This chapter contains graphic violence, death, racism and mild sexual content.
64th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2020 D.C.E.
Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice, Shimii Broadlands
Gentle streams of sand twirled in the air, accompanying a strong wind that blew into the settlement. Later tellings would dramatize the wind as being brought about as a harbinger of a greater calamity, but in their ears, it was just wind, and for the villagers, the storm posed no greater threat than any they had seen before. The Shimii had always lived in these lands and knew them well. Though it was only recently that they claimed formal dominion over them — but that was a history that did not bother them.
At the time, the Shimii were living as they always did. They were primarily herders, and they practiced a limited amount of agriculture on the moist and soft earth on the edges of the Qural river. The term “broadlands” was used by the communists for any region of flat, fertile earth that stretched far enough and that was underdeveloped industrially. For the Shimii, life was lived the same a thousand years ago as today.
They were a peaceful, cat-like people, who did not want to change in a changing world.
Wherever there was resistance, they simply went along with it.
When the Zzaq arrived, they went along with them.
When the Empire arrived, they went along with them.
When the Communists arrived, they went along with them.
Unknown to them, the times were changing.
On that ill fated day, the men and women of the village were out gathering water and tending to crops, walking herd animals, and preparing for the Solstice day. It was not until noon that the harmless wind they were so used to brought death to their midst.
In the distance, smoke signals began to go up. They went unseen until the smoke had accumulated in the sky and the smell had blown in among the villagers. There were no guards and there no formal soldiers. When they heard the hoof-beats, it was too late.
Under a foul and violent gust, a legion swept into the Shimii villlage with little warning. Hooves stamped the dirt, men screamed, women cried. Swiping swords and gushing blood were masked by the intermittent rising and falling of the great winds over the dune sea. Villagers scattered or ran or hid from the attack; where they decided to stand in resistance, it was desperate and scattered with no real organization.
Shimii led peaceful lives and were not ready to fight.
They were not like the attacking Zzaq, who were a strong and war-like people who had served Emperors and once dominated the deserts. The Zzaq were hunters and killers, and they had come to hunt and kill the Shimii, and like wind, there was no stopping it.
There were those, however, who were guarded by some strange fortune that day.
When the attack began, the girl who would become Avana Anada was playing behind her house, a small wooden cottage with a clay, frond and thatch roof that had to be patched up with animal skins in places. She had found several flower-bearing weeds growing in the sparse grass in the small field at the edge of the village. She had picked the flowers and put them in her hair and smiled. No other small children were around. Anada was the youngest girl in the village at ten summers. There was a big gap in ages, caused by the conditions after the big war that the Communists had fought.
There were babies, now, but between 2010 and 2020 there had been very few.
Soon there would be fewer still.
Had the Zzaq attacked from the west, Anada would have been trampled mercilessly under their horses the same as many other women and children had already been. She was lucky that they attacked from the east, sweeping into the village on horseback.
A hundred men at first, and then a hundred more in thundering charges.
Perhaps a hundred more in the horizon. Perhaps a thousand more.
Anada’s ears perked up when she heard the noise.
She was scared of horses, deadly scared of them. Shimii did not have many horses. Horses were a war tool; camels were the mount of choice for the peaceful Shimii.
When Anada heard a horse, her baser instincts took hold and she ran into her house.
She shut the doors and stuck close to a wall, peering through a crack onto the street.
She saw the Phaetons, the monstrous warrior-horses of the more bloodthirsty tribes of the desert, come running down the streets. There were men and women out, men and women she knew. Uncles and aunties, old papa’s and mama’s, neighbors, teachers; they scrambled out of the way of the heedless charges, and it seemed for every horse they dodged a blade came at their backs right after with no mercy.
Anada saw blood spill from a human body for the first time.
She did not understand what she was seeing, so she was frozen against the wall, peering through the hole, unable to pull herself away from what unfolded.
