The 1st Day Of Training — Unternehmen Solstice

46th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

“Welcome, noble and brave soldiers of the Bada Aso Regiment! I am Inspector General Chinedu Kimani, and henceforth I will personally oversee your training!”

Underneath the searing eye of Rangda’s noon sky there was a mass movement of people in the 8th Division Garrison, the likes of which the empty plots of land on the base’s northern side had not seen since before the Demilitarization act. Assembled between foundation outlines hidden in sparsely grassy land, standing unknowingly over floor plans that had been smashed, and now reclaimed by the soft brown dirt, several hundreds of soldiers stood in rapt attention as a tall woman in a flashy red and black uniform hailed them.

“The Battle of Bada Aso is over! We were victorious; my precious comrades, you have accomplished many feats! However, we must wipe that slate clean! There are new, greater victories to reap, and to do so, we must all take hard steps beyond Adjar’s border.”

Many a fighter had glanced at or heard of Kimani in the past, but for most this was their first time coming face to face with one of the major commanding voices in their unit. She was an impressive sight — taller than any of them, black skinned, with dark, curly hair to mid-neck level and sleek, striking features. A hint of crow’s feet around her eyes was rendered visible only by the glistening of sweat crawling down her forehead, cheek and jaw under the hot Rangdan sun. She had an air of strength and exuded professionalism; a real soldier.

“Doubtless many of you have received basic training in your firearms and grenades, in first aid, in rudimentary battle tactics. Doubtless, all of you survived Bada Aso, and have seen and fought our enemy first-hand. Yet, regardless of your ranks, and your merits, for the next week, every man and woman in front of me is once more a green Private!” She said.

Behind her a fleet of nurses, construction workers, and computers labored to set up examination tents, establish medical stations and assemble tables behind which documents of all kinds would be handed out and filled for the records staff to archive. Preliminary tests would be conducted, and information collated to help Colonel Nakar and Inspector General Kimani understand just who it was that they would lead to battle.

“Nobody can diminish your struggles, nor the sacrifices you and your comrades have made. Your past has honed you into a blade. That you stand before me, means you have been drawn from your sheathe to do battle. But right now, though you desire to cut the enemy, your edge must labor to draw their blood. It is my duty to start sharpening you, so the same cuts you dealt in Bada Aso will do more than draw blood. They will slice Nocht to pieces!”

She spoke in a strong and serious voice, and even when she raised her pitch, her affect was subtle. The Inspector General always seemed to speak in a tone both calm and intense.

Her declarations moved through the hundreds of men and women in the crowd like a wave. Everyone stood straighter and tighter when they felt her eyes over them and quivered when they heard her her voice. In their green uniforms, stripped of whatever rank markings they earned in Bada Aso, the troops of the 1st Battalion of the Askari Motor Rifle Regiment “Bada Aso” watched her every move with tense attention, and a brimming of unused energy.

In the same field where the 8th Division would perform marching drills before the war, the troops of the Bada Aso Regiment prepared for a week of short training courses.

Though the Regimental command couldn’t offer them extensive training quite yet, they would not allow them to sit around. Everyone had already lounged too much at sea. Bada Aso felt distant; but the war wasn’t over. Command wanted to keep them on their feet.

Kimani explained. “From now to the month’s end, with a break for the festival on the 48th, you will clock in 100 hours of training in infantry combat, tank-infantry cooperation, signals discipline, and much more. My staff will give you a crash course on modern combat to give you an idea of the multifaceted duties, skills and responsibilities of a soldier in maneuver warfare! I hope that you enjoyed the peaceful voyage here — because I will make you sweat here in Rangda, comrades! And it will be an inkling of what awaits you in Solstice!”

For an instant, the Inspector General flashed a little smile at the crowd of soldiers.

There was a collective gulp in response. That was a lot of hours worth of training. It appeared command counted their days at sea as a vacation, but they had not had much of an opportunity to de-stress while crammed into a troopship or a cruiser. In whispers, the crowd started to lament being driven so hard after the chaos in Bada Aso. At least some of them, however, were excited for an opportunity to learn some new fighting skills.

One such person was Gulab Kajari, standing off to the side and back of the crowd with stars in her eyes. She looked around the field and through the fence to the base, catching glimpses of tanks and guns and other equipment being brought in or serviced, perhaps to participate in the exercises. She fantasized about this training both as an opportunity to show off her energetic strengths, and to be able to brag about her elite skills later on.

Already she was a military hero! Now she could rise to the level of a battlefield legend!

“Charvi, do you know anything about this? Do you know what we’ll be doing?”

Gulab nudged her constant companion, Charvi Chadgura, but the Sergeant was nearly inanimate. On a good day, Charvi was still emotionless, but at least a little sprightly. Yesterday the two of them had helped out at the headquarters, walked around the whole base, and been yelled at by a variety of guards about where they should and shouldn’t be. Through all of that, Charvi had the same face, but her demeanor at least felt lively.

