This chapter contains brief nudity and mentions and discussions of sex.
13th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, City of Solstice — Armaments Hill, Sickle Airfield
Colonel Fareed’s departure changed more than the center stage of the officer’s lunch table. When the officers entered the hall for lunch on the 13th they found entire cast of characters had been disrupted. For Homa it felt like a new environment all over again, and she had just gotten done being introduced to the way it was before! She was surprised and inwardly amused to see Benali and Zakari demoted almost to the middle of the table; of course not directly, but by the addition of new staff. At the head of the table of course was Brigadier General Madiha Nakar. Directly below her were Parinita Maharani on one side and Logia Minardo on the other.
“Madiha; to think I’d see you again here, of all places!” Minardo said.
She reached out and put an arm around General Nakar’s shoulder.
Everyone at the table stared with eyes agape at the familiarity to which Minardo, who was not a common face at this table, treated the General.
“Even I get unlucky sometimes.” replied the weary General.
She looked mortified to see Minardo. Her eyelids seemed heavy; Homa had never seen a picture of the great General making such a comical expression. Meanwhile, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani was sighing and trying to bring order. She reached out and delicately pushed Minardo’s reaching arm.
“Minardo, watch the first name basis.” She scolded.
“Ah, come on, the General and I have been through thick and thin. I saved her life once! You should be thankful to me, Maharani. You of all people.”
“Minardo!” whimpered the Chief Warrant Officer.
“I’m not doing these anymore.” General Nakar said, averting her gaze.
Homa briefly glanced at Zakari to see her reaction. She thought that social climber would have been aghast at the perfect target for her schemes being surrounded by other women, including one who hated her. However, it was Benali who was making offended faces; Zakari was bashful and seemed to be trying to shrink herself in size so Minardo would not turn a gaze her way. Homa did not analyze this reaction beyond thinking, ‘that’s no fun!’
Below Maharani and Minardo on the table were a pair of women Homa assumed were bodyguards, given their sparsely decorated uniforms. One of them, with striking silvery hair, had no expression as she turned the pages of a book decorated with postal office stickers and pins. Across from her the other woman, a slightly rough-hewn figure with a strikingly soft golden-brown face and a braided ponytail, drummed on the table with the utensils.
One tier below them on the table layout was a woman who, judging by her decorations, was a Colonel. She was also a new face. Young as anyone in attendance, something about her made her seem delicate, elegant and refined. Perhaps it was her softly honey-brown skin, or the artful style of her hair, straight and blunt, cut to the shoulder but with a pair of small braids meeting at the back. Perhaps it was her streamlined facial features.
When she spoke up, her voice and mannerisms dispelled this regal aura.
“Don’t be such a square, General! Isn’t this fun? We all get to chow down together like in the field! You need stuff like this to liven up base life!”
“I normally eat a very light lunch by myself.” said General Nakar. “And in general I think everyone would be better served eating in their offices while reading or working, or just eating with their troops rather than with me.”
“It’s tradition though! We’re trying to make the transition smooth as possible, this is part of that.” said Chief Warrant Officer Maharani.
“Fine, I can attend a lunch or a dinner but not both. It’s too much.”
“That’s the spirit General! Compromise! It’s good for morale! Morale!”
The loud, brash-voiced Colonel pointed a fork at General Nakar as she spoke and laughed. She gesticulated with it in such a lively fashion that it went flying from her hands the very next moment. Homa could’ve sworn she saw the fork hurtling right at the General’s face, but it had actually gone off the side. To do such a thing, from Homa’s perspective, it would have had to curve unnaturally around her face, but she must have been seeing things.
Everyone gasped; the two bodyguards gave the Colonel a baleful glare.
“Wow, that could have gone very badly. I guess the General truly is not very lucky today, but I am quite lucky to have missed!” The Colonel delicately covered her mouth and gave an unwarranted ‘oh ho ho!’ sort of laugh.
“Please calm down.” Maharani warned her. The Colonel settled down.
While this was happening, Minardo took the opportunity to sidle up.
“General Nakar, catch this lowly Captain up! How’s your life?”
“By design, it’s been eventful. Anyway, don’t you have a baby to deliver?”
“Oh my, your sense of humor is crueler and sharper than ever.”
Minardo put an arm around the General’s shoulder again, and again, the Chief Warrant Officer glared at her, and put a hand to her own brow in exasperation. Such an unfamiliar scene and all the talk about closing down the lunches dampened the mood for a bit, but soon everyone’s cliques were gathered again and people chatted with each other while Minardo annoyed the General. Homa turned to Sheba to find her staring straight at her.
