This chapter contains violence.
14th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.
Ayvarta, Solstice City — Sickle Airfield
For how hot the days were, Solstice’s nights were eerily chilly. Temperatures during the day could get as high as 45 or 46 degrees, but at night they could drop to 13 or 12 degrees. Perhaps the Helvetians would laugh at someone describing 13 degrees as chilly, but for Solstice, it was coat weather.
A cold breeze swept by Malik and she quivered gently against it. Her tanktop was soaked with sweat, and once she stopped running she felt the cold sharply against her back and over her chest, even with a tight bra on.
Homa Baumann, however, seemed unaffected.
She was clearly fresh out of bed. Her, long pale hair was slightly askew, and she dressed in the standard issue pajamas. A short-sleeved top and soft shorts with a cotton bra — some of the latter was exposed by Homa’s willful disregard for the shirt buttons. Her biological leg had a stocking over it, but her mechanical leg was fully exposed. Her mechanical hand was visible.
For the first time, Malik got a good look at them.
Homa’s prosthetic leg seemed to be composed of a hoof-like end for a “foot,” attached to a main column for the lower leg that could bend slightly under her weight at the knee. The biological remains of that leg, above the knee, were fastened by a strap. Her arm was much more complicated. A series of levers on the wrist cuff manipulated dozens of segmented metal parts like rigid ligaments, that expanded and contracted to move Homa’s fingers.
“Like what you see?” Homa said. “Maybe we could get you some.”
Malik smiled awkwardly. “No, thanks.”
Homa ambled towards her from one of the ramps to the underground.
She stood next to Malik, faced the runway, and raised her biological arm to stretch. She rotated her hip, and performed a bit of a squat as if to prove that she had some flexibility. Malik watched her with bewilderment.
“I can follow along. Just go on. Keep running.” Homa said.
Malik blinked, and without another word, she nodded and took off.
At first she was running at a full clip and naively expected Homa to be able to keep up; but she almost immediately slowed to a jog and looked back.
Homa was following along at just barely above her normal walking speed.
Her balance was quite visibly compromised from trying to move faster. Her body swayed, the prosthetic leg unable to solidly bend and return and plant its feet the way a normal leg could. That it could move at all and wasn’t completely rigid was a mechanical miracle. She was close to a jogging place, but every step of her prosthetic foot scared Malik into thinking she’d fall.
As she advanced, Homa stared down at the floor, and her chest heaved with effort. Malik had not even gotten to thinking that such a complicated leg was probably a bit heavy, and that it was being lifted exclusively by parts of Homa’s calf, the only thing that remained of that particular leg.
Despite everything, Homa kept moving, probably as fast as she could.
She did not look up or around herself. It must have taken some willpower and focus to move in the ways that would keep her upright, to see where her weight was out of place, where her leg was going and correct for it with every step. Her metal arm being opposite the leg probably didn’t help.
Malik thought at that moment that she learned something new about Homa.
She thought to herself then that she wanted to know more.
She wanted to know what happened, and what made Homa do all of this.
Out of respect for her, she did not keep staring over her shoulder.
She didn’t run, but continued to jog, almost hoping Homa would catch up or even overtake her. They completed a few laps around the airfield in complete silence, Homa falling steadily farther and farther behind Malik. Every so often Malik peeked back and slowed down just a little, but she saw Homa sweating and struggling for breath, yet continuing to run anyway.
Whenever she caught sight of this, Malik sped up again.
Finally, Malik stopped around the outhouses near the gate to get a drink from the water fountain adjacent to them. She hit the button and let water splash her face before drinking her fill. Once Homa caught up, she dropped with her back against the outhouse, soaked in sweat, breathing heavily.
“Dump some water over my head.” Homa said, between ragged breaths.
Nodding, Malik collected water hands and splashed Homa a few times.
“This is a bunch of shit.” Homa whined. “I can’t believe you do this every night. You–” She briefly ran out of breath. “Something is wrong with you.”
