Rangda City — 1st Motor Rifles Regimental Headquarters
“Say, Minardo, do you like films?”
“I love films! I try to catch all the new releases.”
“Ah! That’s great! What are your favorites?”
“Horror movies! I love the thrills. There’s been this series of movies about a man attacked by clockwork animals at a toy factory, One Week At Teddy’s? It was quite scary!”
“Oh, I’ve never seen those! We’ll have to go see them sometime!”
Madiha stared out the door inanimately while the room grew noisy.
Though they still only had the one radio available, there was a lot of activity in the new Regimental Headquarters nonetheless. Sitting behind her desk, Madiha watched silently as four people twittered about the building all morning. They walked from the desks and tables, between the radio, out the door and back, coming and going, while she remained mostly inanimate, not quite knowing what to make of all the new activity around her.
Minardo and Parinita remained tethered to the building, but they were no longer alone.
Joining them were new staffers. First was Bhishma, the bespectacled young man who had served under Parinita in Bada Aso. He had very dark skin and a youthful, boyish appearance, and there was a great precision (and a noticeable stiffness) to his movements. His black curly hair was well combed and well cleaned and gelled, and his uniform was clean and pressed. He had an all-around orderly and neat appearance.
He barely spoke a word to the Colonel.
He visibly withered whenever she laid eyes on him.
His nervousness, in turn, made her nervous too, but she hid it better.
Since he arrived, Bhishma spent the morning running in and out of the building constantly running errands for Parinita. All she had to do was to put down the handset she had kludged to their old radio, raise her head over the table, and shout for him.
“Bhishma! Go yell at the guards, they’re holding up a truck with construction supplies Kimani needs! Tell them to let those things through, and ride out to the field with them.”
And without a moment’s hesitation he would bolt out the door again.
Madiha felt it should have been her who would go and take care of any yelling, but Parinita urged her to sit behind her desk and look official. “You have to delegate more!” She said, wagging a scolding index finger at her. So Madiha sat behind her desk. She steepled her fingers a few times while staring over them at the door, as she had seen Daksha do behind a desk once or twice. But this gesture only seemed to frighten Bhishma when he returned.
Thanfully Bhishma alone fulfilled the entirety of their skittishness quota.
Minardo’s other recruit was much more energetic.
Filling the headquarters with song was a brand new face. Minardo had chosen a young woman to handle office duties and to answer the phone. That there was no phone line installed yet did not slow Private Padmaja down. She organized everyone’s desks, dusted and swept the floors, redid all of the curtains, and otherwise kept herself busy.
Private Padmaja was constantly moving, so Madiha had to piece a mental image of her little by little, until she arrived at her desk with a smile and passed a feather duster over it. Then Madiha got a good long look. Padmaja’s dark hair was collected into two long tails, and her skin was a dark golden color. Her eyes possessed a visible fold and appeared slightly angled; they shone a stark icy blue. Her full lips parted to hum and sing as she worked; from a few notes, to the full lyrics of a traditional song about a rabbit hopping along a mountain.
Madiha wondered if that mountain was the stretch of the Kucha farther south.
But she had a feeling the Private hailed from farther than that.
“You keep a very neat desk, Commander!” Pvt. Padmaja said. She had a slight accent to her voice, and she closed her eyes and gave a cute smile when she addressed her.
She was so lively that her presence drew Madiha’s own smile out of hiding.
“There was an old saying,” Padmaja said, “that a minister’s desk foretold the character of their tenure in government. Orderly desk; orderly country. Chaotic desk; well, you know.”
“Ah, I don’t know about that. It can also mean you’re spending too much time on your desk.” Madiha replied. She herself had nothing better to do currently than to clean it.
Private Padmaja giggled. “You’re right. There is likely more truth to that.”
While the new office hands performed their small tasks, Parinita sat behind the table with the radio, rather than at her own desk. She poked and prodded the device, turning the knobs, listening in to various frequencies, and occasionally opening the device again to play with the internals, making on-the-fly tweaks to the box here and there. Parinita had made quite a few alterations to the box — she had added a telephone handset to it, so that it could be spoken into and heard from more easily, as well as an extra speaker and a switch that could bypass the handset so the whole room could hear the audio.