“What?” Homa asked brusquely.
Sheba turned sharply around. “Use only one squirt of hot sauce.”
Homa stared right back at her, narrowing her eyes.
“I know that’s not what you were thinking about, but I’ll ignore it.”
“What are you imagining? It’s not like I’ve got another reason to stare. I just don’t want you emptying all the chili in your plate. Just do what I say.”
Homa narrowed her eyes at her. Sheba’s turned cheeks flushed a little.
In this way, Sheba and Homa had no productive interactions that lunch.
Across from the loud Colonel was a lieutenant of a very slight figure and stature who seemed no older than Anada and Malik would be. Because of their meek and cute appearance, all the conceited older air officers around them got curious and wanted to tease them. Age was not always easy to tell, but unlike the Colonel, this officer had the stance and demeanor of someone who had not come into their own. Behind sleek glasses, dull eyes hid from sight. Long hair collected in a bun dulled any sense of individual hair care.
And when approached, he answered questions with an awkward voice.
“I-I’m Adesh Gurunath! I’ll be helping train anti-aircraft gunners.” Once he finally opened up a little, there was a barrage of questions from those around him on the table. “Oh, yes, I guess I don’t look much older than the kids behind the guns, but I’ve fought planes before. I was in Bada Aso; it’s not a good memory, but it’s useful. I do hope it never comes to that again.”
Meanwhile, the Colonel from before was basking in the attention. She crossed her arms, put on a grin and spoke with theatrical gesticulations. Once she was finally asked her name and history, she took center stage.
“You’re graced by none other than Colonel Viola Santocristo-De La Rosa!”
Colonel De La Rosa went on to explain that she was the current commander of the “1st Guard’s Red Banner Twice Order of Lena Tank Regiment” also known as “The Kalu Raiders.” In the Aster’s Gloom of 2030, she successfully commanded an ambush in the Kalu region that destroyed thirty Nochtish tanks, equipped with mostly weak Goblin type tanks. And during the battle of Rangda, she boasted, her detachment managed to reconnect the split halves of the Regiment and prevented the elves from surrounding them. She lifted the hostage situation that the tanker HQ fell into by her own hand, now equipped with a much more powerful Hobgoblin type tank.
“Huh, interesting. What happened to El-Amin? She seemed so capable.”
Minardo asked this of the General, who responded with another deep sigh.
“All my old commanders got poached out from under me.” Nakar said. “El-Amin and Hakkan are up north training the new armies. I’m glad my tactics are getting passed on to others, but I hope they stop pillaging my ranks.”
“But it turned out fine, didn’t it, General?” De La Rosa said with a big cheerful smile. “El-Amin acted so indecisively in Rangda, and she put so much work on us junior officers because of it. War requires big energy!”
De La Rosa pumped a fist into the air.
“Spoken like a true member of the 2030 Mafia.” Minardo said, giggling.
“I’m not wrong, am I?” De La Rosa replied, hands on her hips.
“You’re not wrong.”
This was all Madiha Nakar said in response.
She smiled back at her subordinate, who was even more energized by it.
Judging by the whispers going around the table, De La Rosa was there because the Guard’s anti-aircraft battalion was guarding the base. This unit, consisting of the autocannon equipped Kobold tanks and KnK-5 motorized artillery guns, was the best rapid response defense the army had against aircraft, short of summoning their own aircraft. Word was that De La Rosa was like a charging boar in battle, her slogan being ‘attack, attack, attack!’ She had gotten the title “Wrecking-Ball Rosa” for her relentless offensives.
As a commander of a defensive anti-aircraft battalion, though, no one knew how she would stack up. It was not a problem that “attacking” could solve.
“Ah, there’s the food! Looks so much better than ration packs!”
Colonel De La Rosa was louder than anyone, and nobody could fault her.
There was a saying that Ayvartans could forgive anything at the table.
By the time their lentils, bread and sabji got brought in, there was lively chatter and smiling faces as if Colonel Fareed had never left. There were jokes, gossip and big, bold speeches just like old times. Perhaps having only one communal meal a day would even improve the energy over time.
Even Homa got in a last laught of her own.
“One squirt.” Sheba said threateningly.
Having been overcome by some bossy attitude, Sheba stared over Homa’s shoulder as Homa picked up the bottle of chili sauce to pour over her wheat gluten cutlet and vegetables. However, this bottle had been strategically laid on its cap for many minutes by Homa. When she finally struck the back of the bottle with her palm to deliver a good squirt, a stream of chili sauce came pouring out that doused her food, turning the creamy brown curry sauce bright red. Sheba stared in disbelief as Homa put the bottle back.
