The Center of Gravity (75.2)

It is advised to read the side-story V: The Loss Of Innocence before reading this chapter.

This chapter contains mentions of violence, torture, wounds, suicide and suicidal ideation, corpses, and brief descriptions of illness and abuse.


58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Northwestern Desert, Cavalryman’s Rock

A trail of red dust followed a small convoy as it moved through the desert.

At the head of the convoy, a Hobgoblin tank brandished its 76mm gun, turning it on each dune as if expecting a counterpart to trundle out in anger. Behind it, two smaller Kobold scout tanks equipped with anti-aircraft autocannons watched the skies. At the far end of the convoy were three additional Kobolds. And between them all was a Gbahali half-track with a special housing in the back, air-conditioned and with its own water supply. Alongside the Gbahali was one truck with food, gas and other supplies just in case.

Solstice was several kilometers behind them. They traveled for hours through seemingly empty desert. There were few landmarks along the path. At the Oasis of Haath the convoy startled several desert creatures, but did not slow. Through the Sea of Sarstra they stormed past a camp of Hadir nomads, all of whom stood from their tents and carpets, reined their horses and prepared, in a panic, to defend themselves. But they were ignored. It was more their fear of heavy machinery than their understanding of the situation that led them to react. In fact, the convoy hardly acknowledged them.

Following a bend in the Qural river they finally came upon a vast stretch of flat wasteland on which stood their destination. There was only one visible landmark framed by the parched earth around it. Cavalryman’s Rock was a massive, flat-topped landform, composed largely of ruddy stone and named for its resemblance to a cavalryman’s traditional hat. The Rock was steep-faced and the size of a castle.

At the Rock the tanks split up, three kobolds to the left flank and two to the right, still watching the skies for potential air attack, while the Hobgoblin stood sentinel over the half-track and truck. They drove around the Rock and parked close to the red-brown rock for what little cover it offered. From the back of the truck three soldiers armed with Rasha submachine guns and approached a featureless portion of the Rock.

Three more soldiers exited the back of the Gbahali. They very briefly scouted the featureless desert around them and once satisfied they ushered Premier Daksha Kansal out of the Half-Track. She was dressed in a business-like waistcoat suit, and unarmed. It was a different feeling than her old excursions with her paramilitaries. She was a civilian leader; the head of the Government in general, not just the military forces.

Soon as her feet hit the sand, three of the soldiers closed protectively around her, armed with a new, shortened version of the otherwise quite long and quite old bundu bolt action rifle, while the remaining soldiers uncovered a false wall and scouted the tunnel that lay behind it. Moments later, one of them returned and signaled the rest to move.

Daksha and her retinue ran toward to the tunnel, eager to see what awaited inside.

She had come “alone,” with no other officials or military officers, only a small retinue of bodyguards. This had been the request of the scientist currently in charge of the site.

Under normal circumstances she would have objected and brought Cadao and other advisers. However, she knew, trusted, and in fact, appointed the custodian of the Rock.

More specifically, the new custodian of the strange quarters found inside the Rock.

As bizarre as all of this seemed, the SIVIRA had already done half a month’s worth of work sorting out this mystery, and Daksha thought she knew what to expect from the investigation. But Cavalryman’s Rock was the strangest part in a mundane drama that had unfolded within Solstice after two earthshaking events. First, Daksha herself ascended to the Premiership after the dissolution of the Council. Then came Madiha’s battle in Rangda against Mansa’s traitorous forces. Owing to this second event, Daksha purged several associates of Mansa’s from the Party, arresting and interrogating them.

Since both Mansas had been killed in Rangda, this was all they could do now to try to puzzle out the extent of their vile influence: what they stole and the total damage.

Daksha left this task in the hand of Halani Kuracha and soon everybody was talking.

Mansa had several ties to other sources of corruption around the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. He was tied to Gowon the smuggler, who used his military position far in the South to try to enrich himself with illegal mining operations. Mansa was found to be tied to several foreign scientists who had been granted stay in Ayvarta for scientific reasons and were now found to have been aiding Mansa in hoarding historical objects for himself. All of these people who could be found were also arrested and interrogated.

Though a few tribes of nomads were implicated in the investigation, Daksha opted not to harass them. Their nature in such matters was purely mercenary and forgivable. Solstice was better served being graceful around these unincorporated peoples for the moment.

In fact, the bulk of the investigation’s time was soon taken up not by people but by places. In addition to clandestine connections Mansa was found to have possessed numerous properties. Though in communist Ayvarta nobody could own property, buildings and estates and parcels of land could be given purposes. In his official capacity, Mansa assigned disclosed and undisclosed uses to over two dozens sites around the country and as arbiter of their affairs assigned numerous cronies to watch over and work in them.

These were associated with his various dealings. Madiha Nakar testified to what she knew of Mansa’s business, including his appropriation of Imperial artifacts. Many of his properties were either mining sites or training camps, mustering yards and discrete logistics and warehousing for his non-union crews. Mansa was digging everywhere, and he was using his official power under the table to do it and over the table to cover it up.

In all of this, however, the most curious discovery was one undisclosed site found by directly interrogating Mansa’s subordinates. Cavalryman’s Rock had apparently been dug into and used as a special base of operations for Mansa’s archeological team. This seemed far too dramatic: all of his other properties were warehouses and abandoned estates, shabby and forgotten places that nobody was supposed to occupy. Hollowing out a giant rock to hide inside seemed far too whimsical, but it turned out to be true.

Daksha was seeing it for herself for the first time. She had organized a small group to investigate the site, but like all of the other properties, she had never visited it. After all, why would she visit every old warehouse on the list? This conspiracy, while large, was purely borne of greed and eccentricity and did not constitute some grand happening that required the Premier’s attention. Because the staff Mansa assigned to the Rock were civilian scientists, Daksha sent loyal socialist scientists to the Rock (along with many armed guards) to investigate and confiscate whatever they happened to find there.

That should have been the end of that. Except that it was clearly not now.

She had received an urgent message, and she believed it serious enough to heed.

Smooth tunnels had been bored through the Rock using heavy equipment, and lamps had been strung up. Diesel power generators had been wheeled in and hooked up to a system that pumped water up from the underground river, as well as powered several fans, in about a dozen white-walled rooms and hallways that had been built into the complex. A few of the rooms were even sterilized and sealed behind glass doors.

It was a laboratory, Daksha could even smell the chemicals as she walked by.

Mansa’s staff had been cleared out. In every room there were green and beige uniformed Army engineers and assault guards. Many were waiting around for assignments, playing cards or games and cracking open rations in what must have been their dozenth day stuck in here. When Daksha walked past they stood in sudden attention, saluting her.

Then she found what seemed like a large hub room in the middle of the complex.

She was at long last greeted by her assigned agent in this investigation.

“Premier, did you bring the peanuts and jerky? I haven’t eaten in a day.”

She whimpered pathetically and dragged her feet close to Daksha.

“I brought them as you asked. Explain to me why you haven’t eaten?”

“We ran out of green lentils, and that’s the only item in the current ration menu I can stand. I hate the Rotti, it comes with that awful red curry. I hate the spicy items. I would eat the meat items, but I hate sopping wet meat. Everything’s in some infernal curry or chutney.” She raised her hands and clenched her fists in anger. “I just want some jerky.”

Slouching, hands in her coat pockets, tail curled around one leg and with deep black bags under her eyes, Xenon Uwiati looked sincerely pathetic. Her skinny legs trembled, likely from her idiotic self deprivation. Sweat dribbled down her honey-colored face and neck and a hint of exposed chest. Atop her head, her pointy cat-like ears had brown fur the same color as the normal human head of long, silky brown hair she possessed. She was a rare ethnicity, a girl from one of the nomad tribes. Ears and tail marked the extent of her animal-like features: in all other respects she was very much a sorry-looking human.

Xenon turned her sharp green eyes up from the floor and gazed pleadingly at Daksha.

Sighing, Daksha withdrew a special ration pack of pork jerky and handed it to her.

“Thank you, Premier! You have saved my life! You are a merciful ruler!”

“I should shove one of the red curry rations down your neck, box and all.”

“That’s just mean! Look, I need many grams of protein to feed my galaxy-sized brain.”

The scientist squatted down on the floor and nibbled on the jerky in a little ball.

“So that’s where it all goes then.” Daksha said. Xenon was a rather slight woman. “You’re giving me a galaxy-sized headache. I hope you’ve been working and not slacking off.”

She watched the desert cat-girl nibbling on jerky for a moment before letting out a sigh.

“Report?” She shouted, partially in the form of a question.

“Oh! Of course.” Xenon pocketed the jerky and stood back up, dusting off her coat. “Of course, I did call you here for that! I’ve got some interesting news and some bad news.”

“Interesting first.” Daksha said.

“Oh, I wasn’t asking you to determine the order. Here you go.”

She went across the room and picked up a radio set the size of a lunchbox.

Lugging it back the other way, she laid it at Daksha’s feet and squatted near it.

“Tune that to the frequency I scratched into the back of the plastic.”

Daksha squatted alongside Xenon, looked in the back of the radio and turned the knob.

There was a brief rumbling noise. Behind them what had at first glance been another forgettable white-paneled wall slid open to reveal a hidden room. There were stairs clearly descending underground. Every other room Daksha had visited had been erected at ground level on a fairly even plane. This was the first hint at a much large complex.

“After the Akjer incident every investigator became very fond of searching for secret rooms, so we kept our eyes open for them. We found this one relatively easily, because we had a scientist on duty who kept fiddling with the radio for no good reason.”

“By any chance was this scientist a desert cat-kin?” Daksha asked pointedly.

“Yes, it was me.” Her cat-like subordinate sighed and looked embarrassed.

She then stood up from the ground and descended the stairs, nonchalant, hands in her coat pockets, tail gently swaying behind her. Daksha followed after her, looking around the hub area as if with new eyes. This broader, taller room was connected to every other part of the facility at some point. Tables and chairs had been pushed off to the side by the investigators, but this had assuredly been some kind of feeding or recreation room. If there was one secret room connected to this hub, there were probably one or two more.

“We found over thirty people here. Most were fighters loyal to Mansa and a few others were just laborers. We caught them by surprise, they seemed almost completely cut off from the world and largely incoherent in their behaviors. But there were more people than that. Something troubling happened here Premier. But first, let me show this.”

At the bottom of the stairs was the first sign of that “something troubling.” Hidden behind that secret door was a vast room deep underground that tapped into the water flowing beneath the desert. There was a series of pumps and reservoirs to collect and store water, similar to others that Daksha had seen elsewhere in the facility. There were two incongruous sights: one was a massive machine the length of a banquet table, composed of numerous water-filled glass tubes etched with numbers and ruler markings, and various valves and levers that controlled the flow of water into them.

And the second, far more alarming than the fancy plumbing, was a stack of body bags.

“What are those bodies doing there?” Daksha asked, outraged at the sight.

“We didn’t know what to do with them. They died of some horrific illness. I could show you what they look like but they are barely recognizable as human remains now.”

Xenon squatted on the floor and hugged her own knees and nibbled on her own thumb.

“It was very scary Premier, when we found these people. They had quarantined them in this room and left them to die here like they were monsters. When we found them there was no hope for them. And they did look like monsters when we found them but still — it was disturbing. We were scared at first, but later we packed up the bodies while wearing gas masks and rubber suits, and sterilized the place. Then I noticed this thing.”

From her shaking position close to the ground the scientist stretched her arm to point at the machine around them. Daksha couldn’t blame her for forgetting to tinker with some fancy plumbing when there were corpses around. She also wouldn’t blame her for tampering with a crime scene, if the state of the corpses seemed wracked with illness. Nothing could be discerned from the closed bags. With her attention drawn to it, the room did smell faintly of sterilizing gas and bleach and such things — and not like death.

All of that, however, now proved secondary to understanding the machine’s purpose.

On closer inspection, Daksha thought she figured out what kind of machine it was.

“This is a water calculator, isn’t it?” Daksha said. “You do math with it.”

She did not know exactly what type of math — she was not like Xenon, who had changed her name to the chemical element upon graduating from university with some of the highest honors ever seen in the history of Solstice. She was a miracle girl whom Daksha could not match up to. Nevertheless, Daksha knew just enough science to converse.

Xenon’s cat-like ears perked up and she ceased nibbling on her finger. “Yes, it’s among the biggest I’ve ever seen. When I realized what it was, I was stunned by the complexity of calculations that they must have been trying to do in this facility. They’re limited to certain kinds of maths, but invaluable for the tasks they’re designed to tackle. And so I found myself returning to this room again and again despite the presence of the bodies.”

She gave one last trembling look at the stack of corpse bags before standing up, turning around and walking out of the room again. Daksha followed her. Xenon was an eccentric person, whimsical in personal habits and with several special needs. However, that brain which she so richly fed with fat and meat, was an invaluable asset. Daksha wagered Xenon could probably do as much math as that machine, and all in her own head.

To think she had found her trying to enlist in the military! It would’ve been a waste.

Back upstairs in the hub room, Xenon tinkered with the radio, closing one door and opening another. She nonchalantly turned to that passage and made her way into it without saying a word and Daksha continued to follow her. Down a much shorter flight of stairs they found another white-walled room with a sickening display. There were a variety of instruments and two armored, locked vaults big enough to be rooms. Then there was a glass window lined with metal plates. This window offered a glimpse into an adjacent room in which resided three decaying corpses, seemingly unmoved. Each one had exactly one head wound. They huddled around an altar upon which there was a metallic orb-shaped object that seemed to have been vaguely split down the middle. Several cables and mechanical instruments were attached to this enigmatic object.

Daksha felt bile rising to her throat at the sight of the mutilated dead.

“What is the meaning of this? Why have these bodies not been collected?”

Her scientist companion crossed her arms and stood on one leg, crossing the other over.

She stared through the glass, rubbing her hand despondently upon its surface.

Though clearly upset by the sight, her eyes did not waver and she did not blink.

In a calm, matter of fact sort of voice, she began to explain herself.

“Well, given the state we found them in, I suspected the cause of death this time was not man’s inhumanity to man but rather a rare energy called ‘ionizing radiation’. This room is shielded from it by the plates on the walls, but that room would burn a piece of toast black. If toast reacted to ionizing radiation by turning black, that is. I don’t think it–”

“I understand.”

In truth Daksha did not understand. She deferred to the scientist’s judgment.

Gazing once more upon the corpses, she shook her head.

It felt like she had left her precious S.D.S. and walked into another country altogether.

This was the sort of country Mansa was running in secret.

To capitalists and imperialists and the feckless liberals who supported them, this was the meaning behind opportunity, individual responsibility, and all of those other slogans they rallied behind. They had the individual opportunity and responsibility to be used up. In his obsession with the Empire, Mansa sent these brilliant minds to death.

“What happened here?” Daksha asked herself aloud. It felt surreal.

Xenon did not pick up on her tone and quickly formulated a thorough response.

“I think, if I were to piece the last days of this facility together, that the culmination of various experiments led the armed guards to turn against the scientists. Collectively, all of them were ill to various degrees. I think their food or air became contaminated. The guards did their best to isolate every experiment and every person involved. There was a air system that had been blown out when we got here: I think they staged some kind of drastic explosion that vented all the contaminants out of the Rock. Everyone we found was malnourished and most were docile. Some were nearly catatonic. But these three bodies here still look much more human than the ones we found in the water room.”

Daksha shuddered to think what those other bodies looked like if that was true.

“How do we know it’s safe in here?” She asked.

“I used a Ligier counter and a survey meter on each room. They’re clean except for the one behind the shielding. I think something dramatic happened in there.” Xenon said.

“How did this place operate?” Daksha asked aloud, almost to herself. She was shocked.

Again, Xenon did not seem able to read her tone and answered her matter-of-factually.

“We don’t know. Mansa obviously supported them financially, but it seemed a lot of them were here for the science moreso than for anything else. It may remain a mystery.”

Daksha’s hatred of Mansa burned ever brighter. Thank God that he was dead.

“I thought this place would be an archeological site for Imperial artefacts.” Daksha said, shaking her head. “This is like something out of a Northerner pulp book. Science fiction.”

“There is an imperial artifact here.” Xenon said.

Daksha felt a sudden shock of anxiety to her heart. “Do I want to know what it is?”

“You do. It is very important. Perhaps the most important thing in this desert.”

Xenon, still bouncing around on one leg, made her way to the vault.

It was already unlocked, so she turned the lever and then feebly, slowly pulled on it.

Eventually Daksha joined in, and together they unveiled a room full of glass cases.

There were ores inside. A few jagged, messy conglomerate rocks. Some processed stuff.

The scientist carefully donned an armored glove taken from a nearby shelf.

Very thin sheets of a shiny grey metal adorned it.

She set the foot she had been crossing up back down on the ground and straightened up.

Using the hand protected by the glove, she reached into one of the unassuming cases.

“I’ve tested it several times, gambling my own life. I think this is safe.”

In her hands she now held a very dark cubic object.

Tiny, dull veins of purple ran across its otherwise smooth, perfectly cut surfaces.

“Doctor Vante, over there,” She nodded her head in the direction of the corpses, “he called this ‘Agarthicite’ after the myth of the city inside of a hollow Aer. This particular piece was found in the Kinywa mine that the traitor Gowon was mining illegally.”

She held out the object to Daksha, assuring her that it was safe.

Daksha grasped it in her bare hands. It was smooth, completely smooth, and vaguely warm. She felt something of a thrum or a pulse, like a tiny little animal breathing.

“This is an Imperial Artifact?” Daksha asked in disbelief.

“According to Dr. Vante’s notes, there are historical accounts of the mineral playing some kind of ceremonial or ritual role within the occult beliefs of the last few Emperors.”

“Fascinating.”

“Turn it over in your fingers, create friction.” The scientist instructed her.

Curiously enough she turned her head away from Daksha, averting her gaze.

Daksha squeezed the stone gently, rubbing her fingers over it. She could see the oils in her hands making impressions of her fingers upon it. But those impressions seemed to disappear almost instantly. There was a brief, minuscule spark and the stone began to glow a dim purple on its outer edges, but brighter on the inside. It was as if the outer surface of the mineral contained a light within. Like a torch, cradled in the stone.

Xenon put a hand up to her own forehead. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable.

“Are you okay?” Daksha asked. She felt a rush of fear that this was the ‘ionizing radiation’ that Xenon had alluded to before, though Daksha did not know what that actually meant.

“Agarthicite,” she continued explaining, with some difficulty. “It has three states. When I gave it to you it was inert. Now it is in a stage where it is actually storing a very tiny amount of potential energy. I call this phase of Agarthicite activation the ‘stressed’ state. Doctor Vante called it the ‘dormant’ state, because he underestimated its behaviors.”

She was straining to speak and breathing heavily. She was clearly affected.

“Xenon, is this thing making you sick?” Daksha asked in a commanding tone of voice.

“I can only speculate, but I think Agarthicite in all states generates a theoretical waveform that disrupts the brains of people with a special neurophysiology.”

Daksha herself was unaffected by the Agarthicite, but Xenon was clearly suffering.

“Hold it up to me–”

“Absolutely not!”

“Premier, hold it up to me for a moment and then put it away.”

Daksha grit her teeth but the cat was serious. She must have thought this was important.

Despite her reservations, Daksha thrust the Agarthicite in front of Xenon.

In the next instant, her eyes turned cold and dull, and she stared intently at the rock.

She was almost limp; she responded as if she had fallen into a trance.

Daksha put the Agarthicite into her pocket, hoping it would not burn through.

It settled there, gently, thrumming and seemingly harmless.

Xenon regained control of her faculties and withdrew from her pocket a little metal clip that she put on her hair. It was deep grey and very shiny and much like her glove.

“Forgive me, Premier, I wanted to illustrate these properties. It reminds one of the testimony of Madiha Nakar, doesn’t it? She said that Mansa carried a strange object of imperial make, a cube that caused discomfort. I believe Agarthicite is this object.”

Every top level official handling Mansa’s business had access to Madiha’s testimony about her capture and torture at the hands of the old councilman. It was a classified but valuable source. Not every investigator could have access, but everyone Daksha trusted to lead the anti-Mansa cleanup operations had access to most of this information.

A very small subset of them had access to other information in this puzzle too.

Xenon continued demurely, as if cowed by the enormity of what she was saying and afraid of some danger she might incur for saying it. “It is classified information known only to the most important, top-level personnel of the S.D.S, that Madiha Nakar possesses a unique neurophysiology. It was well before my time, but I have read material produced by Doctor Agrawal on Madiha’s specific extrasensory potential. I believe based on all of this evidence that I possess a similar neurophysiology that is obstructed by Agarthicite.”

“So you’re also magic now?” Daksha asked, crossing her arms, exasperated.

“Not magic! You make it sound so childish. It’s E.S.P.” The scientist protested.

“Can you set buildings on fire spontaneously?” Daksha asked.

“No. I believe Madiha Nakar is a special case in that regard.”

“Any other grand revelations?” Daksha said dismissively.

“You may not be impressed, but I think it’s very important. At any rate, as I suspected you are utterly unaffected by Agarthicite because your brain is completely normal.”

“My brain is decidedly not normal.” Daksha said. Intrusive thoughts; suicidal ideation.

Xenon seemed to realize the shift in tone and her tail stood on end.

“Um, anyway, I am now wearing a piece of osmium in my hair.” Xenon pointed out the hair clip she just attached. “Osmium is a very rare metal with a very strange relationship to Agarthicite. It seems to be able to block Agarthicite’s theoretical waves, as well as control other aspect’s of Agarthicite’s behavior and even forcibly induce its inert state.”

She produced a stick of presumably osmium. It was grey and shiny like her glove.

Daksha withdrew the Agarthicite. This time, Xenon could stare at it unharmed.

One tap of the stick and the Agarthicite went back to its near-black, inert state.

“Normally Osmium is extremely rare: one of the rarest metals on Aer. It is normally found exclusively as a trace byproduct of refining platinum ores. Ayvarta consumes maybe 50 kilograms of Osmium a year, for things like high durability electric contacts. Compare this to the untold thousands of tons of iron and copper we use each year.”

In the middle of this explanation Xenon turned around and picked up the jagged, unprocessed compound rock in one of the glass cases. She turned it around to show Daksha. While most of it was the shiny grey metal she had so recently become acquainted with, around the back of it, arranged as a strange growth, there were many perfectly square cubes of Agarthicite stacked together like a child’s block pyramid.

“Agarthicite is found embedded in deposits of pure Osmium that are simply impossible to find elsewhere in nature. Maybe even physically impossible in general. It’s as if some intelligence decided to hide all the Agarthicite inert in its enemy element to stifle it.”

Xenon put the ore back. All of this was incredibly interesting from a purely academic perspective, and Daksha was not opposed to learning it. It was certainly valuable and piqued her curiosity. She would definitely have Xenon continue to study this rock. But she still did not understand its full significance. It was, in some way, poisonous, and it could be used to dull Madiha’s mind (Daksha still denied to herself that Xenon was like Madiha in any way.) None of this seemed to justify Xenon’s level of urgency toward it.

She then remembered there was one more state. Xenon had said there were three.

“Tell me about the third state of Agarthicite. Is that what makes this rock important?”

“Important, dangerous, impossible to explain with physics. Yes indeed.”

She took back the rock Daksha had been holding, and produced a different tool. This one had a battery pack attached, like an electric torch, and a prod on one end. Xenon hid a button within the handle of the device that produced an electric spark inside it, and transferred a jolt of electricity to the tip. She then touched the tip to the Agarthicite.

There was a brief but intense flash of purple and red light.

At once the Agarthicite began to hover above Xenon’s gloved hand.

It circled gently in midair, turning its six surfaces over like a block toyed with by a child.

