[SHC] Matters Of Imagination

 

[This is a Super Headcanon Support “Official Fanfic” as suggested by a $30 Patreon patron and written by the author. As a Fanfic it is canon in our hearts, but perhaps not in the actual story. The prompt: “Karla Schicksal has a fandom argument about pulp stories.”]

* * *

Everything delivered to the Nochtish forces came from the homeland. Equipment, supplies, and basic mail was all packed up in the ports of Tauta and former Lachy territories on the southern side of the Nochtish continent, marginally closest to Ayvarta. Once loaded onto merchant vessels, the mail’s journey south took a little over a week in the best conditions. Then, because Cissea had a limited port capacity, some ships would have to be diverted to Mamlakha, adding one or two more days to the journey. Add a few more days in case of unstable seas.

Now your goods touched the soils of the southern continent, but that was only half the battle. They would then be handled by Oberkommando Suden, who would classify and inspect them. Then they would be set to the front. High priority goods made use of Nocht’s limited motor pool; anything sentimental to a soldier was almost certainly not high priority. Mail from home was packed into horse carts to begin an arduous journey to distribution centers closer to the front, that would sort mail by battalion and send it to finally meet its intended recipients.

In total this process could take weeks, if your package didn’t simply get lost somewhere.

Schicksal had arrived on Ayvarta with the freshest copies of Amazing Stories, Tantalizing Tales, Mysterious Mysteries, and a dozen other delightful magazines for the adventure fiction enthusiast; she had even haggled with the OKH deployment office, delaying her deployment until the very last possible second to secure the most recent issues of all her favorites.

She had already gone through them at least twice each. Had she been any less busy she would have probably worn the issues down even more. She nearly had them in memory now.

Thankfully she renewed her subscriptions for the year and made the necessary arrangements for all of her magazines to be sent to her. It was just a matter of waiting for them.

Over two weeks into the operation, the 8th Panzer Division finally stopped moving.

At the crack of dawn, Schicksal and a small gaggle of panzergrenadiers waited by the dirt road winding through the woods just off the site of their new camp. They heard the horse cart coming, hooves stamping, wheels turning, before they could even see it through the thick ranks of the trees. Once it wound into their sight, the men cheered. Jokes were traded around about worried mothers, about salty spouses, and angry creditors they had joined the army to escape. Schicksal stood apart from them, but she laughed at a few while hoping for a package.

The animals pulling the cart slowed to a halt, and everyone gathered around. A hatch window went down on the side of the cart, and a young woman started calling out names. A few of the soldiers had lists with them — they were platoon officers, collecting the mail for all their men so they wouldn’t have to wake up at dawn and mob the cart all together. Nice of them. Schicksal whistled, and tapped her feet, waiting for the woman to get to her corner of the alphabet.

“Karla Schicksal!” the clerk called out. She held a big cardboard envelope out of the window.

Schicksal approached, smiled and took the package. She offered her thanks, but the clerk wasn’t even looking — she was moving on to the next name and the next bundle of mail.

Under a nearby tree, Schicksal inspected the goods. She cut the tape holding down the envelope flap using her combat knife, unfolded the flap and looked inside. Three paper books were tucked inside, each one about eighty to a hundred pages thick, with flashy covers.

One issue of Savage Sights! with a cover of a man wrestling a drake in the swamp; one issue of Remarkable Reports!, a fairly low quality variety fiction magazine that Schicksal nonetheless had to own every copy of; and finally, the pièce de résistance, a copy of Astonishing Tales! featuring Johannes Jager on the cover, wearing his trademark mask and white uniform, a communist attack blimp soaring overhead and attacking his beloved city.

This particular issue of Astonishing Tales! promised 120 pages of non-stop action.

Schicksal hugged the issue to her chest, exhaling softly. She returned it to the envelope and started the short trek through the woods back to the camp, her treasures under her arm.

The 8th Panzer Division had taken up positions across the wood in an all-around defense known as a “hedgehog.” Its three Panzer Regiments and its newly-added Panzergrenadier Regiment, numbering around 300 tanks and 4000 men in total, were deployed in a reverse triangle, with their individual Panzer companies and Infantry battalions deployed in depth. At the center of the formation was the Division HQ, located in an area of sparse tree growth with enough canopy to provide some cover, but also space for the tanks, trucks, cars and tents.

As she cleared the trip-wire alarms at the edge of the encampment, she found a few dozen soldiers and staff lining up around a mess. A tent had been set up on two poles in one half and its other half over an M4 Sentinel; men and a few women lined up for black bread, sausages and a thin soup constituted in a pot from powdered chicken stock and dried vegetables.