“One squirt.” Homa said. She turned a devilish grin on Sheba.
Sheba crossed her arms and fixed a glare on her.
“Ah, come on, Sheba, leave her alone. Chilis are good for you! You eat that much chili sauce, you’ll sweat the devil right out of your soul.” Parveen said.
“There’s more than heat there too. It’s got a nice vinegary kick, some citrus, there’s nothing like Solstice chili sauce. I back Homa on this.” Abeer added.
Both of the boys had taken seats next to each other across from Sheba and Homa. This seemed to have become their new standard spot. Despite their sound arguments, they had picked the worst time to speak. Sheba turned a narrow-eyed, wrathful glare toward them, and they quickly turned away.
Homa, for her part, cared less about the health benefits than the pain.
There was nothing like a fire in her mouth to remind her of being alive.
Her voice was ragged, she was hardly able to catch breath.
Thirty times she had completed the course from the main gate to Hangar 15.
Droplets of sweat sprayed from Malik’s face as she ran down the runway.
Her chest thundered, her calves screamed with pain. Her feet felt heavy, but she took every new step as quickly as she took the last. She bowed her head to keep the sweat out of her eyes, but after a while she was hardly looking to see where she was going. She glanced at the people and objects in her way, briefly met eyes with the other runners doing their mandatory PT.
She ran past them again and again. Pushing herself; punishing herself.
When she felt the most confident, Malik ran in an undershirt and shorts like everyone else. But she was overwhelmed with shame and wanted nobody staring at her chest, or lack thereof. So she ran with her jacket on. In the oppressive heat of Solstice, this decision made her body feel like an oven that was cooking her skin and guts. Despite this, she kept running, stopping only to drink from the tap near the outhouses at the main gate every two laps. She did not want to drop dead in mid-run — not quite yet anyway.
Homa and Sheba had gone to the officer’s lunch, and Anada knew better than to try to stop Malik when she was in this sort of mood. One person who did not know better, however, turned up around the twenty-eighth lap and started to watch Malik from the sidelines around Hangar 3. Malik caught a glimpse of her smiling face and ignored her for two laps.
Finally, however, Sayyid started to run alongside her.
“Hey, Malik, you oughta slow down a bit! I can’t run this fast for too long!”
She patted Malik in the back. For her part, Malik would have kept running at the same speed. It was recognizing that she was running particularly faster than anyone else that got her to slow down. She had not realized she was going any faster than anyone else around her. More than wanting to avoid others, she also hated seeming desperate. She felt briefly mortified that she had apparently been bolting through the airbase in a conspicuous sprint and that everyone had probably been staring at her the whole time.
So Malik dialed back her pace, and as she lost momentum, she felt again the need to breathe and the tortured screaming of her calves, knees and hips.
There was something frustrating about that also. She felt caught in a tug of war between her fear of other’s eyes and the shame of being too weak. She was weak, so she ran; but she was weak, so she could not run forever. To run forever would expose weakness too; to stay in one place exposed another. It felt like no matter what she did, she was weak. Her mind was weak, her emotions were vulnerable, her body was unsuited to anything.
She felt everything begin to spiral, she was running in circles–
Not a woman, not a soldier, nothing–
“Are you okay? I’m sorry to butt in, but as your senior, I felt troubled.”
Sayyid’s voice got Malik to snap her head up suddenly and look at her.
They had slowed down to a jog and the PT crew could now outpace them.
Malik shook her head at Sayyid, her cheeks streaming with what could have been sweat or tears. Her eyes were red, whether from running or crying it could not have been said. Her breathing was ragged; fatigue, or distress?
“I’m fine.” She said.
“Oh that doesn’t sound fine at all.”
She really did not want to hear any comments on her voice.
Sayyid smiled at her.
“I’m surprised you do so much PT! I mean, I knew you liked sports, but running around doesn’t have a lot of use for aircraft piloting, you know?”
Malik shook her head.
“Even just doing this I get a little tired.” Sayyid said.
They jogged past a few women unloading a pallet of goods from a truck near one of the hangars, to be taken down to the underground warehouse. Sayyid craned her head to get a glimpse at something or other on one of the women and whistled. Malik could scarcely believe the nerve of this woman.
Sayyid caught sight of Malik’s bitter gaze and laughed awkwardly.
“Those work overalls really suit them!” She said.
“You know, maybe there is something about all this ‘running’ business.”
“Hope it toughens you up for when you get punched by one of them.”
Malik could not help responding. Sayyid laughed.
