49th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya
Naya felt a tense mood around the camp that day as the regional news spread. People exchanged grim looks at the radio tent, and at the few gendarmes looking at the half-tracks and supply tents and planning for a quick evacuation if necessary. A few days ago, from what she understood, the Civil Council had launched an all-out offensive against the Nocht forces that had breached the border and occupied the area around Silb, and the southern Sandari.
But this offensive failed, miserably and painfully. Now the front was wide open.
Despite this, Captain Rajagopal had everyone continue their tasks as planned.
In every red-ringed eye around, Naya felt, for the first time, a muted doubt and fear. They didn’t perform these emotions as obviously as the average person, but she could nonetheless grasp the tension. Even the fearless KVW felt a measure of fear here.
Menial chores at least offered her a little distraction from the uncertainty around her.
Dbagbo’s rains persisted, pouring their way through the gaps in the camouflage netting and falling over the encampment. Across the camp the ground turned muddy and damp as water found its way through every orifice. Tubs were laid near the trees to collect water for clothes washing and other tasks. A series of tarps and tables went up around the chow line so people could relax and eat their food as intended, rather than as rainwater mush.
She helped a few engineers to set the latter. She worked for several minutes under the rain then took her place inside the kitchen tent, water dripping off her and soaking through her apron and cap. At least she could warm up near the oven while the flatbread cooked.
Despite the hardship, she offered a jovial smile along with every scoop of lentils.
After helping with breakfast she helped move some tools into the workshop, and then she started preparing for lunch. Most of the contents were the same as breakfast, except that a spicy seitan slice was offered to bulk up the portion. After 1300 everyone was fed there was nothing else to do — she didn’t have dinner duty or any remaining chores.
Though they could conduct tank tests under the rain, the Raktapata was in the workshop, behind closed doors. Ravan and her engineers were hard at work cutting and soldering and lathing. They had a lot of work: trying to bulk up the recoil buffers on the KnK-10, fixing the problems with the 85mm A.A.W, and mounting a 76mm KnK-3 on the Raktapata so it could have some armament. When delivering the tools she heard that regular maintenance on the wheels and the track, on the turret gear, and other parts, was also on the schedule. Any testing would have to resume tomorrow or the day after.
She had heard similar things yesterday and wondered, nursing a fear she felt was pathetic and childish, whether she would ever be able to sit in the Raktapata again.
For the past few days she had barely worked. She had no chores on the 47th and on the 48th the test hadn’t gone well. She had a few chores today but nothing else. Sitting alone in her tent trying staring at the stitched steam on its ceiling had gotten quite old.
Judging by Farwah’s presence in the kitchen tent, standing idly beside a boiling pot of barley porridge with an apron and cap, he was not destined for much work today either.
“Farwah, what do you do around here when you’re not working?” Naya asked.
“Sometimes we play football.” Farwah said. “I’m the goalie so I don’t have to run.”
Naya looked out at the muddy terrain and rainy weather and shook her head.
“We could gather some people and play Commissars in a tent.” Farwah said.
She narrowed her eyes, struggling to pierce his implacable expression.
“You’re suggesting we go play Commissars in a tent?” Naya asked.
She worded it slowly to make obvious her skepticism. Farwah was unmoved.
“Yes. We can play in that big tent, where they host briefings. We barely use it.”
“So we gather people, and we go — play Commissars? A little kid’s game?”
Naya gestured with her hands while very slowly repeating the words, because she wanted to confirm to herself that this was indeed their course of action. Perhaps at some point in the past few minutes she had grievously misinterpreted him. But again Farwah had no grand rebuttal and merely nodded his head to her, his face a portrait of calm.
She crossed her arms and relented. “I know two people who might agree to it.”
Farwah nodded. “I know two people I can bring as well, so that would make six.”
After closing up the kitchen tent for lunch, they picked up a pair of umbrellas and went their separate ways. When they returned each had two people in tow for the game.
Naya had found Lila and Karima hunkered down in their respective tents, Lila reading an anatomical manual, Karima doodling a girl in a dress on the back of a pamphlet about ‘Socialism In One Country.’ Tactically, Naya made sure to fetch Lila first since she was easier to convince, and was therefore able to get Karima out of her tent at all.
