Vulture (76.1)

This chapter contains abrasive language, awkward social situations, mild nudity and sexual content, and mild comedic injury.

11th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Solstice, Armaments Hill — Sickle Airfield, Hangar 13

Unlucky “Thirteen” was one of the above-ground hangars. It had a privileged position on the outer runway, perpendicular to Armaments Hill and lining up perfectly with the main thoroughfare through central Solstice from east to the west and with the historic market-lined road from north to south. In the event of a preemptive strike on Solstice’s airfields, it was likely to be blown up first. This was not a fact that was prevalent in the minds of its occupants, a small unit not-so-affectionately named “Vulture Squadron.”

Rather, what was occupying the minds of Lieutenants Avana Anada and Haritha Malik was a curious creature that was basking in the runway in the morning. It was a fuzzy, purple and teal drake that shone like a rainbow in the hot sun. These reptilian predators were common in the desert, but desert drakes were big, burly and brown. This one was colorful, just barely larger than a big fat cat, and with membranous “wings” that stretched between its fore and hind legs, like a flying squirrel out of a biology book.

“It’s a Kite Dragon!” said Lt. Anada in a hushed voice.

“What does it eat?” Lt. Malik asked without a moment’s thought.

“What? Who cares about that? Don’t you know what this means?”

“Well, you know, ‘you are what you eat’.” Lt. Malik said, equally as quickly.

She had said it with an air of self importance that was surprising paired with its haste.

Anada’s sharp, fluffy ears twitched and she crooked her eyebrow. “Okay?”

Lt. Malik shrugged as if she could not explain any further.

“Anyway, as a matter of fact, I don’t know what it is. I was going to go out for a run, but with that little guy in the way I’m not sure I should anymore. I was hoping we could bribe it to going away by feeding it a rat or something.” She casually said.

Lt. Anada shook her head. “You’re such an unromantic person.”

“And you’re a person who needs to stop skipping PT.” Lt. Malik said.

“Excuse me?” Lt. Anada gasped with offense.

With a sigh, a third person called out. “What are you two going on about now?”

Lt. Anada and Lt. Malik had been spying on the creature from the window of the hangar. Behind them were the six aircraft belonging to their squadron– or more accurately, five aircraft, and one wreck awaiting removal. A woman walked out from under one of the squad’s Garuda I-bis, that was lifted up by four cables on the pulley system overhead.

She was covered in grime, and fully topless, wearing nothing but a pair of worker’s pants with overalls, the thick straps hanging off the sides and the shirt wrapped around her waist. Her long, dark hair was wrapped up under a bag that was itself slick with oil. She pulled it off, letting her hair down, and with it, pulled off the mask over her striking face.

Lt. Malik stared at her quizzically but said nothing. Lt. Anada smiled.

“Didn’t even know you were here, Lieutenant Mannan!” She said in a bubbly voice.

She waved her hand dismissively.

In response, Mannan’s lovely smile stretched into a grin, and her eyes narrowed.

“I saw you staring.” She replied.

She stretched out a long, slender limb and poked Lt. Anada in her little round nose.

“Show me what’s got you two so giddy.”

Lt. Malik looked over at the Garuda. “Are you finished with that thing’s landing gear?”

Lt. Mannan shrugged. “I’ve got it going back in. Not as fast as I’d want it to, but it does.”

After this Mannan shoved herself in between Anada and Malik at the window, neither of whom made any effort to give way. Anada was as gleeful as a child doing show-and-tell for her class, pointing energetically out the hangar window; Malik had an expression of mild annoyance as she was now further pressed against the hot tin wall of the hangar.

“Hmm? Is that a drake?” Mannan asked, peering outside.

“It’s a Kite Dragon. Isn’t it romantic?” Anada said giddily.

She clapped her hands together and her tail stood on end, a little twitch shaking across it.

“Off in the clouds again.” Malik whispered.

“What’s romantic about it, Anada?” Mannan asked.

Anada lowered her face into her hands. Her long fluffy tail hung low.

“What has become of culture these days?”

Lt. Malik grunted. “I get enough culture from the Commissar.”

“Okay, I’ll put it simply for you illiterates.” Lt. Anada viciously replied. “Kite Dragons are legendary creatures who only approach pure and perfect maidens, with queenly gazes and virgin hearts. They’re majestic, refined; and so is anyone who can get close to them!”

Her voice grew ever euphoric the deeper she got into her description of the legend.

“That’s it? That’s so dumb.” Lt. Malik flatly replied.