“There we go! There’s that sense of humor.”
“Hope you trip; no joke.”
“I do love it when you get terse. You’ve got a strong, silent aura right now!”
Malik couldn’t really respond.
“It’s really powerful! I wish I could’ve painted you while you were running.”
Malik turned her head away from Sayyid, breaking apart their gazes.
“Ah, sorry, I guess I’m no Anada when it comes to playing around with you.”
It was true that Malik was not much of a talker. She had found that Anada responded well to having someone play along with her jokes. And since she esteemed Anada, she warmed up to playing that role for her. Even then she could only stomach doing it every so often. Malik was naturally terse.
Sayyid laughed. “The two of you really fit like peas in a pod.”
Malik finally stopped running when they passed the main gate outhouses again. She had paused to get water, but she was so tired that she had to sit down next to the fountain after a drink and catch her breath. Sayyid had followed her, and was surprisingly not too worn out herself from running.
Barely sweating and with that same fox-like grin on her face, Sayyid sank down next to Malik and looked on at the gate. That truck that had been unloaded before was driving out. Sayyid blew a little kiss at the driver.
Letting out a deep sigh, Malik shoved her back up against Sayyid.
“Are you bullying me?” She asked.
“What? No! I don’t do that kind of stuff.” Sayyid sighed. “Ah man, I’ve been cast as the villain. I was honestly worried! Even with that crazy Homa here, you’re still one of the squad kids, you know? I gotta keep an eye on you!”
“I don’t want it.” Malik replied.
“You had a fight with Anada right? It isn’t the first time you’ve been mad at her, so it shouldn’t be too bad, right? She’s probably used to it by now.”
“It’s not that.” Malik said.
“It isn’t? It usually is. She’s always bothering people with that rotten attitude of hers! That’s why I say, she must be used to people being mad at her, maybe she even likes it. So I think if it’s on your part, it can get made up.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Ah, come on, don’t compare me like that, I try to make people happy!”
“So does she.”
There was a moment of dead silence. Sayyid blinked at Malik.
Malik, in turn, was staring daggers at Sayyid.
“Such a dangerous look! That’s a ‘don’t mock my girlfriend’ type look!”
“I’ll punch you!”
“That’d be a ‘don’t mock my girlfriend’ type punch! Are you so sure?”
There was no doubt that this was just Sayyid’s way of trying to help. Malik did not hold it against her, because she knew Sayyid had some issues of her own to sort out. So she was as reasonable with Sayyid, the same as Sayyid had been reasonable with her. At least, about the Malik that she knew.
For the things she didn’t know, at least Malik was on a road to healing them.
After all, she had met with that doctor and talked about becoming a woman.
“You’re not ‘becoming’ anything! Don’t frame it in like that! You’re already a woman; we’re giving you breasts as a compensation for time served!”
Dr. Kappel would have probably said a joke like that to her to lift her spirits.
Malik was trying to confront things, to fix things.
They all were, one way or another, Malik told herself.
Reminding herself of this, she did not punch Sayyid very hard.
Sayyid rubbed her shoulder, but the strike was as gentle as a little kid’s.
“Ah, this is my ‘around the shoulder approach’ arm.” Sayyid lamented.
Malik smiled a little bit.
She did not want to think that punching Sayyid let off some stress; rather she framed it as, she was happy that her comrade was trying her best to help her. Even if she only had a very small part of the problem in her head.
Eventually, Sayyid stopped performatively rubbing her arm.
She sighed and smiled again.
Malik sighed. “Thanks anyway.”
Sayyid looked up at the sky. A scouting plane took off from the runway.
“You know; the thing about Anada is, every time she genuinely makes someone mad, in a way that she can’t play off as a joke, she is so shocked about it.” Sayyid said. “I think she’s probably torn up about your fight. She’ll apologize too. She made Mannan actually mad one time, you know? She was so apologetic. She even offered to do chores. It was when she was new.”
Malik had been the newest member of the squad before Homa came along. Although she had been working with Anada for months now, she had not seen that bit of drama unfold. Malik could see that happening, however. Somewhere deep down, she knew, or hoped, that Anada was like that.
Shortly after she met Anada, they came back from a few of their early flights feeling rather passionate about each other. Or at least, Malik felt passionate about her. They, in some sense of the word, ‘got together.’
And now, if they were to ‘come apart’, could Malik stomach it?
“What if I don’t forgive her, Sayyid?”
That had been her greatest fear all along.
