This scene contains violence and emotional distress.
City of Rangda — Ocean Road, Tank Command
Throughout the units of the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment there was a sense of jubilation.
Though the injuries and deaths had weighed heavily on the minds of the frontline combat units, there was also a sense that they had made it through a trial by fire, and come out the other end immune to the burning. They had fought forces that, up until recently, boasted similar training and had similar equipment. Following the strategy outlined by Colonel Nakar and the tactics of their battalion and company and platoon commanders, they had routed the 8th Division in its three key strongholds and rallying areas. They had won.
Soon as the morning operations came to a halt and the last rifle shots cracked into the distance, and the logistics units and medical personnel arrived at the front, and the frontline troops were rotated out for fresh reserves, word of the various battles began to spread. In off-duty radio lines chatty personnel exchanged brief tales of valor; on the backs of ambulances and cargo trucks soldiers turned their experiences into legends; and in the battle reports of the three battalions every important kill on a tank or a sniper or a gun position, every act of commendable bravery, was being investigated and recorded.
One story that quickly spread was that of the small, vulnerable recon tank, Harmony, and its tiny crew of two, and the borrowed Corporal Kajari; and how they saved the offensive at Rangda University by defeating the fearsome Lionheart of the 8th Division, Lt. Badir.
Corporal Kajari would be celebrated in Burundi’s battalion. Meanwhile the Harmony was quickly recalled to its actual parent unit, El Amin’s 3rd Tank Battalion “Kalu Raiders.”
Since they left the battlefield, there had been an awkward quiet between Harmony’s two crew members. There had been little celebration — merely a lifting of the burden of mortal anxiety. Having been through such a series of hellish situations, any cheer was tempered by fatigue. Danielle Santos found the silence increasingly hard to endure.
“What do you think is gonna happen?” Danielle asked, behind the tank’s controls.
“I don’t know. I think it will be fine.” Caelia replied, lying back in the commander’s seat.
“Maybe your promotion will finally go through!” Danielle said. Every tank should have been commanded at least by a corporal or sergeant. Caelia was only still a private because the Regiment had not been intended to go into battle yet, and promotions and payments, handled now in Solstice after the fall of Adjar, had been significantly delayed.
Danielle knew Caelia would make an amazing officer. Even if she did not see it herself, Danielle witnessed first-hand through the years what an observant person Caelia was, how well she learned and how well she communicated and iterated on her knowledge. In the Kalu, it was Caelia’s quick thinking and snap decisions that saved them in the jungle. Without her direction Danielle would have been hopelessly lost. Caelia was definitely more of an officer candidate than Danielle herself, or so the driver thought while fawning.
Caelia had no response to that but a little affirmative sound, wordless and brief.
Retracing their tracks back to base and through to Ocean Road, they witnessed the aftermath of the battles they had fought. Remains of sandbag positions, still spinning off trails of smoke; bodies lined up on the side of the street for identification and preservation; pitted streets where shells from both sides had landed, in various places exposing ducts and electrical cable; shattered storefronts, partially collapsed apartments.
There were rear echelon troops, like medics and engineering labor, transportation crews and mine clearing troops, moving all along the route. The Regiment was unique in its number of support personnel. The 8th Division’s constituent units lacked this amount of non-combat aid. As a result, while the 8th Division would have been hard-pressed to make its battlefields into accessible pathways, the 1st Motor Rifles were easily clearing and supplying all of theirs. It was a relatively smooth trip down to Ocean Road, which itself was quickly being cleared of the wrecks of enemy tanks, and the detritus of high caliber gun battle. Harmony found itself well able to maneuver into and around Ocean Road.
At either side of the road, Gendarmes directed traffic swiftly enough to prevent blockages. There were rows of Hobgoblins parked in alleyways under guard of their own resting crews, hidden from the main road for safety. Large tank transporters and prime movers winched chains of Goblin tank wrecks, and dragged them along to be disposed of. Danielle marveled at the destruction on the road. There seemed to be a pit for every meter of road from mortars and artillery and tank gunfire. Wheeled vehicles would have had a hell of a time maneuvering on the tarnished remains of Ocean Road. Buildings bore the scars of several poorly aimed shots. Danielle remembered the bright lights and beautiful facades she saw with Caelia during the festival. All were mangled and blasted apart now.
“It’s awful. All those nice little places.” Danielle said.
Caelia nodded, and sat back against the commander’s seat with a low sigh.
“It is bad, but I mean, at least we’re alive. Ocean Road can be rebuilt, you know?”
“Yes, of course. You’re right.”
Danielle wondered if she had said something foolish or inhuman. Had she focused too much on the pretty storefronts and not thought enough of the people who could have died in them; who did die in them? She wondered if Caelia thought differently of her having heard that snap reaction. It was an anxiety she often fought with as they interacted.
