This story segment contains violence and some frightening imagery.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Red Banner Apartments
Madiha woke in the middle of the night in a bleary, dream-like haze where every angle became soft and everything except the edges of her vision was a rolling blur. Her shirt clung to her back and breast, cold and wet with a midnight sweat, and she felt a terrible headache and stomachache, borne of stress and lack of restful sleep. When she moved her fingers, hands, feet, they felt too heavy and too limp, alternating at a moment’s notice.
She heard something heavy hit the windowsill and it reverberated in her skull.
Alarmed, Madiha stumbled upright, and nearly hit her set of drawers as she made toward the open window. Her vision warped, tilted, came in and out, until it settled.
Framed in the moonlight, Kali stood guard at the windowsill, growling softly.
Half-closing her eyes, squinting to see, Madiha approached. Holding herself up by the curtains, she leaned half out of the window and scanned the street and the road.
Her eyes were aimless at first, but were then drawn in by the mask.
Across the street, the standing thing was shorter than an adult human.
It wore a fully white mask, featureless save for an inset gold face the size of a nose.
This small face on the mask had its own dull impression of a nose and tiny slitted eyes that moved haphazardly around like spinning billiard balls when stricken by the cue.
When they stopped moving they focused on her briefly. She felt their weight even from this far. Then they would roll again like a slot machine, moving inside and out of their sockets.
Everything of the creature’s face was obscured by the mask saved for a red chin and mouth, lips broken, a faint impression of white teeth. Around the edges of the mask was the black line formed by a thick hood that covered the being’s entire body save for its five long, dangling limbs that would occasionally thrash and dance like flailing noodles.
Nothing of the creature was congruous — every limb a different size, one shoulder lower than the other, one leg taller, and its visible mouth slanted to one side.
“Majini.” Madiha whispered to herself.
Her drawing of breath alerted the creature. Under its hood its thick legs stirred. It turned from the street to the window, and the little gold face on its white mask sniffed the air.
Jagged teeth burst through from between the creature’s lips in every direction.
Madiha’s recently recovered life flashed in her mind.
She felt those arms closing around her neck, a little neck, a child’s neck.
She felt the kicking and screaming, and the crunching of the mask as a brick struck the face in the middle and drew copious, filthy-smelling blood and shrieking screams.
“I killed you all.” Madiha’s jaw quivered. “I thought–”
A click-clacking, gurgling scream interrupted her.
Red spittle flew from the creature’s gnashing jaws. Hands flailing as if pulling on the air, the monsters twitched from one place to the next, hurtling toward the window. It moved like a cheetah on a full sprint, but it accelerated to a charge from a standing position in a second flat, and in an instant it tumbled from the street over the flower beds flanking the steps to the apartment building’s stairs, and slammed a pair of fists into the brick.
Its neck cracked as it craned its head to stare at the window.
Around the edges of its lips the teeth turned as if spinning on a wheel.
Madiha reached into her undershirt instinctively, but it was not her tunic, it did not have her holster. All of that was back at the foot of her bed, discarded. She drew back.
Raising a hand to her temple, she drew on the fire, the primordial fire.
Her eyes burnt, and the edges of her sight went red.
Every second the red was expanding, and smoke covered her vision.
All other Majini had perished in the heat of this ancient flame.
This one would join them.
“Kali, run!” Madiha cried out, her legs buckling as she struggled to kindle the flame.
Kali did not retreat as instructed.
It reared back on the window and drew air into its mouth.
In front of the window the creature appeared for a split second in mid-leap.
Kali breathed out the window, launching a blurring cone of barely-visible force.
Madiha could not hear the sound, but she felt it inside her head and in her gut.
Outside the window the Majini fell to the ground with a thud and let out its own cry.
At once Madiha’s concentration broke, and the flame she nursed was snuffed out.
Night’s colors returned to her surroundings, and all of the red was gone.
In its place there was only a sting and a nosebleed.
Madiha hurried to the window and found the creature’s mask shattered into bloody pieces. Its limbs were snapped and twisted by the strength of Kali’s breath, and its hood caved in at the center. Soon it began to die the Majini’s death — it disappeared slowly. As the body and cloak melted away like wax and sank through the earth itself, Madiha saw the impression of a sewn-up face flash briefly from behind the shards of white porcelain.