Lt. Anada gasped. “Are you serious?”

“Nobody would confuse any of us for a pure maiden.” Mannan added.

Lt. Anada crossed her arms. “Speak for yourself! I’m absolutely its type, I am positive.”

In a fit of indignation, Lt. Anada struck the hangar door button and passed through as soon as it had risen enough. Lt. Mannan and Lt. Malik stood up behind her and watched as she walked out onto the runway and walked up to the drake curled up on the runway.

As she approached, Anada quickly and confidently did herself up. From her pocket, she produced a lipstick and dabbed it on. She let down her glossy, wavy, shoulder-length brown hair, previously tied into a professional bun behind her head, and tossed it a bit. She fluffed up her ears, which resembled those of a desert cat, ubiquitous in the desert. Off went her jacket; beneath she wore a plain, white sleeveless shirt that had a deeply plunging neckline. She undid her belt just a little, freeing her belly a bit from its grip.

Mannan whistled. “She could pull it off; she has that noble-bred kinda look.”

Malik groaned. “It’s just going to bite her. It’s just a normal Drake.”

Holding their breaths, the two watched their companion kneel down near the drake.

Hujambo, selector of queens! Vulture squadron’s real beauty is here for you.”

Before her, the drake opened one eye and cocked a skeptical brow.

“I’m Avana Anada, and I’m almost positive I’m descended from royalty.” She said.

That there had never been cat-kin royalty on Ayvarta did not dissuade her from this.

The drake narrowed its one open eye with a look that seemed almost dismissive.

“It’s just going to bite you!” Lt. Malik shouted in warning.

Lt. Mannan stretched out her arm and shook her head, preventing Lt. Malik from running out to Lt. Anada. Both of them stayed in place and watched from afar.

In the next instant, Lt. Anada attempted to pet the kite dragon’s fluffy head.

At this transgression, the Drake opened its mouth.

Just as everyone was about to shout a “BITE!” warning, the Drake nonchalantly breathed a cloud of smoke at Lt. Anada’s face. She fell back onto her rear, coughing and patting down her face to get rid of a clinging grey soot. Her ears twitched back and forth like they were wings trying to lift her off the ground. While she struggled, the Drake glared remorselessly, and the two lieutenants back at the hangar both went from an instant of helpless worry, to breaking down into a resounding laughter at Anada’s fortunes.

Haughtily, the dragon stood up on all its legs and shot an angry glare at the hangar.

“How dare you! Those are my precious teammates whom only I disrespect!”

In response, Lt. Mannan ran out of the hangar with her arms up in the air.

She was laughing the whole time but her stomping and noises seemed to have the opposite effect on her target. Sensing a threat, the creature’s eyes drew very wide.

As if it had a rocket strapped to its back, the fiend shot straight up into the air.

Spreading its legs, it seemed to catch an unseen wind current, and it soared away.

“Ah, I scared it. Too bad. I guess none of us are becoming princesses today.”

Lt. Malik watched it go as she approached Lt. Anada, stretching a hand to help her up.

“Look on the bright side, you may not be a Queen, but you won’t have to marry a King.”

She said this like it was a big clever joke, but the recipient was not thrilled.

Lt. Anada took Lt. Malik’s hand so she could pull her down to the ground suddenly.

The two of them fell together in a little heap, Anada grinning like an imp. Malik sighed.

Lt. Mannan chortled at her two younger colleagues. While so distracted, she scratched her hair absentmindedly with a filthy glove. She immediately realized she had gotten oil and grime on her uncovered head. She shut her eyes hard as if hoping it was all in her imagination, and then she grunted. “I just fucking washed it. God, it’s always something.”

When she opened her eyes again, there was another woman blissfully sauntering down the runway. Despite the blistering heat of the desert, she wore her full base uniform with the jacket, and her short, dark hair was immaculately combed. She arrived at Mannan’s side with a devilish grin on her face, the only woman in the squadron as tall as she was.

“Why is everyone horsing around on the runway? And nobody called me?”

Lt. Mannan put her hands on her hips and regarded the newcomer skeptically.

“Aren’t you looking fresh, Sayyid? What have you been up to now?”

Lieutenant Sayyid stared briefly glanced at her chest and made no comment.

“Hujambo, Lieutenant. I was hoping to find a new muse, but alas, art ever eludes me.”

This was the kind of thing one always dealt with around Lieutenant Sayyid, a passionate young woman who gallivanted around the base, frequently “looking for inspiration.”