It was an old, problematic set no matter how much it was polished. Audio sometimes distorted and no amount of fiddling with the knobs could get it to sound completely consistent across hours of operation. Parinita had altered the internal modulation, and they frequently heard anyone receiving their broadcasts complaining about the tone of their voice. No amount of fiddling with that had made it completely consistent either.
Despite all of this, Parinita had done such a fantastic job that Madiha was still astounded.
Though the moment had long since passed, Madiha still replayed the events in her mind. She thought idly about the repairs, about Parinita’s energy and excitement, and she felt oddly proud and delighted. She knew such an amazing person! It dawned upon her then. There was so much to Parinita; she wanted to discover everything about her. She wanted others to be surprised by the skill and intellect of her comrade, while she herself would watch the reactions with pride, arms crossed, personally knowledgeable of every nook of her–
From the table and behind the radio, Parinita waved at her slyly with a little grin.
Madiha waved demurely when Padmaja had her back turned. She had been caught staring. She felt foolish; these were unproductive and distracting thoughts to be having now.
At Madiha’s side, Minardo appeared, leaned in close, and faked a little cough.
“Get a room.” She said, masking it with another cough.
Madiha glared at her, and she grinned mischievously and sat on the Colonel’s desk.
For her part, Minardo was back to looking mostly orderly, even though she did not exactly act that way. Her hair was tied into a braided bun, and her skirt uniform was clean and neat. She traded her black aviator sunglasses, a copied foreign style growing in popularity, for a pair of simple office glasses. She was sporting a pair of simple black pumps on her feet.
Throughout the morning, Minardo had been rooted firmly to her desk, filling forms and taking periodic breaks to stand at the door and stare longingly. When Madiha asked, Minardo said she was filling out requisition requests. It didn’t seem like they would be fulfilled, judging by the presently unknown fate of their communications equipment. Nonetheless, Minardo filled out every form and stacked them in a flat cardboard box.
Madiha had once or twice demanded of her, “Do I need to sign those?”
Minardo’s reply each time had been a simple, “Nope!”
Then when Minardo turned around to leave, Madiha got a look at the forms and found her forged signature on every single one of them. Frowning, she returned to her desk.
Despite this, Minardo behaved as though everything was going swell. She had quite an attitude, this Staff Sergeant; Madiha could never have believed that rogueish streak of hers when they first met. She felt like scolding her, but never quite managed to work up to it.
When Bhishma next arrived, Minardo sent him right out the door with the forms in hand.
Minardo then stood up, teased Madiha, and planted her rump right on the desk.
Madiha gave her a weary glare.
When the Sergeant next spoke however she had left the teasing well behind.
“Commander, our supply situation is a little vexing, isn’t it? It’s unimaginable. Everything that’s arriving from a world away in Solstice is coming through fine, but most of the equipment that’s supposed to be locally sourced is nowhere to be found.” She said.
Her impish grin had become a pensive frown. She stroked fingers over painted lips.
“I would say it was deliberate, if I didn’t know better.” Minardo added.
“It is deliberate.” Madiha said. She rested her head on closed fists over her desk.
“Do you merely suspect as much, like me; or do you have evidence?” Minardo asked.
“I might have evidence. Do you know a man named Jota?” Madiha said. “With a ‘J’?”
“Is that a given name or a surname?” Minardo asked.
Madiha felt suddenly foolish. She did not know whether the hostile driver had given his first name or his last. She had never thought to ask. As far as she was concerned Jota was just another grunt when they first met. He had introduced himself with only one name and Madiha never thought they would meet again in any important capacity.
“I don’t know.” Madiha said. “Please keep this between us. But I had a confrontation with this man yesterday at the supply depots. He seemed to suggest what we suspect.”
“Interesting. Do you know if this man has any kind of pull?”
“He seems to be in with the governor’s office; but he is just a driver, as far as I know.”
“I see. Well, I know people around here still. I might be able to find something out.”
“You’ve got connections, huh.” Madiha blinked. “Is that how you got the car too?”
Minardo shifted on the desk, one leg over the other, leaning back, chest out.
“It’s more than just connections, my dear Colonel; it’s pure skill and incredible charm.”
Her voice had become a soft, titillating hiss delivered below earshot.
