A Maiden’s Heart (77.1)

13th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — Armaments Hill, Sickle Airfield

Down in the underground bunkers, there was a mail room where letters were deposited into safe boxes for each service member. Haritha Malik was never alone collecting her mail in the mornings. In fact she had seen her squad mate, Avana Anada, running off with her own mail shortly before entering the postbox room herself. Anada had told her she’d wait outside so they could walk to the assembly together, but urged her to hurry.

Anada was not the only one there, however. Because it received fresh printing of the latest issues of the state papers, the local papers and the local guild magazines and letters, the postal office was a popular place. There was a bench running along the wall specifically for readers, and a gaggle of girls from engineering were all crowding around a copy of the Solstice Wartime Bugler, a local magazine that interviewed soldiers.

All of the girls were moving between states of weeping and aggravation.

“Bastards, bastards, I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!” One shouted.

“Do you think my boyfriend will be okay? Do they say who to call to check?”

There was one story on all the covers. Nocht’s bombers had gotten through to Solstice and hit the southeast airfield. Malik had spotted it as she walked past the girls, and as she peered briefly over the features in the news-box.

She felt a little uneasy. While she and her squadmates had been big heroes yesterday for managing to turn aside one of those evil attacks, she could not help but feel impotent when faced with the day’s complete results. All that fighting they did, and Nocht managed to find another way inside anyway.

Were they that weak? Was she that weak? Malik tried to stifle the anxiety.

When she opened her postbox, she was elated to find a package inside. Casting a glance this way and that, looking to see if anyone was watching her, she ripped the little cardboard envelope open. Inside was a letter, and a small bag with a small handful of pink and green pills. Malik took one, put it under her tongue and while she endured the awful, glue-like taste of it dissolving, she read the letter. It was not a personal letter; it addressed every pediatric patient of Solstice University’s Special Treatments hospital.

Malik, who was not yet 20, was still considered a pediatric patient too.

To my fellow women- and girls-in-bloom,

Hujambo, comrades! Sincerest apologies for the delays in delivering the medicines. As you may already know, with the tragic loss of much of the nation’s land comes a loss in the ability to produce many needed goods. While here at Solstice University and with our associated unions and guilds we are seeking every alternative to bring you the medicines you need, in the present time, we have had to make difficult decisions in order to supply every patient fairly and equitably, but with respect to each of our needs.

Owing to these circumstances, you may find that your weekly dosage of medicine has been reduced to a palliative amount. Once these lean times are behind us, we will increase dosages back to the preferred amounts. Thank you for your understanding, and please stay safe, comrades.

Wilhelmina Kappel

At the bottom of the letter was a little drawing of a small and upset Dr. Kappel chasing after a runaway horse. Malik cracked a little smile.

She counted the pills. Only three for the week. She would skip a few days.

Sighing, but understanding, she closed the postbox and pocketed the pills. She toyed with her hair, which had grown finally long enough to tie into a little ponytail. Her skin was clearing a bit; she had always been told she had a nice face, but she could not help but feel lacking nonetheless. She had not felt much of a transformation yet, and three pills was not going to do it.

Malik wished she could have been strong enough to put an end to this war.

But maybe she wasn’t meant to be both a woman and strong anyway.

Though everyone was confused in the moment, after a day, the complete truth was available to everyone who still lived and breathed in the city.

On the 12th of the Postill’s Dew, Sword Airfield was bombed by Wizard bombers of the Kampfgeschwader 4, a grouping of the Nochtish Luftlotte or “air fleet.” Though Ayvartan reconnaissance had only been paying attention to unit markings relatively recently, data from the leaked and stolen plot dubbed “Generalplan Suden” indicated that this group was responsible for a vast swath of destruction in central Dbagbo. They were not green in the skies and their experience served them well. Up until the bombers were directly over the city, the air defenses had hardly awoken to their presence.

Sword airfield was not bunker protected the way Armaments Hill was, and was left decimated by the KG-4. Hangars were bombed out, almost 100 aircraft of various types were damaged, many irreparably, and several dozen people were killed. More than anything, it was a shock to the system of the Ayvartans that had so far felt safe behind the walls of Solstice.

For the first time in the war, air raid alarms had sounded across Solstice. Mobilizing as rapidly as they could, the ground air defenses unleashed a vengeful volley of fire on the detachment from KG-4 and drove off the bombers. They inflicted no casualties; overall the fight was demoralizing.

