This chapter contains violence, death and misogynistic violence and remarks.
14th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Solstice — Apsara
“Homa, go after it! Full throttle!”
“You don’t have to tell me–!”
Homa was in the middle of pushing the throttle past the point where the lock on the compression chamber would be lifted. Whether or not Sheba authorized her to do it, she had decided it on her own anyway. She needed jet power or she could have never caught up to their new guest. To think they would field a jet; maybe even a pure jet?
It was not a simple task to get the Bennu through the Overheat Mode procedures. As she raised the throttle with her mechanical hand she hit a lever to start compression and began to open the air intake beneath the prop to ease air into the jet engine. She could not flood the air ducts when compression began or the engine might flame out.
These were things she could do without thinking much in a training environment.
But her hands were shaking and she was hyperfocused, anxiously aware of everything.
Finally she felt the Bennu accelerate as the jet in the tail came to life.
In the next instant the enemy jet blew past her.
A sleek black shape crossed over her canopy, all glinting steel, relatively high-winged, with two large round recesses where landing gear hid and a single jet exhaust trailing pink and blue flame. There was no propeller on its front, only an air duct for the compression chamber. It was a pure jet, not a mixed power solution like the Bennu.
And in a moment, it had left Homa behind and charged suddenly into the mass of aircraft over the town of Apsaras. It had never meant to engage her Bennu directly.
Was it trying to clear the way for the Hierophants?
She had to stop it; she was the only one who could.
“Sheba, I’m going after it! You figure the rest of this out!”
Homa turned as sharply as the Bennu would let her, putting her entire body into the stick and pedals. Behind her tail her own jet exhaust was letting off red flames that would soon burn pink and blue. Gaining speed, she pursued the black jet, the dial on her accelerometer slowly climbing along with her engine heat and jet pressure dials.
Around her, the Bennu shook out of the turn. She felt the compression chamber beneath her seat protest being cranked on by the motor; a chunky gearbox handled the switch after the throttle lock was lifted. For a moment the aircraft heated up and the sputtering thrust from the back threw it ever so slightly off its balance as the compression chamber got going. Homa counteracted these forces expertly.
Patiently, she soothed the craft, opening the radiator inlets and underside air intake.
Soon the throes lightened and finally ceased as the Bennu reached its equilibrium.
She was stable, vibrating only lightly; she was gaining good speed with tolerable heat.
Her eyes fixed on the enemy jet, and she moved the throttle up one more step.
The Bennu blazed ahead, leaving the Hierophants and Vulture in the dust.
She was accelerating to over 650 km/h and beginning to cross to 700 and above.
Despite this, she was barely catching up.
The Bennu still had a little bit more it could give, but the enemy jet was already fully heated up and performing at the maximum — or so Homa hoped. Were that the case, the Bennu would begin to make gains in the next minute. If this was the difference between the Bennu heating up and the enemy holding back, then even the fully awakened Bennu might not stand a chance against that jet’s maximum throttle.
Certainly the enemy jet was not fading into the distance, not with Homa’s speed.
Nevertheless she was not gaining much on it, and of course, it had the head start.
So she buckled down and raised the throttle to the final, maximum step.
This was the so-called “Overheat mode” on the Bennu.
Pushed on by a tidy, conical flame, the Bennu charged into the melee.
Ahead of her, everything grew to an ever purer chaos.
As Homa gave chase, the entire operation had been thrown into disarray by the appearance of this incredibly fast, unidentified aircraft. The A.C.I. operators were on the radio getting out information to the main command about this development, their voices on the verge of panic. Boasting an all-black livery with a stark white human skull painted on the tail, it fit no known Nochtish unit markings, but its aggressive behavior made its intentions clear. Accelerating to remarkable speeds, it blew into the middle of the battle over Apsaras with ease and buzzed several aircraft as if toying with them.
Ayvartan aircraft that had been giving fight to the remaining Crossbows over Apsaras began to disperse in disarray as the black jet slipped among them. Like an infantry force noticing a saboteur among their ranks, the Ayvartan pilots had to move to defend themselves. Anyone chasing a Crossbow would break off and turn away when the black jet appeared behind them — novice Garuda pilots often evaded horizontally on instinct, because they had such a better turn than the enemy’s Archer fighters did.
This gave the Crossbows space to climb or dive away from the battle. Many sought refuge away from Apsaras, and started to file out toward the Hierophants instead.
A few daring ones took to the tail of their Ayvartan pursuers once the black jet got done toying with them, and moved on to another target. It was burning past every plane that it pointed its nose at. Nobody could outmaneuver it with the speed it had.
Homa took a few parting shots at the Crossbows herself as she chased after the jet.
Not that her machine gun could do any good. All she could do was keep chasing.
She was closing in on the Bennu’s theoretical top speed of 800 km/h.
