15th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.
Armaments Hill — Sickle Airfield, Hangar 13
“Form up! The General will explain the mission!”
Captain Sheba called out to her squadron in her most official voice.
“Well I said– You really don’t have to do that– but if you need to–“
General Nakar, meanwhile, seemed ready to give up on relaxing the decorum.
Inside Hangar 13, Vulture squadron convened in front of a whiteboard. Parinita Maharani was busy sticking up pins to a map of the great mountain range that divided the lower Ayvartan continent and its 4 southern states into two halves: the Kucha. On most common maps of Ayvarta, the Kucha was essentially a massive rock, the life upon it unacknowledged. This map, however, showed the breadth of the mountain, with several mountainfolk villages and a few communist military posts marked.
It did not take much imagination to know what they would be overflying soon.
General Madiha Nakar stood before the Vultures and gestured toward the southeast corner of the map, where some of the outermost Dbagbo province was depicted at the edge of the mountain. One symbol, near the edge of the map, showed an airbase.
“When Nocht drove us out of Dbagbo, they set up most of their air power in Loima, at Kubera Airport. Kubera is the only southern airport with the infrastructure to support the kinds of massive operations that Nocht is trying to undertake. Only here do they have refueling, repairing and restocking infrastructure to support medium and heavy bombers and their payloads. In addition, Kubera occupies a strategic position, central on the continent, northmost of the southern airports. Flights from Kubera can easily line up to Solstice over the desert. As such, any bomber that moves on Solstice comes out of Kubera, making at least one part of its journey extremely predictable to us.”
Captain Sheba stood in the middle of the group, flanked by Homa, Marcy and Sayyid, and then Mannan, Malik and Anada. Everyone stood up straight and stuck their chests out; this despite Madiha Nakar’s constant reassurances that they could absolutely calm down. After explaining to them the role of Kubera Air Force Base, Madiha Nakar traced a finger from the southeast of the map up into the mountain itself, northeast.
“While our radar coverage is primitive compared to Nocht’s FREIJA stations, we have had one major benefit of our pre-war planning and positions. Before the war, several observation posts were erected at various points in the Kucha mountain range. The people manning these stations are operatives who are rotated out seasonally, and their job is to establish visual coverage of the mountain’s conditions. Because of the war, rotating them has been difficult. We had one last major shift during the Dbagbo operation, but since then, we haven’t been able to approach the Kucha, so those agents are stuck there. We kept them supplied by air, and communicated via radio, couriers, airdrops, any way that we could; cooperators in the mountain helped us a lot with this regard. Our agent protocol is that if Nocht was to move on the mountain they should blend in among the villagers and destroy all evidence of their operations.”
Parinita Maharani, at this point, brought out a series of photographs and pinned them on the board, over parts of the map of the Kucha. They were blurry, far-off photos that seemed to show lights in mountain paths. Captain Sheba did not immediately realize the significance of the photographs, nor did she imagine how they were taken.
“Because of our heroic observers,” Parinita said, “we’ve had visual confirmation of nearly every bomber that Nocht has launched from Kubera. Evidently the central Kucha is a popular route for them to get out onto the desert, likely because it’s a good place to leisurely gain altitude without being accosted by any gunnery or intercepted by aircraft. However, Nocht has begun ground operations in the Kucha. Our spy planes took images of small Nochtish columns slowly advancing up the mountain. Though the Kucha is treacherous their progress will hasten, especially as villages start falling. These photographs were taken days ago. We expect Nocht to be farther up now.”
Captain Sheba expected they would have to, and soon. While the mountainfolk were armed, they were armed as hunters and gatherers to survive the harsh environment of the Kucha. They had old rifles, and explosives only for mining and rock clearing.
Truth be told, she did not know that much about them. They were among the indigenous tribespeoples who made alliances with The Socialist Dominances of Solstice to retain the ability to practice their culture independently while retaining a relationship to communism. In their eyes, the mountain was not part of the country of Ayvarta that the communists ruled, not entirely. Whether this would lead them to stand and fight Nocht, or whether it would convince them to capitulate, nobody knew.
“At this juncture, under normal circumstances, we would have made the unfortunate decision to give up the observation posts.” Madiha Nakar said. Captain Sheba quickly picked up on the implications and wondered how their position became abnormal.
