City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

Logia Minardo felt a tingle in her belly and could no longer tell whether it was the stress of the situation or the protests of the child growing inside her. She had worked her legs raw pacing the room, little able to contain C.W.O Maharani as she shuffled around the office, staring out the window every minute. Minardo felt sick and tired; surely Maharani felt worse.

“Chief, you should sit down and perhaps have a drink.” Minardo said.

“At this point if I sit I will black out. I’m barely keeping my heart going.”

C.W.O Maharani was red in the face and breathing heavily and seemed to pace the office just to keep herself awake and aware. But she had long since proven her sufferings bottomless. She would not last the night at this manic rate. She was mostly just passing her stress on to everyone around her. Padmaja and Bhishma hardly said a word the whole time.

As far as ranks went, Maharani would not have been in charge under strict military guidelines; but as Colonel Nakar’s aide de camp, secretary, understudy and confidant (and lover), and as someone well known to everybody, she was implicitly thrust with the burden of command. Her attitude was doing little to validate all of the trust she was given.

Minardo would not have been in charge of the Regiment either. She was a Staff Sergeant. It was a position that meant taking care of the other comrades in the staff. She was supposed to coordinate with them, to make sure they had the things they needed, to keep them focused and driven, and to handle their affairs if trouble arose. She was bad at it. She knew she was bad at it. She was personable lady in a bar or in a warm bed; for a prospective mother she knew she was not motherly at all. Her interactions always became either flirtatious, disdainful, ironic or passive aggressive.

Instead of helping Nakar she had felt driven to challenge her.

Instead of advising Maharani she just teased her and egged her on.

She was, she recognized, more of a bully than a mother.

In this kind of situation her dubious charisma was deeply out of place.

For everyone’s sakes, however, she had to play the motherly role for now.

“I’ll resuscitate you in an hour with a stimulant. Please sit down.”

Not a good start; perhaps she could salvage it with some gentle contact.

Minardo reached out a hand to Maharani’s shoulder, hoping to reassure her.

Maharani rudely brushed it off.

“You don’t understand anything, Minardo!” She snapped back.

Padmaja and Bhishma looked away, hiding in their routine tasks.

Maharani had a childish anger in her eyes. This malice was purely reflexive; she was lashing out without thinking her words through. It was quite unlike her to act this way. Minardo sighed. She supposed under great stress even the tamest cat would claw at a helping human hand.

“You think I don’t understand, when I was cheering you two on the whole time? When I have been in the same position myself? I understand perfectly, Maharani. But what you are doing now is why the military frowns upon love; please prove them wrong, and calm down.”

There was a flash of recognition in the Chief’s eyes. She stopped where she stood and instead sank into a nearby chair. She covered her face in her hands and a handkerchief pulled from the pocket of her field jacket. Minardo heard a few choked sobs coming from under the handkerchief. But Maharani seemed to restrain herself from pacing any more.

Not that sitting down and crying was any better.

Minardo stared wistfully out the broken window. She saw a young soldier outside aimlessly patrolling around one of the anti-air guns, rifle in hand. Off in the distance, a Hobgoblin tank moved in much the same way. They had all of this power sitting here, restlessly, waiting for something.

In this situation, waiting was before than lashing out.

She knew, however, that they could not wait forever.

“What is on your mind, Chief?” Minardo asked, trying to make conversation.

“Nothing’s on my mind. I’m all broken up. That’s the problem, Minardo. I don’t know what to do.” Maharani said. “I want to go out there and find her, but I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake and lose soldiers. I can’t– I can’t just commit to those things. I feel blind to everything around me.”

“Even if you launched a preemptive strike, there’s no guarantee we would recover the commander.” Minardo said, trying to sound gentle for her. “A ground assault might even endanger her. Right now we’re trapped here. You’re doing the right thing by waiting. Sometimes that’s all we can do.”

Though she did not entirely agree with herself, it seemed the best thing to say. Supporting a preemptive strike would have been foolish at the time.

“Waiting doesn’t change anything.” Maharani solemnly replied.

“But it doesn’t add to our troubles either.” Minardo replied.

Maharani shook her head.

