This chapter contains brief violence.
42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Core Ocean — West Ayvartan Waters
At noon, amid the deep blue of the ocean, the Heavy Cruiser Revenant launched a floatplane patrol. Near the bow of the ship, the Revenant’s two catapults were turned northward and Remora float planes hurled to begin their journey. Each would cover hundreds of kilometers of sea and return within hours, reporting via radio any contacts with enemy ships.
From the operations deck, at the fore of the massive, armored citadel of the ship’s forward superstructure, Captain-At-Sea Monashir stood with her hands behind her back, staring seriously at their operational map of the West Ayvartan Naval Sector, as they knew it in their strategic planning. Her chief concern now was the Bundesmarine of Nocht.
At her flanks, the Selkie class frigates and the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Qote were getting ready to depart and rejoin the East Ayvartan Fleet as a potential defense against Hanwa, whose role in the conflict everyone suspected, but no one knew for certain. In any conflict with Hanwa, their first strike would definitely be an assault on the nation’s Navy, and likely a first-strike against their naval command. Chayat was sure to become a target.
Admiral Qote would certainly be needed in such a situation. Not so much the Revenant.
As such it would be up to the Revenant to escort the Charybdis back to Rangda in Tambwe, while the Admiral Qote was relocated, and the Selkies covered it in transit.
Captain Monashir was used to acting alone or on limited resources. Nevertheless it paid to be cautious and use everything at her disposal. Before her support ships departed, Captain Monashir had requested enough time for a full reconnaissance patrol. The Admiral Qote had gracefully acquiesced to her request and delayed its departure a few hours.
She waited with her breath held in her chest, surrounded by radio and navigation equipment, viewing the ocean through slit windows at the front of the compartment.
Though she loved the view of the sea, it was no longer important to the crew.
In this new age of warfare, what she saw with her senses hardly mattered to the fight. A battle might be decided far before she even knew a battle was imminent. Seaplane recon was the best Monashir could hope for at the moment. The Revenant had an underwater sound detection system, and while the navy was intrigued by the ARG-2’s capabilities in Bada Aso, there was no time currently to install such a thing on the Revenant.
She watched her float monoplanes launched, and could not quite see them fly away.
Radio reports came in every fifteen minutes from both planes.
No contacts; clear seas; etc, for the first few hours.
Then a report came in: “Remora-3 has sighted a heavy cruiser. Looks like a Lubon Gloucester judging by all the big guns strapped to it ma’am. I don’t see any supporting ships, and it seems westbound. It’s far from home. I can’t imagine what it’s up to.”
That’s what it took; in this age of aircraft and signals, those words were worth more than the sharpest eyes on the deck of any ship. She had her contacts, hundreds of kilometers away.
Quickly the crew began to work on triangulation, while their aircraft shadowed the enemy. Soon they worked out a possible course for the Gloucester, as well as a potential combat area. Such an action begged the question: would they engage the Gloucester?
They couldn’t reach it on the surface. But passing this information to the Admiral Qote would allow them to deploy some of the 62 aircraft on-board. Though the Qote would have flushed at the request — 14 of its aircraft had been lost in Bada Aso, 10 to landing accidents, rendering the crew gun-shy — they might have ultimately agreed to do it.
Garuda and Roc aircraft could have attacked the Gloucester within the hour.
This would be an easy fight for them, and would eliminate a royal navy heavy-hitter. No resources would have to be diverted other than the planes and a few travel delays.
However, they were only two days out from Rangda, and the stray ship did not seem to be headed for their land. Though it had no business in these waters in war-time, and though Lubon was certainly Nocht’s crony in this war, Ayvarta and Lubon had not yet engaged in shooting. This attack would mean the Ayvartans shed first blood on the Elves.
It was all well to destroy this one ship. Captain Monashir, however, saw further risks.
“Let the Gloucester go. All Seaplanes return to base. We speed to Rangda.”
Captain Monashir knew she had lost her nerve. She had been confronted with a situation and turned her head from it. Bitterly she recalled her first impression of Madiha Nakar before her own battle — a battle the Captain had seen as reckless and unnecessary. Nakar had achieved an incredible result. But the thought of going out of her way now to destroy this Elven ship, while tempting, still felt reckless and unnecessary.
Monashir was not Nakar, and the sea was not Bada Aso.
Operations in the western Ayvartan waters were thus concluded. Admiral Qote broke off, and met new escorts. Captain Monashir sailed for Rangda. She was sure of her choice.
