Storm The Castle (68.1)

This chapter contains graphic violence and death.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — South Wall Defensive Line

Around the city of Solstice the Red Desert rolled into hills and valleys. It rose, and it fell, and patterns formed on its surface like ocean waves captured solid, an endless sea of windswept rust-colored dust parched by a brutal heat. Stones set on the ground in ancient times traced paths through the desert to the oasis that is Solstice, but these paths came and went with the winds, and with the shape and stature of the surrounding dunes.

Since the beginning of the war, the unkempt paths had all but disappeared into sand.

One of those vanished roads once led to the southern wall of Solstice, said to be the only one “touching ground.” On the famous eastern road the massive stone bridge of the Conqueror’s Way parted Solstice from the rest of the land, the Qural river flowing from the north and down underneath the massive fortification; to the west, sheer cliffs, wide pits and broad gorges, which had been filled with water artificially, blocked the city access.

And so, it was along the fated south, that the first grey shirts and the first black jackboots, climbed the sandy hills to stare face to face, for the first time, at the vast walls of the city.

Upon spying the wall for the first time, the men, already enervated by the stinging, relentless heat, grew quieter, and their muscles tensed, their whole bodies frozen still. Eyes drew wide at the distant sight of the ancient stone wall, dozens of meters tall. It was tall enough to keep the giants of nochtish legend out of the socialist’s streets. It was like staring at a cliff from far off, an obstacle one knew to be in one’s own future; it was the polished, brown stone face of a mountain that set itself on an adventurer’s weary trail.

Those who trudged up the hill without hope, simply collapsed at the peak, dead in spirit if not already dead. They had come for little reason or no reason at all, and nothing could drive them further. Months of campaigning in the desert had all but killed them, in spirit if not flesh. Those who had come to fight, loaded their weapons. Masses of men, broken up by tanks, backed up by the small, quick cars upon which their offices rode on, crested the hill, and assembled atop the sand. There were no horses. All of the horses were dead.

Some men were allowed to ride on the backs of the light tanks driving up to the wall. Many were old model light “Ranger” tanks, worn and pitted with bullets and discolored in places where old worn-out plate had been replaced with new armor. Even the most veteran of these tanks was obsolete now. It was a motley assemblage. On these tanks, men could ride atop the enclosed turret and in the back, over the engine, if they could stand the heat.

Many among the fighting men griped about the lack of sturdy, powerful M4 tanks in this crucial juncture. They suspected shortages, but did not suspect the nature of their mission.

Their true purpose was cleverly concealed by a few pieces of less expendable technology.

Among the old warhorses there were scattered signs of Nocht’s ruthless wartime evolution, enough to improve the general morale and to make the charge seem a little less doomed. These new tanks, moving at a faster clip, and with open-topped turrets boasting powerful 76mm guns inspired by the new Ayvartan tanks, were new model M3A3 R-K Hunter light tank destroyers, replacing the old, flawed Hunter artillery tanks.

Those men who got to ride on the “Rick Hunters” got a breezy journey to the starting line.

Trucks pulled artillery into place, engineers dug earthworks for the camps. Crucial water was stockpiled air-tight and under tarps. A village of tents rose to support the battle.

However, everyone’s eyes were taken by the gallantry of the front line.

Atop the hill, Nocht’s combat power arranged itself into neat, preplanned ranks.

Slowest first, fastest last, and in staggered waves down to the platoon level.

Back at the camps, numerous tents housed radio control teams, staffed by young women as had become customary, who worked the wireless boxes, set up antennae, and delivered orders from nearly endless slate of officers down the chain of command. Firing off hundreds of calls, the radio girls kept everyone on time, in place and organized, and kept their commanders appraised of the situation moment to moment. Everyone spoke in prepared codes on the radio, but officers in the tents allowed themselves to be candid.

“Bring forward the C-10 teams! We’re breaching that fucking wall!”

Thousands of men, hundreds of vehicles, assembled across a several-kilometer swath of desert, and faced the wall. Within fifteen minutes, not even enough time for the vast, long, multi-headed shadow they cast upon the sand to shift a degree, the command was shouted, and there was a convulsion along the body of this great beast, and it shrugged.

The 365th Infantry Division along with elements of the 25th Panzer Division would be the historic vanguard, the honored heroes who would initiate the 1st Wall Attack Operation.

First into the fray was the 3rd Battalion of the 365th’s 18th Regiment. One thousand men almost to the head broke off from the body of the Division and began to move across the ten kilometers of flat distance between the crowded divisional area and Solstice. It was a charge of the modern day, not a sprint of a hundred meters from speartip to speartip, but a tactical march against a fortification on a strict timetable. Some men ran as if they could cross the desert flats and fight within the minute, and those men fell ten minutes later.

Those marching steady kept weary eyes forward, on the walls that came closer and closer.

Across the desert the cry resounded, unchallenged by the silent stone: Vorwarts!

Accompanying the cry and the charge were the sound of loud, intermittent blasts behind them. It was not enough to startle anyone; they all knew the plan. They had to. Over the heads of the men, artillery guns fired heavy shells that crossed the distance to the city in moments, and they struck the stone walls like iron fists. These were the first blows of the war directly at the walls of Solstice. Chunks of stone went flying, and smoke and dust blew up in front of the wall and obscured the obstacle. Each shot sent a triumphant thrill through the mass. The 3rd Battalion picked up the pace. Within the hour they had cut the distance to half. Several tanks caught up quickly, and the Pionier engineering teams and their explosives started to make ready. In an hour more they would be in the city!

Maybe in two or three, the war might be over! They could go home, triumphant!

Owing to the wind and the dust, and the contribution of their own artillery fire to both, a yellow curtain fell over the march. There was a foul wind picking up that was scattering sand into the atmosphere, an effect known to the locals as the “khamsin.” Within an atmosphere the color of parchment that howled and stung, the 3rd Battalion did not see the shells flying over their own head. They did not see the flashes atop the wall, nor the casings falling from on high. And when the blasts fell at their backs, those ahead believed it to be their own guns, and did not see the carnage that was creeping slowly back to front.

When the dusts ahead began to settle, and their own artillery quieted, and the wall again came to view, the 3rd Battalion saw minimal damage inflicted on the stone. They paled as they saw something glinting in the scorching sunlight: reinforced plates behind a false layer of stone. All of that howitzer fire had done nothing; Solstice was still untouched.

And then there was another flash, and another, these were no trick of the desert light.

Guns started flashing from several openings on the stone. With the dust clear and the distance cut, it was possible to see a hint of gun barrels protruding over the top wall, belonging to heavy rampart guns. These impressive weapons launched massive 100+ millimeter shells along the length of the column, with one or two startling shots a minute.

The carnage they wrought distracted the men from the guns in the wall itself.

There was an instant of silence. The advancing infantry seemed not to realize their fate.

Amid the khamsin a hail of gunfire met the 3rd Battalion. At first soundless in the wind, their red tracers masked by the haze, the machine gun fire was an invisible reaper that swept across platoons and companies and put to the ground dozens of men. They fell like they had fallen all along the trek through the desert, suddenly and mysteriously, as if the heat had finally dried out the last drop of their souls. They fell as they had fallen before and so they fell forgotten, and the 3rd Battalion marched on as it had learned to.

Hidden within the soundless stone, inside the face and the columned corners and interred at the base of the wall, were machine guns, anti-tank cannons, mortar emplacements.

When mortars and gun shells began to land, blasting skyward pillars of earth and gore, and the buzzing machine gun fire started to build enough to chop men to pieces as they stood, the urgency of the situation became horrifically apparent. It was then that the bullets became visible, and that death became less abstract. The disciplined mass of the 3rd Battalion split and scattered and charged the wall in haphazard patterns, and all across the carpet of flesh blossomed horrific circles of death where howitzer shells exploded.

There was still some semblance of a plan. Guide the C-10 to the wall. The C-10, the 10th of the Wall-Breaking Potentials. Those men who ran with hope ran with that hope in hand.

Around the teams of C-10 carrying engineers, the attacking troops rallied, and so the battalion coalesced into three distinct masses with gaggles of stray soldiers between.

There was no louder sound in the desert than the Ayvartan guns. Even the panic in the invader’s heads was quieter. Shells fell savagely around the advancing infantry. A near-miss would detonate in a hail of cruel metal fragments; if the concussive blast of a nearby explosion did not take an arm or a leg, a cloud of jagged metal knives would. Any group so unlucky as to have a shell land on them disappeared, a red mist and a red splash atop the ruddy-brown sand. It was as if the men were bubbles being popped by falling needles.

Hundreds died immediately, and hundreds more followed, as the shells and the machine gun fire and the guns swept forward and back, forward and back, leaving a trail to the wall.

Tanks, lagging behind the advance, were picked off by the large-caliber guns atop the walls. There were several M3s and few M4s, and none could withstand the concentrated fire of the wall guns. They moved implacably, an iron wall buckling at its supports, some tanks trying to swerve and zig-zag, others praying as their front armor took stray shots.

It was too much. Single shots to the front plate outright destroyed the light tanks, and even the brand new M3s would falter, their open tops exposing their crews to shrapnel and flame. M4 tanks shot in the cheek, would diffuse the blast across their hulls and rattle mad every man inside it. Whether or not the armor survived, the machinery inside was doomed, shaken to pieces. Many tanks were abandoned, serving no function but cover. The Ayvartan fire was accurate and ferocious, and when the line of tanks stalled, it joined the other human detritus of the operation, a vast graveyard soiling the southern desert.

But while the battle raged on, the landscape was shifting.

Wind and war moved the sand and the earth, creating craters, mounds, features otherwise missing in the flat terrain between the Division and Solstice. While their heavy machinery and thick formations crumbled, individual men clung to life within the storm like dogs hurled into ocean water. Within one or two kilometers, a step away from their destination, the men of the 3rd Battalion could huddle in holes and against the shadowed parts of their ephemeral sandy hills and found a measure of safety. Machine gun fire was sailing above them, and shells striking safely behind them. They now had a foothold.

“This is Storm-Two!”

At the head of the bloody march, a captain from a C-10 team picked up a radio.

“Repeat, this is Storm-Two! We’ve made it to the shadow of the wall!”