Meanwhile, Maharani put up another photograph and a dossier, this time of a young woman in her early thirties at the most. She was in uniform, with a garrison cap, thick glasses and a very serious expression on her face. Her hair was tied up in a bun. It looked like the mugshot that could belong to any kind of intelligence operative. All of them had that cold, grim look to their eyes, in Sheba’s experience with them. They were all privy to a constant barrage of information, much of it likely tragic and terrible.
Madiha Nakar laid a hand on the face, covering up her eyes and mouth. “Your mission today will be help Ayvartan intelligence extract this agent, Shamir Mahapratham.”
Captain Sheba blinked. Malik, Mannan and Sayyid had confused but muted reactions. Marcy held an elegant calm and gently rubbed the underside of her chin with a curious expression. Homa and Anada meanwhile nearly jumped back a step with surprise and perhaps even outrage. Sheba had to tap both on their backs to get them back into line.
Anada seemed to jump forwards from the tap rather than just taking her place in line.
“Ma’am, how are we supposed to extract–“
“Let me finish please.” Madiha Nakar said. She did so with a gentle smile, but Anada reacted as if struck down like a nail by a hammer and hung her head and arms.
Behind General Nakar, secretary Maharani covered up a slight giggle with one hand.
“Nochtish ground units will catch up to Shamir’s station in the central Kucha soon. They will likely be supported by light air cover from Kuberan fighters. We need Vulture to destroy any Archers and Crossbows covering the Nochtish operation, and engage the ground troops if necessary after that. A separate team of exfiltration specialists will take care of the rescue itself using techniques first applied in Rangda last year.”
As she spoke, General Nakar waved for someone to come into the hangar.
Captain Sheba turned to look the way General Nakar gestured and saw the familiar face of Logia Minardo as she walked into Hangar 13. She was accompanied by a woman in a black and red uniform with long, dark hair and an expressionless stare in her eyes, carrying a massive, strapped-up pack. There were two others with them that Sheba recognized as some of her paratrooper cadets from the training exercise. Their pins and insignias suggested that these two had been promoted after the exercise.
“Hujambo!” Minardo said. “So nice to see you all again today, Vultures! I’m glad it ended up being you girls who escorted us again. You did such a good job last time.”
Several of the Vultures gave Minardo little waves and gestures.
Homa averted her eyes and turned her head away.
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready to deliver soon?” She mumbled.
“What was that?” Minardo asked, with a devilish grin on her face.
Captain Sheba raised a hand. “Ma’am, what’s the timetable looking like?”
Minardo and Homa stared icily at one another while General Nakar fielded the question, giving the two no acknowledgment. “We don’t expect a lot of airspace endurance from you.” She said. “We hope you’ll be in and out before it gets too hot.”
“How exactly will the rescue be carried out? Captain Minardo’s paratroopers can drop down, but we don’t really have a way of getting them back up, do we?” Marcy asked, raising her hand in the way Sheba had before. Sheba was thankful that someone other than her was trying to be useful and learn something in this briefing instead of goofing off. “We can’t land on the mountain. And the enemy has the mountain surrounded.”
In response, the long-haired woman in the black and red uniform pointed to the large bag that she was holding. She continued to point at it firmly in lieu of an explanation, even as more and more people in the room simply stared at her, uncomprehending.
“Everyone, this is Sergeant Agni.” Madiha said. She gestured toward Agni, who was still pointing at the pack as if that explained anything. “She’s our resident evil genius. Agni, please explain what you are pointing at to the crew, as few of them have ever seen it.”
“Okay.” Agni said. She pointed at the bag one more time. “Before the Akjer Incident, military intelligence had been running a lot more foreign spies, and we wanted to develop an exfiltration system that could be used to recover them, or to extradite captives outside of jurisdiction without involving the governments in question.”
“Wow!” Anada said. “She just out and said it! She just said some deep cover black operations stuff! These KVW people really are scary!” She looked around the room with a scandalized expression, but nobody else seemed to share her surprise.
“Technically, your current mission will be ‘deep cover black operations.’ Information access is restricted, so please don’t shout so much about it.” General Nakar said.
“Please excuse her, ma’am.” Captain Sheba said. She shot a glare at Anada.
Anada crossed hear arms over her breasts and turned her head away with a huff.
General Nakar smiled and chuckled. Though rare, her laughter was genuinely sweet.
“There’s some good in letting them be lively.” General Nakar said to the Captain.
