Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Shining Port
“Colonel Nakar, ma’am! Why is that strange bird attacking you?”
Brandishing a biology book in one hand, and with Kali hanging happily from her back like a baby chimp on its mother, Madiha replied, “It is not a bird. You see, while birds and drakes have some distant relatives in the ancient, monstrous creature known as a Dinosaur, the Bird does not have developed arms, but rather wings, unlike the Drake, known for its arms.”
On the docks, the port authority worker, saluting her stiffly, blinked, and whistled.
“Life Sciences was not my strongest suit as a youngster, ma’am.” she admitted.
“Likewise.” Madiha replied amicably.
For someone terrible at life sciences, she had learned a lot in three hours of reading.
Madiha put away the little book into her black tunic stepped off the ramp onto dry ground. From the Ayvartan south, she had been relocated some distance northwest.
At the bottom of the ramp to the concrete platform, Madiha and Parinita were welcomed to the Shining Port of Rangda. They paused atop the berth and took in the sights before them alongside the port representative. Aside from the Charybdis, their troop carrier ship, and the Revenant, there were fishing boats and a few commercial craft moored to the L-shaped wharfs built along the contours of the naturally wedge-shaped harbor.
Cranes and tractors that lay dormant for days now became active once more. Both the Revenant and the Charybdis had surviving guns, tanks, and scores of equipment and ammunition that could be put to use again. Rangda’s ‘shining port’ quickly got to work unloading the vessels. Everything would be inventoried and warehoused shortly thereafter.
Machines were by far the least of the cargo however. Throngs of soldiers disembarked from the vessels and walked down the platforms, guided by helpful gendarmes in their red and yellow armbands. Battlegroup Ram organizers soon arrived with buses. Ram’s 8th Rifle Division HQ would house, feed and train them while Madiha’s Regiment was built up again. Most of the people leaving the Charybdis were surviving troops and Civilian volunteers from Bada Aso. Madiha would have different accommodations in Rangda than them.
Turning her gaze east, shielding her eyes from the fierce afternoon sun, Madiha visually followed the port roads past the warehouses and berths to the city itself.
Rangda was marginally smaller than Bada Aso, but it was modern and well-built, and its size was more readily apparent due to its open nature. Bada Aso’s stifling streets and haphazard alleys were not shared here. Uphill from the port stretched a broad main thoroughfare with several lanes of traffic, including a trolley track. Beautiful blue and white buildings three stories high flanked pedestrian paths and roads, where small groups of cars and buses drove briskly through. Long, painted banners hung over the width of the streets, strung over the lanes of traffic from one building to another, and stretched between streetlights.
“Welcome to Rangda, comrades. We’re getting ready for a festival in a few days.” said the port representative. “I suggest you not miss it for the world! It’ll be lovely!”
“We’ll definitely make time for it.” Parinita said, bowing her head to the representative.
Kali pulled itself up from around Madiha and instead perched heavily on her shoulder.
“Once I am established I will try to make an appearance.” Madiha replied.
Bowing back, the port representative took her leave to supervise the unloading.
Parinita and Madiha followed the platform back onto the thick concrete that had been poured over the low and sandy western shore to transform it into the robust harbor that had given Rangda it’s title of ‘The Shining Port’. It was a feat of engineering, though the Chayatham naval base and shipyard was by far larger. Rangda could have housed the Admiral Qote and the Selkies too, had those ships not departed their company days ago.
Soon as they made it to the edge of the berth, they heard a screeching of rubber.
Turning their heads, they spotted a light car coming in from around one of the warehouses. It dodged one of the tractors unloading the Revenant and skidded to a stop beside the mooring posts. A man inside waved Madiha and Parinita close.
Kali growled. Madiha shushed the beast.
At the driver’s seat the young, curly-haired man behind seemed undaunted.
“Colonel Nakar? The Governor requests your presence, ma’am. Council approves.”
Parinita gave her superior a confused and worried look.
Madiha nodded her head, silently consoling her. She had expected this.
After all, her victory in Bada Aso was only possible due to a regional political coup.
Perhaps the time had come to face the consequences.
