This scene contains violence, death, and great emotional distress.
13th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Erumai Region
Five Garuda I-bis, one JT-Bennu and one Kevalin Cathawk flew line abreast several thousand meters above the desert through the southern region of Erumai, many kilometers from Solstice. Up in the sky, there was only the light rattling of the plane and the sound of the propeller to sate the senses.
Feeling the vibrations transfer through her seat into her body, Haritha Malik felt like sinews within a steel organ. Responding like a muscle urged by the body’s electricity, she applied stick, gradually shifted the throttle lever, and turned the radiator handles. Venting heat, course correcting, adjusting cruising speed, all of this came as a natural reaction to the craft, its instruments, the pulse in its metallic veins. She was lost in all of it.
In the midst of overland flight, she could move by a practiced rote that required little thought from her. A brief glance at the instruments, perfunctory answers to radio messages, the stimulus came here and there, but mostly it was like a dream. She could look over her wings at the landscape far into the horizon and farther below and felt at peace.
A thought intruded in her brain, reminding her that this could be the mourning calm settling over her. She could have been flying to the end.
To the eyes of Haritha Malik, who could only see vast expanses of sand and small strips of green hugging the curves of the Qural river, it was tempting to call Erumai an empty place, akin to the silence and emptiness of a grave. She knew little about the tribes who still lived there, and she knew only marginally more about them than they did about her and her flight.
Though it had once been a land of herders who drove cattle between the oases and a few sedentary tribes farming near the basin of the Qural, Imperial tithes and unilateral policies created tension between the herders and farmers in Erumai, the latter seen as more civilized than the former. After the fall of Solstice to the communists, tribes aligned with one power or another for the chance to attack their long-hated enemies in the deserts. These grudges continued well past the point of the Empire’s final demise.
Nocht’s Wizard-class bombers, flying over this “empty” desert, knew even less than anyone. To them, there was only Solstice, off in the distance. That had been Malik also. She had struggled desperately to make it to Solstice.
Just a year ago, what had seemed like a life she would lead in self-hating obscurity became revolutionary. One meeting, a short string of words.
She had practically forgotten it in the whirlwind that her life became.
Solstice was still in her mind, however. It was still the important thing.
That shining beacon of all that was Ayvartan; she had to defend it.
Even someone as weak, as stupid as her; she told herself she had to fight.
Despite feeling uneasy, despite how difficult it was. She had to stare it down.
“Comrades, I’ve noticed the kids have been very quiet.”
Sayyid came on the radio.
“I hope they will be alright.” She added.
Anada could be heard piping up for an instant but quieting quickly.
“Leave them alone.” Sheba said. “Use the radio for important things.”
Malik was thankful that Sheba had ended the conversation.
“Camarades! Enemy formation on radar. I think we found our bombers.”
“At this speed, we’re ready to converge.”
“You heard the package! Get ready to attack!”
Marcy alerted everyone on the radio and Sheba quickly answered, and with a determined cheer, she gathered everyone together. They had not yet decided on a Svecthan language styled callsign for her, as was the tradition. So they referred to her non-specifically as “the package.” Vulture had already discussed their tactics ahead of time, and so there was no discussion on the radio of their specific pattern. Malik knew what to do.
At 6000 meters, they had only climbed to half their service ceiling, but the Archers and Bombers were flying even lower, at altitudes between 2000 and 3000 meters when last observed. Sickle Airbase could only guess that the formation was navigating without sophisticated instrumentation or that they were hoping to avoid or confuse radar. Older Ayvartan radars had difficulty finding targets low to the ground. Nocht had managed to avoid the anti-air zones, so they were not worried about being shot for flying too low.
Whatever their motivation, the enemy was a few thousand meters below them, and a prime target for birds of prey to ambush. Vulture made ready.
Malik stuck close to Anada, wing-tip to wing-tip, fingers hovering over the trigger. Sheba and Homa moved closer too, along with Sayyid and Mannan, followed closely by Marcy. They were three sections with gaps between.
“Standby for mark.” Sheba said over the radio.
“Eyes on target.”
Anada was the first one to say that, and perhaps the only one who could.
Her sharp eyes could see the enemy far below and closing in, but that was impossible for Malik. She could not have told them apart from features of the ground, even while moving. Even though all of them were below the clouds and with the sky open to them, Malik could see nowhere near far enough. Flying with the sun at their backs, the Vultures were also not likely to be seen by the approaching targets, however. Everything was set.