There was still some room to hope. Sickle Airfield had intercepted and driven off an element from a second, less experienced bombing group, KG-8, that was headed straight for central Solstice. The SIVIRA awakened to the threat of complicated, multi-directional air attacks on Solstice. KG-4 had managed to evade detection by flying over the desert south to southeast where there were no radar groups, experimental or otherwise, to catch them. Solstice put in a panicked order for the mass production of more ARG-2 and ARG-3 units, and began to deploy the sets it had in a wider net.

Though less accurate as to exact numbers or makes, this wider, thinner net would allow to see whenever something was flying over the desert, no matter what it was. Early detection, rather than accurate detection, had become a paramount need. Solstice could not be caught sleeping again.

Air Reconnaissance was allocated more fuel for sorties, and air interception groups began to be earnestly formed from what were once training and patrol units. Though the Army Air Corps was still reeling from 2030, when the Luftlotte decimated the frontier air forces and flew nearly unchallenged for months, they could not afford to lose the skies over the invincible city.

Then there was another piece of news that was starting to garner attention.

In the middle of all this movement and anxiety, the affable and well-liked Colonel Yasmari Fareed had put in a letter of transfer. Colonel Fareed wanted to take over at Sword airfield after the death of its commanding officer in the bombing. Such rapid action surprised Grand Marshal Chinedu Kimani — current acting Chief of the Golden Army’s operations, including the Army Air Corps. She was made aware of every such letter, and both her headquarters staff and herself could do little but to accept the request.

For those who kept up with the minute details of Solstice politics, it could not be overlooked that Fareed exiled himself to the reconstruction of Sword Airfield in the same breath as Brigadier General Madiha Nakar took over air defense operations from Sickle Airfield. Was it merely a coincidence?

As the 12th vanished into the darkness of the 13th of the Dew, there were several phone calls between the Headquarters at the 10th Head and Sickle Airfield. Ultimately, General Nakar gracefully took over as acting head of Sickle Airfield, commanding the air defense and taking over the Colonel’s staff, and transferring her own divisional staff to various tasks. All of this was swift, amicable and temporary; and to suspicious eyes, it was too easy.

Madiha Nakar was quick to catch up to her mentor in bad political optics.

Knowing he could not withstand the well-connected and young Hero of the Border, Colonel Fareed was quietly forced to accept a lesser position. “Once again,” said the fading old men established in the officer cadres, “once again a reliable and proven veteran has been swept aside by the ‘2030 Mafia.’

This collective term was picking up in use; derogatory from the mouths of the officers being forced into retirement, to the younger men and women of the cadres it was charming and quickly reclaimed as a point of pride. Those referred to as the 2030 Mafia were the young officers and NCOs who were quickly rising through the ranks, tested in the chaos of the Aster’s Gloom when many of the older generation failed, absconded or even defected.

Madiha Nakar, who executed Major Elijah Gowon at the start of the Solstice War and took over his rank and his army, was perhaps the first of the 2030 mafiosi and the most stark example of why they were so feared. After she helped cripple the northern spearhead of the Nochtish invasion using the army Gowon had left ill maintained and in disarray, she skyrocketed in prestige. Numerous soldiers both in the front and rear service who served under her would go on to staff the Sunhera Thalsena’s new officer cadre.

Ayvarta’s “demilitarized” armed forces prior to 2030 had a very limited officer cadre, but the men and women in those positions had held them for the better part of a decade. Ayvarta’s few generals had drafted theory and led training academies, while the frontline armies were led by old Majors and Colonels relying on overworked Lieutenants and NCOs to wrangle whole battalions by themselves. Those old generals were once great cavalry commanders and heroes of the civil war. To the 2030 Mafia, who came out of the rowdy ranks of the lower officers struggling to sustain the army through the apathy of their weary superiors, the Demilitarization era officer cadres were relics of the past and needed to step aside for the youth.

“I should’ve made Colonel three years ago with all that I’ve had to work!”

This was a common refrain among the mafiosi achieving just such ranks.

For her part, Madiha Nakar had not expressed public disdain or criticism of the old cadres. Fears that she would struggle internally when she was passed over for the frontline position given to Marshal Vikramajit, proved unfounded. Nevertheless, to a small, but slowly growing number of anxious observers, Madiha’s actions spoke of a casual disregard for those old heroes.

As a young man, Colonel Fareed had flown an early biplane in the 2010s in defense of Solstice against the pro-imperial forces. What did Madiha Nakar know about planes, other than knocking them out from the ground? This was the criticism sparked by her temporary stay as Sickle Airfield’s chief. Admirer and derider alike watched and waited to see the end result.