Compliantly the two women sat side by side in the rear of the car. As haphazardly as he had driven to them, the man jerked back around and dashed away from the berths, around the warehouses, through a half-open security gate, and out to Ocean Road. Madiha thought she could see his foot pushing the pedal down to the floor of the car.
Parinita laid her hand over Madiha’s and she gripped the soft fingers with her own.
“I’m Jota, written with a ‘J’,” their driver shouted, while the surroundings sped past him, referring to the missing sound at the front of his name. “I’m the guy who gets people to places quick around here. Just sit tight, I’ve made this drive in five minutes before!”
Ocean Road was the main artery, the massive, beautiful street that bisected Rangda, and held most of its cooperatives, state shops and services. Townsfolk hung banners and icons wherever there was a surface on Ocean that could hold them. Farther up the street there was an open space, receding into the column of buildings, that contained a Msanii space for the sale and trade of crafts. It was decorated with banner and icons that bore the same symbols as the rest: sickle moon shapes in regal shades of blue.
On either side of Ocean Road the city was divided into discreet quarters, much less haphazardly planned than Bada Aso’s streets. There was a factory quarter, administrative buildings and a city garrison farther east, while tenements and apartments, as well as theaters and clubs, had been gathered south. Atop a hill in the northwest, close to the harbor, were a half-dozen coastal defense guns, with a mirror battery to the southwest. There were parks and even a sports stadium along the city as well.
Madiha could not see many of these, but a provided pamphlet pointed them out.
Staring at the pages was all she could to keep her mind off the cars Jota screamed past.
Rangda rose uphill from the ocean on a gentle slope before plateauing anew almost a hundred meters above the level of the berths on the port. Here Jota took a screeching turn away from Ocean and into a connecting road, past several echelons of buildings and toward a flat, broad two-story building in a square ‘u’ shape, extending its arms around a pristine green park. He drove right through the grass, and swerved in beside a six-step platform leading to the columned maw of the building’s northern wing.
Leaping over his closed driver-side door, Jota stood by the car’s side and opened the door on Parinita’s side. He stepped aside with his arms behind his back, smiling.
Madiha felt herself continuing to shake despite the infernal car having come to a stop.
“We’re not charmed.” Parinita replied brusquely, holding on to her garrison cap as if it could still fly away. Kali hissed from Madiha’s shoulder and clacked its sharp beak.
Again Jota seemed unconcerned with the world around him.
“Well, I wasn’t trying to be charming.” Jota said. “Follow me!”
Without another word he turned swiftly around and hurried up the steps. He was almost all the way to the entryway by the time Madiha and Parinita had left the car. They dusted off their rumps, and got their bearings, a little dizzy after stepping off the hurtling vehicle.
Kali jumped out of the vehicle and tried to follow them. It leaped into the air, spread its arms, pulled its tail around its own neck, inflated its belly, and like a bizarre partially-open balloon it floated in a disturbing, ungainly fashion toward the two of them. Madiha interdicted the beast in mid-air with a tap of her finger, causing a hollow sound to issue.
“Stay in the car.” She said. The Kite Dragon growled and floated away over the vehicle.
Unfurling itself, it glided gently down to the back seat in a much more traditional fashion. Madiha supposed the creature ballooned when it needed to stay in the air for longer.
“Bye little fella!” Parinita chirped, waving her hands at the car.
Kali growled through its throat. Parinita slumped and sighed with resignation.
Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Regional Council
Once they caught up, Jota led the women through the interior of the Rangda Council building. Every hall and room was abuzz with activity. Radio rooms were packed, telegraphs passed dozens of hands, telephone lines were in constant use, and a room full of twittering computers at the end of a hall made enough noise on their push-button mechanical calculators and with their gossipy voices to drown out the entire hall outside.
Madiha was not fully aware of the strategic situation across Ayvarta, but it was obviously quite a serious time in Rangda judging by all of the activity in the Council Building. She had been at sea for over a week, with scattered radio contact with the mainland. However she was bitterly aware that although she had bought time at Bada Aso, Nocht’s depleted Adjar forces would still do all that they could to thrust north into Tambwe.