Steadily, she was gaining on the jet. She weaved through the confused morass of aircraft going every which around her, chasing the black jet through a storm of steel and bullets. They were a neighborhood block away from each other, but Homa felt that with each turn she was taking a house on the black jet. She would soon be upon it.
Despite this the black jet seemed to not notice her, quickly moving from dance partner to dance partner in a frantic waltz. It took the tail of one pilot, long enough to frighten, and then swept and rolled and sped away with ease to the next target, and the next–
And yet, Homa could not see whether the black jet was shooting. An aggressively quick craft like that should’ve scored a few easy kills by now. Homa should have been able to see the distinctive green tracers — every bullet fired by everyone on Aer had the distinctive tracing color of its national bloc. It was just the common sense.
Was the enemy jet not shooting? Was it fitted with some odd experimental weapon?
Was it perhaps, fitted with no weapons whatsoever? That wouldn’t make any sense.
Whatever it was, she could not let it go on any longer.
The Bennu was at full throttle, the compression chamber was running and properly inured to the air flowing into it. She had the fuel, the heat tolerance and the chamber pressure for several minutes of jet engine. Now she could actually fight back.
Homa pulled the wheel levers at her sides that closed the radiator inlets.
She switched off the secondary underside air intake.
Her heat gauge began to slowly climb again after having reached a stable point.
But with the intakes and inlets closed, she achieved a tidy aerodynamic gain.
Soon the Bennu breached 800 km/h.
All of the battlefield around her slowly became a blur, and only the black jet was visible.
And then the black jet finally fell down into her open maw.
Amid a sky full of red and green tracers flying from planes in every direction, Homa finally took the jet’s tail. She closed within a house’s length and rammed her trigger.
Dozens of red machine gun tracers peppered the surface of the enemy jet’s wings.
After those stings on its metal skin, the prey noticed her.
In a series of wild movements the black jet dropped into a steep dive and near-instantly swung back up into a climb. Homa followed, gaining dizzying speed on the dive but finding herself outmatched in the climb, and falling behind again.
The Bennu’s heat gauge continued to climb as the pursuit intensified.
Like a gazelle trying to throw a cheetah off its back, the black jet thrashed in every direction, converting from sweeping rolls near-instantly into fluid 180 degree u-turns, lifting up into quick climbs and suddenly down into steep dives. Homa had her claws dug into the black jet’s hindquarters — with all of her might she would mimic the jet’s movements, throwing the Bennu into twists and dives to keep the pressure up.
Ahead of her, the exhaust of the black jet remained stable.
Homa realized then that the black jet could probably keep flying like this.
She was starting to hit her limit. The Bennu could only sustain minutes of jet flight.
To look at some of her gauges, Homa had to bow her head. This had always been a defect of the Bennu’s cockpit design and it never mattered to her. Until just then.
When the need to look at her pressure and fuel gauges arose, she ducked her head beneath the sighting block for the guns. Everything was going up into the red, as she feared. With its jet going, the intakes closed, and the radiator vents shut, the Bennu was at its fastest and most aerodynamic — and generating dangerous levels of heat.
She raised her head again, and her eyes instantly darted up.
In a split second the black jet had begun a loop to get behind her.
Homa got the briefest look at the front of the black jet.
Not nearly enough of a look to tell whether it had guns to train on her or not.
Reacting to the black jet’s aggression, Homa banked the Bennu nearly sideways, its wings perpendicular to the ground. She took the Bennu into a clumsy loop of her own.
Her enemy realized what she was doing, and rather than complete the loop, the black jet sped away, aborting its dive behind Homa. In turn, Homa twisted the Bennu back to its appropriate orientation and chased after the black jet anew rather than continue to loop herself. In seconds they had attacked and reacted and countered each other.
Like a cheetah, there was only so much chasing Homa could do.
Her gazelle had kicked her off once, and the Bennu was tiring of the pursuit.
She was on the black jet’s tail again but only for so long.
Homa was barely keeping up, and the plane was beginning to vibrate.
She felt the heat of the aircraft transfer more and more to her.
Rivulets of sweat rushed down her face. Her control stick was turning warm.
The Bennu’s propeller was the problem.
A pure jet created less drag and could achieve a greater speed.
In jet flight the Bennu’s propeller was useless save for warping the air in front of it.
And it applied a hard limit on her maximum speed, because if she went too fast, the propeller would physically deform, and it might damage the engine and compressor. Once deformed it would also become unsynched from the machine guns as well.
Not that the machine guns were doing her much good.
Had she been able to use her cannon the chase would have been different.
Without a significant speed or weapon advantage, however, Homa could only struggle.
Her machine gun shot bursts of red tracers into the air that the black jet absorbed, its metal surface nearly untouched by the bullets. She tried to place shots on the jet engine, but she knew it would do no good. Bullets would never be able to breach the exhaust, which was strongly tempered and constantly displacing extremely hot gas.
