Brigands [3.3]

“If this is what married life might look like, sign me up right now!”

Karuniya leaned back until her head came to rest on Murati’s lap.

“We are trying to sign up. It takes a while.”

“Oh, shut up. You know what I mean!”

She looked up with those precious emerald eyes, full of warmth. Setting aside her mini-computer, Murati caressed Karuniya’s hair, returning the wide, beaming smile that her girlfriend gave her. She put her back against the wall adjacent her bed and sighed contentedly. She did know exactly what Karuniya meant. Their feelings were entwined more than ever.

Something about surviving certain death cast new light on what was profoundly important.

One part of their resolution from the battle at Thassal was that they had to spend more time together. Once Murati got out of the hospital, they immediately put their date back on the calendar. Both of them had committed to the Reserve due to the intense fighting they saw in Thassal, and due to the arrival of more experienced troops from Solstice. So they had nothing but free time.

For this date, they agreed to take it a little easier than they had during their last rendezvous.

They gathered everything they could want for a lazy afternoon.

Rented mini-computers, and the proper cables for a direct LAN connection; beet-sugar sodas; and a big bowl of toasted corn and peanuts, drizzled with a little bit of oil and yeast flakes. They could eat snacks, watch and listen to different media, maybe even play some video games.

There was also another pressing bit of business the computers would allow them to tackle.

Once they were ready, the two of them convened in Murati’s room with fluttering hearts.

They booted the computers they had taken out. They felt the anticipation in their fingertips.

Sitting together on the bed, holding hands, they locked eyes, with serious expressions.

“Let’s make it official then.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! Official, above-board girlfriends!” Karuniya replied.

This determination led them to the Union government’s intranet portal for Thassal.

Together, they filled out the computer form and applied for permanent cohabitation.

For now, they were registered as authorized administrators of each other’s rooms.

Eventually, they hoped to apply for a double-wide apartment and free up their singles.

All it took was a few taps on the screen. Technology had really come quite far.

It had been so easy and instantaneous that the dramatic tension they both felt had dissipated.

At that point, they collapsed against one another and played around on the computers.

Murati was seated, holding her minicomputer up, and Karuniya had her head on her lap.

“Murati, let me show this BBS I found! It’s so full of haughty students.”

She gave Murati the numbered address of the BBS and Murati navigated directly to it. While the design of the page was very sparse, it had all they needed for a spirited conversation on Union civics. Columned text posts, the perpetrators of them, and all of the associated metadata.

Some posts had photographs attached of the posters. Others had symbols or identifying marks. Any wall camera could take a picture for you and upload it to your room or a minicomputer as was convenient for you, but some folks got creative. There was a poster named ‘Agora’ who had as their avatar a picture of a barter table. Another, ‘Baerotrauma69’ had a more avant-garde style, known only to them. Murati had been in the Academy when intranet forums usage began to rise sharply. Originally intended for educational discussion, they had become an outlet for a very room-bound population to make friends and accost their enemies, as more and more computers were built and made accessible to the public through the government lending libraries.

Murati and Karuniya had a mutual fascination with ‘the net’.

Neither of them felt like using it for educational purposes.

Smirking, Karuniya began to type. “Judging by your avatar you must be a Camposist, as it is evident you’ve been on quite a conquest for bread.” Her fingers hovered over the keys waiting for Murati’s approval. Her loving partner cuddled up beside her and read the message.

“That’s so mean. Send it. Let me look at his picture– ok, yeah, send it.”

A tiny ‘hehehe’ accompanied Karuniya striking the “send” key on the contextual keyboard.

“The debate room is too easy.” Murati said. “Here’s where the real artisanal grief can be stricken. They’ve got a BBS for video games. Those kinds of posters can’t help themselves.”

Murati raised her eyes to the ceiling, thinking for a moment, then began to thumb-type. “I found a secret in the 8th level ‘Climbing Comrades’. Walk off the ledge just before the castle exit!”

“Seriously? That’s kids’ stuff.” Karuniya said. “Try making a case for ‘Constant Attack II’ being a puzzle game. People will get way angrier if you just assert things like that without basis.”

“Oatmeal is a soup.” Murati said in direct voice, perfectly suppressing the urge to laugh.

Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her. Murati laughed and continued her intranet journey.

