The 1st Regimental Headquarters — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains scenes of 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.

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Upper Rangda

Unlike Bada Aso, the architecture of Rangda was much less mismatched.

All of the buildings had similar, utilitarian designs. Hard, uncomplicated angular shapes defined the basic design of the structures, and the skyline was fairly flat and open. Stucco-covered facades hid what was likely simple masonry. There were a few simple balconies, some suggestions of flat exterior columns, and the Civil Canteen near the apartment was a hexagonal building, the most complicated design seen during their unhurried joyride.

Every structure had a flourish of lived-in style, however. People made up for architecture. Different paint patterns, flower beds on the windows, posters on the walls and on the scant utility poles, personal gardens astride the front steps, clothes hanging on lines — Rangda looked very alive, as if the stark mass constructed geometric buildings were a canvas upon which the inhabitants could paint as they desired. It was organic in its own way.

Minardo started to play the role of tour guide as they delved deeper into the city.

However, they soon found out she made a rather morbid one.

“See all of this? We’re all probably older than these buildings. Rangda was almost completely destroyed in the Ayvartan Civil War, and rebuilt after. It wasn’t the first city in history to be concertedly bombed from the air, but it was one of the first.” Minardo said, as if it was a fun fact delivered to a tourist. “Most of Rangda was gobbled up in a massive blaze.”

Parinita winced a little, staring at the buildings around her with new eyes.

Madiha was untouched by the old trauma, and instead focused on her own interests.

“The actual first city to be strategically bombed from the air was Yakow in Lachy. It was bombed by the Nocht Federation in the Unification War, using three Zeppelins. Yakow had no defenses, so even an ineffective bombing was horrific to the population.” Madiha said, perhaps too nonchalantly. These were all just facts to her; things written in a history book.

Thankfully she was in a setting that was not openly judgmental to her for her tone. Minardo just whistled as if she’d learned something interesting, and Parinita smiled quietly.

“Have you lived here long, Minardo? Did you see that bombing in the war?” Parinita asked.

“No, actually. I’ve only been here for six years.” Minardo said. She looked briefly at them using the rear-view mirror, but kept her eyes mostly on the road ahead, though there were almost no vehicles around. There were a few cars and trucks parked in certain places, and they passed a couple of buses, but they had the blacktop almost all to themselves.

“I was a war orphan in Solstice.” Minardo continued. “My family were killed in the fighting. They were tax bureaucrats for the imperial ministry. I don’t remember what happened there exactly. After the war was over, I grew up in a socialist boarding school. I never had any interest in labor or academics, so I just joined the army. One thing led to another.”

Minardo spoke of these hurtful events again as curiosities. Her tone did not unsettle Madiha, who spoke about similar things similarly, but it did set her into contemplation. She nodded quietly as she thought of her own role in those events. Her heart beat a little faster.

Parinita whistled. “My grandmother told me my mom and I were around Solstice when the civil war started, but I honestly don’t remember a thing about it myself. I was too little.”

“Interesting! And of course I know the Colonel was involved as well; our big hero here!”

Minardo smiled at Madiha in the mirror. She sounded perfectly genuine in her cheer.

Others had called her a hero before, and it sent Madiha into depression then. Now it merely set her heart to beating even faster than before, and caused her to turn demure.

She still felt more than a little offput, being called a hero. But she would not object to it.

“Up until a while ago, I couldn’t remember anything about it either.” Madiha replied sheepishly. It was rare to be in a car full of people touched by the same event. A dark cloud loomed over Madiha with regards to this subject, because all of their suffering was caused by something she began. She felt slightly shocked that Parinita was involved in that too.

Madiha had once thought that her missing memories of those chaotic events were a shameful and rare thing, like a black spot on her soul. And yet, Minardo and Parinita did not remember either. So far as Madiha knew, Parinita never seemed concerned about this. She had never even brought it up before. They were talking about it casually now.

For a long time, Madiha had blamed herself for every hint of suffering that the revolution in Solstice had caused. It was eerie to see comrades who left that suffering firmly in their past.

Eerie; but somewhat reassuring. Nobody was going to judge her for these old sins.

She supposed all of them were children of the revolution in one way or another.

“At any rate, what’s past is past. Looking to the future: are you two going to the festival?”

Minardo smiled at them expectantly on the rear-view mirror. Parinita tipped her head.

“Do we have time to go? We’re supposed to organize some training.” She asked.

“Everyone goes! It’s very cultural, you know? People need culture!” Minardo replied.

Parinita whistled, and looked to Madiha for her own answer.

“We’ve got work to do; I’m not so sure about this.” Madiha said sternly.

Minardo looked at her with an expression of concern. “You two really ought to go!”

“What’s the festival supposed to be like?” Parinita asked.