44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Core Ocean, Ayvartan Waters — Heavy Cruiser Revenant, around Tambwe.
Easterly winds carried cold from the Kucha over the little dominance of Tambwe across the lower northwest coast. Under the hot noon sun blaring over the ocean, the cold turned into a fresh breeze. But much of the deck was vacant, and there were few around to savor the air. On their final approach to the city of Rangda, only several hundred kilometers from harbor, the cruiser Revenant and its crew took a deserved break for lunch belowdecks.
Floating on the opportune breeze, a certain creature found the empty deck suitable.
And weary of the ship’s confines, a certain Warrant Officer found the creature in turn.
Hidden behind one of the lifeboats on the ship starboard, Parinita Maharani peered out onto the raised prow, near the forward gun turret housing the massive 300mm double cannons, where she found this beast bathing in the sun. Her eyes drew wide open and she pushed a hand against her own lips to stifle all the little noises her mouth spontaneously generated.
This was a Drake, one of the many large, reptilian animals in Ayvarta. In the continent’s vast wilds, the Drake in its various forms was a fairly common form of solitary predator.
However, this was a most uncommon form of drake.
Slender and the size of a big cat, it was much smaller than its siblings. Instead of a snout, like other drakes, it possessed a hard, beak-like mouth with a jagged interior. Instead of scales, the creature was covered in fuzzy down, like a baby bird. Though it lacked true wings, and had quite developed front and back limbs with stubby claws and strong muscles, there were fleshy, earth-tone membranes extending between its front legs and flanks, that amassed into folds while it lay in repose. What drew Parinita’s gaze the most was the gaudy purple-and-teal coloration of the creature’s fuzz, that shifted with one’s eyes and the position of the sun’s light as though the creature were encrusted with a gradient of gems.
“A Kite Dragon!” She squealed to herself, staring at the creature from afar.
Though still a Drake, its ability to “fly” on the wind lent this creature its name.
And a legendary reputation. Parinita’s head filled with little girlish fantasies.
The Kite Dragon raised its head and stared lazily around itself, awoken. Parinita feared that it might take off, but it did not. It raised one of its front legs over its head, and with this motion it stretched taut the flap of beautifully colored skin that made up its “wing.” Bending its head it nibbled on its own skin, likely to relieve an itch, and then laid again under the sun, unconcerned with the surrounding machinery of this giant modern warship.
Such a shocking sight; the futuristic grey meeting the regal purple of the past.
Watching this living treasure, Parinita could hardly contain her excitement. She hesitated to approach it. She was awed, seeing the history of the world that she had been taught, the mythical history, a part of it at least, confirmed before her eyes. Though on the one hand she had hated her grandmother, those stories she told had become quite a part of her the past month. Those ideas that she kept alive, those things only she knew.
To see them in flesh, to interact with them, made her proud. It made her special.
In her mind, she did not even question where this being came from. It was fated to come.
But what pure maiden did it seek? Perhaps; could it be? Herself? Parinita was giddy.
“Chief Warrant Officer, I have safely removed the rat from your bed quarters–”
Parinita turned around and sharply shushed the person coming in behind her, snapping instantly out of her pleasurable reverie. It was Sergeant Agni, whom she had tasked with removing a pest from her room. It had been a hasty compact. Parinita had run screaming out of her room and found Agni outside the door by sheer coincidence. Seeing a familiar face, she hid behind Agni for several minutes and then shoved her into the room, shut the door and ran way. Informal, unspoken; as one does with these sorts of things.
Standing out in the open, Agni turned her head from Parinita and toward the deck and finally seemed to notice the Drake. There was no change in her disinterested expression upon spotting the majestic being laying on their ship. She blinked, and stared, dead-eyed. Agni never emoted, and the sight of the Kite Dragon had no visible effect on her.
“What is that?” She asked simply.
“It’s a Kite Dragon.” Parinita triumphantly said.
“What is it?” Agni reiterated with no change in tone.
“Haven’t you heard the stories?”
“No.” Agni dryly replied.
Of course she hadn’t. Barely anybody did anymore.
As a child, whenever her grandmother deigned to pay her attention, Parinita received a thorough instruction on Ayvartan mythology. Her family, she had been told, where once faith healers and spirit priests, highly valued by their people in supernatural matters. They were also keepers of the histories of tribes and ancestral, nascent nations. She knew all about Kite Dragons, and as she spoke, she carried herself quite proudly for this.