“Acknowledged, Storm-Two,” replied a dispassionate female voice. She was speaking in code, but the Captain knew her words immediately, having memorized the ciphers, and so in his mind he heard her speaking crisp Nochtish. “1st and 2nd Battalion will move forward soon to reinforce the approach. Ready to deploy the C-10 against the wall.”

“Division, I don’t think we can advance in this condition. We’ve lost almost everything up here.” the Captain grimly said, huddled behind a boulder unearthed by a fortunate wind. Around him were maybe a dozen engineers and riflemen, and the big packs of C-10 bombs.

“Losses are within acceptable parameters,” corrected the voice, “continue the attack.”

The Captain knew that as that radio went dead, another dozen of his men went dead too.

Still, he turned to them, and he raised his hand and waved to the wall with conviction.

“Huddle around the engineers! We’re taking that C-10 to the fucking wall!” He shouted.

There were stares of disbelief, even as the men’s bodies slowly went to work.

Back in the rear, the 1st and 2nd Battalions started to retrace the steps of the 3rd. Little had changed for them. In this battlefield even the veterans among them knew nothing. Without having seen the fire falling first-hand, without the intimate yet split-second knowledge of the good shell-holes, the blind spots, the good cover, these men were butchered the same as before. It was only Ayvartan reloading and refitting, which became more frequent as ammo cycled and barrels overheated, that allowed many to escape.

Those at the front threw themselves at the wall. Escorting the C-10 explosive teams, stray platoons and even impromptu squadrons of survivors organized, shouted their last words, and charged with rifles up. Machine guns on the base of the wall opened fire, cutting dozens of them down in plain sight. For the last 1 kilometer dash of the fight, there was little cover, little sand, no boulders, no shell-holes. Just dry, packed dirt, a wall and death.

“Run! Run! Run!”

Storm-Two was reduced to near-incoherence the slobber from his visceral screams evaporating in the heat and the scorching wind of the khamsin. Ahead of him he saw the bullets, the screeching red tracers flying by him like fiery arrows, and each one could have been for him and each one wasn’t. At his side one of his men took a bullet in the eye and collapsed. Another’s helmet flew off his head from a dozen shots, and the thirteenth blew his nose apart. Storm-Two could barely register what was happening. He ran, and he ran, clutching the explosive pack, charging into the curtain of bullets, and not one hit him.

With a final, guttural cry he stamped the pack against the stone of the wall, maneuvering himself so that he stood between two obvious firing ports built into the stone and hidden by the sand. He slammed the C-10 pack against the wall, and he reached inside of it.

There was a mechanism, wires, string, a tiny snap lever, attached to thick, gray blocks.

His entire body shook and rattled as hundreds of thousands of bullets flew out from the wall. He thought he could feel every instant of recoil, every muzzle burst, every click of the trigger, through the cold stone of the southern wall. He kept the pack up, fumbled with the mechanism. He wasn’t even thinking that if it exploded, it would take him.

He was at the wall. Nobody knew. Nobody was alive to know. But he was there.

He took the C-10 home, and he was going to blow a hole in the fucking wall.

Storm-Two linked the wires, waited for the tell-tale sign of an electric charge.

Around him the gunfire intensified. Overhead the wall cannons fired, and he felt the massive energy of several heavy guns transferring down the wall, shaking up his guts. He thought he would throw up. He shuttered his eyes. Had he heard the fizzing noise?

He looked at the C-10 pack, and he saw no smoke, no sparks.

Had he missed it? Storm-Two was too deep to back off.

At least he would die a hero. He would destroy the wall. He would win the war.

He held the pack against the stone and put his head head to it.

In a few minutes, certainly–

Nothing.

Far behind him several artillery shells exploded, wiping out more men and machines.

He looked desperately inside the pack for signs that it was armed, that it would blow.

He prayed for death, and he could not have it. His C-10 remained unexploded.

It was a dud. He had a dud bomb.

Storm-Two dropped the pack, collapsed onto his knees.

In front of him, a stone slid on the wall.

For a brief instant, Storm-Two saw a face in the wall.

Clean, soft, with large eyes and little expression. Long hair, lovely lips, dark brown skin.

He was regarded, quizzically at first, by the Ayvartan behind the defenses.

Storm-Two looked up in futility.

He put his fist to his chest, and then he raised his arm to sign the eagle’s wing.

He died patriotically as the Ayvartan behind the stones shot him in the face with her rifle.

She closed the stone, locked the armored hatch behind it, and returned to her post.


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Declaration II (67.4)

17th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City

Before a small crowd of assembled delegates, statesmen and women and military leaders of a variety of nations, Daksha Kansal stepped out of the shadows and took a podium. She was used to speaking plainly, and the microphone in front of her felt very conspicuous. This address, however, was being recorded for broadcast far abroad. It would set the stage.

Within a projection room in a bunker beneath the SIVIRA Headquarters building, the half of the world still resolute against imperialism gathered for a secret, historic moment. They had traveled from around the world in support of Ayvarta.

Daksha had not written this speech. She was too busy. But she spoke nevertheless with the candor that had come to characterize her. She threw her fist high, raised her voice, and though it was sinole and short, the room nonetheless shook.

“Fellow delegates and the world community. I would like to open this momentous occasion with a personal anecdote. Somebody once told me that the world would abandon Ayvarta, should it decide to roll heedless like a boulder down the path of Socialism.”

Daksha paused for effect and made a gesture with her hands. She had practiced the speech once beforehand, and had vetted its contents. It wasn’t her style: she preferred blunt, enumerated talking points. But she trusted the contents like she trusted her comrades.

“This man,” she continued, “was a rising star of the old Social Democrats, who did not dream as I did of a world where we were all stars as he was. He wished to work within a system of oppression to achieve peace for the city-dwellers he deemed hard-working and worthy enough; he was never a man for the rural souls among us. He was smart, a hard worker, of that there was no doubt. But he just did not see, he did not understand. All of us here, socialist or not, know now that even this small step cannot be achieved within empire, and that any liberation must be achieved with the people, not in spite of them.”

There was applause from the audience, unprompted. Daksha waited a moment for it.

“Any great work must undergone as a community, not merely a cadre. Now, this once powerful, once vibrant man cannot be with us today, but I dearly wish I could show him the assemblage of nations in this room, who have cast aside their differences in support of Ayvarta and its people in their darkest hour: because of our socialism and despite it. I wish I could show him this Ayvarta that his eyes failed to see, an Ayvarta that even with its strength sapped by the imperialist leech, is stepping forward to be part of a world community, in the greatest endeavor for peace ever witnessed by human eyes. I wish I could have made him understand that all peoples must be brought together to fight Empire. Whether it be rural and city dwellers together, or say, Svechthans and Helvetians. I wish I could have shown him too that sometimes, to grow a field, you must burn it first. You cannot always work with what you have. Some roots are too rotted and too deep to be nurtured any better. Sometimes struggle must be had. Sometimes life must be lost.”

She did not tell the room that she had been the one to kill him. None needed to know.

Her speechwriters certainly did not know. But they chose their story presciently.

“Alas, I could not save him. But we can save others in his stead. So here we are.”

Daksha spread out her arms and took a hidden breath. Before her, there was the solemn, respectful applause of a room ready and prepared to deal in the business of nations.

“You have my sincerest gratitude, on behalf of the Ayvartan people. We shall have no further delay. Here today assembles the first presidium of the forces of the Solstice Pact.”

Ayvarta’s Premier stepped down from the platform, and reached out her hands to hold those of the Svechthan military delegation leader, General Zhukova, and the Helvetian representative, Millennia Alsace, as they climbed up to the platform and stood side by side with her, arm in arm, feet to feet, all of them ready to discuss the future of the free world.


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Declaration II (67.3)

1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City

As part of the terms of her leave Madiha and any guests she desired (in her case, only one) had been afforded a temporary stay at a comfortable little apartment building in the central quarter, just around the People’s Peak. These apartments were for government workers who came and went on business. Generals were considered to be among those.

After successfully completing her shopping, Madiha returned to the apartment with her treasure in tow, only to find the door locked. It was a third floor apartment and all the hallways were enclosed. From the plain, utilitarian facade of the pillar-like building and its unadorned halls, nobody would have known it was anything special. It seemed unlikely to Madiha that security would be a concern in here. Much less for Parinita, who, despite her appearance, was a soldier, and must have trained in basic self-defense skills for it.

Still, Madiha took her key and unlocked the door with an audible click.

She turned the knob, opened the door, and found Parinita at the little couple’s tea table in the middle of the living room situated just off of the door. She blinked, staring with muted fascination at her lover’s rather sparse attire: an apron, a camisole and undergarments. Bright red pigment adorned her lips, and her wavy, strawberry hair she shook loose.

Parinita slid a slender finger over the rim of a wine glass, and made a sultry expression.

“You kept me in suspense there, Madiha.” She said, winking at her from the table.

“Parinita?”

Her lover cocked a little grin. “This is the scene where I coax you to temptation.”

Madiha blinked. “Well. I brought the groceries. Are we having dinner?” She stammered.

“Oh I’ll help you build an appetite.” Her lover said.

Parinita stood from the table, beckoning Madiha with a finger in the air.

She took a long-legged step forward, and then promptly tripped and fell.

“Parinita!” Madiha cried out.

From the floor, Parinita started laughing.

“I’m sorry Madiha, I tried but I just can’t do the sultry succubus act very well.”

“I’m sorry, I should have participated with greater enthusiasm.” Madiha replied.

“I hope you were turned on a little.” Parinita said.

Madiha did not want to admit exactly how turned on she had been.

After everyone had collected themselves, the night’s preparations began in earnest. Parinita dressed up a little more, in a vibrant skirt and sari, and together she and Madiha began to prepare dinner as they had planned. Though Madiha had made General, in Parinita’s kitchen she was a grunt. Dressed in the same apron that had barely covered her lover beforehand, Madiha chopped onions, smashed garlic, mixed dressings; meanwhile Parinita read recipes, measured spices, and passed ingredients down the bar for Madiha.

“Coconut milk!” Parinita ordered.

“Yes ma’am!” Madiha replied, pouring a small flask of coconut milk into a pot of curry.

