52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, 8th Division Barracks
In the middle of the cross-hairs appeared a shadowy, helmeted head.
Under the gloom that had settled around a knocked-out street light, the figure moved with confidence, as though sure that it was not watched.
Muttering under her breath, Gulab Kajari held as steady as she could.
She kept her scope trained on the peak of the faceless human shape.
Watching from far across the street, behind the gates of the base, she followed the figure as it wandered around the corner, holding a rifle to its chest, turning its head down both directions on the opposing street. It signaled with its arms, waving a pair of allies out from their own cover and onto the street. They crouched behind a bus stop bench. Gulab heard the springing of a handset cord, and a minute of unintelligible whispering.
They were using the radio. Calling in whatever it was they had found.
Then the figures stood from cover and began to retreat back to the corner.
“I’ve got you, you snow weasel!” she whispered to herself.
Once more the cross-hairs expertly followed the figures, swaying from one figure’s head to its torso, keeping just far enough head to lead a shot.
Gulab held her breath again.
She steadied her aim; but the figures disappeared from her sight.
Her scope had gone entirely black.
“We have orders not to shoot, Gulab.”
Charvi Chadgura lifted her hand from Gulab’s scope, and she could see again. However the men in her sights had gone. Somewhere around the street corner toward Ocean Road they had vanished, but they were all still out there. Through the stillness of the night she had heard trucks moving in the distance, and even at times what sounded like a tank or a tractor.
The 8th Division was moving closer, but the false war dragged on.
“I was not going to shoot!” Gulab said, slightly irritated.
“I’m sorry. I trust you, but we can’t take any chances.” Chadgura said.
Then you don’t trust me!, Gulab’s mind screamed at her superior and friend.
She felt half indignant and half foolish. She felt as if she was blowing everything out of proportion, but also slightly offended. Gulab knew her orders. Nevertheless she felt she had to keep a close eye on the enemy.
And it was a fact she had to confront, that she had half a mind to shoot; Chadgura was not entirely wrong in intervening. It still annoyed Gulab.
“They are likely scouting the area for a checkpoint.”
At their side, Sergeant Nikayla Illynichna laid on her belly with the scope of her silenced carbine only a centimeter removed from her eye. She spoke in a monotone that rivaled Chadgura’s, but she could become much more heated if necessary. She was small, her eye level reaching only to Gulab’s chest, and pale as a ghost, with icy-blue Svechthan hair; add the dark of night and Illynichna was practically invisible in their ambush position.
Gulab and Chadgura crouched near her. All of them were hiding in a ditch on the side of the base road that ran through the front gate. Orders from high were to detain the gate guards, who might possess some allegiance to the 8th Division, and to shut off the gate searchlights. Under the cover of darkness they would lay near the gate and watch the road. All along the gate road there were several ambush positions. Gulad and comrades had been given the foremost position and watched the road most closely.
Through the iron gate bars they silently preyed on anyone who appeared.
Any 8th Division troops that barged into the base would be shot by snipers and machine gunners in a hellish crossfire. However, if they walked in with their guns down and unloaded, it was a wonder what anyone would do. They had been told not to shoot unless shot first. Operating under those rules of engagement was quite stressful. It meant anyone had a chance to die before an effective defense could potentially be mounted.
“More vermin incoming.”
Illynichna urged everyone to crouch, and they settled against the ditch.
From around the corner they heard the sound of marching boots and then the drowning-out of that sound by the wheels and exhaust of a truck. A dozen men and an old rompo turned into their street and stopped a mere thirty meters away. Briefly the truck’s headlights shone through the gate, their beams illuminating a few fighting positions by accident. When the truck completed its turn onto the street everything was dark again.
Adjusting her magnification Gulab spied on the arrivals with her scope.
She watched helplessly as 8th Division soldiers approached the truck and began to unload sandbags and set down a foundation for a fighting position near that old bus stop across from the gate. From the back of the truck a heavy machine gun was unhitched and rolled until it was protected behind the sandbags. Bag by bag the wall went up, waist to chest high.
“This is more than just a checkpoint, Chadgura.” Illynichna said.
“I’ll report it to command.” Chadgura said. They had a radio nearby.
Gulab drummed her finger on the side of her gun, near the trigger.
“I’m getting mad. Are the 8th Division our enemies or not?” She asked.
“It doesn’t matter to our rules of engagement.” Chadgura replied.
Illynichna cracked a little grin, lying next to her gun.
“Would you shoot your own people whenever someone declared them your enemies, Kajari?” She casually asked. She did not even turn away from her scope to make eye contact; she simply dropped the bombshell.