At least, no bullets of this diminutive caliber could breach that jet.
If only she had her cannon–
Swinging her control stick to match the movements of the jet, ramming her trigger to fire, her whole body heating up and stiffening, her muscles aching from the effort; Homa and her machine were both hitting their limit. She and the enemy were aflame.
Twin comets burning through the sky in a chaotic dance, alone even amid dozens of their enemies and allies. It was a dizzying spectacle happening as if a phenomena of its own world and not the material. No one who saw it knew the effort that it required.
Then, as if reaching for the heavens, the two jets rose into a sharp climb.
For the black jet, the move seemed to come easily and naturally.
Gritting her teeth, Homa doggedly followed, the Bennu protesting around her.
On the black jet, the exhaust began to turn from pink and blue to a stark orange.
Was it losing compression? Orange flames meant it was burning less efficiently.
Homa found herself suddenly catching up.
She leaped forward, claws drawn wide, to seize the black jet once more.
An intruder then flung herself into their world.
Coming down from above a plane with a lotus on its tail took the one shot it could.
For a propeller plane against a jet, an ambush like this had an unimaginably tight window. Their speed difference was absolutely massive, even while working against gravity in the middle of a climb. For a prop pilot to shoot a jet performing at its peak, would take genius mathematics and almost supernatural, diviner-like senses.
Whatever wizardry she had done, the girl had put herself into position to attack. Lotus Rajavari of Crane squadron plunged down upon them with all her might and fired one red shot from her cannon, the only chance she would have of scoring a hit on the jet.
She misjudged the shape of the black jet during her attack.
Her cannon round sailed under the high-set wings of the black jet.
Homa had seen the shadow of the Garuda against the glowing, white-hot heavens and swerved in time to avoid being hit by it. At that point, however, the Bennu gave up.
She pulled back on the throttle, re-engaged the lock, opened all the intakes–
Hot gas escaped from every hole in the Bennu, and Homa’s speed began to drop.
As if she was nothing, the black jet swept past Lotus.
She buzzed her so closely and with such incredible speed that the hot air in her wake smacked the Garuda I-bis away and sent Lotus hurtling toward the ground.
Homa’s engine stopped.
Like the mythical man whose wings burned from the sun, she began to drop away.
And below her, the scavengers who had been watching got ready to catch her.
Anada’s plane fell into a tailspin in the wake of the black jet.
Above her, the Hierophant’s guns opened fire.
Recklessness and protective instinct formed a potent fuel mix for Sahana Sheba.
Hardly thinking, she closed down the radiator vents and raised the throttle on her Garuda and threw herself headfirst into the Hierophant, unloading all of her guns.
Two bursts of cannon fire and dozens of machine gun rounds pummeled the glass dome on the front of the Hierophant. A fist sized hole opened on one of the higher panes of glass and the rest of the “greenhouse” pilot canopy cracked and shuddered. No damage was done to the crew or the enemy’s flight characteristics from this.
However, Sheba did get their attention.
“Anada, run!” She shouted into the radio.
“You don’t have to tell me twice!”
As Anada righted herself below, the Hierophant’s cannons found a new target.
Sheba held her breath and broke into a sudden, dizzying climb and turn.
And the guns of the Hierophant trailed her.
Hundreds of machine gun and cannon rounds peppered the air around her.
Sharp pops and cracks went off everywhere, spraying incendiary shrapnel from the cannon bullets. Machine gun bullets bounced off and pitted the edges of her wings.
Her Garuda rocked, but she did not hesitate to throw it back into another maneuver.
As her wake and the shadow of her craft were filled with the enemy’s bullets, Sheba pulled her Garuda into a loop, circling the fuselage of the machine. Using the heavy gun housing below the Hierophant, Sheba blocked the tracking of the enemy’s cannon turret and threw herself into a dive, before finally sweeping away to rejoin Anada.
She wiped the sweat from her brow.
She could have been killed, or worse, she could have lost Anada then.
Looking over her shoulder, she tried to find Homa in the distance.
Rather than shoot, that black jet had seemed content to just buzz them — to fly so close and so fast that it risked a collision. It missed Anada, thankfully, but it sent her tumbling toward the ground. To have such speed that the wake just sends planes into confusion; Sheba had never seen something like that. Was the Bennu even that fast?
When she spotted Homa in the distance, she had her answer.
Seeing those twin lights in the horizon, circling and lunging and twisting around the battlefield, it felt like everyone else was moving in slow motion. It was bewildering.
They had to complete their mission, before that thing came back.
“Anada, are you ok?” Sheba called out.
“I’m alive. I can’t believe I screwed up like this.”
“It’s nothing. You flew beautifully, and you are alive. That’s what counts.”
“Ugh. If you say so.”
Sheba scanned the nearby skies for the rest of her group.
“Mannan, Sayyid, report.”
Sayyid sighed. “We’re alive ma’am. Didn’t even see that black plane coming though.”