Malik couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“Why did you run after me?” She asked.
“None of your business.”
Despite her exhaustion, Homa had full lungs when it came to being rude.
There was a brief silence.
Once Malik thought of running again, Homa breathed in and interrupted.
“What’s with all the P.T.?” Homa asked. “Atoning for your sins?”
“It’s good for you.”
“Not this way, it isn’t! Are you looking to compete or something?”
“I’m not fast enough.” Malik said.
Homa crooked an eyebrow. “For who? For the national team here?”
“I guess so.”
Malik had not exactly been that insistent with the local sports clubs.
She had trailed, failed, moved on to something else. Such was life.
She remembered she had gotten discouraged fairly quickly.
Homa was not satisfied with that answer, and gave her a sour look.
“What do you mean ‘I guess so’? Look, you got endurance. You could probably do one of those gimmicky cross-country races after the war. Then you would be punishing yourself for a reason. You might even get famous.”
She looked at her own leg and sighed. Her eyes looked a little moist.
“I honestly thought I could keep up.” Homa said darkly. “When you’re doing the same thing every day– sometimes you forget where it is you’re lacking.”
She shook her head.
Malik blinked. Homa seemed almost to be talking to herself, in a low voice.
“How did it happen?” Malik asked.
She pointed at Homa’s arm, though she also wanted to know about the leg.
“Such a busybody!”
Homa narrowed her eyes at Malik, who raised her hands defensively.
“Sorry. I was curious.” Malik said.
“I guess you are just a kid. You probably admire me or something. Ugh.”
Homa sounded quite aggressively dismissive and avoided looking at her.
Malik smiled at her. “You’re my upperclassman.”
From Malik’s point of view Homa did not look much older than her, and in fact looked a little slighter and smaller all around in a way that made her seem to be the younger one of them. Despite this, because it was technically true that Homa was the elder, Malik acted with deference. Especially since the age difference was working in her favor for now by softening Homa up.
Like everyone in the squad, she was quite curious about the mysterious, distant ace that had been assigned to her group. This was the first time they had gotten to talk alone for any length of time without any official business and Malik’s girlish curiosity could not be tempered by her social anxiety.
“I do admire how you fly.” She said. This time, she was fully honest.
Homa looked at the ground. “You really shouldn’t put any faith in me.”
Malik had barely heard her, but Homa was quickly moving from the dark tone of her previous statement to a rapid, matter-of-fact new conversation.
“Okay, listen up! I’ll only say this once, and only to you!”
Homa shut her eyes and kicked her legs.
“My old man flew a cropduster. He’d take me out with him sometimes. We dusted grain in the north. I was twelve or thirteen; we had an accident, and there was less of me and none of him left after it. I got a little peg leg from the National Health Initiative then. So I learned to fly a plane with it.”
“I see. I’m sorry.”
“You should be.”
Homa grumbled. She averted her gaze, looking toward the hangars.
Some sort of plane was coming down the runway.
Twin propellers, and a long chassis, a sort that Malik had not seen before. It must have been an experiment, like the Bennu. Soon it had taxied down the runway, out of their sight, the runway blocked there by a row of hangars.
When it took off, a pair of searchlights illuminated it in the sky.
“Probably a test of some kind.” Homa said. “Anyway, the arm is a story for another day. Let’s just say I lost it in the war. Is that enough, busybody?”
Malik was half amused and half ashamed. “Sorry.”
“You should be!”
Homa cracked a little grin at her. In return, Malik smiled at her.
“Did you see yourself doing this? Back then?” Malik asked.
“Question time’s over for me; what did you want to do as a kid? Huh?”
She had thrown the question back at her.
Again, Homa’s narrowed red eyes scanned Malik’s face.
Thinking about that question made Malik’s face flushed and warm.
Her upbringing was an area she wanted to forget a lot of the time.
“Well, I think I wanted to be a bride, or a mother.”
Homa started to crack up, covering her mouth in mocking laughter.
