52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Ave.
Inside the medical tent the entry curtains stirred and spread at her behest, and behind them, Corporal Gulab Kajari found a familiar pale-haired, dark-skinned girl with a very blank expression, sitting alongside a nurse. Gulab smiled and stretched her arms wide.
“Hey! Guess who’s back? Gimme a hug!” Gulab called out amicably.
Charvi Chadgura almost leaped from atop the stretcher and seized upon Gulab, resting her head on the woman’s chest and surprising her with her energy. Despite the empty look to her eyes and the neutral setting of her lips, Charvi’s affection and relief was evident in the dead-tight grip she had on Gulab’s chest, and in her gentle, almost purr-like stirring.
“Well, it works, but it feels more like you’re clinging than hugging.” Gulab said.
“I want to cling.” Charvi replied. Her unaffected monotone remained the same too.
She closed her arms around Charvi’s shoulders and back and nestled with her.
“See, I’m perfectly ok.” Gulab said.
“I was still worried. You nearly died.”
“Hmph! Nearly nothin’! If a Rock Bear can’t kill me, nothing can!”
“I will still worry.”
Behind them, the nurse watched with a patient, smiling face.
Gulab caught sight of her over Charvi’s shoulder and felt self-conscious for a moment.
“Anyway, you should get yourself fixed up.”
She gently separated herself from Charvi, who looked at her in the eyes and blinked.
“Nothing is wrong with me.” Charvi said.
Interjecting, the nurse raised her hand with a concerned expression.
“Actually comrade, you have a fragment wound in your leg that should be cared for.”
Looking down, Gulab found torn cloth and seeping blood near Charvi’s knee.
“You should get that taken care of.” Gulab insisted.
“It’s fine.” Charvi said. “I don’t feel pain.”
“Infection respects no hero, comrade.” replied the nurse. “I must clean it at least.”
Gulab chuckled at Charvi’s casual obstinancy. She clearly wanted to spend time with her now that there was a hard-won instant of calm after all they had gone through. Gulab appreciated it; she wanted to be by Charvi’s side too, even if they did nothing more than sit down and sleep against each other’s shoulders in the back of a truck back to base.
“Nurse, would it be okay if I just stayed here?” Gulab asked.
“I don’t see why not!” said the nurse, smiling.
“Well then.” Gulab nodded to the nurse. “Charvi, I’ll be right here, so get patched up.”
Charvi clapped her hands gently.
“If you say so.”
The Nurse found Gulab a seat, and she sat back to watch the nurse snip away part of Charvi’s pants leg and dab her wound gently with a saline solution to clean it. Gulab watched the procedure with a placid smile, but her mind was mostly empty of thought. She was coming down from the rush and panic of the previous battle. She felt an eerie sense of satisfaction. A lot had gone wrong — she had been hurt, Charvi had been hurt, and many of their comrades suffered worse. However, they managed to pull through.
They protected so many others, and worked together to defeat an enemy that was vicious, numerous and ostensibly prepared for battle. Despite everything, they had won.
Gulab herself had hunted a giant; almost in the way that her ancestors always had.
Though she hated her interaction with that tradition, she realized that sometimes the giants were hunted because they could kill the people you love, and not for its own sake. She felt that she would fight any enemy to safeguard the people she cared about. For her comrades; for people like Adesh and the kids, or Caelia and Danielle; for Charvi. Anyone who would hurt them, who would hurt innocents; if she could hunt them then she would.
She felt a burden start to lift in that regard. Maybe even that side of her was not indelibly her father’s, not indelibly owned by men. Maybe it could be a part of her as a woman too.
Maybe it didn’t all have to end up like it did with her grandfather.
“All done! You were a swell patient, Sergeant.”
Charvi stood up from the stretcher and waved a hand at the nurse as a quiet thanks.
Her knee was wrapped in a big patch with a red blotch on it, but she could walk.
Gulab stood from her seat, and stretched her arms. She felt a hint of drowsiness.
“I think we’ve earned a bite and a long, quiet truck ride to the barracks, no?” She said.
“We have. I can go see how my stamp book is doing.” Charvi said.
“Where did you leave it?”
“I left it with the company commissary, back at the base. They have waterproof lockers.”
“Someday I’m going to make you a case for that thing.”
“Yup! You wouldn’t know it, but I’m pretty handy with leather.”
Chatting idly, they walked outside the tent and down the road.
The University and its surroundings felt like they had completely transformed.