She was not feeling up to standing in a line. Schicksal instead headed past the mess to the center of the camp where the Befelhspanzer M4, her mobile command center, was stationed. Dreschner’s tent was pitched next to the tank, its turret turned so the dummy gun could help hang up the canvas structure. The General was still asleep; Schicksal snuck around the tent opened one of the tank’s storage compartments on the side and withdrew a ration box.

Food and entertainment in hand, and a cool morning breeze blowing through the wood, Schicksal situated herself under a tree and sat down with her back to the trunk.

Schicksal cracked open the ration box, took out all the individual parts, dug a little hole for the hexamine burner, and started cooking up the beef and barley pack using her metal coffee mug as the pot. She emptied a pack of citrus and honey powder into her water canteen and shook it up to have a sweet drink, and munched on a piece of biscuit while waiting for the entree to cook. Once it was ready, she she buried the spent hexamine tablet, and sat the mug on her lap along with the remaining biscuits. She emptied salt and pepper packets into the mug, mixed everything with a spoon and started to eat. Her beef was stringy; but the meal was filling.

Finally, she cracked open the envelope and produced her new copy of Astonishing Tales!

There was no better time to read than right after the dawn, when Dreschner was still asleep, and with a warm meal in her belly. She cracked open the pages, looked down the table of–

She heard a worried voice behind her. “Ah! Excuse me! Please be careful Miss!”

Schicksal turned her head and saw a red-haired woman running to her and waving.

“Miss, please don’t move!” She drew her sidearm and Schicksal shrank back.

Pistol raised, the woman took a shot.

It flew over Schicksal’s head.

She heard a shrill, clicking screech from out of sight.

Everyone in the camp raised their heads in alert and looked her way.

“It’s alright! I got it everyone! It’s ok!” The woman shouted back.

Something fell from the tree and landed beside Schicksal with a soft thump.

Schicksal’s eyes turned slowly to her right.

She stood slowly up, hugged herself, and started to scream.

Dead beside her was a long worm-like creature composed of thick, seemingly rigid segments linked by exposed, fleshy muscle. Its head was like an armored blender full of teeth, and it was easily larger than a dog. On its underside, thousands of little legs helped it creep up on her.

Schicksal screamed and screamed and continued to scream for several minutes.

Everyone who had been staring turned back around and went about their business.

* * *

Once Schicksal stopped screaming, she started kicking around the dead creature (she heard it distantly referred to as a wyrm) and it proved satisfyingly firm and resistant to her boots.

“This place is hell! Hell! How do people live among these monsters!” She wailed.

At her side, the young woman who had shot the creature had long since holstered her weapon, and watched with concern as Schicksal aggressively squashed the passive creature.

“Um, well, I’m glad you’re ok.” She said, once the rage appeared to be subsiding.

Gasping for breath, Schicksal bent down, hands on her knees. “Thank you. You are?”

“I’m Evangeline Heinrich.” She said. “Private, Medic, 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment.”

“I’m Karla Schicksal, Chief Signals Officer, 8th Panzer Division HQ.” Schicksal said.

“Oh my! Chief Signals Officer? You looked so young I thought you’d be a grunt like me.”

“Nope; I ride in the big tank with the fake gun and get personally yelled at by General Dreschner every day, often several times a day.” Schicksal sarcastically replied.

They shook hands. The 7th PzG was the latest asset attached to the 8th Panzer Division, making up for the ongoing losses of tanks. This girl had the coat and the pins to prove it, as well as the blue cross on a white patch symbol of the medical corps. She was willowy, certainly taller than Schicksal herself. Her angular features and long red hair gave her a sort of flashy look that her demeanor and voice quite easily disproved. She had on a pair of wide-rimmed glasses.

“Say, is that a copy of Astonishing Tales?” She asked, looking at Schicksal’s other hand.

Schicksal looked down at her own hand — she had the magazine folded into a tube throughout the whole of her tantrum. She unfolded it and showed the medical officer. Indeed, it was.

“That’s neat! I didn’t subscribe back home, I forgot. Do you mind if we read it together?”

Schicksal stared at her in confusion. She nearly asked if this was a joke. For the longest time she hadn’t met one single other woman who read pulp magazines. Certainly the magazines themselves didn’t do much to attract the readership, and Schicksal had always thought of herself as having boyish tastes in this regard. So she always expected a certain level of ridicule for her hobby from men and a certain level of disgust or disregard from women in addition.

“Well, um, sure, but it’s um, it’s a dorky adventure stories magazine.” Schicksal said.

Evangeline smiled. “Oh, I know what it is! I’m actually a big fan of the magazine.”

“I see! I never thought I’d meet another soul who was interested.” Schicksal said.

“Neither did I, to be honest! I thought people would think I’m childish.” Evangeline said.

Schicksal nonchalantly kicked away the remains of the beast and sat down under the tree again. Evangeline dropped beside her without even wiping the dust or food crumbs and wrappers from the ground. She sidled close to Schicksal, nearly cheek to cheek. She felt warm — it was more than a little awkward, but also nice in an odd way.