Malik scoffed. “That was when I was really little! Then I wanted to dance.”
She recalled her mother and her older sister’s traditional dances.
You had to be a certain size, a certain weight; you had to be beautiful.
You had to be a woman.
To dance, to be a bride, to cry, to love, to be open to yourself–
In Malik’s town, in a little green corner of the wastelands, that was life.
Life as no one who simply looked at the red sands of Solstice could know it.
“I came from a very rural place.” Malik said.
“Makes sense. We’re both country bumpkins then.”
Homa crossed her biological arm over her chest, then picked at a few of the levers on her wrist cuff so she could cross the other arm together to pose. She had on a distinctly placid smile that Malik thought must have been rare. Maybe Homa was just tired; she still looked quite worn out from running.
“Good on you for making it out here.” She said.
There was a note of solidarity in her voice and expression.
Malik was surprised but tried to suppress showing it on her face.
Maybe Homa was indeed a little bit happy to be the upperclassman.
Malik started to feel comfortable and on a whim, confessed something–
“Homa, would you be disgusted if I said I was not a normal woman?”
Her own anxieties, however, compromised what she wanted to say.
She was met with a look of narrow-eyed confusion from Homa.
“For running all day?” She asked, clueless.
“No, of course not.” Malik shook her head. “I mean, there’s other reasons.”
“Is it that you’re shacking up with that cat? I don’t care.”
Malik’s face felt hot. “No! Not that! We’re not–“
Homa raised her prosthetic hand.
“I have a metal leg and a metal arm, define ‘normal’ for me.”
“I mean,” Malik struggled for a moment. “What if I had a tail?”
Rather than amused Homa was starting to look annoyed.
“We live with a cat-kin who has a tail. We see her every day.”
Malik put a hand over her own face. “What if the tail was on the other side.”
She couldn’t say it! It was too ridiculous to confess! Malik felt near death.
Homa shrugged. “I can’t imagine anyone would see it or care about it.”
Malik almost hoped Homa was too dense to understand the kind of tail.
“Nevermind.” Malik sighed.
Maybe it was just not the time to have this conversation with Homa.
Homa was giving her suspicious looks but seemed amused again.
“You’re so anxious all the time.”
“I’m not!” Malik said.
“Tell me this: what’s the worst thing you can imagine happening?”
She said this out of the blue. It was not a difficult question.
Vulture’s verboten answer was dying, but Malik’s heart spoke first.
For her to hate me.
“I don’t want to let anyone down.” Malik said.
This was partially a lie, but it was also part of the truth.
Homa continued to stare pointedly at her. “How are you letting anyone down? You get in that plane every day; who would dare to criticize you?”
Malik did not know why this suddenly became an interrogation.
She felt that same nervous energy from before again.
“It’s not about that. I’m just afraid I won’t cut it here. That I’ll fall short.”
That I wasn’t born to do it.
“You’re cutting it every day!” Homa said. She sounded almost mad.
“Not today.” For a moment, she remembered the fear she had in the cockpit.
It was a fear she had felt before, though that time had been a world away.
Homa continued to press her.
“Oh come on, I fly a death-trap full of technical problems. I’m still fine.”
Malik averted her gaze. She felt her heart beating faster.
“Homa, I– I used to be just, god awful at everything.”
“You seem fine to me. What have you failed at?”
Malik grunted. “I was ugly, I was short, I wasn’t elegant or flexible–“
“You need to look in a mirror, actually–“
Though Homa tried to speak, Malik wasn’t listening. Her mouth was running away, the floodgates of her heart were thrown open. Fists clenched, her head airy and her tongue moving on its own, Malik talked over Homa.
“When I became more fit I wanted to be more dextrous; when I became lighter I wanted to be stronger. But I was always falling short of everything. My parents used to tell me to man up and crap like that,” she hesitated for a second, “I mean. I always thought of myself as a woman, I– I wanted to be a beautiful woman. But I mean– I just didn’t realize at the time, everything–“
Homa cut her off, putting a mechanical finger over her lips.