She thought to change the subject and engage her in conversation as she wheeled them around to the temporary battalion headquarters. But she ended up saying not a single word more the whole way. Crippled with anxieties, her tongue felt heavy and she could think of nothing that would engage Caelia’s mind. She cursed herself for this — it felt like she was only making the trip even less palatable. Wordlessly, with a tension in the air that perhaps only Danielle felt, they parked Harmony up the street from the Battalion HQ, a large tent strung between a pair of Hobgoblins. They had to leave Harmony a block or two away from the tent, in a safe and unoccupied alley shown to them by a Gendarme.
“Major El-Amin is waiting for you personally, Suessen.” the military policeman said.
He then saluted and smiled.
Caelia nodded. Danielle did too, though she was not similarly addressed.
Walking their way back, they were as quiet as before, but Caelia seemed a little energetic. She had a bit of odd pep to her step and a very subtle, small smile on her lips as they approached and entered the headquarters tent. There were a few people inside, but they vacated almost immediately, patting Caelia on the shoulders amicably as they left behind their radios and maps. There was only one remaining occupied table in the room.
Sitting behind the table was Major Shayma El-Amin, their Battalion commander and the highest rank they were expected to personally meet. She looked sharp in her uniform, just the barest hint of close-cut black hair peeking from under her peaked cap, wearing her officer’s jacket over her tanker bodysuit. She had a sharp smile, too, and she brandished that smile with what a Cissean like Danielle would’ve called gusto. Soon as they walked through the tent flaps, her face lit up, far from the stoic seriousness she was known for.
Under this eerie scrutiny, Danielle felt very unsure of herself. She resolved to try to make it through without tripping on her own tongue. Meetings were not her strong suit at all. And she certainly did not feel like a hero, though she secretly wished for at least one little acknowledgment for her deeds. It seemed it was the one she was not destined to get.
Caelia was focused on Major El-Amin, her smile broadening just the littlest bit.
She saluted, and Danielle mimed her.
After a few seconds worth of looking them over, Major El-Amin gave them a greeting.
“Congratulations Cello! Word of your heroism has spread around the battalion! I figured it was a sign that I should finally take a leave from my duties and reconnect with you.”
More accurately, Shayma El-Amin gave Caelia a rather unique greeting.
Danielle’s eyes drew a little wider, and her body sank a little lower. She had come into the tent feeling inadequate and unworthy. Now she felt invisible. She felt something crawling around in her chest too. Cello? Major El-Amin was clearly staring right at Caelia, who flushed and wilted a little herself under the attention. The Major was smiling like a schoolgirl, and when she extended a hand across the table, it was for Caelia only.
“To think, when I last saw you, you seemed so vulnerable. Now you’re a hero!”
“I’m really not. That’s you. And when I last saw you, I definitely imagined a hero.”
“Hah! Middle officers can’t be heroes. That’s for Sergeant and under or General and up.”
Caelia smiled graciously and gave Major El-Amin’s hand an energetic, laughing shake.
Then the Major retreated back behind her table; she did not extend the same hand to Danielle. It was as if the driver simply wasn’t there. That oversight was not on Danielle’s mind at all, however. She was consumed by the familiarity between the two of them. They did not look like a pair of professionals just meeting. They were definitely good friends.
She felt a twinge of something in her chest that she hated feeling. It was something ugly and petty and alien and the feeling of it was bad enough to create a generalized bad enough feeling throughout her entire self, spiraling and spiraling. But she simply couldn’t help it.
When I last saw you? What did that mean? And Caelia had a rather unique expression for the Major, it seemed. Rarely had Danielle seen her so unabashedly and outwardly cheerful. Sure, sometimes Danielle made her laugh, or said something charming enough to prompt a smile, but rarely did Caelia seem infused with this kind of subtle, glowing energy. What was happening here in front of her eyes? What was happening in her chest? She knew the answer to that one at least, but she did not want to admit to the green in her eyes.
“It’s good to see you.” Major El-Amin said. “You’ve, well, changed. Grown into your own.”
“Hah. You could say that. There’s been some changes, yes.”
“I’m glad. You look good.”
“Ehh. I’m okay. I never got to thank you for it. Your help was appreciated.”
“All I did was offer a little push. It’s the same I would do for any comrade.”
“Well then. It is good to see you too, comrade.”
“It has been a long time. I only wish we could have met again under a brighter star.”
“If you’re thinking stage lights, I’m going to have to disappoint you.”
“Ah, oh well. I’ll hold out hope, Cello.”
Danielle froze up. She couldn’t really follow or understand what was happening and dared not speak. She felt ostracized in this small room with two people who seemed to know depths of one another that she simply could not fathom. She had been Caelia’s partner (in tanks) for two years, and Caelia had already seemingly changed, she supposed, when Danielle had met her. She had not felt Caelia had changed much at all since then.