Today she slumped forward, mumbling to herself in that dry, affect-less voice of hers.

She barely seemed to pay Kimani any attention. She was mostly staring at her feet.

Acknowledging Gulab, she clapped her hands twice, softly, in quick succession, but she said nothing. Her eyes seemed fixed on her own feet, and her shoulders drooped low.

“Are you ok? Do you have heatstroke?” Gulab asked. Charvi clapped to relieve stress.

“I want to go to the post office.” Charvi replied in a barely audible voice.

Gulab crooked an eyebrow. She had not seen a post office anywhere, but she had also not seen much of the city in general — she and Charvi were bused in on the 44th along with fifty other soldiers from the port, and dropped off at the base. All they had time for (and all they were allowed to do) was registration, two meals, equipment check-in, and bunking. The day after that, on the 45th, they still weren’t allowed off-base, and took a tour of the facilities.

That must have been it; after yesterday’s tour, Charvi must have realized that the base had no available post office, and it must have made her a little depressed. Her precious hobby was stamp collecting, and being in Rangda there was an opportunity to collect new pieces. Putting all of this together, Gulab thought she had an idea of how to cheer Charvi on.

“Hey, look, we have the festival day off! You can go to the post office then.” She said.

Charvi bolted upright suddenly. She stood at attention, staring forward inexpressively.

Her head turned stiffly toward Gulab. “Are you sure? Will we really be allowed out?”

“Positive!” Gulab replied. “She said we had a break on the festival day, right? Obviously that break is for the soldiers to go out and join the festivities, otherwise what’s the point?”

Charvi pressed her hands against her cheeks. “You’re correct. You must be.”

“Trust me! We’ll have a party at the post office on that day. Just cheer up a bit, ok?”

“Yes. I admit that I felt and still feel restless, but I will be fine now. Thank you.”

When it came to Charvi, emotion was never written on her face, but it could be evident in the air around her. Her words hinted at a renewed intensity of feeling. Charvi turned her head again, and stood straighter, her legs set, her back erect, her chest out.

“I must live until that precious day.” She said.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t live until then, but ok.”

“You never know. I must try extra hard to live until then.”

Her deadpan expression made Gulab smile. She raised a thumbs-up.

“As long as you’re feeling chipper! I’ll help out.”

Gulab petted Charvi on the shoulders and turned back around with a grin on her face.

At the conclusion of the Inspector General’s motivational speech, the soldiers were divided into several groups and pointed toward the newly-raised tents far behind them. They were big green field tents. Many of them had the telephone symbol, a handset in a black circle. A soldier who saw it was supposed to interpret that as a communications, liaison or headquarters tent, but there were a dozen strung up. So then, what did it mean?

“What the heck are those?” Gulab asked in whispers.

Charvi shrugged. “I think they’re conducting some sort of test there.”

Gulab soon found herself in a line stretching out from one of these impromptu offices.

She felt her heart thumping as everyone started to move forward into it. She could not see anyone inside, but she could see a light shining briefly through the canvas as someone exited out the back of the tent and let in sunlight. There was a little bit of chatter inside. Gulab could make out words like “official” and “documentation” and felt anxious.

“I think they’re checking papers in there.” Gulab said, looking behind herself at Charvi, who had been a step behind Gulab in the press of bodies that formed their waiting line.

“Well, they’re out of luck, because I don’t have mine.” Charvi said.

It was easy to see how those could have been lost given the events of the month.

As someone from the Kucha, where Solstice’s reach was weak, Gulab had no official papers to begin with. Her only documentation was her army sign-up forms from years ago, which she was told would be, cryptically, “good enough for anything.” She had no birth documents. This was a blessing, because it meant nobody could contradict her on anything about her identity but her family, who were far away; but might become a curse. She didn’t know.

Her mind filled with nightmares in miniature, playing and replaying before her eyes as the line pushed her toward the tent flaps under the muggy heat of a Rangdan morning.

Soon Gulab stood in front of the tent flaps and heard a female clerk calling out, “Next!”

Looking over her shoulder at Charvi, Gulab wiggled her fingers in the air as a little wave. Swallowing with a gulp, she closed her eyes briefly and stepped through the tent flaps.

When she opened her eyes, the place was a little gloomy, but uncrowded and neat.

Gulab took seat at a little table, one of six. Across from her sat a dark-skinned clerk in a pristine uniform. Her frizzy hair was styled big and round, and her friendly blue eyes were heavily magnified by the lenses on her thick glasses. With a big smile on her lips, the clerk pulled a form letter from a box and set it in front of Gulab along with a loaded ink pen.