Captain Sheba felt her face turn a little warm when faced with the attention and advice of the great General. She nodded stiffly to Madiha Nakar and then turned to Sergeant Agni. “Um, I try to, General, but give a meter, take a mile, etcetera.” She tried to hide her face. She didn’t want to know the General’s reaction. “Sergeant, if you will.”
Once more for emphasis, Agni pointed at the bag she was holding. When she spoke, her voice was characteristic of a KVW agent: dry and void of emotion. “An ex-patriate inventor known as Doctor Fuchs invented this system, but he was purged politically and then killed during the Akjer trials. I was fascinated by his designs, so I studied and attempted to continue his work. This item I’ve been pointing to is the Fuchs-Agni Infantry Recovery System. It will allow us to pick up ground troops from the air.”
She pulled a lever on the side of the bag, and suddenly a mechanism sprouted from the back of the bag. What looked like a glossy black balloon that seemed to be made out of the same thing as the flight bodysuits was quickly filled with gas by a small tank and then drifted up into the air. It pulled a line of what seemed like steel cable up behind it that had a series of flags and glass reflectors on it to make it more visible.
Captain Sheba watched the balloon inflate and the line rise up to the hangar roof.
At that point, the thoroughly inexpressive Agni, so nonplussed by her own creation she did not even look up at the balloon with the rest of the onlookers, let go of the bag.
It hit the ground with a solid thud.
“Wait, it doesn’t float up? What’s the point of that then?” Anada asked.
For once, Captain Sheba silently agreed with Anada. What was the purpose of this?
“There is no balloon we can fit into a bag that will lift an entire person and their kit into the air. That is nothing but comics books fantasy.” Agni then said. “What the FARS does is lift a line into the air that will be snagged by rescue aircraft. We can then safely winch up the persons to be extracted. In the old system, we threw down a line from the plane and tried to snag a pair of poles on the backpack. Testing showed however that we would usually maim the target this way. My redesign is far safer and reliable.”
Now that explanation made far more sense to Sheba. She could see it working now!
“How many people were maimed testing this?” Anada asked.
Agni did not acknowledge that she had been spoken to.
“At any rate,” General Nakar said, interrupting Anada and leaving the rest unsaid, “Now you understand the mission parameters. You will escort a modified Roc bomber that will ferry Minardo and an elite team of paratroops, along with Agni and some service crew for the recovery system. Vulture will defend the transport and the VIP while we drop Recovery packages to them and exfiltrate them. Then you’ll depart the Kucha.”
“Anything you’re concerned about, or is that clear?” Parinita asked sweetly.
Captain Sheba saluted, and slowly the rest of the Vultures followed.
“Ma’am! Mission objectives are clear! When do we depart?” She said.
In truth, Sheba was concerned. This seemed a very crucial mission, and though it seemed the flying on Vulture’s part was not going to be too complicated, there was an outside element that they could not account for. On their own strength, Sheba was sure Vulture could fight any enemy in the air; but the Roc, its crew, the agent they needed to rescue, and the treacherous mountain itself, all of that could go wrong.
And Vulture was helpless to impact those elements of the mission.
All they could do was fly their hardest and give the enemy hell.
“I have a question.”
Logia Minardo raised her hand. General Nakar nodded in acknowledgment.
“Is there a Plan B, should things not go according to your Grand Plan A?” She asked.
General Nakar paused momentarily. She was perhaps not expecting the question.
“Keep us appraised of the situation. Use your best judgment.” General Nakar was raising her voice, perhaps to cover up her tone. “However, this mission has been prepared in advance, so I don’t expect that it will go too differently. We made contact with the agent again a day ago, and we will do so again today. They’ll be ready.”
Minardo smiled warmly and saluted. “Yes ma’am. And may I ask another question?”
“You may.” General Nakar said.
“Are we rescuing multiple observation stations, or only Shamir’s? And why hers?”
“You’ll be rescuing Shamir. She has important information we need.”
“I see. Very well then. Thank you, General.”
Minardo put on a little grin.
Captain Sheba felt ever so slightly more anxious than she had in the past.
This was a crucial mission indeed. So crucial its real purpose was best left unsaid.
General Nakar believed in them; she believed in Vulture to do this, and trusted them.
She believed in them and gave them an opportunity nobody else had, or would have.
Vulture could fly higher than ever and reach new frontiers. They had been entrusted to fight for their country. They were no longer the remainders, the overlooked, the spares, the untrustworthy. Sheba wanted to make sure they lived; but she also knew that now they had a chance to do more than live. They could fight for all they lost.