“Okay.” Madiha said flatly. Minardo stayed in her strained pinup pose for a moment, looking back at Madiha, and then sat back up, arms crossed over her breast, and sighed.
From her desk, Parinita glanced at them in confusion. Madiha shook her head.
“Nobody respects my skills.” Minardo childishly said. She patted her own cheeks.
Madiha pressed her fists tighter against her face. This was becoming annoying.
“What kind of skills are we talking about here?” She said, humoring the Sergeant.
Minardo crooked a little grin, winked, and raised an index finger over her cheek.
“It’s a secret, oh ho ho! Come closer and I’ll tell you.”
Growling, Madiha leaned forward.
Minardo leaned too and whispered in a velvety voice.
“I am a legendary gossip!”
Madiha ordered Minardo off her desk and ignored her for the next few hours.
At noon, Bhishma returned and Padmaja went out the door, singing a little song about sickles cutting rice. Twenty minutes later she came back with a large brown bag full of brown boxes labeled with a bright yellow circle around a blade of wheat. This was a common symbol in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice to denote food products. In this case, it meant food from the Civil Canteen. She set the bag down and distributed the boxes.
“What were they cooking today?” Parinita asked as Padmaja handed her a box.
“Puri breads, kachumber, potatoes, fresh sweet lassi, and dal.” Padmaja said.
Everyone in the room seemed to stand a little straighter hearing of the spread. Once the box tops came off, Madiha was dazzled by the colorful array of foods packed into the box. Puri, fried unleavened breads, were stacked in the center of the box, soaking up the oil and vinaigrette from the salad of onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, as well as the thick red sauce over the potatoes. Both the yellow lentil dal and the purple-pink lassi, a yogurt drink, were packed in folding paperboard cartons reserved by the canteens for carryout orders.
“It’s like a rainbow in a box.” Parinita said excitedly.
“I prefer it in my stomach.” Minardo replied, half the words through a piece of puri.
Madiha stared longingly; she had not had a decent meal in quite a long time. She had spent much of the past two days subsisting on ration boxes and snacks. Her dinner yesterday had been fried chickpeas in a box from the Survival ration; the day before she had twice drank watery yellow dal from a metal mug, and had been otherwise so busy she skipped dinner.
Using the provided fork, which Padmaja would later return to the Canteen along with the boxes, Madiha gently speared a bit of cucumber and a sauce-soaked potato and lifted the contents to her mouth. As she chewed she felt the flavors dancing on her tongue. A drink of the dal and a bite of the puri added warmth and volume; lassi cleansed the palate.
“It’s perfect.” Madiha said, closing her eyes and breathing gently out.
Around the room the staff made similar expressions as they dug into their boxes.
When the last puri had gone down and the final sip of lassi had been taken, everyone seemed to lean back on their chairs all at once, and everyone sighed contentedly. For the first time since they had arrived to work in the morning, the Headquarters was quiet and still. Bellies full of warm food, everyone seemed ready to take a nap. No one looked to the door, and no one monitored the radio. The Colonel quietly approved the break.
She herself was almost half-asleep when someone got up and walked to the radio table.
Madiha stared blearily as the Bhishma approached Parinita’s desk and bowed his head.
He stood, stiff, slightly shaking, with his fists at his sides. Parinita cocked an eyebrow.
“Chief, I know this is not proper, but I want to ask you– I want to ask you out to the festival!”
His voice started dead quiet but then worked itself to an aggressive shout.
Minardo bolted upright, like the ostrich of legends digging out its head from sand.
Padmaja dropped the fork she had been drumming mindlessly on the desk with.
Madiha continued to stare at Bhishma, just as blearily as she stared before.
Her heart, however, started bumping fast as the seconds mounted in silence.
It dawned upon her what Bhishma had asked Parinita to do; and what an answer to it might mean. All of the delicious food she had so enjoyed started to churn in her belly.
For a moment, perhaps, Parinita was confounded too. She stared at him blankly.
Then her neutral expression faded.
“I’m not interested.” Parinita finally said, punctuating her words with a chipper smile.
Minardo covered her mouth with her hand. Padmaja returned to drumming her fork.