Schicksal opened the magazine.

This particular issue had four stories: Secret-Man, Johannes Jager, Dr. Dangerous, Weretaur.

“Oh, Secret-Man! That’s my favorite! I’m not fully caught up on it, sadly.” Evangeline said.

All of the warmth and goodness suddenly seemed to drain. She was a Secret-Man fan? 

Schicksal turned the page from the table of contents, over the editor’s comment and the letters section, and contained the urge to scowl at the ridiculous illustration of Secret-Man in his costume. A black skin-tight suit studded with gold question marks, and a diving helmet featuring a very prominent gold question mark across the face. How did he even see?

What did this girl even see in such a ridiculous hero? Schicksal usually skimmed Secret-Man chapters. The prose was too sparing in detail, nothing more than functional, with no spice to it; and she hated the stories. Secret-Man kept going from crisis to crisis without any chance to stop. In this latest arc he just killed the evil General Von Klaw only to find himself hunted by the government — for murdering Von Klaw! What the heck sense did that make? He stops a coup attempt, saves the President and now the Schwartzkopf is after him? For murder?

She sighed a little, but Evangeline had her head up against her shoulder and was already going down the lines with a zeal. “Turn the page when you’re done,” she said cheerfully.

Schicksal started reading. Periodically Evangeline had a question about the current stories and Schicksal would answer it. In this latest chapter, Secret-Man uncovers a conspiracy in the government to seize his vast inheritance by disappearing him under the pretenses of a murder investigation so that the head of the Schwartzkopf could become rich. It was possibly the dumbest plot that Schicksal had ever read, and she found two typos in the prose! A disgrace, a total disgrace. Evangeline devoured each page — she read much faster than Schicksal did.

“Oh no! Don’t cut it off there!” Evangeline moaned. She sighed into Schicksal’s shoulder. “They promised a lot of action and a huge page count, but they just made the letters big!”

“They make a habit of doing that nowadays.” Schicksal said. She turned the last page on Secret-Man and felt a sense of relief at being done with that dreck. Past the final page was a little insert that had a piece of foil, inside of which was a piece of Secret-Flavored chewing gun.

“Wow. It’s black; they’re really serious about this.” Schicksal said, taking out the candy.

Evangeline snatched it from her. “I’ll take it then! I’d like the coupon for the mask too!”

“Sure. We can cut it out later.” Schicksal said softly. Evangeline really was a fan.

Schicksal turned the page. There was no Johannes Jager illustration, he was on the cover in full color after all. But the title didn’t lie! Time for another action-packed adventure with–

“Hey, um, can we skip this one? I kind of hate Johannes Jager.” Evangeline said.

Schicksal thrust down the magazine and turned her head sharply to stare down the medic.

“What is your problem?” She said. Perhaps not tactful, but it’s what escaped her lips.

“Um. I’m sorry?” Evangeline replied, blinking and crossing her arms, confused.

“How the heck can you put up with 25 pages of Secret-Man and skip Johannes Jager?”

Evangeline frowned and narrowed her eyes. “Are you a fan of Johannes Jager?”

Schicksal grumbled. “As a matter of fact, I am! So we’re not skipping it, for a start!”

Evangeline grumbled inaudibly back. She was suddenly less enthusiastic about reading the magazine, but Schicksal didn’t care. Now she was the one devouring the pages. Half the time Evangeline seemed to gesture for her to turn the page without even having read any of it.

After being ambushed by the communists last chapter, Johannes Jager managed to escape using a flashing light gadget that had become standard issue with the police in Jager’s near-future story setting. However, on the streets, the dreaded KVW were attacking with blimps! Though the technology of the communists was backward, their zeal and corruption and their infiltration of the government allowed them to take over the Nochtish skies! Schicksal was consumed by the plot, and read each line vigorously. Then her reverie screeched to a halt.

“Johannes Jager lacks any of the nuance that Secret-Man has.” Evangeline grumbled.

Schicksal didn’t deign to look at her and acknowledge her childish views on literature.

“Nuance? Secret-Man is a rich jerk who has the ear of the government and a dumb suit! Johannes Jager is an ordinary man who wants to clean up his streets and make his city a better place to live! Secret-Man’s chock full of nothing but vapid teenage fantasies.”

“Hmph! Well Johannes’ Jager’s stories make no sense. If he’s just an ordinary man fighting criminals like you say, then what’s with the silly plot twist about the Ayvartan KVW and the communist airship? Secret-Man stories have more plausible and interesting villains!”

Schicksal turned the pages faster, and Evangeline turned her cheek with another ‘hmph!’

Teeth gritted, the two felt a disdain that can only come from clashing hobby interests.