“Kite Dragons are the highest order among dragonkind that is left in the world. Drakes cannot fly, but Kite Dragons have achieved such a status, that they needn’t fly. They merely trick the wind into ferrying them, like a kite. It is said that the regal Kite Dragon moves under its own power only in the presence of pure maidens, such as princesses and saints and songstresses, whom it takes very kindly to. It is said that an ancient King once followed a Kite Dragon for days to find a beautiful bride in Dbagbo, suited for queenship.”
Parinita finished with a flourish of her hands, awaiting a response from her audience.
“What a lazy little Drake; it sounds quite ridiculous.” Agni said, touched not by the tale.
“What? Ridiculous? It’s amazing. This is an extremely rare, majestic being!”
“Can it breathe fire?”
Parinita threw her hands up. “No!”
Agni shrugged. “I’m not interested then. I’m not a pure maiden anyway.”
“You’re damn right you aren’t! Not with this attitude!” Parinita said.
Agni opened her pouch, and pulled up a black, furry thing from it.
“Here’s your rat, by the way.”
Parinita drew back.
Agni shuddered. The Kite Dragon crooked an eyebrow at the sudden screech.
Parinita bolted up the nearby lifeboat hoist, finding a strength hitherto unknown to her. In two lightning-fast hand-holds she made it onto the life raft and threw herself under its covering tarp, crying aloud. Agni must have lost her mind! That rat was at least 100 cm!
“Agni, kill it! Shoot it! Throw it in the ocean! It’s a rat! A rat!” Parinita cried.
She peered out from under the tarp and found Agni staring at her with those same blank eyes, mindlessly petting the rat’s head as its plump body dangled from her fingers. She felt a skin-tingling disgust with the little beast, it’s pink fleshy little limbs, its stringy tail. She could see it in her mind creeping around, teeny-tiny, festering in people’s garbage!
“It’s harmless.” Agni said, holding up the little fiend and shaking him dismissively.
“Rats bite you and scratch you and carry diseases!”
From under the tarp Parinita flailed her arms helplessly.
On the deck, the engineer seemed to finally realize her officer’s disgust, and nodded her head solemnly. She averted her gaze, looking almost remorseful of her current conduct.
“I’m sorry; I did not understand just how much they affected you. I shall rectify this.”
Agni withdrew her pistol from her hip and put it to the rat’s pathetic round head.
She locked eyes with the rat as Agni prepared to finish it.
Parinita groaned sharply as if deflating. “No! No! Ok! Don’t do that!”
“Should I just let it go then? There’s really nowhere else for it–”
“Fine! Fine! Let it go! You barbarian! Let it go!”
Instead of shooting, Agni nodded, put down the rat and released her hands.
Parinita watched in horror as the furry devil scurried away.
Freed, the beast flounced up the deck, crawled over a fire extinguisher box, leaped to the prow, and was then snatched in mid-air by a sudden lunge from the Kite Dragon.
Clacking its beak, the creature tossed the rat into the air and swallowed it whole. A gross bulge formed on the creature’s throat as its meal went down. Uncharismatic noises issued from its beak and nostrils; once its meal had fallen far enough, the dragon relaxed, laid back and stretched out on the deck, its belly glinting royal purple in the sunlight.
“It ate the rat.” Agni said, sounding very lightly puzzled.
“It ate the rat.” Parinita mimed in a much more anguished tone.
She climbed back down from the life rafts and set foot on the deck once more.
Seizing Agni by the shoulders, she shook up the engineer, gritting her teeth in frustration.
“I blame you! I blame you!” Parinita shouted as Agni’s head bobbed.
“Did something happen up here?”
One of the side doors from the conning tower opened, and Colonel Madiha Nakar emerged.
Tall and fit, and quite well-dressed in her black, red and gold KVW uniform, the Colonel managed quite a presence. There was a look of consternation on the normally soft features of the Colonel’s face, her dark eyes locked onto Parinita’s hands as the guilty secretary manhandled Sergeant Agni. Parinita withdrew her hands and fidgeted, looping some of her strawberry hair around her finger and laughing perhaps a little too girlishly.
For her part, Agni seemed unaffected by the gentle thrashing.
“That happened,” She said, pointing out onto the prow.
Madiha turned her head to look and stared at the creature, narrowing her eyes.
She raised a hand atop the gentle bridge of her nose to shield her eyes from the sun.
Her lips curled into a serious expression.