“Salt and pepper!”

“Of course!”

“Red pepper, to taste!”

“At once!”

Both of them started to laugh. Madiha rolled up lettuce wraps and spread out flatbread; Parinita stirred up sauces, squeezed lemon, and kept the recipes, her notepad a sacred book of lore. This small moment of domesticity, even with the military tinge conjured by Madiha’s mind, was characterized by a stunning peace and a sensational feeling of joy.

Madiha could not help but notice herself smiling, to realize how funny, how sweet the scene was. General Nakar, the Right Hand of Death, chopping tomatoes instead of heads. She looked fondly at her partner, who just a month ago had been an unrecognized paper pusher in a corrupt military administration. She recalled the moment their eyes met, and she thought, Parinita obviously had a fascination then, but Madiha had as well. Madiha had wanted to protect her. In that space, it was impossible to dream of all that this was.

But Madiha, some part of her, had desired that, and she was overjoyed to have it here.

A moment where these two soldiers were nothing more than a queer pair of women cooking like a couple in a loaned apartment building, ignoring the capital under siege.

Their small table in the living room could scarcely hold the plates. There was coconut milk curry with a drizzle of glistening oil and onions atop, and chickpea-lentil wraps, flatbread, a red and green salad dressed with yogurt, and fried, potato-filled bonda. Madiha was astounded at the amount and variety of food that had come out of their ingredients and preparations. Parinita bid her lover to pause for a small prayer before they began.

“Your aura is very peaceful! What an improvement!” Parinita then said.

She reached out a hand and touched Madiha’s forehead. Madiha did not feel the usual cooling, calming effect of Parinita’s “magic” touch on her, perhaps because she was not burning up from her power at the time. Madiha had hardly used her “abilities” in days. (Parinita desired she call them psionic or ESP abilities but Madiha resisted that still.)

“I’ve had time to calm down.” Madiha said.

She took a spoonful of curry and tasted it. It was spicy and rich with a hint of sweetness.

“How is it?”

“It’s excellent.”

“Hah! Of course it is!”

Parinita crossed her arms and puffed herself up a little with pride. Madiha laughed.

“Just like all the great feast scenes of cinema.”

“Are there that many?” Madiha asked.

“Well, maybe not feast scenes, but you see characters eating in almost every movie. They have expert chefs to make the edible food, and they use artists to make prop food for the backgrounds of restaurants. You just have to have a food scene in a movie nowadays.”

Madiha nodded. “True. Food does tend to play an important role in films.”

“Yes! Food is often symbolic of the times the characters live in. In a movie our table would symbolize the domestic bliss we feel right now.” Parinita enthusiastically said.

“It is definitely an improvement from eating lentils out of a bag in the office.”

Parinita chuckled. “You’d like them better if you used the spice pack.”

“You get a spice pack in maybe a quarter of the bags these days, unfortunately.”

“I guess that’s also symbolic of something.” Parinita sighed.

“It’ll get better.”

It had to.

After the meal, Madiha and Parinita cleaned up together and returned to the living room. There was a television in the room, a rarity that often had to be shared communally if it existed in a community at all. They turned on the box and sat on the couch together, side by side and holding hands. Like a radio, the television had different frequencies–

“–they’re called ‘channels’.” Parinita said.

–and this particular television had four. One was a broadcast test from the University of Solstice, and the camera was pointed at large, intricate mobiles and dioramas, sometimes with music in the background. Another was the official state channel, currently showing broadcasts of Daksha Kansal’s speeches and public appearances the past month.

Then there was the educational channel, which was shown to schools. Wherever the local teacher’s union approved of the program, one television was furnished to a school to watch this channel. Because it was late and kids were back home, it was showing a political program about the Svechthan Revolution instead of any children’s programming.

Finally there was a channel for the promotion of the arts and music, which was presently broadcasting a theater performance from Solstice. Madiha recognized the performance.

“It’s Alawian Nights. I’ve heard this song before. Marik is opening the door.” Madiha said.

“I’ve only seen the film version.” Parinita replied. “Ohh, I love the dancing.”

“They’re very precise. We should train our soldiers to move like that.” Madiha said.

“You’re always looking out for the army.” Parinita sighed fondly.

She laid her head down on Madiha’s chest, and wiggled around on top of her, laughing.

Madiha laid a hand on her head and stroked her hair, smiling.

“I love you, Madiha.” Parinita said.

“I love you too.” Madiha replied.

They had met on the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom. On the day of the invasion. Madiha had been inspecting a delinquent military headquarters when the two of them were thrust into each other’s paths. Through violence and hardship, the two of them forged a bond closer than they had ever felt with another, and faster than either would have ever dreamed.

It was strange. There was no denying that it was strange. But it was love; it was true love.

They needed each other. And though Madiha had many reasons to be attracted to Parinita, physically, spiritually; what she thought about the most was how much she loved just being around her now. Just having her there. She wanted them to be able to sit down like this, and talk about any old thing, but with minds totally unclouded, bodies unharmed. Without a looming threat on the horizon. She wanted to sit down with Parinita and watch the television and hold hands and kiss and know that there would be years more of this.

“Someday, Madiha, there’ll be films on Television. You’ll be able to watch them whenever you want and the film theaters will be for big parties or for communal viewings.”

Parinita smiled, and she laid further down on Madiha’s lap.

Madiha looked down at her, and they locked eyes.

She leaned down and kissed Parinita, their lips entwining.

When they parted, Parinita reached up to stroke Madiha’s cheek.

“Someday, Madiha, I want to make a film, and you’ll be the hero.” Parinita said.

“Really?”

“Yes! I don’t want it to be just a hobby. I want to use what I know and make a great film.”

“I’m sure you will.”

“And you’ll be the hero! You’ve got a great face and body. You’re perfect for it.”

Madiha thought about the future. What did she want to do? Had everything been perfect, had Nocht never attacked, had Communism been fully built, had the world not been hostile, what did Madiha want to do? She had always thought of war. She was still thinking about war. She had her book to write, her theories. She had this war to fight; to win.

“I’d love to be the hero.” Madiha said.

For now, it was fun and calming to indulge this fantasy.

“Parinita,”

What she wanted to say, to preface things, was that, she was going to keep fighting. She had resolved to keep fighting until Nocht was destroyed. They could not exist together in the same world. It was proven by the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom, and it was theorized by Lena Ulyanova herself. The Imperialists would not allow them to exist in peace. Capitalism and Socialism could not coexist in the globe. There would be war as long as Nocht stood.

But she did not say it. On some fashion both of them knew it, they had to know it. They would keep fighting, side by side. They could not have peace until they won this war.

Both of them knew this, but they needed futures. They needed to fight for themselves too.

What Madiha managed to say was far better said without preface, without varnish.

She took Parinita’s hand after softly cooing her name. She kissed her again.

“Will you marry me?”


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Declaration II (67.2)

58th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, SIVIRA

Daksha Kansal’s office practically had a revolving door these days. For every person leaving there was always someone coming in. Diplomats, spies, civil servants, military commanders, engineers; everyone wanted her input and direction. Of some it was demanded that they seek her approval. Others came of their own volition, because of indecision or a need for a wisdom or at least a final word. At all hours, from all corners.

There were a few times during the time that Daksha demanded a halt to the tide.

She had a lunch break, of course. She also set aside two hours of the day to read and answer letters. Letters came from all over the nation for the government to answer. Before it had been the duty of the Council majority leader to answer that mail. Now Premier, that duty was Daksha’s; when anything was written to “Comrade Socialism,” that was her.

Letter after letter, she would pick up the envelope, slide her knife under the flap, pull out the letter, read it thoroughly, and compose an answer. An aide would arrive after a big stack of mail was done to take the letters and to make sure they were returned correctly.

It was perhaps the most relaxing thing Daksha got to do on an average day. Sitting down with some fruit juice and fried veggies and going through the stack with loving care.

She looked forward to her wedding; it would give her at least a few days of peace and quiet.

Until then, knife in hand, a pile of stamps nearby, and a pen; this was her peace.

Daksha almost fell into a trance as she opened and carefully read the letters.

Normally she would go perfectly undisturbed. But this day would be different.

In the middle of her letter-writing time, the office door unceremoniously swung open.

Daksha looked up from her papers with a cocked eyebrow, waiting for an explanation.

At the door, she saw Madiha Nakar, walking in from the hallway.

“I apologize for disturbing you, Premier. Colonel Madiha Nakar is here to report.”

Daksha dropped her pen and ink on the desk, and bolted upright.

Tears formed in her eyes, and her lips reflexively formed a smile.

Though others saw Madiha Nakar as a woman in her late-20s to early 30s, a woman with a fit, sporty stature, a pristine uniform, and a distant look in her eyes; Daksha always saw that little girl so eager to learn and mete out justice. Her face, soft and kind, hearkened still back to that precious child, even with decades of distance. Her hair, still a messy bob creeping toward the shoulders, was almost unchanged. And those bright, burning eyes–

“You’re a miracle in flesh, Madiha.” Daksha said. “You saved us all.”

She had said those exact words so many years ago, when little Madiha Nakar made fire rain from the sky and annihilated the Emperor and scattered his guards and ended his reign.

At the doorway, Madiha’s gaze dropped, her head bowed a little. Her lips quivered.

Daksha approached and seized Madiha in a strong, protective embrace.

“Shacha!”

Madiha shouted that tender, familiar nickname and started to cry.

Daksha squeezed her against her breast, feeling the stream of tears building on her shoulder. Madiha wept into her, and screamed into her, and her knees buckled, and like a child who had faced all of the injustice of the world she thrashed in place. Daksha held her as if the embrace was all keeping her pieces together. She brushed the girl’s hair.

“You made it back. You made it home.” Daksha said.

“No.”

Madiha shook her head intently. “I destroyed home, Daksha.”

She sounded so shattered, her voice quavering and weak.

For who knew how long, she had stood upright in the face of monstrous adversity.

It was not just the past month; this was years of regrets and pain.

Daksha’s own tears would not stop, knowing how much of this was her own fault.

How much she had failed Madiha.

“For what you’ve done for all of us, Madiha, this entire nation will always be your home.”