Malik could almost taste the metal. She was so shocked by the cold steel fingertip that it halted the flood of confused words coming out of her.
“So you can talk, huh?”
“You’re really your own worst enemy, you know?”
Homa shook her head afterwards and heaved a long, weary sigh.
“Not that I can help with any of that, but you gotta let it out more! Or you’ll motormouth a bunch of crap in someone’s face who doesn’t understand.”
Malik looked at Homa’s exasperated face, clearly already years tired from a few minutes of social interaction. She could not help but laugh a little. All of the things that Homa was were things Malik had been afraid of being; too different for others to love, to far from the average in ways that hurt.
Like she herself had said: she lived with a metal arm and leg, after all.
Something about her, and her affect, made it easy to talk to her somehow.
“You’re a good girl, Homa.” Malik said. “You’re strangely earnest.”
“What does that mean? Please don’t harbor any illusions about me.”
She really sounded like a grumpy grandmother when pushed too far.
When she turned that skeptical glare on her, Malik couldn’t help but smile.
“I think I feel better.” Malik said.
“Quit lying. It’s not a recovery until you cry.”
Malik was momentarily taken aback again.
“Anyway, I think we learned a lot about each other, kiddo. Don’t tell anyone what we talked about or I’ll choke you with ‘Grip Strength Setting Five.‘”
Met with silence, Homa nonchalantly got up to leave.
“I guess that’s just what this squadron is like huh?”
Malik silently reached out and touched her shoulder.
“Hmm? What is the matter now? I want to go to bed.”
Malik nodded. She put on a soft expression. Her heart ached just a bit.
“Homa, when the war started, I had aerodynamics issues in the middle of a flight with my old squadron. I just crashed, and got rescued by retreating ground troops. They fought and died. That’s why I’m with Vulture now.”
It was a dark memory, but it was worth revisiting it for Homa’s sake. To give her some kind of reward, some understanding for opening up even the little bit that she had. None of what happened with that old squadron was as painful as a lot of the things Malik endured before entering the war. She regretted it, but out of all her sorrows, that one wasn’t one she would allow to define her. After all, Shurelis had taught her to fly so that she could fight for her freedom and her country’s freedom. It didn’t matter with whom.
“My teacher, Flight instructor Shurelis became Captain Shurelis and led Vulture, back then.” Malik said. “She got me transferred to Vulture.”
She expected Homa to ask her why she was suddenly saying something like that. In fact she just thought she wanted Homa to hear it; to understand that everyone in Vulture had a story like that. It was not just that they all lost their former squadrons. Everyone in Vulture was trying to overcome a painful history. Homa was not alone in that; Malik was not unique either.
Maybe it was something Malik needed to hear herself acknowledge, too.
Vulture was a collection of these tragic stories.
Maybe it was sharing them that might heal them, rather than hiding them.
Malik, who had been hiding and afraid, felt this keenly then.
However, Homa did not ask her any more questions. She did not seek to prize any more truths or secrets from Malik, however much Malik wanted to give them up then and be rid of them for good. Whether it was because she was tired, as she said, or had run out of her social energy for forming words in the way that Malik often did, her reply was surprisingly brief.
“Well, you see? She believed in you. Stick your chin up a bit for her.”
With a final pat on Malik’s shoulders, Homa turned around and walked.
“You can tell the cat about me, but only the cat.” She added.
She waved her hand behind her back, half-heartedly, as she turned the corner and vanished from sight. A cool breeze blew past the airfield.
Malik stayed behind, her eyes filling with tears and a smile on her face.
Such a simple thing to say back, such a brief, economical thing to say, yet–
Homa’s words had gone through her like lance to a boil, emptying the tears.
She mouthed, but did not say aloud, a sobbing ‘thank you’ to Homa.
Because of all that had happened yesterday, Malik had not been able to enter the first day of early voting for the Council election. Voting had been extended, from a few days around the 13th, to a week starting on the 13th.