“That thing is in the way and needs to get off the deck promptly.” Madiha said.
She started toward the prow before Parinita could relate to her the myths she told Agni.
Parinita watched as the Colonel approached the Kite Dragon and started shooing it.
She was in distress, waiting for the creature to lunge angrily at the impure Colonel.
The Drake opened its double-lidded green eyes, and raised its head in consternation.
Madiha tapped her feet hard near it, and nudged it brusquely with her shoes.
Spotting her, the creature narrowed its eyes and sniffed. Parinita was ready to cry out.
Suddenly it sprang up onto Madiha’s chest and curled its tail around her in embrace.
“Parinita!” Madiha cried. “Why is this strange bird attacking me!”
Parinita’s jaw dropped in response. She wasn’t being attacked; the Kite Dragon had just acknowledged her as a pure maiden. Perhaps the purest it had ever seen judging by how it nudged its head lovingly over Madiha’s breast, and curled its tail around her waist. It seemed almost positively in love with her, hooting and clacking its beak, its down standing on end.
“I think it likes you.” Agni said dully.
“It does!” Parinita said. She made a little squeeing noise. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sight! She almost wanted to rush belowdecks and get the cameras. “It really likes you!”
Madiha stood still and stared in dismay at the gently stirring creature.
“Gross.” Madiha moaned.
Nonchalantly Madiha pushed on the Kite Dragon. It unfurled and fell back on the deck.
Like a strange cat, it bounced back against Madiha’s legs, rubbing its flank on her.
Madiha sighed. “I don’t want this.”
Parinita gasped. She was in disbelief at everyone’s sheer lack of curiosity. Even if they knew nothing, this made no sense! “Madiha, look at it! It’s beautiful! It’s such a rare, majestic–”
“It eats rats.” Agni interjected.
At once Madiha looked down again at the creature and seemed to have new eyes for it. She knelt, picked it up by its front legs, and raised it to her face. She gently spread its gliding flaps, and blinked at the colorful display of its bejeweled fuzz once exposed to sunlight. Eyes closed, contented, the creature lifted its long gradient colored tail and slipped it beneath Madiha’s neck-length hair, lifting several tufts of her messy bob.
Nonchalantly, she deposited the creature back onto the deck and walked away.
“I will reassess its utility, I suppose.” She said without affect.
Parinita raised her hands to her face, shaking her head and muttering to herself.
At night and in the early dawn Madiha had taken to looking out at the sea. There was something calming about it. It always showed its best face, regardless of its depths. Atop the gently swaying prow of the Revenant on the calm sea she would contemplate the days ahead of her. There would be no answers. The Revenant was not a place to seek them.
Midday was another story entirely. Everyone was busy on the deck, and the surface of the ship was very hot. As such, gawking at the ocean simply put her in the way, and cost her significant body fluids. She had preciously little administrative duties out at sea, and instead spent much of her time belowdecks thinking and writing in her office instead.
Her office was not a landmark. Situated in the starboard side of the ship, it was planned as a telegraphy office. Modern encryption machines however were much smaller, and could stand alongside modern radios in the signals quarters near the foremast. Now there was but an empty desk and chairs, and this was all that Madiha really wanted or needed.
So she spent much of her time in peace, humming to herself and her desk and her chair.
Nobody really visited her save Paranita, who had found films and other things in the storage room that she shared with the Colonel. They had watched a few of them together, including a romance film that led to a little awkward tension between the two. The few times the Colonel left the office it was often with Parinita pulling her by the hand and laughing.
Madiha’s heart sometimes fluttered near Parinita, these days. She felt childish about it.
Those days in the ship were almost dream-like in their gentle, uneventful simplicity.
All of these things, however, became sudddenly overturned.
Only a few hours away from Rangda, and Madiha had heard more noise and seen more movement than she had the whole trip. There was now a commotion outside of her office, and her heart was certainly not fluttering for Parinita, who had dragged in some gigantic bird from the deck that was obsessed with Madiha for some reason. Just as the bird was now obsessed with Madiha, Parinita seemed obsessed with the bird, adding to the consternation.
It would be impossible to have a last leisurely study before disembarking.
Stationed atop her books and notes, the creature closed its eyes and clacked its beak.
Crawk, crawk, crawk! it cried, and Parinita clapped her hands with delight.
