The Calm Before (43.1)

48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Night

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Ocean Road

Colored streaks and bursts filled the night sky with fleeting color.

Amid the sky several payloads blew apart with a sharp crack and a dazzling display.

Hurtling heavenswards from racks set up around the city, propelled by fizzing, crackling trails, the pyrotechnics munitions exploded into grand displays of fire and light that remained in the air for several seconds before dissipating into smoke and dust.

Patterns burst into being far above the crowds, and special rockets continued to pop again and again in colorful chains of sub-munitions. To the black and blue the whimsical blasts added bright blooming flowers of green, red and yellow, spiraling orange lines, and purple concentric detonations. This sustained barrage indicated the start of the festivities.

To the civilians it was a beautiful and captivating technical display.

For some onlookers however, it was eerily reminiscent of a coming death.

Beneath the flashing skies on Ocean Road, Parinita and Madiha clung together in fear, bowing their heads and closing their eyes as they felt the air and sky growing livid with lights and smoke and a deathly cacophony. They huddled near a lamp post then dashed into an alley for safety. Madiha’s mind hyperfocused on the sounds, the whistling, the crack of the shell as it burst. As if in a war zone, the pair took cover behind a phone booth.

In their minds those pyrotechnics were hurtling earthward to kill.

Madiha envisioned for a brief second the middle of the road going up in flames.

She averted her eyes from a bright orange flash.

Parinita, gasping for breath, looked out onto the road.

There was recognition in her eyes.

“Madiha, I think–”

Around them the cheerful crowds walking down the open road and across the dimly-lit streets started to clap and whistle and celebrate the fireworks displays.

Madiha raised her head. She met Parinita’s sympathetic eyes.

“I think it’s over,” Parinita whispered, “they’re…they’re just fireworks displays.”

She was unnerved too — Madiha could see it in her face and voice.

“My heart skipped a few beats there.” Parinita said.

“Mine almost stopped. I expected a real barrage.” Madiha replied.

Her skin continued to shiver with every blast she heard, but she tried to keep her reflexes under control. Despite this she and Parinita still winced whenever the sky flashed. It did not seem to bother the festival-goers marching down Ocean Road; on the contrary, it delighted them. They had never heard a comparable whistling and blasting. To them, it was exclusively associated with the joy and levity of an exciting fireworks display on a cool evening.

Madiha tried to get the roaring of artillery guns out of her head.

She had a long night ahead and did not want any of it spoiled.

Everything but the fireworks was splendid. Gracing the festival evening were clear skies, fresh, sweet-smelling air, and a vast, vivacious display of humanity before them.

Arm in arm with Parinita, Madiha traveled down Ocean Road, looking over the colorful storefronts, the grand floats and the street decor. All of the preparation had paid off, and Ocean Road was dressed in her best attire, same as everyone walking over it. Hand-sewn banners stretched over the streets, and a variety of signs and posters and drapes were fitted to trees and buildings and posts to draw the attention of the many passersby.

Civilian and business automotive traffic was temporarily halted for the festival. In the middle of the road there was instead a fleet of slowly moving vehicle floats, heavily decorated, that served as rolling stages for singers, dancers, firebreathers and magicians, or other acts. Some also carried religious displays for local, regional and common deities.

All of them were built on old M.A.W trucks, heavily modified to support their purpose. Firebreathers had racks for their rings, magicians had their curtains and mirrors and smoke, dancers and singers had audio equipment built-in. On the religious floats there hung vast bouquets of symbolic flowers, and canopies over the truck beds protected statues of the deities that looked on at worshipers following in their wake, signing and dancing.

Every vehicle was meticulously engineered, and the makeshift parade was stunning.

On either side of the road there were long lines of kiosks and open storefronts taking over the streets with goods and games and (approved, appropriate) forms of gambling, and all manner of food and drink. It was the latter that seemed to draw the most attention. Most curiously, exotic fruits and nuts and other produce from across the continent were on sale, or sometimes simply on offer by local farm unions as a way to attract potential new members to collective farms. While they tasted, the kiosk manager lectured.

For those who wanted a little less socialism in their food, there were traditional street foods on sale for a few shells each, items like pav, potato fritters, and valleyappam, fermented coconut and rice pancakes for dipping in a cup of soup. For the sweet tooth, halva, a semolina dessert, and kulfi, a type of ice cream, were available by the scoop or in big cups.

Other storefronts attracted crowds by hosting games. People watched professional chess and mankala games from known regional players, participated in skill tests like knife throwing and fish catching and shooting galleries, and competed in simple games for prizes. Most clubs and stores had some kind of attraction to catch the crowd’s eye.