“It’s very beautiful!” Minardo said. Stars seemed to shine in her eyes as she painted her picture of the scene. “There’s all kinds of artisans and events, and Ocean Road is closed to car traffic during it except for a few parade vehicles, so you can walk up and down and really get a feel for the place! It’s big and bright! Plus you can bring your sweet with you and hold hands under the last warm moon! You can take it easy, buy your partner some co-op goods, and share a kiss beneath the banners! It’s a very romantic atmosphere!”

Madiha felt her heart bump a little at the word ‘romantic’. She made a bashful expression without meaning to, and averted her eyes from Minardo’s mirror and from Parinita.

“Sounds fun!” Parinita said, clapping her hands together and beaming brightly.

Something about this whole conversation chafed badly for Madiha. She felt an urge to respond and to set everyone’s priorities straight; in part to refocus her own thoughts.

“We cannot have fun with Nocht smashing down our doors.” She said brusquely.

That was perhaps an exaggeration; but it was one of those times when Madiha’s voice had said different things in her mind than what ended up on her tongue. She regretted giving such an ultimatum almost immediately, but she did not retract it. Parinita looked a little downcast; Minardo stared at her pointedly through the medium of the rearview mirror.

“Colonel, you’re being unreasonable! Here, let me see if this changes your mind.”

At the end of the residential areas Minardo turned a corner and drove a few blocks back down to the broad and colorful Ocean Road, waiting for a trolley to pass before heading back in the direction of the base. One could not escape the festival banners hung everywhere. There were moon sigils stamped on every conceivable surface, and colorful characters on storefronts and posters urged passersby to turn up on the 48th to acquire cheap goods, watch performances by local celebrities, and have fun on Ocean Road.

“Look at how much effort is going into this!” Minardo said. “Every year, Colonel, Rangda holds this festival on the last full moon before the winter winds come down from the frosty peaks of the Kucha. Everyone gets one final tropical day to relax and have fun!”

Madiha averted her eyes from the rearview mirror. She still thought she should get to work immediately. But the vehemence with which she could argue for this was flagging. Her own heart was tugging her in a particular direction; seeing Parinita’s enthusiasm, and hearing Minardo’s pointed arguments, had quite worn down Madiha’s mental defenses.

“Colonel, even in all of the bleakness around us, people need color and light to live!”

“I will admit that you have a point.” Madiha whimpered, her voice barely audible.

Whether or not Minardo heard her, she put on a self-satisfied little grin all the same.

“We definitely need to work, but you two just got back from a war zone! You need some R&R, Colonel. No human can go on and on without a little change of pace!” Minardo said. “I saw you both yesterday, you’re two bad bundles of nerves. You need to loosen up.”

Thinking back on the day before, Minardo was a lot more collected when they first met. Madiha would not have thought her personality to be this fiery and candid. For today she had indeed become quite undone — loose, one could say. Madiha supposed this was all contrived. She dropped the professional act because of her concerns for them.

It was nosy of her, but perhaps there was a kind and earnest rationale behind it.

“I’ll think about it.” Madiha finally said. Minardo smiled and started to whistle a little tune.

They continued to drive down Ocean Road, slow enough now to take in the sights.

Most of the sights were colorful storefronts advertising numerous consumer goods.

All along ocean road there were many different shops. There was a couture shop that reminded Madiha of an old hideout of hers during her childhood in Bada Aso, with a special on bright red and gold bridal lehenga garments; a cobbler’s place shortly after took advantage of the sale upstreet and boasted reduced prices on ornate women’s pumps.

There was a sporting and hobbies club along the way that traded in a variety of things, from locally produced mountaineering equipment to models of trains and militaria. A Local food co-op sold excess produce that collective farms were allowed to set aside for private sale at specific prices; meanwhile the state shop boasted of a once-in-a-lifetime sale on Television sets, for only 2000 shells, ready to watch the two channels broadcast in Rangda.

“There’s a lot of stuff for sale around here, huh.” Parinita said, staring at the storefronts.

“Prices for controlled goods tend to go down during festivals.” Minardo said.

“Huh. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think about shells.” Parinita replied.

“Feel broke now? You should’ve seen the price lists for the week of the 21st, when Tambwe finally caught on to the war. It was ridiculous.” Minardo said. “I can probably buy a pair of those ruby red pumps on the window there now that they’re not priced at 500 shells!”

“I haven’t actually been paid in a while. Not that I’m complaining.” Parinita said.

“I’m sure there’s a big fat bank note coming in the mail soon, dear. Once the mail catches up to your location. It’s been a chaotic month, after all.” Minardo said.

Nevertheless, regardless of war and price controls the festival went on as usual.

To most of these people, the politics behind their lives were largely invisible; they had food, and a roof over their head, and good enough clothes to work and go about their business. They could go to theaters or join hobby clubs for free, or cheap enough to almost be free. An inability to buy chocolates or model trains usually didn’t bother them.

After all, a pair of fancy pumps had also been quite expensive under the Empire.