She had failed to protect her ever since her childhood.

When she smiled and laughed as she was taught the struggle of adults and fought alongside them. Daksha had used her. She could not excuse herself from that. She had uncovered Madiha’s power and she had used her because she had her war to win.

She knew the legend. She had to by now. Madiha was the warrior of myth who would fight the war of her generation. But Daksha had led her, happy and smiling and obsessed with her usefulness, to a war not her own. Now, this — this Solstice War — was her own war.

“Madiha, I’m so sorry, I–”

“I remember everything now, Daksha.”

Those eyes, soft as they were, had all of the girl’s fire behind them still.

Daksha’s hands trembled. Madiha had fallen into a deep, traumatic coma in the revolutionary fighting decades ago. She awakened a different girl, in her late teens, withdrawn, odd, with curious interests. Dakshsa wished she could have stayed in peace: but she kept using Madiha in whatever form she came. Again and again.

She shuddered to think what Madiha remembered.

Holding her like this almost hurt. It was unfair. It was unfair what she was doing again.

Daksha took a deep breath and steeled herself.

“Madiha, for your services to this country, I am promoting you to Brigadier General.”

Madiha stepped back, her young face shocked such that her tears halted.

“Ma’am, I haven’t–”

Daksha stampeded over her in speech. “Per the conditions of the Generalship you are required to take a leave of ten days and an absence from front-line combat for a month for training work and transition to Divisional command. Henceforth you will command the 1st Guards Mechanized Division. I know you will make me proud as our first Guards General.”

Madiha was speechless. “Ma’am this is too soon–”

“No objections. We will have ample time to discuss everything. For now, you need to rest and recover. And I know merely telling you will not compel you to do so. I know if I sit down and allow it, you will embark on a million things right this second. I must force you.”

There was a hint of frustration in Madiha’s expression that reminded Daksha of the petulant little faces she made as a child, when things did not go her way. She would suck in her lips a little, and hold her hands tight against her sides, and her cheeks would twitch.

She really did remember. Madiha old and new had somehow become a whole again.

“Are we clear?” Daksha said, wiping away the last of her tears.

“Yes ma’am.” Madiha replied, doing the same.

This was what she could do for Madiha at the moment. She needed her own time to think; to either come to terms with the fact that Madiha was in Solstice now and she would once again put her, that girl with that face and those expressions so dear to her, in danger again; or to find a way to avoid it. She knew the latter was folly. But something maternal in her needed to try. Or else she would never come to terms with the former at all.


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Declaration II (67.1)

1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City

More than ever before the walls seemed to dominate the landscape. Walking through the city on foot they were ever-present. They had always been visible from seemingly every stone and concrete street, every gravel road, every dirty alleyway. Before the war, however, it was easy to forget their purpose. Now they loomed ever larger with people’s fear.

Even as the sun came down and the walls cast their longest shadows, the sense of their presence never heightened or lessened. Madiha felt hyperaware of them, at all times of the day. It was almost distracting, to look at the horizon and see the stone. She had taken for granted the view of the ocean in Rangda. Solstice was like a world inside of a jar.

Madiha shook her head. She had been assigned a crucial mission and would not fail.

She checked her list, nodded to herself grimly, and proceeded on her way.

All of them would have to be taken out for her to succeed. Survival depended on it.

Thankfully for her, the streets never closed in Solstice. It was the biggest city in Ayvarta, big enough and populated enough to be its own state. There was always a crowd on the streets, there was always an open door where one could get a drink or watch a show, and there was always a stall to trade or buy whatever you wanted, in some fashion.

Her targets would be out there; but she would have to be swift.

Revolution street cut through the center of Solstice from north to south. Almost everything of military importance was built off-center from Revolution as part of the post-civil war city rebuilding, but it was seen as important for there to be a straight shot, door to door path where anyone could see a grand display of Solstice’s civilian bounty. Along Revolution there were all kinds of shops, theaters, parks; Madiha walked down several blocks, and quickly found her first Msanii, the traditional open air markets.

Madiha moved with intensity and purpose. Around her the crowd seemed to part.

Perhaps some of them knew her or one of her epithets; perhaps it was simply legible on her face that she was determined. Eyes forward, back straight, with a collected gait. Scouting the surroundings for her prey. They could be anywhere; they would not elude her.

All kinds of things were on sale at the Msanii. Handcrafted textiles, shoes; traditional dyes and makeup; limited amounts of food of various kinds. Journals and scrapbooks, hand-sewn, blank, with beautiful covers and thick sheets of paper. Mancala boards, beads and traditional jewelry; Madiha wondered the stalls, pretending, casual, all the while silently acquiring her mark, calculating a vector, bringing those killing instincts back to work.

She spotted her first target standing on a colorful carpet, amid a crowd of people.

Madiha took a deep breath, hands in her pockets, gripping a concealed object.

She approached the saleswoman’s carpet, honed in on her prey, and struck.

Pushing through the crowd she jabbed the honed edge of a fountain pen on a can.

“Two cans of tomatoes please! I have money and a market ticket!” Madiha shouted.

She tapped multiple times on a stack of tomato cans, full of oily, chopped goodness.

All around her the people she pushed past stared at her, confused at her passion.

“Um. Of course!” said the saleswoman, an older lady in a headscarf.

All of the stack was probably canned far away in Jomba; she was likely a union sales rep.

It was an sign of the cooperation between the states of Ayvarta, near and far.

Solstice was at the center of it all; everyone gave their share so it could survive the desert.

These relationships were sure to strain in the future. For now, Madiha had her tomatoes.

Madiha grabbed the cans out of the stack, and laid down the scrip and the money.

She retreated from the stall, marked off the first target, and hurried to secure the others.

This was a vital mission entrusted to her by her beloved Parinita; she could not fail!

She went from stall to stall, picking things up little by little in small quantities. Peppers here, spices there, a small bag of garlic heads, ghee, canned paneer. There was some finesse to it; several short supply items she snatched from the expectant hands of another person. She did not feel proud of it, but this was her mission and she would not fail it.

Everywhere she went, she quickly handed the sum in coins and paper, all out of her military wages. There was still currency, wages were still paid in shells, and things still cost money here and there. These were “market items.” Everyone could sell a small amount, and the selling and buying was regulated. Different places had different rules. In Solstice, where supply security was crucial to survival, market scrip proved compliance. During inspections and permit renewals, market scrip helped legitimize the seller’s books.

It wasn’t perfect Communism quite yet.

Though the Civil Canteens offered enough food for anyone to get by, prospective diners would always be limited to what was served that day. Everyone ate the same food, whatever was convenient to prepare for thousands, maybe millions across the city with whatever produce could be acquired or brought out from stock. But that wasn’t exactly what brought Brigadier General Madiha Nakar out to the markets on her time of leave.

“I want to cook for you! We’ll eat like a couple!” Parinita had said.

Madiha had been so surprised at her passion for something that small.

But she found it so endearing that she wanted to see it happen.

There was one item on the list that seemed to elude her. She traveled to several stalls and shops, fully aware of the turning hands of the clock, the descending sun at her back.

Milk.

Whole cow’s milk, at least a half a liter. Not powdered; the wet stuff.

That was all in Parinita’s handwriting.

Something which she had taken for granted in Adjar, a land of milk and honey compared to Solstice, trapped in its circle of sand-blown walls amid the most arid place in the world. There were no cows around Solstice. There were yaks in mountainous South Solstice, closer to the sea; and in the coastal paradise of North Solstice there were elk. Tribal folk in Central Solstice herded camels. Cows required grazing; Cows lived in farming states.

Madiha had a market ticket for cow’s milk and it was the same as any other legal scrip from the Commissariat. But being able to buy a certain amount of milk at market price meant nothing if milk was not available to market. That seemed to be the case that day.

She thought of Parinita’s beautiful smiling face, her eyes bright, her strawberry hair tied in a functional ponytail, an apron over her casual dress. Waiting back at the apartment for Madiha to return so they could use their blessed, gods-given personal stove oven to cook. So they could eat together, just the two of them at their own table. Like a couple in a film.

Madiha looked down at her market ticket and felt despondent. Would she fail her love?

Sighing deeply, she looked out onto the road, and saw a familiar face amid the crowd.

It had to be Logia Minardo; a visibly pregnant woman in a gorgeous little yellow sundress, her shoulder-length, slightly messy hair, under a straw hat with a red ribbon, carrying a bag weighed down with goods from the shops. She was walking down the road, along the very dry ditches, in the opposite direction from Madiha. They met almost at once.

Minardo pushed up a pair of sunglasses perched on her nose, and then put them away.

She smiled. Madiha tried to muster a smile of her own but was immediately distracted.

Hanging carelessly from the tips of Minardo’s fingers was a half-liter bottle of cow’s milk.

“Good evening General! Congratulations on your promotion!” Minardo said.

“Good evening.” Madiha said. “I hadn’t seen you in some time since the evacuation, Minardo. I was beginning to fear you might have been reassigned out of my headquarters.”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Minardo said, cocking a little grin. “During the evacuation every single transportation resource was tapped out. There was a shortage of pilots in Rangda to help fly people out, so I stayed behind to help organize all of that. It was very close: we barely made the last flight out in time to avoid Nochtish patrol flights.”

“I see. I’m glad you managed to extricate yourself in time.”

“Hah! You forget, I cut my teeth in the air forces.”

“Yes, I often do forget.”

Madiha continued to fixate on the bottle of milk.

“Out and about on the town, Minardo?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got a date.” Minardo winked.

“Oh, congratulations.”

“I met a serious, interesting man at the shops yesterday. He was forthright too–”

She started to chirp about this fellow and Madiha could not have cared less.

For an instant, Madiha almost thought of ordering Minardo to surrender her milk.

However, Minardo was a pregnant, expecting mother and as such, entitled by law to fresh cow’s milk. For a staunch, loyal socialist like Madiha, it was anathema to ask of her to make such a sacrifice for her own selfish needs. It took some struggling, but she managed to tear her eyes away from the milk and to stare Minardo in the face and smile.

“So why are you out and about, General? You always seemed an anti-social type.”

Her subordinate had a savage grin on her face as she delivered this projectile.