“You’re looking to get written-up again is what you’re looking for.” Mannan said.

“Oh, don’t say that. You appreciate my art right?” Sayyid looked into the hangar and found her plane hanging up on the cables. “Thank you for fixing my landing gear.”

Mannan was not thrilled to have had to have that particular chore.

“Blech, I’ve half a mind to stick your head between ’em as the final touch.”

“A gloom would fall upon the hearts of all maidens in the Hill.”

Lt. Mannan sighed and crossed her arms. “I am giving you a fair warning, Sayyid, I’ve had quite a morning and I will fully dismantle you,” she stuck a grimy finger right in Sayyid’s cheek, “so pick your words wisely. How did you break your landing gear?”

Sayyid, for her part, was neither threatened, nor disgusted by the oily finger.

She smiled, caressed Mannan’s cheek gently and spoke in a soft voice.

“I caught sight of my stunning wing-mate and the weight of my passion was too much.”

In the next instant Lt. Mannan put her face right up to Lt. Sayyid’s along with her finger.

“You better have left a will and testament you heedless–”

“There’s too many women I’d be leaving things to, I’m afraid–”

In the background, Anada and Malik just managed to get themselves back up in time to watch Mannan shouting in Sayyid’s face, and Sayyid playfully trying to extricate herself from the situation. Both the younger pilots shook their heads at the spectacle. At this point there were people coming out of other above-ground hangars as well, getting ready for their own exercises and duties. There was some traffic in and out of the ramps and tunnels to the underground hangars too on the perpendicular runway off to their right.

More importantly, as Sayyid’s teasing and Mannan’s fuming grew ever louder, a fifth figure slowly snuck up on the farce and with a single stern cry put an end to it all.

“What is wrong with all of you? Shut up and form up!”

Mannan turned her head and looked embarrassed; Sayyid, who already seen her coming, seemed almost in the vicinity of contrition; Anada was sitting on the ground, pathetically poking her grey, dusty face with no expression; Malik, disheveled, sweaty and dusty from dropping like a rock onto the chipped pavement, looked quite miserable.

Despite this, they stood side by side in front of their commander, without question.

“Well, thanks for not giving me more trouble than necessary.” She said.

Sayyid almost responded, but controlled herself when Mannan pinched her calf sharply.

Anada too had something to share, but Malik clapped her hand over her mouth.

Their superior shook her head and sighed. “It’s gonna be a rough week.”

Before all of them was a young lady truly without compare. Her uniform was spotless. Her black hair was tied in a long, elegantly raised, voluminous ponytail. Sweat trailed down her spotless honey-brown forehead and cheeks, but despite this, she stood beneath the sunlight with her arms crossed, her stance commanding and her expression defiant.

She stood between the ages of Sayyid and Mannan, and Anada and Malik, and yet, she commanded them all equally. Fully in uniform, she had a remarkable appearance. She was as slender and handsome as Sayyid but not quite as tall, well-figured but not quite as shapely as Mannan, fit but not quite as athletic as Malik, and comely and smooth-featured but not as classically pretty as Anada. In all things, she was their very center.

Captain Sahana Sheba was the one who could shout loud enough for Vulture to listen.

“Mannan, why are you topless?” Captain Sheba asked.

“It’s hot out and I had to work ma’am. This was more comfortable.”

“You normally work in safety clothes, don’t you?”

“No? Clothes are so– restrictive. Clothes infringe on my freedom–”

“Please wear clothes.” Captain Sheba said. “At least you have pants but, wear a shirt.”

She immediately turned to Sayyid. “Don’t talk.” She said, her voice venomous.

“Okay.” Sayyid replied, hands behind her back and an innocent smile on her face.

Captain Sheba addressed Anada next. “What happened to your face?”

Anada was still trying to get the ash the drake breathed on her off with her hands.

Despite having come out of a cloud of smoke it seemed sticky and oddly wet.

“Ma’am, I was playing with an animal on-base and it attacked me.” Anada said.

She was trying to describe her encounter in regulation terms, not that it would help.

Her voice was still muted and breathy. She was clearly winded from what happened.

Captain Sheba shook her head. “You know you aren’t allowed to interact with–”

“How could I have known? How could I have known I’d be so viciously attacked? Me! Who would soil this lovable face, this sugary glowing smile?” She pointed at her own cheeks, with a weeping expression. Because her face was so pretty, it was almost sad.

Almost, because Captain Sheba had no pity for her. “Just wash up later, you big baby.”