It was gone as if it had never existed.
Madiha gingerly reached a finger to her blood-soaked upper lip.
The pain of her own brains burning felt very real, but nothing else did.
A thin shaft of light expanded across Madiha’s window to encompass much of her room as the apartment bore the full brunt of Rangda’s dawn. At pace with the light a small, dragon-shape shadow extended across the room, the bed, and over Madiha’s face.
Madiha opened her eyes, facing the ceiling. She turned her head to face the window.
Last night felt like a dream. Some parts she could confirm, but others were ephemeral.
She touched her thin nose, and removed a pair of bloody tissue papers from it.
No more blood drew from her nostrils. And the psychic sting in her brain had passed.
She sighed. As a child she could throw several flares before feeling anything.
It seemed she would not have to start over from scratch.
As she sat up by the side of her bed, eyeing her uniform and hazily piecing back together her plans for the day, someone knocked on the door twice quickly.
The door then opened a crack, and Parinita peeked her head in cheerfully.
“I come bearing gifts!” She shouted, holding a paper bag in her hand.
Seeing Madiha sweaty and in her underwear, a little gasp escaped her glossy pink lips.
“Sorry! I shouldn’t have barged in. Should I go?”
Madiha shook her head, gently waving about her black hair, nearer to shoulder length after almost a month of new growth, and messy from her tumultuous sleep. She stood up off the bed, leaned back, raised her arms, pushed her chest forward and let out a yawn. Glistening sweat delineated the lines of lean muscle on her bare limbs, and trickled down the brown skin of her slim, toned body. She felt no hint of awkwardness.
“It’s perfectly fine.” She said, through a long exhalation. “So long as it’s just you.”
Parinita laughed, delicately covering her mouth with her hand while ogling.
“I suppose it’s alright anyway since we’re both girls–”
At the window, Kali groaned audibly and slammed its tail on the wall.
“Eep! It still doesn’t like me.” Parinita moaned, retreating further behind the door.
Madiha shot Kali a frowning look.
“It’ll have to warm up to you eventually.” She said, in the tone of a command.
Kali blew a little air from the nostrils at the edge of its beak.
Madiha shook her head at it. “Come in Parinita, don’t stay by the doorway.”
Parinita nodded. She entered, her hair pulled into a ponytail, wearing a fresh skirt and dress uniform. A light dusting of cosmetics gave her lightly bronzed skin a bit of a blush, and the reading spectacles perched on her nose made her look more a secretary than ever. She wore a skirt uniform and a pair of classy flat shoes in green to match. Though fairly fit, Parinita was slightly rounder and softer than Madiha in form, and at least ten centimeters shorter.
Examining her, Madiha felt a little thrill in her chest. She was always a lovely sight.
Closing the door behind herself, Parinita tottered up to Madiha, and put her hands on the woman’s head. Madiha felt a cooling touch seep in through her cheeks and smiled as a wonderful, relaxing feeling spread through her, touching her strained body and her too-hot heart and head. She locked eyes with her secretary as the eldritch fires invisibly dispersed.
“You are far too hot this morning, Colonel.” Parinita said, smiling faintly.
Her hands were still on Madiha’s face. Madiha reached her own hand up to touch hers.
“I’m still unsure exactly how it happened.” Madiha said. It played into the little entendre Parinita might have been setting up, but it was also true. Her memory of the past night was a fading blur. She recognized something happened, but it felt too unreal to be true.
“Just be careful with it.” Parinita said. “I might not always be around catch sight of it.”
“Someday I’m going to have to interrogate you about that.” Madiha said, smiling.
“I owe you the conversation.” Parinita replied. “But we’d need more time than we have.”
Madiha nodded. Like her, Parinita had her own illogical secrets, and she probably yearned to share them. Madiha was perhaps the only soul who could relate to the alien things Parinita must have known. But life always pulled them harshly in certain directions, and they hadn’t yet found enough peace to fully confess to one another. Each of them held pieces of the other’s puzzle; everything was strewn on the floor without interlocking.