This extension came as a result of the bombing of Solstice a few days ago.
Voting was compulsory for civilians, and time off was given from work to go vote, but this was not the case for deployed armed forces personnel.
When Malik arrived back at the barracks, it was past midnight, and she found an envelope stuck to the door of her room with a ballot in it and a reminder. She resolved to take care of it later. It was too late then.
Inside the room, Anada was fast asleep. Malik watched her for a few minutes in the dim light of the hallway lamps before retiring to bed.
She resolved to wake up tomorrow, grab Anada by the hand and talk to her about everything. To tell her about everything she told Homa and all of her resolutions. Everything she talked with the Commissar, everything she believed in. And then, she told herself, she would be ready to accept Anada’s response, and to work on anything they had to, together.
As long as Anada did not hate her, Malik wanted to work with her so they could love each other and live on as a couple. They would meet in the middle, come to an understanding, and make a commitment.
Malik was certain of this when she woke up the next morning.
However, Anada was not there in the next bed over.
Her blankets were thrown against the wall, and her shoes were missing.
She must have awakened even earlier, dressed and left by herself.
Malik felt a dull, throbbing sense of frustration all over again.
“Nothing goes my way, does it?”
She had hoped to settle this first thing in the morning and go to breakfast as a couple already, but she could delay everything a few hours, she supposed.
What was a resolution worth if you gave up on it this easily?
Malik was done giving up on things.
She dressed back up and left in pursuit of Anada.
There were a few places she thought to look first.
When she left her room, Malik found that it was not as late in the morning as she thought. Seven o’ clock might have been late for a trainee, base labor or the guards but for most pilots on the base it was a reasonable hour to get out of bed. Malik went to check the cafeteria, but Anada was not there, and the girl serving food had not seen anyone with distinctive cat’s ears around.
Next, Malik went to check the mail, and again found no trace of Anada.
Hangar 13 was open, but Malik could not see Anada there from afar, and certainly if Anada was there she would be annoying the mechanics working outside. She had no reason to be hiding inside, so Malik did not approach. Asking Mannan and Sheba for Anada’s whereabouts was out of the question. It would have been embarrassing and they likely did not know.
Having exhausted her first three choices, Malik followed the runway to the main gate. She hooked around the administration building and followed the high, barbed-wire wall of the base to a warehouse ramp and a small parking lot. There were several trucks with covered, high-walled beds.
“Aunties, have you seen Anada today?”
A group of a dozen older women in jumpsuits with hair nets and gloves unloaded food from one of the trucks. In another time there might have been more loose vegetables in bags and baskets, but on that day the cargo was mostly indistinct cans, likely mixed vegetables, fruit preserves and pickles. Forming a line, the women passed cans to one another and stacked them by the back door of the warehouse. It was a small building compared to the underground storage, but the food would only be there temporarily.
Everything in Sickle was eventually moved underground, but until it was tagged and marked off it would be in the above-ground warehouse.
Each of the women working in the warehouse was different, some taller, some wider, some darker, some burlier. Because of their apparent ages, Anada called them “the Aunties,” a name that stuck around the base.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for her, but I can’t find her.”
Malik picked up a can from the back of the truck as if to signal a willingness to help in exchange for the information. One of the aunties by the truck shook her head at her, took the can from her and passed it down the line.
“Only tellin’ because it’s you,” she said, “we let Anada out this morning.”
“You let her out?”
Because they worked in both hauling and unloading, the Aunties could easily get by the main gate. Base personnel were supposed to sign off leave with their superior officer, and only got to spend leave benefits a few times a year or by turning in bounties from successful missions. At any other time in a state of war or during training they were supposed to stay in base.
“I can’t imagine anything she could barter for that kind of favor.”
All of the aunties gave her the same critical glare.
Malik was not sure what she had done to earn it, and shrank back.
“We did her a favor because we had good reason to. You mind your own business now, she promised to be back before we gotta haul again.”