“You don’t need money to go to the festival though!” Minardo added, grinning.

Neither Parinita nor Madiha had a comment. Both of them seemed quite suddenly struck by the fact that they were indeed quite broke here, despite commanding a military salary.

Minardo sighed. “You two are depressing. You remind me of my old CO, in a bad way.”

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison

Around nine o’ clock the shiny black Bijali strolled through the gate to the 8th Division garrison and wound its way around the barracks and toward the flag park at a speed of fifteen kilometers per hour. A group of soldiers on a morning run waved at the officers as they passed the car along the dusty base roads. Minardo smiled and waved back.

Parinita nodded off against Madiha’s shoulder. Once they arrived at their destination, a honk of the horn startled her awake, and a cheeky Minardo put on the parking brake. They stopped between a pair of yellow lines hastily painted beside the headquarters.

Outside of their new building, a small pile of items had been left on the grass with a note that read “IOU.” Madiha had no idea what that could refer to. She surveyed the items: three desks, a few tables, several chairs, and piled atop the furniture were sundries like paper, ink fountains, pens, handkerchiefs, curtains, cleaning products, all in a big stack.

Kali climbed on top of the nearest desk and curled itself up into a ball.

“Guess we’re not starting work today either, huh.” Parinita said, rubbing her forehead.

Minardo groaned. “Not even a measly typewriter. What the hell is going on around here?”

“When did you put in the orders for our equipment?” Madiha asked.

“A day before you arrived. I’m very sorry about this, Colonel.” Minardo said.

“It’s not your fault.” Madiha said.

“Unless they’re completely out of equipment, two days should have been enough to get us equipment.” Parinita said. “Even had they run out of everything we need, it doesn’t take that long to put together local product from state goods or co-op stocks if needed.”

As she searched around Madiha took note of one important item sorely missing: a radio. And not just any radio. They needed a high power military radio — the one in the car could only pick up local music. Even one measly piece of military-grade communications equipment with some level of range would allow them to set things properly into motion, to procure supplies accurately and directly, to contact other units, to tune into army frequencies or contact army staffers and discover what was happening along the front lines.

Radio was the nerve endings that brought the sensation of war to their brains.

Without radio or a telephone a headquarters was a mere formality. Just people sitting around counting imaginary beans without having a single growing plant in their garden.

That did not mean the items they did get were useless. They still had work to do.

Sighing internally, Madiha picked up a chair in each hand and started walking into the headquarters building. She set the furniture down on the landing, unlocked the door, and pushed the chairs into a corner of the room. Doubling back outside, she found her subordinates staring at her. She stared back, wondering what they were waiting for.

“The sooner we get this furniture in, the sooner we can go look for a radio.” Madiha said.

Parinita blinked, and picked up a chair herself, and held it in the air as though awaiting explicit orders to bring it inside. Madiha nodded to her, and she started toward the building.

“Minardo, you take it easy.” Madiha said, watching the pregnant woman moving to work.

“No! It is fine, I can handle this–”

Minardo bent slightly forward, but then quickly shifted from trying to pick up a chair to picking up the basket of cleaning products. Bottles of soap, towels, disinfectants, and perfuming products weighed much less than the furniture, and Minardo carried them happily into the headquarters, periodically rubbing her back and belly as she went.

Once the chairs and tables had been ferried inside, the trio stared at the wooden desks as if hoping they would grow legs and walk into the building by themselves. They were fairly big desks, of a common, thick, boxy design with drawers. They would be difficult to move. Madiha, being the strongest, lifted her side with some ease. Minardo stepped quickly aside; nobody entertained the notion of making the pregnant woman lift anything.

Parinita glared unhappily at the desk, and positioned herself across from Madiha.

“On my count, we lift.” Madiha said. Her secretary nodded her head obediently.

She counted, and made an effort to lift the heavy desk with her hands. Madiha got it off the ground; Parinita’s arms and legs buckled instantly and she fell over the desktop.

“I can’t do it!” She cried out, wiggling helplessly with her arms wrapped around the desk.

“Just get it a little off the ground and let Madiha take it in strides.” Minardo suggested.

“I can try to drag it in by myself.” Madiha said, breathing a little harshly from the attempt.

Parinita looked up at her with sudden determination. “No! I’ll– I’ll help! I’m here for you!”

Her tone of voice had gotten so intense that Minardo got a strange look in her eyes.

Madiha nodded her head. “We’ll try again. On my count, lift it up as much as you can.”

Again Madiha counted down, and again she lifted the desk. She watched her partner.

Gritting her teeth, her whole body shaking from the effort, Parinita managed to lift the desk a centimeter off the earth and hold it in the air, arms and legs shaking wildly.

Madiha started to move. While they struggled to get the desk off the grass and dust, Minardo waved her arms like a conductor, gesturing this way and that until Parinita started yelling at her. Madiha made haste after that, and soon half-dragging and half-lifting, the pair managed to maneuver the first desk through the door and out of the way.