Xenon smiled. “I call this the kinetic phase of Agarthicite activation. It is producing a miniscule amount of ionizing radiation. It is only a little bit hotter than trying to sunbathe in Solstice, in terms of the radiation you’ll soak up. You see, it appears Agarthicite generates an amount of energy and radiation greater than the energy that triggered it. A tiny jolt makes the Agarthicite float for about an hour. I believe that hellish room over there was an attempt to energize Agarthicite to a greater degree.”

Daksha blinked with disbelief, staring at the rock levitating in front of her.

One small and controlled jolt from a prod and a torchlight battery pack could do this.

And in that other room, how much power did they put into a piece of Agarthicite? Was that room connected to the generators she had seen around the facility? Perhaps they fed the entire facility’s worth of power into the Agarthicite and created a massive surge of this ‘ionizing radiation’ that swept through the base and contaminated everyone.

“Physics cannot describe what Agarthicite does. It should be impossible. It is not as ludicrous as a perpetual motion machine, since it is not moving perpetually. But it is generating impossible amounts of power for the very little energy that it received.”

Daksha had seen many shocking things in this facility, but certainly, this Agarthicite was the most stunning of them. Of course one would need something like that massive water calculator to deal with this phenomenon. Even then, the machine must have felt useless after enough observation of the mineral. Xenon had it right. This was impossible.

However, if they could harness a mineral that could convert a small electrical jolt into an hour of motion– it would make anything possible! It was a miracle energy for socialism!

“Premier, there is one last thing you must know about Agarthicite. Ionizing radiation is a new, poorly understood and deadly energy. Its capacity to do harm was first discovered through the deaths of radium watch makers. They made glow-in-the-dark novelty clocks, but the radium’s energies sickened and killed the workers and the company closed.”

Xenon tapped the Agarthicite with the Osmium stick in the middle of her explanation.

It dropped back down to her osmium-gloved hand.

“Ionizing radiation is the least of our worries with Agarthicite.”

Mysteriously, she walked past Daksha and exited the vault.

Daksha followed her.

She thought to shout at her to be discreet with the mineral, but Xenon had already been in this facility for many days and despite her eccentricities she took science very seriously. She hid the Agarthicite when they exited back to the hub room, but continued on her way, past all the guards, through the tunnels and out into the open desert again.

Soon as Daksha joined her outside, Xenon picked up the Agarthicite and threw it.

She pitched it at a rock. Her throw was limp and clearly untrained, but direct.

Daksha was speechless both from this sudden, insane action, and from its results.

In the instant the Agarthicite hit the rock, Daksha could almost feel a surge of something, like a shockwave that reverberated through her body but had no physical energy with which to push her. There was a bright purple flash, nothing like the dull light given off by the stone in its various harmless energetic states. Around the rock, perceivable reality seemed to collapse. Daksha had come to understand that, to science, everything humans could see was a result of light entering their eyes. In her mind, she thought, the Agarthicite must have warped and bent light to create a brief ripple in the world, a wound in reality itself. In the next instant it was perceptible as a fleeting black dome.

All of this happened in perhaps a second, perhaps even less than that.

Describing it as a perceivable effect and not pure mental fancy, the Agarthicite seemed to swallow up an orb-shaped chunk of the floor, carving out the rock and sand from it.

There was no trace of the mineral whatsoever. It and the matter around it had vanished.

Xenon and Daksha stood side by side staring at this stolen patch of land.

One in disbelief and the other in stern, grim resignation.

“This is the most dangerous property of Agarthicite.” Xenon explained. “Dr. Vante called it the Annihilation Effect or the ‘Circle of Annihilation.’ These were some of his final notes. I was lucky he did not destroy his materials and that the crazed guards did not do so either. Simply put: Agarthicite can convert electrical energy, but it also converts kinetic energy. If enough trauma is inflicted on it, it collapses, taking a sphere of matter with it. I hypothesize that, as with its other behaviors, the size of the sphere is multiplied by the amount of force that was imparted upon the Agarthicite to make it collapse.”

Daksha’s heart was pumping terribly fast. Her chest felt like it would seize up.

That little piece of mineral had made a crater as large as that of a 152mm shell impact.

“So you’re telling me–” Daksha’s voice caught in her throat. “This thing–”

“It could potentially destroy a house, a street, a city, a state, a continent. A planet?”

One brutal thought immediately embedded itself in Daksha’s psyche.

She murmured aloud to herself, her mouth agape, her eyes so wide they teared up.

“It could destroy Nocht.”

Daksha found herself standing in the middle of the desert in a great void of silence.

It was as if she herself had been swallowed in the Agarthicite’s annihilation sphere.

Trapped in this twisted reality where the matters of life and death that she dealt with for the sake of her people, had taken on a macabre new characteristic. She felt like she was quite literally playing with life and death now. Holding a reaper’s scythe that could change the world entirely and utterly in a way that could never be taken back.

“Is Agarthicite exclusive to the Ayvartan continent?” Daksha asked.

Xenon dropped down on her back, whimsically moving her arms and legs over the sand.

Her expression, however, was blank and emotionless.

“No more than Radium is. It’s thanks to Nocht we know about ionizing radiation.”

“So you think Nocht has access to Agarthicite?”

“I want to believe our knowledge of the mineral is in its infancy.”

She wanted to believe. So she did not know, but she probably feared the worst.

Swinging her arms up and down against the sand, Xenon made wings around herself.

“Premier, when I ran away from home, I was greeted in Solstice with fresh clothes, a meal card, room and board. I was taught how to read and allowed into a university. It might not seem like it, but in my own way, I love this country. I want to protect it.”

Her tone of voice was deadly serious. It was graver than she ever heard Xenon speak.

It was almost as if her previous antics had been a reprieve from weeks of bleak thinking.

“If you ask me to, Premier, I will become a monster in the eyes of history.”

She laid her hands over her chest, staring up at the empty sky over the desert.

Around her the wings in the sand framed her body.

“I will be the demon who unleashed Agarthicite onto the world.”

Daksha had heard this kind of speech before. Cadao Chakma, her defense minister, once asked her, during a meeting about logistics, if she would become a monster for turning toy factories into gun factories, putting teenagers behind anti-aircraft guns, and diverting food to soldiers. Daksha had the same answer for Xenon as she did for Cadao.

“Tell the historians I made you do it. I’ll be the monster in your place.” She said.

She would have withdrawn a pistol and threatened the scientist with it.

Just to make it plain that she was the villain and no one else.

But she did not carry a weapon anymore, as Solstice’s civilian leader.

Regardless, Xenon did not seem very relieved by the gesture.

“Everyone will ask why I didn’t turn my back on this when I could. Why I didn’t bury it; Premier, I started to think, during the past week, that Dr. Vante was not betrayed by the guards like I initially suspected. I fancy that perhaps he was afraid and ashamed of what he had done and he tried to stop it. He ended his life to escape the aura of Agarthicite.”

Tears started to build up in her eyes.

“I wanted to end my own life too, but Solstice saved me. I was treated like I mattered.”

Daksha looked down upon the soil, the wasted earth of the rocky desert.

Xenon’s voice was small and weak and broken up. Blown away by the empty winds.

“Premier, I think I can make Agarthicite into a weapon. We can use the sphere of annihilation that it creates to destroy anything. I just need time. Maybe a year, maybe two years, I don’t know. I feel like this black glow will both redeem and curse me.”

Daksha squatted down beside Xenon and petted her head gently.

Her ears folded under Daksha’s hand. For a brief instant she purred gently.

“You don’t need to be redeemed.” Daksha said.

Xenon raised her sleeve over her own eyes and gritted her teeth, sobbing.

This past week, she must have taken it upon herself to become the devil’s assistant and kill millions and billions if necessary, to protect the little patch of earth that she loved.

In the middle of this desert, that lonely city that somehow made itself care about people.

Perhaps, in some other warped history glimpsed within the sphere of annihilation, there was a way to turn back from the black glow and repair this broken world peacefully.

Regardless, they both knew the answer to these questions and dilemmas.

Mansa had indeed made his evil mark on history.

There was simply no way that Agarthicite could now be hidden and forgotten.

Whether it took months or years to develop it, whether another nation struck it first; they both knew this terrifying power was now a passenger to their fates forever on.

Like the knife, like the gun, like the tank. Socialism would make use of it.

It had to.

As she always said, Daksha said again. “I’ll be the monster, Xenon. Not you.”


Previous Part || Next Part

The Center of Gravity (75.1)

58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

In a small and dimly lit conference room, Field Marshal Haus had gathered a dozen of the greatest military minds and highest ranked officers present on Ayvartan soil, as well as Gaul Von Drachen, for a briefing on the current and next phases of the war in Ayvarta.

Though according to the original plan the war should have been well into its next evolution at this point, massive setbacks at all levels of operations had thrown the timetable into disarray, heavily taxed the supply corps and utterly disorganized the armies. In the midst of a full reinforcement and reorganization campaign, the Federation’s armed forces stalled at the edge of the desert, and watched the days pass.

Nevertheless, they had begun this grand endeavor and they could not escape it now.

“Gentlemen, in this room, we will plan the military undertaking of the millennium. We will write history itself. Our target is the most heavily defended city on the planet. I will be blunt: we are not in the position we wanted to be. I will explain everything in detail.”

Field Marshal Haus and his assistant Cathrin laid out some of the dire facts in a blunt presentation ahead of the main discussion. He paused at each to palpable discomfort from much of the room, who might have been aware of pieces, but not the overall picture, invested as they were in their own microcosms of the campaign up until then.

At each piece of data presented, Von Drachen made his own assessments about the war.

At the start of operations the Nochtish aim had been a rapid advancement that broke the defensive line of the Ayvartan borders with Cissea and Mamlakha, small neighboring territories on the same continent that were both under Nochtish influence. Through a combination of bad policy and worse execution, the Ayvartan nation had crippled its own defenses in an attempt to restructure its armed forces to a small, manageable peacetime army that could not independently threaten the political establishment. Nocht caught wind of these trends and seized the opportunity to build up their attack forces.

From Cissea and Mamlakha, the entirety of the Ayvartan border was attacked. After the border was breached, ports and infrastructure in the sparsely defended south of Ayvarta would be snatched up and repurposed immediately to support the small initial forces. Around 500,000 troops, reinforced in several stages, would progress through Ayvarta’s major cities up to fortress Solstice, where they would regroup into one massive army to lay siege to it, encircle it, destroy its walls and ultimately behead the communist forces.

Nocht had been drawn into the war relatively quickly after the defeat of the anarchists in Cissea: only two years of preparations, and the relatively small allied territories they had to work with, meant that the strategic aims had to be divided into two parts. In the first stage, a relatively small, but elite and mobile cadre of forces would break through the Ayvartan resistance, rapidly sweeping through to the edge of the Solstice Desert.

Then, the forces would meet up, regroup, and be reinforced by arriving recruits. This would turn the “Battlegroups” that were quickly assembled in Cissea and Mamlakha into three fronts: North, Center and South, each as large as all the forces assembled for the initial invasion combined, if not larger. It would be this massive army that would win the war, and the stage progression of the war was tightly planned to allow for its formation.

This was Nocht’s answer to the problem of invading a massive foreign power exclusively through the seas. Allying with the Mamlakhans and Cisseans gave Nocht their initial ports, and the hosts for their small initial forces. Those forces would be just about enough combat power to defeat the weaker, less concentrated Ayvartan formations of the demilitarization era Ayvartan army. A victory was predicted for late 2030, early 2031.

However, Field Marshal’s Haus’ new data threw the entire original plan into doubt.

Over the course of the first month of the Solstice War, the Federation had been dealt well over 150,000 casualties, with at least a quarter of those permanent (resulting in death or such utter disfigurement as to render military service impossible). These were combat losses, Von Drachen noted. They did not count MIAs and various categories of non-combat injury that Nocht did not want to acknowledge. In addition to those losses, the loss or massive damage to several major ports, such as those in Bada Aso and Rangda, to the Ayvartan retreats and schemes had created a complete supply debacle and cost every formation most of the reinforcements scheduled to help complete first phase objectives.

This was exacerbated by the struggle of the Nochtish merchant marine, well paid for this purpose, to supply and transport the projected massive armies that Nocht desired on the mainland. Von Drachen wasn’t out on the field, so he ate well, but he wondered how his men were doing. He knew they were not reinforced: the next slide showed a massive downward trend in the projected force composition. The main Nochtish force was edited to be 750,000 strong, still somewhat larger than Solstice’s frontline army at the moment. But far short of the 1.5 million that they had wanted to fully overwhelm Ayvarta with.

Leaving Nocht mostly undefended, they could have 1 million troops on Ayvarta by the summer, with the prospect of 1 million more by the spring of 2032. And they could not leave Nocht undefended anymore. Not with the Arctic battle launched by Ayvarta’s new Helvetian allies. At the earliest, Nocht could have its 1.5 million by late 2031, if that.

As the slides continued, they resembled a macabre show, and the pretty blond Cathrin and the telegenic Marshal at her side were the main actors and stage movers in the play.

Von Drachen would not have called Haus “a pretty boy” but others might have done so in derision, were it not for his martial achievements. He was big without being brutish, sleek and handsome, well manicured and long haired without being foppish. There was a tragic beauty to him, Von Drachen thought, not quite knowing where to place it but feeling in his own eccentricities that it was there. He looked as if a big boy in men’s clothes, smooth faced and sort of soft. Cathrin meanwhile was a prim, proper woman of appropriate stature, well made up, elegant and efficient, a modern, mature beauty.

Together they held the rapt, grimacing attention of this room of military titans.

There were some production figures for things that did not matter, and of course slides for the Ayvartan losses and production figures that were clearly embellished to show Ayvarta as a weak and declining opponent. Von Drachen was starting to zone out. It was only when the slides seemed to end on a massive aerial photograph of Solstice that his brain received some electrical input at long last. There were markings on the photograph for the walls, and certain landmarks of importance, such as the dreaded Armaments Hill.

Haus spoke up, his voice now animated again after minutes rattling off numbers.

“Solstice is the strongest defensive position in the world. This is largely because of the walls, which are the largest defensive structures in the world. Almost fifty meters tall, absurdly large for a modern fortress, and varying in thickness from three to ten meters. Though the method of their construction is unknown, we have information that the communists patch them up with a combination of steel and clay and wire mesh.”

Cathrin Habich changed the slide once more and the four major sections of the wall were circled in the next picture. One more slide and this time the image focused on a specific wall and its sections. Corner towers, rampart guns, and a note on the wall compliment.

“We have good intelligence,” Cathrin spoke this time, in a cold, matter-of-fact voice, to give the Field Marshal’s own vocal cords a bit of rest, “that the walls are defended by 76mm multi-purpose direct fire artillery, at least fifty pieces to each wall, but the compliment can be changed. There are cranes and elevators that can, with effort, raise up to an extra twenty guns and thirty heavy mortars a wall, with even larger guns on the towers and as many machine guns as they can muster men to carry up to the rampart. These guns can serve all anti-personnel, -tank and -aircraft purposes for the enemy.”

“I should note,” spoke the Field Marshal, “that this data is the garrison compliment on the few specially prepared fighting positions along the walls. Because the walls cover the entire length of the city in every direction, you must expect new fighting positions to be improvised as the walls are attacked. It will be hard for the Ayvartans to keep every single meter of these vast walls supplied and manned, but the positions they have now are strategically chosen to cover the most territory they can with their gunfire.”

The next slide had hundreds of circles marked on each of the four walls. These were the known fighting positions at the moment. Von Drachen was not as optimistic as Haus was about the Ayvartan’s inability to supply those walls. In fact, nobody seemed to consider that the Ayvartans could, with their lightweight wheeled carriages, simply move guns between positions to react to attacks. They were treating the positions as utterly static beings, like the many fortifications they were taught to avoid, encircle, and starve out.

It was somewhat irksome that they did not view Solstice as just another fortress to blitz.

“This is our primary target inside the city. Armaments Hill.” Marshal Haus ordered Cathrin to move the slide with a wave of his hand, and the walls disappeared, revealing instead a massive complex amid the city. It seemed like an old fortress on a big hill, with towers and ramparts made of stone. However, subsequent slides featured drawings by a technical artist rendering best-guesses from analysts about the facility’s true nature.

“Armaments Hill houses underground factories, command bunkers, fuel and food storage and even an underground hangar that can raise planes to the seemingly empty pavement just behind the hill, a concealed runway. It is believed to be heavily fortified against bombardment below the surface: the fortress is a red herring. Armaments Hill is believed to currently produce most of the frontline armor and aircraft for the Solstice defenders in its underground factories. Any assault on the city interior must have as its primary objective the seizure or destruction of Armaments Hill. It is the next layer of walls, you could say, that must be breached to make capture of the city possible.”

Marshal Haus was about to have Cathrin move on to the next planned slide when Von Drachen raised his hand, like a boy at the schoolhouse, with a smile on his face. Haus appeared surprised at first, mildly confused, and with trepidation pointed him out.

“Yes, Von Drachen?” He asked.

Von Drachen stood and smiled and acknowledged the room for a moment.

There was an audible sigh from one corner.

Von Drachen then greeted everyone. There were a variety of people in attendance.

Near the front, sitting together and with serious, professional regard for the material, were Major General Dreschner and Colonel General Ferdinand, both clean-cut dignified older men with grave expressions. At their side was a mousy secretary girl whom Von Drachen knew little about. The sigh in the room had come from Brigadier General Wolff, who was twirling his hat on one finger, a tough burly, hairy man with a thick nose and a swept-back red mane and a big violent smile, like a conquering warlord of a bygone age. In the room also were a few oddballs like Admiral Mises of the Bundesmarine, and two aviation men, Air Admiral Hans Kulbert and Air Commodore Robin McConnell. Kulbert was a short, older man, but McConnell reminded Von Drachen of himself: a spry young fox with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. He was, almost, Von Drachen’s type.

There were a few other men, most of them from the Panzer Divisions, like Dreschner’s friend Strich of the 10th Panzer Division, whom he had sealed the Dbagbo pocket with. Most of the officer cadre in the room on that day, represented the much more coherent forces of the southmost thrust, which had been led by Dreschner through Shaila and Dbagbo during the Aster’s Gloom. Because of the many tragedies that had befallen the northern thrust, through Adjar and Tambwe, its officer cadre was a shambles and Von Drachen and Haus were the only available, functional representatives of it. As such most of the leadership was tank men, and the infantry had little say. Not that anyone cared.

Feeling like he had given proper respect to everyone around him, Von Drachen cleared his throat and smilingly said: “Why is Solstice being treated as the center of gravity?”

There was a deep silence in the room. Wolff rubbed a hand down his own face. Strich played with his mustache. The girl beside Dreschner turned fully around in her seat to stare in disbelief at Von Drachen. McConnel snickered. Haus shook his head briefly.

“It is the political and economic center of the land, this should be obvious.” Haus said.

“It’s strategically irrelevant, it’s a fortress.” Von Drachen said. It was a wonder anyone let him talk uninterrupted after that, but for some reason everyone was listening with stunned attention. “It’s a static defense in a mobile war. All of its food and most of its fuel comes from elsewhere. It does not have a port, it does not have any more heavy industry or R&D than the average city. With all due respect, having examined the aims and strategy of previous campaigns, Solstice seems like exactly the place you would just drive past and ignore, maybe contain with a few mop-up divisions. It shouldn’t be our target.”

Von Drachen spoke in a way that communicated more confusion than animosity or criticism. He had the face of a young man bewildered by algebra, softly begging the schoolmarm to explain the order of operations in a way he could understand. Despite this his remarks seemed to instantly draw out the hatred of everyone around him. Sharp glares hit him from every direction and he felt alone, pressured by a rising tension.

He pulled on his collar a little bit.

Haus let him stew in everyone’s disdain for a moment before humoring him.

“Solstice’s defeat would mark the end of any credible Ayvartan communist resistance on the continent. What other target would you suggest our invasion force head towards?”

Cathrin switched the slide to a map of Ayvarta’s ten provinces. Ayvarta had such a curious shape, like two continents smashed together. The “Southern” provinces of Adjar and Shaila abutted the two bits of allied land Nocht had taken advantage of, Cissea and Mamlakha, small, irrelevant fragments of Ayvartan land in the grand scheme of things. Cissea’s broad boarder with Ayvarta was particularly, nightmarishly vulnerable, but useful for Nocht’s broad front advances. Mamlakha was at least a defensible peninsula.

From Adjar and Shaila, there was a slight, rising curve of the continent. Split by the interior mountains of the Kucha were Tambwe, a tiny coastal strip of land, and the large, jutting mass of Dbagbo. Solstice was like an island all its own save for its attachment to the rest of the land, a massive, awe-inspiring desert outlined with beautiful green strips of coastal land. From there, a sharper northward dip created the massive green paradise that was Jomba and the coastal juggernaut of Chayatham that abutted it all across the northmost coast. And finally, two insignificant landlocked provinces, Gunar and Govam.

Von Drachen quickly and easily pointed out his idea of the true target. Jomba.

“Jomba is currently the place feeding Solstice’s frontline armies, and it is also the next most populous area after the loss of the Southern provinces. It has recruits, agriculture and some level of manufacturing will probably arise in it as well. We can drive past Solstice and cut off its supplies from Jomba, likely forcing a surrender in the process.”

At this point several people were primed to challenge Von Drachen on his assertions.

“The Ayvartans are fanatical, a drive on Jomba will only provoke them to attack massively, not to huddle in the fortress helplessly.” Dreschner butted in to say. “Going around Solstice leaves a massive flank open to attack from the fortress and stretches our supply lines beyond the breaking point. We would never make it to Jomba in one piece.”

“Alone, maybe no.” Von Drachen said. “But I would have asked, if there was Elven representation in this room, for the aid of our Lubonin allies, who have so comfortably taken up the Northern positions in the desert and stayed there after their naval invasion of Tambwe. I would have asked our naval and air forces, too, for their cooperation.”

“And what would the air force do in this case?” Strich asked him.

Von Drachen started to feel surrounded. It was puzzling, because he knew he was right.

“They could easily interdict attacks from Solstice, or even better, just attack Jomba.”

Air Admiral Kulbert spoke gruffly through his big beard. “You forget, Von Drachen, that we are not here to annihilate the Ayvartan capacity for production entirely. After all, we have our allies to think about, our hosts in this very locale, the Republic of Ayvarta.”

Von Drachen stared at him with a confused expression. He could not fathom why, in the face of his impeccable logic, there was dissent about petty politics. Did no one want to win? He had given them the secret recipe for an ultimate, overwhelming victory and they kept picking at it, like he forgot the salt and pepper. Did they not see it like he did?

“Are you suggesting we can’t harm Jomba too much because the Republic needs it after the war? If we don’t win the war, then the Republic wouldn’t exist anyway would it?”

“We have no authorization to attack Jomba. It is mostly civilian targets, Von Drachen.”

Haus spoke up again. He was standing perfectly still in front of everyone assembled. He seemed amused by the discussion, grinning and crossing his arms and watching intently.

“So, to win this war, Von Drachen, would you authorize a mass bombing of civilians?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It is a fact that soldiers have to eat. Those who feed them are engaging in the necessary military task of logistics. We have Dahlia 12 as a guide for how to treat soldiers, and I dare say, in a war such as this, the farmer is an effective soldier. We can bomb soldiers, we can shoot them, we can do many legal things to them.”

“Weasel words. So you would firebomb a bunch of farmland? Yes or no?” Haus said.

“Yes.” Von Drachen said. He found his heart utterly unburdened by the question.

“And that is what you advocate? Our new course of action?” Haus pressed him further.

“No, that’s McConnell’s job I think, to advocate explicitly to firebomb farmland and so on. I’m merely asking to shift the center of gravity, and then we can decide how we will do it, while engaging in fun hypotheticals, I guess. I feel you are putting words in my mouth.”

Haus frowned. “How cowardly, I would have respected mad dog psychopathy over this bellyaching you are doing. You say provocative things and then dodge responsibility.”