“It must have been a jet fighter! That thing was almost making Mach speed!”
And that was Mannan, sounding both excited and dumbfounded at once.
“Good girls. Hang in there for me. Now, Marcy! Status report!” Sheba said.
“I’m fine! I’ve been flying low. But ma’am, there’s trouble with Malik.”
Sheba felt like her heart momentarily choked in its own blood.
She tried to cast an eye around the immediate battlefield for Malik’s plane.
Suddenly, she spotted a lone Garuda flying low.
As she did, she saw Marcy’s radar-equipped cathawk flying at its wing.
“Her electronics are in a bad way, ma’am. We’re talking with hand signals.” Marcy said. “She isn’t getting much climb out of the plane. She thinks her fuel line or oil might be going. In this state, ma’am, I don’t think she can deliver any rockets on our targets.”
Sheba sighed with relief. It was only that — it was no worse.
“I don’t care about the rockets! I’m glad that she’s alive. Don’t scare me like that.”
Marcy sounded confused. “Um, sorry ma’am!”
“No, it’s nothing.”
Sheba shook her head. She couldn’t afford to look weak in front of everyone.
On the field of battle, a commander had to have the confidence of a stone statue, that could perfectly hold the same pose for millennia without wavering an inch at any point.
Everyone was alive. So there was still hope.
“Marcy, tell Malik that she has flown beautifully, and that Anada will escort her away.”
Sheba expected some kind of protest or at least a quip from the resident catkin, but instead Anada sounded determined when she spoke. There was a little fire in her yet.
“I’ll get her home safe, ma’am! No one will get through me again!” Anada said.
“I believe you! Even that black plane should be wary about a protective cat-kin.”
Anada pulled away from Sheba’s side and flew down to Malik.
As they spoke, there was an object moving farther and farther off their right shoulders that made for an eerie backdrop to their worry and relief. Heedless of the plight of the girls who had tormented it so long, the Hierophant was moving over Apsaras. Without their rockets, they had no surefire way to get through the thick chassis of that beast.
She could try to attack it head-on with cannons again, but then–
Sheba shook her head and turned her Garuda around to pursue it nonetheless.
Even if it cost her life– as long as only she died, and they completed the mission–
“Mannan, Sayyid, move over Apsaras. I’m going to try–“
Before Sheba could commit herself to be thrown into the fires of the Hierophant once more, and before anyone could protest her decision, there was a scream on the radio.
Her eyes were then draw to the sky over the town, over the Hierophant even.
Sheba thought she saw two aircraft rise high above the battlefield.
One kept climbing; suddenly, two others fell.
Around them, the remaining Crossbows smelled blood and began to climb for them.
“Ma’am, Lotus and Homa are in danger!”
Mannan called out on the radio. Sheba felt frozen in time for an instant.
Against all odds, she had thought Homa could do anything.
Homa and the Bennu were her trump cards, the secret power and potential of Vulture.
And Homa herself, with the way she flew, the skill she had shown–
Sheba had thought of everyone else’s safety first because she was so sure of Homa.
She had treated Homa like she treated herself.
Her eyes started to water, her skin crawled. She started shaking.
Gritting her teeth, stifling a sob, Sheba gripped her control stick so hard her hand hurt.
“Sayyid, go after Lotus! Mannan, with me! We have to pick off those Crossbows!”
Her voice held its candor even through her tears and her anger at herself.
“A rescue mission suits me fine!” Sayyid replied.
Her Garuda split up from Mannan’s and charged into the fray, lighting up several stray crossbows with her cannons and guns. In the distance, Anada and Malik limped away. Mannan wordlessly started to make for Homa’s slice of the sky, and Sheba accelerated to meet her. Even if Homa righted herself in time, she would still be a sitting duck.
Sheba grit her teeth. She had to save Homa! She couldn’t let her die, not like this!
Not on her account! Not because she was too weak to do anything!
“Homa, what’s your engine status?” Sheba called out.
“Fucked!” came Homa’s sharp reply.
Smoke trails billowed from Homa’s Bennu, and Sheba did not know enough about jets to say whether that was residual and coming out of the exhaust, or a sign of a burnout.
Homa had stabilized the tailspin she was in, but she was not pulling up.
Coming in at a diagonal angle from her was an attacking Crossbow-class.
Mannan and Sheba regrouped and rushed to the scene, guns blazing.
Long green lines burst from the Crossbow and crossed Homa’s wings and tail.
Suddenly the Bennu belched a cloud of black smoke and shards of metal from its tail.
Homa must have vented the craft on purpose somehow.
As it crossed the Bennu, the Crossbow overshot it and got caught in the exhaust.
Mannan and Sheba got their break.
“Homa, try to land it! Mannan, fly down and protect Homa!”
Sheba threw herself up into a climb.