As soon as they came into view the riders disappeared, but in reality they had simply circled around to pick up speed for a return charge. People fleeing from other parts of the village appeared on Anada’s peripheral vision, and with them came more horses. Men in black, loose-fitting tunics with bones stitched to them dismounted, and produced short guns with big wooden stocks, firing powder-loads at survivors.
They had stoic, empty expressions on their faces, like they felt nothing for what they were doing. Anada could hardly understand what was happening. She had no concept that there were people in pain or people dying or people killing. She simply stared at an unfolding landscape too irregular, too alien to her experience. It was as if her eyes were seeing a painting of harsh red blood, stark black horses and eerie golds from the sun, and it was too abstract to be read. Washed out colors; incoherent screams.
Then, a man dismounted on the road in front of her home. He too, had a loose fitting tunic and a hood, but unlike the other men he had a woven horse-hair standard that hung from his neck, and he had a longer rifle and a pistol at his hip. Anada had seen weapons like that before, being carried by the ‘people from beyond the sands.’ She did not know them at the time as the communists of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.
She had not known at the time that the Zzaq had spilled blood of the Communists too.
Clearly, the dismounted man was important, she knew. He was also young. Unlike his fellow Zzaq his face was clean shaven, and he was thin and had a crafty gleam in his eyes. He had a cruel aura about him, and this was something that even Anada at her young age understood. With the way he moved, with the way he beheld the violence.
Across from him, Anada saw the village elder appear and plead for mercy.
“You Shimii are shameless!” shouted the dismounted man. “You conspire with the communists to take our lands behind our backs, instead of facing us head-on to claim them. You fear us so much, you helpless animals; then you should not have stabbed us in the back like this. We are here to rise again. We have already killed communists! We will conquer again. Our great fathers took these sands, and we shall again have them!”
He withdrew his sword and cut dispassionately across the face of the elder and kicked him, so that he fell and his disfigured head would strike the dirt and the sand.
Anada blinked, and tears drew from her eyes. She grabbed hold of her mouth to prevent herself from crying. It was the first real reaction she had to the killings.
It was when she understood, truly, in all of her mind and body, that nobody who was being attacked would be well. That they would not be coming back. That they were dead. That the men had come here to make sure that they would all be dead.
“I am the great Maharaja Al Zzaq!” shouted the man whose blade glinted with fresh blood. “All of this land is mine by right! I will take it back! Kill every one you find here!”
There were cheers from the riding men as they continued their attack.
More men dismounted, and they began to search homes and drag people out.
Anada saw a man approaching her home and thought to run, but she was frozen.
Fortune was still on her side, however.
There came a distant sound; booming across the village, but creeping closer.
Maharaj Al Zzaq and the men around Anada’s home raised their heads in alert.
She heard something too.
Grinding metal, churning up earth, drawing nearer and nearer.
From out of the blue, something dropped into the street and threw up a plume of smoke and a pillar of sand and dirt. Horses went flying in pieces, and men fell to the ground as if struck by invisible knives. This new violence made even less sense to Anada’s eyes. She started to hear banging and booming, and she saw brief flecks and streaks of red go flying across the street. Men clipped by the lights would lose arms and lose legs, and red would flow in terrifying rivers from their broken bodies.
Al Zzaq was not their leader for nothing. He left the street immediately.
Anada found her door battered, and her home breached.
Great and mighty leader of the Zzaq, future ruler of the desert, Al Zzaq, found the little cat-eared girl covering up her mouth and crying in the hut, and he said nothing.
He loaded his rifle, and with the hut as a refuge, he took aim and shot from the door.
He was not shooting at Anada. She watched his attentions immediately turn away.
In the next instant, his target came into Anada’s view.
An absolutely massive thing of metal, with a rotating head and a long, smoking red-hot tube coming out of its face. It moved on huge wheels connected by what Anada could only describe as a prickly ribbon. She had never seen nor imagined that there could be anything in the world like it. She was spurred to run, but her body was frozen.
Maharaj fired shot after red shot into the front of the machine, and nothing happened.
Slowly the machine closed on the hut, and from the front of it, a single red light flew out of the front and struck Maharaj where his hand was, and left nothing there.