Around all of these sites the streets were packed with people.

Some crowds grew so thick one had to navigate around them, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Wherever Madiha turned she saw cheer and levity, whether spying on lone attendants, big groups of friends or small intimate couples. Everyone who was not attired in a fresh uniform was dressed formally, in colorful drapes and robes and skirts, in sharp modern suits and tight form-fitting dresses or in dazzling traditional coats.

There was an infectious energy in the air. Even Madiha, who was prone to be gloomy, felt the life sparking all around her, and kept her lips turned up in a small smile as she escorted her date to the humble Ocean Theater for a special show for the festival night.

“Had I known it would be this amazing just outside, I would not have sprung for those tickets.” Parinita said, giggling at the spectacle unfolding all around her.

Madiha smiled. “It’s lovely, but I’m still keen for some quiet time together.”

Parinita covered her mouth to stifle a charmed little laugh, her face reddening.

Ocean Theater was like a regal elder, tall and broad, a rectangular building of bleached and pitted cement with a complicated facade, perhaps a leftover from the city’s earlier incarnations. There was a small plaza in front of it, that made it stand out more from the two stucco and masonry buildings between which it was wedged. There was a small crowd gathering at the foot of the steps into the theater. All of them were dressed for an event. Madiha and Parinita looked quite at home among the crisp attire of the trendy socialites.

For once, Madiha was very satisfied with her appearance. She thought she looked quite handsome, a tall, slick, modern woman, perhaps a bit roguish, in the way she recalled Daksha being like in the past. Daksha’s suit did not fit altogether perfectly, but the slightly short coat sleeves and the somewhat tight dress pants and shirt buttons seemed to lay over Madiha’s skin in a way Parinita found pleasing. She told Madiha that it had a casual, lived-in, natural sort of look that was very dashing. Madiha was unfamiliar with fashions, and so did everything to please her date. Atop her head lay Daksha’s old fedora, the only perfect fit. Apart from her shoulders, most of her slim, toned physique did not quite shine through the suit, but that was fine with her. She looked slender and sleek in form.

She had made many preparations for the date. She had showered twice, scrubbing every slender curve of her brown body, and combed her shoulder-length dark hair while wet. It would need a trim back to its usual neck-length bob soon, but for now, it looked just enough between orderly and messy and between long and short, to fit the rest of her look.

After all the trouble she went through, she wondered now how her date made comeliness seem so effortless. Parinita was absolutely gorgeous. Had she been projected on the screen all evening instead of a film, Madiha would have cherished every second of film.

Her hair was wavy and bouncy and long, and its off-orange, off-pink strawberry color was as attractive as ever. Over the bridge of her delicate nose there was a stripe of yellow pigment, while her eyes were painted a light flushing red and her lips a soft pink. She had a lovely shape. Though all of them had come out of Bada Aso a little bonier than before, Parinita managed to retain much of her pleasant figure, and any new slenderness was well worn.

Her attire was exquisite too. A filmy, blaring red and gold drape fell over a form-fitting light purple dress that accentuated her body, with one bare shoulder and arm exposing soft, light bronze skin. She wore traditional cloth shoes and long, diaphanous leggings that peered through the slit on the right side of her long skirt. Around her slender neck there was a necklace of wooden beads, tied over itself again and again. Her look was a mix of traditional and modern that fit her stunningly well. Madiha was blessed to be with her.

Hand in hand, they were quite the eyecatching couple even among this crowd.

Standing behind the pack, the pair waited with the others for the theater to open, and then slowly ascended the stairs as the gate keepers beckoned the guests into the theater. Over a red carpet and into an archway door the couple calmly trod, pausing in front of a gold rope hung before the entryway to bar access. They were stopped by a gatekeeper in a traditional sherwani coat, purple with gold strips framing the buttons and tracing the length of the sleeves, who checked their ticket and smiled at them, tearing off half of it for them.

“Enjoy the picture. You’re in room two on the third floor.” He said.

Madiha and Parinita smiled and nodded their heads in response. Then the gatekeeper undid the golden rope and allowed them entry, setting it back in its place behind them.

From the door the couple entered a spacious and comforting lobby. Beyond a pair of red curtains on the far end of the room was the main theater space on the ground floor, reserved for plays, concerts and ballet. There was a bar-style counter behind which a cabinet of drinks was kept, and on the opposite end of the lobby there was also a counter serving snacks. Staircases and elevators were set into the walls on either side of the red curtain.