Chasing the Crossbow out of the cloud, she evaded a line of green machine gun tracers and counterattacked, spraying the back of its fuselage with cannon fire. Fires broke out across its wings, and it lost control; the pilot panicked, leaped from the cockpit. Sheba did not remain to see if the machine gunner had escaped with him.
She threw herself into a dive.
Another opportunistic Crossbow was going after Homa and Mannan.
She chased, putting the heavy fighter in her sights.
As she took a shot, several more bullets than she intended flew out.
And from several more directions than she expected.
Below her the Crossbow practically shredded. Sheba flew between the disintegrating remains of its fuselage, torn apart from its tail and wings by a volley of cannons.
Looking over her shoulder, she found a pair of Ibis planes each bearing one half of a rose flower’s petals. This marking they displayed on their wings and on their tail.
A woman’s voice came on the radio.
“This is A.C.I. Biscuit! Captain Sheba, Ibis’ squad leaders say: ‘Go get her champ.'”
Abeer and Parveen then — she would have to thank them later.
Sheba put the whole weight of the plane into the dive.
She trained her eyes on the Bennu and made for it.
Homa had raised her elevators and managed to dive shallower, but her prop was stopped. Grey fumes would snort from the Bennu’s nose, but it would not budge.
In its state, Sheba managed to catch up to it.
She felt helpless — even if they could get Homa’s cockpit open, there was no way she would be able to get her into her own plane or otherwise help her to safety. All she could do was stare into her cockpit through the glass and swallow, shaking with stress.
Homa briefly glanced at her through the glass.
Sheba put a hand on the glass of her own cockpit.
For a moment, Homa put her own hand up before returning to her instruments.
Sheba briefly closed her eyes and muttered a prayer.
She concentrated every ounce on her being on her little wish.
Though she did not understand exactly why, ever since Homa had come into her life Sheba could not think of Vulture Squadron as complete without having her there. Even though Homa was only testing the Bennu, even though Homa might leave someday, even if Homa might leave soon. Even if Homa was rough around the edges and hard to work with sometimes, and even if she didn’t fully understand her. They had flown with one another, they had quarreled, they had saved each other’s lives in the merciless sky.
It was only a few days now since they’ve been together, but every battle felt like a year.
She recalled Homa in the shower that first day, so vulnerable and so guarded.
Half in black, half in white; suspended between two things and alienated from either.
Sheba had been taken in by her, physically, yes, but also–
Her brief insinuation that she had accepted death.
That she had seen it and gave up her hope to it.
Despite all of that, when she flew, when Homa was in the sky, Sheba could see and feel the unbridled joy and the cocksure recklessness that tinged her gloomy demeanor from a dull grey to a fierce, fiery red. It brought out those same feelings in Sheba herself. When she saw Homa fly, she saw possibilities again she thought closed.
She saw the possibility of leaving the sky alive.
She saw the power and freedom she once dreamed of herself as she gazed on high.
At that point, perhaps, Sheba had begun to think of her as the one who could most understand what she felt, and maybe what the Vultures felt. She was someone who truly belonged with them, because she knew what it was like to have holes in herself.
Physically, mentally; and the holes people left in your life when they were gone.
Despite all of that, she kept flying.
Despite the danger; despite the unreliability of her tools.
Now, if she died–
Sheba had been so stupid! It was all her fault! Why wasn’t she the one–?
Shedding tears, and feeling confused, foolish, presumptuous, and helpless–
Sheba opened her eyes.
For an instant, she saw smoke and fire flash before her face.
She felt the briefest touch in her hands, as if across the sky and the bulletproof glass.
She felt a push.
Homa’s engine belched smoke and her propeller spun up.
In the cockpit, Homa was caught off-guard by the suddenness with which the Bennu revived. She visibly fumbled for the oil pump and the fuel mixture controls to keep the engine going now, and just as visibly shifted the throttle to low power with her mechanical hand. Sheba could see her through the glass of the Bennu’s cockpit.
Sheba’s Garuda I-bis and Homa’s Bennu flew wing to wing, and just barely in time to avoid the ground they began to climb again. Sand blew below them and sprayed over the anti-air gun trenches that had been dug by the ground troops witnessing the fight.
At that moment, the boys and girls below loaded up their cannons and started shooting for the first time. Suddenly the Crossbows that had been trying for Homa and Sheba in their moment of weakness scattered as the incendiary munitions went off.
Overcome with relief, Sheba felt like she needed to scream.
“Homa!” Sheba called out.
“What’s with that tone of yours? Pfft, like I was going to fucking die there.”
Homa clearly sounded stressed over the radio.
Through the cockpit glass, Sheba could see Homa giving her a thumbs up.
Sheba would have cried more, but now was not the time for it.
Overhead and behind them, the Hierophant had cleared the combat zone.
She briefly held on hope of catching and killing it. But it was too much to ask now.