Outside her door, several interested gawkers, naval and army alike, stood by and watched with bewilderment as the Kite Dragon overturned itself on her desk, and rolled over Madiha’s precious manuscripts, which she rushed to salvage. It seemed to ignore any attention it was being given, instead contenting itself with appearing a jackass before Madiha. For her part, Madiha knocked its head away, shoved its tail aside, and pushed its thrashing form off her papers, and managed to collect them all before it did damage.
“I am not delighted with pets, Chief Warrant Officer.” Madiha shouted over the crawking.
Parinita scoffed, crossing her arms. “Why not? Colonel, give it a good look! It’s so pretty!”
In love with the creature’s antics, Parinita skipped toward the desk and reached her hand.
The Kite Dragon stopped its energetic thrashing suddenly and gave Parinita a sharp, serious look. It clacked its beak in anger whenever the secretary approached to touch it.
Parinita tentatively kept her hand in the air over the beast. Dissatisfied with throwing bites at her shadow, the Kite Dragon spread its beak and let out an unearthly noise instead.
Outside the room the little gathering drew back from the door, and tension shaved away the crowd. Some gawkers broke all pretense and ran as if the ship was on fire, or would be.
Madiha produced a thick socialist pamphlet and tapped hard on the drake’s head with the spine. It settled back down on the desk and allowed Parinita to rub the down on its back. At once the tension in the air died down, and the creature seemed to finally calm itself. Curled atop the desk, its flanks expanded and contracted with a steady, gentle breath.
“Too spontaneous.” Madiha finally answered the pet question hanging in the room. “It’s hard enough with people; animals just make me anxious. You can’t understand them.”
Besides which, Madiha had a bad history with creatures. She didn’t mention this.
Parinita was too taken in with rubbing the monster’s down to empathize, it seemed.
Scratching her own hair, Madiha continued the conversation. “What does it want?”
Parinita threw her a skeptical look. “It’s an animal, it doesn’t want anything, it just likes you.”
“What do I do then?” Madiha pressed. She felt foolish, but she was truly stumped.
“Um,” Parinita fidgeted with her hair, “Feed it? Play with it? Name it?”
Madiha wondered why anyone would waste their time like that. It was one thing to, for example, leave food out for animals on the street. This was borne of compassion, in the same way that people deserved food so did animals. Animals did not require you to play with them, or so Madiha thought. And they certainly did not require names. In fact, one might even argue, according to the socialist conduct of Lenanists, that taking animals as “Pets” might constitute a form of exploitative bondage. However, Daksha truly did not care about animals one iota in teaching her, so Madiha formed this conjecture mostly for an excuse.
She thought it best to think about it more than that before she told Parinita.
“What if it has a name already? We’d be insulting it.” Madiha said.
Parinita blinked at her. “I am fairly certain it does not have a name.”
“How can you be sure it doesn’t?”
“Because it’s an animal. Have you ever seen A Tiger’s Tale by any chance?”
“Have you read the book Man’s Origin and the State of Nature?”
Parinita shrugged. “Well, just– they’re animals Madiha they don’t have names.”
“I’ll trust you on that, since you seem such an expert on this fiend.” Madiha said.
“Okay!” Parinita clapped her hands, changing the subject. “What should we name it?”
Madiha gasped. “Whoa, you just leaped a kilometer ahead of me–”
From the doorway a hand shot up suddenly and someone jumped up and down.
“Baku!” cried a voice. A smooth-featured face wearing a big grin and messy chestnut brown hair in a long braid popped up over the crowd briefly, and then disappeared with a thump, and repeated, coming back up again to speak. “Name it Big Bearded Baku!”
Parinita looked to the door with obvious disdain toward the suggestion.
“Corporal Kajari, please disperse this crowd and close the door. Thank you.”
Behind the little crowd, Corporal Gulab Kajari stopped jumping, and sighed audibly.
In a few minutes the office door shut, Madiha breathed out and finally had a measure of privacy again. Parinita continued to watch the creature with rapt attention. Madiha thought she felt her skin brimming from the anxiety of the past few minutes. In reality the vibrations from the Kite Dragon’s energetic purring were transferring through the desk.
“So, what shall we name it?” Parinita asked sweetly. She clapped her hands together and bobbed her head aside, and shook her hips a little. She was really pouring on the charm now. Despite the creature’s hatred for her, she seemed driven to keep it.
Madiha looked into her bright eyes, and briefly glanced at the little monster. It had rolled over on its belly and begun wiggling about atop the desk, swishing its tail in the air.
Sighing with resignation, Madiha replied, “Kali will be fine. Symbolic; easy to say.”