Von Drachen shrugged once more. In his mind, he was saying things he felt were probable and true. It was his opinion, true, and he could not say it was an objective fact, but it felt truer than the alternatives. “I am speaking from my own sense. If you were worried about the nobility and ethicality of your position you would take the next plane home. While all of us are here, we are here to inflict the wounds that will kill the prey.”

It was impossible to say the room turned against him because the room had never once been anywhere near his side of the argument. Now, however, the room was offended by his very presence. He was despised by the room, not just unwelcome, and even Haus seemed to be less amused by him and now, more annoyed. Shaking his head once more, the Field Marshal gave the order for Von Drachen to be removed from the room.

“Von Drachen, please return to your quarters and if you are so inclined, draft an actual proposal using available data. You can request any records and informational aid you desire. But until you have a plan was well developed as Generalplan Suden you will not speak a word to us of shifting the center of gravity on this operation. Understand?”

Now it was his turn to sigh. Von Drachen turned around and followed two bewildered guards out of the room. Everyone glared at him all the way up the steps and out the door.

There was an audible easing of tension after his departure.

Cathrin seemed to perk up again, and adjusting her glasses, resumed the slide show.


Previous Part || Next Part

Life In The Besieged City (74.4)

This scene contains sexual content.


25th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

Shortly after midnight a stark silence fell over the guest room.

One final creak of the mattress spring; one last verse in the lover’s ragged duet.

At the peak of their passion the lovers fell onto the bed together.

Parinita laid on her back, looking up at Madiha at her most physically glorious.

Her hair thrown about, eyes half-closed, her breasts rising and falling with her rough breathing. Her skin was smooth and bark-brown in the dark, slick and glistening with sweat that made the slight, lean delineations of muscle in her arms, shoulders and belly more visible. She looked like she had been caught in a monsoon, and she was beautiful.

Her dark, fiery eyes locked to Parinita’s own and she smiled softly.

“Let me hold you.” Madiha asked.

“Of course.”

She rarely expressed a specific desire like that, so it was urgent to accommodate it.

Parinita tittered as she and Madiha shifted in bed.

Taller and leaner, Madiha crawled off from atop Parinita and laid breasts against back, holding Parinita with one arm over her chest and another under her weight. Parinita was a little more plump than her girlfriend, and Madiha seemed to want to dig deep into her. She held her tight, and she locked legs with her and drew her head close. Parinita responded, pulling back her strawberry hair from her shoulder so Madiha could eagerly kiss there. She felt Madiha’s breathing, a warm pulse rolling down her slick flesh.

“I love you so much.” Parinita said.

Madiha held a kiss on her neck a little longer in response.

They laid together for some time, eventually growing quiet and still, Madiha staring into Parinita’s shoulder and Parinita staring at the subtle, waving patterns on the wallpaper. She treasured this chance. Not just because she was horned up. It was not that their sex life was sparse; they had enough opportunity to suit both their levels of interest and endurance. But moments like this, when they managed to lay down together without the pressure of time or the tension of something on the horizon, came only once in a while.

Last time they got to have sex and then bide their time, alone and at peace, without responsibility for hours and hours at a time, must have been Rangda, after the festival. Parinita had been the aggressive one then too — she usually always was. Madiha tended to turn the tables around eventually, however. This time had been like that as well. Though she seemed like a muted person, Madiha was quietly intense. It was delightful.

Parinita often wondered what Madiha thought in these circumstances. She didn’t think to ask. She knew a lot about her lover’s interior life when it came to other matters. But they never talked much about sex or about being in bed, or about their relationship. Parinita felt too insecure to seek the answers; she felt better thinking it must all be fine.

That night however, Madiha seemed finally inclined to make conversation.

“Parinita, I’m going to keep fighting, you know?”

Internally, Parinita sighed. Both fondly, but also a touch annoyed.

“I know.”

“Even if you ask me to stop. I know that I couldn’t.”

“Hey, I would not ask you to. I’m a soldier too! Or do you not consider me one?”

That seemed to give Madiha pause. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without you.”

“Damn right you wouldn’t! I’ve seen the notes you take for that book of yours.”

“Thank you for organizing everything. I’d be like a brain without a spine otherwise.”

Parinita was not sure that was what the spine did, but like animals, maybe Madiha just was not taught much about anatomy. She laughed a little to herself and held her peace.

Madiha sighed deeply.

“Why did you fall in love with me, Parinita?”

It was so sudden that Parinita couldn’t help but laugh nervously.

“This is not how you ask to go another round.” Parinita replied.

She felt her heartbeat swell a little.

At least she confirmed she was not only person with low self esteem in the room.

Madiha whispered a barely audible apology.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I understand. After all, I’m such a catch. Seventy kilos of film trivia!”

She intended it in jest, but it came off more malicious.

“The sarcasm there saddens me.” Madiha said. “I was just thinking what an amazing person you are Parinita. It’s honestly still like a dream to me that we can be like this.”

Parinita held on to Madiha’s hand, laid on her waist.

“I’m sorry too.” Parinita said. “It’s just a weird question. Let me think about it.”

“There doesn’t have to be a reason I guess. It’s fine as long as we’re both in love.”

“You’re right, there really doesn’t need to be a reason. But I know you like to make sense of the unknowable in all your doings.” Parinita turned around in bed suddenly. She pushed herself a little so she would be at eye level with the rather taller Madiha.

Looking back into those eyes, so deeply, really brought back a lot of memories.

She remembered when she first saw Madiha, in Gowon’s office, the instant she walked into the room to be scolded and made a fool of. Parinita had to admit to herself that she had an awful dirty mind about the whole thing. Within the haze of stress and shame she felt as she was made Gowon’s scapegoat, Parinita thought Madiha was delectably tall, that she looked like she’d aced her PT, and that she had a pretty face to boot.

But she was not about to tell Madiha, “In between almost pissing myself about my boss turning me in, and the shelling, I briefly thought I wanted to fuck you when we met.”

Especially since she only had a few fleeting moments of arousal before a war started.

She recalled another scene however. Seeing Madiha running downhill with Parinita in tow, desperate to reach their comrades as the war started, desperate to mount a defense and to resist the tide of violence. She was in such a haze back then, everything was crazy, and their relationship seemed built on a foundation of such craziness, from Parinita’s superstition to Madiha’s actual supernatural power to their unequal rank in a military structure and to the violence and the threat of violence that pervaded their lives.

That day, however, she realized with a great sadness that Madiha was profoundly lonely. Profoundly, thoroughly, alone, in a world of her own that seemingly nobody understood. Some of it was Madiha’s own doing. She was so obsessed with doing right by others and so selfish in her own sacrifice. She was like that all of the time with everything that she did. She was so like that, she had not asked nor given room for Parinita to reciprocate her tonight, and they were already pretending to have completely wound down in bed.

It was that which, to Parinita, defined Madiha most. Her loneliness: she was unique in a lot of ways, but being unique only made her more alone. Being exceptional made her alone. Being needed of and demanded of, made her alone. And internalizing those things and putting them ahead of herself at all times, made her alone. She was alone because only she could understand herself; she was alone because she expected that only she herself could or should take on burdens and dangers alone. Alone and made alone.

Left to her own devices, Madiha would have died alone in Bada Aso and wanted to.

Parinita saw that in her on that day and throughout the glory and tragedy of Bada Aso.

She saw it in Rangda, at the formal start of their romantic relationship, too.

She even saw it now. Left to her own devices Madiha would die and die alone and want to.

And it vexed her. She wanted more than anything to accompany Madiha. She wanted her to not be alone; she wanted to penetrate that world of hers, to learn and know and see and feel and taste everything that was Madiha. Even if it meant to be the one other person alone with Madiha if that was what it took. Even if it hurt her; or hurt others.

When she saw those lonely eyes bent on their own self destruction, Parinita wanted to burn with her, to burn at her side. She wanted the glory, she wanted the tragedy, and she wanted the moments like this, of the profound peace of two alone individuals together.

Because she was alone too, and she saw the most kindred person in her life on that day.

Left to her own devices, Parinita would have died alone too.

And she would have wanted to.

Maybe that, too, was part of the craziness. Maybe that also did not make any sense.

Maybe it was contradictory.

Maybe it was selfish.

Maybe she concocted it in her own head out of nothing.

She loved Madiha.

“I like tall women with short hair, but not too short. I like them a little feminine.”

Madiha blinked hard and looked confused.

“I’m kidding.”

Parinita giggled. She felt such a surge of emotion looking at Madiha’s eyes.

She started to weep.

“I’m such an oaf, I’m sorry.” Madiha said. “I did not mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t.” Parinita settled down, still both giggling and weeping, and found the words. “Madiha, I fell in love with you, because when I see you trying your hardest to put the whole world on your shoulders and fall to the ground with it, I can’t help but get under there and grab, even though I’m fat and useless and can barely lift a chair anyway.”

She couldn’t help but throw in a little self deprecation.

Madiha drew her face closer to Parinita’s.

“You’re not useless and you’re not fat. You’re beautiful and smart and healthy.”

But she was weak, Parinita supposed. Nothing there about her lifting abilities.

Parinita giggled even harder.

“You are an oaf sometimes, Madiha Nakar! A big dumb oaf!”

She took hold of Madiha and was suddenly on top of her, a big grin on her face.

She threw her hair back, straddling Madiha.

She envisioned herself, towering over Madiha, nude, candle-lit red.

For once she thought, she must have looked glorious.

Her hands reached around Madiha’s hips, tracing teasing lines down her outer thighs.

Madiha looked up at her with a slowly broadening smile.

Leaning down, Parinita took Madiha into a kiss.

“I’m my turn to be on top now.”

Parinita pressed her weight atop Madiha, her fingers sliding from outer to inner thigh.

“I’d love that.” Madiha replied.

She was awkward but clearly enthusiastic.

That, too, was rare.

And Parinita loved it.

She loved it while she could.

Everyone on Solstice did.

They loved, feverishly and with haste, while they still could.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

It was a brand new day in Solstice. Scarcely 0900 and the sun was already bearing down.

There was a good breeze, however, and the resort had a fresh, tropical scent to it.

In front of the hotel, the bride’s guests stood together, smiling and vibrant, waiting to be sent off. Gulab and Charvi had been a little late, but they looked brilliant, hand in hand, their faces glowing with warmth and joy. Parinita and Madiha were a picture perfect couple (though they would have insisted they were not if pried), recently showered and manicured by the staff, their clothes freshly ironed. They smiled knowingly at each other, wondering idly what had Gulab and Charvi so happy, but being too serene to pry.

Meanwhile, the bride had a rough night. Though dressed well in the complimentary sari and a midriff-bearing choli and skirt, silken and bright purple and blue and gold, Kremina Qote was pale in the face, her ponytail a touch disheveled. She had bags under her eyes and an unfriendly expression on her face. At her side, Daksha Kansal was calm and collected but her posture was a little unsteady and her eyes wandered. Both had clearly drank too much and had a tumultuous evening with the resulting illness.

“Thank you all for helping us celebrate our wedding as our honored guests.” Daksha said.

Kremina handed each of them a complimentary little gift of a lotus flower in a glass orb.

It was customary to treat the honored guests: in this case, the maid selected by the bride (Parinita,) the best man selected by the groom (Madiha) and the wedding shooters.

However, the grace and cheer with which they accepted their gifts only put the bride off.

“Good, good, yes. Very nice, thank you all, etcetera.” She hissed. “Young people are henceforth banned from this hotel! Nobody younger than me, nobody! I don’t want to see anyone under sixty years of age around me! Only old spent women trying to enjoy their honeymoon hangovers are allowed. Dismissed! Go have fun somewhere else. Goodbye!”

She practically shooed away the guests. Daksha looked away from the sight, and laughing and smiling, the two couples went their ways, as the bride and groom looked on.

There was a melancholy air about it, but they were proud and happy in their own way.

“Ugh. It’d be cliche to say, ‘those girls are our future’ or something, wouldn’t it?”

Kremina took a step closer to Daksha and held onto her arm, leaning into her side.

Daksha smiled and caressed her hair. “You could say that, but those girls already have another generation waiting in the wings that they’re going to be responsible for. Time moves too fast these days. It’s us who should have been leaving them soon; I wish we would have left them better than this. What was it Lena said? Communism in 10 years?”

“That was always optimistic.” Kremina said. “You’re not going to let her fight, are you?”

She had changed the subject very quickly. She was referring to Madiha, now.

“She will have her chance someday.” Daksha replied.

Kremina did not push the subject.

She was exhausted, but more than that, she was starved for affection.

“Daksha, I’m sorry for sleeping through our wedding night. Can I make it up to you?”

She reached around behind Daksha’s back and grabbed quite a handful of her rear.

Daksha silently and sternly took her by the shoulder and pulled her up into a kiss.

“You can make out with me.” Daksha said upon releasing her.

Kremina pushed herself back up into the kiss anew and with vigor.

“I’m thinking of a lot more than that.” She replied.

Neither wanted to govern right now, not just yet. For now, they were still just brides.

And the future was still, for just a little bit longer, on hold.


30th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kashlikraj, Civil Lodge

Basanti Rahani opened his eyes not in the officer’s barracks but in a sparsely furnished, cozy little private room. His hair had fallen over his eyes. It had gotten longer than he thought. He liked it. It was nice. Somewhere around the shoulder was a good length.

His hair, and his face, were slick with sweat. Solstice was so much hotter than Bada Aso.

Behind his back, he felt warmth, and a strong, comforting embrace.

One arm wrapped around his chest. He felt a kiss on his neck.

Meanwhile the other arm slinked around his waist. A hand cupped tight over his groin.

Rahani let out a delighted little giggle. He kept himself from becoming too excited.

“Breakfast and a shower first. Then we can go again.” Rahani said sternly.

“How long do we have the room for?”

Rahani turned around. He met his husband’s face and pecked his lips quickly.

“We’ve got a few hours.” Rahani said.

“I haven’t seen you in so long Santi. I really want you, you know?”

There was just something delectable about hearing his pet name said aloud again.

Naveen was an technician working with the Prajna super-heavy gun team, and Rahani was a field artillery officer, so their married life had been on and off and difficult. Before the war, Rahani had been angling for a promotion to work as part of the Prajna team. He was closer than ever to getting it; his team’s heroics in Bada Aso and Rangda were well recognized, and all of them were advancing to officer ranks themselves. Soon, Rahani would not be needed to guide them. He could move on to the next step in his career.

And more importantly, to the next step in his married life: seeing his husband every day.

For now, though, they still only saw each other during little escapades like this one.

They were patient; this was good enough. Rahani put on a salacious grin for his man.

“I know Naveen. But until you take a bath, I’m not going back down there for you.”

It was Rahani’s turn to grab somewhere and Naveen nearly jumped at the sensation.

He sucked in his lips briefly and smiled at Rahani, who had him under the sheets, subtly teasing him. Naveen had a precious face, angular and inviting. He and Rahani fit together like lock and key; Rahani’s small, slender softness and Naveen’s tall, round, thick beauty. Rahani truly wanted to just sink into him, but things had to be done appropriately. After all, Rahani was a very clean person, appearances mattered to him.

He wanted to make love fresh, comfortable, smelling like roses and in a pretty dress.

“Come on, if you let me dress up, you can dress me back down.” Rahani said.

Naveen smiled. “Ah, but it’s like pulling back the petals on a lotus flower, Santi. Sometimes its a shame. You dress up so well.” He raised a hand to Rahani’s chin. “Why not just stay here with me. I’m ready to go and you won’t even have to lift a finger.”

As much as the suggestion both appealed and made him cringe, Rahani said nothing.

Instead, Rahani caressed Naveen’s face also. They kissed one more time, this time pulling in each other’s lips for a little longer, enough to taste tongue. Then Rahani rolled out of bed. Behind him, Naveen laid back in the bed, a mixture of placid satisfaction and mild frustration in his face and actions. He crossed his arms and looked at the ceiling.

“If it’s too frustrating, I can dress up in the other room.” Rahani teased.

He had a fondness for feminine clothes, and in general cultivated a very feminine appearance, though he always thought of himself as more of a man, if he was anything at all. On some level, the genderedness of things was felt false to him, but he liked the idea of being a man with straight, silky hair, a delicate figure, a face done up with pigments, and a flower in his hair. From the clothes complimentary to the room, Rahani picked out a sari and a choli of humble make but with nice, bright colors, and a skirt to match. Donning sandals, and plucking a flower to pin with his hair, he bid Naveen wait for him.

Naveen, arms still crossed, continued to stare at the ceiling.

“Take a shower or I’ll be crueler than I have been! I promise!” Rahani said.

Naveen sighed but smiled at the doggedness of his self-styled wife. He got up.

Rahani stared at his bulky figure for one enticing moment before making himself go.

He was almost contemplating just showering with him and doing the deed there.

But proprieties separated the roses from the weeds! It would be worth waiting.

Besides which, he was actually hungry for more than his husband at that moment.

Outside the lodge, Kashlikraj was busy with traffic, the nearby roads choked with vehicles, and crowds on the streets and around the nearby buildings. Its newfound adjacency to the center of government power, after Daksha Kansal moved the central offices of the army to its vicinity, meant a lot more coming and going than the neighborhood had ever seen. It was already one of the newer and more modern of Solstice’s districts, at least circa 2015 when it was near completely redone.

Now with the introduction of many government workers and the conversion of the infrastructure to support them, Kashlikraj was turning into Solstice’s new nerve center.

There were some growing pains, exacerbated by the war.

As Rahani made his way across the street, he found the traffic shaped not solely by demand in the newly crowned district, but by something of a catastrophe. Looking over the line of decorative shrubbery along the street, Rahani saw a massive collapse in the center of the road, exposing water and electric veins and even some of the sewer. There was one civil guard slowly leading small traffic around the corner and past the affected area, and a road sign was put up forbidden the entry of large trucks for the moment.

Several such large trucks were parked on the street farther ahead, waiting.

Rahani approached the hole to get a closer look, and heard several people arguing.

“We’ve had our goods truck held up a block away for an hour now, surely you can’t be closing the entire neighborhood down for one hole can you?” asked an irate manager of some kind of state store. He was throwing his hands up in front of the civil guard.

“I had a truck with construction materials headed for the northern districts turned around and frozen for two hours now! I need you to release it to leave at once!” This second voice came from an older woman in overalls, waving a clipboard at the guard.

Between the two and several others, the civil guard seemed like a scared teenager surrounded by an angry mob. He couldn’t have been any older than Adesh was now.

The Guard crossed his arms and averted his gaze and spoke in an unsteady voice.

“I’m sorry, we’re very short staffed at the moment, we closed down the neighborhood roads and froze incoming heavy traffic to check for structural problems in the roads connecting to this one. I’m afraid I can’t personally redirect your vehicles anywhere. We’ve got some folks from the engineering college coming in soon and if they think the connecting roads are good enough then everyone can go on their way promptly.”

Rahani felt sorry for the whole lot of them. All of the experienced construction workers and civil engineers were farther south, helping build the earthworks and camps and other defenses against the incoming Noctish forces. All they could spare were students to help fix the roads, and because Kashlikraj was suddenly so important, everyone involved with this problem was twice as paranoid as they needed to be about safety and security. The Civil Guard had been heavily tapped for more military power, too, so the average age and experience of the patrolmen and women of Solstice had dropped dramatically.

Rahani wondered if the person back at the guard outpost calling the shots on this was also younger than him and frightened to death at the prospect of more failing roads.

“For god’s sake man! Just let us turn around and we’ll redirect through Yoruba instead!”

“I’m afraid I can’t release any of the vehicles right now. I’m sorry. I’m following orders.”

Around the Guard the crowd grew increasingly agitated. Rahani did not think that a fight would start, but he knew the Guard was under a lot of pressure and that everyone would lean on him to get their side of the affair done, or harass him until he fled responsibility. It was an ugly insight into the way their daily lives strained under the weight of the war. Solstice was understaffed and overwhelmed; Rahani was only given respite because he had already faced two deadly battles with his unit. Otherwise, he’d be straining too.

Rahani turned away from the scene and headed for the civil canteen across the street.

He would pick up some bread and lentils, milk and yogurt, and run back to the lodge.

The first clue that his plans were about to go awry was that the Canteen windows did not have a fresh basket of the day’s ingredients. Wilted greens and some day old fermenting yogurt sat in a forlorn half-empty basket on the storefront. The Canteen was nearly deserted, with only one teenage girl on staff who was sitting behind the front counter with her head on her hands. Rahani walked in and found the banquet tables nearly empty. On a normal day they were stuffed with the day’s goods and arrayed neatly along the sides and corners of the store. Today, many tables were packed up in one corner.

Not to say there was not any food. There was fresh bread, a pot of yellow lentils, a jar of dried fruits and sugared dried fruits, and two serving jugs of clean and carbonated water. There was no yogurt, milk, vegetables, fruit juice or paneer. It was the most barren that Rahani had seen a civil canteen in a major city like this, and it scared him.

At the sight of a customer, the girl looked up and tried to put on a smile, but it was clear that she was under a lot of stress today. God knows how many hungry and irritable people she had to deal with today. It must been such a shock to her and to everybody, to come into a Canteen without food in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. In Solstice City itself no less! He had to wonder as to the cause of this. Had the war caught up this fast?

The Canteen Girl picked up a hole puncher and bid Rahani to come closer.

Hujambo!” She definitely had a teenage girl’s voice and stature. Rahani smiled back. She snapped the hole puncher in the air. “Sorry comrade, normally we don’t really insist on this much, but they’re really tightening the regulations so I’m going to need to punch your meal card today. You can take anything you want though, don’t worry.”

“Can I take out a card?” Rahani asked nervously. He had left all his things except a little money, in case it was needed, back at the lodge. He expected to walk in and walk out.

Everyone had become accustomed to it in recent years.

Across the desk, the girl averted her gaze. “I’m really not supposed to do this anymore, but I really like your flower and dress, so I’ll make an exception.” She said.

She gave him a little smile and passed him a meal card with one hole punched already.

There were two holes for each day for one week. Rahani was surprised.

It was a much tighter rationing system, one that could change week to week!

“Miss, is this your card? I’m not sure–”

“The Staff eat all the leftovers anyway, so its fine.” She said. “I took it out for myself yesterday and nobody’s checking the numbers yet. Just get one yourself soon. You can’t just pick them up at the canteen anymore. There’s specific times at the local Council.”

“Thank you.” Rahani said.

“Enjoy the bread. I made it myself.”

“By any chance, do you know when you’re scheduled to receive more food?”

In response the girl nodded her head toward the east.

“We’re supposed to have a truck coming. I don’t know what’s happening with it. Don’t expect fresh fruit or veggies for the rest of the week though. We’re making do with dried sugared fruits and canned palms and mushrooms and stuff like that for now.”

“Thanks miss.”

Rahani picked up a box and grabbed some bread, a few cups of lentils, some of the fruits and some plain water, and walked back out. On the street, the guard was putting up some caution tape and standing behind it so nobody could come near him, and turned his back on the small crowd of irate people looking for an answer. Everyone politely declined to jump the tape and bash him; it was still Ayvarta even if they were all mad, and they limited their frustrations to shouting. Nobody had descended to savagery.

Yet.

Staring down at his box of food and the diminished offerings at the Canteen, Rahani wondered, with fear deep in his heart. Did the same desperation he felt to love his husband and to drink of him all that he could, while he still could, extend to everyone else around him? Without knowing it, was this city beginning to live its last days? How would that desperation grow? Would it remain kind and naive? Would it turn wretched?

Nobody was jumping the caution tape to hit the young, rookie guard. Yet.

All of that vanished from Rahani’s mind as soon as he entered the lodge again.

His desperation grew suddenly greater. He felt, fearfully, that he was living his last days.