New among Farwah’s little cadre was a fetching young man, tall and dark with long, straight black hair tied into a braided tail. He had a smooth face and slender build, and a dignified, almost meditative kind of expression — there were no rings around his orange eyes.
Behind him, Captain Rajagopal tottered along, much to everyone’s confusion.
“You brought a Commissar to play Commissars?” Karima muttered through clenched teeth, pulling Farwah and Naya aside for a moment. Captain Rajagopal would have read her lips otherwise. Naya looked over her shoulder and the Captain waved happily.
“She was free, and she is a person I knew, who can play.” Farwah said simply.
Karima sighed and broke their little huddle. Everyone gathered inside the tent. There was a stack of chairs in a corner, and an unoccupied podium with a projector canvas behind it. There was a lot space in the tent. Maybe 30 people could have fit easily.
“We should do an introduction before we start.” Lila said, clapping her hands together.
Farwah’s friend smiled and raised his hand. “I’m Corporal Isa Bhaduri. I’m normally driving the water truck out to get refilled, but today, that’s unnecessary.” He said.
“He’s my friend.” Farwah said, gesturing to Isa as if unveiling a treasure.
“I’m Naya Oueddai, and I have nothing to do so that’s why I am here.” Naya said.
Karima introduced herself curtly; Lila with a skip and a hop and a giggling laugh.
Captain Rajagopal smiled, removed her cap, and set it aside. She raised her hands.
Naya reached up to her ears and realized she did not have her headset with her. She was not expecting to interact with the Captain significantly, and as such had forgotten it. It felt terribly oafish and inconsiderate of her — now she would not know what the Captain was saying. She also realized nobody else had any headsets either.
The Captain made a few gestures. Naya followed along but did not understand.
“She introduced herself and said someone should explain the rules.” Farwah said.
“Oh.” Naya nodded to the Captain. “I can do it. I played Commissars as a kid.”
Captain Rajagopal made a gesture that seemed like ‘go ahead’. Naya nodded again.
Naya laid out the rules. “First we have to vote to elect a Commissar from among ourselves. Then the Commissar, once elected, can either issue Commands or put you in Interrogation. Commands means you have to do what the Commissar says, and Interrogation means you have to answer the Commissar truthfully. After that, you become Commissar, and the last Commissar has immunity from the new one. However, if you fail or the group thinks you’re chicken and cheated on your tasks, everyone has to vote again for a new Commissar. You keep going until everyone’s too tired or someone’s mom breaks it up.”
Captain Rajagopal clapped her hands rapidly and cheerfully at Naya. Lila joined in.
“Wait a minute, everyone will just vote for themselves then.” Karima protested.
“You don’t have much faith in Democracy huh?” Naya said. Grinning, she crossed her arms and stated, matter-of-factly, “That’s why everyone has two votes, and everyone has to vote for two different people. Someone usually comes out on top that way.”
“Interesting! I wonder who you’ll vote for?” Lila said, cocking an eye at Karima.
Karima turned her head and crossed her arms and said nothing more.
Captain Rajagopal volunteered her hat, and they cast votes using paper from a notebook that Karima carried on her person. Once everyone voted, Captain Rajagopal tallied all of the votes and cheerfully pointed at Naya, silently declaring her Commissar.
Naya’s eyes narrowed and her face settled into a dark little grin.
She covered her mouth delicately with her hand and laughed. “Karima.”
“Should’ve known.” Karima shouted through gritted teeth, stretching the syllables.
“What should I have you do?” Naya wondered aloud.
Captain Rajagopal did something new and silently mouthed a few words.
“No obscenities or I’ll shoot,” is what Naya got out of the gesture.
She cringed and thought of something more innocent than before.
“Okay! Karima, let’s see if you can even lift! I command you to hold the podium over your head and jump around the tent on one foot while holding it up.” Naya said.
Karima looked like she wanted to strangle Naya, but put all that force into picking up the podium instead. She lifted it over her head, raised her leg behind her back like a ballerina and started hopping on her foot. Lila and Isa covered their mouths while laughing. Captain Rajagopal smiled. Farwah had seemingly no expression.
After several minutes of very aggressive hopping, Naya called for her to put it down.
“Now you’re the Commissar comrade! Enjoy! But you can’t target me!” Naya said.