Sheba and Homa initiated their dive, the noses on their planes sinking toward the ground while their tails lifted. Malik could make out, for an instant, the gradual movement of the plane’s flaps to achieve a steady and stable dive, rather than a sudden, harsh drop. To their left, Sayyid, Mannan and Marcy waited for a few seconds before descending. Once they were gone, Malik and Anada waited for a few seconds themselves before joining the staggered dive. Their battle was underway: three ranks of divers, diving in three directions at three different intervals with the goal of catching as many enemy fighters as possible, even if they attempted to break away.
“I call this, ‘Vulture’s Carrion-Catcher Dive!'”
So Sheba had said, as she explained this maneuver in the past.
Diving was a rush. Malik truly felt the power of her plane when she went into a dive. Hurtling through the air, her speedometer climbing as her altimeter dropped, she felt like she was cutting a wound into the sky. She squeezed her fingers over the stick, the keeping the craft steady as it dove.
Ahead of her, she could finally see the enemy, first as moving dots, then blurry outlines and finally as fully silhouetted shapes. Twelve Archer-class fighters in their steel-gray liveries with the eagle shield emblazoned on their wings. They flew in formation about a kilometer ahead of the actual target: the Wizard-class bombers, practically invisible to the diving planes.
Though the Archers were arrayed at different altitudes, some higher than others, the only important fact was that Vulture was higher up than them.
Everything unfolded in great flash that spanned mere seconds.
Homa and Sheba, who had dived first, were the closest to the enemy and the first to open fire. Malik watched them as they pounced on the central Rotte in the formation. Homa came at them banking left; Sheba to the right.
Malik saw gunfire; in the next second, there was fire and smoke.
Two uncharacteristically violent explosions followed in Homa’s wake.
Her 37mm cannon did not just damage a fuel tank or an enemy’s wing — it annihilated them. Wings flew off from a fuselage blown apart, a cockpit fell burning and screaming with no wings or tail. Catastrophic, brutal damage; Neither of her targets would limp away trailing smoke. They were dead.
Briefly she saw what looked like a third airframe falling away from them.
Sheba’s 20mm cannon might have managed to down that aircraft.
Everything was happening too fast and Malik could not be completely sure.
In the next instant it would be her turn and she had to be ready.
With the lead squadron taking the center and attacking first, the enemy would naturally scatter away from the center. Mannan and Sayyid, staggered behind Homa and Sheba, would cover off one of the Rotte trying to escape, and Anada and Malik would pursue the other. Done correctly every one of the divers would have an initial window to attack the enemy.
As the enemy aircraft grew larger and larger below, Malik spotted Mannan, Sayyid and Marcy breaking to the left and opening fire. Without hesitation, Malik tore suddenly to the right. She did not think about Anada; she had to be confident that she could fly her own path and Anada would just follow.
One brief glance at her wings was all she took.
Anada was clearly visible on her wing.
Eyes forward. Malik spotted one of the escaping Rotte rolling away as Homa and Sheba burned past their center elements. She swung into pursuit.
Lining up, still speeding at an angle but beginning to level out, Malik lead her sight in front of an archer’s nose and rapped the triggers on her stick.
Her cannon and machine gun launched three volleys of red projectiles in tight patterns. Two bursts overshot the enemy’s propeller, and the third collided where the canopy and wing met, grazing a tank. This was not a kill.
Malik depressed the triggers for a split second and then resumed shooting.
All the while, Anada’s own gunfire flashed relentlessly off to Malik’s side.
She scarcely saw her partner’s attack in the space she had.
It was deadly.
Swarms of red projectiles rained down on Anada’s target, sweeping past the canopy and taking nicks off the edges of the wings until one bullet found a fuel tank. Smoke rose copiously from the wing before the tank sealed.
Anada never depressed the trigger. Gunfire trailed from the wingtip to the tank and then into the rear of the canopy and across part of the tail. Glass burst and steel went flying. Anada practically split the Archer in two before she overshot it, and the burning pieces spiraled in different directions.
One kill for their pair; and Malik barely knew it was happening.
Her own dive window would close before she could acknowledge Anada.
Malik was gaining too quickly and would soon overshoot her target.
She had no time save for a few blinks of the eyes and one twitch of the stick.
No matter what she did she was at an angle and speed that would take her below the enemy. There was no stopping in the infinitely small amount of time she had. She chose to pull back the stick, just enough to keep the fuselage in the sights. As she came upon the enemy she shot a final burst.
Her machine gun flashed three shots and missed all of them, but the single round she could get out of the cannon struck true near the tail section.
Malik then dove past and below the targeted Archer, and had to raise herself on her seat and look over her shoulder to view the result.
Behind her and overhead she briefly glimpsed the Archer struggling to turn around and keep its flying balanced. There was a vertical chunk missing from its tail, the rear rudder. Strictly speaking this was not a kill, but a plane without rudder would never threaten anyone. Malik tried to bank right and get a different vantage, hoping to confirm the enemy’s retreat.