Madiha remembered then that this was Logia Minardo whom she was speaking to.

Again she felt a temptation to rip the milk from her teasing subordinate’s hands.

But such an action would’ve been against the eternal science of Lenanism.

Minardo paused for a moment, and seemed to notice something about Madiha.

“Oh ho! Is that a shopping list I spy? Oh I know what this is! How precious!”

She was always a very observant person, for all her various other faults.

Madiha wanted to sink into the earth. She averted her gaze meekly.

“My, what a spirited girl, that Maharani! She’s already on top of you!”

“Desist at once! That is an order!” Madiha said, feeling flustered.

“I can’t believe all along that goofy girl was actually such a powerful minx.”

Madiha waved her hand in front of Minardo’s face. “You never saw this!”

She accompanied the action with a mental push; but nothing transpired.

This act of desperation left her standing foolishly there for no good reason.

“Excuse me?” Minardo grinned.

Madiha flashed back to her childhood, and felt suddenly bereft of power.

“Damn it all. It was an effective tactic for my childhood self.” She mumbled.

Once more, Minardo seemed to have paid undue attention to every part of the scene.

Her hearing, her eyesight; for gossip-worthy things she was the perfect scout.

Minardo giggled, and squished Madiha’s cheek. “Oh, honey, oh sweetie; people played along with you because you were a cute little kid, not because you can control minds.”

Madiha felt the sudden strike of anxiety and excused herself. “I’m sorry. I’m uh. Drunk.”

Minardo patted her on the head. “I won’t tell anyone. Have a nice day, General.”

She waved, giggled, and went along her way.

Madiha watched her as she met a man around the corner, took his arm and led him away.

Sighing, having wasted more time with nothing to show for it, Madiha went her own way.

After an hour or two walking around the city, she felt exhausted, and sat down on a street-side bench next to a newspaper box. There were no coin-operated locks on the box; the newspaper was free. She picked up an issue and glanced over the cover and pages idly.

Tensions were high. There was a map of the front line. It was carefully drawn to show that there was still some southern territory technically in Ayvartan hands, because the front line with Nocht was uneven and there were bulges everywhere. But this only mildly papered over the reality that half the country was in foreign hands. Solstice stood sentinel now against the invaders, and it was unclear if the upper half of the country stood with it.

She hard talk around her, from the benches, from the streetgoers. It was all about food and films and dates and books, about the soccer rivalry between Yayatham and Dhurna; but she could feel in her heart and in her mind the anxiety of the moment. So many things had changed for them seemingly overnight. Council was dissolved, Daksha Kansal was in power; the shining port of Rangda had rebelled, been put down, and lost to Nocht; the vast Southern dominions with their huge populations and wealth fell with weak fight to an invader. There was an invader. Nocht had invaded them. Attacked them on their own soil.

All of them, these people with her, and she herself: they were the front line now.

Madiha put down the newspaper. She rubbed her hands across her face. Milk.

She had to get milk, she remembered. For Parinita; that was her mission then.

“Oh oh! Hey, look there Charvi! It’s the General! It’s the General!”

Madiha blinked and looked up from the road. Approaching down the edge of the street were a couple of young women whom she easily recognized. They were a reliable pair for Headquarters security and clandestine jobs; Corporal Gulab Kajari, a honey-brown skinned girl, short but fit, with hair in a long braided tail, and her partner, the curiously silver-haired and short of words Sergeant Charvi Chadgura. While Gulab opted for a vest and dress pants ensemble that reminded Madiha of her own style, Charvi wore a strapless, sleeveless sun-dress of a bright crayon-orange color with a sunflower-studded sun-hat.

“Ma’am!” Gulab said happily, tipping her fedora at the General.

Madiha waved meekly. She had left her own fedora, Daksha’s old one, at the apartment.

“Out on the town alone?” Gulab said, rather carelessly.

Charvi waved half-heartedly.

Madiha nursed a mild resentment at everyone assuming she was being anti-social.

Then again she did not want to be too loud about her relationship to her aide, either.

“I’m shopping.” Madiha replied.

“Oh, nice. Me and Charvi are just taking in the sights. We got a whole week’s leave!”

“And a whole week’s pay.” Charvi said, toneless but at the same time eerily blunt.

“Hey, be grateful.” Gulab interjected nervously.

Madiha, too, was still owed some back-pay from the Aster’s Gloom.

With all that had happened, however, she was not up in arms about receiving it anymore.

“It’s fine. I’m mad about it too. But I understand these are hard times.”

“We do also!” Gulab was quick to say. “I uh, I wanted to. Honestly, ma’am, I’ve been wanting to thank you for very long. Charvi can tell you, you’re uh, very inspirational.”

“I can indeed attest to that, Commander.” Charvi dispassionately said.

Smiling, the General put away her paper and gave the two a good look.

“Thank you. It is an honor to be able to serve our motherland alongside such fine soldiers. I’m happy for you two. You seem to have struck a great friendship. Hold on to it dearly.”

Madiha thought she was saying something profound to her younger subordinates.

Gulab seemed to be respectfully holding back a laugh and Charvi had averted her eyes.

Sighing, Madiha averted her own gaze briefly, only to find it lingering on Gulab’s hand.

She was holding a bottle of milk, an unopened half-liter bottle.

This was it; this would certainly be her last chance to complete the mission.

“Corporal!”

Madiha called out with such force Gulab reflexively saluted.

Charvi blinked, and then with a stoic face saluted also at Gulab’s side.

“Corporal, you want to do everything in your power to aid me, correct?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab enthusiastically replied.

Charvi remained quiet.

“Corporal, I have a vital mission that I must complete. I must make use of your milk.”

“My milk?”

“Her milk?”

“Your milk!”

Gulab mechanically extended her hand and handed Madiha the milk.

Madiha handed her ten shells and a market ticket.

“At ease soldiers! Your service in this hour of need shall be remembered!”

Gulab and Charvi seemed to deflate, all the tension leaving their bodies.

There was a short silence as Madiha carefully read the label. It was not exactly fresh, it had been laced with preservatives for transportation and was kept in ice. In fact it was still cold to the touch; it must have once formed part of the stock that the government produced locally and held for children, the sick and for pregnant mothers. There was no other answer. Either Gulab knew somebody who could supply it or she or Charvi must have–

“Congratulations to you two.” Madiha said. “Have a good night.”

She stood up from the bench, turned sharply and departed, while her baffled subordinates stared at her from the middle of the street, speechless at first, and then exchanging looks.

“Do you think she thinks that you or maybe that I am–?” Gulab began.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it.” Charvi replied.

“Yeah. Right. Hey, let’s go get an ice cream bar. No tricks this time!”

“No tricks. Gulab, did you know that if you spice an ice cream bar with chili–”

“You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re trying to trick me!”

“No, I am serious. You will access a world of flavor with just a dash of hot–”

“I wasn’t born yesterday! Just because I hadn’t eaten an ice cream before–”

Their chirping soon vanished into the background, along with the streets of Solstice.

Madiha Nakar declared her victory; perhaps her first non-Pyrrhic victory of the war.

Unfortunately, a key detail of her adventure was once lost to history.

So ecstatic was the great General to leave the streets with all of her goods in hand, that she did not catch even the tiniest hint of the commotion just a block down from her little meeting bench, where an engineering firm working on electric ice boxes had been giving away cold milk. Such was luck for the long-suffered and ever calculating Madiha Nakar.


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Declaration II — Unternehmen Solstice

1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City

More than ever before the walls seemed to dominate the landscape. Walking through the city on foot they were ever-present. They had always been visible from seemingly every stone and concrete street, every gravel road, every dirty alleyway. Before the war, however, it was easy to forget their purpose. Now they loomed ever larger with people’s fear.

Even as the sun came down and the walls cast their longest shadows, the sense of their presence never heightened or lessened. Madiha felt hyperaware of them, at all times of the day. It was almost distracting, to look at the horizon and see the stone. She had taken for granted the view of the ocean in Rangda. Solstice was like a world inside of a jar.

Madiha shook her head. She had been assigned a crucial mission and would not fail.

She checked her list, nodded to herself grimly, and proceeded on her way.

All of them would have to be taken out for her to succeed. Survival depended on it.

Thankfully for her, the streets never closed in Solstice. It was the biggest city in Ayvarta, big enough and populated enough to be its own state. There was always a crowd on the streets, there was always an open door where one could get a drink or watch a show, and there was always a stall to trade or buy whatever you wanted, in some fashion.

Her targets would be out there; but she would have to be swift.

Revolution street cut through the center of Solstice from north to south. Almost everything of military importance was built off-center from Revolution as part of the post-civil war city rebuilding, but it was seen as important for there to be a straight shot, door to door path where anyone could see a grand display of Solstice’s civilian bounty. Along Revolution there were all kinds of shops, theaters, parks; Madiha walked down several blocks, and quickly found her first Msanii, the traditional open air markets.

Madiha moved with intensity and purpose. Around her the crowd seemed to part.

Perhaps some of them knew her or one of her epithets; perhaps it was simply legible on her face that she was determined. Eyes forward, back straight, with a collected gait. Scouting the surroundings for her prey. They could be anywhere; they would not elude her.

All kinds of things were on sale at the Msanii. Handcrafted textiles, shoes; traditional dyes and makeup; limited amounts of food of various kinds. Journals and scrapbooks, hand-sewn, blank, with beautiful covers and thick sheets of paper. Mancala boards, beads and traditional jewelry; Madiha wondered the stalls, pretending, casual, all the while silently acquiring her mark, calculating a vector, bringing those killing instincts back to work.

She spotted her first target standing on a colorful carpet, amid a crowd of people.

Madiha took a deep breath, hands in her pockets, gripping a concealed object.

She approached the saleswoman’s carpet, honed in on her prey, and struck.

Pushing through the crowd she jabbed the honed edge of a fountain pen on a can.

“Two cans of tomatoes please! I have money and a market ticket!” Madiha shouted.

She tapped multiple times on a stack of tomato cans, full of oily, chopped goodness.

All around her the people she pushed past stared at her, confused at her passion.

“Um. Of course!” said the saleswoman, an older lady in a headscarf.

All of the stack was probably canned far away in Jomba; she was likely a union sales rep.

