Rumbling Hearts (42.2)

Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

“A bullet will not kill your enemy by itself! It is the mastery of the shooter that kills!”

Inspector General Kimani stood before a hundred riflemen and women of the Regiment’s 1st Motor Rifle Battalion: Matumaini, and delivered a clear and precise speech on rifle discipline and marksmanship. Her audience was destined to be fireteam leaders, snipers and squad leaders under the proposed new organization of the Ayvartan army.

And though these proposals had not yet been approved, the Regiment still proceeded to line everyone up in a corner of the training field, in front of several wooden targets.

Such was the value of these young minds that the Inspector General would personally oversee their training, which, so far, had meant shouting their way for fifteen minutes.

“You cannot fall into the trap of thinking your bullets expert killers by themselves.” Kimani said. “Bullets are impressive; the way they fly invisibly through the air the instant after a trigger pull, causing great trauma and death to a human body, is extraordinary. But not every bullet is a killing bullet. A shot to the leg will cripple an enemy, but that enemy can still shoot and move. A shot to the arm may put an enemy out of the fight momentarily, but they can return with a pistol, or throw a grenade, or run to their allies to relay information.”

The Inspector General drew an example of the typical Ayvartan Bundu rifle out of a nearby crate, and in one precise movement she loaded a round into the weapon and pulled the trigger almost without aiming. A procession of men and women of the Regiment winced reflexively as Kimani scored a precise hit on a wooden target set up some 500 meters away.

Gulab Kajari failed to detect the bullet impact, as she did not know where to direct her attention at the time. When she looked at the target after the fact, she saw what seemed like a pinprick on the red center of a painted circle, one of three on the wooden board.

“It is vital that you aim for the center of mass! On a human body the torso is the largest target containing the most vital organs. Leave the heads and limbs to snipers! You, the simple rifle soldier, are most efficient when aiming at the core of the enemy’s body!”

Kimani pulled the bolt on her rifle, loading in a new round, and fired with nary a moment’s hesitation between the two actions. Again her shot scratched the wood on the thick center of the target. Overlapping circles were yellow, to represent the zone of the upper and lower body, and green, the largest circle, least likely to represent a fatal shot on the enemy.

Looking at the red circle, Gulab thought it must’ve been around a meter across at most.

“For today’s drill, you will split up into teams of spotter and shooter. You will each put 100 rounds through the rifle. Count your teammates’ hits judiciously using the provided chart.”

Though Inspector Kimani’s powerful voice made the exercise sound quite important, the barren stretch of training field between the firing line and the targets suggested other motives for the exercise. It was clearly something that could be done with limited ammunition and construction supplies. Gulab was not keen on shooting. She would have preferred to learn some new skills. She thought she was as good as shot as she’d ever be.

Nevertheless, Inspector Kimani was quite scary, and Gulab easily complied.

Everyone seemed to easily split up into teams, dividing themselves among the many targetss provided for the day’s exercises, and Gulab naturally joined forces with Charvi Chadgura as per the usual, and they paired up behind a low sandbag wall. They had one rifle between them and exactly two hundred rounds of ammunition in a bag at their feet.

“I hope we each get our own rifle in combat!” Gulab said jokingly.

She nudged Charvi in the chest with her elbow, but her friend looked quite inanimate.

“Something wrong?” She asked. She put down the rifle and looked into Charvi’s eyes.

Though her face was expressionless as usual, but something about her posture and movement suggested a limpness and vulnerability that was not the norm for her. Her face and voice could not be read, but Gulab knew well enough how to tell her friend was troubled. At her best, Charvi was reliably balanced, not a pitch too high or too low, neither too stiff nor too lose. She was a measuring stick. Should her neutral pose lean any one specific way, it meant that something was off. Gulab prodded her to see what was wrong.

At first she only made subdued little breathing noises.

“What was that?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura sighed. It was eerie. All she did was open her mouth and let out some air.

With her face, it did not look like a real sigh, but it felt like one.

“I foolishly allowed myself to hope.” Chadgura replied.

Gulab blinked. “It’s gonna be hard to follow that up, but please try.”

“Yesterday,” Chadgura continued, as if uninterrupted, “upon hearing tell of a ‘postal truck’ that comes to the base, I gathered up my very limited amount of pocket money, and I waited outside for this truck for several hours. Upon its arrival, I found that it carried no stamps.”

“Wait, what, when did you do this, I was with you all day.” Gulab said.

“Perhaps yesterday is inaccurate. It was today, but very early.”

Gulab shook her head, loudly groaning. “You’ve gotta control yourself.”