“Would you?” Gulab shot back, stammering slightly.
“The Elves and their Colonial Authority all but enslaved my people and destroyed their culture and killed scores of us for hundreds of years. Any countryman of mine siding with forces like them deserves death.”
Gulab’s own thoughts were more elusive and much less forceful. Some part of her that she deemed reasonable did not believe the 8th Division was some force for evil; things were more complicated than that. Just like she believed in the Colonel and followed her orders, she was sure the 8th Division was following their own heroes in this time of confusion. Surely they owed their lives to whoever extracted them from the Nochtish lines.
They thought they were doing right to come here, and that it was the 1st Motor Rifles who were putting the city at risk. Something happened along the way that twisted everyone. Ordinary rifle soldiers were not to blame.
The 8th were not here to steal land like Nocht. Rangda was their home and they believed they could protect it through these dubious actions of theirs.
Or at least that is what she wanted to think of fellow Ayvartans.
And yet– if they did anything that would put Gulab’s precious comrades at risk, like the kids; or the staff; or Charvi; she would definitely kill them.
And if Colonel Nakar gave her a good reason to shoot she would just shoot.
“It doesn’t matter to my rules of engagement.” Gulab finally replied.
Again Illynichna cracked a little grin. “My, my, what a sly answer.”
Gulab focused her attention on the road. It was practically bustling.
When the enemy’s sandbag wall was finally constructed, the truck backed away around the corner and out of sight, and the soldiers remained. They crouched behind their sandbag wall, next to their machine gun, and they faced the gate, opposite Gulab’s own fighting position in the ditch. It was like a scene from decades past. Rival trenches across no-man’s-land. She was sure the 8th Division knew she was there now, or at least suspected it.
It raised the tension. Now she had an enemy in sight who could shoot first.
“Can I at least give them a scare?” Illynichna asked, finger on the trigger.
“No.” Chadgura said sternly.
Illynichna sighed and slumped over her carbine. “Bozhe moi…”
Minutes and hours passed, staring at the enemy in the eye. Gulab called on all of her resolve. She would shoot them if they shot her. She had to.
City of Rangda — Council District
Once the shooting died down and Madiha Nakar was far enough removed as a threat to the surroundings, the civil police returned in a new role.
Though they had summoned their union representatives and refused to engage in battle with any unit of the 1st Motor Rifles, including the fugitive commander and police impersonator Madiha Nakar, they had agreed to perform military labor in service of the 8th Division. In front of the Council building, the police gathered to clear the gore from the green and set into place sandbags and ammunition stocks. Police trucks towed anti-tank guns into place, under the supervision of 8th Division Goblin tanks in the process of being turned into sandbag bunker guns.
Uncertain words were exchanged around the Council front green. Nobody knew what the future would hold for them. News from Solstice had been slow to travel, and likewise news from the front seemed eerily hard to come by. Starved of direction, the police stuck with the local government. There was no other force presenting itself as desiring their allegiance.
Even if it meant antagonizing the fearsome Hero of the Border, the police union did what they had the power to do to cooperate on their own terms.
Thus the lawn became crewed primarily by blue uniforms instead of green.
For an hour the police worked in peace until they spotted a liaison car in the distance. Through the work area arrived Aksara Mansa’s open-top staff car followed by the defeated M4D Sentinel with Von Drachen’s head visible over the top hatch. Though the M4D continued to its storage space for refueling, Aksara Mansa and General Gaul Von Drachen left their vehicles and crossed the green, stepping over knee-high sandbags and around barbed wire to access the building. Inside they found a throng of onlookers waiting with their work in their hands and their breaths held.
“Return to your offices! Get back to work!” Aksara commanded.
At once the crowd uneasily dispersed, going back to their documents and calculators and radios. Nobody knew what would happen next and they resented the position they were placed in. They stared at Aksara as they left, some with bitterness in their lips and eyes. There was heavy tension in the halls of the Council Building. Outside the tanks and trucks and the movement of supplies could easily be seen and heard. All of them were being thrown into a battlefield without their consent. Aksara knew this.
“Perhaps we should make haste for the command room, before anyone more forceful decides to delay your timely passage.” Von Drachen said.
Without response, Aksara Mansa started up the steps to the second floor.
He felt like he was walking outside himself, a doppleganger watching his body take action, his commands to it slightly delayed. He had the size, the skin, the face of his father, even the shadow of the man. But he was not his father; he had always been keenly aware of this fact. He knew he lacked the charisma certainly. He also lacked the vision his father had.