“I apologize for your promotion being tied up. Admin has gone to hell recently. I still haven’t been paid my military wage. After today, I will lobby for you quite strongly!”
Caelia laughed a little. “It’s alright. You don’t have to be sorry.”
Major El-Amin became quiet and looked at Caelia contemplatively.
“Ah, Caelia. Back in camp, and in those jungles, I was distantly thinking about you. Your plight rather motivated me, you know. You appreciate my support; but you supported me too. To think that gallant star I saw storm off the stage of the Ulyanova theater would–”
Though they carried on some kind of conversation for the next few moments Danielle simply could not listen anymore. She could not register the sounds under the trembling of her body and the pumping of her sinews and the sheer struggle to hold a neutral face.
That evil word in her mind that she felt in her chest, that dark petty little word.
She felt jealousy; that destructive word that she meant she had failed as a good person.
She felt jealousy for a lot of things then. It was flooding all her good waters with bile.
Tank drivers often got marginalized when it came to promotions and accolades. Nobody quite thought of their work as anything impressive. It was a prerequisite that somebody move the lumbering bulk of a tank around, and most fancy maneuvering got a tanker killed; simple movements to and fro were directed by a commander and unimpressive. So Danielle was used to thinking of herself as unimpressive, just a somebody among people.
Danielle was used to just being the driver. But she was not used to being ignored like this.
Ignored by her, special friend Caelia; ignored for someone brighter, stronger, better.
It was not this alone that caused her to break. Many things had been compounding ever since the calm that followed the battle, and even ever since before, far ahead of the eerie calm where neither of them seemed able to speak. In a more logical mood Danielle might have understood that they were two awkward, young and tired people who were not at fault for their silence; she might have seen this one conversation, though perhaps inconsiderate, as nothing inherently offensive against her. But she was vulnerable.
Danielle was an isolated person prone to isolation, and delicate within this stage.
And this felt like an extraordinary event she was witnessing. And indeed it was.
As such she simply could not take the cocktail of emotions brewing in her heart.
Her chest pounding, feeling a distinct pressure both to make herself known, a need to cry out to Caelia for some acknowledgment of her existence and importance; and also feeling the pressure to make herself scarce, to let these bosom friends have their space to reconnect without her vile presence in between; Danielle blurted something out.
“I should get started on repairs!”
And she turned and fled, before the tears in her eyes became noticeable at all.
Caelia called out her name but Danielle did not hear it. She ran out of the tent, past a group of engineers trying to fill up portions of the road for trucks to pass, and up the streets as fast as her legs could carry her, weeping and sobbing, her chest thrashing and her stomach churning from the anxiety of it all. Her head assaulted her with a terrifying violence.
Crying and screaming and stumbling around the road, her brain on fire.
As she ran, she thought that, of course, ultimately she was nobody special. She was nobody compared to anybody in anyone’s life; in Caelia’s life. Shayma El-Amin was a Major and a tank prodigy and someone special to Caelia who had helped her. Danielle had sat under her feet in various tanks for two years. She was someone who read lesbian fiction with her and felt inadequately equipped compared to the heroines of such tales. She was someone who told her sweet things that sometimes got replies. They shared rations and bathed together once or twice as cadets. She was someone who thought of herself as a girl because Caelia had taught her that she could do so– she was someone in a tank because Caelia gave her the courage to pursue that dream and yet. She was still just herself. Just there.
What had she really done for anybody? What had she done but take and occupy space?
Where had she even been during those times Caelia needed support, years and years ago?
She did the right thing to run. She felt like she needed to disappear now, after what she felt, after breaking down like that over nothing. After offering nothing and doing nothing and being nothing for all of this nothing-time. She felt stupid and small and horrible–
Far behind her in the distance she made out Caelia’s footsteps and resolved to run faster.
Until another sound completely blocked her partner out.
Gendarmes nearby sounded the alert.
“AIR RAID POSITIONS!”
Danielle’s tear-flooded eyes lifted their heavy gaze up toward the sky.
From over the noon horizon she saw the heavens suddenly thicken.
Hundreds of aircraft were coming in from over the ocean.
Many overflew her completely, their shadows swiftly crossing the road.
One started to drop precipitously. Danielle could see no engines attached to its wings.
Soaring as if over her own shoulder, the plane barely overflew her, whipping her curly hair and the loose dress jacket over her bodysuit nearly off her body with a strong gust of wind.
Crashing violently into a nearby building, the heavy glider aircraft split into pieces.
All of Danielle’s spiraling self-hatred emptied out and was slowly replaced with fear.
Emblazoned prominently on the smashed tail now sticking out of a nearby store, was the Father-Tree of the Elven Kingdom of Lubon. Dropping right out of the pristine Rangdan skies, the second prong of the invasion of Ayvarta had finally decided to join the fray.
Far behind her, down the street, Caelia stood frozen as well.
As more gliders began to descend it felt like the gulf between them was a continent wide.