She just could not say no when Parinita looked so earnestly at her.
On the 35th of the Aster’s Gloom, the Battle of Bada Aso had ended.
Completing the Hellfire Plan, Battlegroup Ox under the direction of Madiha Nakar lured large Nocht formations into the capital city of Adjar, Bada Aso. Deceiving the enemy as to her true intentions, she evacuated her troops, retreated by sea, and detonated the city via the mysterious built-up gases lying deep within its underbelly using radio-control tele-tanks.
She could have never imagined the scale of the devastation she would wreak.
From the sea, she observed as three quarters of the city were set ablaze. Massive columns of smoke and fire reached skyward. It was almost more magic than nature at work.
She estimated at least six powerful divisions of the Nochtish armed forces had been devastated there. Hundreds of tanks, planes, heavy guns, and other equipment had been devastated. Bada Aso was denied to Nocht; without its port, its communications and its transportation capability the efficiency of Nocht’s east-bound thrust to Tambwe and then North Ayvarta would be severely curtailed. Dori Dobo was the only other hub city comparable to Bada Aso in Adjar; and she used the word comparable very loosely. It was smaller, its port capacity far lesser, and it was far too south to be effective.
There had been other effects of this devastating battle on the course of the war.
Under the rains of Bada Aso, Madiha had recovered all of her past memories. Whereas before she walked through the world with a life half-lived, she now remembered her childhood, her emancipation, and the revolution. She remembered her fate, 22 years ago.
Everyone had given her up for dead, but Daksha Kansal had refused to surrender her.
Years passed, and that faith was rewarded. Madiha woke again. Hollow, damaged, but alive.
She remembered her coma, the recovery; she winced internally remembering the pain and frustration of physical therapy as she learned again to use her body. At that time she had been almost the walking dead, a blank slate without a mind, acting almost automatically.
Some of that hollowness had gone away now. Her fragmented life had become again a continuous development. Now her earliest memory wasn’t leaving the hospital walls and fighting an addiction to pain killers as a teen. Now it was the nuns; the harsh lessons; the lonely playground. She had been four or five years old when she became truly cognizant.
She remembered her power and how to wield it. She also refused to employ it liberally.
Nonetheless; at the tips of her mental fingers she had her life and experiences again.
Despite having this knowledge she still felt quite eerie. ‘I am,” and ‘I feel,” still felt like alien concepts to her. Even as a child, there were many limitations as to who Madiha Nakar was, and what she could be. She had never been able to develop the hopes and dreams, the formative experiences, the simple likes and dislikes of a peaceful life among people.
Madiha always substituted a duty to others for developing a sense of herself.
Even as a child, reading about socialism, carrying out Daksha’s plans, delivering letters, evading or fighting guards; becoming proficient at those things is what made her, her. It wasn’t that she was afraid of drakes, or that she liked blueberry halva, or that she gambled with the other stray kids sometimes. It was her value to others that made her.
Seeking after that value, refining it; that was her. All in service of the revolution.
She was no longer a child. So that substitution became much more complicated.
These days there was just one task that she felt satisfied her mired mind.
And so during the time since they left Bada Aso, Madiha contemplated the war.
In her office, she had begun to pen several observations about Bada Aso, about Nocht, about the way Hellfire turned out, and about the way forward. There was one idea she had been nursing lately that carried her through her last days, until the Revenant finally docked at the port of Rangda. It had not been hubris that had befallen Nocht in Bada Aso.
Hubris backed up by power was still power. No; it had been deception. Theirs, and hers.
Deception had defeated Nocht. Deception; this was a fundamental part of warfare now. Ruses, diversions, lies, ruthlessly redefining the world in which your opponents fought. That was something she had done without even knowing she was doing it. Nocht would get wise now. It was not enough to passively await their mistakes. She had to take action.
All of her planning had to change. In a way, this excited her. It was a challenge.
Combined arms, mobility, intelligence, and deception. That was warfare now.
And she had a chance– no, a duty. She had a duty to master modern warfare.
War was the only thing that seemed to hold her mind for long, the only thing that truly fascinated her. So while Parinita watched films and engaged in the raw mathematical work of logistics, and while Agni tinkered with the tanks and other equipment leftover from Bada Aso, Madiha began to outline the principles that she would follow in war.
She started by titling the manuscript, and she called it tentatively, “Deep Battle.”
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.
Next Chapter In Unternehmen Solstice — The 1st Regimental Headquarters