So even though Sheba worried about her squadron, she knew she couldn’t turn away.
She just hoped that the rest of the Vultures–
While she was about to think that, she was interrupted by a rowdy shout.
“We’re all behind the Captain then. We’re rarin’ to go now, General!”
Mannan spoke up, patting Sheba on the shoulder. Sayyid joined in with a big grin.
“You’ve got guts entrusting the misfits with your secret mission, General.” Sayyid said. “But I’m sure the Captain will agree, there’s no one better suited for mischief than us!”
Minardo, Parinita and Madiha Nakar all seemed pleasantly amused.
“Splendid. I knew I could count on all of you. Thank you for standing behind your Captain on this. You can take a few hours to make ready, and then depart to F.O.B. ‘Silver’ in the Oasis of Shimii.” General Nakar said. “It’s as close as we can put you. We’re starting to see the battle lines moving on us, but Silver will put the Kucha in your reach. You will depart from Silver tomorrow and complete the mission. Good luck.”
“Yes ma’am!” said the Vultures in unison. Captain Minardo and the paratroopers joined.
Almost all of them then saluted with eager expressions on their faces.
There was one Vulture, however, who was taken aback by the General’s words.
Avana Anada saluted later than everyone, and did not shout acknowledgment.
Captain Sheba did not scold her again, not for something so minor as that.
Though the Captain wanted to correct Anada’s mischevious behavior and errant disregard for authority, there had to be a balance between scolding her and just harassing her constantly. One had to let things slip with Anada, or else her life would have been tormented at every step. So Sheba allowed Anada this slip-up in her decorum. After all, didn’t Madiha Nakar desire them to be relaxed, anyway?
This was the way in which Sheba conceptualized her leniency at that time.
She did not know one way or another what the Oasis of Shimii meant to Anada.
Solstice, Shimii — F.O.B. “Silver”
The land of the Shimii had gone through a lot of changes since that traumatic day, so many years ago. Anada could see it as she looked down from the hill at the edge of F.O.B. Silver. It was long ago, so perhaps her memory of it was fading, but she felt that she could not tell this was the land of her ancestors anymore. She could not tell how she felt about it either: whether she thought it was good or bad. She just watched.
With the wind at her back, blowing forward what locks of hair she had not caught in a bun, she traced the flattened-down dirt roads that ran through the Shimii village laid down around the Oasis. Long gone were the thatched houses and yurts and tent homes. Now the village was built up with clay brick and concrete, and covered by wooden and tin roofs. There was a town center with a Civil Canteen and a public school. Beyond the village borders, there were gardens and plots of date and olives, and drought-resistant herbs, and tough sorghum stalks that grew with little water.
Large flocks of sheep were being kept, and they were driven by dogs and horses, rather than by men on camelback as was traditional. They were also fenced off.
And it wasn’t just the buildings and resources that changed, but the people too.
There was a great co-mingling of the cat-eared, cat-tailed Shimii and all kinds of people from Solstice. War had come to the Shimii broadlands again. A column of Hobgoblin tanks moved through the village, and children watched them go from the sidelines; a group of soldiers ate bread and sheep butter broth in the center of the village, served by a villager in traditional garb, while they pored over a map together.
Sandbags and crates of ammunition were stockpiled near the center of the town.
Anada turned her eyes from the habitation and toward the fields outside of town.
In the patches of green grass that grew closer to the Oasis waters, children played under the waning afternoon sun, laughing loudly, making noises, and running all over.
Anada remembered picking flowers, chasing and tumbling with her friends, skipping rocks, swimming, climbing the palms that grew closer to the water’s edge. She tried to superimpose those memories on the children she saw running around, but they were having a fundamentally different fun. When she realized, it came as a bit of a shock.
One of the children held up a lump of builder’s clay that had been vaguely shaped with a hand and a point, and loosed an imaginary shot at another. Everyone laughed as the child who was stricken, politely accepted defeat, and seized up and played dead on the ground with a great flair for the dramatic. Swinging his arms, writhing, and with a big grin on his face, asking his comrades to tell his wife and children he died a hero. His friends chided him for being overdramatic, and impugned his marriage prospects.
Several more shots were exchanged in this way.
“Oh yeah? Well you can’t shoot me! I have a tank now!”