So Battlegroup Ram and by extension the Civil Council had to keep quite busy.
On the second floor Madiha and Parinita stepped side by side into a broad room with a long desk in the center. There were festival banners hung here too, and a poster on the wall urged everyone to celebrate the Twilight Blossom Festival along Ocean Road.
Jota remained outside while the two women met with the Governor.
But it was not the Governor sitting behind the big desk in the middle.
He was standing beside it, a slender man about ten years Madiha’s senior with trimmed, frizzy hair and a grave face. Behind the desk was a man that Madiha recognized.
Councilor Arthur Mansa; one of the architects behind the “compromises” that led to the Demilitarization policies at the end of the Akjer incident. He had a heavily weathered light brown face, very wrinkled, almost sagging, with an incongruously built, powerful figure, large shoulders, and thick arms over the desk. A thick gray beard obscured his lips, and thick, frizzy hair ringed his bald scalp. His heavy brows obscured his eyes as he bowed his head.
“Hujambo, Colonel.” He spoke in a strong voice. “My son and I wanted to meet you.”
Over the corner of the desk the younger man stretched a hand. Madiha shook with him.
“Governor Aksara Mansa.” He said.
It was clear, however, that this was not the man Madiha had to pay attention to. Everything about this contrivance indicated that the high councilor from Solstice was the one in charge here at the moment. Madiha knew little about Tambwean politics, but those optics certainly seemed worth criticizing. Nevertheless, she held her tongue for the moment.
Mansa eyed her, perhaps wary, perhaps interested. Madiha couldn’t read him.
At least, not without doing things that she wanted to refrain from.
“My son requested my aid, to help organize the Dominance in this time of turmoil.” Mansa said. “Our family has deep roots in this land. It was the loss of this city to the KVW during the Civil War that led me to realize that Socialism was strong in this land, and that I was weak. It was my connection to this land that led me to help in brokering a deal for the surrender of the White Army and the end of the Civil War. That happened in a land you have deep roots in, Colonel; Bada Aso, Adjar. On your homeland, I helped secure my own homeland.”
He talked too much and said too little. Madiha did not appreciate his little speech.
“I was in a coma at the time, owing to the reactionary, counterrevolutionary actions of your white army colleagues.” Madiha said. “So I was not a witness to that moment.”
She pushed back on him. He seemed unfazed. “The White Army were not my colleagues. I was part of a nationalist front that wanted independence for the people of Tambwe to choose their system of government. Eventually, I came to realize the ignorance of my actions. Working together for something new is better than fighting for the old.”
Everyone on Ayvarta believed or wanted to believe that the Collaborator faction of councilors that had such deep roots, as Mansa put it, in the lands and systems prior to the revolution, had been fully integrated into socialism. Madiha was not so quick to trust. This man was a chameleon. He did not make proposals. He “brokered deals” with others. He was adept at saying what people wanted to hear, and spinning it in his favor.
Now he had the entire Collaborator faction, including all the junior councilors he could pad his numbers with from the south, firmly wrapped around his fingers. He was their patriarch. Though he had never pushed to say, repeal collectivization, or reintroduce profit concepts, Madiha knew that Mansa did not respect socialism. He saw only the Council, a legislative tool to gain political support and build himself a party cadre.
An input through which he could create a desired output, bolstering his prominence.
At her side, Parinita stood expressionless and motionless. Again she was in front of politicians, just like the time in Bada Aso. Clearly she was not used to the attention.
Madiha took the lead instead. She felt incensed at being in this man’s presence and drawn into his pointless politics. “I would like to know why I have been summoned. With all due respect, I hope this meeting is important enough to warrant drawing me away from my troops, who require lodging, food, equipment, and training to return to fighting form.”
She addressed her concerns not to Councilor Mansa, but to Governor Mansa.
She turned her head clear away from the High Councilor and turned her entire attention to his son. He was the Governor, the one who had the authority here to summon her. Civilian politicians could request consultation from Military Council personnel, including Madiha, who was now a full KVW Colonel with the black and gold uniform and its red trim to prove it.