“There’s a BBS for trading stuff. Want to look? There’s handmade goods, room mods–”

In response Karuniya rolled her head around on Murati’s lap, flailing her arms.

“We’re thinking about new a room this early huh?” She wailed. “Overwhelming.”

“Oh don’t be like that. We could get some nice things to make it feel cozy.”

“I just don’t want to think about difficult things. I’m done making choices for the day.”

“It’s not difficult at all!” Murati said. “Look, someone is trading a virtual aquarium. Hand-made pixel art wallpapers on diskette for room computers. An old cleaning drone that is programmed to whine and act like an animal to work as a cyber-pet. Isn’t that fun sounding?”

Karuniya scowled. “Should we get a crib for the baby?”

Murati instantly petrified. For a split second she went over the night they spent together. She vividly remembered a condom; how could she forget who put it on, and how? Then Karuniya started to laugh openly at her, before her imagination could get any further carried away.

“Hey, don’t joke about that.” Murati said, her tone of voice lower and more severe.

“I wouldn’t try to raise a kid if we had one anyway.” Karuniya mumbled.

“I really don’t want to think about anything like that, Karu.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

“It’s entirely different! Orders of magnitude different! I’m asking you about wallpaper!”

“Yes, and I don’t want to think about it.”

Karuniya poked at Murati’s inner thigh with her finger while mumbling childishly.

Murati was exasperated at first.

She could not help but slowly devolve into sniffling laughter. What a ridiculous woman! She put a hand on Karuniya’s head and rubbed her hair all over, flooded with affection for her.

“Who is being a troublemaker now?” Murati said mockingly.

“Ah! Stop it! It’s your fault! You’re rubbing off on me!”

“You’re being so petty!”

“I love you!”

Karuniya sat up suddenly and planted a kiss on Murati’s cheek.

She whispered in a sultry voice in Murati’s ear.

“Shut up for a little bit and I’ll kiss somewhere else.”

When she dropped back onto her lap, Murati was dead silent, smiling down at her.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m not actually in the mood.”

Murati reached down and started to tickle Karuniya’s stomach.

“Ah! No!”

This affectionate battle characterized their cohabitation for a few minutes.

Then peace returned to the apartment as the two of them settled back down.

“Oh, this is interesting.”

Sitting up, Karuniya showed Murati her own minicomputer. There was a board for sharing pictures of life on the station. One post had a photo attached which had been taken by an exterior berth camera. It showed the hundreds of ships saturating the waters of Thassal Station. Many of them had recognizable hulls for a pair of soldiers who had just fought a fleet action not long ago.

There was one ship in the photo that looked markedly different.

“Everyone’s talking about this one. Nobody can identify the class it’s supposed to be.”

“It’s gigantic. Must be at least cruiser sized. Maybe it’s an old hauler.” Murati said.

Murati got up close to the computer, taking in the picture. It was a remarkable ship.

“It looks so worn out.” Karuniya said. “I knew you’d love it. Why do you think it’s here?”

“Maybe it is bringing supplies. It looks a bit like an old hauler, but not any of our newer transporters. We could have brought it out of reserve to make up for a shortfall of cargo ships.”

“I hope that’s not the case. I’d hate to think we’re having logistical problems this early.”

This early — in the war they were both sure would be coming now.

In their little island of peace, with their thoughts for a romantic future.

All around there were hundreds of warships, and far beyond, lay thousands of enemy ships.

“I don’t want to think about it!”

Karuniya raised her arms in protest and pushed Murati to stand up off the bed.

Confused, Murati quietly acquiesced.

“Go fetch us some lunch. I want to use the bandwidth we have to download a film.”

“Karuniya, that will take hours. The LAN speed for non-government stuff is atrocious.”

“Which is why you can use the time to have a nice walk, and I can have a nice nap!”

Karuniya took up all of the bed, setting the computer aside to download several hundred megabytes worth of a movie file at 256 kbps. From the look of the file name and the particular FTP site she was getting it from it appeared to be a schlocky horror film. Murati heaved a sigh, but it truly seemed that Karuniya wanted to be lazy and nothing would convince her otherwise.

Murati knew how troubled she was, even though she tried to blow it off.

Before the battle for Thassal, her partner had not been saccharine about their relationship. That she sincerely wanted to live together and make big steps in their relationship meant she had been affected by everything that transpired. Murati felt blessed by this. Getting lunch for her was a simple task, and the reward of coming back into the room and seeing her there waiting was enough.