Much of Sickle Airfield skipped breakfast and bit into survival rations on the morning of the 13th. An assembly was called on short notice that involved every aircraft wing and be held on the main runways. A small stage and podium were erected, and the officers scrambled to get their unruly pilots out of bed, into dress uniform and organized for the assembly.

Only Vulture squadron had an inkling as to the purpose of the assembly.

All of them had been woken up brighter and earlier than the rest to receive a secret personal commendation from their new commanding officer, and then dismissed to go about their business before rejoining with the rest of the airfield personnel. Some of them saw this as a privileged position.

Not all of them wanted such privileges.

They were on the ground, but front and center of the rest of the crowds on the runway. Homa was dreading the possibility of being asked on the podium. She did not want to be anyone’s hero. They should have labored to have heroes who weren’t tempted to dive into an oasis on a regular basis.

Despite her internal complaints, Homa stood in her place directly below the stage with the rest of Vulture. She was as quiet as the crowd and wore a stoic face. Like her comrades, she was dressed in her formal uniform, with a jacket, tie, button-down shirt. She had a pair of pants, like Malik and Sayyid, while Mannan, an increasingly grumpy Anada and Sheba wore skirts. Homa’s long hair was parted away from her eyes into a tidy bun that matched Sheba’s, directly beside her and responsible for the makeover.

“You look cute Homa.” Sheba said. “Like a model service-member.”

“And like photo models, you can see the silent screaming in my eyes.”

Sheba averted her gaze awkwardly, and Homa cracked an impish grin.

At their side, Anada took sneaky bites out of a brown, brick-like bar.

“At this rate, I will soon die of malnutrition and starvation.”

“You seemed fine at the post office. Besides, I gave you my bar.” Malik said.

“You need meat for breakfast to live. You need meat, I tell you!”

“Look at it this way. The less meat you eat now, the more you can eat later.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

Homa watched them from the corners of her eyes, amused. Meanwhile, Sayyid’s eyes were wandering and Mannan was clearly disgruntled and had rings around her eyes, but they were quiet and well behaved otherwise.

They had only been up and about for a little over an hour.

At this time, a pair of familiar women took to the stage. The Vultures had met them a little over an hour ago, before most of the crowd had the chance. One of them, taking the podium, looked relatively young and collected. She was tall, with a soft and handsome face, and though her dress uniform concealed it, she looked physically fit, with good shoulders.

Her black hair was getting longer than it looked in many now-famous pictures from late 2030. But it still had the character of her typically unruly bob haircut. Her eyes were a fierce red that contrasted the gentle brown tone of her skin. There was no mistaking the great hero Madiha Nakar.

Accompanying her was her less-famous aide. Those who knew of Parinita Maharani knew her crucial value to Madiha Nakar’s successes, but to most of the crowd she was the typical HQ staffer, balancing out the serious aura of her commander. Shorter and prettier, a little rounder and with a pleasant, faerie-like air to her countenance. Long strawberry hair framed her honey-brown face, and she carried a clipboard hugged against her chest. She gave the crowd a smile; General Nakar wore a reserved face.

Hujambo, comrades,” General Nakar began. “I’m Brigadier General Madiha Nakar. Starting today I am acting commander of this base. Colonel Fareed volunteered to lead the reconstruction and reorganizing of Sword airfield in eastern Solstice, which suffered a tragic attack from the imperialist air force. In response to this threat, we will reorganizing operations in Sickle to focus on interception and reconnaissance, and my ground forces will help establish a stronger ground air defense of this base and its surrounding communities. I look forward to working with you and getting to know you.”

She bowed her head in front of the crowd. There were several confused expressions among the officers, but a resounding clamor of clapping and cheers from most of the younger pilots and laborers. They exchanged whispers about the hero of the borders, the great defender of Bada Aso and of her mighty evacuation of Rangda, where she defeated both the capitalist traitors of Lion and the surprise attack of the malevolent Lubonin air force.

“Has she ever commanded an air force?” Anada asked, whispering.

“Her abilities in ground control planning and air coordination have defeated two in the past.” Sheba quickly said. Homa had heard of Nakar’s defense of Bada Aso against the Nochtish air force. Her air defenses inflicted crippling casualties on the enemy’s low altitude daytime raids.

To Homa, that event suggested the enemy misunderstood how to launch an effective attack or became reckless. Not so much that Nakar mounted an exemplary defense or demonstrated a keen understanding of air war. It was obvious Nocht was trying a different strategy with their attacks now.