He heard the shower going off, and with a swelling feeling in his chest, he stripped off all his clothes and ran into the bathroom. He saw Naveen in the shower and ran to him and threw himself at his back, hugging his waist. Naveen tensed up briefly, then relaxed; Rahani could feel the stirring of his muscles and girth and the softening of him, and he wanted to cry. As the warm water descended upon them, some tears did escape.

“I was missing you already.” Naveen said, in good humor.

He reached behind his back and squeezed Rahani’s hip. Rahani smiled against his back.

“I missed you too.”


35th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Krashlikraj, The 10th Head

Madiha Nakar threw open the door to Daksha Kansal’s office, fuming.

Behind her, Cadao Chakma, the defense minister, looked insignificantly small.

Opposite them, Daksha Kansal sat behind her desk. She had been in conference with the diplomat from Helvetia, Larissa Finesse, but Madiha had not heeded Minister Chakma’s warnings to remain outside, and barged in suddenly. Larissa raised a skeptical eyebrow upon seeing her, and Daksha sighed and frowned as if she knew what was happening.

“Premier, I demand an explanation for why Marshal Vikramajit came out of retirement to lead the First Solstice Front. As a General I don’t believe this to be a wise course–”

“Did you have ambitions for the position?” Daksha replied. “That’s new.”

Madiha blinked, confused. “New?”

“You’re normally so passive and obedient.” Daksha said.

They were talking almost like mother and daughter. Larissa looked confused.

And yet they carried on the theater in front of her and Chakma anyway.

“I’m sorry ma’am, I tried to stop her–”

“It’s not your fault, Cadao.” Daksha said.

Madiha crossed her arms and grumbled. She was trying to center herself and failing. Everyone could see the fire in her eyes. “I had several glowing recommendations from various officers and volunteered for the position. I even submitted a detailed plan. I think, to pass me over for a man enjoying his retirement is an unduly harsh reprimand.”

“We passed you over because you are needed here in Solstice and your ideas are not needed on the front right now.” Daksha said. “We are not mounting a counteroffensive.”

“My plan has been meticulously researched and is realistic to our strength! Tell me what Vikramajit has done that makes him appear suitable to lead the war for our lives!”

Madiha was shouting.

Daksha sighed and rubbed her own forehead. “We’re not talking about this. You will train the Solstice garrison for now and build up your Mechanized unit. You’re the only one here with relevant frontline combat experience and a glowing academy record. We need you here. For god’s sake most of our army is younger than you right now. Leave the heroics to them for now and focus on rebuilding our officer cadres! We need you!”

The Premier was becoming emotional. Every ‘we need you’ was hoarser than the last.

“Now dismissed!” Daksha shouted.

“With all due respect ma’am–” Madiha shouted back.

“You’re not showing me any respect with your attitude, Madiha. Out! Now!”

Madiha turned her back furiously, swiping her hand at the desk in frustration.

One of Daksha’s pictures fell from the desk in response, for some mysterious reason.

Cadao Chakma bowed profusely and then followed Madiha out the door.

Daksha’s head sank into her hands.

“Oh, this is a shame.”

Larissa picked up the remains of the frame and the photo and put it on the desk.

It was a picture of Daksha, dressed in her cloak and worker overalls, what she wore as a bandit in Bada Aso. On her shoulders rode a precociously tall but still clearly child-like Madiha Nakar, aged 8 or 9 or 10 — who could really know? Madiha was dressed in her own little overalls with a newsboy cap, and had her delivery girl satchel with her.

“You should get this reframed. It’s a beautiful photo.” Larissa said.

“I will.” Daksha replied.

Larissa looked back over her shoulder at the closed door.

“Do you feel like you have to protect her?” Larissa asked.

“This country can’t keep standing on her back. Even if she will keep letting it.”

Daksha put the photo in a drawer and turned her full attention back to Larissa.

“We’ve exploited Madiha Nakar enough. We’ve exploited all our youth enough. It’s time for tired old women to make tired old women decisions for the future of these kids.”

“I see.” Larissa said. She seemed, for once, sympathetic toward the Premier. “In that case, let us resume. We were talking about your oil and gold for our industrial equipment–”

“Yes, let’s get back to it.”

This was all for the best, Kansal told herself.

It absolutely had to be.


Previous Part || Next Part

 

2.1: Mischievous Student

Magic: A learned ability to manipulate ambient arcane energies. Human minds can be triggered to agitate aura through various mnemonics, gestures and recitations. Once the aura is stirred from its ambient form it can cause various perceivable effects on the world.


There was a knock on the door and Minerva’s head snapped up from a stack of quizzes.

“Come in!” She shouted. Finally, she’d gotten Niko to come in for office hours!

There was nearly imperceptible shimmering as the door opened.

Cocking a big grin, Lyudmilla Kholodova took long steps into the room, her head held up high. Her hair was arranged in two purple-streaked tails, and each seemed to float for just a second as she stepped through the door. Similarly but more subtly, there was a mild tug on her uniform while she crossed through. She dropped her bookbag beside Minerva’s desk and dropped herself on a chair to examine her well-kept hair.

“Hey, what’s going on over there?” She asked. “My hair’s all tingly.”

Minerva sighed.

Lyudmilla frowned in response. “Wow. Nice to see you too, boss.”

“No, no, it’s not you.” Minerva reached out and patted Lyudmilla condescendingly on the head. “I had an appointment with a student set a half hour ago but he’s not shown up.”

Rather than complain Lyudmilla leaned into the petting in an unsettling way.

This had its perhaps intended effect of getting Minerva to stop.

“Anyway– afternoon, Master.” Lyudmilla grinned again. “Why did you decide to enchant your door? What did you do to it? Am I rigged to explode now if I act against your will?”

“What? Of course not. Who do you take me for?”

“Well, I don’t really know that yet.” She replied.

There was a bad feeling in Minerva’s stomach but she willed it away.

Instead she urged Lyudmilla to look behind herself for a moment.

Minerva swiped her wand at the doorway and lifted up a little basin that had been slotted just under the door threshold. Lyudmilla’s eyes drew wide as she spotted it.

“Oh, I think I get it.” She said, a delighted smile on her face.

She was easy to please (or distract) at least.

Minerva proudly explained her trick. “I put a weak Forbidding Lattice on the doorway. It is calibrated to forbid very very small things with very specific qualities. So in effect, it pushes the dirt and bugs right off anyone that comes in and collects it in the basin.”

“Huh. That’s the laziest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Lyudmilla grinned.

“I have a tight schedule! I have to save time where I can.”

Her office was always very clean, and magical shortcuts were certainly a part of it.

She stared back at the door. Niko was not coming, was he? Minerva started to worry.

But she couldn’t be consumed by the student who would not come when she had a student, and especially her apprentice, right in front of her. She put it out of her mind.

In fact she remembered she had something prepared for Lyudmilla anyway.

“Oh right. One second, Milla.”

Barely speaking, she swept her wand and Lyudmilla’s bag floated up onto the desk.

“No weed in there, I promise.” Lyudmilla said, raising her hands defensively.

“I’m not– oh nevermind. Here, I got you a present.”

Minerva opened a drawer in her desk and produced a plastic wrapped stack of books.

She had the books fly over to Lyudmilla’s bag, but she intercepted them in the air.

“Oh what are these? This is heavy.”

Lyudmilla ripped open the plastic with her fingers and picked a book out of the stack.

Minerva could not tell what the cover said. It was all in Rusean Cyrillic text.

That very fact immediately delighted Lyudmilla.

“Oh my god! This is incredible. You got me all my textbooks in Cyrillic?”

Lyudmilla flipped through the books with a massive, childish smile on her face.

It had taken calling in a few favors, but it was satisfying to see her pupil so happy.

“I figured some of the problem with your grades might have been a language barrier. You can read and write Otrarian, I know that much, but every little bit helps, right?”

Minerva crossed her arms and smiled as wide and brightly at her amazed pupil.

“Hell, one of the reasons I learned silent and shorthand casting was to avoid Otrarian.”

“How did you learn that, by the way?” Lyudmilla asked, still flipping the pages of the book and seemingly marveling at what they said to her now. “You still have not told me where all your superpowers come from, and I feel like I’ve asked every day since then.”

Then.

Minerva averted her eyes. “It’s not easy to talk about. I promise I’ll tell you eventually, but just give me a minute right now, okay? As for the shorthand casting, it’s weird.”

Lyudmilla flipped through one of her cyrillic textbooks. “You just said literally nothing.”

“I’m sorry, okay? Just trust me for right now.” Minerva sighed.

“Sure thing, Master.”

“Ugh.”

Minerva stared at the door briefly and then turned her gaze back on Lyudmilla.

“Okay, well, Niko isn’t coming, so I’ll just tutor you.” She said.

Lyudmilla looked at her over the book. “Tutor me in what? I don’t have homework.”

“You do now.”

She passed her a handwritten set of discussion questions that she had intended to go over with Niko Klein, covering several things in the current and former unit that had given him trouble. Most of them had also given Lyudmilla trouble, judging by her quiz answers and generally mediocre grades, so she figured it was a good way to make use of the work she had already done. It might also keep Lyudmilla shut for a bit, god willing.

Of course, it was immediately obvious the latter would not happen.

“I can’t believe this– this betrayal! I trusted you! I thought your office would be a safe space for me! You even have the stupid ‘safe space’ sign on your door!” Lyudmilla cried.

She put on a cartoonishly distraught expression as she manhandled the question sheet.

“My office will never be a safe space from schoolwork.” Minerva said.

“I’m never coming here again!” Lyudmilla shouted in even more cartoonish distress.

“You will come here and you will turn all your 60s into 90s.” Minerva replied firmly.

Lyudmilla stared at her, mouth agape for a second. “Master, I don’t know whether to be in shock that you think I can score 90s, or distressed that you think I can’t score 100s.”

“We’ll make you a 100s student next year. That’s my goal.” Minerva said.

She put her hand on her chest and closed her eyes solemnly as if swearing an oath.

Lyudmilla hung her head in surrender.

Soon they were deep into the sheet, engaging in a deadly duel of questions and answers.

Lyudmilla had put down all her books and was working from memory.

Minerva was reading from the sheet and tried not to be too merciless.

She quickly reckoned that she had failed to soften herself.

“Name and explain three different kinds of spells.”

“Enchantments last as long as they’re fed aura, Blessings and Curses last until dispelled, and Hexes are short lived spells exclusively targeting someone else. Did I get that right?”

“That is right. Date the first recorded Diyah scripture and explain what they believed.”

“Um, the Diyah, that’s 73 D.C.E right? And they believed in a divine life-giving light.”

“Come on, you can do better. That’s a 60 point answer.”

“Well, 65 points is a pass, so I’m pretty close.”

“I don’t want you to just pass.”

“Fine. Let me think. Uh. They believed in the obfuscation–”

“Occultation. The Occultation of the Mahdi.”

“Right. That’s like, there’s this guy, like, a super sweet dude, and he’s hidden himself as a test to see if people are worthy of him, and he’ll come back someday when the followers prove that they deserve to be saved or something like that. Did I get that right?”

“Well, we’re up to 75 point answers, once we correct for grammar.”

Lyudmilla put her head down on the desk. “You’re a Tyrant, a literal Tyrant.”

Minerva winced at the suggestion. Some of it was maybe, technically, sort of, correct.

On accident, hopefully. Though, certainly, depending on how much Lyudmilla recalled of the events of the past few weeks, she had all the clues she needed to put it all together.

At least she was still just calling her Master and not, say, Lord Wyrm.

She tapped her wand on Lyudmilla’s head, not to do any magic, just to annoy her.

“You’re doing your reading, so that’s good. I’m proud of you.”

Lyudmilla turned her head sideways on the table, so she had one eye staring at Minerva’s hand. She had on a pensive expression and Minerva did not know what to make of it. It was as if she wanted to say something, so Minerva retracted her hand and gave her space to think. In a few moments, she raised herself back up and crossed her arms. She stared directly at Minerva, put on a little smile and tossed her twintailed hair.

“I figured out what that spell you used in the demesne does.” She finally said.

The demesne. Again with the thing that happened that Minerva did not want to discuss.

At this point however it was impossible to sidestep.

“What do you mean?” Minerva asked. She had cast a lot of magic in Moloch’s demesne.

Lyudmilla meant her statement to be provocative and she was delighted by the response.

“That Sudes spell. Magic gets buffed by the butt of the stake and weakened by the tip.”

“You saw me cast that, huh?” Minerva said, staring at Lyudmilla.

Sudes, “The Messiah’s Seven Castigating Stakes,” was not a spell one just found in the 5000 mark school packet bought from the library shop. The battle against Moloch had been desperate, and Minerva had not taken care to only use magic that would be safe and normal for a student to see and learn about. Had she done so, she could have died, even with Moloch’s weakened state. She was surprised that Lyudmilla had been sober enough and paying enough attention to have retained that detail from the encounter.

Minerva had figured (perhaps naively desired was more accurate) that Lyudmilla’s brain would buckle under the shock and terror of a Tyrant encounter and block out most of the details. Inside the demesne she had looked like her eyes were glazed over. Was she that resilient, or did Minerva just really underestimate kids these days? Either way, with her mischievous personality, Minerva had wanted to avoid disclosing anything to her.

After all, a lot of it was information she would have loved to avoid disclosing to herself.

That was probably unfair of her to do. Even if it involved trauma, even if it meant revealing ugly things. Minerva was her master and Lyudmilla was her apprentice. They were supposed to have a bond in magic and life that was different than the normal student-teacher relationship — closer to family. They were both outsiders also.

Lyudmilla seemed to have something of a past too. She was probably safe to talk to.

“It’s a difficult spell to cast. I could show you when I think you’re ready.” Minerva said.

“I cast it already. It’s how I broke up the demesne.” Lyudmilla replied bluntly.

Broke up the demesne?

Gods defend, it was Minerva’s memory of the encounter with Moloch that had buckled under the trauma. It hit her then like a brick that she had recklessly thrown herself at Moloch (using wyrm’s power?) and ordered Lyudmilla to infiltrate deeper into the demesne and attack its weakness. She had treated her like a soldier, made her execute a flank; she felt mortified at how much of that day was just scrambled in her memory.

Sighing deeply, Minerva replied, “It’s called Sudes, the Seven Castigating Stakes of the Messiah. And it is an extremely dangerous spell to just use willy-nilly Lyudmilla.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She sighed a little herself.

“Well, yeah, I kinda fucked it up I guess. It really gave me a beating, you could throw out so many of those stakes but I could only make one or two. I only knew it from your lips. You mouthed an incantation and I picked it up. I filled in the rest myself best as I could.”

Minerva blinked hard. To cast even one Sudes without training in such a dangerous and stressful environment was impressive. Certainly, anyone could cast any sort of spell if they knew the mnemonic and the basic principles of magic (and had an unlocked Homunculus, like Lyudmilla now did thanks to the card Minerva gave her and which she had not thought to ask for back). However, most people who cast something like Sudes would not “take a beating” and would instead keel over dead, bereft of their vitae.

“Don’t just copy spells at random, even if you technically can. Your arcanometry is advanced but unpracticed, and you’ll just hurt yourself. Please promise me.” She said.

Lyudmilla glanced askance and mumbled grumpily in response, “I promise.”

Minerva put down her wand, and concentrated for an instant.

Magic was a lot of factors working at once. It was a herculean effort that seemed effortless because it was carried out in an instant. It was trial in the space of error.

Human minds did not move like muscles did. To think was the most instantaneous action one could imagine, encompassing universes within instants in between any amount of perceivable time. Because humans thought, and were surrounded by auras and vitae, and because humans possessed a connection to the elements that gave off these auras and energies, they could perform magic. To think, therefore, to cast, one could say.

Communities shaped their environments through action; at a global scale, the human organism composed of billions of bodies, shaped the entire world. On the most quantum microscopic scale imaginable, a human thought was a world-shaping action too. Magic was the result of thought, and thought was influenced by input, like the light entering the eyes that became visual imagery, the vibrations that were interpreted as sound; and it was given shape too, by the muscle actions that created speech, breath and movement.

Magic was profoundly difficult to explain. It was easier in the time of Otar the Great, who claimed that God had given him the power. And yet what was academically known as Divine magic now was very different than the Otarian wizardry practiced in Otraria. Minerva cast magic like people took footsteps. On some level, she barely recognized that she was doing it. Nobody had to think to take a footstep. Similarly, most wizards who did not have a great being of fire embedded in them and an archmage for a childhood mentor cast magic like a musician played an instrument. On some level, it became rote, and in the way one knew to control one’s breathing, to hit a key or a string just so

All of that was Magic.

And if the act of playing was the rote, then the incantation was the sheet music to learn.

All of Magic was an effect caused by thought, but to perform specific, controlled effects, required the brain to think in specific ways and the body to act it out in specific ways.

Wizards employed a mnemonic of some kind to trick their brains into casting spells.

The homunculus used barely perceptible light patterns, special audio waveforms and even direct injection of pulses into the flesh to help fulfill what were once long incantations, smoke tricks, prayer music and other mnemonics, gestures and autosuggestions, reducing the act to second’s worth of sensory and physical activity. Because they lived in a fallen time long since Otar’s death after all; people did not have the time or patience for the long form when they could just say the name of the spell.

And even the latter concession was more of a requirement for sanity’s sake.

To Minerva, casting Sudes meant intending to cast Sudes, grasping with her hand like the stake was already in it, and then calling out Sudes. Under particular stress or if she needed to concentrate the magic more she could call them the Seven Castigating Stakes, taking more time to develop stronger mnemonics. To her brain, Sudes meant images of the Messiah, the stakes in his body; the specific waveform of his cries and prayers; the smell of the sand in the holy land; and the feeling of remorse for humanity’s cruelty. Feelings, senses, information — understanding shaped the magic. Sudes meant a weapon intended half to deliver one from magic and half to deliver one to magic as Lyudmilla pointed out. One end “buffs,” one end breaks. One end was in the open air of the land of Al-Zujaj, and the other end soaked in blood from the flesh of the avatar as he died–

She couldn’t help but twirl it after it manifested, and almost hit Lyudmilla. The Sudes was a wooden stake about the thickness of a cheerleading baton and the length of a throwing javelin. One end was blunt and just ever so vaguely rounded compared to the rest, while the other end was smoothly tapered off and mildly sharp. All of it looked worn, ancient.

All of it swept right in front of Lyudmilla like a swung sword.

“Ah! Sorry!” Minerva said. She dispelled the stake after the demonstration.

Lyudmilla had immediately backed up, defending herself with raised arms.

“Whoa, be careful with that.” Lyudmilla said. “Hey, are you ok?”

Minerva noticed that her face was sweaty, and she was breathing heavily.

It felt like all the air had left her lungs. Her stomach felt hollow suddenly.

She felt like she could tell apart all the nerves in her brain as pinpricks of pain.

This was not Moloch’s demesne after all. This was the material world.

Casting magic in the material world was much harder.

A Tyrant’s demesne draws magic out; the material world pushes magic in.

“I’m fine.” Minerva said. “This is a really tricky spell. It’s very powerful. Conjurations in general require tons of magic y’know? Creating an independent physical body and all.”

“Then that’s not the real stake you got there.” Lyudmilla said. “Conjurations are all fakes.”

She was learning! That was indeed a property of conjurations, a type of magic.

“Correct, they’re not real. Those real stakes got thrown out or burnt or buried. What matters is the image of the stake; the metaphorical stake. That’s what Sudes is. Copies of the seven stakes that killed the Messiah. Artifacts like that, with history that sticks in people’s minds, often inspire spellcraft.” She realized how much she sounded like an encyclopedia text to speech bot and paused for a moment to gauge Lyudmilla’s reaction. The girl seemed captivated by it, rather than bored or confused, so Minerva supposed she was doing something right. “You were right about their properties. One end will amplify magic that strikes it and the other end will weaken it. So I buried the weakening end into the Tyrant and kept the strengthening end open to the air for my purposes.”

“Yeah, I kinda thought so. I did that trick too.” Lyudmilla said. She was being pretty casual about what should have been an utterly horrifying experience. Perhaps it was the distance to it; or maybe Lyudmilla had been conditioned in some way to accept such things. She continued, looking smug. “I knew I couldn’t break apart all the machines in the demesne by myself, because I don’t really know any big explosive magic like you probably do. So I buried the weakening end of a stake into the machines to bring down their resistance and then used the buffing bit to amplify my magnetic spell.”

“I’m sorry that I made you fight like that, Lyudmilla.” Minerva said. Even if Lyudmilla was alright and seemingly satisfied with herself, that whole situation was a massive failure on Minerva’s fault to protect her charge. She had thrown in to defend her students but ended up using a student as a tool. “Even if you were clever enough for it.”

“It’s not a problem. Aren’t apprentices basically just an arch-wizard’s troops anyway?” Lyudmilla leaned back on her chair and waved her hand in the air as if the tension in the room was smoke and she was trying to dispel it. “Anyway, you said there were Seven stakes or something, but you made more than seven of those though, I’m pretty sure.”

Minerva blinked, still a little shocked by the composure of her new apprentice.

And her apparent enthusiasm at becoming “an arch-wizard’s troops.”

Nevertheless she continued to explain. After all, an engaged student was a rare delight, and even if it was not course material, Minerva loved to teach things to a willing mind.

“Depending on my intentions, I can conjure copies of the copies that are even weaker but satisfy my needs. In the demesne, I used Sudes to spread Bariq, desert lightning, across Moloch’s body to intensify the effect. He had so much mass that he would have barely felt one stake or one bolt striking his body, no matter how powerful the bolt was. He was mostly made of metal though, so with enough contacts, I could shock all of his body.”

“Huh. So being that big had its upsides.” Lyudmilla said. “He seemed really weak compared to you. Looking back on it, you kinda made a clown of a Tyrant there.”

Minerva shook her head. She did not want Lyudmilla to think she was some invincible juggernaut. There was a ready explanation. “I think because of the circumstances of the summoning, Moloch was forced to express his element of Fire through the medium of the metal idol that Ajax guy lured you to. Metal and Fire are opposed though, so Moloch was dramatically weaker than he should have been. Moloch seemed to think Wyrm had permanently removed his Fire element in antiquity; but I think if summoned right, Moloch could probably have crushed me in the Fire department nonetheless.”

She was trying to be careful of what she said still; some part of her approached the eagerness of her student, and the deeply troubling things she had seen, with great trepidation. Lyudmilla, however, had a simple response to everything and seemed thoroughly untroubled. She was not conspiring over anything that Minerva said.

Instead, she diverted the subject once again to another linked curiosity of hers.

“I guess I can understand that. Wait though, aren’t humans made of fire and metal?”

“Most of them, magically, yes.” Minerva said. She let out a little giggle at the concept of humans being made of fire and metal. Certainly their auras tended to be that way.

“Is that why we suck at magic more than Tyrants do? Opposing elements or whatever.”

“Well. It’s one of many reasons. I’d like to think we don’t suck too bad.” Minerva replied.

“Well, you don’t, I guess. You’re some kind of genius hero.” Lyudmilla said.

She laid her head down on her arms and kicked her legs, looking mildly frustrated.

Maybe she really did not think Minerva was dangerous or monstrous and was, honestly, casually and simply, jealous of her abilities and greedy for a similar kind of power.

“Hey, I had resources others did not. I owe this to a lot of people and a lot of study.”

Lyudmilla glanced up at her with a foul expression on her face.

“Yeah, and you’ll tell me all about it someday.” She said sarcastically.

Minerva frowned right back at her. Even if she wasn’t malicious, she was a handful.

“I’ll teach you all of it. But not now. Right now, we should get back to your homework.”

“Yeah, the homework you made up to give me a hard time.”

There was almost some tension in the room now and Minerva did not like it one bit.

“Come on now, you’re doing really well. Lets build up some momentum! From 75 to 80!”

Minerva smiled and cheered and tried to be perky and nice to her in response.

Lyudmilla turned her head away and narrowed her eyes.