“Good morning, comrade! I’m Warrant Officer Keisha Tamsi, and I just need a little moment of your time to insure we get a good form we can file for the Regiment.” She said.

Her tone of voice was pleasantly deep. Gulab’s anxiety at being seated in such an official-looking tent, with such official-looking person, very slightly diminished. She felt less scared and more sheepish at being in front of a nice stranger on this strange errand.

“Now, before we begin, I’d just like to know your home region. Can you tell me?”

“I come from the Kucha mountains.” Gulab said.

“I see! So that means you have no official papers. Am I right?”

Gulab felt an icy stiffness going through her chest. “Yes, sorry. I have none.”

“No birth certificate or anything like that, right?”

“My birth was handled fairly sloppily. I don’t even know my exact age.”

Gulab’s voice trembled. She expected to be told to pack her bags and leave the army.

Comrade Tamsi nodded her head in response and smiled.

“I understand. It’s perfectly fine, comrade. Your army sign-up forms, and any forms we fill today, can be used as your official papers henceforth. So don’t worry about it!”

“Oh, good.” Gulab sighed with relief. That had been easy; she had worried over nothing.

“There are many villages and unincorporated territories that have less than stellar documentation. So over time, we’ve learned not to be sticklers for stamped papers.”

From the box, Tamsi withdrew a few additional forms, stacked them neatly together, and pushed the stack forward. Gulab picked up the top form. It had basic things like name, date of birth, gender. That last one gave her a fresh shot of little anxieties, but she figured she could put anything on it and that nobody would check it or care. She was right.

“Answer with anything you want for any of the fields and we will consider it wholly official with the state’s blessing — if you want to change your name even, go for it! As far as The Socialist Dominances of Solstice is concerned, everything you write there today is your official paper information as valid as anything a doctor writes at the side of a birth table.”

Comrade Tamsi sounded almost excited for Gulab to invent herself in this little tent.

Gulab, however, was not feeling terribly creative. Though she could have chosen a more feminine name, perhaps, she was rather fond of Gulab. And while she hated her father and brother, her beloved grandfather had been a Kajari, and her fun and helpful cousins were all Kajaris too, so she had nothing against her maiden name either. Thus she made her decision.

Atop the form, she proudly wrote “Gulab Kajari” and beside it, “24”, her best guess for her age, and “M” for “Mwanamke” or woman. Her hand shook a little after that. She set her birthday as the 23rd of the Lilac’s Bloom, the date she came down from the mountain.

There were other fields, such as any conditions she had, or any levels of schooling earned.

“I don’t remember exactly what I wrote on my army sign-up forms. Is that ok?”

She knew back then she had signed up as a woman too. She had made the decision to live that way a long time before she came down from the mountain. However, she still felt a little scared that the two forms would be cross-referenced in other ways. Again she overestimated the importance of the forms and the bureaucracy’s level of efforts here.

“Not at all! As a matter of fact we don’t even have access to those! They were probably burnt in Adjar to keep them from Nocht. Write anything with confidence.” Tamsi replied.

Gulab realized how perfunctory all of this was, and her heart and stomach finally settled.

No one was trying to kick her out of the army. In fact they seemed to be making every effort to keep her, and everyone in the regiment, in the army. That was reassuring. She had nowhere else to go — though she could have settled down anywhere, that meant she would not have been able to fight alongside her comrades. Alongside Charvi; she was glad to stay.

Smiling, she started scribbling down whatever came to mind for the rest of the papers.

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.”

“Yes ma’am!”

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.

Rangda City — 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

Paperwork, simple medical exams and a few perfunctory literacy tests took up half the morning; for lack of equipment, Kimani then began to pace around the newly-minted training field and ordered the ranks to stretch, perform push-ups, and to run laps as a warm-up. This warm-up lasted over an hour while Kimani shot aggravated glances at the road.

Though most of the construction materials did not make it in time to complete the obstacle courses, mock tank models and false bunkers necessary to start infantry training in earnest, the day would not be wasted. In fact, Rangda’s garrison and its occupants new and old witnessed quite an occasion as several rarely-seen vehicles made appearances that morning.

Perhaps the most important arrival for the weary troops was a M.A.W 8-ton truck, an endangered species that had been discontinued after 2023 for its unnecessarily large and heavy build. This unit bore the symbol of the civil canteens, a loaf and a cup framed by slim bananas. The 8-ton’s bulk was used to the fullest; on its back there were scores of ration boxes, more than enough for the over one thousand occupants of the field.

Volunteers from the canteen stood at the back and cordially handed out the food.

After the morning’s grueling deliberations, the soldiers gladly stood in line. After a half-hour the truck was emptied out and a big brown box, rattling with cans and thin and small metal utensils, was put into the hands of every hungry soldier in the park. Most of them walked away thinking this gracious delivery would be the highlight of their quite long day.