She had so dearly wished that Anada could have been someone kinder, more prescient, someone more committed and stable, while still being the sunny and whimsical woman Malik fell in love with. She hated thinking that Anada had hurt her because it revealed her as someone who could be unthinking and callous, who could break the glass of Malik without worry.
Malik felt a spiral of vulnerability and emotion, and she hated showing it to anyone. She hated having to show a truer self to anyone. She wished they could all feel it implicitly and act accordingly without her making an effort.
Anada would not, because she was not perfect, not divinely keen.
Nobody was; but it still felt particularly unfair that Anada had offended her.
Anada was supposed to be so many things to her.
But was she as serious about it as Malik was about her?
Maybe somewhere along the way she had misread Anada.
Throughout all of this heavy thinking, Malik had bowed her head in a way that had let Sayyid know something was still wrong. Sayyid was alarmed.
“Don’t get me wrong!” She was quick to raise her hands in defense. “I’m not saying you have to forgive her, of course! Gosh, I was thinking you two just had a petty spat but you know, if she did offend you of course you can–“
“Don’t worry about it.” Malik replied.
Seeing Sayyid distressed was almost funny. She really did care sometimes.
Sayyid put down one hand and ran the other over her hair.
“Well, at any rate, I think you should talk to her before you decide whether to hate her forever or not. You two clearly care about each other.” She said.
“How are you so sure?” Malik said. She put on a slightly sour face.
“Only someone who really cared about that girl a lot would spend so much time with her. No one else but you goes out of the way for her.” Sayyid said.
Malik turned her eyes away. “It’s not that bad.”
“That’s the most lovey-dovey thing you could have said about Anada.”
Malik punched Sayyid again, and Sayyid burst out laughing.
“Say, now that we’ve bonded and are good friends, I want to paint you!”
“Not a chance. I know what you paint.”
“It wouldn’t be like that!”
Standing up from the fountain, Malik stretched her arms up over her head.
“I’m too ugly anyway.” She said.
Sayyid frowned. “Oh no! You’re lovely Malik! So gallant and finely-carved in body, but with a picturesque face! A sharp nose, a sleek jaw, strong brows and a smooth chin!” She made her fingers into a box and tried to frame Malik inside of them. “With your forehead drawn in during a sprint, your lips curled; like a hero sprinting down a foe, filled with determination!”
Malik cringed at the description.
She took off running again, this time with a bit of a smile on her face.
Behind her, Sayyid collapsed back against the fountain in defeat.
Sheba shouted at the top of her lungs at the hangar door.
“Malik! Get in here! We’re assembling!”
Everyone had been called on to sortie. Malik had heard from the base-wide megaphone system. So it was not altogether necessary for Sheba to shout at her when she arrived. But it seemed she was dead set on shouting it again when Sayyid arrived behind her, so Malik let her have that moment.
Shrugging when Sheba asked where she had been, she slipped past her to the left-hand side of Hangar 13. There was a wall formed between her and the main hangar by a series of standing lockers. Across from them, against the actual wall of the hangar were a few bench seats, and a palm tree in a pot that they tended to together. She always changed in this area for its relative privacy. It had been given to the younger members. Her and Anada.
When Malik arrived, Anada was sliding her arms into the suit and over her breasts. She paused for a moment, but showed not a hint of bashfulness.
“Ah, hey, hello.” Anada said.
Quietly, Malik began to undress.
Anada smiled and waved, sliding her hands out the other side of the sleeves. Both had seen each other in this state of undress, and more.
“Can you help me close up?”
Malik had pulled off her coat and undershirt; when Anada asked, she sidled, topless, around Anada’s back and helped seal the suit. Though plump, Anada was not particularly wider than any given other user of the medium size suit, but she still had a bit of trouble getting it to seal tight.
“Clumsy hands of mine.” She said, laughing.
She just wanted Malik to touch her and be intimate in some way.
To be reassured; but she wouldn’t ask because she was just that childish.
Silent, Malik nodded at her and let her mild annoyance pass.
Without saying more, she began to pull down her pants, until she was down to her undershorts. This was another situation that, despite her current conflicted feelings about Anada, was not a problem. After all, she’d also more than seen Malik in this state of undress. And neither of them had much of a problem with way Malik was built that other women weren’t.
“Haritha, I’m really sorry about earlier. I went too far, and I want to take responsibility! Without your nonsensical sayings, it really feels like we only have half the performers on the stage, you know? Could you forgive me?”
She bent over to meet Malik’s gaze as Malik bent over to pull the suit up her legs and up to her waist. Anada also mirrored her as she rose halfway.
Their eyes met rather close as Malik fixed the suit at her waist.