Anada stood, but continued to grumble to herself and rub her own face.

She then turned a few degrees past Anada to Malik, who stiffened and straightened up.

“Picture my hand as an airplane, how many degrees is it turning?” Captain Sheba said.

Her question was accompanied by sticking out a hand, the fingers together, and turning it so the palm faced directly to the left, rather than directly at the ground below.

“How am I supposed to know?” Malik shouted, a look of great despair on her face.

“You’re going back to the Commissar for lessons, you hear me?” Captain Sheba said.

Malik hung her head so quickly and so low that her own little ponytail jumped up.

After checking in on everybody, Captain Sheba produced a little notebook and grumbled.

“As for me, I had to clean up the officer’s mess because a certain somebody’s artistic inclinations brought the attention of the Colonel. The Colonel seems to think I’m not promoting on-base discipline and respectability.” Captain Sheba seemed to be talking to no one at first, but then her face turned sharply toward a specific person, to whom she smiled quite brightly. “But don’t worry, Sayyid, I have come up with a corrective punishment for you. You’re going to do some painting. And it won’t be an artistic nude.”

Mannan looked at Sayyid with sudden surprise. “What the hell did you do?”

Sayyid, shaking, withered under everyone’s gazes. It was uncharacteristically vulnerable.

“Well, I was just talking to the Colonel’s aide, and someone bumped into me and all my sketches spilled out of my bag. And well, I only ever sketch people, and I prefer certain–”

“We’re not talking about this any more.” Captain Sheba said dangerously, one eye twitching. “You will repaint the planes. Even the wreck. You’re going to do it out here under the sun. Drag them out, repaint them, and I better be impressed with the results.”

Sayyid averted her eyes and smiled nervously. “Yes ma’am.”

Captain Sheba once more addressed the group as a whole. “Now the actual reason I wanted to get everyone together is that we’re going to be welcoming a new member of our squadron soon.” There was a slight turning of heads, a muted exchange of ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s. “To help them integrate, we’re going to have lunch together every day from now on. I’ll still be with the officers for breakfast and dinner; from what I hear our new recruit is Flight Lieutenant 1st Class, so they will be with me for those meals. They technically outrank you, but for this week, they will be taking turns doing chores with all of you and myself, so they can get up to speed with the things we do around here.”

“Yes ma’am!” the Vultures said in unison.

“Now, I want all of you to be on your best behavior!” continued the Captain. “I don’t know the history or demeanor of our new squadmate, but given recent history, I am expecting an– um– challenging case. Be open to helping out, and control yourselves.”

“Will you be on your best behavior too ma’am?” Mannan casually asked.

Everyone stared at her. Captain Sheba grumbled, and opened and closed her fist.

“I’ll be exemplary. It’s the rest of you that should worry. Dismissed.”

Captain Sheba crossed her arms, and watched the squadron members disperse to their various activities. Malik went on her run and seemed to convince Anada to struggle across the runway behind her; Mannan put on the work shirt that went with her overalls and ambled her way over to the anti-aircraft pillbox beside their hangar, tools in hand; and Sayyid stared in various directions, perhaps hoping Captain Sheba would walk off.

Under the scorching Solstice sun, however, Captain Sheba waited with a nasty grimace on her face, arms crossed, tapping her feet. She shot glances at the planes in the hangar.

“What are you waiting for?” She said dangerously. “I’ll absolutely know if you slack off.”

“Do I have to finish them all today ma’am?” Sayyid asked.

“Oh absolutely.” Captain Sheba said. “I’ll even graciously let you blow off our meeting with the recruit, so you have more daylight hours to paint in. Anyway. Get started.

Sayyid sighed openly and loudly.

Dragging her feet the whole time, she slunk toward the hangar, defeated.

At around 0100 a transport aircraft touched down on one of the runways at Sickle.

Braking heavily, it ended up coasting toward Hangar 13 and came to a stop near Hangar 13. The Hangar’s squadron quickly assembled facing the closed passenger door near the tail. There were four young women in dress uniforms; in the background, an additional young woman in work clothes was splashing green paint on the side of a Garuda I.

Once the plane stopped, airport workers came up to the plane to begin checking it. There was a refueling truck brought in to refill the tanks, and the landing gear and engine had to be oiled and fitted to insure they would survive their next journey. The plane was scheduled to take off again very soon, so everything had to be done quickly.

Ayvarta didn’t have very many of these transport planes, so they were always busy.

For now, the passengers would just have to wait calmly.

“How are you feeling Homa? Are you nervous?”