Adesh Gurunath didn’t get the red curry he liked this time, but he was fine with the contents of the box. There was a lovely spread of kachumber and breads and potatoes.

His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe seemed ecstatic in their own ways about the meal.

“This makes the food on the Revenant look like gruel!” Eshe ecstatically said.

He bit down on the fresh vegetables and smiled at Adesh.

“A lot of it was gruel.” Adesh gently replied.

Nnenia expressionlessly rolled up a puri bread and stuffed it into her mouth whole.

“Ish goof.” She said through the mouthful of food. Eshe looked her way with disdain.

While everyone settled down in their little groups, remaking the squadrons with which they fought in Bada Aso as friend groups enjoying the meal together, the old M.A.W truck departed, and in its place arrived a sleek green tracked vehicle, its sloped armor and streamlined shape bearing the weight of a squat, rounded turret with a thick mantlet and a large gun. Adesh whistled and followed the vehicle as it went. It was a Hobgoblin.

Around him there were several heads turning. Not everyone got to see one of those in Bada Aso. They had a limited amount of them at the time, and the ruined state of the city made it hard for them to navigate. When one was around, however, it inspired confidence.

There was a lot of grinning and smiling from a few Bada Aso veterans, and several people sent comradely cheers the green creature’s way as it trundled toward the center of the field.

But most everyone’s attention on the training field was primarily on food and on friends. Ration boxes were cracked open, veggies and bread and yogurt were thoroughly enjoyed, and a nearby faucet, standing alone off to the side of a stamped-down building foundation, provided cool water. The fighting machine was a passing curiosity for the gathering at large.

“Those were the types that retook the Cathedral when we left, right?” Adesh asked.

“Yes.” Nnenia said tersely. She always spoke exactly as many words as she needed.

“It’s probably being mass produced; otherwise it wouldn’t visit so casually.” Eshe said.

“Probably.” Nnenia replied. She stuffed another puri into her mouth, but this one had been rolled up around vegetables and sauce too. Her cheeks bulged with food.

“Could you eat in a more civilized manner?” Eshe asked, staring glumly at her.

“No.” Nnenia brusquely said, this time through half a mouthful of chewed food.

“I’m asking politely, as a person kind of bothered by loud chewing, to please–”


Adesh sighed and averted his eyes from them. They were always finding some excuse–

A familiar gray blur flashed at the edge of his vision.

A tank; he saw a tank coming. He couldn’t believe it.

At first he thought it was another Hobgoblin tank, but he saw the grey even before the shape of the tank had become coherent to his sight, and when it did, he felt an overwhelming terror that shook him from his toes to his hips and back and up his hands.

He was bombarded with sights and sounds.

That wicked tinnitus returned to his ears, the sound of discharging rifles, screaming artillery, the weeping of the delirious wounded, and the constant booming of artillery.

Sheer reflex drew from his lips a cry he hard far too often for one fragile lifetime.

“M4 SENTINEL, 800 METERS!” He shouted. He did not shout it alone. Several men and women all around the training field had shouted the warning before and after him.

Eshe fell suddenly back; Nnenia’s hands dropped her utensils on the dust. She froze.

Men and women bolted upright, toppled over and crawled away, stood motionless.

Similar scenes of panic played out like a tidal wave of triggered emotion in every direction.

Not one grunt was prepared when the M4 Sentinel stormed in through the flag park.

Its curved body, round turret, tightly spaced track layout with multiple bogies, the way the armor sloped down from the tall, steep front plate; it was a deadly and familiar sight, burned into the mind of any soldier who had to face one with limited anti-tank weaponry.

Everyone who heard the tracks thought it was another Hobgoblin; but the passing blur on the corners of their eyes was gray, not green. A color they had learned to dread, the gray caused them to glance, then stare. Dawning recognition forced their bodies stand, to draw back, to drop down in a sudden reflex. There was a communal desperation as the machine appeared, without explanation, seemingly intact, in the middle of their garrison.

Sensing the panic, staff and guards approached the soldiers and tried to calm them down. Then a woman popped out of the M4’s front hatch waving and shouting. Her Ayvartan appearance, brown skin, black hair, dark eyes, did little to induce calm by itself.

“Please relax comrades! It is a captive model, we’re using it for training purposes!”

Inspector General Kimani echoed the driver’s message over a horn. “Everybody settle down right now! This tank was liberated by our comrades in the waning days of Bada Aso! You must look at the markings on the turret and hull before panicking at the sight!”

At once, the most raucous among the troops felt foolish. On the side of the M4’s gray turret there was indeed a big, gaudy red and black hydra symbol painted onto the metal.

Adesh could not move. He was standing, but his legs were bending slightly, shaking.