Picking the sheet back up, Minerva asked, “Explain the first formalized spellcasting method divised by Hama, and explain why it is so difficult to reconstruct today.”

She tried to sound bright and sunny, but that was actually a rather difficult question.

“Oh man, are you for real?” Lyudmilla protested. “Am I a PhD student or a freshman?”

Just as Minerva was about to comfort her, there was a vigorous knock on the door.

She snapped her head up from the sheet and stared in surprise.

“Come in!” She shouted, thinking that it must have been Niko who was just very late to office hours, and happy that she would not have to reschedule him to a later day again.

However almost as soon as the door opened, her homunculus vibrated on her wrist.

Looking down at it she found a message from Niko Klein.

Looking up from it she saw the door swing open and an unfamiliar woman walk through the threshold. She looked Minerva’s or Lyudmilla’s age and carried herself with confidence, stopping short of the desk with her hands behind her back and a big grin.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Orizaga. I apologize if I’m interrupting something, but I was told you could help me with my investigation, and I wanted to meet you right away.”

She was quite a dazzling character, slender, athletic. Her hair was long, shiny, a golden blond, adorned with a dark purple, reflective headband. A sharp streak of red eyeliner and a careful dab of ice-blue lipstick made her face stand out. Her attire was professional and more than likely symbolic of something: a blue-striped white uniform jacket with long sleeves and red shoulders and cuffs, buttoned up, with a similarly tri-color skirt.

On her hip was a tote-bag sized belted pack with a cable, connected to a holstered object clipped to her opposite hip. The cable stretched behind her back. Was it some kind of gun? She had no homunculus on her wrist; but there was an orb floating around her, gunmetal and purple with a recessed pink eye amid a pattern of concentric neon veins. About the size of a football and moving around as if of its own volition. What was it?

Lyudmilla stared at them half-turned on her seat, seemingly also confused.

“Good afternoon.” Minerva said. Since this woman had skipped introductions and just called her out by surname, Minerva would skip any formalities as well. “May I inquire as to the nature of this investigation? As you can see I am currently with a student.”

Her guest grinned ear to ear, crossing her arms.

At her side the orb’s eye and the veins around it blinked on and off.

“Pardon my rudeness. My name is Silica Von Drachen. I am here on behalf of a global task force of the Noct Republic, operation Panopticon, to investigate a summoning.”

Minerva blinked hard. That was a lot of words she was not prepared ever to hear.

Silica seemed to immediately pick up on her discomfort and genuinely enjoy it.

“Ever heard of the Etherian ‘Moloch’? I should hope not. Humans should not consort with such beings of course, especially humans bound by international agreements not to.”


Story 2, Lord Of The Tempest, BEGIN.


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Life In The Besieged City (74.3)

This scene contains serious and not so serious discussions of transgender issues as well as mildly vulgar humor, including sexual humor, and sexual content.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice — Ulyanova Medical Research Center

Leander rocked in his chair, staring at the paintings on the wall. He saw the odd nurse walking through the hallway outside the door to the Special Treatments office. No additional patients joined him since Naya entered the office. He felt the eerie seclusion of Special Treatments more pointedly than before. Why were they all the way out here?

He started to run over in his head what he would say to the doctor. They had exchanged a few letters on his long way to Solstice, and she seemed so full of advice and kindness. He had struggled to respond to her, mostly because the one question that he had and wanted her to answer felt like it was a combination of silly and impossible. It was always so emotional too, reading her letters. They were full of hope that he didn’t know he should have. The few times he wrote back, his letters were brief expressions of gratitude.

Dr. Kappel had said it would be a few minutes, but it took nearly twenty before the door to the office opened again. Leander stood up and watched, dumbfounded, as the girl he met just a short while ago, Naya Oueddai, walked out in tears, hugging a large cotton-stuffed bear toy and thanking the doctor profusely. She patted Leander on the shoulder as she went and wished him good luck. He reached out, but she was gone quickly.

Leander blinked, and stared with confusion between the amused Dr. Kappel at the door and the emotionally overcome Naya walking out the door. He was briefly speechless.

“Don’t mind her.” Dr. Kappel said. “Come on in! Have a bear! It’s very therapeutic.”

Briefly hesitant, Leander walked past Dr. Kappel at the door and took a seat in the big chair in her office. She handed him a freshly-unwrapped bear to hug and sat down in a much smaller chair. She had a clipboard and she scribbled something on it. Leander was several centimeters shorter than the doctor standing, but on the chair, he was raised up higher than her and had to bow his head a little in order to make eye contact with her.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Leander. We’re few of a kind, you and I!”

She reached out a hand and delicately shook with Leander. She was like a film star, like someone you would read about on the papers. Leander had a limited exposure to such things as he grew up traveling with his caravan, but he knew there were city folks who had glamorous lives and made themselves very beautiful for pictures. To Leander the simple eyeshadow and lipstick on Dr. Kappel, and the smooth shininess of her red hair, made her look incredibly elegant and stylish. Her sharp facial features were striking.

“Thank you doctor.” Leander said. “I’m glad we finally met too.”

“Tell me, do I look like you envisioned? Am I as you hoped?”

She winked one eye a little, smiling wryly.

Leander smiled back awkwardly. His own Ayvartan was not too great — the zigan people had their own language, so the communist-constructed Ayvartan Standard Language was his second tongue. Despite this, he knew that Dr. Kappel’s accent was thick and that her pronunciations made speaking to her just a little bit more difficult than with others.

Dr. Kappel nodded in silent understanding of his difficulties.

“How did you like my art? I painted all those landscapes.” She gestured outside.

“They’re nice. Are they places from around here?” He asked just to make conversation, but he felt immediately silly. Solstice was located in the middle of a desert. There were no beautiful white mountains and vast green forests here, just sand and the Qural river.

“They’re from my imagination.” Dr. Kappel said. “When I’m at peace in my mind, I see myself in vast forest or a high mountain. I’ve wanted to paint the desert too. Cities are so busy; I would love to see the vast, ruddy sands with my own eyes. But it’s too dangerous outside the city, they say, so civilian professionals need special permissions to go.”

“They don’t let you leave?” Leander said, in shock.

“I can understand why; once the war is over, I can go dehydrate all I want, don’t worry.”

She reached out and laid her hand on Leander’s own, reassuring him.

“Do you feel ready to talk Leander?”

Leander nodded silently. Dr. Kappel nodded back.

“We’ve already spoken in letters, and I have all the information that Panchali Agrawal forward to me about your case; I know a lot about your condition and you yourself now know a lot more. As a doctor, I want to do all I can to help you look and feel like the man you know you are. There’s a lot we can do, but first I’d like to understand what you want. I want you to know that I am working for you. I will not do anything you do not want. Our goal is for you to be able to live your life looking and feeling like your ideal self.”

Leander nodded. In truth, it was a difficult question, because he was already grappling with what a man was and what a man did with himself. He had heard many different answers from others, even when they didn’t know they were being asked the question; and made many different answers for himself. There were the good men he knew, like Bonde; the brutal, evil men of Nocht too. Leander just knew he didn’t feel well being brought up on dresses, being made a bride, being looked at for his breasts and his hair and his hips as if those things were all he was. He didn’t want to see them on himself and he didn’t want others to see those things either. He liked other girls just fine; he liked Dr. Kappel for example! But he did not want to see himself as one. He wanted to be a boy.

“Dr. Kappel, is it okay for me to say I want to be a boy?”

Dr. Kappel nodded. “Of course it is.”

“But, what even is a man or a boy? What’s a girl or a woman?” Leander asked. “If I can say that I am, is that okay? Do I have to be changed by medicines first? It’s confusing.”

Dr. Kappel blinked. “That’s a very profound question. I could answer it many ways: I could say well, there’s chromosomes and physical developments and we call one set feminine and one set masculine; or I could say, there’s certain social roles people fit into in traditional societies; but all those things are just inventions, you know? Those are things that we constructed that are only truthful because they are enforced as truth.”

“I don’t think I understand.” Leander said. His mind was spinning trying to both understand the message and also make basic sense of the words out of her tongue.

“I apologize; I was born in a part of Nocht known for thick tongues, and my command of Ayvartan isn’t helping with all these big words.” Dr. Kappel said. She squeezed Leander’s hand in her own and looked in his eyes. “Leander, what I mean to say is, that a man is what you feel you want to be. You can accept what others say a Man is, or you can make your own Man who lives in a way you can be proud of. What I want us to discuss is how you can feel better about yourself, how you can live happily. Not how a Man lives happily, but how you, Leander, can live happily as a Man. Do you understand now?”

“I think I do.” Leander said. He was preoccupied a lot with how others would see him. He still was, to a certain extent. But perhaps it didn’t actually matter what people expected Men to be like; after all, was it not a virtue of the caravan for men to make themselves respectable men? Through hard work and determination, you were supposed to convince the elders you were ready to become a Man who could carry his own weight.

Until Leander came along, nobody made “avoid having breasts” a part of that rite.

“So then, it is fine for me to say that I am a Man.”

“Absolutely. As a woman who says that she is a woman, I think you are perfectly alright.”

Leander nodded. “Thank you doctor.”

Dr. Kappel brightened up.

“So Leander, when you view yourself in the mirror, how would you want to be seen? If someone were to paint you — say, me, if I ever took on portraits — what is your ideal?”

Leander blinked. He had hardly thought of it before. There was only one glaring thing that stuck out in his mind that prevented him from being seen as he would like to be.

“I would like not to have breasts. Wearing the binder is hard, and I feel exposed even with it. People who touched me or looked too closely might see my breasts. I worry all the time about it. They’re sensitive and they prevent me from lying down flat, too.”

Dr. Kappel clapped her hands together. “Perhaps you could transfer them to me.”

Leander blinked and stared at her with concern.

“Nevermind, it was a joke.” Dr. Kappel laughed awkwardly. “Yes, we can certainly accomplish that. Recovery can be sensitive, but I have experience with the surgery. I’ve surgically removed many breasts before, and not just for boys like you! Women athletes and soldiers with large breasts have asked me for reduction or removal too in the past.”

 

“Well, you could’ve taken theirs then?” Leander asked, still thinking about her joke.

“No! I don’t want them! It was a joke! I’m happy with mine!” Dr. Kappel said hastily.

Leander looked down at her and thought, hers weren’t even as big as his.

He did not say anything however, judging the whole thing to be in bad taste.

“Why did you bring it up?”

Dr. Kappel sighed. “I was trying to show you that it is a normal thing anyone can do.”

 

“Have you ever performed surgery on yourself?” Leander casually asked.

“No! I did not become like this with surgery. I used chemical medicine.” Dr. Kappel said.

Leander laughed a little. Was he starting to fluster her with his silly questions?

She narrowed her eyes at him. But then she smiled again and cleared her throat.

“So! Would you like to, say, grow a beard? Or body hair? I have been making great strides in the development of hormone products for transgender boys.” Dr. Kappel said.

A beard? Leander liked his current unshaven smoothness. His uncle had a beard but he had never particularly aspired to the same himself. “Not really.” He finally answered.

“See, we’re making progress.” Dr. Kappel wrote on her clipboard. She then looked over it, with the pen still on paper, and resumed speaking. “Would you like more musculature? You’re particularly skinny and young, and physically active, so you’ve developed in a wiry and angular way, but as you get older, fat may start collecting in your hips more. It can lead to self image problems — we could tackle that in the future, but if you want to be a big tough lad shaped like a barrel in a year, I could potentially make that happen.”

None of that sounded particularly appealing to Leander. “I don’t really want to be bigger. I guess it would help carry my rifle. But maybe someday I’ll just have a smaller rifle.”

“We can always come back to that later if you change your mind. Remember, it’s never too late. How do you feel about your voice? Would you like a deeper voice?”

Leander recalled some of the men he heard speak. He had never been particularly enamored with his own voice, nor really anyone else’s. However, it sounded interesting, to be able to change his voice. Could he really be made to sound more like a man?

“I might. Can you do that?”

“Hormones might be able to do that for you.” Dr. Kappel said. “I can refer you to a voice therapist I’ve been working with too. I can’t guarantee dramatic results, but we can try.”

Leander smiled. I a strange way it almost felt like he was ordering from a menu.

“Doctor, is all of this really okay? If all these things happen to me, people will notice.”

“It is really okay.” Dr. Kappel said. “We still don’t have a charter for transgender rights in the Solstice constitution or anything like that; but the government readily agreed that its anti-discrimination laws apply to our kind, and Ayvarta is more accepting than Nocht was in my experience. Ulyanova passed laws protecting homosexuals, for example.”

“Homo–?”

“Boys who like boys, girls who like girls.” Dr. Kappel said.

“Oh.”

“And I guess people like me, who like both.”

Leander blinked. Yet another thing he had not given a lot of thought to.

She started to write again on her clipboard.

He then remembered the important question he had been meaning to ask the doctor.

He hugged his bear tight to his chest and swallowed.

“Doctor, do you think if I told someone special about who I am, that this person would hate that I’m like this? In order to be with someone, I would have to tell them, right?”

Dr. Kappel looked up from her clipboard. She put it down and smiled reassuringly, and held Leander’s hands in her own once again. “Well, without knowing the person, I can’t really say. It’s tricky, but I think if they love you they will not mind. And if they become distant because you’re a more interesting boy than they bargained for, that is their loss.”

Though it was not the answer he really wanted to hear, Leander liked the way that she that put it. She, Dr. Kappel, was a girl; and he was a boy, because he wanted to be and could. And he was a very interesting boy for it. Maybe this really was okay after all.

“At any rate, I think we’re done with the formalities.” Dr. Kappel said. She put down her clipboard, having filled out many fields and checked many boxes. “Like I said, you can always request treatment for other things as they come up. I just wanted to check your pulse right now so we could get to work quickly.” She put the clipboard on a tabletop. “We can schedule you for some tests and see when you can come in for surgery.”

“Thank you doctor.” Leander said. “I’m still feeling a bit confused, but I’m happy.”

“I’m glad. That’s all I wanted. Now that we have talked medicine for long enough, I’d love to just talk to you, one transgender person to another.” Dr. Kappel said. “I’d love to hear all about your life so far. I’d be so grateful. I’ll tell you about how I found myself, too.”

Leander felt a little embarrassed to be given so much attention, but also delighted.

“I’d be happy to.” He said. “But, doctor, I’m curious. Are there other boys like me here?”

“In Solstice? There’s a few. I could arrange for you to meet if you want.” She said.

Leander grinned at her. “Thank you. Are any of them as handsome as me?”

“Ah, well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. I think all transgender people are beautiful.”

“That makes sense.” Leander said, laughing a little. He started to tear up.

Solstice was just an old city trapped between walls and rivers in the middle of a massive lifeless wasteland of sand. And yet, it felt like a holy land for Leander now. A place where he and his people lived now. Where they could be true to themselves. It was liberating.

For a moment, he thought about how he would tell Elena everything. It was a nice image.

He was sure that, in Solstice, he could tell her, and she would understand and love him.


25th of the Hazel’s Frost 2030 DCE

Ayvarta, Solstice — North Solstice, Kuwba District

“Not a pakora to be found! Not one in the whole city!”

Gulab shouted in despair in front of the civil canteen, where a dour food service worker stared down at her and also at the empty slot in the buffet-style serving tables that was marked “pakora.” In truth, there was almost no food left and that was always the case at so late an hour. All the fresh vegetables and most of the bread was gone. Everyone was guaranteed two meals (it used to be three) but that was contingent on picking them up at a reasonable hour — past midnight, there was no reasonable way to guarantee fresh food.

Of course, Gulab and Charvi had been indisposed during the day, acting as wedding shooters for the Premier and her bride, a great honor and a personal favor for General Nakar; and though they ate their fill at the wedding, they were soon hungry again.

Well, Gulab was hungry.

Charvi was merely at her side supporting her in her time of need.

“We should’ve returned to base.” Charvi said dispassionately.

“No! We don’t get to travel around the city at our leisure just any old day you know?”

“You could’ve gotten fed at the base.”

“There’s no guarantee of that! And certainly they wouldn’t have pakoras!”

“They don’t have pakoras here either.”

“It was a possibility! A possibility!”

“I could put your names down for pakoras, when we next get any.”

Behind the two of them was the poor woman subjected to their nonsense at the counter, in her state-issued apron and hat. She looked gloomy, but was still trying to help them. Gulab found this admirable, and knew that it was not her fault that the world was in ruins and decaying quickly and that inhuman deprivation had befallen all of them.

That is to say, for this one time, the canteen was out of pakoras. Gulab understood it all.

“No, we won’t be here. Sorry to bother you. We’ll be going.” Gulab said, sighing.

“Here’s a cup of dal for the road. You make a cute couple.”

She handed the each a lukewarm cup of thick yellow lentil soup over the counter.

She tried to smile at them. They tried to smile back.

“Thank you. You are also, cute.” Charvi said, trying to be nice.

At once, the food service woman averted her gaze.

Gulab took Charvi by the arm and led her back to the street. They were dressed as they usually were while city-slickin’. Charvi had on a sundress and wore a hat over her slightly curled silvery hair. Gulab wore a vest, shirt and slacks. She had a small trilby hat, and her ponytail, freshly braided, was growing ever longer. Gulab wondered what she might look like with hair as short as Charvi’s, but it made her anxious to get it all cut.

Still, she loved the look on Charvi. She loved Charvi; she stared at Charvi as they walked, taking in the glistening of sweat on her brown skin as the moonlight shone on her. Her face looked so beautiful and calm and soft despite the unsmiling, neutral expression she wore all of the time. Since they arrived at Solstice they had decided to date officially: they went out together as much they could. Already they spent a lot of time together at their work, but they wanted to try to cohabitate, to go on romantic dates, to kiss.

To love each other.

Gulab felt an irrepressible love for Charvi, a passion, an ardor.

And yet, she still felt, keenly, that there was one final barrier between them.

Walking hand in hand down the streets in Kuwba was just another typical romantic outing for them. When that woman at the canteen remarked upon them, however, Gulab had started to wonder again. Did people see them as two women, or what– and was Charvi fine with Gulab as a woman, or what– it was a difficult question. Would Gulab have been okay with any answer? She had Charvi, she cared about her so much.

However, she could not help but worry about her own self.

Her nontraditional womanhood. And she was not just thinking about the suits and slacks.

“Charvi, do you like boys or girls?” Gulab asked.

She instantly regretted it — what a stupid thing to say suddenly!

Charvi’s expression did not change one bit as she replied. “I like you, Gulab. You make me happy.” She was constructing sentences how she used to, using specific statements she had been taught by a speech trainer. It was her fallback when she was confused.

Her voice was completely devoid of emotion. That was just how she was, though lately she had a few moments of greater lucidity where she almost took on a heightened tone.

She was probably trying to reassure her, but she was also still dodging the question.

“Do you think of me as your boyfriend or your girlfriend, Charvi?”

Charvi glanced at her sidelong and blinked. She stared at her, deadly silent, for minutes.

Gulab was used to this. Charvi just needed a minute to pore over things every so often.

Especially when she was being ambushed like that.

“You can dress however you want and I’d like it, Gulab. I like you.” She then said.

What took her so long to think of that answer? Was she just messing with Gulab now?

She was not utterly devoid of emotions. She could be mischievous.

“Charvi, theoretically, if I married you, would I be the bride or the groom to you.”

As soon as the words left her lips Gulab nearly choked at what a catastrophe this all was.

Charvi raised her hands up and clapped them sharply to indicate her distress.

This was a mannerism that Gulab came to respect and understand keenly.

“Sorry.” Gulab said. “I’m being a fool.”

“It’s okay. I want to help, but I’m confused. Is something wrong?” Charvi said.

It was dark out, so dark even most of the streetlights had gone out to preserve power. Nobody was around. There were laws which held some businesses to round-the-clock operation, particularly state enterprises, but Kuwba was a small district that had grown around the hotel and there was barely anyone around. There was also nothing much to do. There were a few bars, and a theater, but it was the time of the dead, and any normal and sane person would have just gone home and slept and tried to have fun much later.

Gulab felt mortified, but at least nobody was around to listen but them.

“Ah it’s nothing. I just have weddings on the mind.” Gulab said.

“Weddings make me feel peace and contentment.” Charvi said dispassionately.

“You know, the Premier wore a suit, but she was still thought of as a bride.” Gulab said.

“I thought of the Premier as our boss.” Charvi said.

Gulab blinked. Sometimes Charvi was so forward, blunt and slightly unimaginative that it was a little disarming to hear. “That’s fair. She is kind of like that. You’re right.”

“Your concern for gender roles strikes me as sudden and confusing.” Charvi said.

“I mean when you put it that way, I sound like a lunatic, yes.”

Charvi stared at her again. Gulab sighed deeply.

“Gulab, if you wanted to, I would marry you. But we should be steady for a year first.”

Gulab looked at her with surprise. “Ah, heck with that, we should get married right now.”

“It’s a bit soon–”

“We should go have our own honeymoon then!” Gulab joked. “Wedding be damned!”

“Our honeymoon?”

“Yep! Back in the mountain, the bride and groom would get a tent all to themselves far outside town, and they could do whatever they wanted, and be as loud as they wanted to! They would have an entire night and day to themselves up in the mountain pines.”

“That sounds nice.”

“Sure is! I can’t imagine how many kids got made on that spot.”

Gulab started to giggle to herself at the thought.

She suddenly felt Charvi’s grip around her wrist tighten a little.

Quivering slightly, Charvi replied in the most unexpected fashion to those bawdy jokes.

“Yes. Let’s have a honeymoon.” She said. “Just the two of us. Somewhere nice.”

“Um?”

“I’m serious.”

“Eh?”

“I think, honeymoons are silly but I think the things that are done in honeymoons are good. That’s what I’m saying. Gulab, I want to have sex, before we try marrying.”

“Ah?”

Charvi clapped her hands once. She was likely feeling quite awkward saying that.

Gulab’s mind was still several steps behind the conversation.

“I’ve thought– I’ve thought of exploring a physical relationship with you.” Charvi said.

“Uh.” Gulab blinked. Not in a million years could she have conceived of such a result.

Not that she thought of Charvi as sexless, and she was obviously a rather dirty-brained person herself, as she believed most people off the mountains rightfully were. And yet–

“What do you say, Gulab? I understand this is sudden. If you don’t want to–”

Charvi looked directly into her eyes, turning slightly red. Her touch was warmer.

Gulab was speechless.

Obviously, the idea appealed to her!

She found Charvi very attractive and she had to admit to herself that over the past few weeks, when they were off duty and started technically ‘dating’, that she had more than once thought about her girlfriend Charvi Chadgura in that sort of way. Stroking her silvery hair, feeling her dark, warm skin brush her own as she pulled down the straps of her dress, exploring the contours of her. Necking her, touching her where she was soft–

From one impulsive thing to another, Gulab’s mind began to desert its previous logic.

No longer concerned with philosophies, she was consumed by action.

This was her chance! She would have her beloved Charvi all night!

Before she could even plot out any of the logistics of the situation, Gulab said–

“I’ve been waiting for this day to come. I’m actually an expert at this sort of thing.”

Her voice was grandiose, and she twirled her hat and held the brim dramatically.

That boast, like all her boasts and tall tales, just escaped her mouth naturally.

She did not even think about what it implied.

Charvi was staring at her with a curious expression, fascinated with her.

Gulab pulled on her own collar and averted her eyes.

“I mean, I’ve not, I’ve not really, just– it’s like when you memorize chess strategy.”

“I see.” Charvi said. “I will entrust myself to you. I’ll be your chess piece.”

“Oof.” Gulab suddenly felt that wasn’t the best language to employ, by anyone involved.

Charvi looked around. “But we need a private place. We can’t do it at the barracks.”

“Of course not. We’ll go to the public lodgings. Anyone can get a room overnight.”

She was talking faster than she was thinking at that point.