“I’ll be back!”

With a spring in her step, Murati headed over to the canteen at Bubble. There was a buzz of activity around the lower Block. Several new arrivals had to be housed, at least temporarily, so there were people in front of every door, being led to their new accommodations, shown the amenities and being read the Thassal housing charter. A few rooms looked like they would be crowded with three soldiers at a time. With a hundred more ships at the station than before, and no immediate mission, it meant thousands of off-duty soldiers mixed up with the familiar neighbors.

At the canteen, she chose one of each menu item. When there were two to feed, it didn’t make sense to pick two A menus or two B menus: they could share every item. It turned out to be a great haul this time. Pickled eggs, tomato relish, broth-soaked biscuits, eggplant; it was a king’s ransom. She wondered if they were being grandiose with the meals as a celebration of the battle. Soldiers returning to the station or being rotated out to the reserve could use the extra comfort.

When she was on her way back, Murati found someone waiting at the entrance to the block.

Her eyes first noticed the armband, with a stylized serpent.

Ashura.

That armband represented the communist party’s elite forces. They served in security and intelligence roles, as well as in arbitration of civil conflicts. And the person before her was not just any Ashura. Judging by the insignia on her uniform, four red and gold stars, she would have been an Admiral. There were no Admirals among the Ashura, however. They had different ranks.

Those stylized stars were instead meant to be read as “Commissar-General.”

When she fully realized this, Murati stopped in front of the woman with a wide-eyed stare.

“Murati Nakara, correct? I am Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.”

Murati shifted the way she was carrying her boxes so she could salute Nagavanshi.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “No need for formalities. You’re in the reserve. Is civilian life treating you and Maharapratham well? I heard you took the first step with her a few hours ago.”

The first step— it was a euphemism. Cohabitation was the first step to marriage. In the Union, marriage was chiefly tied to space. Couples that wanted to live together needed larger rooms, and they freed up smaller living spaces for others, like young adults who were leaving the school dorms. To be married, to live in a space befitting two people, was the next step.

For those who wanted to raise their own families, rather than put their children in government custody, there was another step beyond marriage, to acquiring a larger living space. Such faculties were rare. But that was the cultural touchstone Nagavanshi was alluding to. The steps two people took.

And it haunted Murati when she realized how much Nagavanshi knew about her. All of those records were public, but it meant Nagavanshi was searching for information about her. And she had been searching as recently as a few hours ago when Karuniya joined her to make the first request, for cohabitation. Perhaps she was still collecting data about her even as they spoke.

The intelligence services really were a force to be feared.

Now Murati was even more worried about the Commissar-General’s presence.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“I read about the battle of Thassalid Trench. You were recorded by Deshnov as one of the architects of that battle’s strategy. We won because of you; of course you would earn notoriety.”

“I know. I am being considered for a position at HQ in the Strategy department, by Rear Admiral Goswani. Until my review I was asked to remain in the Reserve.” Murati said.

“That is not what you want, right?”

Nagavanshi produced from her black and gold coat a document in a folder.

“You’ve made the most petitions out of anyone in your peer group. You don’t want to plot behind a desk at the HQ. You want to command; you want to be in the middle of the action.”

She opened the folder briefly. It was full of review documents for Murati’s petitions.

Murati’s words caught in her throat.

Maybe a week or two ago she would have responded with confidence. She would have said in the affirmative that she was destined to Captain a ship. She was born to fight the enemies of the Union. She would live to take the Union’s justice to the Empire that threatened to destroy them. All of these things she so staunchly believed where shaken now, however.

At the battle of Thassal she had killed many people and won victory.

It had shown her the suddenness, the terror, the surreal insanity of war.

Karuniya and her were starting to assemble a different kind of life.

“Commissar-General, at the moment I’m in the Navy reserve, so–”

She tried to deflect, but Nagavanshi was not letting her escape so easily.

“I’m assembling a crew. I’ve got a ship, and a revolutionary mission that cannot succeed without you.” Nagavanshi said. “I hope that you will join us because as a staunch mordecist you understand our historic conditions. We can assemble all the ships we want at Ferris. Our Navy is at best 1000 strong, which is maybe a fifth of active Imperial war power, not to mention reserves. We can hide away and build our strength and bide our time, but we will never build 4000 ships in a year or two. Our time is short. I want to take decisive action; to take the fight to the Empire within a week.”