Because the aunties let her out, to be let back in she had to come back before their morning duties were done. Malik realized Anada must have planned this whole thing. She must have awoken at 5 o’ clock to catch the aunties as they came in. That would give her 3 hours outside the base.
“Could you let me out then?” Malik asked.
All of the aunties responded as one again.
Malik took a step back in surprise.
“I see. Thank you then. I’ll stop bothering you now.”
“She’ll be alright. Go on, git’.”
Several of the aunties went back to work, but the ones rotated out on break were all shooing her away before they went back to playing cards on crates.
Laughing gently, Malik left the way she came.
She was just a bit concerned, but it wasn’t the first time Anada asked the aunties for unorthodox favors. At least this time she wasn’t pilfering meat rations that ‘fell out of the truck’ or ‘were going bad’. Whatever it was she was doing, however, Malik had no idea. She would have to wait and ask.
All she could do was go about her business, and hope Anada got back soon.
She wouldn’t run away, right?
Of course not. Malik instantly refused the thought.
Anada was serious about one thing at the very least, and that was flying.
Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Oasis of Ranganath
Long shadows crept over the water and the desert sands.
Even from below, they could hear the violent noises of the aircraft.
While the camels drank and the nomadic caravan unloaded containers to fill with water, several dozen men in robes watched in bewilderment. One of the men had an old lever-action rifle, but he would have never imagined being able to defend himself from the group of mechanical monsters flying overhead. He peered through the hunting scope on his rifle, and the black shapes overhead became the distinct silhouettes of mysterious aircraft.
At over 20 meters in wingspan, the natives had never seen their like.
They all remembered the funny little wood airplanes that the communists sometimes took over the desert, to talk to tribes or just to look around.
Was this the work of the communists who had taken over the fortress?
Women in shawls and hoods, gazing up at the sky, clumsily ordered their children away from the water and downhill, where a ridge in the grass-dotted wastes near the oasis provided some cover from the sky. They all knew that the communists had a home nearby where a few people lived watching the sky, drinking the water, and sometimes trading with them.
“We should tell the communists.” one of the younger men said.
“It’s not our problem.” said the oldest man.
“Maybe they sent them. Maybe they can make them go away.”
“Our ancestors traveled these lands in peace, without worrying about guns in the skies. We should ask them to send those things away from us.”
More men joined in the discussion. However, it was to be no use.
Far overhead a sharp, terrifying noise sounded, and a green light flashed from one of the shapes in the sky. Several more green lights flashed from the aircraft, and hurtled downward. The men were startled, the women and children screamed. There were prayers said; in the distance, there was an explosion, and another, several in a row. Fire was raining down on them.
Smoke rose up in three plumes where shells had struck, each hundreds of meters away from one another but still terrifyingly too close to the caravan.
Then a shell exploded near waters of the oasis.
In an instant, many camels ran, the men scurried for cover, and there was pandemonium. Shrubs and trees that had grown for ages around the oasis caught fire. One tree fell into the water to be doused and nearly struck a fleeing herder. A second explosion sounded farther off and the heat stretched far enough to startle the caravan’s children, guarded by a ring of women, and make them scream. Metal fragments scattered into the air.
Miraculously only one man was wounded. Having never experienced such a wound he was inconsolable and he begged God for his life as a shard of fragmented metal stuck out of hip, bloody. His brothers tended to him.
Behind the throng, the few younger women pointed and cried.
Thicker, blacker smoke rose into the air from the hills north of the oasis.
That was where the communists had their house.
Speechless, they realized the communists there were probably no more.
Overhead, the Federation of Northern States’ new Hierophant-class artillery bombers flew onward with their escorts, the existence of the camel herders unknown to them. In their eyes, they had destroyed an Ayvartan sighting station, and tested the range of the cannons against a known landmark.
Armed with the knowledge that their weapons worked as they desired them to, the Kampfgeschwader proceeded to the only thing in their sight: Solstice.