But they still went along with it. Hand in hand, they walked to the nearest Civil Lodge.

They spoke briefly to the man in the front of the desk, got a room on the ground floor, and locked it behind themselves. They had a bed, a little bathroom off to the side, and it was all theirs for exactly 10 hours, for a very minimal, perfunctory fee. It was good enough to sleep in. It was good enough to sleep with Charvi in. Gulab loved socialism.

“It looks cozy.” Charvi said.

“It sure does.” Gulab said.

She was starting to stall verbally, her brain beginning to transition from the impulse and ecstasy to the mechanical logic necessary to actually do what she had set out to do.

And that required her to once again be very nervous about something she had forgotten.

As Gulab started to hesitate, Charvi slowly walked over to the bed and laid herself down.

“Gulab, it’s very soft here. Like me. I am very soft too.”

Gulab stared at her, narrowing her eyes.

“Um.”

“Perhaps we can be soft together.”

“Is this more speech training stuff? Did someone teach you to say this?”

“I am trying to be provocative and sexful.” Charvi replied.

Gulab shook her head slightly.

“Well, it’s uh. It’s extremely hot, but, I need to clean up first! One moment!”

She then ran to the bathroom and locked herself in.

It was a sparse bathroom. There was not much in there to distract oneself with.

There was also not a window to jump out of.

Looking in the mirror, Gulab assessed herself reasonably.

All of her insecurities started to bubble up inside her head.

Her head, which was hot as a tea kettle, boiling her own brains.

Did she look like a woman? Yes, she thought she did. A slightly bony, brusque woman but she had a pretty face. As good as any other girl from the mountain did, she thought.

Did she feel like a woman? Well, that was up in the air, that changed with the seasons.

Did she want to be a woman? Of course, that had been a driving force in her life.

Would Charvi see her as a woman if she took her clothes off and bedded her?

Gulab ran away from the mirror and back into the other room, half in a nervous panic.

“Gulab, please treat me gently.”

Charvi was still in bed, curling herself up as if it would make her look more attractive.

“Please don’t go fetal on me.” Gulab said. “Please sit up normally.”

Charvi laid up against the pillows. She tried to put on a smile. It was hard for her.

She was starting to overcome her K.V.W. conditioning that had dulled her emotions, once upon a time. However, she was still a generally dour person with no practice in smiling.

Inside her head, Gulab’s brain steeped in boiling water enough and began to steam.

“Oh, to hell with it!”

Gulab crept toward the bed and lunged atop, and she loomed over Charvi.

Staring down at her lover, she felt every part of herself both tense up and waver.

Gulab dipped down and kissed Charvi.

It was a brief kiss, but it was fierce and lustful.

Seizing each other’s lips, pulling slowly apart, nipping their tongues just a bit.

Gulab locked eyes with Charvi, who was breathing rapidly.

She loved Charvi. She just had to go out and say it. To say what she had meant to.

She just had to disclose how she was and explain how she felt. That was all.

“Charvi, I’m not just any ordinary girl.” Gulab said.

“I know. You’re a powerful succubus, come to take me.” Charvi said.

She was not making this any easier!

“What. No. I mean. Yes. Maybe? What are you talking about?”

“You’re not the only one who has been practicing her chess.” Charvi said.

“What? What does that mean? You’ve been practicing what exactly?”

Was this relationship suddenly even more complicated than Gulab thought?

Charvi clapped in mild distress. “I read some books on good lines to set the mood.”

Thank the spirits, it was still as simple and silly as usual. “Burn them.” Gulab said.

“No, darling; you are my fire.” Charvi said. It wasn’t even a logical response!

Gulab grit her teeth, still looming sensually over Charvi in bed.

“Charvi, I’m trying to come clean that something about me different from most girls, in this situation, that maybe, you should know about, since we’re both here, as girls–”

Charvi blinked and seemed to stop trying to roleplay at that point. “Gulab, what is–”

At that point the last remaining slivers of tact left Gulab’s body.

She was about to burst like a dam of anxiety and depression if she did not just say it.

“Ah!” Gulab screamed in frustration. “I keep trying to say this sensitively, but I don’t have a sensitive bone in my body! I’m a loud ignorant mountain bumpkin, and Charvi, I have a dick! That’s what I wanted to say, okay? I just, I don’t want you to think of me like a–”

Charvi blinked and cut in. “I was afraid you were going to say you were a traitor.”

Gulab shut her eyes hard and felt a knot in her brain, trying to unwind that sentence.

“Why the heck would I say that? What would that have to do with us sleeping together?”

“Well, I don’t know. What does this have to do with that either?” Charvi asked.

“Do you–” Gulab pulled herself up a little. She had never even considered that maybe Charvi did not know how to have sex. “Did your parents have the talk with you?”

Charvi covered her mouth to stifle laughter and averted her gaze, cheeks bright red.

“I never thought about your body that way.” Charvi said. “I don’t really think about people’s bodies. Do you identify as a Hijra? I’ve heard Arjun stories about that before.”

“I don’t identify as anything.” Gulab said, sighing. She was almost breathless and her heart was beating so fast, but at least the fact that this turned into slapstick meant Charvi did not feel disgusted toward her, probably. “I just, I dunno. I was always so close to the women I grew up with, and I always felt so great around them. I hated being thought of and treated as a man, and made to be like the men around me. I wasn’t like them, and I didn’t end up looking or being like they were. They were so selfish, and they just wanted everything to be their trophy. When I couldn’t be exactly like them, when I showed even a hint of interest in my longer hair and my colored clothes and even things like having a doll or wanting to knit or something — they hated me and humiliated me for it. All of them were so closed off, so thoughtless. I hated it. Even when they tried to use the strength they were so proud of, they failed to protect anyone. I swore all that off!”

It was a conversation made all the more awkward because Gulab was still looming over Charvi in a bed in a public lodging that they had gotten for the intention of having sex. Charvi, however, was silent, with a very slight smile, and seemed to invite Gulab to keep talking. Her lack of clapping meant a lot to Gulab. She was comfortable listening.

Despite this, it was a monumentally hard conversation to have. Gulab’s mouth felt heavy as she continued to speak. “It’s hard to explain, but I felt– Well, when I came to the communists from the Mountain, they just asked me for my gender, like any old thing, and they just took my answer. Like it didn’t matter. And that’s when I felt like I could be a girl. I could wear my hair long, dress however I want, talk how I want, and I could be myself without pressure; that’s when I realized I never felt like I was a boy anyway.”

“You don’t look or feel like anything to me, but just Gulab. Whom I love.” Charvi said.

“Thanks, I guess.” Gulab said.

She felt mortified about the whole thing.

“Sorry that I just. Shouted in your face about my dick, Charvi.”

“You know Gulab, I’ve grown to love you because of that.” Charvi said.

“Because I have a dick?” Gulab said in shock. “How did you–?”

“No. I mean. Yes. I mean. I mean.”

Charvi began to clap her hands rapidly in succession. Gulab blinked.

“I mean because you are honest and straightforward.” Charvi then said, awkwardly.

“I see.” Gulab said, red as a tomato with embarrassment.

“But I also accept and love. Everything else too.” Charvi also looked embarrassed.

“Well. I am relieved then.”

“Here. I’ll prove it.”

Charvi pulled herself up a little up over the pillows, enough to lift her face up to Gulab’s. She surprised Gulab with a kiss on the lips, taking her waist around her arms. It wasn’t a hungry, lustful kiss like Gulab imagined she would have tonight. It was sweet, bashful.

They stared deep into each other’s eyes. When they separated, Charvi laid back down on the bed, once again safely relaxed under Gulab’s looming body, and she continued.

“Everyone else always treated me like I was weird or broken, because I annoyed them with my mannerisms or because my mind was odd. You never judged me for that, and you believed in me and respected me enough to treat me in the straightforward and honest fashion you treat others. You say you aren’t sensitive, but Gulab, that was the most sensitive anyone has treated me. I never thought anyone would love or desire me.”

Gulab made an awkward face, trying to contain how self-conscious she felt.

“Thanks.” Charvi said. “Thank you Gulab. I love you. I love and accept and desire you.”

“I love you too Charvi.” Gulab said. “Thank you for– accepting this ridiculous shit.”

Charvi put on a very big, very forced smile and half-shut eyes.

It was a genuinely strange, almost creepy expression.

“Oh Gulab~” She was trying to do something with her voice that was not working at all, because she barely manifested a tone to begin with. “I want to have sex with you.”

“Spirits defend.” Gulab said, averting her gaze with shame.

“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to say. I’m supposed to be lascivious.”

“I want to do this, I really do, but I just want you to act naturally.”

Charvi sensually put a finger on Gulab’s face but nearly stuck it in Gulab’s mouth.

“I’ll bury you. Under my body.”

“But I’m on top right now!”

“I’ll bury you upside down.”

“Let’s just go!”

Gulab suddenly rushed down on Charvi and kissed her, pushing her down on the bed.

Charvi tried to reciprocate Gulab aggressively, perhaps to reassure her with enthusiasm.

Their lips locked together; and their foreheads struck dead on and they both fell aside.

Both of them broke out in laughter, and despite everything the urge remained felt and the fire in them burned all the brighter. There were no words, no more jokes, no hesitation. Eyes locked together, Charvi reached over to Gulab and began to pick apart the buttons on her vest and shirt. Gulab pulled the straps of Charvi’s sundress off her shoulders and began to pull the bodice down from over her breasts and to her waist.

They kissed, touched, wounded themselves together, and they loved every centimeter of skin on each other, neither ashamed to be exposed to the other, neither ashamed of where their hands went, what their lips kissed, and what flesh was entered where. Wordlessly in love, breathlessly in lust, enjoying every moment as was natural.

That night, the official honeymoon was not the only one celebrated.

For 10 hours, Gulab and Charvi had their own.


Previous Part || Next Part

Life In The Besieged City (74.2)

This scene contains mild violence and allusions to transphobia and medical violence.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Halwa Way

Weighing in at 52 tons, the Mandeha experimental self-propelled gun and its 152mm gun made an impression everywhere it went. It was loud, from the crunching of the tracks as they turned on their wheels, to the coughing of its engine and the rumbling in the dirt as it moved through the town. There was no subtlety to it: its too-tall turret and too-large body compared to the tanks common folk knew made it stand out far too much.

Having been given special provision to use civilian roads on its journey, the weapon and its crew trundled through the main street, down the old southern marketplace and out to the broader and wider-open historic neighborhood of Halwa Way. Known once for its confectioners and toy-makers, a little paradise for the city’s children, the war turned its eye on it as a source of open, under-developed space for military apparatus to expand.

Now there were no toy makers or candy shops. Confectioners produced canned and boxed food products for the military. Toy makers built guns and machined small parts.

The Mandeha headed for a workshop as part of an agreement to be examined in detail by a local cooperative and to apparently produce a limited run of extra turrets for it. Karima did not understand the purpose of doing such a thing but she did not question it.

She instead took in the sights atop the traveling tank, a soldier with nothing to shoot.

Clay brick houses, a few official-looking concrete buildings and many small wood-and-tin workshops were set on big plots of land spaced many meters apart, with waist-high stone divisions and broad dirt road between them. There were many empty, open parks and plazas and vacant, overgrown plots. All of it baking under the midday sun directly overhead. The heat was enough to cause ripples in the air ahead of and behind the tank.

Regardless, there were people on the street. Almost everyone in Halwa Way was dressed either in simple work clothes or some kind of uniform, though there were a few women in saris and one man in a robe and beads that Karima saw. The tank drove by a long line for certain rationed supplies, notably firewood and coal for homes and shops, handed out the back of a truck. They passed by a small clinic where a dozen soldiers in physical therapy practiced standing up on their prosthetic legs. They passed by a large school too.

Heads turned as the Mandeha neared. Older folk gaped and stared at the metal monster. Children clapped and danced and some of the misbehaving ones threw rocks and got scolded for it. There were still children, of course, even as Halwa Way metamorphosed.

To Karima, who was hanging half out of the top hatch, it looked like the children in the school were having a bomb drill. They were minded by a pair of military uniformed officers. After scolding them for the rocks their instructors had them practice ducking and crawling in the football field. There were shallow foxholes dug all over the field and a little sandbag wall. They were probably being taught to do basic earthworks too.

Past the school the Mandeha stopped and turned in place to go around a corner. Karima got a brief glimpse of a 37mm anti-aircraft gun and a group of teenage girls manning it.

Karima watched the landscape passing her slowly and gently by, resting her head on her arms.  It was miserably hot out, and the turret armor of the Mandeha was rather hot too. The long, smooth, shiny sleeves of her tight black tanker bodysuit protected her from being burned by the metal, but did nothing about the overall heat. She sweated profusely.

It was no better inside the tank. Though it was not worse — heat took much longer to penetrate the densely armored interior, so it was about the same temperature as just standing outside, even though it was a metal box cooking in the sun. Mainly, outside the tank at least Karima could feel the calm breeze sweeping up her long, brown arched ponytail and blowing the sweat off her olive skin. In the tank, it’d be cramped and while some air could come through the poor welding seams that was not an intended feature.

“Feeling down, Karima?”

A second hatch opened atop the Mandeha. A young blond woman pulled herself up half out of the hatch, and laid her head on her arms near Karima as if miming her.

“I’m fine.” Karima said brusquely. Lila was gorgeous and a joy but also annoying.

“This heat is monstrous isn’t it? I’ve never been anywhere so dry.” Lila said.

“It’s fine!” Karima said. She started raising her voice.

“You don’t look fine honestly, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You’re so noisy!”

Without responding, Lila turned her gaze on the surroundings with a smile.

Karima sighed.

“It’s not like I want you around. If you’re gonna be here, just take in the breeze quietly.”

She welcomed the company.

Karima snatched sidelong glances at Lila, thinking to herself that she liked when Lila was staring placidly at something other than her. She felt pressured when Lila stared at her, and resentful because Lila probably didn’t see anything good when she looked.

Lila was beautiful. Her golden hair, tied up out of the way, and her eyes, and her peach colored skin; she looked so lovely, like an angel. Karima found her gaze sneaking down Lila’s slim shoulders and along her back. She had taken off the combat vest, and the bodysuit hugged her figure very well under it. Karima had to pull herself away and force herself to stare at the buildings. Lila would tease her relentlessly if she caught her.

It wasn’t that Karima disliked the teasing, but she disliked her own reaction to it.

Her head was just a big screaming mess all the time. It made everything so hard.

The Mandeha rolled through a small park. As they maneuvered the tank carefully under the decorative arch out the other end of the park, Karima spotted a small crowd gathered ahead of them. They seemed to be trying to push something out from the middle of the intersection. Once they were close enough to see through the heat haze, Karima found the small group of workers and soldiers trying to get a supply truck going again after it struck a nasty ditch in the dry, dirty ground, knocking one of its wheels out of sorts.

“Huh. I wonder if everything’s okay.” Lila said airily.

Karima groaned. “Of course it isn’t. Just look at that.”

Onlookers gathered around the stalled truck, watching as a few men tried to prop the truck up, bang its wheel back into place, or push it out of the way. They did not appear as if they had made much progress. The Mandeha stopped at the edge of the crowd, and the hatch in front of the vehicle opened up. Karima saw their driver walk out into the crowd.

He was a comely young man with a braided black ponytail, wearing a combat jacket and shorts over his black bodysuit. Isa was not the sort who would have offered to help himself. He was probably going to rope them all into pushing on the truck or something.

“Ugh, he’s gonna get involved, of course.” Karima sighed.

“Well, we can’t just go through them, and it is nice to help out.” Lila said.

She turned her smile on Karima again, who turned her own head away from it.

“Whatever.”

Isa returned from a brief conversation with the men pushing the truck, and waved to Karima and Lila from the ground. He walked around the back of the tank and pulled from one of the storage hatches a hook and a steel rope. He attached the rope to one of the metal handles around the side of the Mandeha’s chassis, and brought the rope over to the truck, and hooked it to the front of it. Then he returned to the tank and dove down into the front hatch. He did all of this without saying a word to Karima or Lila about it.

Lila whistled.

“Huh, I guess he’s going to handle it himself. Our Isa has grown into a dependable boy.”

“We’re his age.” Karima retorted. “And he’s just playing around with the tank.”

“I guess it’s neat to be able to drive it.” Lila said, giggling.

“Less effort than hauling up those awful 152mm shells.” Karima mumbled.

The Mandeha rumbled as Isa started the engine, and began to pull back. The rope stretched taut, and the tank began to force the truck away from the intersection. People moved out of the way, and the Mandeha retreated to the park with the truck in tow and left it in a grassy little square patch once intended for picnickers. The owners of the truck had followed along, and when Isa popped back out of the hatch, they shook hands.

From the back of the truck, one of the men produced a small box, and he handed it to Isa.

“Lets go see what that’s about.” Lila said excitedly, pinching Karima’s bicep.

“Fine.”

They climbed down the footholds on the side of the turret, and closed the top hatches. Karima was tall for an Ayvartan woman, so the Mandeha was about the only tank she felt somewhat comfortable in. Its turret was still cramped, but nowhere near as much as the flatter turrets on smaller tanks. Karima could crouch into the turret from above, sit down and spread her arms — a Goblin tank felt like being caged in comparison. Lila, who was shorter and lighter, fit perfectly well inside the turret along with Karima as well.

Once inside, they both leaned down past the turret ring to look into the chassis below.

At the front of the chassis, past the racks of heavy shells, was Isa’s driving compartment. He closed the hatch and turned around just as the women were coming down from the turret. Smiling, he presented to them a little cardboard box. A fantastic smell of bread and spices swept through the interior of the tank. Karima identified it immediately.

“They gave you pakoras?” She asked suddenly.

“Sure did! They’re setting up a food spot for the workers around here.”

Isa opened up the box for them. It was indeed filled with pakoras: crunchy, flaky pouches of fried bread filled with vegetables and spices. He had at least a dozen in the box.

“Half of them have potatoes and peas, the other half are paneer.” Isa said.

“Paneer please!”

Karima stretched out a hand and Isa, in a bit of shock, deposited a pakora in it.

Lila stared at Karima, blinking the whole time.

Paying them no attention, Karima took a big bite.

She smiled and closed her eyes. It was perfect, the crust was so crisp, the paneer tender.

“We got some chutney also.” Isa said, pulling a little plastic cup from under the pakoras.

Karima snatched the cup, set it down on top of the turret ring divider, removed the lid and dunked her pakora into the spicy green mash. It was delicious: hot, minty, sweet.

She felt herself transported to an earlier, simpler time by the food.

“Just like mother used to make.” She said.

Lila and Isa stared at her.

Isa with a blank expression, and Lila slowly filling with delight.

When she noticed them, Karima shot a strong look. “What? Got something on my face?”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Lila said.

Isa crossed his arms and averted his gaze.

Karima turned her cheek on them and climbed back up out of the turret interior.

“She can smile sometimes, I guess.” Isa said.

“She’s great.” Lila replied.

Without the obstruction in the middle of the road, and with the crowd having dispersed, the Mandeha made its way steadily down to the Lower Yard, a series of wood and tin buildings with open walls. There were buildings on either side of the dirt road, forming their own little neighborhood here. In the past they would have been home to many cooperative workers tinkering with mechanical toys, karts, and other trinkets. Now the instant the Mandeha turned into the road, Karima spotted a table with a line of rifles in various stages of completion, and one little building housing a crane vehicle and a tank.

Several workers crawled around the tank as the crane lifted the turret off of it.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle, a sense of urgency, but also a sense of desperate haphazardness. Soon as Karima took her eyes off it, the crane dropped the turret off and almost took a man’s foot out. There were screams out of earshot. She grumbled.

“Karima~!”

Karima heard Lila calling up to her from below. “We’re stopping soon! Put on your combat jacket, we don’t want to run around in topless bodysuits in a public workshop.”

In response Karima stomped her boot on the foothold she was standing on.

She eventually did don her combat jacket. Her bodysuit was a bit tight up top.

The workshop was no more a building than the rest of Lower Yard. It did, however, house a plethora of machine tools. There were lathes and a smelting furnace and many molds. Everywhere that a shelf could be bolted to, they had bolted two, overburdened with tools and parts. It was busy; there were people running about who barely seemed to notice each other, all engaged in some manner of labor. Karima thought it was too noisy.

Several older men and women in tough, dusty leather work suits greeted them.

Lila, Isa and Karima stepped out of the tank and shook hands with the recently elected head of the cooperative, a stocky, bald older man with black skin verging on blue, by the name of Qeneb Yaibeh. He smiled a broad smile and laughed warmly at the Mandeha.

“Welcome! My, what a piece of kit you got there.” He said. “This is also little Ravana’s work? I did not expect it to be this extravagant. Her family used to be so conservative.”

“Perhaps that’s why she’s taking so many liberties now.” Isa replied.

“I’m glad little Ravana is still thinking about this place.” Qeneb said.

“She said, ‘Chief Yaibeh is the only man I trust with this project.'”

“Oh that’s a lie! I’m just the only man who would bother with that abomination she built! Come, let us talk about it. I wish she had come herself, but you seem lively enough!”

Before arriving, Karima and Lila decided to let Isa handle things at the yard, since out of all of them he knew the most about the machine and its technical details, being the driver and having some small mechanic experience. Whereas Lila was only supposed to be a medic, turned gunner in desperation; and Karima a bugler and general grunt.

Qeneb took Isa away to show him around the shop. Standing outside, Karima could see practically everything they had available and everything they were working on, a few cars, some radios; Lila looked delighted, but Karima was very unimpressed by the sight.

“Ugh. Why are we taking it here? This place is a dump.” Karima said.

Lila shot a suddenly aggravated look at her. Unprepared, Karima almost jumped.

“Chief Ravan trusts these men and women! Look at how hard they work!” Lila said.

Her tone of voice was rather harsh. Karima had rarely seen her become upset.

It made Karima feel defensive. “Working hard for what? Why bother letting them fix a few things here and there when M.A.W. could fix a hundred of them in a day?”

Lila turned sharply and stormed off into the shop by herself, leaving Karima suddenly.

Karima felt a powerful impulse inside her to be very angry herself; but she tried to control it. It was mixed with fear and anxiety. Her head was always mixed up in this fashion, but at the thought of Lila being mad at her, the chaos was all the more violent and cacophonous. She felt paralyzed, not knowing what to do but standing under the hot sun, her ponytail sweeping this way and that with the wind, sweating profusely.

She closed her fists so hard her gloved fingers bit into her palm.

“Fine!”

She shouted after Lila, and then turned around and made to leave.

Then she heard a loud crash from the side of the shop.

There was a scream.

Karima cast a glance at her side and then without thinking threw herself forward.

She interposed herself between an older woman and a shelf poorly bolted onto a pair of wooden building supports. Several steel tools crashed against her arms and shoulders and fell harmlessly on the floor. When the shelf itself fully collapsed Karima pushed it back, throwing it off herself and onto the floor. Several glass tubes blew up at her feet.

When it was all over, she felt like her arms had been trampled by caribou.

She looked behind herself, smiling weakly at an old woman in a headscarf and work suit.

“Please be careful ma’am.” Karima said, her voice and hands quivering.

She put her arms down, with some effort, and started to collect the tools that had fallen.

“Oh no dear! Please!” Said the grateful woman, bending down next to her to help.

“You all need to clean up this place! It’s a hazard!” Karima said, growing annoyed.

She turned to the woman and found her staring at her.

“You’re bleeding, dear.”

From her work suit pocket the woman produced a scarf and put it to Karima’s forehead.

Karima ignored it. She collected several drill bits, hammers, and a few pairs of very large bolt drivers, and collected them into a nearby basket and lifted it up. At her side, the old woman was nearly speechless at the effort Karima was putting in for practically no reason. Karima herself, having been struck in the head, was not especially thinking her actions through, but some part of her justified it as ‘showing them how to do things’ and ‘being the decent person in the room’ and other excuses to retain her personal aesthetic.