It became quickly clear, however, that there were two more of them to move. Rubbing on her arms, breathing heavily, sweat dribbling down the bridge of her nose and her cheeks, Parinita stared at the objects like they were hungry beasts, and gave them some distance. Madiha was starting to feel a little wear on her own arms — though she thought herself pretty fit, it had been a long time since she had to do any manual labor.

“Good job!” Minardo cheered, giving both of them a big thumbs up and a winking eye.

Parinita shot her a glare and gritted teeth in return, and she turned away from them.

For a moment they stood around the remaining desks. Kali started to prance around on top of one, as if all of this attention was meant for it, but the headquarters crew looked past the little dragon and continued to stare at the wooden desks. Trepidation quickly became infectious. Even Madiha was contemplating leaving the desks outside for now.

As the Colonel’s staff started to sink into despair, a pair of rejuvenating voices called.

“Commander! Good morning, good morning!”

Crossing the flag green, two young women in uniform dashed toward the headquarters, one waving and jumping with cheer, the other falling quickly behind and giving a very inexpressive response. Heading the charge was Corporal Gulab Kajari, a somewhat short young woman with honey brown skin and a gentle face, her long braided tail trailing behind her as she ran. Though she had seemed skinny when Madiha first saw her, the fighting seemed to have toughened her up a little. She looked leaner, better toned.

Trailing behind Corporal Kajari was Sergeant Charvi Chadgura, a slightly taller and bigger woman whose most eye-catching feature was her silver-white head of hair. It formed an interesting contrast with her dark skin. Stone-faced, she jogged inanimately several steps behind the veritable blur that Corporal Kajari had become in relation to her. This odd pair crossed the park, passed through the empty lots, reached the officers and stopped for a quick breath, nearly doubling over. They then composed themselves and saluted.

“Ma’am, we were getting acquainted with the base, when we saw you starting to move things in! We thought you could use some strong hands to help out!” Kajari said.

“We are at your disposal.” Chadgura added, her tone of voice low and flat.

Before Madiha could accept or decline the offer from the two officers, Parinita looked from the desks on the grass and back to the arrivals, and a gargantuan smile stretched cheek to cheek across her face. Eyes twinkling, Parinita sweetly glided over to the two, and threw her arms around them, spontaneously jumping and dancing with them. She rubbed her face between their shoulders, and almost seemed like she would weep.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She started to screech.

Chadgura stood stone still, slowly raising slightly shaking hands and clapping with them.

Kajari patted Parinita and Chadgura both in the back and averted her eyes.

Madiha and Minardo eventually pulled the aggressively thankful secretary away and stood aside to watch their younger, perhaps fitter subordinates tackle the dreaded desks. Kajari and Chadgura approached the desks, sizing up their opponents. Kajari cracked her knuckles and stretched her fingers, grinning as if she was about to enter a boxing ring as a confident champion. Chadgura stood with her arms limp and a dead stare.

Kajari eyed her partner with confusion. “Are you nervous? Something wrong?”

“I don’t know if I can even lift.” Chadgura replied, still staring at the desks.

After a brief moment of silence, they stood on opposite ends of a desk and got to work.

Inside the headquarters, two desks were arranged on the left side of the room for Parinita and Minardo to use, while Madiha’s desk had been set near the back of the building. Tables on the right side of the room would hold their equipment, when it became available, and a chair had been arranged for every piece of furniture. They had curtains, tablecloths, and had stocked every desk with paper, ink, pens, staplers, and other necessities.

Though it was not yet much of a headquarters, their little square home at the end of the flag park was at least more of an office now than it was an empty, abandoned lot.

Outside the headquarters, Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura lay on the grass, their arms and legs stretched out, staring quietly skyward, sapped of their youthful vigor. They gasped for air, rivulets of sweat trailing down their faces and soaking their clothes. Neither of them said a word, though Chadgura’s lips were moving as if mumbling.

Kali lay between them, quietly purring as it took a mid-morning rest.

As she walked past the morning’s heroines, Madiha thanked the two of them.

Parinita waved goodbye, seated beside the collapsed soldiers, fanning them.

Accompanied by Minardo, Madiha was headed deeper into the base to look for that most essential item that they needed before their building could be called a headquarters. The Garrison was like its own developed neighborhood within Rangda, and she was sure that if she looked around enough she could find a spare radio to take with her.

Minardo led her around with a smile on her face and a spring in her step, pointing out every amenity that the soldiers had at their disposal, and explaining the layout.

Directly beyond the gates was the barracks area, containing living spaces, the administration building, water towers, food canteens, showers, indoor training facilities, and the hospital. Madiha’s flag park and its HQ building straddled a largely empty quadrant of base territory that had been mostly demolished. With the reduction of Divisions from 20,000 soldiers to 10,000, a whole chunk of the base was unnecessary. In its place a training field was meant to be put up, but it was never quite completed. Only a rudimentary track had been laid.