For once Karima seemed to be above the goading. She put the podium back where it belonged, returned to the circle of acquaintances, and breathed a little sigh of exasperation. She closed her eyes and waved her finger around to determine a target randomly. When she opened her eyes she was pointing right at Farwah’s face.
“Farwah, I’m gonna interrogate you, tell me, uh, hmm.” Karima tapped her foot.
“Don’t ask just anything; It has to be something funny or bold!” Lila said.
“Not too bold.” Captain Rajagopal slowly mouthed to them.
“You’re no fun.” Naya said, surreptitiously trying to cover her mouth.
Farwah remained quiet but avoided eye contact. Perhaps he was nervous.
Karima nodded and thrust her finger toward him, poking sharply at the air.
“Tell me where you were conceived, Farwah!” She called out.
A sudden silence among the players punctuated moment.
Isa burst out laughing suddenly, breaking his previous dignified expression.
Karima looked around the room with a shrug. “You all wanted bold.”
“What the hell! I can’t believe you asked that question!” Naya shouted.
“An empty coal car in a Jomba rail yard.” Farwah unconcernedly said.
Naya gaped. “I can’t believe you answered! How do you even know?”
“I was a product of ardent love.” Farwah said simply. Naya scratched her head.
“Anyway,” Lila said aloud, interrupting the scene, “now it’s Farwah’s turn.”
Farwah immediately pointed out Naya, his dull eyes locked on to her own.
“I’m ready for you!” Naya declared. She bore her teeth and crossed her arms.
“I command you, Naya, to make the sound of your favorite animal.” Farwah said.
Isa burst out laughing again.
“You’re all a bunch of babies!” He said through his teeth, smacking his own knee.
Naya blinked. “Ribbit?” She said. Again the room fell silent for a long second.
Then Isa fell to the ground, kicking his legs and holding his belly.
Lila covered her mouth and Karima laughed aggressively at Naya’s expense.
“Your favorite animal is a frog? A frog of all things?” Karima shouted.
“Shut up! Frogs are very honest and earnest animals!” Naya shouted back.
Captain Rajagopal laughed suddenly aloud, a strange, spontaneous noise like a horse neighing. She signed fiercely, and mouthed “Ribbit,” puffing her cheeks up like a frog.
“She says you’re a bunch of babies!” Isa said, pointing at them from the ground.
Naya frowned at him. It seemed everyone knew the signs but her!
Lila spoke up. “It’s unfair to have Naya go again so soon. I want to go!”
“Let’s hold an informal vote.” Farwah said. “Raise your hands to vote for Lila.”
Everyone raised their hands but Isa, who was still chuckling behind everyone, and Naya, who had this vote sprang on her suddenly and resolved to vote for herself.
Lila clapped her hands, beamed, and pointed directly at Karima. “Command!”
“You jerk! Ugh!” Karima replied. She turned her back with an angry ‘hmph!’
“Oh good, you made yourself accessible! Ferry me to paradise, faithful steed!”
Her head up high and with a swagger in her step, Lila casually approached Karima and climbed onto her back, until she had her arms around Karima’s chest and her legs hooked around her waist. She pressed with her knees and spurred Karima on like a race horse. Sighing heavily, an unenthusiastic Karima walked around the room one step at a time, her rider’s spirits disproportionately high for the speed and energy of the steed.
“Well, then it’s also not fair that Karima gets another turn so quickly.”
Isa stood up from the ground and dusted himself off. His fit of laughter had worked itself down to short, periodic chuckling. He patted the Captain on the shoulder, smiling.
Captain Rajagopal nodded her approval. Isa then pointed at Naya.
“Again?” She sighed. She glanced at Karima, still going around the room.
“Naya, I command you to stand on your head.” Isa said.
“You were going on about how we were all babies and this is your command?”
“Baby commands for baby players!” Isa said, shrugging.
Without hesitation and in one fluid motion, Naya dropped to the ground, palms down, and kicked off, bending her back and keeping her feet balanced overhead. Isa took a step back in surprise, as if he was about to be hit. Naya grinned, and she walked toward him with her hands, gently tipping her feet forward and back to correct balance. She was once quite the prolific athlete in school — sprints, swimming, field sports, endurance, and a little bit of gymnastics. She was good enough that her body never forgot the motions.
Her body also never forgot the injuries, especially one in particular.