“Madiha, could you pick up some food before we go? I can get the drinks while you’re at it. It’s a ninety minute film, after all.” Parinita said, pulling gently on Madiha’s arm.

“Certainly.” Madiha said, bowing her head deferentially to her date.

For the first time that night, the women parted arms and went separate ways.

Madiha navigated the throngs of people. There were many small islands, little groups of film-goers discussing pictures near the posters on columns and walls, or clusters of four or five drama enthusiasts waiting for the main stage to be open to them, all dressed exquisitely for the night. Making her way through, Madiha arrived at the snack counter. There was a glass display case with baked goods, kept warm on electric racks, and a line of candy boxes, branded with the state company or candy factory that produced them. Behind the young man tending the counter, a deep-frying machine in the back bubbled with oil. A very large popping corn cart set into a corner continuously crackled and snapped.

Nobody around seemed very interested in the snacks, so Madiha was first and last in line when she arrived at the counter. She gave everything a quick glance, and then decided to bet on the staples she knew to be closely associated with the film experience.

“I’ll have popping corn, in the large bag, and two Jomba Sugar Company caramel boxes, and an ‘Inspiration’ chocolate bar.” Madiha said, raising her arm as if pledging an oath.

Behind the counter the young, sharply dressed attendant nodded in acknowledgment.

“That will be thirty shells, comrade.” He said.

Madiha blinked her eyes. She looked down at the candies, and back at him.

“Oh. Thirty shells? So it is not, um, free?” Madiha asked.

“No, sorry. None of these are essential foodstuffs, so they’re charged for.”

He scratched his head awkwardly as if put on the spot by her confusion.

“I can offer you a complimentary small bag of popping corn.” He then whispered.

Madiha shook her head, feeling embarrassed herself. “No, no! I’ll pay, it is fine.”

She fumbled in her coat pockets, and before the attendant’s eyes withdrew the massive wad of paper bills that constituted Daksha’s book royalties. She fumbled through the small fortune in her hands, quite unused to money. Every bill she had was either in the 100 shell denomination or the 500 shell denomination, and she could not for the life of her even conceive of what would happen if she gave such large bills to the man. Would she receive the difference back? Would the remainder disappear into oblivion?

While the attendant bagged her goods and set them on the counter, Madiha worked up the courage to drop a 500 shell paper on the counter, and push it hastily toward him.

“Ma’am, this is–”

“Just keep it! Thank you!”

Madiha quickly seized her popping corn and candies and fled the counter.

At the door to the elevator, she rejoined Parinita, who had in her hands a pair of bottles labeled ‘Dream’, common soft drinks with an apple-like taste. Parinita was in good cheer, and Madiha tried not to let any residual awkwardness show. She handed Parinita a box of caramels and the chocolate, which she graciously took. When the elevator came down, they stood to the side of the operator, a young woman in a bright coat, like the other workers.

“Third floor, please.” Parinita said.

Nodding, the elevator operator turned to a button panel and got the gears moving.

Shaking, the elevator box slowly rose to the top of the building.

In front of them the elevator doors opened.

Smiling, the operator extended a hand.

Madiha went for a hand-shake, but found herself interrupted.

“It is customary to tip the operator.” Parinita said, squeezing Madiha’s hand.

Madiha screamed internally.

Though they had not even sat down for the film yet, Parinita was already having an incredible time. Just walking beside Madiha, all dressed up, hand in hand and arm in arm, under the festival skies and across the festival streets, was so much more than she ever thought she would have. It was as if all of her impossible, childish little fantasies that she nursed over the thirty days she had known the Colonel were finally coming true.

There was still a pang of embarrassment, a nagging thought that everything was too unreal, too crazy. Parinita rarely ever acted on her impulses. She was supposed to be analytical, rational, reliable; but Madiha had tugged at her heart in a way she couldn’t explain rationally, in a way she couldn’t quite analyze. In the midst of an unreal situation, in the midst of unreal feelings and memories and sensations, Madiha kept her alive.

Not only physically, but in spirit, emotionally, in every way that mattered.

Seeing Madiha existing, casually, out in the world, seemed to confirm everything she had thought she was foolish for feeling. That gravity that drew her to the tall, gloomy, soft-hearted woman with the fiery, tormented eyes, became three times as strong that night. She felt silly thinking of love at first sight, but she could describe it no other way. Perhaps it was their shared destiny that forced them together, but Parinita wanted to think it was her own heart, her own desires and lusts, that had naturally grown this strong.

Her impulsive kiss the day before felt like the seal to a pact, but she wanted it to be a pact of her own creation, impulsive and mad as it was. She could only hope that it stuck.