Sayyid was clearly taken with the speech, and whistled with admiration.

“Do you think I stand a chance with her?” She asked.

She was speaking in a low voice to the vultures in general.

“She looks like she has better taste than that.” Mannan responded.

“I guess I deserve that, huh?” Sayyid said, taking the insult in good humor.

“Besides which, it just wouldn’t work aesthetically.” Anada said. “Couples look their best in complimenting contrasts! Even for girls; all of this is true for mixed and same gender couples both. A handsome, strong person needs a beautiful, delicate princess-type to dote on and adore. Two butches is–“

Anada put as much dramatic inflection into her whispering as she could, clearly basking in her own authority until she was cut off, when Sheba gestured a slicing hand over her neck as if to say ‘cut it out’ or ‘I’ll kill you.’

Malik shook her head in shame at the same moment in time.

Homa huffed. “Must you always share some stupid opinion on everything?”

Anada scoffed and turned her cheek on Homa.

After Nakar left the podium, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani took her place. Her charming smile turned a little awkward and she looked nervous. She fumbled with the microphone for a little bit, causing some noise, but when she settled down her voice was clear and effective.

“Hujambo! I’m Parinita Maharani, and I’ll be helping to handle personnel cooperation and things of that nature. Please don’t hesitate to ask me questions or talk to me if you need anything. As far as the General is concerned, my ears are as good as her own for voicing your thoughts.”

She signed off with a cute little wave at everyone.

Again there was a round of applause, this one for politeness’ sake.

“How about her?” Sayyid asked. Everyone understood the subtext by now.

Sheba gestured the slicing hand toward her as well, preempting any talk.

Finally, there was a brief appearance by Air General Ari Kolthakarra, a tall and heavy older gentleman, swarthy, hair half-white. His pointed and sharp-cheeked face carried a vintage handsomeness. His was the most decorated uniform of anyone who had spoken. There was a younger man at his side, an unremarked-upon aide. His quick introduction and his own staff’s quietness alluded to the fact that he would not be staying very long.

Under Chinedu Kimani, Kolthakarra advised and coordinated the high level logistics and direction of the Army Air Corps. Everyone who took the Army Air Corps seriously had heard of him before: he was a hero of the civil war.

Kolthakarra spoke passionately. “I can personally vouch for Madiha Nakar and her staff’s dedication and meticulousness! While she was defending Bada Aso I aided in coordinating the air support she was receiving from Solstice’s outlying bases. I was struck by her decisive attitude and her conscious care for the use of her troops. Under Madiha Nakar, nobody here will die needlessly or in vain. Comrades, serve under her as if under me!”

Though as short as that of the preceding officers, his speech bore three times the fervor and thus elicited a response three times as loud. Now everyone was fired up. Kolthakarra the Killer’s word was worth gold. This was perhaps the best decision that the Army Air Corps had made while assigning Madiha Nakar to this temporary, but clearly controversial post.

But as far as Homa was concerned it was just another old man rambling.

She yawned openly and barely covered her mouth. Sheba shot her a glare.

Though there were a few more speeches from some of the remaining staff from the old Colonel, like the payroll officer and the chief quartermaster, as far as everyone else was concerned the assembly was over. They were all now expected to accept and understand that Madiha Nakar would be their commanding officer for the near-future, even though she was a ground General best known for tricky combined arms tactics. As far as socialist democracy went, they could file all of the complaints that they wanted.

Not that it would have made much of a difference at this juncture.

At any rate, nobody asked Homa to speak and that was the best news of all.

While Homa and Sheba departed for a staff lunch with their new overall commander, the remaining Vultures slipped out of their dress uniforms to grab some canteen food and then headed back to the hangar for free time. Unlike their incredibly important officers, the grunts could slack off a little.

Malik in particular wanted to go for a run once the runway cleared.

She felt like she wasted time in the mornings due to a particular someone. 

“You don’t mind if I dig in now, do you?”

“I’m not so much a fool as to stand between lightning and the earth.”

“And people complain that my sayings are dumb.”

Malik chuckled, and at her side, Anada plucked a piece of chicken out of her curry by the bone and mauled it in a second. Malik watched her while she ate. Her ears stood on end, and her skin almost seemed to glow.

Seeing her like that brought a little smile to Malik’s face.

She wasted time, but it was not a particularly unpleasant experience.

“I want you to run with me.” Malik said.

Anada paused amid sucking on the bone and narrowed her brows.