Anada was splashed with the blood as the man fell back in pain and shock.
From what Anada could only describe now as an iron warhorse, a woman dismounted.
Uniformed, her long, dark hair in a pair of tails that swayed behind her in the wind.
Mismatched eyes; Anada would remember those eyes forever. And that smile.
“Maharaj Al Zzaq. I knew we should have killed you years ago, but at least now I am given the opportunity personally. You wanted war with Solstice? My friend, you are not prepared for the devastation we will bring to you and everything you claim to own.”
Outside, more machines arrived, shooting at the Zzaq and their horses.
Men and women dismounted from the machines with rifles, and they found any Zzaq and shot them. They went through the houses for Shimii survivors and guided them out. Anada saw some more cat-eared folk being helped up onto the machines. It was happening so disarmingly casually. Like a mother cleaning up a dirty house. Taking her children by the hand to lift them up onto a chair, while she stepped on the bugs.
Maharaj Al Zzaq backed away from the woman, crawling on his back, teeth grit.
She took a step forward with every movement he made back.
“We knew you were plotting something, so my mobile division was standing by. You think we don’t see everything that is happening in this desert? From the skies, from the waters. Information warfare has evolved past you, hasn’t it? Well, we would have responded faster if you used a radio, so perhaps it is to your credit. You and your men got a bit of time to rampage and kill these innocent villagers. Is that all you wanted?”
Anada went unacknowledged by the woman. She stepped forward, and finally caught up to Maharaj, and brought her boot down hard on his mangled arm and shifted it atop the wound, digging her iron boot-toe into the flesh. The conquering demon who had brought upon this horror to the Shimii, writhed and screamed incoherently beneath her. For Anada, it felt like this had taken instants and eternities at once.
It was a flash in her eyes, and yet also an eternity unfolding.
It was not over.
“You wanted a kingdom for the Zzaq? Like the Emperor once promised you? Is that also why your father attacked my people? Do you remember that, Al Zzaq? But your kind is useless to anyone but the Empire. You can do nothing but kill, like a jackal. We gave the Shimii and the Paq ‘your land’, because they have real lives to lead. Your people are demons, Maharaj. All you can do is torment; and I will torment you in turn.”
The woman continued to torment him and finally produced a gun.
“Today will be the final day of the Zzaq. One hundred goblin tanks versus thousands of your men? I like my odds. Thank you for the opportunity. Remember in hell, that it was Commissar Halani Kuracha who finally destroyed the warring legacy of the Zzaq.”
One shot, and two; brief flashes, unfolding eternities.
Before Anada’s eyes, entire generations of pain, trauma, hatred and death that were thousands of years old and yet minutes and seconds brief materialized. Histories began, ended, unfolded, twisted and twined, and ended, as suddenly and as surely as they would someday, in some form, continue. Maharaj’s face disappeared; massive red holes blossomed around his eyes and cheeks. Halani Kuracha grinned with elation.
Outside, it was no longer the Shimii who cried and screamed for what was done to them, but the Zzaq, who were hunted by a massively superior enemy, and crushed.
Halani Kuracha did not need to look, to know that her will would succeed.
When she did look away from the corpse, she saw Anada.
She walked over to her, bent down on one knee, smiled warmly, and put her hands on the little girl’s shoulders. Anada had no reaction, but a trembling lip and tearful eyes.
“You will be fine. We will take care of you.” Kuracha said. “You mothers, your sisters, your fathers and brothers, have been saved by the communists of Solstice.”
She picked Anada up into her arms, and Anada grabbed onto her with great fear.
“I will not them do this to you, like they did to me.”
She gripped little Anada harder in her arms. Her grinning lips trembling, she wept.
“I’ll kill them all. I promise you. Every single last one.”
Perhaps those words sounded comforting to Halani Kuracha.
For Avana Anada, she heard them in her nightmares.
15th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.
Solstice, Armaments Hill — Sickle Airfield, Barracks
In the middle of the night, Anada woke with a start.