She picked up the rifle from the sandbag wall and thrust it toward Charvi.

Charvi took the gun, loaded it, aimed, and fired, missing the target entirely.

“Hah, you weren’t even close!” Gulab said. “Stamp stuff got you that down?”

Firing another weak shot, Charvi gave no immediate reply. Gulab patted her back.

“Come on, don’t let it get to you! Tomorrow we’ll have time enough for stamps.”

“No.” Charvi said. She paused for a moment. “It is something else on my mind.”

After those mysterious words she raised the iron sights to her eyes again and put another bullet through the gun. This time she chipped away at the edge of the target, on the green.

“Let me have a go, you count mine.” Gulab said.

Taking the rifle from her friend’s hands, Gulab kneeled behind the sandbag wall, bracing herself on the sturdy surface. Holding her breath, she took aim at the center of the target and pulled the trigger. There was a bit of kick, but she was grounded enough to control it, and her muscle memory for the rifle had gotten quite good. It felt natural to shoot now.

Charvi kneeled beside her, and they were cheek to cheek, looking down the range.

“Gulab, if I asked you to come with me to the festival, would you do it?”

“I already told you I would go.”

“No, I don’t mean in that way. I mean go together.”

“We are going together.”

“I don’t mean together. I mean, together, together.”

Gulab turned her head and faced her friend. She had a quizzical expression on her face, and a dense fog around her brain. She did not understand what exactly Charvi was trying to say. After all, just repeating words did not lend them any better context. In her mind, they were both saying the same thing repeatedly without agreement. What was she missing?

“Back up a little here; what is the difference?”

Both were still kneeling behind the sandbag wall, only centimeters apart.

When Charvi spoke, Gulab could feel the breaths leaving her.

“I will try to illustrate. Two people can go to the festival, as individuals in the same place. Instead, I desire to go with you to the festival as a unit. Does this make sense?”

“No. You are actually making less sense.”

Charvi clapped her hands. “I have trouble with words, you know.”

“I know. I’ll give you time.”

“Thank you. Here’s my idea. We could hold hands, and share a sweet yogurt.”

“Units don’t really do that, I think you mean more like, a couple?” Gulab said.

Charvi awkwardly evaded her eyes.

“Perhaps, or perhaps not.”

Her friend’s evasiveness came like a kick that jumpstarted Gulab’s brain.

It dawned upon her then what word she had used, without thinking. Couple; it had come unbidden to her mind and she had blurted it out mindlessly. Not a unit, but a couple, two people, holding hands, sharing a yogurt, having a grand night out, making love–

Her own mental image quite ran away from her and she shivered.

“SO, UM,” Gulab tugged on her own shirt collar. “Couple, huh?”

Suddenly, Charvi clapped her hands several times.

It was as if she was trying to hide the sound of her own voice.

But nonetheless Gulab heard her muttering.

“Couple sounds nice.”

Gulab said nothing, watching the claps.

After over a minute it seemed, her friend was finally all clapped out.

Slowly, her hands ceased to smack together.

“I am able to accept it if you do not desire to go with me.” Charvi said suddenly.

Her eyes drooped toward the ground as if in defeat.

Gulab thrust out her hands and grabbed hold of her friend’s shoulders.

“No, no! I want to go with you!” She said. “Let’s go as a couple if you want!”

Charvi stared into her eyes, initiating another long silence.

This one she also broke through non-stop clapping.

Gulab felt like an idiot; words were streaming out of her mouth faster than thoughts could form in her head. She was nervous, she felt the brimming of anxious skin beneath her clothes, all over her body, like a swarm of ants consuming her. In her head she recalled everything everyone was saying about the festival, about how romantic it was, about how beautiful and serene and fun it was, about sweethearts and soulmates and first loves.

She should have connected the dots sooner! She felt so dense and foolish.

Even more so because she had accepted, without really thinking it through.

But looking at Charvi, as bashful as she could be, right in her hands, it felt less odd.

In fact, it felt like it could be enjoyable.

“I, uh, I don’t really have anything to wear though.” Gulab said.

“That is fine. Neither do I.” Charvi replied.

Kneeling behind the sandbags, they both averted their eyes, faces blushed a fierce red.

At their side, their rifle lay discarded.

“Will we still get stamps?” Charvi asked, glancing sidelong.

“Of course! We’ll get anything you want.” Gulab said nervously.

Charvi clapped her hands once. “Anything?”

Gulab swallowed hard, beginning to sweat.

“Well, now, let’s not get too hasty.” She said, half through a laugh, half through a hiccup.

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