His father had been driven by some kind of plan. Aksara Mansa knew only the smallest details. He knew his father wanted an independent Tambwe. He had always wanted an independent Tambwe. His own Tambwe to rule. Even under the Empire he had wanted this. And it was as if a voice from on high had spoken to him and told him with great clarity what had to be done. Aksara always stepped aside and deferred to his father. Anyone who knew the man and felt the immense strength of his resolve did the same.
Confronted with the current situation in Rangda, Aksara Mansa struggled to think of what to do. He had put little hope in Von Drachen’s ability to recover Madiha Nakar; and recovering her was in his eyes a fool’s errand that even if successful would have changed little. He had a city that was slowly being evacuated to bunkers and shelters and schools and hospitals and repopulated with combat units at his father’s command, many of which knew not of the man’s death. Without Arthur Mansa, nobody quite knew what the endgame of ejecting or destroying the 1st Regiment was.
Inside the command room there were five long aisles of men and women seated behind radios and telephone boards, receiving the communications of the entire Battlegroup Ram, from which the 8th Division had been pulled. Since his father’s agreement to cooperate with the foreigners, the front had been quiet. Nocht had stayed their attacks, buying Mansa the time necessary to secure Rangda against Solstice. Perhaps, then, the deal was to turn Rangda over to Nocht, to open the front bloodlessly.
Aksara felt a stab of self-doubt. Why had his father not confided in him?
What had been his plan or even his motivation? What power drove him?
Where had he gone?
“So, what is the situation right now?” Von Drachen asked.
They stopped just outside of the rows of communications equipment.
Aksara gave him a contemptuous glare.
“I have confirmed the death of my father and suspect that it occurred as you say, Cissean.” He said. “Nevertheless, you have failed and thus the situation is at is has been for the past several hours. We are deploying our forces as fast as we can and we suspect the 1st Regiment has aggressive intentions. We can take no action against them yet. We are not ready.”
“Governor, if I might make a bold suggestion?”
At Aksara’s side, Von Drachen flared his hooked nose and shrugged his long arms, a lopsided grin stretching on his face. He looked ridiculous. More like an improvisational comedian than a Brigadier General.
“Go on.” Aksara said with muted disdain.
“Hand me command of the 8th Division. We must assault the 1st Motor Rifles immediately, before they can stage their own attack first.”
“I already told you we are not ready. Have you some miraculous plan?”
Von Drachen continued to smile. “I have a practical plan, and that is all that we need at the moment. You see, I know we can bring our numbers to bear on them if we trap them in the base. While we don’t have the combat power to defeat them in battle outright, we can surround them in a small area and saturate it with firepower once our heavy weapons arrive.”
Aksara snorted. How could this foreigner know that he spoke of the 8th Ram Rifle Division, the most elite of Tambwe’s forces, its officer corps unflinchingly loyal to the Mansa family, its men and women trained in the harsh sun and deep jungle of Tambwe? How could he speak of combat power when he had never met the brave men of the Lion battalion?
“On what basis do you claim we lack the power to defeat them outright?”
“On their abysmal performance against my 13th Panzer Brigade just before their pitiful capture beyond the Ghede River.” Von Drachen casually said.
“If your own men are so strong, use them.” Aksara sharply replied. “I will continue to build up my forces for a decisive battle, as my father wanted.”
Von Drachen crossed his arms and heaved a long sigh in response.
In truth Aksara’s convictions were not so strong. He knew the 8th Division had a dismal disposition, while the 1st Regiment was a cipher. But he had to believe that his father’s overall strategy could work; even if they had failed to remove Madiha Nakar. How important a component could the removal of one woman, from a Regiment of thousands, have been?
He suspected Nakar was not as important as claimed. With enough time to deploy fully he could crush her. Tactics could not contend with numbers.
Once the 8th Division fully deployed he would have four times her troops.
Thus he convinced himself. The 8th Division would stay the course.
It was a decision he made quietly and in a quiet place.
There was little activity in the command room. Officers from the 8th Division commiserated over a map of the city, plotting their fighting positions. Radio operators waited for airwaves and kept their pens and pads ready to take any important notes. Secretaries brought refreshments to the weary personnel. It was a subdued room to stand around in.
Until, in a far corner, one of the radio operators stood suddenly.
She stared across the room and waved toward the governor.
“Sir, we’re receiving a government communique on the teleprinter.”
Aksara Mansa turned sharply around and faced the machine, set against the far wall of the room on the last aisle of communications equipment. Soon as it was acknowledged, the teleprinter began to spit out its encrypted type on a roll of paper. A pair of operators left their radios and withdrew their code books and began to decrypt the message right away.