“At least we’ll be able to use the territory without any fuss then.” Madiha said.

“Exactly! You can run over those empty lots all you like, Colonel! You can have 3000 trainees all doing jumping jacks at the same time on the empty space.” Minardo said.

Beyond the barracks area, there was a second fence with its own gate.

This partition encircled a long area of paved land bisected by a broad concrete road. Along the road stood a series of shuttered depots and square, flat-topped rectangular buildings resembling the barracks buildings. These, Minardo explained, were meant to house officers, mechanics and quartermasters. In the depots within the same area, the 8th Division’s equipment was kept in storage and sparsely maintained in peace time.

“Why are they separated like that?” Madiha asked. Back in Adjar there was a regulation that ammunition could not be stored within 500 meters of a living space, but other than that there was no similarity. The level of security at this garrison was almost paranoid.

“There was a mutiny four years ago.” Minardo said.

“A mutiny? Four years ago?” Madiha’s mind ground to a halt.

Minardo nodded. “A war hero here was indicted in Rangda’s Akjer investigations. He had been found smuggling in Ayvartan exiles from abroad. He would fly them in covertly through Bakor; back then, we leased and maintained air fields there to test long distance overseas flights. He confessed that he had friends in the former Whites and he just wanted them to return to their homelands so they could live peacefully. He was a naive old fool in that way.”

Madiha could hardly process what she was being told. Bad memories triggered in her brain.

“He was taken in.” Minardo said, filling in the silence. “His popularity and service saved him from execution, but he was stripped of his rank and put under house arrest. However his very arrest triggered riots among his followers. They took up arms, but they didn’t do anything serious, and eventually he calmed them down. Once everything had passed, the depots were fenced out from the soldiers to prevent that from happening again.”

Madiha stared at her in disbelief. She had never heard of a mutiny happening anywhere in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, though she had to admit it was not beyond the realm of possibility. Especially in the case Minardo made here. People followed people and their ideologies, good or bad. They put those people first. A lot of seemingly good people were revealed to have very dangerous ideologies during the Akjer Incident.

Certainly many heroes were found to be warring secretly for the imperial powers during the Akjer treasons. Madiha knew first-hand. She had investigated and condemned many.

“Were you caught up in it?” Madiha asked. Minardo would have been here at that time.

“My loyalties were too tightly bound to someone else. But I could understand why those men and women did what they did. They bound up their identities in a hero whom they loved and trusted, who had made them what they were. It was hard to let go of that.”

There was a bad taste in Madiha’s mouth now; to think that, had the circumstances been any different, she might have had to come here and openly fight her own people. Had things escalated worse, surely Madiha would have heard of an “incident” in Rangda during the Akjer treason, and surely she would have been asked to help suppress it. She might have come here, and shot someone like Minardo. Just tiny drops of ink falling on the pages of history. Change one word here and there and horrible things could have resulted.

“Hero worship frightens me.” Madiha confessed. Like pressure releasing from a balloon, the words had come from her as way for the day’s anxieties to escape her chest. Riots started by a war hero; if Madiha made the wrong turn, would her own “followers” throw away everything just for her? Certainly they would. They had done so before in a way.

She, herself, had done so. Daksha, Kimani; she had her own heroes too.

It was strange and frightening. Would she betray socialism for them?

Minardo raised her head in respose. “It’s only as good as the hero being worshiped.”

Shaking her head hard to try to clear the sudden fog that she felt, Madiha approached the second gate. Minardo waved at the gate guard, who watched them stoically as they stood in front of the barrier. He did not raise his hand to wave back. Locked inside his post, he undid the mechanical lock on the gate with an electrical signal, and rolled back the triple-layer chain links topped with barbed wire that barred entry to the depots and officer quarters.

“Not too friendly.” Madiha said, looking dejectedly back at the guard post.

Minardo kept smiling. “He takes his job seriously, I suppose.”

“Say, Minardo; were you part of the 8th Division before joining the reserve?”

Madiha asked this casually and thoughtlessly in the way they had said many things casually and thoughtlessly today. However, she could not have foreseen that out of all the topics they discussed and all the odd things exchanged this one would be quite dire.

In response the sergeant’s expression darkened. She never seemed to stop smiling, but the character of her smile now was very different. “Ah, well, I didn’t join the Reserve.” She said sweetly. “I was added to the Reserve, by someone who, indeed, was part of what became the 8th Division. Someone I trusted, who thought she was looking out for me. ”

Madiha swallowed her words and tried not to make any expression.

“That doesn’t answer your question though, and it’s not fair of me to lay on you, sorry.” Minardo said. She looked down at her own feet as they walked, as if she suddenly could not bear the sight of the surroundings. “I was part of, like I said, what became the 8th Ram Division. Back then it was the 5th Airborne Division of the 34th Army; before Battlegroups.”