Inside the plane there were three passengers, along with the pilot, co-pilot and a warrant officer working as a stewardess. They were seated on the right side of the plane, which was now facing the hangar. Homa Baumann had a good look at everything that was happening through her porthole windows. She did not turn her head to acknowledge, nor respond to the young man talking to her, at first. She had her head in one hand.

“I’m guessing that’s a yes. Honestly you don’t have to be evasive when you’re upset.”

“I’m not upset.”

Homa reached into the cuff of her uniform sleeve and fiddled with the controls there.

She lifted her chin from the back of her fingers and with a mechanical sliding noise the fingers went from outstretched flat to curled and “at rest.” She then sighed deeply.

“Not like anyone really cares anyway.” She said.

“About what? That you’re upset? I care. There’s just nothing I can do.”

Seated across from her was a young man twice her size vertically and horizontally. His most immediately striking feature was a multitude of long, black braids, swept to either side of his head, and a pair of black safety goggles. His rank insignia was “1st Class Senior Technician.” His rank was slightly higher, but he couldn’t pull rank on her inter-service.

She was a fighter pilot, in charge of flying the plane; he in charge of repair and R&D of it.

“The Plane” in this sense had yet to arrive with them, but they had been told ‘soon.’

“You don’t have to do anything. It’s just the way things are.” She said.

“Aw, come on, don’t get like that. Listen, it’ll be amazing. You’re gonna fly the JTB!”

“I’ve been flying it.”

“You’ve been flying buckets of bolts with parts of the JTB here and there in controlled circumstances, Homa! This right here, this is the truth though. You’re making history. I know how much you like to push the machine. This one can go all the way, Homa.”

Homa shut her eyes. “I don’t care, I’m just doing things.”

“So you nearly kill yourself diving and rolling for no reason? Nah, I don’t think so.”

Homa shrugged.

“Don’t hassle her too much, Janjid.”

This light admonition came from the back of the plane, steadily closing, and followed by a yawn. From over the aircraft seats, they saw a pair of slender arms stretch up. Their still sleepy officer took up the seat next to Technician Janjid. She was a tall woman, black as onyx, with short, dark hair and striking cheekbones. Her uniform was particularly more decorated than the rest of them. Her rank was visible as a Major of Aviation.

“Are you excited, Homa? You’ll be able to show off a lot with this group.” She said.

“How so?” Homa asked.

“Well, I heard they don’t have a very sterling reputation. That’s probably why the Hill let us borrow them for the tests. So I think they’ll be impressed! They’ll have a lot to learn.”

“We really don’t know a lot about them.” Janjid jumped in to say.

“They’re survivors from other squadrons.” said the officer.

Homa got quiet for a moment.

She looked out the window at the assembled women again.

They were a rather colorful collection. Different ages, builds, hairstyles.

Different levels of dishevelment of their long unused dress uniforms.

“Major Benali, they’ll have a Flight Captain won’t they? So I’ll have to listen to her.”

Homa finally said this after much pondering.

“They do, but I’ve half a mind you’ll be promoted over whoever it is in no time.”

Benali smiled brightly at Homa with her luxurious red lips and Homa turned her head.

Everyone perhaps expected Homa to say some Homa-style thing like “whatever” or “I guess there’s no way around it.” She made herself as unaffected by circumstance as she could, most of the time. In this case, she remained very quiet, because she felt anxiety in her stomach, like flies swirling around the lentils and bread piled heavily in it. She did not want to admit to anyone that the thought was starting to bother her more than usual.

“I’m just a weapon anyway, so somebody ought to use me,” was her final thought on that.

Finally, the pilot and the warrant officer came to the back, shook hands with everyone and helped them get their bags. There were several, many of which contained not just clothes and effects, but Janjid’s tools and spare parts for the various systems of the JTB, as well as jugs of his favorite type of engine oil that was not guaranteed to be available the same way in Solstice. Everyone started to make an effort to pass around the luggage equally, but then Homa grabbed several bags herself, stacking them in her arms.

“I’ll get these.” She said.

Benali and Janjid stared at each other and then at her.

“I’m strong.” Homa added.

Though even the pilot looked nervous about that, nobody could persuade Homa.

In her mind, she was thinking, ‘I’ll look bigger and stronger with all this.’

Even she herself could barely identify her motivation for wanting to.

But she had to do something in order to establish herself right from the beginning.

So she hefted the bags, and though she struggled, she grit her teeth through it.