After the fall of Muhimu Shimba the Lion Battalion was quickly mopped up. Lion’s remaining troops overwhelmingly surrendered outright; though they had no way of knowing their commander had been defeated, the presence of enemy forces in Muhimu Shimba was enough to break their faith. It became clear that at Lion’s last stand only a fraction of the battalion’s remaining troops were present. Had the entire battalion rallied the battle would have been bloodier; had the Jotun remained in place, it might have become a temporary rout. In the heat of the moment, everything had become hectic and improvisational but they managed to win out regardless. Now the location was theirs.
University Avenue had become the nerve center of the 2nd Battalion’s operations. Its logistics train back to Colonel Nakar’s HQ was solidified and trucks were coming and going unmolested, carrying troops and support personnel to and fro. Tents for the medics and signals personnel and computer support teams had begun to sprout, many hidden within or between buildings for some cover from enemy spotters. Burundi’s organic artillery support had begun to arrive too. Gulab spotted the light howitzers, towed in by truck, setting up in groups of three in a little sitting park along the way down from the medical tent. Broken-down buildings, damaged in the fighting, were used to conceal ammunition.
There was a lot of hustle and bustle. Not everyone could breathe as easy as she yet.
Though the battle raged on in spirit, it was no longer Gulab’s battle to fight now.
It was expected that Gulab and Charvi and their comrades would be rotated out for fresher troops. She had been given to understand that she could expect to fight much longer battles in the future, but to survive today against the 8th’s numerical advantages they needed troops to maintain a “high combat quality.” So rotations for rest were necessary. This was especially necessary for prized veterans like herself, who were invaluable.
Gulab had puffed up her chest quite a bit upon hearing such accolades.
But the promise of sleep and food was much more important at the moment.
Quietly basking in each other’s orbit, the pair sidled up to a fresh truck, newly arrived and with an empty bed, and climbed up onto the back, maneuvering around a machine gun on a mount grafted to the center of the bed, no doubt in haste. They sat with their backs to metal and their rumps on the cold floor. Gulab felt a little sleepy as soon as she took her body weight off her legs. Everything she had done in the past few hours seemed to have finally caught up to her, now that she had allowed it. She leaned against Chadgura.
“Hey, if you’re awake, lemme know when we get back to base.”
“I wanna grab some hot lentils before they’re out a batch, you know?”
“I will keep my eyes open.”
“Oh no, you should sleep too! I just mean, if you happen to be awake.”
Chadgura clapped her hands softly.
They waited in the truck, while more people arrived from around the block with their weapons and remaining ammunition in tow, sitting in whatever truck was closest or fancied them best. Gulab began to nod off. Whenever she blinked, she held her eyes in darkness longer each time, and felt she could see more and more of a dream each time.
Each glimpse of the horizon, briefer and briefer, put into stark relief a group of shadows.
They could have been specks of dust, so distant were they, or mere tricks of the light and the dreaming dark upon Gulab’s eyes. But their movement was predictable and relentless in the way only physical things could achieve, utterly lacking the whimsy of a fantasy. As they came closer and closer, as the mite-like shadows gained definite form and began to issue noise and part the clouds they sailed through, the drowsy Gulab started to realize she was seeing something materially real; and that she was not the only witness.
Slowly, across one street and then another, heads began to turn, eyes began to climb.
Everyone measured the sky and found objects fast approaching.
Visions of Bada Aso returned unbidden to the collective unconscious of the Regiment.
At first stupefied, the various units around University were joined under a singular call:
“AIRCRAFT APPROACHING! Sound the air raid sirens and find shelter!”
This call came not from a Major or a Lieutenant but a Sergeant in charge of a spool of telephone wire. Nonetheless, everyone was all too eager to comply, despite the lack of an air raid siren or any formal shelter — this was not Bada Aso. Soon Gulab found the truck around her emptying suddenly, and similar trucks as well. There was a mad rush away from open space and into the buildings. Doors to places left inviolate after the fighting, were finally kicked to the floor; everyone dispersed into the shops and galleries.
Gulab finally snapped from her half-awake stupor. Aircraft. Air Raid.
“Charvi!” She cried out.
At her side, Charvi had stood upright and was looking over the walls of the truck.
“Excuse me,” she said aloud, trying to get the attention of running passersby.
Nobody answered her, and the dispersing troops made every effort to get as far away as they could from the sight of the aircraft during their brief moment of leaderlessness.
Gulab grabbed her belt and helped herself to stand.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
Charvi looked at her, blank-faced as usual.
“Wondering what our orders will be now.” She said.
To her seeming confusion, nobody appeared to have orders to give as the aircraft overflew their skies with relative impunity. Gulab watched her comrades dispersing, and having never been under the bombs in Bada Aso, she wondered what she could now do.