“Madiha would have had a plan to attack, I just know she would, but I can’t think like her, Minardo. She sees everything that’s happening in a way I can’t. She just– she sees the need for everything around her and I can’t, I just can’t! I can’t see the battle through those kind of eyes. Madiha is willing to shoulder the burden of everyone’s pain and I just– I can’t!”

Her voice was starting to irritate Minardo. It should not have been so difficult for her; she had been the closest to Madiha, she had seen how Madiha operated. But she held herself back. It sounded too much like someone like she had known too well in the past. It brought out that instinct to challenge rather than tease, to attack instead of dismiss. She grit her teeth and tried to focus on calming down the room, on positives.

Minardo forced herself to smile, sweetening her affect for Maharani.

“Perhaps that is an asset to you! Think like yourself instead. Madiha sees something in you Chief, you need to try to see that in yourself.” She said.

She was trying to deflect from how much bite her voice was gaining.

“I’m nobody. I can’t do anything. I’m just stuck here, hopeless.”

Maharani descended into a fresh round of pathetic sobbing.

Those same words she said– those words that had come out of–

Minardo felt a rash, poisonous retort climbing to her tongue.

“Excuse me!”

Before Minardo could shout anything offensive at Maharani, Padmaja interrupted from across the room. Seated behind the radio unit, she raised the handset into the air, waving her arms. Maharani twisted toward her with desperation in her tear-soaked face; Minardo crossed her arms and waited quietly. She felt guilty about how quickly her patience had strained.

“Speak freely.” Maharani said, sniffling, her voice ragged.

Padmaja nodded her head at the two of them. Despite the situation, and her own clearly shaking hands, she spoke in a cheerful, boisterous tone.

“Yes ma’am! We have just received a message from Shohr that the liaison plane successfully delivered its passengers and cargo several hours ago; but on the return flight, the pilot found the Rangda Airport closed off. His fuel will not last enough to get him to another safe airfield. So Shohr is requesting we allow the pilot to emergency land in our field instead.”

Minardo raised a hand to her mouth, her chest fluttering with hope.

She traded a glance with Maharani. The Chief seemed suddenly immersed in her own ideas as well. Her eyes brightened, and dammed her tears.

They locked eyes for a moment and nodded their heads at each other.

In a moment, a plan was silently built. Everyone went into motion.

“Approve it!” Maharani ordered Padmaja. She turned to the opposite side of the room, where Bhishma sat behind an empty desk. “Bhishma, go fetch Agni and her engineers! Tell her we need to prepare for a plane making a rough landing. It will need repair and refueling!” She shouted.

Bhishma nodded and was dutifully out the door within seconds.

“Padmaja, pick up the radio set and come with me!”

The Chief Warrant Officer dashed to a stand, straightened out her uniform and wiped her face with a fresh handkerchief. She pulled her long, wavy hair into a ponytail and headed out the door in a hurry. Padmaja followed at her heels, her headset over her ears and the radio tied to her back.

Minardo followed, struggling to keep up with Maharani’s renewed energy.

There was a flurry of activity outside the headquarters. Patrols doubled as the night went on and reports of increased 8th Division activity in the city center came to light. Sounds of creaking gun swivels, rolling steel track links, trampling feet and whining engines overwhelmed the singing of nocturnal insects. Though the night was moonless, the many searchlights assisting the dozens of anti-air guns, along with the torches on patrolling vehicles and foot squadrons, all shone brightly enough to offer some light to the HQ personnel as they walked off the base roads and into the field.

“By any chance do you have the same stupid idea I do?” Minardo asked.

“We’ll have to see if they can land that plane first.” Maharani said.

She did indeed have the same idea. Neither of them wasted any time.

“Hopefully they won’t crash.” Minardo said.

“And then hopefully they can get back out; and then land it again.”

“If that pilot can’t do it, then I will.”

Maharani looked over her shoulder briefly. “You’re a pilot?”

Minardo smirked. “I was an ace in the age of biplanes!”

“Aren’t you in your early thirties?”

“Look, I joined the age of biplanes a tad late, but I performed expertly!”

“Is it safe to fly a plane while a hundred days pregnant?”

“I am perfectly fine, thank you very much.”

Maharani frowned with concern.

“This could be extremely dangerous, Minardo.”

Minardo smiled. “I am well aware.”