“You have made a common misconception about my character.” She said.

“Well, yes; but fine, you don’t have to.”

Malik turned her head and made a pouty face.

Anada sighed. “Unfair and uncultured! That face is absolutely both!”

“Well, this uncultured girl will just run alone, like the great bards.”

“Haritha, they write alone– ah nevermind.”

Though she could tease Anada to her face while wearing a stoic expression, and say all sorts of silly things when it concerned this endeavor, she felt a little jolt of anxiety in her stomach every time did it. Because she really and truly did not want Anada to turn her away, and would have been elated beyond words to hear her say yes and enthusiastically join her. She wanted Anada to like her, and so she played along with her as best as she could. But she never knew whether Anada was serious or joking about anything; and while it had its charm, there were times when she wished for commitment.

“Give me some time to think about it.” Anada finally said.

That probably meant no, but it was fine.

Malik smiled. She joined Anada in sampling her own tray while they walked to the hangar. Lunch fare had been simple that day. Anada picked chicken curry, bread and fried cheese and begrudgingly ate her spinach; Malik had a salad made up of clearly older canned slices of onions, cucumbers and peppers chopped with oil, citrus and cumin, with bread and moong dal.

“You’re going to die if you don’t eat your veggies, you know.” Malik said.

“We all die someday.” Anada replied.

For them, talking about some kinds of death was taboo and macabre, but there was an impetus to find a bleak humor in their malformed eating habits as the canteen struggled to serve different foods each passing day.

Out of all of them, perhaps Anada would survive best if it came down to lentils and pickle juice every day. Malik vaguely remembered some dark times over a decade ago, when socialist farming was an infant and famine its sickness. There was even harsher rationing than now, and far less variety. It was associated with a far worse memory of being told the milk she desperately wanted to drink was for mothers and young girls first.

It was a bleak era in a lot of ways; hopefully everyone had learned from it.

“I heard that one of the lunch ladies is expecting, and that’s why they have girls from the local high school filling in.” Anada said casually. Despite her dire need to eat, she managed to chew with her mouth closed and only spoke when she had swallowed her food. Malik appreciated her manners.

“I thought they all got promoted somewhere.” Malik said.

“Well some of them did, but you remember the fat lady with the big hair? She’s expecting! That’s what I heard from the aunties working the mail.”

“Oh, that lady?”


“Expecting, huh?”

“You know, baby stuff.”

Malik nodded. “I know. It’s a bit mystifying I guess.”

“How so? Is this one of those ‘lack of culture’ things again?”

Anada grinned and pointed a fork at her.

“Maybe the Commissar needs to teach you about the birds and the bees?”

Malik frowned at her.

She hoped the Commissar’s schedule was too full for that.

“I’ll never be expecting.”

Anada blinked at her. She furrowed her brow and then nodded.

“Oh yeah, I guess, I don’t think I will either. But then again, we’re young.”

Malik felt a little bit of a jolt of anxiety. “I mean, I can’t expect, you know.”

“Oh well, of course, when you think about it that way, but–“

Anada shrugged, and Malik wondered which of the reasons why Malik would probably not find herself with child she was settling on after this mild misunderstanding. Was it the less obvious one or the least obvious? Either way, it was an uncomfortable topic and Anada kindly dropped it.

“Anyway, I’m gonna miss that lunch-lady’s Mughal Chicken.”

“I know.” Malik said. “You always pushed the spinach off it.”

“I won’t miss that.”

At Hangar 13, the girls stared at the new plane parked outside with the Bennu and the Garuda I-bis. They searched around for their compatriots. It was a barren scene. Sayyid was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile Mannan, undressed down to her underwear and glistening bronze under the sun, coordinated a small crew patching up the wing on Anada’s plane. Due to staff shortages, an experienced mechanic like Mannan was both flying, and taking on these kinds of jobs. Her choice of work was not her own, but she didn’t seem to mind. Now her choice of attire — that was her own.

“Why is she like this?” Anada lamented.

Atop the Bennu, Homa’s acquaintance Janjid was doing something to the nose armor. His work was always extremely messy, nothing like Mannan’s delicate handiwork. He was so absorbed in tearing the Bennu apart, that all the bits and pieces he sent flying everywhere were of no consequence to him. Anada put on a disgusted face. Not that she was that much cleaner.

Malik knew quite a bit about what a dust bunny Anada could be.

She said nothing, however; better to let Anada have her bits of pride.

