennu cut through the air. There was always a sense of hollowness when she flied, as if someone had carved out her guts. It wasn’t as scary as it sounded. There was peace to it. She felt suspended in limbo — she felt death.
Her physicality was all there. She had to look out the sides of her canopy for her fuel gauges, she had to look behind herself and all around when in a dogfight to spot enemy planes. She pulled the stick, the turned valves. There was no sense in the idea that pilots “became their plane.” Theirs was a physical struggle the entire time. But there was a feeling of free-floating life, of an eternal fall in a careening steel cage.
That was gravity trying to tear her from the sky; but it was the lightness of being in flight at all. Homa imagined one only became this light at one other time — when dead.
She told herself that she didn’t fear death. That in fact, this was a kind of death.
That she was prepared for death. That she welcomed it. That she would come to it.
Ahead of her were her squadmates, all in their own cages too. Homa felt that if she squinted, she could have seen them all flying bereft of the metal, like angels or birds. Anada, Malik, Mannan, Sayyid, and at her side, Sheba. She wondered idly what they all thought when they flew. Whether they knew how frail their lives were in the sky.
She was being sentimental. It felt silly; but it was fine to be sentimental with oneself.
Flying was a thing of utmost loneliness for Homa. She didn’t have to hide during it.
After all, there was nobody to see and nothing to confront but mortality.
“Boris, how’s your engine looking?” Sheba asked.
“She’s been keeping up!” Anada said. She was teasing her, but it was quite empty.
After all, had Homa wanted to, she could have burned past all of them
“I asked Boris, please do not interrupt important squadron communication.”
Sheba insisted and once more, Anada’s fun was squashed.
Homa however was primed to have her own fun.
She accelerated suddenly, easily hopping over Anada’s plane in the formation, and climbed just as fast. She banked away from the climb and spun back to the rear of the formation, having completed an ungainly but impressively quick loop around them.
“Not you too! Boris, that was out of line! Don’t let Gregory corrupt you!”
“I’ve got temperatures, pressures and RPMs at optimal ma’am.” Homa replied.
Sheba sounded quite irritated. She grumbled incoherently for a second before saying:
“Ugh. Fine. Good. Keep your engine under control.”
That was essentially a way to say, ‘no stunts or jets’. Or so Homa figured.
“We’re almost over the drop airspace, ladies.”
Riding the airwaves came Captain Logia Minardo’s excited voice.
Vulture dispersed, allowing the cargo plane to overtake them. At Sheba’s instruction, Anada and Malik swept around the east and Mannan and Sayyid dipped to the west. Nominally their mission was to escort the cargo plane and guard it during maneuvers. Nobody was expecting the enemy, so it became something of a practice session as well. Anada was already spinning off, dancing in the sky; thankfully for Sheba’s nerves nobody else was so flightly. Homa and Sheba held back, close to the cargo plane.
They flew overhead. Homa banked slightly every so often, taking peeks at the plane below. She thought she saw one of the doors opening on the side of the plane.
Were they going to jump?
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve arrived at Konstantin Olga.” Minardo broadcasted.
‘K’ and ‘O’ which meant the Khet Oasis.
Below them the reddish sand was broken up by a crystalline blue gap.
“We’ll be jumping soon. Watch our backs, comrades.”
Now the training mission would commence. It was not just an oasis in the desert, but the skies over Khet were an oasis for the mind. Homa was in her element, with not a dark thought in her brain. She was excited, she was cutting the air seamlessly. Nobody had a worry on their minds. Vulture was flying! And the war seemed a world away.
Once more, Homa banked. She wanted to see the soldiers go.
When the parachutes started blossoming in the air she smiled.
By pure chance, a small patrol group in the Oasis of Tamir, a good hundred kilometers from Khet and Solstice, had been given an ARG-3 radar unit to practice with that day.
There were routine patrol flights to the east of them, coming from Solstice, that they could pick up on to test the range and reliability of the radar. Rather than one truck-mounted unit, this upgraded version was brought in by tank transporter and had five support trucks. Setup and tear-down was an hours-long affair, but well worth it.
While the previous radars had been mightily useful, they were inaccurate compared to the model three. An ARG-3 could detect aircraft over a hundred kilometers away and give useful, accurate directional measurement within 20 km with little dead zone.
It was during one such practice setup and tear-down that the ground crew in Tamir noticed one highly accurately measured group of objects. Unlike the objects they were used to these were moving west-to-east. From the “Republic of Ayvarta” to Solstice.
“That’s not normal.”
For a moment, everyone thought, hesitated, and then realized what was happening.
They hurried on their patrol cars to the village proper to call Solstice on the landline.
There was a group of at least 30 aircraft headed right for Solstice over Khet.