He raised a hand to his mouth and felt tears go up to his eyes. Nnenia and Eshe bolted up and tried to comfort him. He was not alone; there were others succumbing to this buried pain. The sight of them did not make him feel less foolish. He let himself cry.

The M4 Sentinel’s driver apologized profusely as the evil tank followed the Hobgoblin.

Slowly the affected soldiers sat back down and returned nervously to their meals.

Once the excitement died down, and everyone had eaten, it was well past noon, and Kimani ordered everyone to attention once more. There was bitter whispering as the soldiers felt they might be scolded. Instead, Kimani bowed her head humbly to the men and women in front of her. “Comrades, henceforth, you will be notified ahead of time when enemy equipment is to be brought in for training. I apologize for our carelessness.”

Hearing this helped the overall morale recover enough to continue the day’s events.

Soldiers were afterward divided into two columns, standing in parallel lines and giving a broad field between them to the tanks. The Hobgoblin and the M4 rolled between the men and women, turning, driving at different speeds, showing off their abilities.

While the demonstration took place, Adesh watched through freshly dried eyes. He felt the rumbling of the earth just under his feet, and it took him back to the ruined city.

He was still stressed out from when the M4 ran in. It had reminded him of so many awful things. He had been insulated from the war by the retreat from Bada Aso, by the time spent at sea. But now he felt such a close proximity to the events again. He was restless, his body brimming as if with the energy he spent in Bada Aso, fighting desperately.

Their terrible adventure had begun right on the border on the very day and the very spot where the invasion began; they had fought all the way from the border, to the city of Bada Aso. There, Major Madiha Nakar, now a Colonel, had led them to victory. But Adesh always thought that, for his part, what led to his success was his little cadre, his beloved friends.

Without them he would be lost. Always together, always the three of them.

Nnenia, a slender and reserved girl with messy, dark shoulder-length hair and dark skin, her lips and eyes hardly ever bearing an expression. She stood to one side of Adesh with her hands in her pockets, her tunic half-open and her dress-shirt half-open under that. At his other side stood Eshe, a smooth-faced and tidy young man with short, dark hair combed and slicked, styled perfectly under his garrison cap. He wore his uniform buttoned to the neck.

In between these two, Adesh had fought through the entire length of this war thus far.

Adesh thought himself a much lesser sight than his friends. Others had said he was pretty, and even cute, but he had a hard time believing this. His once long, straight hair had been cut into an orderly neck-length bob, and a pair of glasses perched on his slim nose brought long overdue correction to his eyesight. Like his friends he was a brown-skinned, slender Arjun youth with soft facial features. His green army uniform was not as clean and orderly and well-ironed as Eshe’s, nor as thrown-around and messy as Nnenia’s. It was just there.

Though not a pessimist about most things, Adesh had taken to pessimism about himself.

Until midday everything had gone well. He had filled out his forms, passed his medical exam, barely managed his push-ups, and laughed and joked and played around with his friends over lunch. After that tank appeared, however, his head was full of things that had once been comfortably far away, and were now both too close and too far. His distance to Bada Aso, now that he remembered its events so painfully well, felt eerie, unreal, displaced in time.

These thoughts took him out of the world. He felt like a spectator to his own body.

A sharp cracking of metal awakened Adesh from his reverie. On the field the tanks that had been circling and turning and showing off their movements turned back toward the crowd, and they stopped in between the ranks of soldiers, and cut their engines suddenly. A hatch went up and slammed on the armor; the driver of the M4 Sentinel climbed out of the tank, walked off to the side of the field and stood with the troops.

Meanwhile the Hobgoblin drove in reverse several hundred meters away from the M4.

From the command cadre, a woman walked out to the middle of the field with the tanks.

She was a tanned-skinned woman with a pair of thin spectacles over green eyes with brightly glowing red rings around the iris. Like Kimani her build was fairly tall, long-legged, slender, but she was younger. Long gold bangs fell over her forehead, and she wiped them aside; the rest of her hair was collected into a bun. She was dressed in a secretarial sort of uniform, with an ironed skirt, and a half-open black field jacket over a collared shirt with a red tie. Her demeanor was reserved, and her face inexpressive. She was part of the KVW.

“My name is Eligia Jaja, assistant to the Inspector General.” She said. She turned her head from one side to the other, glancing over the two columns of troops around her. “My focus is information and signals warfare, but today, I hope to instill in you a sense of confidence in our ability to fight. Judging by previous events, I think you will appreciate it.”

Adesh watched her closely. Eshe and Nnenia stood quietly at his sides, watching too.

She half-turned and stretched an arm out to emphasize the Hobgoblin, parked near her.

“This is our Hobgoblin model tank. It will soon be entering mass production. Also present is a Nochtish M4 Sentinel. Have you been watching them closely? As they paraded before you, did you notice the Hobgoblin’s superior speed and handling? Perhaps not. Did you notice its greater armor coverage, compared to the Sentinel? Perhaps not. I’ll demonstrate.”