The girls gently gravitated toward the hangar itself. Setting their plates down on a pair of stools, they sat on a bench between their lockers on the far side. Anada gobbled down the rest of her food. Malik’s had gone lukewarm and she still took her time with it. While she ate, Anada stood up, and whistling a little tune, she opened her locker and withdrew a package.

“Look at this!”

She ripped up the paper around it and showed the object to Malik.

It was a soft-back notebook with a square spine.

“A sketchbook?” Malik asked. She didn’t know Anada was an artist.

“No, no. It’s actually a scripting notebook. I wrote to the local writer’s guild and they sent one over. They also sent a copy of ‘moonlight‘ but I hate that play. Anyway, I’m going to use it to finally script my own, better stage play!”

She hugged the notebook to her chest. Her ears wiggled with delight.

Malik blinked with surprise. When she was well fed and had no jokes left to tell, Anada talked a lot about stories and stage shows instead. She had confided in Malik that she had wanted to be an actress at one point. Though she knew many plays by heart, and when they were alone would quote this or that tragic woman or noble princess from this or that show; she had never shown an inclination toward writing her own shows.

“That’s amazing, Avana.” Malik said. “If anyone can do it, it’s you.”

She looked at Anada with admiring her eyes. In her eyes, that jester of a cat-kin was certainly a star, and she was glowing. She was outgoing, beautiful, lovable, and always stuck to her convictions no matter who opposed her.

Malik felt a pang of insecurity. Anada was a real woman.

“Thank you! Thank you! I knew you’d understand.” Anada replied.

She sat back beside Malik and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

A kiss that almost completely dispelled the cloud over Malik’s head.

Afterwards, the cat-kin sat back against the wall, shaking her tail and legs.

“I’ve got so many ideas. I’m going to put down the first scene tonight.”

“Once we’re off duty?”

“Of course! If I started now and a sortie happened, I’d be so annoyed!”

“I guess that’s true.”

Malik looked at the notebook. She felt a pang of something, a little painful tug at her chest. This was something Anada had that she simply didn’t. She was loud and obnoxious sometimes, but she was lively, creative, passionate, beautiful; she had a place in the world and was confident in it. She was not like Malik at all. Malik loved that, but it also made her feel incomplete.

“You’re really amazing, Anada.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“I’m going to write a story about a bandit king and an innocent princess!”

“I see.”

Sometimes she could be predictable and a little boorish too of course.

“Haritha, tell me a good name for a big, strong, ruthless guy!”

Malik touched her own chin, and thought about it for half a second.

“Daruj.” She said, almost mindlessly.

Hearing the name from her own lips gave her a bit of a start.

“Wow, you had that on the tip of your tongue huh? Is that what you’d name your first son if you ever had one? Been thinking about it since our walk?”

Anada got excited, but Malik shook her head.

“I actually despise that name.”


“And anyway, I can’t have kids and you know that.”

It was then that the two of them were distracted.

Outside, they saw someone approaching.

A certain woman whose wind-blown blond hair and shimmering green eyes made her seem like she had come to them straight out of a fairy tale book or a fantastic film. As she walked toward the hangar from the runway, she moved with such collectedness and grace that they just had to stare.

“Oh, Haritha, it’s the new girl! Let’s go talk to her!”

Anada pulled Malik up by the hand, leaving her notebook behind.

Their distraction was the pilot of their new ‘recon’ plane, the odd one out in their lineup outside. It was blue, yellow and green, a slightly lengthened version of what Malik was told was a Helvetian “Cathawk” fighter plane.

Cat-Hawks were, allegedly, a real animal somewhere in Helvetia.

The Cathawk’s pilot was a real Helvetian, too. That morning, Madiha Nakar had introduced her to them as Junior Lieutenant Marceau Laverne De Champeaux-Challigne. Nobody could repeat it after General Nakar said it.

Malik knew that her government had joined an alliance with the Svecthans and Helvetians, called the Solstice Pact. While she had met many of the short blue-haired comrades from the frozen northeast, she had never met the pale-pink, blond-haired Helvetians. She had only seen them in films.

Anada and Malik stepped under the hangar doorway and waved at her.

“Huj– I mean, guten!” Anada shouted the greeting in Nochtish.

Several meters away near the planes, the new girl turned to them.

Lt. De Champeaux-Challigne smiled brightly at Anada’s clumsy effort.

Bonjour, chéri!” She called.

She gave the girls a foreign greeting and a little wave, and approached.