One of the children, innovating in the operational art, held up a piece of wood with what seemed like a piece of plumping pipe going through the middle. Perhaps in an earlier time this would have been some kind of shield for playing swords and magic, but now it likely represented the turret on the now-ubiquitous Goblin and Hobgoblin tanks. So protected, the other children struggled to fend off his ingenious attacks.
“You can’t even reach me! I’m flying high up in a plane now!”
At that point, a girl climbed atop a nearby rock and leaped into the air over the rest.
Anada, meanwhile, scratched her hair and felt an invisible, untouchable frustration.
When she used to play as a kid she would pretend to be a bird and fly anywhere she wanted. Away from an overbearing mom, away from the village elders teaching her manners and the place of women, away from the desert heat and the endless sand and the salty sheep milk tea. She spread her arms out and dreamed and she could flky anywhere. Even out to the cities where, supposedly, the communists lived, in huge buildings like palaces compared to the Shimii’s huts, eating all the food they wanted.
Being a bird, that was liberating; why did these kids want to fly planes? It was an absurd thought that came to her mind, but in comparison, it felt so restricted.
Anada wanted to fly a plane as an adult, because adults understood reality.
But for a kid?
All of their imaginations had been brought too far down to earth.
Anada sighed, and kicked a rock down the hill.
“Huh. Who taught them all that, I wonder?”
Anada nearly jumped with surprise as Malik suddenly appeared beside her.
She did not know for how long her fiancee had been sitting at her side, watching the kids play. Anada had been too absorbed watching her fellow cat-kin simulate a war.
“Do you think the soldiers are getting too friendly?” Malik asked.
Clearly she could tell Anada was upset.
She gave her a gentle smile and a reassuring pat on the back.
Anada, however, was not in the mood to be pitied.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter who showed them that.”
She sat down beside Malik, crossing her arms over her chest and bowing her head.
“Are you ok? You used to live here, didn’t you? This is where you ran way from.”
“No, it wasn’t from here specifically. I mean, it was here, but it wasn’t this one village. But that doesn’t matter.” Anada said. She was having a hard time describing what was troubling her. What did matter? “It’s just– it’s awful that they play that way. Kids don’t understand how serious that stuff is. They should pretend to be birds or something.”
“You’re right.” Malik said. “This is one thing we all ought to take seriously.”
“Ah, you’re taking a dig at me for joking about stuff. Hmph!”
“No, no! It’s not that at all sweetie.”
Anada was not actually angry, and made a comically exaggerated turn of the head.
Malik laughed at her pouty expression.
Hearing Malik’s gentle laugh made Anada laugh too.
The two of them laughed for a few minutes, seemingly at nothing.
Slowly they quieted down, and settled naturally into each other’s space.
Cheek against cheek, feeling the warmth of each other under the desert heat.
Sweating into their uniform undershirts, perhaps; but in a good way.
“I didn’t hate it or anything, I guess.” Anada said. “I just wanted more.”
“I can understand. I felt the same way about my old home.” Malik replied.
“It’s sad that what those kids want isn’t to fly away to a castle and have adventures; they want to fight this godawful war. They admire soldiers instead of princes and princesses and dragons and magical djinn. It just– it’s awful. I can’t really explain.”
“You should teach them all about the theater.”
Malik rubbed her cheek in closer against Anada’s, and then kissed her on it.
“You know, you can actually be really sweet when you truly care about something.”
“There you go again. For being my wife, you always underestimate me.”
Anada sighed. She did not regret the decisions she made. She was coming to realize, however, that soon, her people would not actually have a choice of whether they wanted to live like they did or live like Anada wanted to. These kids would not have the ability to grow up in a peaceful, pastoral world. They couldn’t dream as she dreamed, because something infinitely more vast was coming for them. Inexorably, the turning of the world crept up on the Shimii, and the lives of their ancestors would soon be over.
“It’s hypocritical of me to complain.” Anada said. “A soldier taught me how to read.”
“That was kind of them.” Malik said.
“I don’t feel like she did out of kindness.” Anada said.
Malik reached a hand around Anada’s shoulder and pushed her cheek up against hers.
Silently, Anada looked on at the village.
And yet, the biggest change of all was right behind her.
It was the runway and three hangars of F.O.B. Silver that truly signified the change that had come to the Shimii Broadlands. It was the refueling trucks, the water tanks, the stone road that had been carved for them. All of the soldiers managing the F.O.B., and all of the logistics people managing them. Vulture’s aircraft were part of that change.
Anada was part of it also.