She met with unnatural resistance from her stick.
On the radio Homa’s maniacal laughter sounded suddenly.
“I got two! Two shots, two kills! I’m invincible! Ah ha ha ha ha!”
Captain Sheba sighed. “Boris, calm down on the radio–“
Soon everyone was giving an update.
“Oui, oui! I scored my first kill!” Marcy shouted.
“Vultures 2, Leader and element reporting knockouts.” Mannan said.
“Two Rotte are down then.” Sheba said.
“Gregory reporting kill.” Anada said with muted cheer.
Malik, meanwhile, was struggling with the stick.
And the ground was growing ever closer.
“Uh, this is Gregory. Hey, Vasily, why are you diving still? Should I follow?”
Anada called Malik on the radio. There was a chorus of confused noises.
“I’ve lost stick!”
Malik finally shouted back. No matter what she tried she could not get the craft to pull back. She gently hit the pedals and rudder to test if she could make it yaw the craft a bit and managed it. But she could not make it climb!
“This is Vasily, I don’t have stick! I’m going to crash!”
Her stick was stuck just slightly forward of center where she had last applied pressure. When she tried to move it, it would budge for a moment but then become stuck in some other position. She feared becoming stuck with the wings banked and causing a stall, so she struggled to keep it level, but she could not get the nose to come up much at all. She grit her teeth and tried with all her might pull it back, but it would always jerk the wrong way.
Heart pounding, tears welling up in her eyes and her entire body shaking with both the vibrations of the plane’s instability and her own fear, Malik started gasping for breath. She felt a spiral of emotions worse than any she had ever experienced. Was she truly going to die because she could not pull back on a stick? The enemy vanished, her allies disappeared from her mind. She was trapped in an unreal contest with the implement in front of her. Her arms felt like noodles; never had she felt so weak, so helpless.
Before her stretched a flat, red-brown wasteland ready to consume her.
Her mind searched for answers, falling into a spiral of panicked blame.
For a second, she entertained the notion that she had gotten weaker because of the medicine. Wasn’t that one of the side effects? Hadn’t the doctor warned her muscle mass and bone density might be lost with the feminization? Malik felt her heart sink. Would she die now because of it?
She let go of the stick and in a moment of weakness, tried to open the canopy, but canopies on the Garuda I-bis were practically glued shut in the middle of flight. Still, in the panic that had overcome her, Malik could only punish and chastise herself and think, “am I this weak? Will I die weak?”
Her mind was overpowered by fear, a desire to run with nowhere to go.
Malik smashed her fist against the canopy as hard as she could, but she could neither break the glass nor budge the canopy. Her desperation grew, tears welled up in her eyes. She wanted to run, to run away, to never fly again if that’s the covenant she needed to survive. Her quivering jaw unhinged, and she let out a primal scream that was thankfully off radio.
She heard the crackling in her ear, as a transmission came in.
Mannan’s voice then sounded through the fog in her brain. “Malik, kill the throttle and choke out the engine! Open the radiators to make drag! You’ll just hit the ground like a rocket if you don’t slow it down right now!”
Either way she was going to hit the ground.
But if there was a tiny chance to survive–
Hanging on to any chance at life that she could find, only barely thinking, Malik began to lower the throttle and quickly swung the radiators open with the wheels at her sides. Her whole body was sweating, her mouth hung open and shut closed as she struggled to suck in breath, and she had not blinked in what seemed like an eternity. She felt the walls of the I-bis closing in around her as the red-brown sands came closer and closer.
Smoke spat out of the nose, and the aircraft shook as it bled power.
Suddenly her stick came unstuck.
Malik stared at it for a second in disbelief.
Acting on blind, mute adrenaline and instinct, she punched the throttle.
Before she could even despair at how cranky Ayvartan engines tended to be, she regained power without a problem. The prop resumed its spin.
A stone’s throw from the ground, Malik jerked the stick back and climbed.
Dust flew up all around her in a brown and red cloud.
Every movement of the craft caused her heart to sink, fearing that it was the sign that she had hit the ground, the instant of collision. Every vibration was a scrape, every tilt her wings about to rip into the ground. But she was soon fully nose-up and headed back into the sky. Somehow, she was saved.
All of it was a miracle, a miracle borne out of an endless nightmare.
“Bombers up ahead! But they’re already turning around!” Marcy said. “Movement on the radar indicates the rear elements are already escaping!”
Captain Sheba came on the radio.
“Boris, overheat authorized! Take a parting shot at the lead elements and then about face. We’ll head back home as soon as we confirm retreat.”