“Airborne?” Madiha asked. “What happened to the planes?”

“Demilitarization happened. We were pioneering new parachute tactics, and that was seen as unnecessary and a waste. We would have become a frontline rifle division after reorganization, as you see here. I was seen as unworthy of such a position, I suppose.”

“I see. Everything has changed a lot here then.” Madiha said.

“Truth be told, I have no idea what’s happened. But this isn’t the place I called home.”

She started to walk faster, and made quite a leap ahead of Madiha before the Colonel started keeping up with the pace. The air in the Garrison had quickly turned poisonous.

Like most of the garrison, the strip of depots was a very empty place with the 8th Division at its front lines. The Divisonal HQ building, a tall monolith of bulletproof glass and thick cement, was shuttered and empty, with all of its staff and officers relocating to the combat area far, far south of Rangda. There was not a communications staff there to ask for a radio — all that remained of the Divisional staff were garrison service workers, guards and bureaucrats. Looking down the road at the identical lines of buildings, Madiha grunted.

“Keep going that way,” Minardo said, “inspect the depots, ask around. I’ve got an idea where I might be able to get some equipment too. We’ll meet up back at the HQ.”

“At the HQ?” Madiha asked.

“I might be a while. I’ll be looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Minardo turned on her heels and departed quickly on those mysterious words.

Madiha watched her go for a few minutes before turning around and heading down the depots herself. There was nobody in sight, as far down the road as she could see. Identical tin shutters blocked off identical tin and wood depot buildings standing on identical plots. Madiha swung her fists forward and back as she marched down one street, peering through dirty old windows into forgotten buildings and seeing nothing inside.

She reached the end of the depots, crossed the street, and went down the other row.

Halfway down the road she heard noises that sounded like machine tools.

Running down the way, she found the source of the noise, and pulled up the unlocked shutter on one of the depot buildings. Inside Madiha found a person working at a lathe, covered head to toe in protective gear, smoothing down a small and shiny metal piece. Also in the depot was a Gbahali car, a green open-topped scout car of the kind Madiha was very familiar with, having driven one herself in Bada Aso. It was raised on a platform, its engine hanging over the compartment on a mobile gantry crane, the hood popped open.

Relaxing in the gutted car was the young, reckless man from yesterday, Jota with a J. He laid on the back seat with his legs up on the side of the car, grinning ear to ear.

“Oh, hey, look who’s here? Morning, Colonel Nakar.” He said, raising a hand.

Madiha gave him a stern look. He had not made a good first impression on her.

At the lathe, the person in the protective suit pulled up their metal mask; behind the gear was a woman, pale-pink skinned with dark eyes and red hair and many freckles on her cheeks. Her hair was cut short, and once she stood up she seemed as tall as Madiha.

She saluted, but said nothing. She looked to Jota, who nodded at her.

“It’s fine, she’s authorized to be here. Finish up that cap, I want to ride.”

Nodding, the woman returned to the lathe.

Madiha felt that she was being given a cold shoulder, but held her complaints.

“I’m looking for a spare radio. Do you know where I can find one?” She asked.

“Nope.” Jota quickly replied. He looked at the woman. “Moira, you know anything?”

At the lathe the woman shook her head before spinning up the wheel again.

“Ok then! Answer’s ‘nope.'” Jota said, smiling at Madiha.

His tone of voice irritated her. It was as if he was delighting in her confusion. She was not a comrade to him, but a source of schadenfreude, or worse. She suppressed her reaction.

“How does this base keep contact with the Division on the front then?” She asked.

“It doesn’t. 8th’s all gone and it’s not coming back for a while, Colonel. This Garrison’s just a glorified hotel and soccer field for your regiment now.” Jota replied, chuckling.

“Does it usually take several days to get anything delivered here?” She pressed.

“Depends on who’s delivering and how you’ve treated ’em.” Jota said.

Madiha blinked. There was subtext there. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Jota’s self-satisfied tone of voice became brusque and serious for a moment.

“You don’t treat people right, Colonel. So they don’t treat you right back.”

“You mean Mansa, don’t you?” Madiha said. Jota had been there; he had pushed for her to meet Mansa, driven her there, and even tried to block the door when she walked out.

It was becoming clear to her that Jota wasn’t just any reckless driver.

He was one of Mansa’s men, moreso than he was one of Rangda’s men.

In response, Jota stared at her more directly than he had since she arrived.

“Hey, you said that, not me. But it shows where your head’s at. Cookin’ up some imagined sleight, I guess, just like you cooked up a few as the Right Hand of Death.”

“Excuse me?” Madiha shouted, too shocked to temper her responses anymore.

Jota was unfazed. He turned his back to her and put his feet over the front seat.

“You don’t treat people right, Colonel. See where that gets you.” He said cryptically.