Such conflict as was fought in the heinous so-called “Solstice War” could not match the sheer unbridled hatred and no-quarter-given savagery that could arise from two enthusiasts at odds with one another. Evangeline and Schicksal had barely met and already the tension was boiling over. Schicksal’s mind filled with black thoughts about the uncultured rogue at her side. She felt it was likely Evangeline was also ripping apart her new companion in her own thoughts.

“Ugh, every time I peek it’s another cringe-worthy one-liner.” Evangeline moaned.

“Then don’t peek! Someone who’s so in love with the lifeless, perfunctory writing of Secret-Man couldn’t possibly understand the clever witticisms of Johannes Jager!” Schicksal replied.

And yet, the tragic gravity of a shared hobby kept them in each other’s orbit, unable to escape, both attracted and repulsed, such that passive-aggressive facial expressions, little shoulder checks, and occasional sighing and grumbling was all they could muster for each other.

Schicksal turned the final page on Johannes Jager, exhaled audibly, and turned to the medic.

“Do you read Doctor Dangerous?” Schicksal said roughly to her acquaintance.

“I don’t have any strong feelings about it, but I’ve nothing better to do.”

Evangeline looked at her from the corner of her eye and turned her cheek around again.

Schicksal could have left it at that, but there was a gnawing feeling she had to clear out.

“Do you seriously prefer Doctor Dangerous to Johannes Jager?” She asked.

“So what if I do? So what?” Evangeline said, crossing her arms and staring daggers at her.

“You have no taste then! Doctor Dangerous is even stupider than Secret-Man!”

“Then why do you read it?” Evangeline shouted back. They were almost nose to nose.

“Because it’s 1/4 the page count in most issues! Why do you read it then?”

Evangeline grinned cruelly. “Because it’s better written than Johannes Jager!”

“Take that back!” Schicksal cried, forehead-to-forehead with Evangeline.

“As a matter of fact even Weretaur is better!” Evangeline shouted, still grinning.

“Well, Weretaur is pretty good, to be quite honest– TAKE THAT BACK!”

Schicksal suddenly seized Evangeline by her collar and tugged her; Evangeline looked shocked at being manhandled for her opinions. She raised her hands in the air rather than escalate.

A shadow stretched suddenly over both. They looked to their side, and up, and they froze.

“Signals Officer Karla Schicksal.” General Dreschner said. He was staring directly forward as if at the tree instead of the women. Black bags had formed under his eyes, and he had a grim expression shaded by his peaked cap and the high collar of his dark grey officer’s coat. His hands hung at his side, fingers twitching periodically. His feet tapped impatiently.

“Yes sir!” Schicksal trembled. She released Evangeline and raised her hands up as well.

Everyone else in the base seemed to be staring their way once again.

“I don’t recall you ever receiving the authority to inflict corporal punishments on your fellow soldiers.” Dreschner said. “Please explain what it is you are doing to this medic.”

Schicksal raised her hands and turned away from Evangeline. “Nothing sir!” She replied.

“It doesn’t look like nothing. Private, what is this altercation about?”

“Nothing sir!” Evangeline replied. “We simply got a little emotional over things!”

Dreschner cocked an eyebrow and seemed unsatisfied with this explanation.

Evangeline stood up from the roots of the tree, and Schicksal followed shortly after. As they stood at attention and saluted the General, the magazine fell on the floor. Schicksal felt a jolt down the spine as she heard the sound of the paper falling to the earth. That magazine subscription cost her 15 marks renewable per quarter, and she hated the thought of–

“Something wrong, Schicksal?” Dreschner asked, leaning forward.

“Nothing sir!” Schicksal said, a nervous, contrived grin on her wide-eyed face.

He sighed audibly. “Is that one of your funny books? Those seem to always spell trouble.”

Evangeline, who perhaps lacked understanding of the General’s overall disposition, leaned down and picked up the magazine. A smile appeared on her face and she flipped the pages back to the illustration of Secret-Man. She held out the magazine as if to show Dreschner.

“Sir! You could help us resolve our pitched literary dispute!” She cheerfully said.

Oh no. Schicksal felt a sudden sense of alarm and gestured for Evangeline to stop.

“A dispute; over those cheap books of yours.” Dreschner said. He sounded mortified.

Evangeline did not pick up on it at all. “Yes sir! What do you think of this character?”

She handed the book to the General, who stared down at the picture of Secret-Man.

“He looks absolutely ridiculous. I feel stupider just looking at him.” Dreschner said.

Evangeline shrank back. Schicksal felt triumphant, and put her hands to her hips. She puffed up her chest and stood tall, soaking in the embarrassment and shame of her rival.

“Well, sir, what about the character on the cover?” Evangeline whimpered.

Dreschner turned back to the cover. “He looks like a jackass.” He replied dryly.

Schicksal winced. Dreschner shot her a look; she put up a fake smile and cringed away.