Malik began to climb. Her instruments were showing a slight uptick in heat and a small loss of power. She was not hitting the correct RPM, but the loss was minimal. She had expected worse after everything that happened.
All she could do now was watch Homa chase after the bombers.
Her battle was over; the enemy was already scattering, and she did not even score a kill like the others. Instead she screamed and cried in her canopy. She begged for an escape, for any way to survive. She felt ashamed of what she considered her weakness, her moment of complete disgrace.
It wasn’t even about the fighting.
Protracted dogfights were not the norm, she knew.
In the air, one side always got the jump on the other in some way. Whether they started with an altitude advantage, or came out of the clouds in surprise, or pulled some kind of trick, there was always someone for whom the fight was uneven. Two sides perfectly meeting at the same altitude and breaking out into a gentlemanly contest, was a fiction, it was just stories.
It was depressing not to have had an effect on the fighting.
Even from an ambush, Malik had not been able to score.
Even if the result was the same and enemy fled, she still felt the lesser one.
Her true shame, however, was that she stared death in the face and quivered and broke, unable to meet its gaze. All of the power and strength she wanted to have, she had given up on then. It felt like a low point.
As Malik climbed back up to Anada’s wing, she saw Homa darting toward the bombers, the rear of her plane spewing fire. She strafed the combat box, flying under and over the two right-most bombers before pulling away. Her cannon sent massive red lines at the enemy. Each tracer looked like the shot of a ‘death ray’ from a scientific-fiction story, and the impacts were almost as dramatic. Gun emplacements blew apart and gave off smoke with one round. Holes the size of a human torso blossomed on the sides and roofs of the two bombers. One began to stall; Homa had just grazed a propeller.
“Ah ha ha! I’m invincible! I’m unstoppable! I’m a grim reaper of the skies!”
While Homa celebrated, the scattered enemy fighters made their way back to the combat box. Just as Homa was breaking off her pursuit, they were coming in from all sides, having run away from Vulture’s initial dive.
“You want some cannon too?” Homa shouted defiantly, her radio still on.
They did not; all of them climbed and dived and rolled to stay individually quite clear of the Bennu. Homa flew between all of them, unmolested as her jet engine cooled off. While one Wizard slowly descended to the desert, the remaining 15 bombers and their decimated 4 fighter escorts escaped.
“No enemies in the area of operations.” Marcy said.
“Well, that’s it then.” Sheba said over the radio. “Good work, everyone. We’ll call for the army to capture that falling bomber. Vasily, are you alright?”
Malik felt so emotionally exhausted and depressed that she barely recognized her callsign being hailed over the radio. She sighed deeply.
“I’ll live.” She said.
“Thank goodness! Can you make it home?” Anada said.
Malik did not respond. Anada sounded impassioned and she couldn’t take it.
“You can make an emergency landing in the flats. We’ll get you picked up.”
That was Mannan.
“Vasily? What’s the state of your plane? Please respond.”
Captain Sheba flew at her other wing, while Homa pirouetted overhead.
Malik nudged the stick a few times. It felt quite chunky, and she feared it becoming stuck again, but as long as she was level she could do something with it. “I think it can make it if I’m gentle on the stick from here on.”
“We’ll give it a thorough check when we get back.” Sheba said. “Dmitri, if you see so much as a screw out of place, we’re grounding it. Vasily can fly a lend-lease cat-hawk until we can get a replacement Garuda. Are we clear?”
Mannan sounded a little shaken. “That’s how I always work. I honestly don’t know what happened. I’ll file a thorough report, I promise. Sorry Vasily.”
For Malik, all of this was cold comfort.
She didn’t think to blame the machine at all.
In her mind, the first villain was always herself. It was she who had failed.
As she limped the Garuda back home, the peace she had flying over the desert became a curse. There was nothing to distract her from the anxiety she felt, nothing to stave off the evil thoughts spiraling in her head. Just the ’empty’ desert below her, a desert that knew as little about her as she knew about it. Perhaps, she thought, she knew as little about herself as it did, too.
Had she always been this weak? It made her question her life’s history.
Had there been another Malik who managed all of this somehow?
Where had she gone? Her confidence was low, it all felt like a delusion.
Ayvarta, City of Solstice — Sickle Airfield
A small gaggle of mechanics and off-duty pilots stood around as Vulture approached and landed. Word had already gotten around from the radio operators that Vulture had once again turned away an enemy bomber group and scored several fighter kills. But more than celebration, there was concern. They had also heard that Haritha Malik barely survived the flight.
Malik was the first one to land, ushered ahead by the rest of the group. She was anxious to give the stick too much tug, and indeed it acted stiff for just long enough to worry her, but she managed to angle the craft enough that at worst she would slide down the runway on crunched landing gear.