Anada very briefly put on a sour face as she recognized she gave the wrong greeting. However, reclaiming her grace and burying her shame were her greatest talents, so it was only Malik who could see that instant of doubt.

Her attention was drawing fully away from Anada soon enough. The nearer the new Lieutenant came, and with the roaring Solstice sun as her stage-lights, the more she had the look of a star right out of Anada’s fantasies.

Her full, slightly heart-shaped lips were delicately touched with red and seemed to pout for a camera; her thin brows, slender nose and lean jaw gave her a dramatic beauty as she watched from afar. Malik could not help compare their figures: Marceau looked significantly taller and curvier.

The Lieutenant certainly fit a military uniform too. Her garrison cap, blue jacket, skirt and tights gave off an elegant, experienced aura. She moved decisively and her posture was confident. Turning to face the girls and walking their way to meet them outside the hangar, her lustrous blonde hair blew in the wind, and it was exactly like a scene from an epic film.

That was, until Marceau tripped over her heels on the step up to the door.

She flailed her arms, flopped over and hit the pavement chest down.

Part of her shoe went flying into the air.

On the floor, she looked exactly like she belonged in a place like Hangar 13.

Malik felt as though someone had shown her the pulleys behind the stage.

“Oh! Your heels broke!” Anada cried out. “Are you okay, Lieutenant, um–“

Anada and Malik knelt down beside the Lieutenant, both now struggling to pronounce her name. For her part, the Lieutenant pushed herself up by her arms, reached back, took the remaining intact heel, and threw it furiously against the ground nearby, breaking it apart. She slowly, ungracefully stood.

“I’m fine, dears. You can call me Marcy.” She then said, breathing heavily.

“Can you pronounce your full name for me?” Anada asked.

Malik shot her a look. Such a rude thing to say! Thankfully, the Lieutenant ignored the impoliteness of this question and in fact looked quite amused.

Her voice, song-like, quickly recited a name that was like foreign poetry.

Sous-lieutenant Marceau Laverne De Champeaux-Challigne.”

“Incredible. I could never say such a thing.”

Malik shot Anada another look that she clearly did not notice.

The Lieutenant giggled. “As I said, Marcy is acceptable.”

“Well then!” Anada said. “We have, uh, spare boots. If you want, Marcy.”

“Thank you.” Marcy smiled. After standing straight she had completely lost that air of unapproachable elegance, and with her hands on her hips, a wide stance and a smile on her face, seemed more rustically charming.

This was no movie star, no princess; just another grunt with a pretty face.

Malik thought that she liked her ‘amusing’ more than her ‘elegant.’

“Lets join hands, mes amis.”

Marcy’s Ayvartan was thickly accented but still swift and easy to listen to.

Her word choices were sometimes odd, but endearing.

She held out her hands and Malik and Anada shook with her in turn.

“I believe I was introduced to you, but we lacked for time to do the reverse. I’ve been honestly standing around all shy, hoping for someone to talk to, but your friend over there has been very busy. Mannan, I think she said?”

“Yes, that’s Mannan.” Malik said. “She is always busy.”

“There was another woman, tall, short hair. She fled away somewhere.”

Marcy swiveled her head around, searched. She must have meant Sayyid.

“Oh good. I was afraid she would bother you.” Anada said. “Ignore her.”

Anada waved her hands symbolically, as if blowing away smoke.

“I see.”

“Anyway,” Anada grabbed hold of Malik’s shoulders. “I’m Avana Anada, and this stoic girl is Haritha Malik. Welcome to the vultures! Glad to have a little more color aboard. You can’t imagine how dull everyone is around here.”

Anada feigned inconvenience. Malik took minor offense, but said nothing. It was not true that she was stoic, she thought. She had emotions and showed them plenty, when she was comfortable doing so. And what did she mean by dull? She felt for an instant that Anada was trying to hard right now.

True to Anada’s characterization of her, however, Malik said nothing.

She made no expression, and simply nodded in acknowledgment.

Marcy meanwhile covered her mouth gently and stifled a little laugh.

“You look like a lively bunch of grapes. I’ll not be lacking for fun.”

Malik did not understand the saying. Perhaps it did not translate well.

However, as one with plenty of nonsensical sayings, she couldn’t criticize.

“Say, what’s that you’re flying, huh?” Anada said.

She pointed her thumb over her shoulder at the plane behind them.

Her tail also pointed at it.

Marcy took a brief glance and then nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“Oh yes. I’m part of a solidarity unit, Helvetian soldiers who want to fight for Ayvartans on the Ayvartan terrain. Ground troops take longer to deploy, so I’m a specialist who was sent ahead of everyone. My talent is radar.”