And yet it felt like both of them could still see a lot of the picture nevertheless.
Their day would come sooner or later, but Madiha felt that they had an unspoken understanding on this matter regardless. Each was drawn to the other, sharing a kinship in and out of battle since the day they were thrust, violently, into each other’s orbit.
It was rushed, and strange, and perhaps dysfunctional. And yet it felt natural.
Had not Aer and its Moon been bound together by a cosmic disaster? That was the last science Madiha read on the subject. The two were inseparable now. It felt quite right.
Contented, Madiha replied, “I’m not worried. We’ll discuss everything when it’s right.”
Parinita nodded her head, tufts of strawberry hair bouncing just over her forehead.
In a way, Madiha felt like she already knew everything. Such was their bond now.
After lingering for several moments, their eyes, so tightly locked before, finally parted, and they set about preparing for the day. Madiha entered the adjacent bathroom to wash her face and teeth, and Parinita returned to the door, and took from a hanger outside the apartment a fresh uniform and a bundle of needed sundries that had been left for the Colonel, and set it down on the bed for her. When Madiha returned, she sat at the edge of the bed and set apart all the layers of her uniform to begin dressing up.
“What’s on the agenda today?” Madiha asked while picking out her socks. She quickly found that she had been given were women’s long stockings, which she never wore.
Sighing, she pulled them up along her long legs.
Parinita giggled at the sight. “Hopefully we can get the headquarters ready by today, I’m thinking that will take the bulk of the afternoon to do. We also need to go over our table of organization and draft some simple training programs our troops can start on soon.”
As she listened, Madiha mechanically donned a white shirt, hastily buttoned the collar, and started doing her long red tie in a simple knot; seeing this, Parinita reached suddenly down, pushed her hands aside, and finished tying it herself. Madiha was surprised.
“I know how to tie it.” She said, as her secretary’s skillful hands completed the knot.
“Think so? Give it a quick look.” Parinita cheekily said.
Madiha pulled her tie up and stared at the knot. Somehow the red and gold lines of the tie formed a complicated pattern. Parinita had managed to divide the knot into neat little quadrants. It was a much more eyecatching knot than anything Madiha knew how to do.
“Oh ho ho! You see? It’s called a lover’s knot, because it’s hard to tie it for yourself.”
Parinita stuck out her chest, satisfied with herself, while Madiha turned a little red.
Once the Colonel was fully in uniform once more, Parinita combed her hair as best as she could, and the two of them left the building side by side to get a start on the day. Parinita handed her some candied fruit and a bread roll from the bag she had brought into the room, and they ate as they went. A fuller breakfast could wait. Madiha expected to relocate to the base quickly. She started thinking about hailing a cab to take them.
Directly outside, a sleek black soft-top car with its canopy pulled back awaited them.
Behind the wheel of the car, reading a newspaper, Logia Minardo leaned back on the chair. Her uniform looked as crisp as ever, and her cheeks and lips were delicately touched with pigments, but her hair wasn’t collected into a bun. It hung down to her shoulders, a little messy, looking recently wet. Perched on her nose were a pair of shaded glasses.
The Staff Sergeant had a pen and paper in hand and was plotting out the daily crossword puzzle on the driver’s seat. When the door to the apartments opened and shut, Minardo turned her head, spotted her superiors, and waved her pen to greet them.
She pointed at the newspaper.
“Do either of you know an eight-letter word for ‘used to make instrument strings?'”
Madiha blinked hard at her, still bewildered by the vehicle, while Parinita smiled.
“Drakegut!” Parinita cheerfully replied, after less than a second’s hesitation.
At the open window to Madiha’s room, Kali shuddered violently and bowed its head.
Minardo looked down at the paper, counted the spaces, and wrote it down.
“Perfect! As a token of my gratitude, you get a free ride.” She said, winking.
Madiha tipped her head with confusion. She still could not place the car. Her companion was much more energized by the prospect. Cheering, Parinita took Madiha by the hand and led her to the vehicle, pushing her into the back seat and making a big show of sitting near her.