Bhishma raised his hand and continued to stand both stiff and dense as a metal shot-testing plate in front of the table, an uncomprehending look on his face. His lips quivered, and he scratched his hair a little. He averted his eyes from Parinita, and in so doing, turned them aside on the Colonel; she thought she saw a flickering moment of anguish reflected in his eyes before he averted them anew. He returned to his table, and sat, staring at his shoes.
Meanwhile Parinita started to fiddle with the radio again, her face inexpressive.
There was again silence in the room, but it was a much more restless and alert silence.
A half-hour later Padmaja got up from behind a table and went around the room, picking up the boxes and cutlery to return them to the Civil Canteen. Bhishma quickly offered to help, and Padmaja, perhaps with the noon’s events in still fresh in mind, gently accepted his offer, and he was out the door once more. Madiha stood up from her desk and walked over to Parinita’s, staring out the door in passing with a mix of odd feelings in hear breast.
“Are you alright?” Madiha asked her.
Parinita smiled. “I’m fine.”
“That was surprising. He must have really blindsided you.”
“Not at all. I suspected he had a crush on me all this time. And what with everyone making such a big deal about the festival, he must have felt he had a shot at it.”
Madiha felt like a chord in her chest had been tugged harshly. She heard Minardo’s words echoing in her head. She wondered if Bhishma had heard similar words too.
“Do you want to do anything about it?” She said.
Parinita shook her head. “Nah, I think this will set him straight.”
Madiha’s eyes wandered to the door again. “Are you angry at him?”
“I’m a little annoyed.” Parinita replied. “Doing that kind of thing in public just puts pressure on people to respond. I didn’t want to hurt him, but he gave me no choice here but to do so. He was very foolish to try this with me; I thought better of him than that.”
“I see. Say the word if you need me to do anything about him.” Madiha replied.
“Thank you. It’s fine. I think he’ll behave now.”
Parinita reached up, patted her on the arm, and then returned to the radio.
Madiha nodded, turned and walked out the door.
It was warm and breezy outside. She stood with her back to the building’s front wall, looking out over the flag park, and the empty lots where the drills were being organized, and to the roads where the occasional truck would arrive with field supplies for Kimani. She had walked out in time to see a Hobgoblin tank arriving for the mechanized tactics drill too. Its engine could be heard from afar; the only loud sound across the base, it seemed.
Her heart had never stopped beating fast. It beat so fast now that it almost hurt.
Clutching her chest, Madiha wondered what she would have done had Parinita accepted Bhishma’s offer. She felt foolish, because her mind wanted to say that meant ‘losing her’ when in reality it would not. It might have meant nothing. It was just a silly festival at night.
But some part of her was still longing, jealous, tripped up in emotion.
Bhishma was foolish and inconsiderate in his actions, but Madiha still felt a twinge of envy. She wondered whether she had it in her to make such a confession. Even in her youth with Chakrani, she had not said anything herself. She had felt the desire, but backed out every time. It had been Chakrani who had made a move on her instead of the other way.
Who could have loved that quiet, strange girl obsessed with militaria and politics? Who stared at the walls, heard voices in her head, and barely spoke? And how could that girl, whether a teen or a thirty-year-old, love anyone back? That sense of trepidation and self-denial crept slowly back in, even as Madiha thought she should accept the obvious.
She felt a red-hot longing for Parinita; but her love life had always been so precarious.
Chakrani was still out there somewhere, hurting because of her. Because of what Madiha irrevocably was, what she would always be fated to do, where her loyalty would always lie. Madiha would kill for this country; she would fight anyone for her people. Even her people.
Could the circumstances drive Parinita away from her too? Or bring harm to her?
And yet, constantly fighting that sense of trepidation was that hot feeling in her chest.
She had the words at the tip of the tongue; more than Minardo’s advice. More than just, ‘ask her out to the festival.’ She had an ‘I love you’ on the tongue; but it felt so foolish, so childish, too fast, too soon, the circumstances too strange. It had been only 28 days since they met. Was that enough? It didn’t feel like enough to risk hurting someone again.
So Madiha kept quiet. She couldn’t risk another Bhishma, one that might succeed; but she also didn’t want to say the words, because it meant taking responsibility for them.
It brought no tears to her eyes; it did not squash the feelings in her heart either. It was just another thing she had to do with a stony face regardless of what was inside her.