It was an sign of the cooperation between the states of Ayvarta, near and far.

Solstice was at the center of it all; everyone gave their share so it could survive the desert.

These relationships were sure to strain in the future. For now, Madiha had her tomatoes.

Madiha grabbed the cans out of the stack, and laid down the scrip and the money.

She retreated from the stall, marked off the first target, and hurried to secure the others.

This was a vital mission entrusted to her by her beloved Parinita; she could not fail!

She went from stall to stall, picking things up little by little in small quantities. Peppers here, spices there, a small bag of garlic heads, ghee, canned paneer. There was some finesse to it; several short supply items she snatched from the expectant hands of another person. She did not feel proud of it, but this was her mission and she would not fail it.

Everywhere she went, she quickly handed the sum in coins and paper, all out of her military wages. There was still currency, wages were still paid in shells, and things still cost money here and there. These were “market items.” Everyone could sell a small amount, and the selling and buying was regulated. Different places had different rules. In Solstice, where supply security was crucial to survival, market scrip proved compliance. During inspections and permit renewals, market scrip helped legitimize the seller’s books.

It wasn’t perfect Communism quite yet.

Though the Civil Canteens offered enough food for anyone to get by, prospective diners would always be limited to what was served that day. Everyone ate the same food, whatever was convenient to prepare for thousands, maybe millions across the city with whatever produce could be acquired or brought out from stock. But that wasn’t exactly what brought Brigadier General Madiha Nakar out to the markets on her time of leave.

“I want to cook for you! We’ll eat like a couple!” Parinita had said.

Madiha had been so surprised at her passion for something that small.

But she found it so endearing that she wanted to see it happen.

There was one item on the list that seemed to elude her. She traveled to several stalls and shops, fully aware of the turning hands of the clock, the descending sun at her back.

Milk.

Whole cow’s milk, at least a half a liter. Not powdered; the wet stuff.

That was all in Parinita’s handwriting.

Something which she had taken for granted in Adjar, a land of milk and honey compared to Solstice, trapped in its circle of sand-blown walls amid the most arid place in the world. There were no cows around Solstice. There were yaks in mountainous South Solstice, closer to the sea; and in the coastal paradise of North Solstice there were elk. Tribal folk in Central Solstice herded camels. Cows required grazing; Cows lived in farming states.

Madiha had a market ticket for cow’s milk and it was the same as any other legal scrip from the Commissariat. But being able to buy a certain amount of milk at market price meant nothing if milk was not available to market. That seemed to be the case that day.

She thought of Parinita’s beautiful smiling face, her eyes bright, her strawberry hair tied in a functional ponytail, an apron over her casual dress. Waiting back at the apartment for Madiha to return so they could use their blessed, gods-given personal stove oven to cook. So they could eat together, just the two of them at their own table. Like a couple in a film.

Madiha looked down at her market ticket and felt despondent. Would she fail her love?

Sighing deeply, she looked out onto the road, and saw a familiar face amid the crowd.

It had to be Logia Minardo; a visibly pregnant woman in a gorgeous little yellow sundress, her shoulder-length, slightly messy hair, under a straw hat with a red ribbon, carrying a bag weighed down with goods from the shops. She was walking down the road, along the very dry ditches, in the opposite direction from Madiha. They met almost at once.

Minardo pushed up a pair of sunglasses perched on her nose, and then put them away.

She smiled. Madiha tried to muster a smile of her own but was immediately distracted.

Hanging carelessly from the tips of Minardo’s fingers was a half-liter bottle of cow’s milk.

“Good evening General! Congratulations on your promotion!” Minardo said.

“Good evening.” Madiha said. “I hadn’t seen you in some time since the evacuation, Minardo. I was beginning to fear you might have been reassigned out of my headquarters.”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Minardo said, cocking a little grin. “During the evacuation every single transportation resource was tapped out. There was a shortage of pilots in Rangda to help fly people out, so I stayed behind to help organize all of that. It was very close: we barely made the last flight out in time to avoid Nochtish patrol flights.”

“I see. I’m glad you managed to extricate yourself in time.”

“Hah! You forget, I cut my teeth in the air forces.”

“Yes, I often do forget.”

Madiha continued to fixate on the bottle of milk.

“Out and about on the town, Minardo?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got a date.” Minardo winked.

“Oh, congratulations.”

“I met a serious, interesting man at the shops yesterday. He was forthright too–”

She started to chirp about this fellow and Madiha could not have cared less.

For an instant, Madiha almost thought of ordering Minardo to surrender her milk.

However, Minardo was a pregnant, expecting mother and as such, entitled by law to fresh cow’s milk. For a staunch, loyal socialist like Madiha, it was anathema to ask of her to make such a sacrifice for her own selfish needs. It took some struggling, but she managed to tear her eyes away from the milk and to stare Minardo in the face and smile.

“So why are you out and about, General? You always seemed an anti-social type.”

Her subordinate had a savage grin on her face as she delivered this projectile.

Madiha remembered then that this was Logia Minardo whom she was speaking to.

Again she felt a temptation to rip the milk from her teasing subordinate’s hands.

But such an action would’ve been against the eternal science of Lenanism.

Minardo paused for a moment, and seemed to notice something about Madiha.

“Oh ho! Is that a shopping list I spy? Oh I know what this is! How precious!”

She was always a very observant person, for all her various other faults.

Madiha wanted to sink into the earth. She averted her gaze meekly.

“My, what a spirited girl, that Maharani! She’s already on top of you!”

“Desist at once! That is an order!” Madiha said, feeling flustered.

“I can’t believe all along that goofy girl was actually such a powerful minx.”

Madiha waved her hand in front of Minardo’s face. “You never saw this!”

She accompanied the action with a mental push; but nothing transpired.

This act of desperation left her standing foolishly there for no good reason.

“Excuse me?” Minardo grinned.

Madiha flashed back to her childhood, and felt suddenly bereft of power.

“Damn it all. It was an effective tactic for my childhood self.” She mumbled.

Once more, Minardo seemed to have paid undue attention to every part of the scene.

Her hearing, her eyesight; for gossip-worthy things she was the perfect scout.

Minardo giggled, and squished Madiha’s cheek. “Oh, honey, oh sweetie; people played along with you because you were a cute little kid, not because you can control minds.”

Madiha felt the sudden strike of anxiety and excused herself. “I’m sorry. I’m uh. Drunk.”

Minardo patted her on the head. “I won’t tell anyone. Have a nice day, General.”

She waved, giggled, and went along her way.

Madiha watched her as she met a man around the corner, took his arm and led him away.

Sighing, having wasted more time with nothing to show for it, Madiha went her own way.

After an hour or two walking around the city, she felt exhausted, and sat down on a street-side bench next to a newspaper box. There were no coin-operated locks on the box; the newspaper was free. She picked up an issue and glanced over the cover and pages idly.

Tensions were high. There was a map of the front line. It was carefully drawn to show that there was still some southern territory technically in Ayvartan hands, because the front line with Nocht was uneven and there were bulges everywhere. But this only mildly papered over the reality that half the country was in foreign hands. Solstice stood sentinel now against the invaders, and it was unclear if the upper half of the country stood with it.

She hard talk around her, from the benches, from the streetgoers. It was all about food and films and dates and books, about the soccer rivalry between Yayatham and Dhurna; but she could feel in her heart and in her mind the anxiety of the moment. So many things had changed for them seemingly overnight. Council was dissolved, Daksha Kansal was in power; the shining port of Rangda had rebelled, been put down, and lost to Nocht; the vast Southern dominions with their huge populations and wealth fell with weak fight to an invader. There was an invader. Nocht had invaded them. Attacked them on their own soil.

All of them, these people with her, and she herself: they were the front line now.

Madiha put down the newspaper. She rubbed her hands across her face. Milk.

She had to get milk, she remembered. For Parinita; that was her mission then.

“Oh oh! Hey, look there Charvi! It’s the General! It’s the General!”

Madiha blinked and looked up from the road. Approaching down the edge of the street were a couple of young women whom she easily recognized. They were a reliable pair for Headquarters security and clandestine jobs; Corporal Gulab Kajari, a honey-brown skinned girl, short but fit, with hair in a long braided tail, and her partner, the curiously silver-haired and short of words Sergeant Charvi Chadgura. While Gulab opted for a vest and dress pants ensemble that reminded Madiha of her own style, Charvi wore a strapless, sleeveless sun-dress of a bright crayon-orange color with a sunflower-studded sun-hat.

“Ma’am!” Gulab said happily, tipping her fedora at the General.

Madiha waved meekly. She had left her own fedora, Daksha’s old one, at the apartment.

“Out on the town alone?” Gulab said, rather carelessly.

Charvi waved half-heartedly.

Madiha nursed a mild resentment at everyone assuming she was being anti-social.

Then again she did not want to be too loud about her relationship to her aide, either.

“I’m shopping.” Madiha replied.

“Oh, nice. Me and Charvi are just taking in the sights. We got a whole week’s leave!”

“And a whole week’s pay.” Charvi said, toneless but at the same time eerily blunt.

“Hey, be grateful.” Gulab interjected nervously.

Madiha, too, was still owed some back-pay from the Aster’s Gloom.

With all that had happened, however, she was not up in arms about receiving it anymore.

“It’s fine. I’m mad about it too. But I understand these are hard times.”

“We do also!” Gulab was quick to say. “I uh, I wanted to. Honestly, ma’am, I’ve been wanting to thank you for very long. Charvi can tell you, you’re uh, very inspirational.”

“I can indeed attest to that, Commander.” Charvi dispassionately said.

Smiling, the General put away her paper and gave the two a good look.

“Thank you. It is an honor to be able to serve our motherland alongside such fine soldiers. I’m happy for you two. You seem to have struck a great friendship. Hold on to it dearly.”

Madiha thought she was saying something profound to her younger subordinates.

Gulab seemed to be respectfully holding back a laugh and Charvi had averted her eyes.

Sighing, Madiha averted her own gaze briefly, only to find it lingering on Gulab’s hand.

She was holding a bottle of milk, an unopened half-liter bottle.

This was it; this would certainly be her last chance to complete the mission.

“Corporal!”