From the command cadre, arrived a young woman with long, dark hair that Adesh had thought he had seen before in Bada Aso. She carried a piece of equipment that reminded him of the control console used to fly training targets for anti-aircraft guns. He had shot at several of those remote control plane dummies that flew when commanded by a radio box.

Ms. Jaja stepped aside, and the engineer with the console stood beside the tank. Her fingers played over the box, turning knobs and moving switches. She then pressed a button.

As if alive the M4 Sentinel began to turn its turret. It pointed its gun on the Hobgoblin.

“Everyone brace yourselves, and take care.” Ms. Jaja shouted out. “Fire!”

Gasps drew from the crowd as the seemingly empty M4 opened fire on the Hobgoblin.

One armor-piercing shell blew from the gun barrel and cut the distance in an instant.

Before heads could turn to fix on the Hobgoblin several hundred meters away, it was over.

The M4’s shell had struck, bounced off the gun mantlet and flown away out of sight.

Those who had not been staring at the Hobgoblin all along would find no evidence that it had even been attacked. It was unharmed, and the shooting had happened too quickly.

“Keep your eyes on the Hobgoblin, and witness its strength!” Ms. Jaja shouted. “Fire!”

Again the engineer worked the console, and again the enslaved M4 Sentinel opened fire.

Now Adesh and everyone else was watching, and everyone saw the shot, a green tracer like every other shot fired by the Nochtish tanks, hit the Hobgoblin dead on, and trail up toward the sky. Having stricken sloped armor, too thick to be penetrated and too well-angled to burst against, the shell deflected entirely and continued on a harmless trajectory overhead.

Over the awed collective whispering of the troops, Ms. Jaja spoke once again.

“Our Hobgoblins possess an effective thickness of 81 millimeters of armor on the front, and over 50 millimeters of armor on the sides and back. Though the metal itself is only around 50 millimeters thick at best, the careful design of the armor makes it much more potent. Meanwhile, the M4 Sentinel has an effective thickness of 60mm in front. Watch.”

Across the field from the M4, the Hobgoblin’s engine roared to life. It moved back several meters, adjusted its turret, and took aim for the M4 Sentinal. Ms. Jaja and the engineer gave the M4 a wide berth, and staff waved the crowd a safer distance from the targeted tank. Once everyone had cleared the way, the tanks had 800 meters of distance from each other and around 300 meters of distance to the nearest human being, safe enough to shoot.

Ms. Jaja waved her hand up at the Hobgoblin. A second later, its muzzle flashed red.

An inert armor piercing shell fired from the Hobgoblin’s gun. To the casual eye it seemed like nothing happened: there was no big explosion. The M4 shook up and then lay silent.

But those positioned to see the M4’s front, like Adesh, witnessed a hole the size of a person’s head sprouting as if spontaneously between the driver’s slit and the frontal machine gun. Metal shavings sprayed out of the hole as the shell connected with the armor and sliced into the tank’s interior. There was a sound like a hammer striking a wall.

Ms. Jaja urged everyone to come closer. Dozens of curious trainees approached the tank, and took turns inspecting the hole, poking their head inside, surveying the damage.

“As you can clearly see, Nocht’s equipment is not invincible. There is no gulf between us. Nocht are mortals; they can be defeated. We are building weapons now that will challenge them and bring us victory. But those weapons require you to wield them.” said Ms. Jaja.

Adesh stood in silent reverence of the Hobgoblin and its potential. Inspired by his awe, all of the tumult in his mind seemed to clear. The sight of the dead M4 was eerily cathartic, cut fully down in front of them after inspiring such terror with its very appearance.

In Bada Aso they had struggled so much against Nocht and its weapons. Here, in the sterile and peaceful environment of the training field, the vulnerability of the enemy was finally laid bare in a way that everyone could see and understand. It was heartening.

“Our greatest weapon in this fight is you all. Without you, the tanks do not move and the guns do not shoot. Nocht is human and fallible. You’ve nothing to fear.” Ms. Jaja said.

Her words brought about a revolution in Adesh’s heart and soul. He believed her.

Across the field, hands went up in salute. Once laggard soldiers stood fully in attention.

After what they had seen, the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment as a whole believed her now.

Rangda City — 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

As the day wound down, Madiha left the stolid confines of her big desk and visited Kimani at the training field. She wanted to see her again — they hadn’t talked much at sea. She also wanted to get a look at her troops and their training course, though she suspected that only minimal progress had been made on the facilities there.

Madiha was correct. Little had changed on the training field since she first saw it, except for the troops running around on it, and tents set up at its edge and now being taken down. She found Kimani sitting on the remains of a brick wall, about knee-high, that had not been properly cleared out of a building lot. She had her arms crossed, and was staring forward without expression. Hearing the Colonel’s footsteps, she glanced over her shoulder.