What frightened Murati the most was this was not someone’s lunatic raving.

Nagavanshi was speaking unopposed, but she spoke with a casual confidence.

Everything she was saying, she had thought through with immense care.

And yet there was an underlying contradiction that made her sound insane.

“That isn’t possible.” Murati said. “You just said we don’t have enough fighting strength. Then you’re saying we need to confront the Empire. With one ship? I don’t understand ma’am.”

Nagavanshi did not waver. Her voice was steadied by a palpable conviction.

“All of the fighting power we need is mustering in the Empire as we speak. They are going to take advantage of their own historic conditions and take a gamble for their futures. They might fail without us. I’m not asking you to fight alone. I’m asking you to join my one ship so you can take up arms with all of the dispossessed in the Empire itself and help them follow our footsteps.”

 A revolution was brewing– in the Empire itself. How was this possible?

“Will you turn away from their revolution? When they need you?”

Nagavanshi was extremely dangerous.

She knew exactly how to pitch something to Murati that she could not resist.

All of this time, Murati had devoted herself to fighting in memory of her revolution.

A thousand generations lived inside her. That’s what the Union told its youth.

Was the Empire truly on the cusp of revolution? An event that all of her life had seemed outside the realm of possibility; something never spoken to her, never taught to her, something that was in no books she had ever read. The Empire’s poor and the Empire’s weak, the Empire’s young; would they too, spill the blood of an entire generation to overturn their oppression?

Murati’s fist shook with frustration.

It was the part of her Karuniya called “a troublemaker” preventing her from turning away.

A part of her that would always agitate for what was right, what was fair.

That would always stand with those who faced injustice.

That would always take the comfortable and the elite to task for their complacency.

And yet, she was so conflicted. Because she had become complacent herself.

“Commissar-General, I’m not convinced the Empire can have revolutionary potential. And even if it were to be developed I’m not convinced that it can be truly effective.” She was lying, she was practically lying to herself and to Nagavanshi, and it was evident in her face, eyes closed, her jaw trembling with anxiety. “I’m furthermore not convinced your idea of sending one ship out into the Empire to do who-knows-what, could possibly further that potential. So I’m afraid–”

“I’m disappointed, and unmoved.”

Nagavanshi produced from the other side of her coat a minicomputer.

It was smaller than most of its kind and emblazoned with her logo.

But the screen was bright and clear. And Karuniya’s face was on that screen.

“I’ve dispatched a message to your fiancé. She will not refuse my offer.”

Her golden eyes locked onto Murati’s own auburn eyes with imperious contempt.

“I had hoped you would join us out of your own intellect and moral development. Clearly I overestimated you. Nonetheless, I will do whatever it takes to launch this mission, Lieutenant.”

Murati dropped her lunch boxes and grabbed hold of Nagavanshi by her coat.

By force, she practically lifted her opponent.

She was a head taller; the Commissar-General could not resist her.

Nagavanshi never tried to struggle. She was completely unfazed.

Those terrifying golden eyes remained steadily locked on Murati’s own.

“Everyone feels entitled to put their hands on me today.” Nagavanshi lamented.

Murati felt ridiculous and furious in equal proportion.

To do this was a flagrant, violent act that was wholly unwarranted.

And yet she wanted nothing more than to rip Nagavanshi’s head clean off.

“Leave Karuniya out of this.” Murati said through a stiff, fang-bearing grimace.

Nagavanshi made no expression in return.

“So you would leave without taking your fiancé? It had always been my intention for the two of you to go together. In fact I planned such a thing for your sake. I could have gotten any Oceanographer, but she is the best choice to make sure you are operating at maximum efficiency.”

“What?”

It had not even occurred to Murati that all of this would involve Karuniya.

Was she wrong to think so? She wanted to protect Karuniya.

To protect her– but they had sworn to be together now.

Nagavanshi saw the opportunity and interjected.

“I don’t mean to pry into private matters, but if you were intending to leave by yourself, it would void your cohabitation agreement, and probably also your partner’s affection and trust–”

Murati had enough.

She slammed Nagavanshi down to the ground.

The Commissar-General toppled over easily as if she had no physical strength to respond.