Madiha called out with such force Gulab reflexively saluted.

Charvi blinked, and then with a stoic face saluted also at Gulab’s side.

“Corporal, you want to do everything in your power to aid me, correct?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab enthusiastically replied.

Charvi remained quiet.

“Corporal, I have a vital mission that I must complete. I must make use of your milk.”

“My milk?”

“Her milk?”

“Your milk!”

Gulab mechanically extended her hand and handed Madiha the milk.

Madiha handed her ten shells and a market ticket.

“At ease soldiers! Your service in this hour of need shall be remembered!”

Gulab and Charvi seemed to deflate, all the tension leaving their bodies.

There was a short silence as Madiha carefully read the label. It was not exactly fresh, it had been laced with preservatives for transportation and was kept in ice. In fact it was still cold to the touch; it must have once formed part of the stock that the government produced locally and held for children, the sick and for pregnant mothers. There was no other answer. Either Gulab knew somebody who could supply it or she or Charvi must have–

“Congratulations to you two.” Madiha said. “Have a good night.”

She stood up from the bench, turned sharply and departed, while her baffled subordinates stared at her from the middle of the street, speechless at first, and then exchanging looks.

“Do you think she thinks that you or maybe that I am–?” Gulab began.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it.” Charvi replied.

“Yeah. Right. Hey, let’s go get an ice cream bar. No tricks this time!”

“No tricks. Gulab, did you know that if you spice an ice cream bar with chili–”

“You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re trying to trick me!”

“No, I am serious. You will access a world of flavor with just a dash of hot–”

“I wasn’t born yesterday! Just because I hadn’t eaten an ice cream before–”

Their chirping soon vanished into the background, along with the streets of Solstice.

Madiha Nakar declared her victory; perhaps her first non-Pyrrhic victory of the war.

Unfortunately, a key detail of her adventure was once lost to history.

So ecstatic was the great General to leave the streets with all of her goods in hand, that she did not catch even the tiniest hint of the commotion just a block down from her little meeting bench, where an engineering firm working on electric ice boxes had been giving away cold milk. Such was luck for the long-suffered and ever calculating Madiha Nakar.


58th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, SIVIRA

Daksha Kansal’s office practically had a revolving door these days. For every person leaving there was always someone coming in. Diplomats, spies, civil servants, military commanders, engineers; everyone wanted her input and direction. Of some it was demanded that they seek her approval. Others came of their own volition, because of indecision or a need for a wisdom or at least a final word. At all hours, from all corners.

There were a few times during the time that Daksha demanded a halt to the tide.

She had a lunch break, of course. She also set aside two hours of the day to read and answer letters. Letters came from all over the nation for the government to answer. Before it had been the duty of the Council majority leader to answer that mail. Now Premier, that duty was Daksha’s; when anything was written to “Comrade Socialism,” that was her.

Letter after letter, she would pick up the envelope, slide her knife under the flap, pull out the letter, read it thoroughly, and compose an answer. An aide would arrive after a big stack of mail was done to take the letters and to make sure they were returned correctly.

It was perhaps the most relaxing thing Daksha got to do on an average day. Sitting down with some fruit juice and fried veggies and going through the stack with loving care.

She looked forward to her wedding; it would give her at least a few days of peace and quiet.

Until then, knife in hand, a pile of stamps nearby, and a pen; this was her peace.

Daksha almost fell into a trance as she opened and carefully read the letters.

Normally she would go perfectly undisturbed. But this day would be different.

In the middle of her letter-writing time, the office door unceremoniously swung open.

Daksha looked up from her papers with a cocked eyebrow, waiting for an explanation.

At the door, she saw Madiha Nakar, walking in from the hallway.

“I apologize for disturbing you, Premier. Colonel Madiha Nakar is here to report.”

Daksha dropped her pen and ink on the desk, and bolted upright.

Tears formed in her eyes, and her lips reflexively formed a smile.

Though others saw Madiha Nakar as a woman in her late-20s to early 30s, a woman with a fit, sporty stature, a pristine uniform, and a distant look in her eyes; Daksha always saw that little girl so eager to learn and mete out justice. Her face, soft and kind, hearkened still back to that precious child, even with decades of distance. Her hair, still a messy bob creeping toward the shoulders, was almost unchanged. And those bright, burning eyes–

“You’re a miracle in flesh, Madiha.” Daksha said. “You saved us all.”

She had said those exact words so many years ago, when little Madiha Nakar made fire rain from the sky and annihilated the Emperor and scattered his guards and ended his reign.

At the doorway, Madiha’s gaze dropped, her head bowed a little. Her lips quivered.

Daksha approached and seized Madiha in a strong, protective embrace.

“Shacha!”

Madiha shouted that tender, familiar nickname and started to cry.

Daksha squeezed her against her breast, feeling the stream of tears building on her shoulder. Madiha wept into her, and screamed into her, and her knees buckled, and like a child who had faced all of the injustice of the world she thrashed in place. Daksha held her as if the embrace was all keeping her pieces together. She brushed the girl’s hair.

“You made it back. You made it home.” Daksha said.

“No.”

Madiha shook her head intently. “I destroyed home, Daksha.”

She sounded so shattered, her voice quavering and weak.

For who knew how long, she had stood upright in the face of monstrous adversity.

It was not just the past month; this was years of regrets and pain.

Daksha’s own tears would not stop, knowing how much of this was her own fault.

How much she had failed Madiha.

“For what you’ve done for all of us, Madiha, this entire nation will always be your home.”

She had failed to protect her ever since her childhood.

When she smiled and laughed as she was taught the struggle of adults and fought alongside them. Daksha had used her. She could not excuse herself from that. She had uncovered Madiha’s power and she had used her because she had her war to win.

She knew the legend. She had to by now. Madiha was the warrior of myth who would fight the war of her generation. But Daksha had led her, happy and smiling and obsessed with her usefulness, to a war not her own. Now, this — this Solstice War — was her own war.

“Madiha, I’m so sorry, I–”

“I remember everything now, Daksha.”

Those eyes, soft as they were, had all of the girl’s fire behind them still.

Daksha’s hands trembled. Madiha had fallen into a deep, traumatic coma in the revolutionary fighting decades ago. She awakened a different girl, in her late teens, withdrawn, odd, with curious interests. Dakshsa wished she could have stayed in peace: but she kept using Madiha in whatever form she came. Again and again.

She shuddered to think what Madiha remembered.

Holding her like this almost hurt. It was unfair. It was unfair what she was doing again.

Daksha took a deep breath and steeled herself.

“Madiha, for your services to this country, I am promoting you to Brigadier General.”

Madiha stepped back, her young face shocked such that her tears halted.

“Ma’am, I haven’t–”

Daksha stampeded over her in speech. “Per the conditions of the Generalship you are required to take a leave of ten days and an absence from front-line combat for a month for training work and transition to Divisional command. Henceforth you will command the 1st Guards Mechanized Division. I know you will make me proud as our first Guards General.”

Madiha was speechless. “Ma’am this is too soon–”

“No objections. We will have ample time to discuss everything. For now, you need to rest and recover. And I know merely telling you will not compel you to do so. I know if I sit down and allow it, you will embark on a million things right this second. I must force you.”

There was a hint of frustration in Madiha’s expression that reminded Daksha of the petulant little faces she made as a child, when things did not go her way. She would suck in her lips a little, and hold her hands tight against her sides, and her cheeks would twitch.

She really did remember. Madiha old and new had somehow become a whole again.

“Are we clear?” Daksha said, wiping away the last of her tears.

“Yes ma’am.” Madiha replied, doing the same.

This was what she could do for Madiha at the moment. She needed her own time to think; to either come to terms with the fact that Madiha was in Solstice now and she would once again put her, that girl with that face and those expressions so dear to her, in danger again; or to find a way to avoid it. She knew the latter was folly. But something maternal in her needed to try. Or else she would never come to terms with the former at all.


1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City

As part of the terms of her leave Madiha and any guests she desired (in her case, only one) had been afforded a temporary stay at a comfortable little apartment building in the central quarter, just around the People’s Peak. These apartments were for government workers who came and went on business. Generals were considered to be among those.

After successfully completing her shopping, Madiha returned to the apartment with her treasure in tow, only to find the door locked. It was a third floor apartment and all the hallways were enclosed. From the plain, utilitarian facade of the pillar-like building and its unadorned halls, nobody would have known it was anything special. It seemed unlikely to Madiha that security would be a concern in here. Much less for Parinita, who, despite her appearance, was a soldier, and must have trained in basic self-defense skills for it.

Still, Madiha took her key and unlocked the door with an audible click.

She turned the knob, opened the door, and found Parinita at the little couple’s tea table in the middle of the living room situated just off of the door. She blinked, staring with muted fascination at her lover’s rather sparse attire: an apron, a camisole and undergarments. Bright red pigment adorned her lips, and her wavy, strawberry hair she shook loose.

Parinita slid a slender finger over the rim of a wine glass, and made a sultry expression.

“You kept me in suspense there, Madiha.” She said, winking at her from the table.

“Parinita?”

Her lover cocked a little grin. “This is the scene where I coax you to temptation.”

Madiha blinked. “Well. I brought the groceries. Are we having dinner?” She stammered.

“Oh I’ll help you build an appetite.” Her lover said.

Parinita stood from the table, beckoning Madiha with a finger in the air.

She took a long-legged step forward, and then promptly tripped and fell.

“Parinita!” Madiha cried out.

From the floor, Parinita started laughing.

“I’m sorry Madiha, I tried but I just can’t do the sultry succubus act very well.”

“I’m sorry, I should have participated with greater enthusiasm.” Madiha replied.

“I hope you were turned on a little.” Parinita said.

Madiha did not want to admit exactly how turned on she had been.

After everyone had collected themselves, the night’s preparations began in earnest. Parinita dressed up a little more, in a vibrant skirt and sari, and together she and Madiha began to prepare dinner as they had planned. Though Madiha had made General, in Parinita’s kitchen she was a grunt. Dressed in the same apron that had barely covered her lover beforehand, Madiha chopped onions, smashed garlic, mixed dressings; meanwhile Parinita read recipes, measured spices, and passed ingredients down the bar for Madiha.