Malik was vaguely aware that ‘radar’ existed and was useful, but she was a touch foggy on the details and how Marcy would make use of this ‘talent.’

Marcy proudly pointed at the cathawk. As a chassis it was not that different from the Garudas, being a cantilever, low-winged prop plane, except that it had one very large air intake under the chassis with no vents in the wings, and the shape was a little longer and a little rounder. It had machine guns on its wings, rather than the nose. The cockpit was a bit longer and wider too. A metal cable tied the rigid part of the tail to the back of the cockpit.

Atop the wings, there were little poles sticking out at varying intervals.

There were many small poles on one wing, and bigger ones on the other.

“Doesn’t that create drag?” Anada asked, pointing at the wings.

“Those are the radar aerials. They’re a bit draggy, but they work.”

Malik blinked. She rolled the concept of “aerials” around in her head but could not place it. She felt rather stupid because of this. There were quite a few concepts around aircraft that made her feel like a dunce. She could fly them, though that she was trusted to do so was something of a miracle.

Ask her about the theory behind it all, and her brain ground to a halt.

Marcy meanwhile looked fondly at the Garudas next to the cathawk.

“She’s not as fierce as yours, but good ol’ kitty can still put up a fight. At any rate though, I’m not supposed to focus on fighting. My radar can help you detect and intercept enemy aircraft. That’s why I’ll be flying with you.”

She sounded wistful, as though it was a privilege to fly a normal fighter.

“Wow, that’s amazing.” Anada said. “Right Malik?”

Marcy brightened upon receiving Anada’s cheerful admiration.

Malik smiled and nodded, but she was starting to feel stressed out.

She hated feeling like a fool and confronting things that were hard to understand. That she herself was hard for others to understand made it even worse. All of these things linked together into a synchronized malaise that was causing her to tingle from the pit of her stomach to her toes.

“A cloud has settled over you, chéri.” Marcy said.

Malik felt herself shake for a moment and tried to smile.

Marcy patted Malik’s shoulder. Malik shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

“I hope I did not offend. I’m a foreigner, and I know it. But I want to learn and to make friends. Most of all, I want to help protect your country from those connards, the Federation. Please have some patience with me.”

Marcy bowed her head at Malik, who felt uncomfortable with it.

“For world peace!” Marcy called out.

It was something meaningful to Helvetians. Anada cracked a grin at it.

“No, no, it wasn’t anything like that. You’ve been fine.” Malik said.

She was not good in social situations. She liked to get through things by being prompt and precise, when she felt anxious. This was not her element and she knew it, and she hated that this was so, and hated herself for it! She could fine around Anada, so why was she closed up and weak to Marcy?

For some reason, at that moment, Anada took it as her cue to pounce.

“Don’t worry Marcy, Malik is like a fortress.”

“Like a fortress?” Malik grumbled.

Anada put on a decidedly cat-like smile and continued, her ears twitching on her head. She always got like this at some point. “She does not boast a delicate constitution like you or I do, so feel free to tease her all you want.”

Malik stared at Anada. “What do you mean by that?”

Marcy blinked, confused.

“You know, Marcy, in this unit, you’ll be told all kinds of awful things, and generally face a lot of adversity. Ultimately, it’s your fault for showing an opening, so please just remember that you can strike back whenever you want!”

Roving around her two compatriots, the cat-kin put an arm around Marcy.

She cocked a little grin at Malik, who was not at all amused by it.

“You know, you’ve been really irritating all morning!”

She tried to tell herself Anada was just teasing as always, but it struck a nerve. Especially when Anada said it. Her feelings were boiling over. She did not even realize she was clutching her fist until Anada blinked and quickly assumed a different posture. She had noticed Malik was mad.

“Oh, hey, Haritha I was just fooling around. I’m sorry.” Anada said.

She looked genuinely shocked to have caused that reaction.

Malik put on a false smile. She was mad and she did not like to be.

Did Anada even understand why she was angry?

She was the only one who could have understood!

“It’s fine. I’m going to go running. You can play around back here.”

Malik turned sharply around and sprinted away with increasing speed.

Anada reached out a hand briefly but immediately gave up.

Her ears drooped, her tail fell limp.

“We’ll talk later, I guess.” She said weakly and with a sigh.

At that point, Malik could not hear her.

Far more than the physical distance between them, Malik was running fast enough to put the entire world at a distance; to put her mind at a distance.

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