Councilor Mansa should have deferred to him these executive duties of his office.
Though he did not avoid her gaze, however, the Governor did not reply.
He never once even seemed like he would attempt to move or to speak.
His father took the reins again, seated behind his son’s desk.
“Apologies, Colonel. I understand your concerns and haste. At the moment we are all buried with work. But we cannot lose sight of what we may gain through careful cooperation and robust, constant evaluation.” Mansa said. He was getting long-winded. “For my part, I wish to schedule a private meeting with you as soon as possible in order to discuss the defense of Tambwe in greater detail. Our forces have a lot to learn from your steadfast defense of Bada Aso. Governor Mansa has business to attend to, but I will give him the details–”
“Contact my secretary for that. I’m going.” Madiha said brusquely, cutting Mansa off.
Without another word she turned around and walked nonchalantly out of the room.
Surprised, Parinita stared at the desk, then at the door, and started tottering after.
At the doorway, Jota almost seemed like he would make to stand in their way.
With a glance, Madiha turned him aside. He raised his hands and let them go.
Perhaps he saw the fire burning in her eyes. Perhaps it was her mind that moved him.
Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison
Around the gates of the Rangda City Garrison several crowds had built up from buses coming to and from the harbor. Men and women had their papers and remaining possessions checked by garrison staff, and were then pointed down the long rows of square, beige barracks buildings. In the distance there were several water towers, an armory, a large canteen, a health center with showers and medical care, and a semi-circular metal-roofed warehouse. It was like a small, flat, square town surrounded by the city and fenced off from the world, and would be home for over 3000 people for the remainder of the month.
Serving as the Headquarters of the 8th Ram Rifle Division, during peace time half of the Division would train and live in the city’s garrison. Its other half was split between various positions outside the city. Owing to war time needs, almost all of the Division was now farther south, manning defenses outside the city and beyond. What infrastructure remained behind would be put to use by Madiha’s 1st Askari Motor Rifles Regiment.
Deposited at the gates by a public vehicle they hailed outside the Council building, Madiha and Parinita navigated through the crowds, with Kali hanging off the Colonel’s back like a child’s school bag. At the gate, she was ushered in by a guard, who took her aside and led her past all of the lines to a corner of the base far less lively than the gate road.
Near the flagpole flying Ayvarta’s red and yellow hydra flag, the guard took his leave. Madiha and Parinita crossed a small park toward a lot that had been mostly smashed flat. Only foundation outlines remained, like chalk, around a single unpainted building.
“Oh my! You’re here already! Welcome to your new Headquarters, commander!”
Standing in the middle of the empty old barracks building, a woman in territorial army uniform saluted them. She was around their age, and around Parinita’s height, with a very professional appearance. Her dark hair was tied in a bun, and a pair of thin spectacles were perched on her nose. On her lips there was a touch of red pigment, and there was a dab of blue around her eyes. Along with her skirt uniform she wore shiny heel shoes.
She also had a somewhat visibly protruding belly, though she was slim and fit overall.
Parinita lit up immediately at her, clapping her hands together with a beaming face.
“Congratulations to you and the father ma’am!” She said in a saccharine voice.
Across the room from them, the greeting Staff Sergeant’s face darkened.
She continued to smile sweetly, but Madiha could tell there was a transgression.
“Oh, you don’t need to congratulate that good-for-nothing, dear.” She said.
Parinita frowned and avoided her gaze in shame.
Madiha produced her thick socialist pamphlet and tapped the spine on Parinita’s head.
“Apologies.” She said. “I’m Colonel Nakar; this is Chief Warrant Officer Maharani. You must be Staff Sergeant Minardo. We were told you would be here to help us situate.”
“It is fine, dear. I am indeed Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo. Enchanted to meet you.”
She stretched out her hand and shook with Madiha. Parinita sulked in the back next to the lazy Kali, who raised its head her way and gave her an oddly emotive, skeptical glare.
“Who assigned you this task, Staff Sergeant?” Madiha asked.