They were speechless at first. Aksara left Von Drachen’s side.
“Well, what is it?” He cried out to them as he approached.
One of the women cradled the papers grimly as if holding a corpse.
“Sir, there’s– there’s been a change of government in Solstice.”
For a moment the words were lost in the silence of the room.
For much longer, nobody wanted to believe them.
City of Rangda — Central Rangda
Over the skies of Central Rangda the old Stork biplane transport flew unmolested. Not a round of flak soared to meet it as it headed for its destination. Even as the 8th Division began to spread, taking up positions around Ocean Road and encroaching on their old base, they did not intercept the Stork flying over their heads. Rangda was still locked in a state of phony war, despite the blood already in Madiha Nakar’s hands.
Until a tactical unit of the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment fought a real 8th Division counterpart it seemed the city would remain silent in the night. Neither side had achieved the correct conditions to make war on the other. There were leadership disruptions on both sides that exacerbated this.
Madiha had to get to her base and make her preparations.
But she found her body betraying her. As she tried to escape Sergeant Agni’s ministrations she found her arms jelly-like and her legs unstable. There was no way she could stand on the plane by herself; perhaps not even on solid ground. Her eyes were still hazy, and her thoughts muddled.
“Colonel, I’ll help you sit up. Move with me.”
Sergeant Agni helped Madiha slide away from the side-door of the plane and toward the opposite wall of the hull. She sat her up, and administered a syrette of morphine before cracking open a medic’s bag. There were bandages and gloves and shears and dozens of packets and bottles of medicines inside. Madiha breathed deep in regular intervals and tried to remain conscious and to occupy her flagging mind. Even before the effects of the morphine she had already lost the feeling of pain; she was too dizzy and exhausted to feel the shredded flesh in her shoulder too strongly.
She felt eerily disembodied, hovering into and out of reality.
“Colonel, are you doing alright?”
From the door to the cockpit the pilot stuck out her head briefly.
Logia Minardo, wearing a pair of goggles.
Her appearance gave Madiha a needed jolt of outside stimulation.
“I thought you were airborne assault?” Madiha strained to shout.
Minardo cracked a little grin and returned to the pilot’s seat.
“Well, that doesn’t mean I can’t fly!” Minardo shouted back. She had to beat the sound of the rattling hull and the thrumming engine in order to be heard. Despite her casual attitude she had a great command of the plane. They were flying steadily, and the daring maneuvers Madiha witnessed during her rescue where nothing short of masterful.
“So did you start out as a pilot or as infantry?” Madiha asked.
“We’ll discuss it some other day!” Minardo replied. “Get some rest!”
She waved her hand out of the door and turned her attention fully back to flying the plane. Madiha smiled to herself, feeling strangely cosseted. Minardo could take care of things; she had proven herself very reliable.
After minutes of picking through a pack, Agni returned.
“I have gauze.” She said, holding up a roll.
From her clumsy grip it unfurled and trailed around the floor.
Madiha shook her head. “Give me a stimulant. I’ll handle the rest.”
“I don’t follow.”
She would have to do without the stimulant then.
Without warning the Colonel lifted a hand to her shoulder, and with her teeth grit and her eyes wincing, she thrust a finger into her own wound, causing blood to gush and flesh to rip. Agni was alarmed, and reached out to stop her, but Madiha was not rummaging in the wound. She imagined the lead that had to be embedded in her body, and pulled on it mentally.
She felt pangs of cutting pain as she clumsily led the metal to the surface.
Blood seeped from the wound, inadvertently pulled on by her thoughts.
Even through the warming haze of the morphine she felt terrible pain.
Soon as Agni’s arms seized Madiha’s own and forced her hand free of the wound, the gloved, bloody fingers that came out carried a deformed lead penetrator between them. Madiha dropped the artifact on the floor, and felt a subdued, cold pain in her now more terribly mutilated shoulder.
“Now you can close it up.” Madiha moaned. Her breath started to leave her lips at involuntary, irregular intervals, her injury causing her to gasp.
“That’s easier said than done now.” Agni replied.
She started cutting Madiha’s clothes open with the shears, and then applied a clotting powder, compress and bandages. Madiha saw the world then as if through a waterfall, and could hardly make out Agni’s shape wavering in front of her. Her arms grew heavy, and her whole body felt the effects of gravity much more strongly than before. She was growing weak.
“We will need a medic to sew it. I dare not do so.” Agni said.
“Thank you, Agni.” Madiha whimpered.
“Never tamper with your wounds again.”
Despite her monotone voice Agni was sounding brusque and angry.