There was no point in playing it safe; she would lose her child and herself to the 8th Division’s attack anyway if something was not soon done.

Though she sounded a little irritated, Minardo felt calmer than before. Finding herself cooped up in the headquarters with everyone confused or in despair frayed her nerves; taking action, even reckless action, did indeed feel a damn sight better. Perhaps Madiha had been right after all.

In the distance they found the engineers already at work, laying down a line of reflectors and lights to guide the plane. They had selected the most suitable part of the training course, one that had been prepared scarcely a day ago and hardly used. Maharani and Minardo stood off to the side of this course, composed of a stretch of field that had been flattened, mowed and partially paved to serve as a tank acceleration road. On such flat earth, a tank could achieve its maximum velocity easily and unhindered. Tank crews could drive on it to acquaint themselves with gear shifts and brakes.

And in theory a plane could land on it the same as an ordinary runway.

“Padmaja, relay to all anti-air gun crews to hold their fire until ordered otherwise.” Maharani said. “The searchlights should be retrained north.”

“Yes ma’am!”

Padmaja set down the radio box and began to call.

Minutes later, the searchlights once scanning aimlessly across the sky converged north of the base, illuminating thick clouds. There the officers set their sights, and soon Minardo spotted the tiny dot of a plane growing closer and larger as it descended. Nose down, the Stork liaison plane quickly lost altitude and soon cut its speed also. Below it, the crew on the makeshift runway dispersed; Minardo and Maharani slowly stepped back, giving the prepared stretch of field a wide berth. As it drew closer to final approach Minardo distinctly heard the buzzing and whining of its engine.

“Brace for landing!” Minardo shouted out.

She had seen enough Storks landing to know the time it took.

Within mere moments of her shouting, the plane had pulled its nose up, and in a blink, hurtled down just over the surface. Landing gear touched down on the improvised pavement and screeched; the plane bumped up, struck earth and rose again. It flew less than a meter over the ground.

On its nose, the propeller slowed enough for individual blades to take the place of the whirling disc that once held it aloft. Again it touched ground.

An unearthly noise issued from the wheels. It bumped up off the ground.

Unlike a traditional runway the tank training road had a limited length. In an instant the plane was almost upon the end of the runway and the soft grass and dirt beyond. Minardo watched, her breath catching in her throat. The Stork blew cleanly past them, knocking out several lights.

She heard the final screech as the wheels touched ground and remained.

At the very edge of the runway the aircraft came to a stop.

Minardo sighed deeply. Maharani fanned herself, sweating and anxious.

The Stork was a boxy-looking rectangular biplane some twenty meters long with wide, semi-gulled top and bottom wings and a single frontal engine with four blades. Sturdy landing gear held it aloft, and its cockpit was covered by a boxy, sliding glass canopy. It was painted brown and red with a mark of the Hydra on its sides. There was no visible weaponry on it, and no hatch on the sleek tail — a side-door gave access to the rear cab.

At Maharani’s urging, medical personnel approached the aircraft and climbed the wings. They slid the cockpit canopy back and helped the pilot out from his seat. He was clearly dazed and unsteady on his feet, but showed no truly alarming signs of injury. He was taken away, and Agni and her engineers took over the plane. Minardo ambled forward. Crouched on her knees, she examined the landing gear. Behind her aviation fuel was pumped into the plane, and engineers assessed the hull integrity.

Minardo tapped her fist on the landing gear and ran a hand over the shaft.

There were no visible lacerations or stress marks. On the landing tires, the rubber discs were visibly scuffed and worn from contact but functional.

“Well, we can land it again at least.” She said aloud.

Maharani crouched near her and looked under the plane. Her eyes wandered along the hull. She likely did not know what to look for.

“That’s good, but I have to wonder where we would land it? Even if we fly around the city and find some trace of the Colonel, how do we save her?”

From behind them, a shadow rose to cover the two.

Sergeant Agni loomed over them holding a strange bundle wrapped in tarp. Though she had on a stoic expression, there was a glint in her eyes.

“I have an idea, but it has a probability of killing the Colonel.” She said.

Maharani scoffed. “Are you mad? Why would I agree to it then?”

Agni looked at the bundle. “Because we won’t have to land to rescue her.”

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