“After all this,” Sheba stammered, sighing. She felt relieved to be alive and to see her troops alive. And yet, she was defeated, and she knew her voice carried that shame too. “After all of this, and those god damned things are just going to get away from us.”
Another unfamiliar voice came on the radio. It was a man, with a very deep voice.
Sheba realized he had shortened the greeting “hujambo” to “‘bo,” some kind of slang.
And shortened their squadron’s designation too.
Judging by recent events, the Captain took an educated guess as to who this was.
“You must be ground command, right?” Sheba said.
This was the only character in this drama she had yet to speak to directly.
“Right on. You’ve clearly been through a lot, Captain. Let us grunts have our turn.”
In the next instant, an absolutely massive muzzle flash in the village of Apsaras signaled the launch of an absolutely massive, burning red projectile. From the rail junction to the steadily escaping Hierophant, the gun traced a brutally direct line of red tracer smoke that joined the earth and sky in a brief, almost surreal moment.
A massive explosion engulfed the Hierophant.
Where there was once a terrifying, massive aircraft there was only fire and smoke and chunks of metal raining down on Apsara. One shot from the rail gun had crushed it.
“What–” Sheba took a moment, her words caught in her throat. “What was that?”
She heard a chuckle on the radio.
“General Nakar authorized the use of the Vajra. Normally it ain’t here to hit targets in the air, but our resident engineering genius Agni got all the math right. And she only had to break two gun mounts to get the bits to point this bad boy at the sky, too.”
“Um, well, thank you, comrade!” Sheba said. Her words caught in her throat.
She was in and out of speechlessness.
“I’m Colonel Joseph Marwale.” Replied the ground troops commander. “And don’t sweat it ma’am. This one goes out to all my 2030 Mafia brothers and sisters.”
“Can you hit the other Hierophant?”
Colonel Marwale paused on the radio for a moment.
She thought she heard some noise, as if he was moving around clumsily.
“Uh. Damn. Afraid not.” He finally answered.
Sheba turned around and banked to get a look at the railway.
There was a small crowd around the rail junction where the armored train had parked.
A building had collapsed; the scene was a mess.
Perhaps owing to the modifications made to shoot the gun at a flying target, it had ripped from its mount and fallen over on the side, taking some of the overloaded train car with it. On the adjacent rail platform and its accompanying administrative building two brick walls collapsed after an impact by what must have been part of the mount.
Marcy’s voice then came on the radio. She sounded excited enough to cry.
“Ma’am, the last Hierophant turned right back around! It’s being followed by that black jet and the remainder of the Crossbows. I think we can call this a victory now!”
Sheba could hardly believe it when she was told. She shook her head and she looked around herself. All around her the battle had slowly died down. The enemy aircraft that had not ended up as debris on the sand seemed to have made themselves scarce. Marcy might have been able to see the movements as the sides quickly separated themselves, but it almost seemed to Sheba that in the flash of the Hierophant’s death the enemy had vanished from the battlefield. Even that black jet had simply gone.
Perhaps that had been its aim all along. Sheba did not recall it shooting at all.
She flicked the radio off, heaved a long sigh and flicked it back on.
“Vulture Squadron, this is Captain Sheba. Mission accomplished, girls. Regroup.”
She had already wept so much, but Sheba felt herself starting to cry again.
In response, she heard a chorus of sighs of relief similar to her own.
“Thanks for trying to catch me ma’am.”
Homa’s voice was the most surprising one to hear from the bunch.
She sounded characteristically sarcastic, but Sheba still smiled and giggled.
Whatever it was that she said, and whatever her tone may be, Sheba knew how she felt from the fact that she bothered to say anything at all. Sheba was elated by it.
With the enemy having fled the scene, the squadrons regrouped for the flight home.
Even to Sheba’s naked eye it was clear that Ibis and Crane had both lost a few planes. Crane, in fact, must have lost several, since a squadron the size of Vulture was what remained in their formation. For even the elite Ibis to have taken casualties showed how serious this mission was, and how fickle the nature of war. Sheba didn’t know whether Vulture had been blessed, or whether they owed Death a future debt.
At that moment, however, all of her troops had survived. That was what mattered.
Sayyid, Mannan, and the worse-for-wear Malik and Anada formed up close to Homa and Sheba. Despite the chaos at the end of the mission, and though everyone had taken some kind of damage, all of their aircraft flew well enough to take home, no emergency landings needed. Marcy appeared last, forming up under Sheba and Homa.
“So what are the bounties at now?” Sayyid asked.
“How insensitive can you be?” Mannan shouted.
“It’s a good question.” Anada added. “I want to cash out for a night on the town after going through this hell. If Madiha Nakar has more missions like this for us, I’m out.”
“I’m glad you’ve returned enough to complain.” Sheba said.
Malik could not join the festivities. Her radio was still shot.
Sheba thought Malik must have been sulking in her plane, beating herself up for not doing the impossible. She made a mental note to do something nice for her later.