She looked the silliest that she had the entire conversation. Her cap went rolling. She fell into her own cape and looked more like a heap of clothes than a person for a few seconds. Her hair broke from its neat bun and fell down the front of her face. Her arm band nearly slid off her arm.

Slowly, the Commissar-General collected herself.

Murati was frozen in place.

Her head was spinning, drunk on a cocktail of impossible emotions and sensations.

She had never known herself to be this impulsive. She had struck a superior officer.

“Solceanos defend! Commissar, I’m so sorry–”

She genuinely meant it. And maybe Nagavanshi even knew that to be the case.

As before, the Ashura’s chief betrayed no emotion. When she stood back up, it was as if she had never been thrown, save for her wild hair and the slightest tremor in her hands.

“As a sign of goodwill, I will not press any charges or hold what you have done against you.” Nagavanshi said. “I will be expecting you in the Naval HQ for further debriefing tonight. You shall be pleased to know that commensurate with your new position as First Officer and Diver Leader of the UNX-001 Brigand, you will be promoted to Senior Lieutenant.”

Her black-gloved hand thrust something into Murati’s chest. A picture of the ship?

Then, without another word, she walked away. Murati almost wanted to describe it as “storming off” in her own reckoning. She felt that the Commissar-General was clearly aggravated in her body language despite her inexpressive face. Soon as she had appeared, she had vanished.

The entire discussion had felt like a flood swept over Murati. Had her lunch boxes not been on the ground, she might have wondered whether she was hallucinating in the middle of the hall.

At least the lunch boxes were clasped shut and sturdy.

She picked them up, took them under her arms and took off in a full sprint towards home.

As she ran, she almost wanted to cry.

Because they lived in the Union, there was truly no escaping war with the Empire.

To have even thought she could for an instant made Murati feel so foolish.

Nagavanshi had been right. She had been naïve to think she would just stay at the station.

Murati’s ideas had changed the battle at Thassal. She was inextricably linked to this war.

As she arrived at her room, she tried to compose herself before opening the door.

Inside, Karuniya was reading something. A message had appeared on the wall.

“Are you alright, Murati?” She asked. She did not look distressed.

Murati could not make out the wall message from the door. Because Karuniya had summoned it from her vantage on the bed, the text was big enough for her, but not for Murati. So she could not tell what kind of message Karuniya had received. She had a guess, however.

“I’m fine.”

She put on a smile and walked in with a lunchbox in each hand.

“There was some good stuff today.” Murati said. “I think you’ll love the eggplant–”

“Knock it off.”

Karuniya stopped her while she was going to put the lunches on the bed.

She looked up at Murati from the bed, her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed.

“Murati, never do that again. Don’t hide things from me. You’re terrible at it.”

Karuniya reached out and took Murati’s hands into her own.

Feeling those soft hands, seeing Karuniya right in front of her.

It really was a blessing, even though everything else seemed to grow ever darker.

“I’ll be with you no matter what.” Karuniya said.

Murati threw her arms around her in embrace, holding her tight, in complete silence. On the wall behind them, the message from Nagavanshi updated with a picture of the ship.

“You’re going to do this?” Murati asked.

“She contacted you too?”

They parted briefly, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Murati, I don’t think we have a choice.”

Karuniya touched Murati’s cheek.

“Yes, she offered me a lab and all kinds of things so I would join whatever mission they are getting up to. But the instant I saw the messages I knew that what the Ashura really wanted was ‘The Genius of Thassal’ to join their ship. And being honest, I thought you would love to go.”

“I’m conflicted.”

Murati averted her gaze.

Karuniya gently guided Murati’s eyes back to her own. Slowly, she kissed Murati on the lips. They shared a moment that was brief, warm, and immeasurably kind. Murati nearly wept with emotion.

“Besides being a scientist, I’m a soldier. That’s how things are in the Union. And besides being citizens of the Union, we’re soldiers. Besides even that, we’re revolutionaries. And the Murati I fell in love would cause no end of trouble for her own rights and those of others.”

Murati sighed. She looked well and truly resigned.

“It’ll put you in danger.” She said, weakly.            

Karuniya embraced her. No more was discussed about this.

Both of them had made their decision together. They held each other in enduring silence as if to say ‘no, it will put us in danger.’ They accepted it.


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