Hujambo.” Madiha said. She approached the wall, walked around it, and stood at Kimani’s side with a small smile. “How far along are our prospective elite soldiers?”

Kimani grinned just a touch. “They can run and jump, so there’s potential there.”

“I see.” Madiha chuckled. She crossed her arms and stared out at the field.

“How about your office? Can you yell at the regional quartermaster over the phone?”

Madiha shook her head. “We haven’t even gotten the wires yet, much less the sets.”

Kimani nodded. She pushed herself off the bricks to a stand.

She then stepped forward and spread her arms, closing in on Madiha.

Madiha allowed herself to be taken to Kimani’s breast, wrapped in a familial embrace. They were a little awkward; she was stiff, and Kimani’s approach was just a touch too strong and too close. Despite this it was the closest Madiha had received to sororal or maternal love in decades. It felt strange but comforting to be wrapped tight with someone older and bigger.

“Forget this place for a moment. How are you holding up?” Kimani asked.

“I’m doing better.” Madiha said simply. “I’m stable, even without the drugs.”

“Good. I was worried in Bada Aso. I wish I could have done more to help.”

“It’s fine. We’re here now; let’s put it behind us. Bada Aso is burnt and buried.”

Kimani raised her head from Madiha’s shoulder and stared into her eyes.

“How did you like the kachumber today?” Madiha asked idly, steering away the topic.

Kimani gave her a little smirk, stroking her head as if she was still the child she once knew.

“It was very good. Quite a relief too; I almost thought the city would try to starve us.”

When they finally parted, Kimani looked at her face almost fondly, and patted her hair.

“You’ve gotten more expressive, Chinedu. You remind me of that time.” Madiha said.

“You’ve changed too,” Kimani said, “hopefully, the better to tackle this unique predicament.”

Both women looked out over the field, where their troops ran laps, cleaned guns, dug a series of latrines, and cleared out the remnants of walls and floors left on the various empty lots, all for lack of any real combat training to do. It was a pathetic sight on a military base.

No matter how much anyone wanted to train, the deprived state of the regiment prevented it. An army needed supplies for everything, even for the purposes of training to fight.

Kimani and Madiha had wanted to make a large, complicated training course in Rangda.

However the supply situation was putting a damper on their well-laid plans.

There was no pattern to what got delivered and what didn’t. They had gotten the wood for the climbing obstacles and for building model houses, but no concrete to build the fake pillboxes. They had gotten steel posts, but no barbed wire with which to line the ditches and fences for the digging and crawling drills. They had gotten their tanks delivered from Solstice, but the ammunition, locally produced to 76mm specification, was in short supply.

And the amounts of the materials they did receive were a pittance compared to what they needed. A 4-ton truck’s worth of wood, a 2-ton truck’s worth of steel, a crate’s worth of sandbags. It was maddening. They could still potentially make a small, limited course that only four or five people could run at a time, but that was simply unacceptable for them.

“This is Mansa’s doing. That much I know for a fact.” Kimani said.

Madiha had not told Kimani about what happened between her and the councilman, much less between her and the councilman’s toady Jota. She was surprised to hear her come to that conclusion. It was starting to dawn upon officers like Minardo that the situation was deliberately contrived against them; but it was another thing entirely to single out Mansa.

“How did you come to that conclusion?” She asked.

“I know the history of this place. Once I heard he was here, I knew there would be trouble between us. Rangda is doing what it has historically done best.” Kimani said.

Madiha raised her eyebrows. “Deprive people?”

“Indeed. Well-worded; Rangda has been a place of deprivation and ironclad control.”

“I only knew it was a major port; we conducted most of our foreign trade through here.”

Kimani nodded. “Do you know who pushed for that to happen?”

Madiha shook her head. She knew a lot about military history, about socialist theory, about things that she needed and wanted and that she was interested in knowing. She was quickly finding gaps in her knowledge when it came to other things; never had she been so starkly confronted by things she did not know. It made her life up to now feel almost simple.

“I’m going to guess it was Mansa.” She said. That dot was easy enough to connect.

“Mansa has a long, complicated history.” Kimani said. “He was an imperial bureaucrat here in Rangda at the turn of the millennium. Rangda had a labyrinthine system of guild patronage at the time — to get good jobs, and to have any chance at a decent living, you had to join the labor guilds and worship their associated political machines. You had to play their games. Mansa got his standing through the vicious diplomacy of the period.”

“And anyone who failed this system sat at the bottom of society.” Madiha said.