“Captain, A.C.I. Parfait told me to pass along a message.” Marcy said.
“I’m listening. Is Lotus okay?” Sheba asked. “Tell her thank you.”
“She’s okay ma’am. See there? That tail marking is unmistakable.” Marcy said.
Sheba looked at Crane squadron at their side. Lotus’ plane was there, but the damage to her tail and wings made the lotus marking far more mistakable than it had been.
“I see. So what is the message?”
Marcy preceded the message with a little giggle. “Lotus wants to know what pilot it was who was sent to help her, and she would like to see them tonight at the base.”
Sheba blinked and paused for a moment.
“I sent Sayyid after Lotus.” She said, thoughtlessly.
There was a loud, scandalized gasp on the radio.
“Oh my god!” Anada said. “Could this be? Is our favorite eternal bachelor womanizer finally getting some? Sayyid, you can’t afford to miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance! Don’t get too nervous though; you’ll be alone forever if you screw up with the Ace!”
Sayyid grumbled. “What kind of things do you think about me?”
“Not altogether incorrect ones.” Mannan said.
Sayyid laughed and put on her most decadent and extravagant voice.
“All of you are just jealous that I’ll have the ace of Armaments Hill all to myself.”
Mannan quickly fired back.
“You better paint camouflage before you go or she might see your true colors.”
“If you all keep blowing this much hot air you’re going to choke my engine for real.”
In the end, Homa grumbled the loudest, but Vulture was lively as ever.
Ayvarta, Solstice — Armaments Hill
Vulture squadron returned to Solstice safely. Crane were allowed to land first, to the ovation of a gaggle of technicians and runway support personnel. They lost the most people and needed encouragement. Vulture followed after Crane’s planes and the crowds around them had both flocked back into the hangars. Ibis remained in the sky, and received permission to use their remaining fuel for formation flight in honor of their fallen comrades. While they pirouetted in the air, Vulture landed their planes.
Malik felt a lingering anxiety. She felt a surge of electricity under her skin. After her instruments broke she had been unable to talk to anyone except with hand signals. She could only communicate the most essential things with them — so she had received little stimulus and little to pick up her morale except the “good job” signal from Captain Sheba, Anada and Sayyid. In the state her plane was in, she could only do the bare minimum flying. Keep it straight, keep it middling, don’t put too much gas in.
She tried not to stew in self loathing too much, but after everything she told herself about becoming stronger and doing better, she was dissatisfied. She was the only one who had not gotten to even fire her rockets at the Hierophants. And though nobody was talking about it, one of those huge bombers even got away from them too.
And then there was that black jet.
Malik shook her head. Part of becoming stronger had to be accepting defeat too.
However dark her heart felt at the moment, she just had to try to overcome it.
Upon landing, she first thought the landing gear might not extended, but it did; she then thought she felt the plane bob a bit much on its wheels, but nothing broke.
She taxied down to Hangar 13, where a smaller crowd of technicians and support personnel were waiting to receive them. When she stepped out of her miserable-looking plane, she received a round of applause and support from the techs.
Malik smiled awkwardly and waved a hand at them.
As her squadmates lined up at the hangar, the plane closest to her popped its canopy.
Anada leaped down from the plane, lighter on her feet than Malik had ever seen her.
She rushed over to Malik, her tail fully outstretched and her ears bowed low.
Malik gave her a little wave too; but Anada grabbed hold of her shoulders.
She had tears in her eyes, and when she spoke she opened her mouth so wide her fangs were bared. “Malik, are you ok? Are you hurt? Did anything happen to you?”
Her hands touched Malik on the arms, hips, chest; Malik started swatting her away.
“I’m fine, Anada!” She said. “Calm down! You’re getting hysterical.”
“I’m not! You could’ve–” She hesitated to say the rest. “I might not have gotten to–“
“It’s okay.” Malik said. She tried to put on a smile for Anada. “Everything’s fine.”
“No it’s not!” Anada said.
She started fumbling with the satchel clipped to her bodysuit, pulling something out.
By then, Sayyid and Mannan had come down from their cockpits.
Even Homa was staring at them from the sidelines.
“You said,” Anada paused, huffing and puffing with anxiety, her face turning ever redder, her tail doing twists behind her, “you said you wanted me to show commitment. I never wanted to make you feel bad! I know I’m a mess and I’m a huge load to deal with, but I really do care about you and I want to show you that!”
Malik blinked, and averted her gaze slightly, feeling her own face turning red.
“Avana, it’s really okay, we both said a lot of things, we were stressed out–“
She was still stressed out, but when she saw something in Anada’s hands shimmer in the sunlight, all of the color of her face and the electricity in her skin started to drain.
“Haritha Malik, will you marry me?”
Anada screamed and dropped down on the floor in a bow.