No sooner had she taken a few steps into the shop that Lila reappeared.

She looked at Karima, first with confusion and then with wide-eyed shock.

“Hashem protect you, what happened?”

She rushed up to Karima with a bandage that quickly turned red as it touched her head.

“I’m fine.” Karima said brusquely.

“Ugh. You don’t have to be so– so you all the time.” Lila said in a defeated tone of voice.

She eventually forced Karima to sit down in a corner and hold a towel up to her wound.

She sat down next to her, sighing.

They watched the people come and go. Karima still didn’t get it.

But she thought, if Lila respected it, then she should just do it too.

“I’m sorry for being me. Please don’t hate me.” Karima said, admitting defeat herself.

Lila rested her head against Karima’s side. “Oh, just– You’re fine. Be quiet.”

Karima pressed the towel harder on her wound.

She guessed that everyone was trying their best to help the way they could.

She guessed there was no reason to stop them.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Ulyanova Medical Research Center

In the “special treatments clinic” the walls were painted a relaxing peach color and there was a piece of art hanging on every one of them. They were paintings of landscapes, with tiny cheerful trees, sweeping mountains and shimmering lakes and rivers, all in oil paints, with a quirky little signature that read something like “W. Kapp.” There was a corner with a large pillow with big cartoon eyes on drawn on it, and a smattering of random toys. On the pillow there was the same quirky handwriting: umarmung.

There was a reception desk, at which nobody sat, and a door into the office.

That afternoon there were only two patients waiting on the long couch by the door.

“How long have you been waiting?”

A young woman spoke first; she asked the young man at her side.

“Not long.” He said.

“I just got here.” She said. “Have you been here before?”

“It’s my first time.” He said. “But this doctor is very well regarded! So I’m hopeful.”

“I see. I came to get the results of some tests I took in the other hospital. How about you?”

For a moment, the boy hesitated. “I need a prescription for a new drug.”

She did not press him further. “Oh, well I hope you get it.”

For someone sitting in the special unit, the young woman certainly looked healthy. Dark-skinned, with black hair tied into a short tail, she was svelte and fit. The muscular tone of her legs was visible even through stockings, and she had strong shoulders. She wore a long-sleeved, knee-length blue dress and had a pink and blue band around her wrist.

She had the body of an athlete; but nobody would’ve known her true heroism by sight.

At her side the young man was slightly shorter and less physically impressive, with ruddy brown skin and short dark hair. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and suspenders, and twirled a little hat around on his fingers. His face was delicate and pretty, of an ethnic character the young woman thought, but otherwise he looked plain enough; nobody could have told at a glance his unique condition or achievements.

“I’m Leander Gaurige.” He said first, extending a friendly hand.

“Naya Oueddai.” She replied with a quick shake. “Nice to meet you.”

No sooner had they been introduced that the door to the office opened.

Out stepped a red-headed woman wearing a white coat, twirling a pen in her fingers. She was rather dexterous with it, and it spun like a wheel between two fingers and a thumb.

“Good evening you two– Oh!”

She bumped her heeled shoes on a small toy on the ground and nearly fell.

From her fingers, the pen launched like an arrow toward the patients.

Leander gasped and ducked.

Naya thrust out a hand and snatched the pen out of the air before it could strike.

For an instant the room felt like the air had been sucked out.

At the other end of the room the woman sighed with relief. “Mein gott. I apologize.”

She approached the waiting patients, and Naya handed her the pen with a grin.

“Goodness, what reflexes. You must be quite popular at parties.”

There was no mistaking her appearance, she was absolutely the doctor. Her professional dress consisted of a white coat over a button-down shirt and tie with a pencil skirt and black leggings. She looked well into her adulthood, with a striking face, sharp-featured and elegant with well-applied dark eyeshadow and lipstick. Her wine-red hair was collected in a bun in the back of her head with a few clips. A pair of thin spectacles covered her grey eyes. She was tall, slender and broad-shouldered, with a subtle figure.

Leander smiled at her as if meeting a celebrity. Certainly she was well made-up as any star, and she carried herself just as confidently, but the reaction from him was far more than any doctor seemed to merit. His face lit up with anticipation. Naya put her hands behind her head and reclined on her seat. She was sure she had a bit more of a wait on her hands. It definitely seemed to her that Leander knew the doctor and was set to go in.

The doctor bent down close to the two of them and put a hand on Leander’s shoulder.

“I know you’re full of anticipation, Leander, but Naya here will only take a few minutes, and I don’t want to delay her results longer. Can you wait just a little more?”

She spoke with a thick accent and her voice was a little deep and a little nasal.

Leander’s mouth hung open for a moment in response. He nodded his head.

He looked completely deflated, and Naya almost wanted to say he should go ahead.

But the doctor seemed to sense her reticence and comforted Leander quickly.

“We’ll have more time to talk if I’m not worried about another patient. I promise.”

She gave him a thumbs up, and then gestured for Naya to stand.

Naya gave Leander a sympathetic look and followed the doctor to the office.

Leander however looked a little more lively again with the doctor’s reassurance.

Past the office door was a large room built around a complicated fixed chair with several instruments attached to it. There were four large workspaces with multiple drawers and cabinets affixed high on the walls over them. Atop every one of these spaces there were baskets with tools wrapped in clear plastic, as if they were candy at a shop. There was one basket that seemed to actually have candy. One open drawer had several stuffed bears wrapped in clear plastic also. Each bear had a heart with the word for ‘hug’ on it.

Hujambo! I’m Doctor Willhelmina Kappel. Have a seat, and have a bear!”

Doctor Kappel shook Naya’s hand gently, and then ripped a stuffed bear free from its plastic packaging and handed it to her. She instructed Naya to sit on the fixed chair and hug the bear, and though she felt terribly silly doing so, the bear was soft, comfortable, almost therapeutic to hug. Her heart was beating terribly fast as it began to sink in that she would see the results of the tests on her back to see what could be troubling her.

“Though it is the one revolutionary idea I have for which I possess no evidence, I think that hugs are very powerful. I have all my patients hug a bear while we talk about tests.”

“Are all the toys out there for your patients too?” Naya asked cheekily.

Dr. Kappel smiled warmly. “I get a lot of children, mothers with children, so on. I think it is important to make spaces for children in ominous places like this. It might make adults feel silly, but adults can handle feeling silly. Children can’t help feeling anxious.”

Naya got the sense that Dr. Kappel was a genuinely thoughtful person.

Even if she did end up tripping on the toys she so kindly set out for the children.

This was her first time meeting her, even though she was getting the results here.

She had run her tests in the main building, but they referred her to special treatments for the results. Dr. Kappel seemed good, but the very fact that she had to come here and meet her felt ominous to Naya. Special Treatment did not ring as very hopeful to her.

Dr. Kappel sat in a little wooden chair across from Naya and leaned forward, smiling.

“Run any laps recently, Naya Oueddai?” Dr. Kappel asked.

“I’ve been keeping up on my exercising.” Naya said demurely.

“Set any good times on the local tracks?”

Her accent was thicker on some Ayvartan words than it was on others. Though she had command of the language, Willhelmina Kappel was still just a little more difficult to listen to than normal. Naya felt like she had to pay very strict attention to really get every word that she was pronouncing. It was not unpleasant, just different — she was used to such things with her commanding officer, who was partially deaf and partially mute.

Once she mulled over what Dr. Kappel had said for a second she responded.

“I haven’t really been trying, and I’ve never run the tracks around here before anyway.”

“You have the potential to beat some records. Solstice has mediocre runners. The South has always been better than Solstice at running.” Dr. Kappel said, grinning.

Did she mean Naya would be okay? Was that what she was insinuating?

“I’ll give it a go sometime, I guess.”

“Try the medical college track.” Dr. Kappel said.

“Duly noted.”

“How has your back been recently? Has your pain subsided?” Dr. Kappel continued.

“I’m managing, thanks to the drugs.”

“Between dosages, do you feel the pain returning?”

“Not much. I mean, my back is not going to be fixed by painkillers, and I know that, but as long as I take the drugs, exerting myself does not hurt like it did before.” Naya said.

“Would you have characterized your pain before as fleeting attacks, or constant pain?”

Naya felt tired just remembering the pains from before. “They would come and go.”

“And when an event transpired, it was debilitating, yes?”

It felt shameful to admit it, but Naya was honest. “I couldn’t even move sometimes.”

“And you noticed certain triggers for your worst pain events.”

She was starting to wither under the questions.

“I was usually exerting myself when they happened.” Naya admitted.

Dr. Kappel nodded, and reached for a thick file folder on a nearby countertop.

“Naya, would you appreciate a blunt assessment, or a softer delivery?”

Naya felt that request like a hammer to the chest.

Willhelmina Kappel practically held Naya’s life in her hands. Everything that Naya was and cared for could ride on this result. So few people would look at that girl in the ill fitting, borrowed dress with the thick legs and realize the sort of struggle she was in.

Naya was a successful tanker, and recently a medal candidate for her heroism during the evacuation of Benghu a few weeks ago. She was part of an experimental tank unit, and more importantly, she considered herself an athlete still, even if she had not run very much recently. Her physicality was important to her self image, esteem, and identity.

Thinking about it brought a pinprick of phantom back pain that nearly made her panic.

“Are you alright?” Dr. Kappel asked.

“I’m fine.”

She had reached to rub her back, but she stopped.

It distressed her to think that her prized body that she had grown so proud of was failing her. She was managing her mysterious back pains with pain medication, but she knew that she could not depend on her unit medic slipping her painkillers under the table.

“Be as blunt as you have to be.” Naya said. Her eyes were tearing up. The air in the office felt cold and forbidding. She gripped her own dress and grit her teeth and waited.

Dr. Kappel nodded. “It is difficult to determine exactly when, but if you keep going on your current trajectory you will lose the use of your legs. Take a look at this–”

She spread open the folder and showed Naya a strange photograph. There was a human form, and the photograph was specifically of a lower back, with the spine and the hip bones visible and the flesh a flat, blue transparent plane. There were various blemishes on the bones. Dr. Kappel pointed out a few spots along the slightly crooked spine.

“You have a rare condition affecting your spine that is damaging your nerves. Right now, it is only painful, because the nerve is affected in brief, violent events that subside with rest. You can manage it with drugs, but if you continue to push yourself, you will damage the nerve permanently. You will find yourself unable to run, then walk unsupported, and then stand. I cannot tell you exactly when but this is a certainty in your current state.”

Naya felt surprisingly empty of emotion. There it was, the punch to the jaw that she had been expecting. Her eyes were as tearful as they had been — only mildly so. She could not muster the strength to scream. She looked at the images of her compromised bones with weariness and a sense of resignation. Perhaps Dr. Kappel’s bluntness did pay off.

“Is it possible to fix with surgery?” Naya said. She found herself hugging the bear tight.

Dr. Kappel reached out and put a reassuring hand on Naya’s shoulder.

“We have options. For right now, I can schedule for you to receive spinal injections. Though painful and temporarily debilitating, they will give you enough of a respite to remain active and give us options. We can then consult and think about things like disc reshaping and bone grafts, but I must warn you that these are very invasive.”

“But if it can help me–”

Dr. Kappel gave Naya a serious look that chilled her suddenly.

She reached out and held Naya’s hand.

“I know from seeing you and reading about you that you are a fighter, Naya.”

Nodding her head, Naya couldn’t think of a verbal response to her sudden seriousness.

Dr. Kappel looked her directly in the eyes.

“Surgery can keep you walking. However, it would put you permanently out of the war. You would go through a very long recovery process that would involve a group home and regular therapy. Even if I succeed I doubt you would be able to run as you used to.”

Naya was surprised that she brought up the war.

“Am I going to be medically discharged?” She asked.

“I never said that.” Dr. Kappel said. She patted her on the shoulder. “I read your military file. That is why I’m telling you all of this right now. I want to give you a chance.”

Naya blinked, momentarily speechless. Her heart skipped a beat.

“So, Doctor, are you saying that if I just walk out of here–”

“You are gambling with your ability to recover from your condition. Naya, the more you fight, the more you will risk causing harm to yourself that will never repair. You must understand that. I need to be sure you understand the full depth of your options.”

Naya’s mind was racing as fast as her heart was thrashing.

“But I can fight? You will let me walk out and I can fight?”

“I’ll clear you for action. Spinal injections and painkillers can keep you going, for now.”

For a moment, Naya was silent. She wiped her tearful eyes and whimpered.

“But if I keep going–”

“You now understand what will happen.”

“It’s almost cruel how difficult this is, doctor.”

“I understand.”

Dr. Kappel nodded her head. She had a grim look on her face again.

She started to reminisce, as if both to Naya and herself.

“I was born in the Nocht Federation. I pioneered an amazing treatment that would have allowed many people to lead the life they desperately wanted. Because of the stigma against it, I was my only test subject. Soon it became impossible to mask the treatment’s efficacy.” She smiled again, but she looked bitter. “For my efforts, I was subjected to electroshocks and other abusive psychotherapy. When I started, I knew that I wanted to fight not just for my future, but for others. Even if it harmed me or killed me in the end.”

Naya knew what that felt like lately. Even if it broke her back, she made herself keep fighting all those weeks ago. Even when things felt the most hopeless, and when she had no idea whether she would or could succeed or change anything, she still climbed into the Raktapata and took action. She begged to be inside the machine, to be able to fight.

“So that’s why you’re not just forcing me to take the surgery.”

“I want you to take some time to decide what you want. When I came to this country, I wanted to become a doctor who gives people control of their life. Not somebody who creates an unhappy life for them based on my own prejudices. This is part of that. Especially with the current national situation. I don’t want to deny your convictions.”

It was an unbelievably heavy consideration for Naya. To forego surgery for the chance to fight, but perhaps give up recovery by the war’s end; or to surrender the Raktapata and her place in Vijaya for good, but lead something of a normal life by the end of the war.

If there was an end to the war; if after her retreat, her comrades managed to win.

Naya started to tear up again. For the first time, she thought ‘what am I?’ and it was not just a child’s aesthetic considerations, not just a dream for tomorrow. It was a heavy and troubling adult decision that would indelibly shape her. Could she be happy knowingly abandoning the battle? Could she be happy knowingly abandoning her health?

“Doctors are not supposed to do harm.” Dr. Kappel said. “But all the time, Doctors in Nocht did harm to me by treating me the way society expected me to be treated, and not how I felt I should. Naya, you’re the only one who can decide your future. It need not be now. I will schedule your injection. You will have time to think. Take that time.”

Naya stared at the doctor, tears flowing down her cheeks, her nose dripping.

She grinned, the same little shithead grin she gave for her joke about the toys.

“We should race sometime.” She said.

Dr. Kappel laughed. “We had such a heartfelt rapport, and now you want to bully me?”

“How bad were your times on the track, doctor?” Naya said, her voice choking up a bit.

“Oh dreadful. When I fled here I thought I could beat the fields like I did in college. My hormones must have ruined my running. But it was worth it to look as good as I do.”

She struck a little pose, sitting with one leg over the other and wearing a fox-like smile.

Naya clapped. “You look lovely.” The hormone stuff flew over her head.

“Thank you. For that, I’ll open up a spot for you this weekend.”

Dr. Kappel produced a clipboard and put Naya’s name down on it.

“Give yourself some time, Naya, before you decide permanently. As long as you can walk, you can still come back here.” Dr. Kappel said, handing her the clipboard. “It’s your future. Find a way to live it without regrets. I know you can do it. I did it myself.”

Naya took the clipboard and signed next to her name. She nodded, still weeping.

As she handed it back, and brushed the doctor’s gentle hand, she thought that Dr. Kappel was very strong. She was starting to feel the admiration that she saw in Leander’s face.


Previous Part || Next Part

Life In The Besieged City (74.1)

This scene contains alcohol abuse and mild sexual content.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

As the sun began to fall, and the sky turned red, the rings were exchanged.

It was not a massive ceremony nor a state ceremony. There was no roaring crowd, no band, no feast, no media. They had no diamond-studded rings and no bouquet to fling. Few people knew of the occasion; fewer attended. Kuwba was their silent witness.

Curtained off with bamboo dividers, the waterside was reserved for the brides and a handful of guests. Standing at the edge of the stone ring around the oasis, framed by the trees in the background, the women held hands and looked at each other fondly, close to tears with joy. Mayor Mazibe said some words, and linked the bride’s hands together, and then stepped aside for them to recite their vows. They were brief vows. Those women, who had fallen in love exiled to a deserted island for anti-goverment activities, knew each other’s vows by heart. They had already been living those vows for years.

“Daksha.”

“Kremina.”

They were dressed as bride and groom. Daksha in a sharp black suit, and Kremina in a silver-blue dress. Daksha wore her hair gathered up in a bun, while Kremina had a flowing ponytail ringed with flowers and covered by a lacy veil. Neither one looked her forties and fifties in this scene, in this attire. Both looked like young, romantic girls, openly weeping and trembling with emotion as they held hands and stared longingly at one another. Even before the Mayor started talking, and even after he stopped, the tears would not leave their faces, but neither would their smiles. Under the falling sun, they glowed with a sublime beauty. When they drew in to kiss, even their guests wept.

Parinita Maharani was weeping most loudly, sobbing, covering her mouth with a handkerchief to snort, her makeup starting to run a little around her eyes. She felt small, like a woman struck dumb by the sublime, belittled by a grandeur that shocked her to tears. She was standing in the shadows of giants and she felt completely unworthy.

Madiha Nakar was not weeping, but she admitted to herself that she was near to it. She felt almost nothing coherent at all. She did not have the greatest grasp on her emotions.

Daksha and Kremina broke their matrimonial kiss, held their hands up to each other’s faces, and kissed again. They put their foreheads together and sobbed and smiled. They were laughing, closer than anyone had ever seen them. There was a subdued applause.

“By the power invested in me by the office of the Solstice mayorship, I declare thee both joined in official matrimony!” shouted Mayor Mazibe, so excited by the whole ceremony that he completely mixed his secular, religious, ancient and modern speech together. Everyone was too busy with the bride and the suit-bride, to truly pay him attention.

After the declaration, Charvi Chadgura and Gulab Kajari raised rifles into the air and fired into the distance. They were dressed in matching suits, acting as designated wedding shooters. It was allowed by the resort — they fired toward the empty oasis.

All of it was merely traditional. For Ayvartans the ceremony was truly nothing so grand. It was no joining of a King and Queen. Only the dress and the people stood out.

Two women in love got to have a vulnerable, touching moment beneath a falling sun.

That was all they wanted, and by all accounts, it seemed as wonderful as they dreamed.

After a loving relationship of over 20 years, Admiral Kremina Qote and Premier Daksha Kansal were finally, officially married on the 24th of the Hazel’s Frost of 2030 D.C.E.

Madiha Nakar watched everything with muted emotion, not quite knowing how to behave appropriately or what to say that would be profound. She knew that everything was beautiful and happy, and she knew that she herself felt the swelling of emotion when the brides kissed, and she felt that she wanted something like this for herself.

But it was hard to communicate it in a way that didn’t seem trite, so she mostly kept to herself and Parinita, on the periphery of the ceremony, holding hands and trembling.

“I want a ceremony just like this.” Parinita said. “I want a cozy little venue by the water with a pretty background, a beautiful dress, and a funny little man as the notary.”

Madiha put on a little smile. “We should book this place today, so we’ll get it in a year.”

Anyone could book the hotel now, and so, it was booked very far ahead of time.

“We’ll do it.” Parinita said. Her eyes teared up again. “We’ll live and we’ll shine like this.”

She tightened her grip on Madiha’s hand and Madiha gripped tightly backed.

Their hearts were full of emotion that they could scarcely identify or handle.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Hotel

“Madiha Nakar! It’s been far too long.”

Kremina Qote extended a hand to Madiha and she shook it, and Kremina laughed in return. Madiha did not know why, and thought perhaps she made some kind of embarrassing etiquette blunder. Maybe she was supposed to kiss her hand?

“Don’t break my bride’s arm, please.” Daksha joked.

Madiha laughed a little herself then, and at her side, Parinita giggled with her.

“I remember when she was just a little courier girl.” Kremina said. “To think she would grow a head taller than me and nearly rip my arm off at my own wedding day.”

“She doesn’t know her own strength.” Parinita said, trying to play along.

“I didn’t pull that hard.” Madiha said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

Kremina patted her on the arm. “Just having fun! Come now, let’s have some drinks.”

Madiha turned to Parinita, who nodded pointedly.

“Come on, of course you’ll drink. It’s practically contractual.” Kremina said.

“Take her up on that or she’ll drink it all herself.” Daksha said. “I’d prefer her a bit sober.”

After the ceremony, Kremina and Daksha relocated to the resort’s Principal suite, their best accommodation, for a short honeymoon stay before resuming their duties. Madiha and Parinita were invited for a meeting before the two lovebirds secluded themselves.

It was a palatial establishment they were given: almost a whole floor of the hotel for themselves, with a kitchen, a hot bath, a game room with pool, darts and shuffleboard, and a bedroom that was passionately red, candle-lit and smelled of sweet incense.

They caught up with Daksha at the foyer, and she took them on a little tour while Kremina dug into the alcohol cabinet, as was her wont. They soon rendezvoused at the dining room, a cozy affair, small and square with the walls decorated with paintings of things like fruits baskets, wine bottles and whole hams. Kremina put out several different bottles of champagne, rice beers, sugarcane wine, and grape wine.

There was also a bit of a spread. Fresh, crunchy vegetables in little cups; small flatbreads; and various spiced dips like lentils, chickpeas, and chutneys.

“Cheers!”

Before anyone else even reached for a glass, Kremina downed a shot of sugarcane wine.

“You only live once!” She said, slamming the glass down on the table with a satisfied grin.

In no time, she was already pouring herself a second.

Regardless of her drinking manner, Kremina looked stunning at the head of the table. Her face was bright and immaculate, the lines from her eyes giving her a stately beauty that was as well aged as the drinks being served. Her ponytail, already silvery in the past, took well to growing grayer and the flowers around it were fresh. She was well made up, with blue eyeshadow and lipstick that suited her sleek, tidy blue dress. Her shoulders were free, her bust raised up by the bodice. It looked to Madiha as if made of a futuristic metal rather than cloth because the skirt was shiny and unruffled. Madiha was used to big dresses at the very few western-style weddings she had attended in her life.

“I know I can’t stop you, but I can try to empty the bottle before you.” Daksha said.

She seized the offending item from her bride’s hand, and drank directly from it.

“That’s unfair! Well, there’s always the rice beer.” Kremina said, popping a different cork.

Truly they seemed a couple made for one another.

Though Kremina was definitely a sublime beauty, Daksha was no slouch herself. She was reminiscent of her gangster days, sans her iconic fedora, now in Madiha’s possession. Her hair was turning grayer in places, but the gradient-like effect when collected into a bun was attractive; the little lines around her lips and eyes added a regal gallantry to her overall appearance. She wore just a touch of powder on her skin. Her wedding suit was well tailored, with a black coat that accentuated her shoulders, a buttoned vest that was loose enough for her chest but well fitted, and pants that made her legs look perfectly straight. Though she was not quite the wiry brawler that she had been in the past, the Premier was still dashing and handsome enough to match the beauty of her bride.

“Madiha, we have to put up a fight!” Parinita whispered to her.

She picked up the bottle of grape wine and poured Madiha a little glass.

“Social drinking is a contest of wills. We are representing our generation!”

Madiha did not understand the collective madness of the room. Despite this, she drank dispassionately, tipping the contents into her mouth and swallowing, hoping it would please everyone involved. Parinita stared at her critically, until Madiha extended her glass out as if to ask for another pour. This brought a prize-winning smile to her girlfriend’s face, quite a match for those on the giddy brides. She happily complied.