When the door finally opened, an overloaded Homa, who had been waiting eagerly, took a step into the air and fell right out onto the runway from the meter or so off the ground where the plane’s rear passenger was situated. She was lucky the tail landing gear was far more recessed than the front gears. Had she fallen face-first from the front of the plane she would have broken her neck. Instead she had fallen in a heap with her mighty stack of luggage. Janjid’s spare parts and oil came to occupy the small of her back.

“Oh my goodness!”

Benali ran after Homa, and Janjid dropped down to help her.

Homa turned her eyes up from the ground and saw the women of Vulture squadron staring. There was a short, slightly plump catkin lady who was laughing; a skinny girl averting her gaze; a mature-looking woman who seemed worried; and at the head a girl with a cleaner and fancier uniform who rushed forward to help everyone with the bags.

“Are you alright?” asked this last woman, clearly concerned.

When Homa noticed her collar pips and insignia, designating her a Captain, she turned her head the other way in perhaps the brattiest possible behavior in that situation.

She was unaware of herself and unashamed. The Captain just looked confused.

“Excuse the mess! She tries so hard, this one.” said Major Benali, smiling pleasantly.

Homa fixed Vulture as a whole with a flat, vacant expression as she was lifted up.

Benali and Janjid held her up like a puppet and then gently put her down.

One of her feet seemed to have a little bit of trouble catching the ground.

“Smile, Homa, smile,” Janjid nervously whispered to Homa.

Soon as she was standing upright and fully settled on her legs before her new squadron, Flight Lieutenant 1st Class Homa Baumann crooked her small lips into what she saw as a smile. She stretched that smile across her cheeks as far as it would go.

When Janjid caught sight of it, his eyes drew wide and he averted his gaze.

All of the women of Vulture stared, speechless.

Meanwhile Benali made to cover her own face; but when she drew back her hands from Homa’s shoulder, she found something dark, slick and sticky caked over them.

“Oh no, Homa! Technician Janjid’s engine oil must have gotten on you!”

In fact, on closer inspection, Homa was practically glistening in the sun from all the poorly packaged engine oil that had spilled all over her hair and her body. So, while she was grinning like a maniac, gooey dark-brown oil was freely oozing from her head.

At this point, she must have looked like a proper demon to Vulture’s girls.

Or something else entirely.

“Heh heh, she looks like a panda, a slick, oily panda,”

Behind Vulture’s Captain, the cat-eared girl who was once just slightly giggling at the whole situation was now doubled over. Her hands clutched her belly and her soft, clean round face contorted with raucous, almost weeping laughter, her hair bun bobbing. At her side, the skinny girl with the droopy ponytail tried to stop her, while the curvy older woman seemed to walk off to the side just a meter to avoid association with them.

“She’s just like a panda, a panda that fell in an oil drum!”

Homa blinked. A panda? Why a panda? What was a panda?

Vulture’s Captain turned around and glared violently at the Vulture’s laughing princess.

At once, the girl stopped laughing.

“I’m so sorry, I’m Captain Sahana Sheba. Here, let me take her, I will help her out.”

Captain Sheba quickly led Homa by the shoulders away from the scene.

At that point, nobody could argue with anything, and those left behind to clean up merely watched the two nervous girls shuffling off into the distance suddenly.

Armaments Hill was the nucleus of Solstice’s military operations. From above, it seemed like nothing but an old fort resting atop a hill, with a few towers and some old stone walls now kept together with cement. Off to the south and east of the hill were two airports, Hammer and Sickle, and a tram system connected everything. Foreign intelligence however could not be clear on the vast complex below this surface.

Under the airfields there were long hallways full of offices and several underground hangars stocked with more fighter and bomber squadrons. Supporting these were the reinforced underground barracks where everyone slept, the messes, mechanic’s shops, and even a small aircraft factory that could turn out a replacement Garuda squadron per week. There was an emergency runway from underground Hangar 4 that could shoot planes out the side of the hill. It was not the safest launch, but it was safe from bombing.

Protected by their ancient walls, the Ayvartans couldn’t build Solstice any wider, so like industrious moles, they built Solstice underground, and Armaments Hill was the impregnable core of Solstice’s military power. It was also where the showers were.

“Despite everything I ended up looking useless.”

“What was that?”

Captain Sheba half-heard what she said but barely understood it.

Homa grew quiet.