He extended his hand, returning the magazine to Schicksal. He sighed audibly again.

Then he extended his hand again, took Evangeline’s tag to get her name.

“Evangeline Heinrich, a medic, 7th PzG. I take it you two must have just met?”

“Yes sir!” Evangeline said, rubbing her hands together and avoiding his gaze.

“And it seems you are hitting it off like bosom chums, already having a brawl.”

“Ah, it’s nothing like that sir, really.” Evangeline said, stammering a little.

“Out of curiosity what is the age range for these magazines?” He asked.

“Fifteen through seventeen years old I think.” Schicksal answered quickly.

Dreschner looked at her over his shoulder, while still mostly facing Evangeline.

He turned from them and cleared his throat. “You’re 24, Mauschen; Evangeline is 17. I’m 43 years old. I have some advice for the two of you, as subordinates, and youngsters.”

“Yes sir!” Schicksal and Evangeline replied in unison.

He turned back around, facing the both of them.

First he turned his tired gaze on Evangeline. “Heinrich, if you wish to remain outside the medical tent, smelling something in the air other than antibiotics and gauze, then learn to get along with people whose taste in questionable literature differs from your own.”

Evangeline winced. “Yes sir.” She said in a tiny voice, averting her eyes.

Dreschner then cast a serious look Schicksal’s way. She withered under it.

“Schicksal.”

“Yes sir!” She said.

“Be the adult, for god’s sake.” He added simply. “Get a hold of yourself.”

“Yes sir!” She said again, her hands and knees shaking and her teeth chattering.

“You are antagonizing a teenager. Take the high road. You are better than this.”

“Yes sir!” Schicksal said again, feeling herself sinking into a hole. She hadn’t paid much attention to Evangeline’s age, though this information would have likely changed little.

Dreschner shook his head at her, and pressed a hand against his forehead.

“Return to the Befehlspanzer in one hour. We must go over cipher codes for the rest of the month. We’re in a war zone, in case you forgot while busy shaking up a child.”

Everyone in the camp stopped staring and returned to what they were doing.

General Dreschner turned sharply around and marched back toward the command tank.

Schicksal stood in place, her expression trapped in a strange cocked half-grin.

Evangeline looked almost in tears over being called a child.

They sat back down on the tree, a good meter between them. They stared in opposite directions, the magazine dropped between them. Schicksal took the book.

“Do you want to read Weretaur?” Schicksal idly asked, still looking away.

“Weretaur is pretty good.” Evangeline replied softly, looking the other way.

“Weretaur is indeed pretty good.” Schicksal said. She turned her head slightly.

Evangeline sighed and sidled closer, engaging Schicksal’s gaze.

“I like that Weretaur has supernatural powers. It makes him unique. He isn’t just a man in a suit. However the author takes up too much page space with descriptions.”

“I disagree about the prose but that’s okay.” Schicksal said.

They shoved back together, and Schicksal skipped the pages over to Weretaur.

Quietly and without incident they took in the fantastic adventures of Gehornt Schmidt. By day a seemingly ordinary mortal, but by night a man cursed to fight brutal battles against heinous beasts in the dark corners of Lachy, beset by ancient mysticism in his strange quest keep the light-dwellers, as ordinary citizens were called, safe from paranormal harm.

In their particular issue, Schmidt fought a vampire.

Both the signals officer and the medic managed to agree that vampires were “neat.”

 

[SHC] — “The Covered Box”

 

[This is a Super Headcanon Support “Official Fanfic” as suggested by a $30 Patreon patron and written by the author As a Fanfic it is canon in our hearts, but perhaps not in the actual story. The prompt was: “Madiha and Parinita go on a date and see a movie.”]

* * *

When Madiha received a call to attend a sudden meeting belowdecks she had imagined a very different scene than she found. She imagined maps; she imagined radios and encryption equipment and a line to Solstice; she imagined stacks of documents to sort through in preparation; and she imagined that she would find more than one person in the room when she arrived. However she had also erroneously imagined that the room would be able to support more than one or two people at a time in the first place — when she pushed open the door into the specified quarter, she found that it was smaller than the size of her office in Bada Aso.

In a corner of the room she found Parinita hard at work and was puzzled as to the occasion.

“Is Captain Monashir coming? What about the lieutenants?” Madiha asked.

Parinita quizzically raised her head. She was crouched near a box and picking through its contents. There were film reels scattered on the floor. A projector was installed near the door, and a film canvas had been stuck to the opposing wall. Madiha surmised then that the strategy meeting might involve brushing up on basic concepts through educational films. Given the generally haphazard quality of their training, the basics could not be emphasized enough.

But there were only two chairs in the room, set side-by-side just off the projector’s path.

“Why would they be coming?” Parinita asked. “I, I mean– they’re too busy, and um, so–”

“Oh. Alright. Well, I suppose we don’t need them for a high level meeting.” Madiha said.