Madiha was unused to feeling genuinely angry. Much of the time, she reserved her anger or redirected emotion from anger. She had a gift for turning things against herself — any anger she felt could easily turn into a disappointment or shame in herself, and she could then stifle it in sorrow. Such was the skill of a very hurting mind. There was nobody to be angry at for the longest time, save for herself. Not even Nocht had angered her much.

Since she had started piecing herself back, Madiha was bombarded with feelings. Shame and regret, her old friends, made way for alien things like a genuine sense of contentedness; laughter, and a sense of humor; love, and even sexual desire; and anger.

As she stood in that depot, framed by the door, staring at Jota with his legs up, and this Moira ignoring the whole thing too; Madiha felt a surge of genuine, horrific anger.

She felt like walking up to Jota and showing him he was not big. He was not bigger than her, not big enough to be making sport of her. She could show him what a small and weak man he really was. All it would take would be a moment of concentration and a snap of her fingers to toss a fireball in their midst that would burst like an incendiary. It would consume that pitiful car, that pitiful lathe, and vaporize both of these pitiful weaklings–

Madiha fought down these feelings. They were irrational and she knew it deep down.

Instead of acting on it she shut her eyes hard, as if that substituted for throwing a punch, and then she turned around and left their presence. She paced down the depot road, struggling not to turn back around, walk through the door and do something awful.

Madiha had bowed to fight that monstrous part of herself. She had to keep it under control.

But the temptation to use her “powers” grew with every frustration she felt.

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 1st Motor Rifle Regiment HQ

Behind Madiha the gates to the depots closed, and slowly her anger dissipated as she made her way back to the the headquarters. It felt twice as long a walk alone as it did when she had Minardo for company. Whatever the Sergeant was doing took her longer than it did for Madiha to half-heartedly walk along the line of depots. She wondered if she should wait, but the sight of the depots caused her stress. She departed, head down, hands in her pockets.

On the way, she stood off to the side of the road as the column of running soldiers passed by once more. Every soldier waved as they ran by, and she waved back.

Arriving at the far end of the flag park, Madiha found that Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura had gone, and Parinita was sitting outside on one of the office chairs, rocking her legs and spinning periodically around on the chair swivel. Kali was seated a few paces away, with its back turned to Parinita and the building. Madiha approached, raising her hands to gesture that she had found nothing of use. Parinita frowned in response.

“Did you try the Divisional HQ? They have to have radios somewhere.” Parinita said.

“Not one radio.” Madiha replied. She walked into the building, picked up a chair, and brought it outside. Turning it around, she sat with her chest against the backrest.

“I wonder if Minardo really put in those orders right.” Parinita said.

“It’s not her fault.” Madiha replied.

“I should have called ahead for supplies, directly from Solstice.”

“It’s not your fault either.”

“It’s just frustrating. I know you wanted to jump right back into the fray.”

“I did, but we’ve got time yet. I’ll come up with something. Don’t worry.”

Madiha wondered whether to tell Parinita about Jota and his insinuations at the depot, but decided not to. Politics made her nervous. It would have put Parinita on edge like nothing else if Madiha told her it was possibly Mansa’s doing that their supplies were still tied up. Until the situation was confirmed or escalated, it was better not to make accusations or leap into wild conjectures. Jota calling Madiha out for her actions during Akjer stung her quite a bit. He was misinformed and acting in bad faith, but that didn’t dull the pain in her heart.

She did not want to be The Right Hand of Death in Rangda. That was all supposed to be in the past. To avoid that phantom she would have to be more diplomatic from now on.

Colonel and Secretary sat on their chairs out in the park grass, and waited.

Eventually, as the sun started to bear down on them directly overhead, they saw a figure approaching, its form rippling in the heat. Minardo returned from wherever she had gone, holding a big cardboard box in her hands. Madiha almost jumped out of her seat when she saw it, and Parinita clapped excitedly. She had found a radio! It had to be!

The Staff Sergeant crossed the flag park, sweating, swooning a little in the heat. She stood in front of her superiors, pulled a kerchief from her pocket, wiped her forehead, and put it back. She then saluted, and with a big grin on her face, she set down the box.

Inside, there was a large collection of what Madiha could only describe as junk.

“Why did you box this garbage up and bring it here?” Madiha asked.

There was a nondescript metal chassis; various knobs, some of which had been broken in half or cracked; vacuum tubes wrapped in newspaper; old capacitors in a plastic tub, some of which were visibly burnt or corroded; a very old toolbox; a box full of spare screws of many sizes; tangles of wires, many stripped of their protective rubber coating. To Madiha all of this seemed like nothing more than junk. She glared cheerlessly at it.

Minardo scoffed and closed her fists. “Why, I never–! It is not garbage!”

Parinita clapped her hands together. Her beaming face had never once darkened even when Minardo revealed the junk in her box. In her eyes it was something else entirely.