She gasped for air.
Rivulets of cold sweat dripped down her hair, face and neck, collected around her bare breasts and over her round belly. She felt a weight and pressure and the warmth of something and for a moment, she panicked, feeling momentarily trapped and restricted; when her vision cleared in the next instant she saw a quite undressed Malik almost on top of her. She remembered falling asleep together after having sex.
“Haritha,” Anada whimpered.
Malik slowly came to, looking up from Anada’s chest.
“Avana? Is something wrong?” She asked.
She lifted herself up a bit by the bed and took Anada into her arms.
Anada was still struggling with her breath. It helped to be taken into Malik’s chest.
Malik had a good, strong grip that felt reassuring.
Tears streamed down Anada’s eyes. She put an arm around Malik’s back.
“Nightmare.” She said. “Just a nightmare.”
Malik hugged her tightly. “We’ve been under a lot of stress.”
“Oh, Haritha, I wish it was stress.” Anada said, sobbing openly.
“I’m here. I’m here for you.”
She sank her head into Malik’s chest and shoulders, and tried to feel comforted by the hands going down her back and running through her long, loosened hair.
Whenever she had the dream of that day, it was so horribly vivid.
Parinita Maharani called out, and the assembled Vulture Squadron stood arm to arm in their uniforms and lifted their backs up and straightened their shoulders. Even Captain Sheba, who was ordinarily the one giving such an order, straightened out herself as if still a lowly lieutenant. Anada even unnecessarily tried to suck in some of her belly.
“You actually don’t have to do that. Any of that. You too. Please calm down.”
In front of them, General Madiha Nakar appeared, stepping out of a staff car and trying to mollify her stiffening troops. Everyone standing before the General took a moment to compose themselves, and then quickly deflated into their relaxed, disorderly poses.
General Nakar then gave her aide, Maharani, an exasperated stare for a brief instant.
Parinita raised her hands in defense, smiling. “I didn’t tell them to go toy soldier on us!”
“It’s how you say things, you know? I don’t want them to treat me like this.”
“Well, excuse me for being so official now, General.”
Neither of them sounded offended or concerned. They seemed almost playful with one another, and Madiha Nakar offered a defeated smile at the end of the exchange.
In fact, with the way they addressed one another, they sounded familiar in a way that Anada placed in a conspiratorial fashion. Her mind, which had been struggling to find any subject to obsess over than the here and now, was firmly set on a course, and she delved into a flight of fancy. She examined their gestures, their smiles and cordiality.
Could it have possibly been that the extraordinarily beautiful and talented secretary Maharani, a prime picture of managerial perfection, and the merciless and all-conquering hero of her age, General Nakar, were engaged in an extra-legal tryst?! Avana grinned as she looked between the General and the Secretary for signs.
She started to imagine. A dim office in the underground barracks. Maharani arrives, her hips swaying, her sizable breasts having the slightest bounce even with the issued combat brassiere. Lips a glossy red, strawberry hair just perfectly wavy. Behind the desk was General Nakar, just feminine enough in form to be a sapphic prince, but with a handsome countenance, her hair just to the shoulder, a picture of authoritarian dominance and power. Just a brief look up from her paperwork, to acknowledge the courtship. Maharani locks the door behind herself, climbs on the desk; but Nakar is there to meet her! She pushes Maharani down, asserting her mastery over her taken lover, because of course Maharani would be the bottom and Nakar would be the top–
“What’s with that stupid look on your face?”
Anada snapped back to attention.
At her side, Homa Baumann, that insufferable little bi-color demon, was grinning and staring at her with clear evil in her own eyes. She was fiddling with her metal arm until she got the index finger to point and the rest to curl, and she turned this implement on Anada. She accompanied the gesture with a mocking laugh. To Anada’s theatric brain, every movement of Homa’s was a deliberate, calculated act of malice and mischief.
“Were you dozing off? Haven’t had your can of tuna yet? Cats are nocturnal, I guess!”