“Not at all.” Parinita said through a slight stutter. She then smiled a little. “It’s just us!”

Madiha tried to smile and diffuse any awkwardness in the same way that Parinita always liked to do, but given her own stolid and unlively nature, she did not think it was as effective.

“So, what is on the agenda?” She asked, trying to sound casual as possible.

“Well, see, there’s not so much an agenda. Give me a second here.” Parinita stood up.

Something smelled like a bundle of flowers. Madiha caught a sudden whiff of perfume.

When Parinita approached to greet her properly there were other new things to notice. She had her light strawberry-colored hair up into a high tail wrapped with a black ribbon, and a dab of bright lipstick on her lips. There was a slight brush of blue pigment over each of her eyes. Her light brown skin was smooth and looked soft. She seemed as if fresh from a bath.

Also quickly noticeable was her full dress uniform — coat buttoned halfway to the chest, white buttoned shirt with a black ribbon tie, pencil skirt, and sheer, ribbed black stockings with black pumps. Her coat and skirt were flat a muted green, freshly cleaned, pressed, perfect.

Madiha felt felt a little taken aback; she looked stunning. There was a sense in which she had always thought Parinita looked rather comely, but this was quite a different set of feelings.

Parinita looked down at her own shoes for a moment, rubbing her forearm. “Look, um, Madiha, I don’t want this to seem dishonest of me. I just thought it would be nice to watch a movie together.” She raised her eyes to Madiha’s, and repeated her words a little. “Watch a movie and relax together; you look like you need to relax! You’re always so stiff and tense. You need time for you! So that’s why I called this ‘meeting’ with you. I hope you do not feel mislead.”

“Not at all.” Madiha said. She was still a little caught up on Parinita’s attire, on her pigments, on her lovely hair. It was hard to argue when she had gone through so much effort.

“I’m glad. It might not be nighttime, but let’s have a real film night, with actual film! It’ll be just like going arm-in-arm to a theater.” Parinita replied. “I even dressed as nice as I could.”

“Did we get issued new uniforms?” Madiha asked. She was dressed only in her combat jacket, shirt and pants, frayed and torn and ripped all over from the many tribulations in Bada Aso. Though she had certainly frequented the shower rooms in the Revenant since they arrived, she did not have any cleaner attire to commit to the occasion; so she felt a little self-conscious. Had they gone arm-in-arm to a real theater Madiha would have looked rather off-putting.

Luckily for her, Parinita’s vivacious, gregarious mood seemed to infect her, and the secretary’s warm smile diffused her concerns. Even more luckily, the secretary’s preparations did not extend solely to her own self. “Matter of fact, you did! After all, you’re a Colonel now!”

She kicked the box full of film reels out of the way, and picked up a bag from the corner of the room and handed it to Madiha. Inside there was a black uniform coat with red buttons and red epaulettes and a subtle gold trim, alongside a pair of black pants the boasted a similar use of the KVW’s colors. Her new uniform was at first wrapped in plastic, and when she ripped the individual pieces free they felt very crisp. There was also a peaked cap and a pair of shoes.

“Would you indulge me and dress up nice, Madiha?” Parinita said, hands behind her back.

“It would be a pleasure.” Madiha replied. She felt almost compelled. Emphatically she pulled off her worn combat jacket, already stripped of its pins and medals, and donned her new coat. Pants down, boots off; she slipped into the replacements with little effort. Everything measured up, as expected from the supply corps. Madiha felt almost the equal of her lovely compatriot.

“Something is still missing.” Parinita said mischievously. “Hold on just one second for me.”

Parinita approached, and seized one of Madiha’s coat buttons — she then began to close all of them. Soon she was tidying Madiha top to bottom. She stood on her tiptoes and put Madiha’s hat on her head; with a length of red cloth she did Madiha’s tie for her; using a little comb she brushed Madiha’s straight, dark, neck-length hair. Finally, with naked glee, Parinita drew Madiha’s pins and medals from her own coat pockets and adorned her chest with them.

“I completely forgot that I told you to hold on to those.” Madiha said.

“Well, there’s no enemy here to identify you by your pins, so let’s indulge.”

She gestured for Madiha to look herself over, and though there was no mirror around she nonetheless felt that she could see the entire scene in her mind’s eye. Together they stood in the middle of the little room, both fully uniformed as though the subjects of a military parade. Parinita the beautiful and dutiful secretary; Madiha the handsome and loyal strategist. She almost started pursuing that fantasy farther on — the setting was taking her on a flight of fancy.

“Now you look like a Colonel, my Colonel.” Parinita said, poking Madiha in the chest.

Her finger ran gently down Madiha’s “Hero of the Socialist Dominances” medal.