There was no such spectacle. Malik touched down safely and at a secure speed, and taxied down toward Hangar 13 without visible issues. She stopped, opened her canopy and a nurse, accompanied by two mechanics, grabbed hold and helped her down. Malik brushed off the unsolicited aid.
“I’m fine, really. I wasn’t hurt.” She said.
“You should be checked up. It’s standard procedure.” said the nurse.
As Malik tried in vain to rebuff the nurse’s offers, the rest of Vulture’s planes landed and taxied to Hangar 13. Captain Sheba, and Anada, were the first two to get down from their planes. Anada practically jumped off, quite a feat given her lack of athleticism generally. Both approached Malik and the nurse. Their appearance alone changed Malik’s mind immediately.
“Fine, fine, I’ll go.”
She walked past Anada and Sheba without response, and after standing around confused for a few moments, the nurse followed, caught up and then led. Malik did look back at all; but she did hear Anada shouting.
“I’ll see you tonight! Let’s talk, okay?”
Malik grumbled. She didn’t want the whole base to gossip about them.
She was quite irritated about everything, and her various irritations had started to mix together. So it felt to her that she was mad at Anada afresh.
She couldn’t face her, not now anyway. She was mad, yes, but also ashamed.
As she followed the nurse, Malik started to worry. She had in mind a lurid image of the nurse asking her to disrobe and then staring at her penis as if it was some kind of injury. But no such thing transpired. At the infirmary, the nurse and one of the base doctors checked her with her bodysuit still on. They reminded her of her privacy rights under the decency laws. They took her pulse, checked her breathing, and had her do a few jumping jacks. They went over her medical record and asked her a few questions. None of them were the questions Malik was afraid of having to answer to anyone.
“Well, superficially you seem quite healthy.” said the doctor. He handed her an information packet about self-checking and reporting injuries and ill feelings. “Please come back if anything specific troubles you, comrade.”
Her suit wasn’t even ripped anywhere, so there was nothing to check.
Malik felt a little annoyed. After all, she already knew she was unharmed.
“Standard procedure.” the nurse said sheepishly. She smiled at Malik.
“Can I use your shower?” Malik asked.
Malik forced a smile and headed past the rows of hospital beds to the very back of the infirmary. She opened a special blue door that had a sliding slot in the middle, and locked herself inside the infirmary shower room. She turned the red knob until there was as much hot water as she wanted.
She was not in the mood to stand around waiting for the private stall to open up at her barracks bath, and definitely not to share a bath with anyone. When possible she took a late night shower with Anada, but under the circumstances she wanted to be alone. Though it was cramped, about the size of an outhouse interior with a stiff one-directional shower head, the infirmary shower was private, and hardly ever in use, and nice and hot.
Warm baths were therapeutic, even in the middle of the desert. She felt the heat and steam flowing over her naked body and almost managed to relax.
The nurse even set a fresh uniform outside for her. Malik pulled on a handle in the middle of the door, and the slot that was once outside sank into the shower room with her. She picked up the clothes that had been left there and dressed up. Nobody had to see her or offer any kind of comment.
An undershirt, a sturdy bra, undergarments, pants, shoes and a coat were included, along with a belt, a hair tie and a new garrison cap. After dressing up, Malik tied her hair up into a little tail and donned the cap, looking at herself in the foggy, wet mirror in the shower. She left the infirmary feeling refreshed. Until she remembered a certain obligation that was in order.
Malik left the underground infirmary in a hurry.
She was going to be late for her session!
Though she was supposed to file a report for Sheba, this took precedence.
She would have hated to have stood up the Commissar.
With everything that happened she had forgotten she was supposed to check in with Commissar Ranga as soon as possible. Malik passed through the barracks in a hurry. At the far end of the underground habitation block she found the offices for the unit officers, including Sheba’s, which was usually empty. Down the hall from Sheba’s was a dead end with only one door adjacent. This was the political Commissar’s office. Because most of the commissars worked in the army, where guidance and counseling and “political leadership” was far more necessary, the airbase only had a handful of political commissars. Asharia Ranga was their appointee.
Malik knocked on the door, and a firm voice responded, “Come in.”
With trepidation, the young pilot turned the knob and peered through a crack. Commissar Ranga had her back to the door, and was looking through a bookshelf. She had the aesthetic of a schoolmarm, middle-aged with slightly wrinkled eyes behind round spectacles, deep red pigments on unsmiling lips, black and white hair pulled back in a tidy round bun. She wore a pristine red and gold uniform with a skirt that stretched long to the ground and a small cap in place of a peaked hat. Her physique was delicate.