“Shut up, you malnourished panda! You interrupted my concentration!”
“Both of you shut up right now.”
From the leading edge of their single file, Captain Sheba peeked at them, eyes wide open with a murderous intent so terrifying that Homa immediately straightened out. Anada followed; she should have known not to let herself get caught up on nonsense with the General here to visit, but she wasn’t used to dealing with ranks higher than Captain. And the Captain she knew basically existed to endure her character flaws!
Sheba’s discipline finally won out — the Vultures paid General Nakar proper attention.
“Thank you for filing out on such short notice, Captain, and troops.” General Nakar said. “Lately, I’ve been trying to include Vulture Squadron more in our operations. Though currently you are classified as a mixed training, research and patrol squadron, we’re in need of every set of wings we can get into the skies in the current situation.”
“We appreciate the confidence you put in us, General.” Captain Sheba replied.
At Anada’s other side, Malik poked her in the belly and made a gesture.
Anada suppressed a derisive laugh.
Both of them had been among the “first” wave of replacements to Vulture Squadon, soon enough to form what the current members would have called the original cadre of Vulture Squadron under Captain Shurelis. Back then, they were also referred to as a mixed training and patrol squadron, but in truth, it always felt like they were in limbo, and just acted as filler whenever the illustrious Crane and Ibis squadrons were busy.
In the past few days, Anada had seen much more intense combat than ever.
She did not know how to feel about it. She did not feel particularly keen as a warrior.
She flew because it was gallant, because it was brave, because it was praiseworthy.
And now, she flew because she had people she wanted to protect.
That being said, any individual mission did not stoke the fires of her heart much.
General Nakar, acknowledging the bravery of the Squadron, continued.
“Ibis and Crane are veteran patrol squadrons capable of defending Solstice’s skies from Nocht’s current bombing strategies. Vulture, traditionally, has fallen through the cracks of this deployment scheme. I’m here to set Vulture’s role in stone for good.”
With a flourish of her arms, Madiha Nakar pointed to a scroll that Parinita Maharani produced, at almost the same time, from a case that had been set down previously.
On the unfurling, glossy white poster was a crisp new insignia.
The design was emblazoned with a jagged black and red Vulture that made the carrion bird seem so much more menacing than they had ever seen, and it was surrounded by the gold-flecked hydra heads that adorned the edges of many communist standards.
At the bottom, the new Squadron identifier read:
Deep Penetration Strategic Squadron: Vulture.
“You can read it as ‘D.P.S.’ Vulture.” Parinita Maharani said with a smile.
Captain Sheba’s eyes drew wide. Homa sighed and seemed annoyed.
Sayyid and Mannan turned to one another. Malik seemed suddenly excited.
Anada blinked and had no reaction. She tried to think of a joke but came up blank.
“From now on,” Madiha Nakar said, “Vulture’s tasks will be offensive missions against the Federation of Northern States and their allies on the continent. Without attacking, we cannot win this war. And to attack, we can’t rely on skill alone. Offensive operations require perseverance and endurance. Vulture, I see in you an iron will to survive. I want you to become my striking arm in this dark hour, and sear red the skies over Nocht!”
General Madiha Nakar’s voice boomed across Hangar 13 and swept over the vultures like the hot wind of a sirocco. Anada felt her skin brim with some kind of energy, and felt palpably a kind of presence from Madiha Nakar. She saw a dim red cloud, like a heat haze around the General, and saw her eyes glow with power and determination.
Even she could not think of a witty retort. She thought back to Captain Shurelis.
Someone had acknowledged Vulture; someone had acknowledged their strength.
Captain Sheba, weeping openly in front of General Nakar, saluted.
“Stand in attention, D.P.S. Vulture!” She called out.
At once, the members of Vulture stamped their feet and saluted.
Even Homa and Anada saluted in rhythm with the rest.
Madiha Nakar and Parinita Maharani smiled back at them with pride in their eyes.
“I will be counting on you.” General Nakar said. “In fact, I will count on you shortly.”