“Coconut milk!” Parinita ordered.

“Yes ma’am!” Madiha replied, pouring a small flask of coconut milk into a pot of curry.

“Salt and pepper!”

“Of course!”

“Red pepper, to taste!”

“At once!”

Both of them started to laugh. Madiha rolled up lettuce wraps and spread out flatbread; Parinita stirred up sauces, squeezed lemon, and kept the recipes, her notepad a sacred book of lore. This small moment of domesticity, even with the military tinge conjured by Madiha’s mind, was characterized by a stunning peace and a sensational feeling of joy.

Madiha could not help but notice herself smiling, to realize how funny, how sweet the scene was. General Nakar, the Right Hand of Death, chopping tomatoes instead of heads. She looked fondly at her partner, who just a month ago had been an unrecognized paper pusher in a corrupt military administration. She recalled the moment their eyes met, and she thought, Parinita obviously had a fascination then, but Madiha had as well. Madiha had wanted to protect her. In that space, it was impossible to dream of all that this was.

But Madiha, some part of her, had desired that, and she was overjoyed to have it here.

A moment where these two soldiers were nothing more than a queer pair of women cooking like a couple in a loaned apartment building, ignoring the capital under siege.

Their small table in the living room could scarcely hold the plates. There was coconut milk curry with a drizzle of glistening oil and onions atop, and chickpea-lentil wraps, flatbread, a red and green salad dressed with yogurt, and fried, potato-filled bonda. Madiha was astounded at the amount and variety of food that had come out of their ingredients and preparations. Parinita bid her lover to pause for a small prayer before they began.

“Your aura is very peaceful! What an improvement!” Parinita then said.

She reached out a hand and touched Madiha’s forehead. Madiha did not feel the usual cooling, calming effect of Parinita’s “magic” touch on her, perhaps because she was not burning up from her power at the time. Madiha had hardly used her “abilities” in days. (Parinita desired she call them psionic or ESP abilities but Madiha resisted that still.)

“I’ve had time to calm down.” Madiha said.

She took a spoonful of curry and tasted it. It was spicy and rich with a hint of sweetness.

“How is it?”

“It’s excellent.”

“Hah! Of course it is!”

Parinita crossed her arms and puffed herself up a little with pride. Madiha laughed.

“Just like all the great feast scenes of cinema.”

“Are there that many?” Madiha asked.

“Well, maybe not feast scenes, but you see characters eating in almost every movie. They have expert chefs to make the edible food, and they use artists to make prop food for the backgrounds of restaurants. You just have to have a food scene in a movie nowadays.”

Madiha nodded. “True. Food does tend to play an important role in films.”

“Yes! Food is often symbolic of the times the characters live in. In a movie our table would symbolize the domestic bliss we feel right now.” Parinita enthusiastically said.

“It is definitely an improvement from eating lentils out of a bag in the office.”

Parinita chuckled. “You’d like them better if you used the spice pack.”

“You get a spice pack in maybe a quarter of the bags these days, unfortunately.”

“I guess that’s also symbolic of something.” Parinita sighed.

“It’ll get better.”

It had to.

After the meal, Madiha and Parinita cleaned up together and returned to the living room. There was a television in the room, a rarity that often had to be shared communally if it existed in a community at all. They turned on the box and sat on the couch together, side by side and holding hands. Like a radio, the television had different frequencies–

“–they’re called ‘channels’.” Parinita said.

–and this particular television had four. One was a broadcast test from the University of Solstice, and the camera was pointed at large, intricate mobiles and dioramas, sometimes with music in the background. Another was the official state channel, currently showing broadcasts of Daksha Kansal’s speeches and public appearances the past month.

Then there was the educational channel, which was shown to schools. Wherever the local teacher’s union approved of the program, one television was furnished to a school to watch this channel. Because it was late and kids were back home, it was showing a political program about the Svechthan Revolution instead of any children’s programming.

Finally there was a channel for the promotion of the arts and music, which was presently broadcasting a theater performance from Solstice. Madiha recognized the performance.

“It’s Alawian Nights. I’ve heard this song before. Marik is opening the door.” Madiha said.

“I’ve only seen the film version.” Parinita replied. “Ohh, I love the dancing.”

“They’re very precise. We should train our soldiers to move like that.” Madiha said.

“You’re always looking out for the army.” Parinita sighed fondly.

She laid her head down on Madiha’s chest, and wiggled around on top of her, laughing.

Madiha laid a hand on her head and stroked her hair, smiling.

“I love you, Madiha.” Parinita said.

“I love you too.” Madiha replied.

They had met on the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom. On the day of the invasion. Madiha had been inspecting a delinquent military headquarters when the two of them were thrust into each other’s paths. Through violence and hardship, the two of them forged a bond closer than they had ever felt with another, and faster than either would have ever dreamed.

It was strange. There was no denying that it was strange. But it was love; it was true love.

They needed each other. And though Madiha had many reasons to be attracted to Parinita, physically, spiritually; what she thought about the most was how much she loved just being around her now. Just having her there. She wanted them to be able to sit down like this, and talk about any old thing, but with minds totally unclouded, bodies unharmed. Without a looming threat on the horizon. She wanted to sit down with Parinita and watch the television and hold hands and kiss and know that there would be years more of this.

“Someday, Madiha, there’ll be films on Television. You’ll be able to watch them whenever you want and the film theaters will be for big parties or for communal viewings.”

Parinita smiled, and she laid further down on Madiha’s lap.

Madiha looked down at her, and they locked eyes.

She leaned down and kissed Parinita, their lips entwining.

When they parted, Parinita reached up to stroke Madiha’s cheek.

“Someday, Madiha, I want to make a film, and you’ll be the hero.” Parinita said.

“Really?”

“Yes! I don’t want it to be just a hobby. I want to use what I know and make a great film.”

“I’m sure you will.”

“And you’ll be the hero! You’ve got a great face and body. You’re perfect for it.”

Madiha thought about the future. What did she want to do? Had everything been perfect, had Nocht never attacked, had Communism been fully built, had the world not been hostile, what did Madiha want to do? She had always thought of war. She was still thinking about war. She had her book to write, her theories. She had this war to fight; to win.

“I’d love to be the hero.” Madiha said.

For now, it was fun and calming to indulge this fantasy.

“Parinita,”

What she wanted to say, to preface things, was that, she was going to keep fighting. She had resolved to keep fighting until Nocht was destroyed. They could not exist together in the same world. It was proven by the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom, and it was theorized by Lena Ulyanova herself. The Imperialists would not allow them to exist in peace. Capitalism and Socialism could not coexist in the globe. There would be war as long as Nocht stood.

But she did not say it. On some fashion both of them knew it, they had to know it. They would keep fighting, side by side. They could not have peace until they won this war.

Both of them knew this, but they needed futures. They needed to fight for themselves too.

What Madiha managed to say was far better said without preface, without varnish.

She took Parinita’s hand after softly cooing her name. She kissed her again.

“Will you marry me?”


17th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City

Before a small crowd of assembled delegates, statesmen and women and military leaders of a variety of nations, Daksha Kansal stepped out of the shadows and took a podium. She was used to speaking plainly, and the microphone in front of her felt very conspicuous. This address, however, was being recorded for broadcast far abroad. It would set the stage.

Within a projection room in a bunker beneath the SIVIRA Headquarters building, the half of the world still resolute against imperialism gathered for a secret, historic moment. They had traveled from around the world in support of Ayvarta.

Daksha had not written this speech. She was too busy. But she spoke nevertheless with the candor that had come to characterize her. She threw her fist high, raised her voice, and though it was sinole and short, the room nonetheless shook.

“Fellow delegates and the world community. I would like to open this momentous occasion with a personal anecdote. Somebody once told me that the world would abandon Ayvarta, should it decide to roll heedless like a boulder down the path of Socialism.”

Daksha paused for effect and made a gesture with her hands. She had practiced the speech once beforehand, and had vetted its contents. It wasn’t her style: she preferred blunt, enumerated talking points. But she trusted the contents like she trusted her comrades.

“This man,” she continued, “was a rising star of the old Social Democrats, who did not dream as I did of a world where we were all stars as he was. He wished to work within a system of oppression to achieve peace for the city-dwellers he deemed hard-working and worthy enough; he was never a man for the rural souls among us. He was smart, a hard worker, of that there was no doubt. But he just did not see, he did not understand. All of us here, socialist or not, know now that even this small step cannot be achieved within empire, and that any liberation must be achieved with the people, not in spite of them.”

There was applause from the audience, unprompted. Daksha waited a moment for it.

“Any great work must undergone as a community, not merely a cadre. Now, this once powerful, once vibrant man cannot be with us today, but I dearly wish I could show him the assemblage of nations in this room, who have cast aside their differences in support of Ayvarta and its people in their darkest hour: because of our socialism and despite it. I wish I could show him this Ayvarta that his eyes failed to see, an Ayvarta that even with its strength sapped by the imperialist leech, is stepping forward to be part of a world community, in the greatest endeavor for peace ever witnessed by human eyes. I wish I could have made him understand that all peoples must be brought together to fight Empire. Whether it be rural and city dwellers together, or say, Svechthans and Helvetians. I wish I could have shown him too that sometimes, to grow a field, you must burn it first. You cannot always work with what you have. Some roots are too rotted and too deep to be nurtured any better. Sometimes struggle must be had. Sometimes life must be lost.”

She did not tell the room that she had been the one to kill him. None needed to know.

Her speechwriters certainly did not know. But they chose their story presciently.

“Alas, I could not save him. But we can save others in his stead. So here we are.”

Daksha spread out her arms and took a hidden breath. Before her, there was the solemn, respectful applause of a room ready and prepared to deal in the business of nations.

“You have my sincerest gratitude, on behalf of the Ayvartan people. We shall have no further delay. Here today assembles the first presidium of the forces of the Solstice Pact.”

Ayvarta’s Premier stepped down from the platform, and reached out her hands to hold those of the Svechthan military delegation leader, General Zhukova, and the Helvetian representative, Millennia Alsace, as they climbed up to the platform and stood side by side with her, arm in arm, feet to feet, all of them ready to discuss the future of the free world.