Captain Sheba snuck her through the hallways and took her to the officer’s showers. Thankfully, the Aviation branch of the newly-founded Sunhera Thalsena conducted most of its business above ground, so Sheba knew that the molehill under the runways would be mostly clear of people, outside of the messes and barracks. Everyone knew the Sickle base had the stingiest, nosiest Colonel in the services. Sheba wanted to avoid trouble.

All of the showers were the same. There were two broad, open aisles with shower-heads over them, the communal showers, and at the far end of the room there were a few stalls for people who wanted a little bit more privacy. It was understood that it was mostly contagious people or folks with certain disabilities who should get priority for the private stalls. However there was nobody around, so Sheba took Homa to the back.

There was a rack with towels, spare uniforms, soap powder and brushes near the entrance and exit. Sheba grabbed soap, a brush and a spare uniform there.

Once they got to the back and Sheba unlocked a stall for her, the new pilot had shambled inside and slammed the door. Sheba could see her little pile of clothes through the gap under the hovering walls of the stall, and the very peak of her head over the wall. She heard something clattering and clinking, and thought it must be keys or dog tags.

“I’ll be out here, no need to rush. Get yourself cleaned up.”

There was, again, no reply from Homa.

Minutes passed. Though Homa stood directly under the water shooting out of the showerhead the entire time, the oil resisted bravely. Homa sighed and grumbled.

“Ugh! This is stickier than I thought.” She lamented aloud.

Sheba saw her stretch what looked like one arm up over the wall.

It was a quick movement, but for that instant it looked like her hand was missing.

“You need to brush it.” Sheba said.

“It’s not easy for me.” Homa replied.

“I can help.” Sheba said.


“I’ll brush it off.”

Homa made no response. Was she being shy?

Sheba put on a sweet, encouraging voice and tried again.

“When we enlisted we used the communal shower, right? It’s nothing to be shy about.”

Homa’s reply was dry and grumbling.

“I was never enlisted. But whatever. You can come in. Just don’t make a face.”

Sheba blinked, wondering what she meant by that.

She undressed carefully, and left her clothes outside in a neat stack. For a moment Sheba thought about showering in her combat bra, but it would have to come off anyway since she couldn’t wear a wet bra under her uniform. She opened up the stall and moved in.

Homa turned around to meet her. She was standing on one leg, holding on against the handrail installed on the hovering wall next to her for support. Sheba was puzzled.

One leg was missing; one hand too, was missing.

Both her prosthetics laid up against the opposite wall of the shower space, safely dry.

“I see. I would’ve helped you from the beginning, you know.” Sheba said.

Homa was trying to affect a flat, disinterested expression on her face, but her eyes were clearly wandering and avoiding Sheba in turns, and she was flustered about her.

With room to breathe and the quiet of the wholly unoccupied showers, Captain Sheba finally got a good look at Homa Baumann. Sheba tried not to stare, because she did not want to seem like she was taken with her physically; but it was difficult because of the physical features of the new wingmate, the likes of which Sheba had never seen before.

Not the amputations; Sheba was trying to be sensitive about those. There was more.

At first she thought it was her eyes, particularly her eyes.

A pair of defiant rubies; there really was something about them.

Sheba could not help but to stare, and perhaps Homa felt the same way.

Neither wanted to stare for long; it was a situation where they couldn’t look away either.

“Here, lets sit down and I’ll brush your hair under the water. It’ll be nice.”

Sheba continued to put on her most prize-winning smiles and to try to ease the air.

Homa followed instructions and stopped glaring, but said nothing.

When Sheba brought in a stubby little stool, Homa let go of the rail and sat down.

Behind her, Sheba knelt, inspected her hair and shoulders, and got started cleaning her.

She turned the water down, so it would not fall hard on them. It was pleasantly cool.

Both of them started off stiff, but eventually the pair relaxed around each other.

As they washed, Sheba’s mind drifted back to the face she saw, before the woman turned.

Homa was a very striking person. Sheba found her generally handsome, but there was one particularly unique aspect to her that confounded the imagination. Her face was mostly white-skinned, which one would perhaps figure from a surname like Baumann; but she had a dusty, ghostly pallidness like a silk cocoon. However, around her eyes and ears she had circles of completely black skin. This must have been why that lout Anada called her a panda. Her small, sharp nose was also a little black. It was not because of cosmetic pigments. Sheba was touching her, looking at her. This was all in her skin.

Her condition was evident from just her face, but seeing her whole body put things into starker relief. Her neck was a battleground between the black and white, with splotchy delineations between each. Her body was mostly black, but there were white areas that blossomed here and there, such as spots on tips of her breasts and across her limbs.