“You can take a seat. I’m just reorganizing the shelf.” She said.
Malik entered the room and took up a chair on the other side of Ranga’s desk. The room was small and there was not much in it but the desk, its chairs and the three bookshelves that half-encircled the desk space. These were completely filled with literature. She had tomes of communist theory, primers on laws and regulations, and a set of colorful encyclopedia books for instructing young folk, of the sort one would see an actual schoolmarm possess. On her desk there were stacks of printed literature to hand out.
“Did you read the book I gave you?” She asked.
Commissar Ranga sat down across from Malik and gave her an appraising look. Malik felt anxious. She had not read the book. She had felt anxious trying to read it, because it made her feel foolish. So she avoided it instead. At the time, there were all kinds of excuses she used. Lunches, sorties, chores, Anada’s distractions. In reality she just wanted to avoid her studies.
“I started, Commissar.” Malik said.
“I know you’re busy, but it’s important. It’s not a requirement, but almost every pilot has gone through school and knows arithmetic and geometry.”
“I know, Commissar.”
Malik had gone through school, but she had not been too terribly successful at it. She had gotten through with sports and literature and community services, but math and science gave her a bit of a headache. She knew how to count, she wasn’t a complete idiot, she told herself. But their chief problem right now was something else entirely, more than two plus two.
“Well, you didn’t read, but you must remember our last lesson right?”
Commissar Ranga produced a worksheet with shapes on it.
“Do you think you can find the angle represented by the x?”
Malik could not. When she looked at the shapes, they felt fuzzy in her brain.
“Take your time. If you can’t remember, I can help you.”
Commissar Ranga wasn’t a bad person.
That was the reason Malik came back. Commissar Ranga really cared.
That was not the problem.
It was the fact that Malik hated confronting her lack of knowledge and skill.
That was the issue.
Malik thought to herself, anyone should be able to know this. Why was it that when it came to her, all of these facts just flushed out of her brain? She was being asked to calculate the angles on these shapes. She thought she had heard Sheba say something to the effect that a dive straight down was a 90 degree angle. Was that what she meant? Was that the X in the triangle?
Feeling frustrated, hating herself powerfully, Malik thought she would cry.
So many things were so impossible for her. Every one thing she conquered seemed to create another impossible obstacle in her way. It was impossible to be a girl, or so she thought. She had left her awful little mining town and her pushy parents and made it to Solstice, the jewel of Ayvarta, where everything was possible. You could even be a girl there if you wanted to.
She joined the army, she started to transition; but it felt like she was still being held back all of the time. It felt like she was always fundamentally incomplete. Sharpshooting felt impossible, tank driving felt impossible; even talking felt impossible; all she had was flying. Somehow she could fly. Somehow, that came naturally to her. If she ever lost that, she was a goner.
How had she managed to fly?
Captain Shurelis was a saint to even let her try.
Captain Shurelis was a saint for even wanting to teach her.
Malik was cursed with few gifts. Basic athletics; and aircraft.
She wasn’t good enough for sports; she wasn’t smart enough for an office job. All of the factories were full. She wasn’t creative, she wasn’t good at writing or drawing or handcrafts. She wasn’t about to live on a stipend all of her life, doing nothing. She couldn’t fathom it. So she joined the army, but here, all of it was still a problem. All of it was just like this worksheet. It was so simple to others, but to her, it was impossible. Math was impossible; flying was turning impossible; being herself was impossible; loving was–
Malik had not noticed, but she was weeping.
Struggling with this worksheet made her emotions bleed copiously.
Commissar Ranga reached out to take the worksheet.
“We don’t have to do this now. Clearly you’ve been through a lot–“
“Commissar, what’s the point of all of this? Why do I need to learn any of this? What does it help me, if I’m flying out there to die every day?”
Malik violated Vulture’s taboo and gave in and spoke of death.
She couldn’t help it. It was the only way to express her frustration.
“It’s impossible. It’s all impossible. There’s no point to any of it. I’m so–“
She was about to say that she was scared. She was so scared to even try anything and rack up another obvious failure. She was scared to talk to Anada, she was feeling scared to get back in the plane. She wanted to run.
Commissar Ranga put on a firm expression. “Lieutenant Malik, with that attitude, everything does become impossible. But you’ve made progress, I know you have. You’ve made progress on many things. If you keep working at it, little by little, with all the help we can offer, I know you can do it. Just like how you learned to fly! You may not see it, but you are perfectly able–“
“You’re just told to say that.” Malik grumbled. “What’s the point? Tell me!”
Malik slammed her hand on the worksheet in frustration, cutting her off.
“What is the point of trying this, when I never can? When it’s impossible?”