But they were having so much fun, she thought, that they had to be meant to be.

Ocean Theater’s film rooms were much smaller than the main stage. Each film showroom sat thirty people in three rows lying a meter or two above a small stage, perhaps originally intended for lectures or speeches, over which the film canvas was stretched.

At the back of the room, a booth had been built for the film projector.

Parinita led Madiha to what she considered the best seats in the room, just below the projector and with nobody behind or around them. They took seat on stiff wooden frames with stuffed cushions and backrests. Madiha laid back and sighed audibly.

“I have so much money, and yet I’m in a tighter spot than ever.” She moaned.

“Well, you’re doing a good deed by spreading it around.” Parinita giggled.

Madiha mumbled a little, looking with disgust at her own coat pocket.

“I don’t think I’m doing the world much of a service here.”

“Don’t worry, somebody is bound to have change for 100 shell bills!”

At the elevator, Madiha quite literally threw money at the operator and then promptly ran away, unable to simply tell the person to keep the change, or to accompany her to the cash box to break the bills. Parinita had walked out laughing heartily until she caught back up to her date, and nobody else seemed keen to understand the situation.

“Maybe you can shrug it off, but I’ll be replaying that moment in my head for months to come.” Madiha said. Parinita gave her a sympathetic look and rubbed her shoulder. For someone who was so clever and tough for certain things, Madiha was surprisingly soft and vulnerable in so many others. She was rather naive in certain respects. It was cute.

“You can let me pay instead, I still have some money.” Parinita said.

“We shouldn’t have to pay anything.” Madiha grumbled.

“Someday, Madiha; but we’re not quite there yet I’m afraid.”

“I blame Nocht for this too.”

Parinita smiled and turned her gaze back to the film canvas.

There were perhaps eight or nine other people in this particular show.

Their tickets did not say what the film was. They were generic papers generated by a machine that only had a room number and entry fee listed. When purchasing them, Parinita had picked the movie she wanted to view, and she let Madiha know in the morning that it was a special, secret picture. Her imagination could fill in the rest.

She grinned to herself, and relaxed on her seat, laying her hand over Madiha’s.

Madiha glanced at her, and held her gaze. She seemed puzzled.

Parinita could hardly wait to see Madiha’s cute face respond to her devious ruse.

“So, Madiha, ready to see how brave you are?” Parinita sweetly said.


“I picked a special film for us to see together. I wonder who will cling to whom?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Oh ho ho!”

Around them the lights in the room dimmed, and the door was shut.

It became almost pitch black in the room, until the projector came on.

Before the picture began, an animated short explained certain safety measures that the audience should take, and exhorted them to pick up snacks, to be careful walking down the aisles while the room was dark, and to keep quiet during the picture. After this, the room grew very still as a melancholy tune brought to their attention the fact that their projector was equipped for sound. The tune brought in the title screen for the picture.

“Rampage of the Opaque Man?” Madiha said to herself.

Parinita covered her mouth with the back of her hand, delicately stifling a laugh.

“What kind of film is this? I expected lighter fare.” Madiha asked.

“I refuse to spoil it! You’ll soon see.”

Parinita giggled internally. This would be so much fun!

Like most Ayvartan horror films, the picture was black and white, by choice more than technical limitations, and appeared rather gloomy. Madiha and Parinita watched, hand in hand, as the film began to tell the story of Doctor Sanjay Gujarat, an outgoing and kind man whom they followed as he slowly became consumed with an obsession to cure the ravages of death itself using newly-synthesized chemicals and terrible drugs.

Though he might have been mistaken for a hero at first, it was an illusion that soon wore off. After several uncomfortable scenes with his friends, his family and even a lady love, whom he neglected, screamed at, and behaved erratically toward, all because of their concern and skepticism, the doctor was marked to the audience as quite the villain himself.

His true motives were soon revealed: he wanted eternal life for himself!

“I can understand his motivation.” Madiha said, self-seriously.

Parinita raised a finger to her smiling lips, urging her to keep quiet.

On screen, the doctor deteriorated before their eyes. He ate less, and bathed not at all, and sores appeared on his face, and his hair fell, and it seemed as if months of slow rot were overcoming him before their eyes. It was quite a graphic, sickening display.

Feeling her date’s hand, Parinita could tell that Madiha was on edge. The film score was brooding and tense, and lingering shots, panning across unappealing rooms, vile surfaces, and even a cadaver, made one anxious for what was to come. She heard Madiha gulp down, and saw her crunching very deliberately on popcorn and candy to relieve her stress.