Captain Rajagopal and Isa and clapped and cheered but their voices started to dull. Naya felt something twist inside her, and her awareness of the world suddenly dimmed.
Then there was a sharp pain in her lower back, like a stake driven between the links in her spine. Her fingers dug into the canvas floor, she grit her teeth. Losing all balance, she fell forward on her own back and curled into the fetal position. An obliterating pain started to consume her entire body, as if a dozen knives plunging into her. Her lungs worked themselves raw but she found it hard to breathe. Her heart pounded in its cage of flesh and she felt her blood crashing in her veins as if stirred up by the pain. Her whole body shook.
Lila and Karima stopped fooling around. Captain Rajagopal crouched near Naya.
“What happened?” Lila asked. Her voice was growing distant.
Isa turned pale and watched helplessly. Captain Rajagopal signed something.
Naya closed her eyes, lost all thought and became swallowed by the pain.
* * *
A lamp hovered directly overhead, swaying, its metal cover clanking.
She heard the whistling of the wind and then thunder, hitting hard like a shell fall.
Breathless, Naya sat up suddenly in bed, scanning the room in a panic. She was in a hospital tent. She saw the beds, the stretchers, the blood packs and intravenous electrolyte packs and other such things, the tool trays, the crates with the red cross on them–
At her side, Lila stood and gently settled her back down against the pillows.
“Calm down, Naya. Don’t strain yourself. You might pass out again.” She said.
Naya groaned and raised her hands to her face. She pressed hard on her skin.
“Ugh. How long was I out? Did the Captain say anything?” She asked.
“Only a few hours, and no. You’ve been taking very bad care of yourself.”
“I’m just tired.” Naya said weakly. “I shouldn’t have done that stunt back there.”
From her side, she heard a familiar voice. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do it.”
She turned her head. Isa, looking down at his own feet, sat a few meters away.
“I’m sorry, Naya, it was foolish of me to ask that. You got hurt; and anyone any less athletic than you could have gotten hurt worse just for our childish horsing around.”
Isa looked like he had been sitting there a while. He had his hands clasped together as if in prayer, and he couldn’t lift his eyes off his shoes to meet her own. She felt sorry for making him worry. It was hard not to let her mind carry that thought and bludgeon her with it.
“It’s fine, don’t blame yourself for it. I just went too far with it.” Naya said.
Lila sat on the side of her bed, and took Naya’s hands into her own without warning.
They locked eyes. Lila looked at once both worried and very deadly serious.
“Naya, you’re not fine. You’re trying to pass that off as something minor, but that wasn’t a cramp or a pulled muscle. You blacked out from the stress and the pain that you went through. This isn’t normal and I want you to tell me the truth about it.”
There was no chance Naya that would tell her the truth about her condition.
That these pains had practically ended her life beforehand.
That they persisted as a dull aching that was so constant it simply became her default condition that she endured every second of her life even in this encampment.
That when she pushed herself too hard the pains would burst and destroy her.
There was no chance that Naya would walk out of that conversation a soldier.
She had retreated from so much already. This was supposed to be her new leaf.
This was the place where she became strong again like she used to be!
Where she was loved and admired and had a future, like before!
This was the place that would have to accept her masks.
With a smile, a wicked, almost ear to ear smile, Naya replied with a lie.
“I haven’t been sleeping. I’m sorry. I didn’t mention this before because I didn’t want to be taken off the Raktapata, but I’m really terribly exhausted and–”
Lila shook her head and crossed her arms. She sighed. “Alright, if you say so.”
“I’m fine, really. I just have to sleep it off.” Naya insisted.
Lila could definitely see through her lies, but she wasn’t pushing any furhter.
“Well, I certainly can’t detect anything wrong with you. So I’m going to clear you. I’ll put it down as a temporary fainting spell since that’s all I saw. May Hashem retain you.”
She signed something and ripped the form paper from a clipboard.
Dropping it on Naya’s lap, she stormed out of the tent, leaving her puzzled.
“Sorry about that, she means well.” Isa said. “She’s just worried, you know? She probably felt helpless as a medic. She’ll come around once she sees you’re ok.”
Naya sank back into the bed, and pulled up the brown sheets over her face.
Keep on sprinting little Naya. Until you’ve outrun everything and everyone again.