Sgt. Minardo, hands behind her back, spoke in a concise, clear voice with strong diction. “I was in the reserve until a few days ago. I was reinstated under orders from a Councilor. Yuba, I believe? A few other reserve officers are being called up again.”
Madiha felt a sense of relief. It was not Mansa who had sent her. She was quite wary about that man now. She knew he had some ulterior motive — he was losing support in the government owing to the failures suffered against Nocht. Unfortunately, until her forces were actually trained and reconstituted into a fully-equipped Regiment she would have to remain within his gravity. She could not afford any interruptions to this crucial task.
“Glad to have you with us, Staff Sergeant. We’ll be needing your help.” Madiha replied.
“I am completely at your disposal, Colonel.” Minardo said. “I got some of the privates to clean out this building for you. I’ll be supervising its furnishing over the next few days, with a break on the festival of course. I’ve also reserved a pair of rooms for you two.”
The Staff Sergeant withdrew from her pocket two housing cards and handed them to the Colonel. They had room numbers, belonging to an apartment complex. There were no names on the cards. Both of the rooms seemed to be in the same building, but in different floors. Madiha handed one card to Parinita and kept the other for herself.
Though empty of its bunks and lockers, the old barracks building had the makings of a good office. It was a square unit, unlike the newer, longer than wide, barracks along the gate road. There were several glass windows for natural lighting, and an old cooling unit kept the room breezy and dry, at the cost of a bit of noise from its engine. There was electricity to the building, judging by the light bulbs on the roof, and enough space for desks, tables and radios. A telephone line would be wonderful; Madiha made a mental note.
“You two just got off the boat, right? I think you should call it a day.” Minardo said.
“Oh, no, I am feeling quite alright.” Parinita replied quickly.
Minardo gave her a bit of a cold shoulder and awaited Madiha’s response instead.
For her part, Madiha did feel tired inside. Though she walked and talked with the full presence of her mind, she felt as though she had not actually slept in weeks. Coming here and being stricken again with the enormity of everything; the meeting with Mansa, too, had lit a fire in her chest that seemed to have burned through some of her stamina.
“My secretary and I are in agreement. We can still work.” Madiha said. Her mind and her tongue seemed disconnected in an entirely different way than she was used to.
“I suppose we can all wait for those radios to come together.” Minardo said.
At the back of the room, Kali clung from a window by its tail and made a nuisance of itself, swinging around, flapping its wings, making noise. It sounded rather pitiable.
Madiha, however, was not about to play with it. She had better things to do.
Night was quickly falling on Rangda. Electric bulbs on the water towers and barracks buildings started lighting up in response to the fading sunlight. Everyone at the gates had been processed and handed soldier’s cards to use within Rangda, along with an extra slip of gold paper that many of them had never laid eyes on before. Fresh uniforms were distributed, and hot meals served. Barracks bunks soon started filling up.
Outside the old barracks, Madiha threw a stick across empty lots and the flag park.
“Aiming” to hit the fence, she managed to chuck the stick precisely that far.
Kali took to the air, jumping past Madiha and thrusting forward mid-flight.
It seized the stick out of the air, hit the fence, jumped back, and glided back to her.
“Good.” Madiha said simply.
Kali stared at her with its head raised, and its eyes blinking, as if waiting for something.
Madiha clapped her hands slowly response.
It did not seem satisfied by this form of praise, and continued to stare.
“Stick again?” Madiha asked.
She threw the stick.
Kali did not move this time. It merely stared at her.
Madiha gave up on the game and walked back inside the barracks building.
Kali did not followed and continued to stare.
Inside the building, Minardo and Parinita seemed to have made up quite quickly. They were giggling and talking like bosom friends. The Staff Sergeant lifted her shirt to expose her belly and Parinita put her head against it gently, listening against her flesh while Minardo sat back on an old desk and smiled. Madiha wondered if they could really hear anything at this point in the pregnancy. But she didn’t know much about babies; human or animal.
Focusing on more important matters, Madiha asked, “Where are the men with the radios?”
Parinita and Minardo both shrugged without shifting in position at all.
Suddenly, Minardo gasped a little; Parinita’s lips drew into a wide, beaming grin.