“You found it, Minardo! You found a radio!” Parinita said.

Madiha raised her head from the box in surprise.

“Hmph!” Minardo turned her cheek on Madiha. “I went to the garrison junkyard and dug around. Normally garbage is supposed to be disposed of mid-month. But since this month coincided with a military invasion, I figured they would have overlooked it.”

“I apologize, Minardo. I did not recognize the parts. Thank you.” Madiha said.

She bowed her head in deference.

Minardo looked at her from the corner of her eye and smiled.

“Well, it’s no use to us in this form. But I figure someone can help with that.” She said.

She turned her head from Madiha to Parinita, who crossed her arms and smiled proudly.

“I know a thing or two about radios. I’ll get started on it right away!”

Parinita lifted the box of radio parts and took it inside the headquarters. She set the box down on the table, produced the chassis, and started to open it with a screwdriver from the toolbox. Once she had the turret board out, she connected the radio to a wall outlet, switched it on, watched some of the vacuum tubes flash, and then began to withdraw more parts from the box. Madiha watched, bewildered. Her eyes were drawn to Parinita’s hands.

Those hands possessed mythical qualities in Madiha’s eyes. She had first felt them on her shoulders and back, when Parinita gave her a cleansing, almost magical massage in Bada Aso. Impossibly soft, and yet possessed of great keenness and firm, they were capable of miracles. She knew that they had some supernatural quality — Parinita had talked about dispersing the fires that Madiha created in herself when she used her power.

But there was so much more to those hands than magic. Parinita was so gentle, precise, impossibly skilled with her hands. She moved with an almost rhythmic precision. Every turn and touch of her gentle fingers was almost entrancing to watch. Her delicate grip on the vacuum tubes, one fingertip and thumb lifting the piece to her eyes; the way her wrist turned so precisely as she exchanged one part for another, or shook a part, or socketed in a tube; the graceful flicks of her fingers as she tapped on a gently gripped capacitor.

It was like a dance, Madiha realized; it had an almost sensual character.

After several minutes, Parinita set down her tools, stretched her fingers and laughed.

“All of the capacitors are still good! No soldering needed. It’s a matter of replacing vacuum tubes. I just have to find which ones are broken and which ones work correctly.”

Parinita gave everyone a thumbs up, and then focused again on her work.

Madiha nodded dumbly, watching her hop about the headquarters in a little blur of activity. There were still many things about her lovely secretary that surprised her.

“Drooling, are we?”

Minardo closed in on the entranced Colonel and elbowed her gently in the arm.

“Ask her out on a date to the festival, Colonel.” Minardo whispered.

Madiha’s heart jumped at the suggestion. In an instant that fluttering feeling switched on and suddenly off. She fought with all her might to keep her calm, stony expression, and managed to give Minardo the skeptical glare that her suggestion should have received. After all, they had work to do, and judging by the morning’s pathetic supply drop, there would need to be some heavy lifting done to get anything organized at all in Rangda.

“What are you insinuating?” Madiha said. There was a slight stutter to her words.

Minardo put her fists to her hips and leaned on the Colonel with a big grin on her face.

“Don’t play dumb with me. All I have to do is look at two people for an hour and I can see the love blossoming. Rangda is a sensual city, comrade. Ask her out to the festival.”

“You know, fanciful delusions can easily convince you any two people are coupled.”

Madiha thought she was being clever, but again the staff sergeant deflected her easily.

Minardo poked Madiha in the chest, unfazed. “All I’m saying is you’ll regret it if you miss out on this! Trust me! Love is in the air as the festival looms. Soon it will become cold and rainy and gross out — you won’t have many date opportunities. Ask her out now.”

Madiha did not reply, and Minardo allowed the matter to drop. Madiha’s mind seemed intent on mulling over the idea of the festival, however, like a psychic tongue licking something sweet without permission. It fought fiercely with all those other strange feelings Madiha now felt, and it was quickly rising to the top from among them.

Moments later, there was an electric spark from the middle of the headquarters.

From the box, a voice started to sound across the room: Daksha Kansal’s voice.

“Comrades of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice! We must collectively open our eyes and awaken to the facts! The Nocht Federation is nothing but a paper tiger! Their technology is no better than ours! Their strength of arms is no greater than our own! Their vaunted morality, their claim to civilization, no more valid! There is no area in which Nocht–”

Though the voice was crackling a bit at first, Parinita attached one of the better-looking knobs to a tiny pin attached to the side of the turret board. Altering the power output with the knob, she managed to get the voice as crisp as it could be, and in the middle of the 1st Regimental Headquarters, Madiha, Minardo and Parinita stood and listened to Daksha Kansal’s powerful speech of the 45th on their very first headquarters radio.

Just as the nation started to awaken to war, the new headquarters became legitimate.

Next Chapter In Unternehmen Solstice — The 1st Day of Training

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