Though it was impossible for them to outshine a pair of experienced wives on their wedding day, Madiha and Parinita certainly tried their best. Madiha herself was wearing a suit, as she was known to do. Her hair, which had gotten long enough again, was tied up in a little ponytail. She had left her coat elsewhere and dressed down to her vest and shirt, which were rather plain, but she thought her height and stature and the gentle smoothness of her face lent her a good mix of boyish-girlish charm. Daksha’s fedora also helped a little to make her stand out. Parinita, however, was the bridal guests’ trump card, in a colorful, traditional Ayvartan garb. She was draped in a purple and gold sari over a matching dress, with a plunging neck and an open midriff. Her strawberry hair was flowing and decorated with flowers, and her gold makeup was immaculate.

There were numerous cheers around the table, and with each cheer, the girls drank.

“To health!”

“To sapphism!”

“To socialism!”

In appearance, as a relatively young couple Madiha and Parinita could hold their own, but it was quickly becoming clear they were amateurs at drinking. Madiha quickly developed a headache, and Parinita was drinking shamefully slowly, trying to mask that she was a lightweight. Meanwhile, between the two, Daksha and Kremina had nearly disposed of the rice beer and sugarcane wine, and taken notice of the snacks too.

“This is too hectic.” Madiha said. “I need water.”

Parinita drooped her head and put down the bottle. “I submit also. They’re too strong.”

“Like the…second act villain?” Madiha whimpered.

“If you’re going to steal my lines, you’ll need to do better.” Parinita said weakly.

Across from them, Daksha and Kremina were giggling, chatting half-sentences and interrupting each other, the alcohol clearly starting to unwind their brains.

“Ah, if only, if only, Anatoly, Anatoly right? He was the guy?” Kremina said.

“It wasn’t Anatoly. I killed Anatoly. He was a rat.” Daksha replied.

“Okay, not him. There was a guy. A guy who drank well, remember?”

“Kremina, we knew a lot of guys.” Daksha said.

“I wish Anatoly, was here. I’d drink him to shame, that rat. I’m invincible at drinking.”

“I told you it wasn’t Anatoly who did anything. You wouldn’t drink with Anatoly.”

“We knew a lot of guys, you say. None of them here at our wedding! How rude!”

Daksha looked at the floor for a second, shaking the bottle of wine, stirring the remnants.

“A lot of them– well, they can’t help it. A lot of them died. They can’t help it.”

Kremina held up a glass. It was empty. She put it to her lips like it was full.

“To the dead!”

Daksha, her head bowed still, lifted her bottle. “To the dead.” She said, much less eagerly.

“You know who was a good drinker? Lena Ulyanova. Fantastic drinker.”

“She was.”

“Such a tiny body, could hold so much alcohol. It was death-defying. I was still better.”

Daksha shook her head. “If Lena Ulyanova was, if she was–”

“‘scuse me?”

“I said if Lena Ulyanova was alive, things would be different.”

“Yes, they would be.” Kremina poured a shot, half on the table. “She wouldn’t be dead.”

“That would be big indeed. But I think she would know get people to do things right.”

“We’re doing things right. We got married finally. We stopped living in sin.”

“I mean, things of the state.” Daksha said. She held up a bottle. “To Lena!”

“To Lena!” Kremina drank her shot.

“Bah!” Daksha put the bottle down, and it toppled over on the table and would have spilled had any decent amount of liquid remained in it. “I’m a lousy cheerer, Kremina. Lousy at drinking, lousy at cheering, lousy at everything. Lena was a genius. I’m lousy.”

Kremina patted Daksha on the shoulder, and with amazing technique, managed to leverage the gesture into a grab, taking the back of her head and pulling her down into a kiss. It was very sloppy, given she was juggling a mouthful of beer as well as her wife’s tongue, but somehow Kremina managed it, and a shocked Daksha played well along.

When their lips parted, Kremina put her forehead to Daksha’s chest.

“You don’t have to be a genius. I don’t want a genius! I want someone like me who understands being trampled and overlooked. I think the people, they want someone like that too. I think these kids need that too.” She turned to look at Parinita and Madiha.

Groggily, the two girls had been watching the exchange, without input.

At the mention of them, they snapped to attention.

“All the geniuses went and died in their lofty dreams. We’re normal people who are making a world for us. That’s our job now. And we’re doing it well.” Kremina said.

Daksha rested her own head against that of her wife. “I hope you’re right.”

They held each other there, weeping lightly, for seemingly as long as they had drank and rambled before. Madiha and Parinita did not know what to say. So they said nothing.

“To the kids!” Kremina let out an anguished cheer, launching her glass overhead.

Everyone scurried for cover. Everyone agreed to stop drinking after that.

Madiha and Parinita left the table less drunk than the brides, but also less confident.


On the foyer there was an old matchlock rifle hung up on the wall.

Madiha had to train with one of those so-called classics in the Academy, for purposes of procession duty. She despised it. Temperamental, slow-firing. Powder was easily ruined, the bullets were old and deformed and sometimes the barrel interior deformed too.

“I know you hate everything old, because your head’s poisoned by efficiency.”

Daksha stood beside Madiha and stared up at the rifle on the wall.

Parinita had gone to look after Kremina, who was, for what she claimed was the first time in her life, taking her drinking poorly and laid up in bed. Madiha wondered if it was time to consider the wedding ruined and perhaps plan a makeup, but she did not voice her concern. She had walked idly around the suite, trying to shake off the alcohol in her own head, when she was taken in by the curious token in the foyer. Then Daksha had caught up. They had been wanting to speak for a long time, Madiha knew this, she knew this desire was shared. However, there had been no good opportunity until now.

“Well, we have better rifles now.” Madiha said. “We could use those for procession.”

“These are historic. They remind us of something.” Daksha said.

“They remind me of how poor these old rifles were.”

“You can be such a child sometimes.” Daksha laughed.

“What is the message supposed to be then?”

Daksha looked up at the rifle with a weary expression.

“For the Empire, these rifles represented pride. For us, they represent sin. You wield those rifles in procession to remind you to be respectful of the tools your predecessors used to commit evil. You toil with them so you understand that even with those weapons they slaughtered countless people, and that you must not just look at it as a mere tool.”

Madiha averted her gaze. She already thought of that quite often.

She just did not think of it during procession at school.

“We should consider a lecture element to procession then.” She said demurely.

“We should.” Daksha sighed.

She contemplated the rifle and crossed her arms, and began her own impromptu lecture.

“That style of rifle was imported by the Ayvartan Empire from the Elves. The Empire claimed all of the territorial Ayvartan continent for itself, including the south, like Adjar, Cissea, and Mamlakha. But they didn’t have the power to back it up, until they exercised one strength that nation-states have over tribes and villages. They engaged in diplomacy with an equal nation, a nation that taught them armed conquest the likes of which the world had never seen before. And just as the Elves spread over Afarland, Borelia, Nort, Helvetia, Mauricia, and so on, the ethnic Arjun of Solstice spread across Ayvarta.”

She referenced two historical ethnicities in Ayvarta. Down South, it used to be the Umma, and in the North, it used to be the Arjun. It was different now. There were all kinds of people everywhere. There was a third catch-all category, created for the Imperial census, called “Zungu,” people who were mixed with ‘white’ or ‘foreign’ people. There were various other ethnicities often unacknowledged. The Hudim, for example, who practiced their own unique religion and were considered an ethnic group; the Zigan nomads; various Barbar tribes in the desert; the Mamlakhs themselves, the Cisseans, and so on.

All of those peoples and territories were beyond the grasp of Solstice once again.

This time it was not an Arjun empire that conquered them, nor was it by their own hand that they were made separate from the rest of Ayvarta. It was the Nocht Federation.

“A lot was done to the Southern peoples, hundreds of years ago. Socialist Solstice has tried to make up for it here and there. We teach what we have of the Umma language, we incorporated it into the Socialist Language Standard. I named the KVW that way, a lot of the Unions, to pay homage to their language group as best as I can. And we also let the South practice self-governance as a bloc. A lot of things were overlooked that way, but it’s what the people wanted there. It’s the least we could do to make up for the past.”

Madiha found questions of ethnicity difficult to answer, but she understood, as one trying to make up for her own past, the need to fulfill those sorts of reparations. She did not hate anyone nor did she think she oppressed anyone for their ethnicity and as a good socialist she tried to be conscious of all kinds of social positions and relations, such as those of class and race and sex. But she remembered Mansa; she hated him completely, and she despised the things that he stood for, and all that he did to her and to Ayvarta.

However, the growth of his power independent of Solstice made sense when one considered the history of ethnicities in Ayvarta. His people looked up to him as a strongman who wielded Umma power in a majority Arjun world. They loved him because he positioned himself against an Arjun orthodoxy that was seen as ineffective and untrustworthy. Even if it had been the Ayvartan Empire who committed the sin in the first place, Solstice in general was tainted by it, and Solstice’s socialist project, as the successor state, had to be the one to make amends. Perhaps they didn’t do enough.

It was all such a mess.

“I really don’t know what to say that.” Madiha finally admitted.

Daksha cracked a little smile.

“I guess it’s unfair for me to act like we’re both complicit. I’ve always thought of you as an Arjun because of your physical appearance. But I honestly can’t know. And at any rate, it isn’t your place to do anything about it. I was the one who was supposed to save everybody from the tyranny of the Empire. I feel like I ended up failing at that.” She said.

The tyranny of the Empire, she said–

It jogged Madiha’s memory. She thought of how her birth was something of a mystery.

And Mansa, too, being on her mind at the same time–

“I am really sorry for everything Madiha.” Daksha said. “We used you. I struggle every day thinking of the backs we built this country on. You were just a child, and I ask myself, is all of this really worth all the desperate measures that I took to build it–”

Quite suddenly, Madiha turned to face Daksha with serious eyes.

“Am I Empress Ayvarta II, Daksha?”

She almost expected to be shot at that moment, in some dark, lurid corner of her mind. Certainly it was a shocking question to ask, and at such a moment too. At least it allowed her to dodge thinking about the question of ethnicities, which was always fearful and puzzling. And it had been on her mind for far too long now, her status. She had been afraid since hearing the insinuations from the villains she came across in Rangda, and since remembering her role in the chaos of the Revolution. She had been afraid that if she was actually some long lost noble child, she was undermining socialism by living.

So, thinking all of that, she expected Daksha to dispose of her, to end the royal line.

Instead, Daksha grinned and shook her head. She looked like she had tears in her eyes.

“On the census, you keep putting down Madiha Nakar every few years. If you want to change your name, you can do it without saying scandalous shit like that.” Daksha said.

She smiled, but there was indeed a glistening of tears she was fighting off.

Madiha chuckled. “I guess you’re unbothered by the whole thing, huh?”

“Did you expect differently? Madiha, I think of you like a daughter. I don’t know where you really came from and I never checked. To me, that doesn’t matter. Didn’t we want to erase class, sex, ethnic discrimination and all of that? Isn’t that socialism? Hell I don’t know my own ethnicity really. I was born in the South. I might be some quarter Umma or something, who cares? I never had the privilege of my ethnicity but I identify as an Arjun to make amends to people who were far more oppressed than me for far longer.”

Daksha turned to her and put both hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

“You’re what you decide to make of yourself. No matter who your parents were. Even if you end up being the long lost Empress, you killed your father. There’s no Empire now. On the census, I could put Umma or Arjun. I decided which and why. You can too.”

Madiha nodded her head solemnly. There was a lot on her mind still. This was not such a liberatory thing to be told. After all, even knowing all of this, and being given a choice, she still did not know what she truly wanted to become or what she could become at all. She just knew what she was good at, and what she was interested (or obsessed with).

She supposed that she had no choice right now but to fight this war.

So she could defer thinking about everything else when there was peace.

“At any rate, why am I being so gloomy on my wedding day?”

Daksha shook her head and picked up the matchlock from its place of honor.

“You know how to use this, of course.”

Madiha nodded. She could use any weapon by touching it. Ever since she was a child.

“Lets have a little contest then.” Daksha said.

Under the matchlock there had been a stack of plates, and a pair of boxes.

One contained charges, the other contained balls. It was a shooting kit.

“I never miss.” Madiha said apologetically. “So, I cannot lose.”

“Bah, don’t be so full of yourself.” Daksha replied. “If I can’t win, I’ll tie you.”

Madiha laughed.

“It would be a moral victory.” She said.

“It will be!” Daksha corrected her.

They went to the roof and twenty plates later, Madiha handily won.

She was not even able to throw the game for the bride’s sake.

Madiha was just not capable of throwing games.


“I’m truly growing old. My youth has absolutely left me. I’m decrepit — a crone!”

Kremina Qote bemoaned her misfortunes in the grand bedroom arrayed for her and Daksha’s honeymoon night. Dressed in full wedding regalia, she lay against the pillows with a hand over her face, tossing and turning, the blood drained from her face. She had drank too much and it made her sick. She claimed this was an unnatural occasion, an ill omen. Parinita did not know that she and Daksha had met because Kremina had fallen dead drunk and essentially got them captured by the Imperial police. She believed in Kremina’s fierce drinking reputation and told herself it was a pity that everyone aged.

“Here, drink this. Drink all of it, Mrs. Kansal. Even if you dislike the taste.”

Parinita came back from the kitchen with a mug of honey-ginger tea and a big piece of salty breaded paneer, fried quickly in ghee. She dropped the cheese plate on the dresser beside the bed, and handed Kremina the mug. “It’s a traditional cure. I vouch for it.”

Her patient moaned and protested, but eventually started drinking the tea.

“It’s awful! It’s got too much ginger!” Kremina said, recoiling from it.

“Trust me, my grandmother knew a dozen hangover cures, but this is what she did when she was hungover herself. That’s how you know it’s the real one.” Parinita said.

Kremina frowned, staring down into the mug. She took another belabored sip.

Parinita pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down. She did not need to read Kremina’s aura to understand how badly the bride must have been feeling. She looked quite worse for wear. Parinita felt like saying ‘it wasn’t even that much alcohol’, but she was playing the role of the healer. Wounding her patient even further would be cruel.

“Ugh, what a way to start my honeymoon.”

Once more, Parinita’s more vicious side wished to retort with ‘you did this to yourself.’

Instead she said, “I come from a family of faith healers! You’re in good hands.”

“Well, it turns out I don’t have faith in healers!” Kremina moaned.

She took another drink of the mug and shut her eyes hard, and clenched her teeth.

For a moment Parinita felt like the bereaved heroine of some comedy flick, caring for her whining mother in the first act to establish a dysfunctional family relation and her drive to escape into a bawdy adventure. Then the hero would arrive and sweep her away.

Unfortunately for her, Madiha was in the other room, already arrived, and unhelpful.

Still, even her current attitude couldn’t mar Kremina’s newlywed radiance. Parinita was stuck by how majestic the two of them looked. This must have been such a massive relief for them, and such a long time coming. Surrounded by tragedy and with the weight of the nation on their shoulders, they finally found the opportunity and courage to make themselves eternal to one another. Their auras had been so brilliant at the wedding that Parinita cried, overwhelmed by their beauty. Truly it was the power of love at work.

It was almost like film. Perfectly shot and directed, beautifully acted. A real fantasy.

Parinita’s fantasy; not that seeing it in the flesh made it feel any more achievable.

After all, Kremina could look like an actress, but Parinita was always her boring old self.

Still, she was quite moved by the day’s events. She was smiling like a bashful little girl.

“Ma’am, I’ve been wanting to congratulate you personally. I was so moved by the ceremony. I really want to know how you two made it so special. There was something in the air, everything was charged with electricity! It was like film, it was perfect.”

In truth there was a part of Parinita that really wanted to have a girly talk session with someone like Kremina, an elegant, sapphic bride to a strong and constantly engaged woman. She wanted to compare notes, almost, to share experiences in loving women and being loved and having a relationship that could lead to a wedding. She had never been able to talk to her grandmother and certainly not to her mother, and the closest other confidant she’d ever had was Logia Minardo — a regrettable person for that role.

Kremina looked upon her with renewed interest and cocked a little grin.

“It’s all the resort, it’s very lovely. You should put in your reservation soon. It’s very popular, and they really only do weddings now that there’s no tourism.” She said.

Her piercing gaze put Parinita quite on edge.

“Well, I’m not getting married–” She said.

Kremina leaned forward with a conspiratorial expression on her face.

“Trust me, you two should not wait. There’s no sense in waiting.”

“Us two?”

Suddenly, Parinita remembered that she could have no such discussion with her.

Parinita and Madiha were not fully open with their relationship, mostly because it was scarcely a month old and they were in the military, and in the same unit. In fact, Madiha was technically Parinita’s boss, which made the whole thing look even worse to outside observation. While it was almost an open secret, people who suspected said nothing, and people who knew, like Logia Minardo, were on their side and not keen to expose them.

So it behooved Parinita then to act dumb when Kremina pressed her.

Though the Admiral and the Premier were like family to Madiha, Parinita did not know how strict they were on her. They might not see the relationship as fully appropriate.

Her own parents would have definitely tried to scare Madiha away!

So she thought, she had to keep this as hidden as she could from Madiha’s ‘parents.’

However, her beet-red face and awkward, averted gaze made everything too clear.

Kremina quickly tried to disabuse her of any fearful notions.

“I see right through the two of you.”

Parinita was so stunned she couldn’t think of what to say.

“Whatever do you mean–”

“Why would she invite you here? Madiha always goes to parties alone, if she goes.”

“She’s not that anti-social–”

“Madiha’s never had a lot of party-going friends. She’s a private sort of person.”

Parinita briefly choked up. “Well– how do you know she–”

Kremina raised a finger to Parinita’s lips, quieting her.

“I know she’s a sapphist. She had a girlfriend before. Perhaps she has another.”

Parinita mumbled nervously. “She has friends, we’re just very good friends–”

She found herself denying everything out of impulse.

Meanwhile, Kremina seemed to be living this moment to its fullest.

“Hey, why don’t you two stay the night? There’s a guest bedroom.”

Kremina rapidly changing the subject threw Parinita entirely off-course.

Staying the night with Madiha in this gorgeous hotel full of silks and wines and candles, in a relatively private room all the way across from the brides, where nobody would bother them. An entire night just to themselves in the most sinfully lavish luxury–

Parinita blinked, quivering. “Why of course, we can’t turn down such generosity–”

“You’ll share one bed, you know. It’s only got one bed.”

Parinita started to shake, and clenched her fingers on her skirts, her face red hot.

“I suppose it can’t be helped–”

“We don’t really have a change of clothes either, so you’ll be a bit exposed.”

Parinita fanned herself. “We’re both girls, it’s okay–”

“Why it’s like your very own honeymoon night, if you were like that of course.”

“It really isn’t–”

“Just you and her, one bed, nothing but robes, warm incense, anything could happen.”

Now she was truly the heroine in a bawdy romance comedy, exposed to the audience in a moment of pure farce. Defeated, revealed to be impure, and laughed at by all.

“You win.” Parinita was shaking with embarrassment at the salacious thought of taking Madiha bedding her in the brides’ guest room. “Are you teasing me or really offering?”

She raised her hands to her face, wearing a crooked, demonic smile.

Kremina reached out and played with one of Parinita’s long locks of strawberry hair.

“Madiha is very lucky! You’re pretty, funny, and passionate.”

Parinita wanted to sink into the earth, but could not truly deny any of that.

At least the latter part of it. She almost thought Kremina would say perverted.

“Oh come on, why are you shaking so much?” Kremina said. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Daksha and I are both in the military too and nobody will object to it. You should probably keep the secret from your subordinates, in an official capacity, so that you set a good example for them. But you don’t have to keep it from me. I do want to help you.”

She reached into the drawer on the bedside dresser, and produced a key.

“Help yourself.”

She flicked the key over to Parinita. Then she picked up the paneer and took a bite.

“Now this is good stuff. This tea tastes like motor oil, but paneer can’t be done wrong.”

Parinita smiled and faked a little curtsy. “Even someone as useless as me can do it.”

She pocketed the key and felt a little cloud starting to loom over her head.

She felt ridiculous and inadequate. It had all been in good fun for the brides, the drinking and the teasing, but Parinita, she thought if any of it had been serious, then yes, she would not have kept up. She was a bad drinker, a bad liar, a foolhardy girlfriend. She looked fine in a dress, maybe a touch too chubby to really pull it off, but that was it.

“Why are you all gloomy now?” Kremina asked through a mouthful of cheese.

Parinita took a deep breath. “Madiha isn’t lucky, I’m lucky she pays me any attention.”

“What’s this all about?” Kremina asked. “Are you feeling well? Do you want tea?”

She swallowed her cheese and tried to push the mug of tea back to Parinita.

“It’s just difficult standing among titans sometimes. I feel unworthy.”

Parinita pushed the mug back toward her with a sigh.

Kremina smiled warmly and laid back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.

“And you think I don’t? I’ve never been half the woman Daksha was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Weren’t you listening when we were all drinking? We shared some wisdom then.”

Had she known Kremina possessed similar insecurities, Parinita would’ve said nothing.

“I’m being gloomy on your wedding day, it really isn’t right.” Parinita said.

“Weddings are beautiful and cheerful, but they are also gloomy too. Thinking about the future is gloomy. And after all the glitz and glamour, you wake up in bed with another person and you have to think about your life together, about all the rest of your life.”

Kremina sighed deeply, but then she sat back up, and she took Parinita’s hand.

“Listen, how you feel about yourself doesn’t reflect how your lover feels. She loves you. To you, she’s your Madiha and you’re her Parinita, and that’s what matters. I should know. I’m a mediocre Admiral who is now married to one of the most powerful women in the world. And Daksha thinks she’s mediocre and foolish and all that too. I make her feel different. She makes me feel different. I bet Madiha thinks that you are wonderful and she is a slug. I bet she doesn’t understand why a beautiful woman looks at her at all.”

Kremina caressed Parinita’s cheek and put on a warm, motherly smile for her.

Parinita smiled a little back. Under that smile, however, she was still worried. These were words that were easy to hear and be comforted by now, but to truly believe them, to deprogram years of living as someone who had to make herself verifiably ‘valuable’ to others in order to live with herself. It felt like fooling herself, like living a terrible lie.

She loved Madiha with all her heart. From that fateful day, when the war started, it was almost like insanity. All the world went insane and she went insane also, and she came to obsessively love a warrior with the world’s strongest, strictest, most insane sense of justice. Someone who stared madness in the face and made miracles happen, not for herself, but for those around her who couldn’t. She grew close to her and discovered her vulnerable side, her charming side, the little moments of sarcasm and levity that could be extracted from her, and the naive wonder with which she beheld certain things.

She grew to love her even more, to want to know everything about her, to want to know her as a person and not an idol, and to want to be by her side forever to see the world that her dark eyes envisioned. She wanted to quell the fire that was killing Madiha from the inside; to save her. But in the back of her head, she told herself, ‘I must get stronger for her, I must be useful to her.’ She could not live in Madiha’s world without strength.

Because she loved Madiha and wanted to remain at her side, to see the justice in those fiery eyes and to love the tender shadow cast by that pyre, she had to reach her level.

Perhaps, instead of being gloomy, she could at least try to be determined instead.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take your words to heart.” She said.

It was a sincere as she could sound then.

Kremina laid back on the bed and put a handkerchief over her face.

“Good. Just remember three things. Let her win sometimes; pretend she’s in the right sometimes; and let her be on top if she wants to. That’s my time-tested wife advise.”

Parinita’s hand clutched the little key Kremina gave her, and she averted her gaze again.

“I’m going to do my best too. Even if I’m drunk and sick, this is my honeymoon.”

Kremina put the mug on the dresser.

“But I’m not drinking that. I’m sorry.”

Parinita giggled.

“What if I told you the tea is what has made you so lucid these past few minutes?”

She hoped to get one over on Kremina at least once.

Kremina shook her head. “Fine. I’ll let you have this one.”

She reached over the dresser and took the mug back with a heavy sigh.


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