Madiha nodded weakly. “I promise.”
She could not truly promise it; if the situation required, she could even burn the wound closed. She could have done it then, had she trusted herself with the task. And had Agni turned away from the sight. Madiha was not sure how much she wanted anyone to know about her power.
Von Drachen knew, but the less anyone else did, the more he looked crazy.
“Base is in sight! Prepare for a rough landing!” Minardo called out.
In Madiha’s ears those words gained an echo and became distorted.
As the Stork started to drop altitude, Madiha’s world turned black.
She felt the pull of gravity on her body in a way she had never experienced.
Her head felt empty and her whole body tight.
Though she had hoped to leave the plane walking upright and among her troops, heartening them for the battle ahead, her body had just been too tortured that night to continue. Without warning, she closed her eyes, and could not thereafter open them of her own volition. Madiha blacked out.
On the ground below, some of Agni’s engineers played the role of landing crew and waved signal flags for Minardo to descend. Between the aircraft’s departure and return, the crew had stamped out another improvised runway in the middle of the tank course, one longer, softer and farther away from any collateral objects than the strip they previously used.
A series of reflectors on the ground gave Minardo something to aim for. She gradually began to cut her speed and altitude and maneuvered the Stork into position, aiming it like a lumbering bolt to the target below. Winds buffeted the craft, and it shook and protested as its descent began in earnest. Minardo grabbed hold of the flight stick with all her strength.
She had not flown in years, but that had neither given her pause nor impeded her. Colonel Nakar needed her to fly and she had flown.
Minardo never forgot the sense of being in the air. She would dream of flying, of feeling again the weight of her craft as it sliced through the skies, of sensing the response of the vehicle to her various instruments. Now in the cockpit she was drawn back to those years of innocence, when the plane felt like an extension of her body, a limb regularly stretched.
It was not flying like a bird would fly; Minardo could not imagine what that could be like. Nor did she want it. There was something unique about flying a plane that gave her a thrill, coursing through her body, lighting a fire in her chest unlike anything. There was a sense of weight and strength amid the clouds that flying under one’s own power would likely lack.
Flying a plane was defiant — humans flew in the face of God.
It was awkward and laborious and, she discovered, still part of her nature.
All of the muscle memory returned. She expertly aligned the craft with the makeshift runway, gauged her altitude and speed correctly, and within minutes she felt the bump as her landing gear hit dirt. For a moment the friction startled her, but soon it passed, and the craft gently slowed.
There was a moment when the forces around her abruptly stopped.
She felt such a stillness then, such a sense of peace. She had landed.
In her duel with the sky, she had won.
And she had brought everyone back safely.
Not bad for a washed-up biplane ace in the age of monoplanes.
She turned around from the instruments and waved at Agni.
“Agni, cover up the Colonel with a bag or something! We don’t want gawkers finding out she’s hurt!” Minardo cried out. Behind her, Agni nodded her head and searched for a rain tarp and threw it over the Colonel’s unconscious body. It rose and fell with her breathing.
Minardo unbuckled her safety harness, too tight around her full belly, and picked her goggles off her head. For now the joyride was simply over.
After years on the ground, Logia Minardo had taken to the air again.
She had defied the wishes of someone very special to her.
She had flown and she had landed. The Stork may not fly again soon.
Certainly not with her at the helm.
Minardo stared in a trance at the controls before her, and at the lenses on her goggles. She thought she could see her, reflected in the glass. For so long, she had sat behind her in the trainer, and then in the liaison plane, and then in the two-seat light bomber. On the stork there was no partner seat behind her. There was just the hull cargo storage. She was alone.
Minardo stared at her own reflection in the goggles, waiting expectantly, waiting to hear her praise, waiting to have her affection. Waiting still.
“Did I do good?” She muttered to herself. “I landed her right.”
Behind her the side doors opened.
She shook her head. Those were fancies that had to pass.
Medics arrived from off the landing strip and brought a stretcher on wheels. Agni and Minardo carefully set the Colonel down atop the stretcher, covered up with the rain tarp. They ordered the medics to be discrete. Vitals were carefully taken, morphine administered, and the medics then covertly took the Colonel away to the base hospital.
“Go with them. Make sure she’s guarded.” Minardo said.
Agni nodded her head and ran after them.
Moments later, flanked by a pair of military policemen for protection, Acting Commander Parinita Maharani arrived on the runway. She stared at the Stork with a small smile on her face, and turned a congratulatory grin on Minardo. She stretched out her hand and Minardo gratefully shook.
“I have to admit, I doubted for a second.” Parinita said.