She quivered a bit from the teasing touch. Their eyes locked. Parinita had to look up a little, and Madiha down; the Colonel was almost ten centimeters taller than her friendly assistant. Madiha thought she felt a sort of spark in her chest wherever that slender finger touched. It was not uncomfortable, but it was certainly different. They had a different presence for each other here. This was not at all like their previous meetings. There was an intriguing tension, and it was not just the clothes and it was just not the room, and it was not just Madiha’s fancy.

Certainly they felt like a pair now; but a stray thought in Madiha’s mind hunted for the answer as to what kind of pair they felt like. This warm scene seemed to recall something familiar.

Parinita patted down Madiha’s chest. “Feels good to look spiffy like this, doesn’t it?”

“I feel a little strange. I’m more used to combat clothes, really.” Madiha confessed.

Parinita sighed fondly. “I figured. So; lets get that film going, shall we?” She lifted her hands from Madiha and skipped over to the corner of the room. She bent down and started searching through the box; this time Madiha joined her. There were several reels in the box, marked with the title, director and purpose. A few were marked for military entertainment, and were likely popular films outside of support org shows; others seemed educational in nature.

Together they picked through the reels, some packed into little steel cylinders, others in rounds that were ready to be stuck on a projector. Madiha did not quite know what they were looking for. She decided to satisfy her own interests, as she often did when expected to relax.

Finally, a triumphant exclamation resounded in the little room. “Ah ha! Yes! Got it!”

Raising the film reel into the air, Parinita stood up suddenly, hopping up and down.

“I knew they had to have it! I knew it! It was very popular!” She cheered happily aloud.

She showed Madiha the reel she found; it was a called ‘Inside The Covered Box.’

“Never heard of it, I’m afraid. However, I found quite a treasure myself. Look at this!”

Madiha had found her own reel to be happy about and presented it eagerly in kind.

Parinita leaned in and strained her eyes. “This is some tiny print you got here, Madiha.”

“I’ll read it for you,” Madiha raised the reel to her own eyes, “A Review Of Defensive Battle In The Unification War’s Eastern Front, Focusing On The Penetration Against Entrenched Forces Via Limited Mobile Assets, By Aldricht Warburg, Oberkommando Heerfuhrer, 2014.”

After Madiha read the entire thing there was a short silence punctuated by Parinita fidgeting.

“I, um, I would rather not, Madiha; I would rather not watch that.” Parinita stammered.

“Ah, sorry.” Madiha’s face turned a little hot. Her brown skin was probably flushed around the cheeks. She wondered if she had offended Parinita. Had she failed to read an implication?

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s probably interesting! But,” Parinita cast eyes around the room as if trying to find a conclusion to her sentence there, then raised her finger and poked Madiha in the chest a few times, like a teacher with instructions, “you have to relax. So no war stuff!”

‘No War Stuff’ was almost essentially saying ‘No Madiha Stuff’, but Madiha did not protest. After all, Parinita was right — certainly if they were taking time to relax, it would not do to occupy that time thinking about trench warfare doctrine that was sixteen years dated. Certainly that was not what anyone did on dates– was it a date now? Dated; date; what a progression.

“You are right.” Madiha said. She smiled and felt at ease with her partner. Her mind was in a bit of a curious tangle and for some reason she felt fond of its current place. It was relaxing.

“I think you’ll like this film if you give it a chance! Just sit back, take your mind off the current events, and open yourself to the experience. Try to capture the feeling.” Parinita said.

She set up the reel on the projector, turned off the lights, and ushered Madiha to her seat. They were very close together. Their shoulders literally brushed, and Madiha felt Parinita’s leg against her own. She took in the sweet scent; was it lilies? She found it thoroughly pleasant.

Projected on the screen, the film began, in simple, crisp and clean black and white shades.

Much of the action of the film centered around a ticket booth at a train station, where a woman ticket-taker watched people come and go. Within five minutes, a few days of the ticket woman sitting at her booth had been covered via subtle changes in the lighting, in the people standing in the scene, in the outfit and hairstyle of the ticket woman. For the first few minutes the film seemed strange and boring to Madiha, but she started to notice that one woman with a box wrapped in a blanket recurred in every quick cut of the ticket woman’s various shifts.

Soon the action of the film became clearer. Each of the ticket woman’s shifts in the film was punctuated by interactions with the visiting woman holding the eponymous covered box. At first they only caught glances of each other. First casual, then more committed; soon they actively sought each other’s eyes. Then the visitor started to stop in front of the booth to talk to the ticket woman. At different times of the day, as different trains came, they would meet. Their lips moved, but there were no sounds — it wasn’t a talkie — only the light breathing from Parinita nearby, and the distant sounds of people walking and the various operations of the warship hosting them. There were not any cutaways for dialog either. One could only infer.