Anada’s lips gave her a quick strike on the nose.
“C’mon, you know I’ve proven I’m happy with how maidenly you are! I just wasn’t thinking. I was doing a joke. You’re all woman to me, you know? Heck, honestly, I barely knew what ‘woman’ meant until I left my tribe!”
Malik pulled the suit up to her chest and slid her arms in.
Unlike Anada, she had no trouble closing up the back herself.
Her belly was leaner; but also her breasts were far, far smaller.
And it helped that she was a quite a bit more flexible and athletic.
After suiting up she fixed a skeptical stare at Anada.
Anada put her hands behind her back and put on a sultry look.
“I can prove it again if you’d like.”
Her tail curled around the inside of one of her thighs. Her ears flared.
She was referring to the fact that the two of them were lovers.
Sayyid would have been surprised, maybe; but that was the truth.
It was part of the reason Malik was torn up about the situation.
This was what Anada meant when she said she had ‘proven’ how happy she was with Malik. Because they had had sex; more than once, in fact. Malik could see that excuse. After all, all of their bodies had been involved in the act, so there was no hiding from each other. Anada had said she accepted it, supported it, been delighted by everything. Malik took no issue with that.
Contrary to everyone’s innocent and chaste reading of their relationship, Malik almost considered Anada more of a sex partner than a girlfriend.
Not because she lacked esteem for her, or thought of her as less than invaluable. Malik wished with all of her heart that she could have felt as secure in her ardor for Anada, as that ardor itself wished to burn. However, even seeing her standing there with a lustful look on her face felt like she was being mocked in some way now. There was a side to Anada that threw what should have been a peaceable, lovable relationship into pure chaos.
“C’mon, I know you’re probably a little antsy, but I can fix that–“
“You’re too flighty, is the problem.” Malik said.
Anada blinked. She put on a confused face. “What do you mean?”
Her cat-like ears drooped.
Malik thought of what Sayyid said. She realized she had to be honest.
Not just to herself, but also to Anada, or nothing would change. Just as she was trying to be herself in other ways, Malik had to be herself there.
“I could accept any joke from you if I felt like our relationship wasn’t equally as funny to you as your pranks.” Malik said. “That’s the truth.”
“What? You think I’m just fooling around with you? That’s not true.”
Anada looked ashamed. She shrank back, averted her gaze. Her tail curled tighter. Her eyes narrowed, and it almost seemed like she would weep.
Malik felt frustrated, and once she started talking she could not stop.
“I care about you a lot, Anada, but I need you to show me that you care as much back. It feels like everything is a passing fancy to you. I don’t want to feel like I’m just part of the joke also, but I can’t help but feel that way when you’re never serious about anything. You never commit to anything; you don’t even remember stuff that hurts people! You just blab it mindlessly. And you never respond genuinely, you’ve always got some kind of quip. Even right now, you’re offering such a serious thing in that jokey voice.”
Anada gasped. “I’m not like that! I do remember and I do care, Haritha.”
“Then you need to show me that, so I can trust you again.”
“Trust me again? You don’t trust me anymore?”
“I want to! Just, stop treating everything, including me, like a joke!”
Anada squirmed lower until she was practically hugging her knees.
“I guess– I can’t really blame you. You’re right, I was being thoughtless.”
She stood up again with a small smile, twitching her fluffy ears.
Malik sighed. “Showing contrition now when things blew up in your face just isn’t enough, I’m sorry. We’re adults, I really– I need more than that. It’s going to take a little time and at least a little more effort than that, okay?”
She was being more verbose than she’d ever been with her life.
She could be like this with Anada, and it was so frustrating that it felt like Anada never understood that special place they had, never took it seriously.
She had almost wanted to say that she could die any other day, and that Anada was the only thing in her life now that could be stable. She was the only person Malik could come back to, the only person she could let inside. The Vultures never talked about death, so Malik did not say such a thing to her. It would have been unfair. But the situation had really hurt Malik.
For her to deliver Malik a stab in the gut even unknowingly, when Malik needed her love and her kindness to come back to after defying death every sortie; it hurt twice as bad. Maybe that was unfair; but Malik desperately needed more from Anada. More than just idle laughs, lunches and sex.
She wanted a relationship; a real relationship where they understood each other. A real relationship that would not break at random out of whim.
She wanted to know Anada’s feelings were lasting, concrete and real.
Anada, meanwhile, seemed childishly determined just to raise the mood.
“I know, you’re depressed and stressed out! But I have the tonic for that!”
Striking an exaggerated pose, she made cat’s paws at Malik.