“I doubted too. That’s why it was a stupid idea.” Minardo replied.
She had feared she would enter the cockpit and lose all sense of what flying was like. But she soared over Rangda; she flew circles over the hapless men of the 8th Division. Flying had never left her even after her wings were taken from her. It felt reassuring, and oddly validating.
Parinita turned around and waved away her escorts. Both men complied.
Once they were out of earshot she leaned close with a cute little smile.
“Minardo, I wanted to thank you, before I went to see her.” Parinita said.
“What for? I’m just doing my job.” Minardo said, grinning like a devil.
Parinita waved a dismissive hand. “Oh don’t give me that, you.”
There was no use being coy; but Minardo just liked acting difficult.
That, too, was as much part of her nature now as flying. Maybe more.
“Listen, I just I want to steer naive young girls like you right.” She said.
“Well, you listen too: we’re only a few years apart! I’m thirty years old!”
“Yes, but I’ve lived a life twice as rich in experience as you, my child!”
Minardo pointedly laughed. Parinita stared sharply at her.
“Well then; anyway, like I said, thank you. If it means anything, I think that when you stop goofing around so much, you’ll make a great mother.”
Parinita put on a warm, innocent and friendly smile.
Minardo’s fiendish grinning intensified.
She shrugged in an exaggerated fashion.
“I’m not planning to be a mother, really.” She said.
Parinita stared at her with concern, looking at her belly for a moment as if there was something wrong with it; Minardo grew exasperated, took her by the shoulders and pushed her in the direction of the base hospital.
“Oh, forget me, Maharani. Go visit your girlfriend.”
“Minardo, are you really alright?”
“I’m more alright than the Colonel! Go check up on her.”
After that bit of prodding, Parinita glanced at her one final time before going on her way. Soon she disappeared into the gloom of the base, many of its lights shut down to prevent it from becoming too bright a target.
Minardo stood against the Stork and tried to savor the air a bit more.
She was grinning not like a devil anymore, but like a young girl herself.
She had flown! She had flown again, despite everything.
City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
Madiha woke with a start in a stark white room.
Immediately she drew back against the bed in pain and discomfort.
Her shoulder protested violently to the sudden movement.
“Madiha, calm down, you’ll hurt yourself!”
From the side of the bed, Parinita stood and knelt next to the Colonel.
Gasping for breath, sweating profusely, Madiha came to realize through the absence of sounds that she was not in battle anymore. She had escaped the gunshots, the cacophony of engines and cannons, and the toxic smell of that ever-burning pale fire. She was alive; back at base.
Without word Madiha made an effort to lean forward and seized Parinita into a deep, hungry kiss. Parinita’s eyes drew wide with surprise but she quickly reciprocated. Madiha held for a few seconds, delighting in the warmth of her lover before losing her breath and gasping for air over Parinita’s lips. Clumsily they connected again, pulling each other into shorter kisses between gasps and groans. Both were breathless when they pulled decisively apart. Parinita was fiercely red in the face and tearful.
“You worried me half into a grave!” She said.
Madiha smiled gently. “I’m so sorry, Parinita.”
“Never again, Madiha! I’m never letting you go alone like that again!”
Parinita carefully wrapped her arms around Madiha from her bedside.
When they parted, Madiha laid back on the bed and turned her head. She was in a bed, in a concrete room without a window. Her police uniform had been taken, and hopefully Agni or someone else had discretely burnt it. At her side on a bedside drawer there was a folded black uniform laid for her.
Her shoulder was thickly bandaged, and sewn beneath. It was a large wound, one likely made worse by her own meddling. There had been quite a lot of blood, and even more was smeared on her bandages. She felt too weak to stand up, though she desperately desired to be out of bed.
She felt herself too separated from the outside world. Something had to be happening that she was not aware of. Her military mind was afire.
“What time is, Parinita?” She asked.
“It’s just dawned. You’ve been asleep maybe four hours.” Parinita said.
Madiha shook her head. “This is not good. I need to get out there.”
“You should in all honesty sleep more than that.”
“I cannot. I have to get up.”
Madiha struggled to sit up and then stand, but she quickly failed.
Parinita stepped forward again to hold her down.
“You can’t! You’ll just hurt yourself again.” Parinita said. “Listen to me: I predicted this would happen so I’m already set up here, just watch.”
She swiped her hand at a curtain beside Madiha’s bed.