As Doctor Gujarat stabilized his mixture through the horrifying addition of human blood, the film score intensified, punctuating the moment with cutting strings that could be felt like a pinprick at the base of the spine. The Doctor raised the potion to his lips, and a long shot focused on his throat, grotesquely bulging with each gulp of the putrid drink.

At once, he vanished from the screen in a trick of light and a well-placed film cut.

Madiha blinked, and Parinita thought she saw the horror dawning on her face.

Doctor Gujarat had become invisible.

More susceptible than even Parinita had thought, Madiha seemed puzzled at first, but as objects in the lab began to shatter by themselves, as a disembodied, croaking laugh echoed across the darkened halls, and as men and women became victims of an unseen assailant, the horrible possibilities of the invisible man seemed to grip her heart with a cold fear. Unblinking, Madiha stared, frozen, neglecting her snacks. She bit the tip of her thumb.

As the film crept with evil intent toward its conclusion, Parinita readied for the climax of her own plot. Sarsala, Dr. Gujarat’s lady love, traced back the man’s rampage to the place where everything began. She snuck with a held breath into his ruined laboratory, floors glistening with glass shards and thick pools of chemicals, electric wall torches sparking from the violence inflicted by the doctor as he reached his monstrous apotheosis.

Behind them the projector’s sound speakers cut out. There were minutes of dead silence in the film, and in the theater as well. It felt as if the heavy breathing of the audience was amplified, and became the new score for the film. Miss Sarsala, an innocent in her sari and long, monochromatic dress, walked step by step toward the table where the doctor had imbibed his draught of hell. Her eyes teared up at the remnants of her lover’s work.

Parinita felt a quiver through Madiha’s hand with each of those steps.

Suddenly, a sweeping shot and an unexpected string!

Dr. Gujarat charges into the scene, and for once he is partially visible, rendered opaque in a flash of light and sparks, his fleeting form twisted and monstrous and inhuman.

Blood and violent death filled the theater screen, causing a profound shock.

Madiha jerked up, a scream caught in her throat.

She swung her arms around Parinita in a frightened reflex, and drew her face close.

Parinita beamed, her strategy bearing fruit, and she stroked Madiha’s hair.

Until the end of the film, they remained cheek to cheek in this fashion.

It had worked! Madiha really did have a cute side buried under that soldierly spirit.

After the picture, they walked back out of the theater, arm in arm. There was a weak quiver across Madiha’s skin, felt across their connection, even as they departed and headed back up Ocean Road. It was much darker out now than when they entered the Theater, and the throngs had spread out farther, so there were less people in any given place. There were less fireworks going off — but Madiha nearly jumped at each one.

“Madiha, are you ok?” Parinita asked, becoming less amused and more concerned.

“I’m fine,” Madiha said, unconvincingly, “the film just tapped into a childhood fear.”

“Of invisible men?”

“Things watching me.”

Parinita’s heart sank with guilt. “I see. I wish I had known before.”

“Be honest with me: are invisible men possible?”

“Of course not! They’re just fantasy.” Parinita replied, patting Madiha’s back.

“And yet, dragons are real. I even left one at home!” Madiha said.

Parinita smiled. “That is completely different from invisible men!”

Madiha seemed quite unsettled by the idea despite this ironclad argument.

“An invisible man has too many tactical advantages. I never even considered it.”

“I guess I should’ve bought different tickets.” Parinita said.

Madiha’s eyes drew momentarily wider, and then her usual gloomy expression settled back in. She shook her head, and rubbed her forehead and her temples with one hand.

“I apologize.” She said. Perhaps she realized her own vulnerability then.

Seeing her date prostrated in this way, Parinita felt alarmed. Had she ruined the night?

“No! Don’t! It’s my fault, I didn’t think it’d scare you this much.”

Parinita thought Madiha was being rather cute; but she was aware she had gone too far, if Madiha was this shaken up by a film. She only expected her to jump a few times, preferably into Parinita’s warm, welcoming arms. It was a crass scheme on her part, she realized.

Madiha raised her hands. “It’s alright. It’s not you at all. I should be more–”

“Stop that, it’s not your fault. Come on, let’s lighten up.” Parinita replied.

She pushed herself up to Madiha’s flank, pressing her face against her.

It was a desperate attempt to inject some levity, but it seemed to work.

“Next time, we should see a romantic movie.” Madiha said, sighing.

“Oh, it was perfectly romantic for me.” Parinita said, clinging more tightly to her.

Madiha sighed ever more deeply. “We should just stick together in a room then.”

Parinited winked at her. “Consider it a date.”

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