“Listen Malik, my feelings for you are strong as the cannons on our planes! You’re absolutely the best, a strong runner, a good looker, an ace flyer, and looking at you standing there with that sullen face, you’re actually a really fragile maiden! Honestly, if I’d known you had such a cute, needy side–“
Malik brought her hands up to her face. “That’s not being supportive at all!”
Without warning Anada switched to an impression of Marcy’s accent. “Pardon! Then I’ll speak to you in the language of amour, so you’ll see–“
Malik cut her off.
“This is exactly what I mean! You’re not taking this seriously!”
Anada covered her mouth suddenly with her hands.
Malik anticipated another stupid joke, but she really did look ashamed.
“I’m sorry, I’m really nervous.” She whimpered.
Malik felt particularly annoyed and averted her eyes, gritting her teeth.
“You must be nervous all the time, because you’re just acting like always!”
Anada cast a sad gaze down at the floor. “Well, I– I kind of am, you know?”
At that moment, Malik felt a little pang of guilt for all that she said.
Her eyes drew wide and she stared at Anada with a bit of disbelief.
After all, Anada was dealing with issues of her own.
Just like Sayyid, and just like everybody else.
Had she really spoken so aggressively to her?
Malik was frustrated and she’d let it all come pouring out. But it was fair, wasn’t it? She endured a lot herself; it was fair for her to state her side and to try to make Anada understand what was wrong. It was fair to be mad.
She also felt rotten for what she had said, however, because perhaps she didn’t understand Anada either. Maybe they were just talking past each other and neither of them could ever satisfy the other as they stood.
Her voice became pleading.
“Avana, I don’t want to keep shouting. We need to talk seriously about–“
Before Malik could try to meet her halfway, however, there were a series of loud footsteps and then knock behind them. Around one of the lockers in the corner, Homa peeked in and tapped her fist on the metal to get their attention. She had a big grin on her face as she watched the two of them.
“You lovebirds need to hurry up! Everyone else is ready for the briefing!”
Anada balled up her fists. “Oh, go away you monochrome goblin!”
Homa retreated like a weird puppet, creeping back behind the locker.
Anada and Malik exchanged glances and sighed, exhausted.
First to crack a smile, of course, was Anada. “Haritha, are we ok now?”
Malik took in a deep breath. “No. Avana, please, let’s talk later, for real.”
It took an extraordinary effort for her to leave the lockers behind first, but if she stayed, she would have just caved and forgiven Anada and they would have learned nothing and grown not an inch. As much as it hurt, they could not just keep on going like there was nothing to change.
As she rounded the lockers, Malik felt a shot of needed reassurance when she heard Anada’s footsteps behind her and heard her reply, “We’ll talk.”
Everyone gathered around a blackboard set up in the middle of the hangar. Sheba stood at the head of the meeting, along with Marcy, now dressed in a blue bodysuit with the vest and lycra shorts to match everyone else. Her hair was collected into a ponytail. Mannan, Sayyid and Homa looked well enough, but everyone could tell Malik and Anada were having a bad day.
“Something wrong, you two?” Sheba asked. “We gotta get our spirits up! Vulture is intercepting another Federation bomber formation today.”
Both of Vulture’s youngest responded at once with a shout of “it’s fine!” — but both of them also sounded annoyed and offended by Sheba’s concerns. This seemed only to make Sheba more visibly concerned for the two, but she crossed her arms, frowned and moved on to the subject of the briefing.
“Anyway, you may have independently met her already, but I wanted to formally introduce Lieutenant Marceau Laverne De Champeaux-Challigne.”
After executing a flawless pronunciation of Marcy’s full Helvetian name, Sheba looked toward Anada as if expecting her to field some kind of joke or interruption. Anada did nothing of the sort, and merely stood fixed in place. So there was only an awkward silence that made Sheba look rather silly.
“Well, fine then. Anyway. In Helvetia she is a Junior Lieutenant, but we call that a 2nd. Lt. here. All of us technically outrank her but please show her hospitality as a comrade who is putting her life on the line for our country. Marcy is a specialist in the technology of radars; her plane is a Helvetian cathawk, but we’re calling it Kevalin because of the airborne radar technology installed in it. With the Kevala Jnana, Marcy will lead us to Federation bombers and help us ambush them in the skies. While Marcy’s a capable pilot, her aircraft is heavier than ours, so it will be up to the rest of us to protect her. We’ll trade guard duty between each of us. For this sortie we’ll be giving her to Sayyid and Mannan. I’m sure you’ll keep her safe.”
“I entrust my life to your hands.” Marcy said, smiling. “Comrades.”