Behind the curtain was a table with a radio. On a nearby wall there was a corkboard with a map of the city. There were green pins stuck in various places. Judging by the fact that the Council building had the largest green pin on it, the greens must have represented the 8th Division. There were a few pins frighteningly near the base, a congregation around Rangda University in the north, a few around Rangda Airport, a line down Ocean Road that walled off the main thoroughfare from Madiha’s barracks.
“I realized that Kimani left some of her specialist staff with us, so I ordered them to perform some signals incursion.” Parinita said. “We managed to triangulate the location of a lot of 8th Division units. We don’t know what all of these units are, but we know where they’re parked at.”
“That was very astute. You really held things down while I was away.”
Parinita covered her mouth to stifle a little laugh. “Well, I tried.”
Madiha stared at the map, and she started to plot at once. She recalled perfectly the units at her disposal, the hobgoblin tanks, the chimera guns, her motorized infantry. Her fatigue was a thing of the past; soon as war entered her mind she was in a trance. In her mind she was moving pieces, like chits in the wargame, tracing paths through the streets of Rangda.
“We also received a message from Solstice.” Parinita said. “I transcribed it and compiled other information about the 8th that we dug up, here.”
She handed Madiha a thick file folder, almost like their own Generalplan Suden. Nodding her head, Madiha quickly began to digest the information in the pages. She found the communique from Solstice; her heart swelled as she read the information contained there. This was monumental.
“Parinita, can you hook me to the loudspeakers? I need everyone to hear.”
As the sun started to rise over Rangda, the mobile kitchens attached to the Regiment’s various units made their rounds across the base, delivering hot paneer, flatbread and fruit chutney to hungry units scattered across the base in defensive positions and reserve areas. Soon after the first few plates were emptied, however, the base communications system sounded and the wagons stayed in place with the troops, listening intently.
“Comrades of the 1st Order of Lena, Bada Aso Motor Rifle Regiment! This is Colonel Madiha Nakar speaking. You have had a difficult and uncertain night, but with the coming of the sun, a new age for Ayvarta has dawned. Last night at 0200 hours we received an encrypted message from Solstice. The High Civil Council has unanimously decided to step out of the war effort and has directed Daksha Kansal to assume the role of Premier of our Socialist Dominances of Solstice. Having worked under Daksha Kansal for many years, and seen her revolutionary fervor during the violent birth of our country, I could think of no better person to lead us in trying times.”
There was surprised whispering around the base. Most of the soldiers did not quite understand the position of Premier, one which had many powers over executive matters and was last held by Lena Ulyanova, a foreigner who loved Ayvarta more than many men born on Solstice’s own sand. But the Colonel did not clarify: she moved confidently forward in her speech.
“Last night was transformational in more than one way. We received information that shone light upon a truth you have seen with your own eyes now. Rangda’s 8th Ram Rifles Division wishes us harm. In fact, the 8th Division are pawns, willing and unwitting, in a reactionary and counterrevolutionary scheme to deliver the city to the vile Federation!”
Some gasped; but for anyone who had a rotating shift patrolling on the gate road the build-up was plain to see. Though they had not attack the 8th Division had aggressive intentions. Sandbags and guns did not appear as precautions between fellow comrades. They were an act of war.
“Comrades, I understand that many of you joined the service to protect Ayvarta from Nocht. You joined to save your families and loved ones and to support your friends; you joined not to sacrifice your lives, but to stay alive and to resist with every inch of your being the oppressing forces that march upon our shores. You did not join to fight your own people. Many of you did not live through the time of revolution. You did not see brother fighting brother and sister fighting sister on Ayvartan soil. But there are Ayvartans here in this city who conspire with the enemy. And in so doing, they become the enemy. They become akin to the traitorous White Army.”
There was silence in the base. Perhaps recognition; perhaps resignation.
“We may not relish this battle the way we would celebrate the defeat of Nocht and the deaths of its pillaging soldiers. But all the same, I must ask you all to prepare for combat. Orders will headed to each battalion and from there to companies and platoons within the next hour. Eat your fill, gather your supplies, and steel yourselves. Remember the training you received; remember that I am here to support you, my precious troops. We do not fight here for revenge: we fight, purely, for socialism! For Ayvarta! We fight to show the misguided 8th Division the strength of our unity!”
Though nobody could see her do it, it was if they felt the arm rising through the radio system. All around the base, fists rose in unison.
Madiha Nakar had cast the die and battle would quickly be joined.
It did not matter that the 8th Division just outside the gate might have listened. In Madiha’s imagined Deep Battle nothing the 8th Division could do at this point mattered except for them to attack first and immediately.
City of Rangda — Council District
Night turned slowly to morning, and the skies overhead cleared.
Even with the returning visibility, there was still a halt to the hostilities.