She bowed her head. Her lips quivered. She was weeping copiously.
She felt like a child, but she couldn’t help her emotions.
These were things she had been burying for long.
Much like her flying coffin was miraculously unearthed over Erumai.
Her emotions were brought to the surface too.
Commissar Ranga crossed her arms and stood firm.
“The point of geometry? Learning anything lets us have exact words for what we feel and experience. When we have exact words and concepts, we can make sense of the world. That’s what communism is founded on, you know? We see the world as material, and we are able to deduce its content.”
Malik looked up from her feet at Commissar Ranga with shock and surprise.
“Geometry can help you in planning flights, in launching dives at enemies. When you fly, when you dive, it’s at an angle. If you know your math, in an instant you could see the world you’re familiar with in a brand new way.”
Malik wiped her tears.
She felt like a dusty curtain had been torn open in her mind.
She was struck when the Commissar talked about having “exact words for what we feel and experience.” She remembered the exact words that she had heard a certain doctor say early last year, when Malik decided what she wanted to do with her life. A certain doctor who was quickly and quietly touring the nation’s town halls to spread word of a certain concept.
“Well, I know this might sound like baloney to some of you, but the health commissar finally let me give these orientations, so: if you’re thinking you want to be a girl or a boy, but you aren’t one right now, maybe I can help?”
Dr. Kappel had stood in front of a bewildered crowd to talk about this.
Her tour had to be cut short; there was a political crisis in the south, and then soon after, the war broke out. She managed to visit only a few cities and villages before she was recalled to Solstice. But she did manage to visit Malik’s village. She did not know it, but she taught Malik words that let her understand her experiences. Malik, who quietly wanted to be like a girl.
Those words had set Malik on her journey. A journey full of failures and hardships, but that also led her to where she was. To the things that she accomplished. Like Commissar Ranga said; like Captain Shurelis had said, too, when she allowed a useless trainee to fly, to get her hands on the stick.
Malik felt like, more than screaming anger, other things were being unearthed too. She felt a sense of energy and purpose in her body.
“Commissar, can I really learn this stuff? I feel like I was born too stupid.”
She was born another Malik, too. Could she really keep changing like this?
Commissar Ranga reached out a hand and touched Malik’s shoulder.
A small, proud smile crept up on her lips. Her eyes gleamed.
“None of us are born as anything unchangeable, Lieutenant! We are all born formless people, and we grow into the people we want to be. We’re always growing and learning. That’s the communist party way!” She always had to stick an endorsement of the Party in her sentences, but somehow, Malik was feeling uncharacteristically endeared to the Commissar’s speech.
Malik had never quite thought of it that way. Despite the fact that she was already spitting in the face of one way she was born, she never thought of challenging anything else. She started to run, because she knew how to run. She kept flying because it worked. But she looked at those worksheets and she wanted to give up. She had looked at Anada too — and nearly gave up.
“Commissar, I want you to help me. Can you really help me learn math?”
“I’ve been trying to!” Commissar Ranga said. “Will you take it seriously? Will you work very hard, and never give up even if it looks difficult?”
She needed to talk to Anada too.
She was starting to feel like she had been giving up on Anada, but Malik loved her. She felt that if she wanted Anada to change, then that was a process she had to go through with her. Shouting at her and ignoring her was not going to help. Justified as she was in being mad, Malik thought that perhaps in the same way she had no words to understand math, Anada needed help understanding what Malik needed and wanted from her.
Malik did not want to give up on Anada. She wanted to work with her.
Even if it was hard. Anada was not a bad person.
She was the girl Malik chose to spend her time with. It wasn’t even that bad.
“Commissar, I have something I wanted to confide–“
At that moment, the door opened behind them.
A young man in an army uniform appeared suddenly.
“Commissar, ma’am, prisoners are being brought in for an investigation. We guards’ boys don’t know much about planes, so you all should talk to ’em.”
Commissar Ranga turned a small smile to Malik.
“I feel like we made progress today. We’ll talk again soon okay?”
Malik nodded her head. She felt a strange sense of relief.
She had found some kind of answer, and something to work towards.
With her goal in mind, she accompanied the Commissar and a few soldiers out to the airfield. Once she parted with them on the runway, she saw the Commissar head toward a massive transporter convoy on the other side of the base. Two tank carriers and a mechanized crane flanked three large flat-top cargo cars of the sort that might have carried logs or steel beams or tanks in other contexts. On two of the cars, which had been chained front to back, was the fuselage of a wizard bomber. On the third car, the wings, which had been cut off, were tied together and carried on their own.