She said the latter with a tittering little laugh, as if it was a novelty.
“Why are we being given this system?” Homa asked, raising her hand shortly after starting her question. “We’re a bunch of fuck-ups, right?”
“Speak for yourself.” Sheba said, huffing. “We’re not the only ones who got a radar liaison, and we were selected because we did well on our last mission. Furthermore, General Nakar is even personally interested in you, Homa, and in the Bennu; so perhaps you should be more grateful, okay?”
“I never asked her to be interested, so I don’t care.” Homa said bluntly.
Sheba crossed her arms and raised an index finger to say something.
“Could we please get on with it before we get a second alarm blast?”
Mannan raised her hand after speaking as well, sighing openly.
Marcy covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a soft, delicate laugh.
“At any rate.” Sheba pointed back at the board. There were 16 shapes in a Federation combat box formation and three close groups of four fighters each drawn below the bomber force. “This is a Nochtish combat box and its escort of three Rotte groups with four fighters each fighting in a pair. We’re short on manpower, but we have the advantage of surprise, and the enemy will be at the edge of their fuel limits too. We’re going to pounce on the fighters and try to destroy an entire Rotte in the first pass, and scare away the remaining fighters quickly after. Without their escort, the bombers will almost certainly flee. If not, they will after we knock out two or three.”
Sayyid raised her hand.
“Yes?” Sheba asked.
“Can we tell what altitude they’ll be flying at?” Sayyid asked.
Marcy shook her head.
“Unfortunately at this point the radar cannot fix a zenith.” She said.
“Luckily, this group was found by a ground spotter on the remaining Kucha mountain visual station, so we know they’re flying at 1500 meters. So we can just fly higher than that until we make the intercept.” Sheba said.
“Ah, I see. That’s all.” Sayyid replied. She fixed a smiling face on Marcy.
She stopped when she found Sheba glaring at her.
Marcy seemed momentarily confused, but remained cheerful.
“Any other questions?” Sheba asked.
“How close will the intercept be?” Mannan asked.
“The city will be safe if we scramble soon.” Sheba replied.
All of the vultures shook their heads, save Homa, who made no expression.
Sheba was interrupted from outside the hangar.
“Wait, one moment, ladies!”
From outside the door, Janjid came tripping in.
He hit his boot on the separator along the bottom of the threshold and fell.
Everyone turned and stared, but Janjid was taken by some kind of energy and was unfazed even after becoming a victim of the bloodthirsty door.
Once he picked himself up, he approached Homa with a massive grin.
Mannan stared at him with a mix of skepticism and mounting anger.
“He’s harmless.” Homa told her, poking at the side of her suit.
“If you say so.” Mannan crossed her arms and turned her cheek.
Janjid gave her a glare briefly as well, but only when she was not looking.
“Homa, I couldn’t help but overhear the situation. Luckily, I just got done installing something on the Bennu that’ll give you an edge on Nocht.”
He produced a rolled up picture from his jacket and opened it for Homa.
Homa took it in her hands and her eyes drew wide.
Now she was also grinning as wide as Janjid was.
“How is this possible, Janjid?” She asked.
“It’s because I’m a genius. I have the biggest brain in all of M.A.W.”
He pointed at the braids on his head, his eyes drawing wide.
Homa stared between him and the picture in disbelief.
For all the world it almost seemed like some kind of bizarre ritual.
Sheba tapped her feet impatiently, and then forced herself between Homa and Janjid to look at the picture. Homa was practically salivating over it.
“What in the world?”
Seeing the picture visibly stunned Sheba. It was a diagram and a photo of the V-12 engine that formed the “motor” part of Homa’s motorjet power. It had been inverted, and under the gap of the inverted-V was a massive cannon. Judging by the scribbles on the photo, it was a 37mm AA cannon!
“Is this installed, Janjid? Is this installed?” Homa asked.
“Yessiree!” Janjid said. “Homa, you got a 37 mm in that beast now! You’re gonna be one-shot, one-killing those sons of bitches! I guarantee it!”
Homa burst out into maniacal laughter and everyone stared.
It would have been uncharacteristic had it been cheerful. Perhaps the fact that it was actually horrific and terribly disturbing made it sound familiar.
Suddenly as she started, she stopped, pushed the picture into Janjid’s chest and sprinted out of the hangar, the white parts of her face flushed and clearly embarrassed with herself. “It– it’s not like I care.” She murmured.
Everyone watched her go, some sullen, some depressed, others bewildered.
Much to their chagrin, a second alarm then sounded for them.