Dawn passed quietly, and by mid-morning the preparations had been completed. The staff of the Council and the soldiers of the 8th Division, alongside the civil police, mingled on the front lawn of the Council Building, standing where once gore had been strewn and corpses had collected after Colonel Nakar’s escape. They gathered on short notice to listen to an impromptu conference to be held by the governor.
Everyone stood in skeptical silence as Aksara Mansa stepped out.
They wanted him to address the curfews and the evacuations and the relocations of civilians and most important, what the point of this resistance was in the long run. Why did they treat their city as if it was under siege; and why were they themselves also readying to siege it?
For Arthur Mansa they might have once blindly walked into this fire, but that time was past and that trust eroded. Their hero had tested their faith, pushed their loyalty to its limits, only to challenge another hero and die. Madiha Nakar, hero of the border, had killed him. This information had been trickling out for hours. Now it was out and nobody understood.
All they knew was that Aksara Mansa was all that remained.
“My fellow Rangdans,” he called out, his voice boosted by a microphone. “It is with great agony that I must announce that we have received word of a coup in Solstice.” There was a generalized gasping from the audience. Everyone stood speechless, incredulous. Mansa gazed out over them. He lacked the slow, deliberate and uninterrupted cadence of his father. He drank some water from a glass as he let the words to stew in the crowd.
“My fellow Rangdans,” he started again. “Two nights ago, Warden Daksha Kansal of the KVW pressured the High Council into a unanimous vote of dissolution that ended with her being handed the title of Premier. It is a title that was retired with the death of Lena Ulyanova and replaced with the democratic and representative system we have enjoyed for close to a decade. It is a title that makes plain her ambitions. Daksha Kansal has made herself dictator in Solstice, and suppressed the information until the legal backing for the coup was completely secured and the government was firmly in her grip. It is for this reason that we only learn this now.”
There was not even a gasp in response. There was instead stillness around the crowd. Clutched hearts, clenched teeth, sweating brows, tearing eyes.
“During this information blackout, traitorous units seeded throughout our free cities, like the 1st Regiment of Madiha Nakar, have been preparing to enforce the coup across the Dominances. They have been aided by the chaotic advance of Nocht’s forces from the south and west. Madiha Nakar would have us bow down to this tyranny; some hero she is! I tell you right now, fellow Rangdans, I refuse this coup government! I refuse Daksha Kansal! Rangda will use all resources available to restore democracy!”
His voice was not as fiery and fierce as his father’s; there was no applause. Nobody seemed set ablaze by this course of action. Confusion reigned in the crowd. Eyes glanced aside wondering if they had all seen the same. In a rising collective whisper the crowd picked apart the speech, interrogated their own allegiance, and collectively felt unsettled by the situation.
“As we speak, units of the elite 8th Division have the traitor Regiment trapped in their barracks, and will shortly move in to detain them. I am sure scores of the traitors will surrender to justice, but many will fight, and they will be defeated. Know that the coming months will be difficult. We may need to parlay, we may need to fight, we may need to–”
Mansa opened his mouth and a booming noise seemed to escape from it.
Several hundred meters down the road a wall of sandbags erupted and flung sack and sand and shards of metal in a spray that fell just short of the crowd. Before the blast the sandbags had been erected around an old 76mm mountain pack howitzer brought in pieces by the men of the 8th, and set up in defense of the Council building. In one shot, the howitzer, the men behind it, and the sandbags around it, had been crushed.
Panic ensued. Staff rushed past Mansa in a desperate bid for cover inside the building. They knocked over his podium and loudspeakers, scattered his speech papers. Police dispersed, dropping their weapons and fleeing. Soldiers hit the dirt and searched around for an enemy they could not see. The 1st Regiment should have been dozens of kilometers away. Nothing in their arsenal could have hit this deep into 8th Division territory.
No additional shells followed the first, but the lawn nonetheless cleared quickly out. Mansa stood, watching the crowd sweep past him, stunned.
From behind him, a skittish aide appeared and whispered into his ear.
“Governor,” the young woman stammered. “The Lion Battalion has been routed. They are making gestures of surrender to the 1st Motor Rifles.”
Aksara Mansa was frozen in time, his ears echoing with the din of Madiha Nakar’s opening salvo and slowly realizing that she had dealt first blood before he even knew what was happening. That shell was not her signal. It was rubbing salt into a wound that he did not even know had been opened.
When had this battle even started? How had it moved this far this quickly?
“Where are the other units? How did the 1st Regiment break out?”
Grimly, the aide shook her head. “There are attacks in every sector, sir.”