“I think I heard it! I heard the baby! It’s right in there!” Parinita said.
Minardo smiled at her curiosity, like a mother to a child.
Madiha rubbed her own forehead and looked outside the door.
No delivery men; just Kali in the middle of the park. It had turned its head to stare at her through the open door to the barracks building. Sitting by itself, it waited expectantly.
Its stiff posture and demanding gaze were quite unsettling.
“Parinita, it won’t chase the stick again. I feel like it is judging me.” Madiha said.
“Did you pat its head?” Parinita said, stroking Minardo’s stomach.
“What for?” Madiha asked.
Eventually everyone gave up on getting any work done. Without any equipment, all they could do was stand around an empty building. Parinita and Madiha waved farewells to Logia Minardo, who promised she would have car for their personal use come tomorrow. For the moment, the two officers walked out of the garrison, hailed a public car around the corner and showed their housing cards. Their driver knew the building quite well.
More importantly, he did not mind a little monster going crawk crawk in his car.
After a short drive, they arrived at their destination. Had they known the distance, it would have been easier to simply walk there. Only a few blocks from the garrison and just off Ocean Road, there was a four-story apartment building wedged between a Union office for construction workers and a large, high capacity Civil Canteen. Their temporary home had a rustic appearance, square and primarily constructed of warm-red bricks, unpainted.
Madiha and Parinita thanked the driver. Some of Kali’s colorful down remained in his seats.
Beyond the front door the two turned in their cards at the front desk, and an older man gave each of them their keys and told them their floors Madiha saw Parinita off at the staircase. She had the top floor, while Madiha would sleep in a ground floor room.
“Quite a day, huh?” Parinita said.
To Madiha, it still felt surreal.
Not even because of Kali, or Mansa, or Minardo, or the task ahead of them.
It felt surreal not to be in Bada Aso. Not to be fighting. There were no bombs falling on Rangda, no rifles snapping a dozen a second in the distance. No tank tracks, no artillery. There was no smoke. She smelled brick and old paint and the musty air of a long lived-in place. There was such an absence of sound she heard a mild tinnitus in her ears.
Madiha Nakar had survived Bada Aso. She had a life beyond that now.
She had to think about what Madiha Nakar would do beyond that now.
Who she would be, beyond all of that, now. Bada Aso was in the past.
It was in the past several times over. Imperial past, interwar past, and now war past.
Nothing could be more surreal than finally moving beyond that border in the south. It made the days feel like seconds. It made every event seem strikingly ordinary, peaceful.
She knew this would not last forever; she suddenly felt like treasuring these days.
Working up a smile, Madiha plucked Kali from her back and held it out.
“Do you want it? I’d give it to you.” She asked Parinita.
Parinita stared at Kali and Kali half-closed its eyes in disdain.
“I don’t think it likes me very much.” She said.
Madiha sighed. “Hopefully we can share custody someday.”
Parinita stroked Madiha’s cheek. “Someday. Until then, be a good dragon mom.”
“It hasn’t eaten anything all day except the rat, I think.”
“It’ll find more rats, probably.”
Madiha nodded. “Good night Parinita. See you tomorrow.”
“Good night Madiha. Get some sleep!”
They parted ways. Madiha watched the flash of strawberry in her wake as Parinita climbed the stairs, skipping girlishly up each step, humming something soft as she went.
Madiha turned around from the stairs and found her door close to the building’s tiny lobby. She had a bed, a set of drawers, a wooden lap desk so she could write from her bed if she desired, and a closet for all those clothes she did not own. Unbuttoning her tunic, Madiha approached her window, undid a pair of catches, and pushed it up.
She took Kali from her back once more and deposited it on her window.
She petted its head. Its body rolled fluidly with the movement of her hand.
“Catch rats, or do what it is you do. I don’t mind it.” Madiha said. “But I want to see you at this window tomorrow, okay? Do you understand that order, little private?”
Kali nodded its head and leaped out of the window.
Watching it glide off into the night, Madiha did indeed hope it understood to come back.
Parinita would likely be devastated if the strange little beast did not return.
Madiha might have been, too.