“Worse. Old Rangda was a paradise built to hide a slum. You weren’t even human without patronage and access to the guild machines. Anyone who lifted you from that poverty into the prestige of the guilds was like a god to you — they literally gave you life. It was the way of things here; nobody saw any alternative. And it was a system fattened through the opening of the ports to vast and lucrative foreign trade markets. It created a system of slavery and slavers, professionals and peasants, all serving foreign currency.”

Madiha jumped a little ahead. “And those systems were not just bombed away completely.”

“Believe me, we tried.” Kimani said. “All of the Rangda that you see now is new, at least physically. During the Civil War, we devastated the shining port. I’m not proud of it. But it was a bastion for nationalists with foreign support. The SDS burnt the city to ashes.”

“I understand.” Madiha said. She didn’t have to justify it to her.

Kimani nodded. “Needless to say, it was violent. But culture isn’t like a crop blight. You can’t just burn it away. Mansa went on to have a prominent role in ending the Civil War. After the war, he brokered deals to reopen foreign trade primarily through Rangda and Bada Aso. He wanted us to rejoin foreign markets. He wanted to open the imperial vaults for this; but Lena Ulyanova and Daksha Kansal blocked him from doing so. Once he backed off the issue of hard currency, he proposed other ways, and they were acceptable to everybody.”

“And he regained his standing in Rangda and Tambwe through this action.” Madiha said. She was quickly piecing together what Kimani’s ultimate conclusion might just be. “I suspect he or his family reformed those old imperial guilds as the current Rangdan labor unions, correct? So during the period prior to the Akjer incident, these unions would have been prestigious; the local market in Rangda would have been flush with coveted foreign goods.”

“More or less. It’s not the same as then, not by a longshot. But Mansa has a lot of pull among people whose families and professions were at their peak back then; and among the people they trained, the people they support. Generations have carried this hero worship forward.”

“Why was all of this allowed to happen?” Madiha asked, a touch aggravated.

“Compromise ended the bloodshed. Everyone wanted to believe in everyone else.”

Madiha shook her head. “I get it. We took him at his word, in good faith. So now, he can use that to hamstring us with his pull on the unions. After all, we’re the KVW, the enemy that closed off the country’s access to the outside world and its rainbow of consumer goods.”

It was an ugly picture, but Kimani’s expression seemed to confirm that this was the case. Madiha had hoped the situation would not be so dire, but after this conversation she could not deny that something quite rotten was happening all around them. She hesitated to say ‘something dangerous’ or ‘something treasonous.’ She dearly wanted the intra-Ayvartan violence of the Akjer period to be over. But it seemed nothing could be easy.

She supposed that was the same thing that Lena and Daksha had felt after the Civil War. Both had dearly wanted the violence to be aware. So they believed; at disastrous cost.

“This is all just conjecture, of course.” Kimani said.

“I’ve had run-ins with Mansa and his subordinates that suggest otherwise.” Madiha said.

Kimani rubbed her chin. “I see. In that case, I trust your judgment.”

“I just don’t understand why he would do this. Does he want me to go up to him and beg for my supplies? He must know I will not do that. Does he want us to vacate Rangda? There are easier ways to accomplish that with his position. None of it makes any sense.”

“I cannot fathom his motives either. This interference is too obvious.” Kimani said.

“Regardless, we have no choice but to play along for now.” Madiha said. She had started to contemplate her options, but had very quickly run herself against a wall. “Even if we contacted Solstice, they would demand an investigation or that we take action. They would not just let us move somewhere else for refitting. So we serve everyone’s interests best by staying here, provoking Mansa and seeing what his next move is.”

“Whatever order you give, I will follow.” Kimani said.

Madiha released a long sigh.

As the sun started to set on Rangda, it became clear that they had not entirely escaped Bada Aso or any of their problems. They had simply traded one Bada Aso for another.

One siege for a second; one war for another, perhaps worse war, longer-lived and far more acrimonious; one enemy for a new, mysterious foe. It was like Akjer, all over again. In that tiny coastal city the greatest betrayal of their young nation had been orchestrated.

Madiha quivered with the realization that this could easily become her Akjer.

In light of this, the questions of supplies, of festivals, of her roaring heart, seemed so petty.

There could be no time for any of that in this situation.

“Chinedu, I was wondering if I should–”

She felt Kimani’s hand land on her shoulder and squeeze.

“On the 48th, If you have someone in mind to go with, then go.” Kimani said.

Madiha looked over her shoulder at her with surprise.

Kimani smiled, and patted her shoulder again in a friendly fashion.

“I was a proper young woman with many suitors once. I can coach you.”

Madiha burst out laughing, so suddenly and clumsily that she was in part choking and coughing and in part actually laughing. She felt a sense of relief, as if the bad air clutching her heart and brain was being slowly released in the struggle to breathe through her humor.

Though short on supplies, at least Madiha was not short on moral support.

Next Chapter In Unternehmen Solstice — The Fallen Front

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