On the ends of her missing limbs, where her wrist and knee would be, there was white.

Physically, both Sheba and Homa were similar. They appeared to be the same age, they were both average in their height and average in weight and build and slightly fit, about as fit as just doing the required PT and chores to fly a single-seater would make you. Homa must have done much more training than her though, to fly with prosthetics.

Sheba thought Homa had to be mixed race, because the hair from ethnically Umma folk who had black colored skin was usually denser and curlier, while her hair was only a little wavy. It was completely white, and cut to the shoulder in neat, blunt locks with similar bangs over her forehead. It was possible Homa had been white skinned and the black was spreading now, but Sheba didn’t think so. It had to be the other way around.

It felt like it would have been mean to ask about her skin, so Sheba said nothing about it.

The stall was deathly quiet while she was brushing Homa and thinking about her. Homa herself had more than once looked over her shoulder briefly. Sheba felt a little ashamed, and hoped that she did not come off as uncouth or having ulterior motives. She shook her head, recentered herself, and moved past the physical impression of her wingmate.

“So where were you based previously, Lieutenant Baumann?” She asked.

Homa said nothing in response.

“Classified? How mysterious.” Sheba teased her.

Homa again had no response.

“What kind of planes did you fly?”

No answer.

“Do you like flying?”

“I used to fly a crop duster.” Homa finally said.

Sheba was almost startled to finally have a response. She perked up in return.

“Oh, neat! A real proletarian pilot.”

Homa’s shoulders slumped and she sighed openly.

“I wanted to do skywriting but the pilot’s union didn’t have any jobs.”

“So you decided to protect the motherland then, huh?”

Homa became quiet again.

“I bet you’re hungry. That’s gotta it be. I’ll show you the officer’s mess when we’re done.”

Homa was clearly ignoring her again.

Sheba brushed her hair, and put a bit of powdered soap on it.

“You have lovely hair, you know. I think the oil will even give it a good sheen.”

Homa opened her mouth to give a low, croaking chortle that seemed sarcastic.

“It’s been quite a day, huh?”

After saying that, Sheba remembered the unresolved episode from before.

Vulture Squadron sure knew how to greet people. This was not what she planned at all.

“I’m sorry about everything, Lieutenant. We’ve probably made a poor first impression. My squadron is– unique.” She had almost said something less flattering. “But I hope we can all get along and be comrades. I’ll make Lieutenant Anada apologize to you.”

Homa turned her head sharply over her shoulder, fixing one ruby eye on Sheba.

“If she’s not going to do it herself then I don’t want it or care.” Homa snapped.

Sheba raised her hands up. “Okay! Well, I’m still apologizing on all our behalf.”

Homa turned her back to Sheba again and put her head under the water.

“Is it true Vulture was made out of the remains of other squadrons?”

Sheba frowned.

It was a rather thoughtless question. Sheba almost thought she heard a hint of malice in how it was said. But perhaps she was only being oversensitive. Homa was new. She could not have meant anything by it. After a momentary rise, Sheba answered calmly.

“We’re all survivors from other squadrons, yes.”

“I see.”

Homa bowed her head, looking down at the floor tiles and the drain.

“Who am I replacing? Was it someone heroic?”

Sheba felt a bit prickly now. “I try not to think about it that way, Lieutenant.”

“You’re right. I couldn’t replace anybody, hero or no.” Homa said.

“What do you mean, Lieutenant Baumann?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Homa then went quiet again. Her attitude was starting to become irritating to Sheba.

They did not talk for some time after that. Sheba quietly cleaned Homa’s hair of oil, and then after helping Homa to sit near her prosthetic limbs, she then left the shower stall to dress outside. She brought Homa a change of clothes, and the new Lieutenant dressed up in the shower stall, out of sight. She walked out fully reequipped and dressed in the green jacket and pants of an ordinary Army Aviation enlisted woman, rather than the nicer dress uniform she had come in with. It made her blend in just a little more.

Her Captain nodded in acknowledgment and led her back out to the base.

She did not want to ask if Homa could walk the whole way. Clearly she was getting around. It might have rubbed her the wrong way for Sheba to overly concerned.

“How are you feeling, Baumann?” She asked in the halls, her face stone serious again.

“Slightly less unwilling to live.” Homa replied, a morbid little grin on her face.

She chuckled a little to herself for no apparent reason.

Sheba could not tell what was going on in her head.

She grumbled internally.

Another troublemaker had ended up on Vulture’s org-chart.

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