“We have our own chauffeur Madiha!” She chirped. “Now we’re VIPs!”
Instead of metal seats like the scout cars, this civilian model car had plush wool-stuffed seats. The back seat was especially bouncy and comfortable, with a tall, rounded backrest. A roomy interior accommodated the two passengers well, with sizable legroom. Even the floor was snazzy, softly carpeted in a gray color that complimented the shiny black exterior.
All of this was posh, but the most stunning piece on the car was the dashboard radio.
It was set into the middle of the car’s front, extending the instruments panel.
Separating the driver’s and the front passengers’ legroom was the radio’s thick box, with a printed meter and needle in a white plate on the front. A piece of paper taped to the dashboard contained a list of civilian frequencies, scribbled in Minardo’s compact and neat writing. Aware of everyone’s attention on this item, Minardo turned it up. Immediately a steady drum beat, energetic shakers and quick strings played from the large speakers.
“Wonderful, isn’t it? Very dancey!” Minardo shouted over the radio.
Parinita’s face lit up, and she clapped her hands and nodded along to the music.
“Minardo, where did you get this? How did you get this?” Madiha snapped.
Unconcerned, Minardo turned down the volume on the radio, until the drums became background noise, “It’s a M.A.W. Bijali 2030! It’s brand new, fresh out of the depots.”
She sounded quite excited, but this information only made everything more puzzling.
“That does not answer my question at all!” Madiha replied.
On the rear-view mirror, Minardo winked again. “To some people, I’m a VIP, Colonel.”
“Neither does that! What do you even mean?” Madiha demanded.
In lieu of an answer, Minardo hit the clutch, pulled the stick back, and started to gently slide out from the side of the street and onto the road. She crept little by little onto the asphalt and then corrected the nose of the car, and with the gentlest little step on the acceleration pedal, she started them forward at about fifteen kilometers per hour.
There were no other vehicles in the immediate vicinity, and few people on the streets.
Structures and pedestrians scrolled leisurely by as the car inched forward.
“Just relax, Colonel! You’re looking too high strung this morning!” Minardo said.
Madiha let go of a deep breath and dropped against the seat, defeated.
There was a bump behind them. Kali dropped onto the back of the car and laid on the rolled back canvas frame of the vehicle’s soft canopy. It yawned and purred at them.
“It better not scratch the paint!” Minardo cried out.
Kali growled lightly and made a show of retracting its claws.
Madiha said nothing.
After several minutes, Minardo finally shifted to second gear, and accelerated to a relaxing thirty kilometers per hour. They did not go the direct route to the base. Instead, Minardo seemed to delight in taking them for a very leisurely little stroll around the corner from the apartment and farther north into the urban heart of Rangda.
It felt more like riding a horse-drawn carriage than a brand new car.
“Don’t just stare ahead!” She instructed. “Give your necks some exercise! Rangda has a lot of scenery. Our ratty old base won’t go anywhere. Try to enjoy the town for a bit!”
Madiha grumbled inaudibly, annoyed at the distraction. She turned her head away.
On the adjacent street, a teenage girl, perhaps training for a dash, bolted past their car.
“Minardo, you could stand to go a little faster.” Parinita said, her enthusiasm deflated.
Up front, their driver adjusted her rearview mirror so she could see them and scowl.
“Why, I never! I’m with child! If I have an accident, what would become of my baby?”
Parinita looked puzzled, but she kept quiet, perhaps seeing as how she had already stepped on her own tongue around Minardo once before on this very subject. She sighed.
“Well, there are better services for orphans now than ever in Ayvarta’s history.”
Madiha spoke up nonchalantly, holding her head up with a fist against her cheek and an elbow on the car door, staring at the street. She thought she sounded perfectly logical, but from the startled way that Parinita turned to stare at her, she surmised she had done wrong.
Minardo practically growled. “There wouldn’t be an orphan born at all if I was hurt badly!”
“Oh.” Madiha said. Somehow those dots had not connected fully for her before.
From her tunic, Parinita withdrew an army code booklet and tapped Madiha in the head with the book’s spine. Madiha took her scolding with as much dignity as she could muster.