Madiha felt drawn in. She wondered what they were saying. She started to think, ‘what if that was Parinita and me?’ ‘What would we say?’ Sometimes the women laughed, sometimes they looked serious. Scenes cut quickly away; in thirty minutes several weeks seemed to pass.

As the film progressed, Madiha snuck a glance at Parinita — and met her eyes again. She had been watching Madiha, stealing glances at her, perhaps to discern her reaction to the film. They made no effort to hide their conspiratorial appraisals of each other now. They smiled together.

Parinita then raised a finger to her lips, urging quiet, and then set her hands on her own lap. Madiha politely obliged, though the film had no sound. She set her own hands down and briefly brushed against Parinita’s hands. They were very soft and warm. In a moment, Madiha thought she could hear her own rising heartbeat over anything else. She tried to focus on the film.

Suddenly she saw a kiss on-screen; the two women kissed! She felt suddenly excited for them. Quick cuts; the visitor leaned into the ticket-taker’s box, face to face with the ticket woman; standing apart, talking, parting; another leaning-in at the start of another day. It wasn’t explicit but Madiha was positive they were kissing each of those times. She knew those expressions!

And the box was inside the ticket woman’s booth now, the visiting woman was not carrying it anymore! And it was open now, but the viewer could not see what was in it! It was in every scene since the kissing began. Madiha felt even more intrigued now. As she came and went with the trains, the visitor kissed the ticket woman every day, and time continued to pass.

Then one scene caught Madiha’s attention — it was slower than the rest. There were no quick cuts with different lighting to insinuate a rapid passage of time. It was just the ticket woman in her post. Soon the visitor arrived. They kissed, they talked. She reached out a hand into the ticket woman’s booth; she opened the door! Hand-in-hand they walked out and took a train away. They left the box in the ticket booth. Credits rolled. That was it? Madiha stared silently.

Soon the film ran completely out, and there was only white light from the projector. Madiha stared at the canvas, and she thought there might have been more to it. She turned over what she had seen in her mind. Never before had she seen a film like that. It left an odd sensation.

She turned to face Parinita, who was clearly expecting her to, and was still appraising her.

“You said before this film was popular? I don’t know if I understand what it was about.”

“It was a film about love, Madiha; there was no sound, because the intended soundtrack was the heartbeat of the viewer, and the breath of the person they brought to the theater. And there was no dialog, but it really made you wonder, didn’t it? What they were saying? Even what their voices might have been like? I wonder if you might have thought the same about them as me.”

Parinita’s hand snuck over Madiha’s own. She beamed; her face was flushed a light pink.

“On that point; what do you think was in the covered box? That was what gave the film its name, after all. There are a lot interpretations that people have come up with.” She said.

Madiha looked down at the hands, and back to Parinita’s radiant face as if entranced.

“I have one theory that I like.” Parinita’s free hand slipped around Madiha’s cheek.

Their voices became low and conspiratorial. Madiha smiled. “What is your theory?”

Parinita giggled a little, looking flighty and giddy with excitement. “It was their hearts in the box; when they kissed, and accepted their love, then they uncovered that box for good.”

Madiha felt a powerful attraction to her partner then; she had never looked or sounded more beautiful than in that strange instant, her earnest smile lit only by the white beam of the projector. There were no more averted glances, no stammering. Parinita brushed her hair.

She leaned in; the perfume was intoxicating. Madiha felt like she would float from her seat. Parinita’s bright red lips closed with her own, and they brushed together, the briefest, gentlest touch. Their faces hovered close, lips grazing each other, tasting warm breaths at millimeters of distance; as if a magnetic force between them drew their lips slowly near.

Madiha’s mind calmed; she felt as though the touch had cleared her of every heavy thought.

She rose a little and slid closer, accentuating the difference in height. Parinita raised her head; then Madiha leaned in and reciprocated her in full. Lips spread and locked together once. They pulled briefly apart, feeling the warmth of rushing blood and breath exchanged, only to both push close again, clumsily, lips stacking and parting, sucking together. Parinita gripped Madiha’s sleeve and squeezed the flesh of her upper arm; Madiha took her by the waist and cheek. Their lips worked in a tantalizing rhythm. They moaned softly into each other’s mouths.

Only when the breath had fully left them did they pull even slightly apart, chests heaving, hands still gripping where they last held, as though they would fly apart without the link.

For a moment they held each other, gasping, smiling. Madiha felt suddenly full of life.

Parinita laughed; Madiha joined her. They giggled together like girls. Madiha’s heart was racing. She could scarcely believe what had transpired, and yet, it was so delectable.

“You don’t need audio to convey feelings in films.” Parinita said. “And I thought, that my words got hung up a lot, and I know yours do as well. But I think we’ve made it clear now.”

Madiha bowed, and she touched her forehead to her lover’s. “It is as clear to me as the contents of that box.”