In Anada’s hands was a golden ring with a cat’s eye, Malik’s birthstone.
Malik raised her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp. She started to weep involuntarily.
She had wanted to tell Anada that you didn’t bow to the ground when proposing marriage, that you took a knee instead, but she was devoid of words and thoughts and overcome with all manner of emotions. Indescribable euphoria and horrifying embarrassment; it all mingled in Malik’s head until she was drawing a total blank.
“I– I love you too–” Malik said in return, even though that was not what was asked.
Around them the technicians started to clap, hoot and cheer.
Mannan and Sayyid showed up at Malik’s shoulders to smile and nudge her cheeks.
Anada remained on the floor, crying, shaking. She dropped the ring from her hand.
Over everyone, Homa’s uproarious, demonic laughter could be heard, a laugh so long and howling and harsh that it seemed to shake the earth. Homa had fallen on her back, and she was kicking, and rolling, and striking the tarmac with her metal arm with such force that cracks must have formed. She had fully lost control and fallen into madness.
“I go check with the General for one second and you all–“
Captain Sheba parted the crowd, and blinked at the unfolding scene.
“Sayyid, what’s going on?” She asked. She had not even bothered to look at Anada.
Sayyid gave the Captain a thumbs up. “Anada and Malik are getting married ma’am!”
Captain Sheba sighed. “One of your stupid jokes, wonderful. Mannan?”
Mannan giggled. “She’s right, Captain. These two are getting hitched now! I think?”
Sheba rolled her eyes, turned around and left them behind.
“Of all the people to play along with her stupid jokes, and after the fight we just had. You disappoint me, Mannan.” She said as she left, grumbling all the way to the hangar.
She stormed away.
Malik, her eyes still a little gone, knelt down to Anada and put the ring in her hands, and closed her own hands around them. Weeping, she put her head down on Anada’s.
All of her was trying to accept, but she just couldn’t find the words to say it.
Anada was always one to pick the worst times to do anything, Malik thought.
“I love you too.” She said again. “I love you, Anada.”
She always picked the worst times, but she certainly got theatrical with her gestures.
And sometimes, somehow, that was exactly what Malik wanted.
Republic of Ayvarta, Dbagbo Province, City of Loima — Kubera Air Force Base
Gretchen arrived for her second shift in time to see Andrea Lockheart be summoned to the main command room and slapped across the face by Commodore McConnell.
Lockhart stood stock still, without expression save for a slight convulsion where her face had been struck. She was clearly in pain and trying her damnedest to hide it.
“Who gave you permission to sortie, stunt pilot?” McConnell shouted. “The Musket does not even have weapons or combat aerodynamics installed, and you took it out there to do what? What did you think you were going to accomplish with this?”
“To save my brothers in arms, sir. To bring them back safely.” Lockhart said.
Her voice had a lot of conviction behind it. She was barely restraining herself.
Gretchen cowered in her station. Every other girl had her head down too.
“Spare me your sentimentalism!” McConnell said. “Your brothers-in-arms? You’re not a soldier! You’re here to do flips in that extremely delicate, expensive jet so we can get it approved to be piloted by someone who doesn’t go insane one week every month!”
McConnell raised his hands to his face and stomped his feet.
Lockhart grit her teeth.
“Tell me: who gave you permission to sortie?” He shouted again.
Lockhart began to protest. “With all due respect sir–“
Behind McConnell the door opened. One voice quieted the room.
In stepped Air Admiral Kulbert, overall head of Allied air operations in Ayvarta.
McConnell was momentarily speechless. He lowered a hand he might have used to strike Lockhart again and instead ran it down his own uniform, as if to straighten himself. The Air Admiral, older by decades, with a grave face and a uniform thick with medals and insignias, stepped between Lockhart and McConnell. He seemed to tower over the Commodore, not in stature, for he was a head shorter, but in presence, in sheer power. Kulbert stood like a grown man; McConnell seemed almost to cower.
“I authorized her to fly out. To do what she could to get our men back, from an ill-fated excursion that you authorized. I take responsibility for her, not that it matters, for she returned safely, and our men are raving with how thankful they are for her aid. Don’t you know? They’re calling her Walküre and Engel for delivering them here, Robin.”
“That’s a lie–“
Admiral Kulbert tapped on McConnell’s coat with an index finger that seemed sharp as a knife whenever it struck. McConnell stared at him, his cheek very mildly convulsing.
At that point the door opened again. In came another odd face: General Von Drachen.
“Oh? I’m sorry? Am I interrupting? I’ve been looking for the main command room.”
Kulbert and McConnell turned their heads to meet Von Drachen with shared scorn.
Gretchen’s eyes settled on Lockhart.
With the men momentarily looking away, she rubbed her cheek and sighed.
Gretchen put her head down again.
She didn’t want to meet Lockhart’s eyes in this state.
Everything in Kubera was getting more complicated by the minute, it seemed.