Homa had only damaged a gun emplacement and one propeller on it. So everyone around the base was saying the same thing. For the first time since the start of the war, the Ayvartans had captured a mostly intact Wizard-class bomber, and living crew. It was a revolutionary moment.
Malik could hardly savor it, however.
Soon as she got out to Hangar 13, a mechanic called for her.
“We’re looking at your plane now, Malik! Want to come see?”
Mannan clasped her hands together and did a short, standing bow in front of Malik. Behind them was the Garuda I-bis Malik had flown just a few hours earlier. Under the electric lights on the hangar roof, a small group gathered to discuss what had happened to it. The plane had been raised up on a lift, and the engine cover and undercarriage plates were off. It had been thoroughly searched for problems, but Mannan was holding the offending part in her hand. She had spent the late afternoon and early evening desperately tearing it apart to find the cause of the day’s drama.
Malik had watched everyone work and contributed a little bit herself.
Now she knew the cause of everything, and felt a staggering sense of relief.
“I’m so sorry.” Mannan said. “It was the base of the stick, the moving parts wore out. I did not check the cockpit enough. There is no excuse for this.”
Her stick was old and the bearings broke. She was not weaker, she was not losing her ability to fly, and being strong would not have changed anything.
“It’s fine.” Malik said. She was waving her hands defensively.
Beside Mannan and Malik, Captain Sheba stepped forward and laid a hand on each, and shook them gently for encouragement. “No one got hurt, and we learned a valuable lesson. We should thank our lucky stars that we have a great and caring squad mechanic and a competent, brave pilot here.”
She smiled at them, but Malik bowed her head and felt off. She did not want to be praised for any of what happened. All she had done was panic and grab everything she could find in the cockpit. It was the plane, or God, or whatever; she had just gotten lucky. Mannan did not need to prostrate herself. Sheba did not have to go out of her way to spare Malik’s feelings.
At any rate, now that she knew the cause she could move on from the plane.
“I want to go to bed.” Malik tersely said.
“But it’s dinner time.” Sheba said. “You’re not going to eat?”
Night had fallen over Sickle airfield. Far in the distance, there was still a very thin sliver of red. Though there was sun somewhere, at Sickle the sky was a rich purple overhead, and it seemed to darken by the minute.
Malik shook her head. “I have something I need to do first.”
“Of course then.” Sheba said. “I’m just trying to keep watch over you. You did hours of PT, you barely ate today. You’ve clearly been upset all day, and by more than just the mission.” She sighed, as if she was about to undertake a laborious task. “Did something happen between you and Anada?”
“It’s nothing. Can I go?”
Sheba looked downcast. She always wanted a part in fixing everyone’s problems. But Malik needed to solve this by herself. It was too personal.
“Very well. But please take care of yourself.” Sheba said.
Malik smiled at her. It was a weak smile, but it had determination.
Sheba and Mannan both looked surprised, and Malik left them surprised.
At a practiced run, she left for the barracks. It was dark out; she had spent a while in the infirmary, talking to the Commissar, watching the plane get taken apart. Everything else had been resolved. Only one thing remained that Malik desperately wanted a solution for. She had to talk to Anada.
There were four beds in their room, but two were unoccupied, so Anada and Malik had the room to themselves. Neither had many possessions, so the accommodations looked sparse. Malik opened the door, and instantly her eyes fell on a bundle of blankets, rising and falling gently on one of the beds. All of the urgency of the moment seemed to dissipate suddenly.
Sneaking around the side of the bed, Malik found Anada, sound asleep, her tail twitching under the blankets, her ears wiggling. She rarely went to bed this early. All of the day’s events must have taken a toll on her. Malik sighed. She felt awkward, feeling pity but also a bit of annoyance at this villain.
“We’ll talk later.”
With all of her resolve having turned momentarily fruitless, Malik backed out of the room, laughing. She headed for the mess, hands in her pockets.
Malik barely touched her curry at the mess. She was brimming with nervous energy. There was a sense of weight, not being lifted, but set upon her back anew. She had decided something important, and now she had to follow through. Following through was scary– but she could not give up.
By the time she realized she would not be cleaning out her tray, it was late enough that the hangars were shuttering. After she left the main mess, she felt the eerie quiet of the base’s after-hours. She saw few personnel outside, and the guards were starting to take their shifts enforcing the curfew.
Everyone knew Malik though, and nobody begrudged her doing more PT.
So she unbuttoned her coat, and started to run.
Before she had gotten very many laps of the airfield however, she spotted someone watching on the edge of the field, from one of the ramps up from the undergound. Long hair, black circles around the eyes, and an impish grin. It was Anada’s mischievous “panda,” herself, Homa Baumann.
“God, you’re always out here. What’s your problem?” Homa said, grinning.