“Captain, is this correct?”
After several days, the hangar was finally fully prepared and every mech in the Brigand’s squadron had been assembled, charged up and assigned its gantry and equipment. Murati could finally convene and formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron. On the morning of this triumphant day, she set aside some time to look over the official roster and the files on each pilot.
That was when she spotted an oddity. She sought official confirmation from the Bridge.
“First Officer on bridge!” Commissar Bashara called as Murati stepped through the door.
Everyone in the room turned to meet her briefly. Murati felt a little overwhelmed. She was, strictly speaking, their superior and depending on the health of the Captain she might even have to command them someday, but she was not very familiar with the bridge crew. She saw Semyonova on ship broadcasts and had met Zachikova recently, but the rest she had no occasion to speak to.
“It’s really not necessary.” Murati said to the Commissar. She spoke in a low voice.
“Not necessary? As First Officer you should always demand the respect you are owed.”
At the Commissar’s side, the Captain laughed. “I also tell her it’s not necessary.”
“You more than anyone need to command more respect also.” Said the Commissar.
She glared sidelong at the Captain in a way that caused her to visibly shrink for a second.
“Let me see there, Murati.” Captain Korabiskaya said.
Murati handed her the tablet with the pilot roster. Murati already had the offending page up.
“Ah, right, this situation.”
The Captain sighed as if it would be a wearying thing to explain.
On the roster, one of the reserve pilots was a young man, younger than Shalikova. Maybe the youngest person on the ship. His name was Aiden Ahwalia. Murati recognized the surname immediately. Anyone in the Union would. Elias Ahwalia had been one of the Union’s founders, and after Daksha Kansal, he was the second Premier of the nation. He was Premier for nearly nine years of the Union’s 20 year life as a state, so he certainly made an impression on the Union.
However, his term was remembered for many bitter difficulties the Union suffered.
Many people felt that after Kansal left, the Union was close to falling apart.
The Union’s recent, comparatively “prosperous” period was thanks to Bhavani Jayasankar rising to power and removing the Ahwalia family from the political sphere. Her administration dispensed with the ideals of the Ahwalian period, where the Union was steered toward fully automated, high-tech utopianism. Bhavani’s Union was more analog, thrifty, and highly militarized in comparison to Ahwalia’s, but everyone had food, everyone had education, health, and some small comforts. As a student of history, Murati could not help but find the Ahwalia surname on her roster ominous.
“I don’t need to explain to you who the Ahwalias are, right?” the Captain asked.
“No ma’am. I’m well aware. I’d like to know why Ahwalia’s youngest is on this ship.”
Commissar Bashara joined the conversation. Her tail was swaying, gentle and relaxed.
“You must think there’s some ulterior motive?” She looked up at Murati from her seat.
Murati felt like that was a trick question, coming from the Commissar.
Captain Korabiskaya was quite relaxed as well, however. They were both untroubled.
“In fact, there is an ulterior motive.” Captain Korabiskaya said plainly, shrugging her shoulders.
“That’s what I was afraid of!” Murati said. “With all due respect, I don’t want–”
“Keep him away from a Strelok and you have nothing to worry about. He’s in reserve.” Commissar Bashara said. “Aiden Ahwalia is here as a punishment on Elias Ahwalia; if you were assuming that then you are correct, Lieutenant Nakara. He’s here because Premier Bhavani and Commissar-General Nagavanshi want to apply pressure to his father through this assignment. Ahwalia will think twice about making any kind of moves if internal security has his sons.”
“His father was purged from the party. His family can’t take public office.” Murati said. “Isn’t this a bit ridiculous? Elias Ahwalia is under house arrest. I don’t see any reason for this.”
Murati felt the Commissar would be predisposed to take the side of the security arm and the intelligence arm of the government on this issue. She looked to the Captain for support, but was met with only a soft, sympathetic expression, like a mother unable to go against the father on some household disagreement. Captain Korabiskaya stood up from her chair to meet Murati’s eyes.
“You’re a really good combat soldier, Murati.” Said the Captain. “But if you want to be a ship Captain or even go to Headquarters, you have to understand politics a bit better. And I don’t just mean Mordecist theory. There are some distasteful things you have to accept. So I accepted Aiden Ahwalia’s posting to the Brigand. That decision is final. If you don’t trust him to pilot a Strelok then don’t give him one. However, as far as he knows he is here on a legitimate mission. He thinks he’s just fulfilling his military duty. So, let him think that while he sits in the reserves, or let him go out if you need him. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”
Commissar Bashara nodded. “The Captain’s assessment is uncharacteristically thorough.”
Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”
“At any rate, Lieutenant, I believe you have work to do. Does this satisfy your inquiry?”
Murati grit her teeth. Her grip tightened around the tablet computer with her roster files.
“Yes ma’am.” She said. She did not like it, but she had no choice.
Commissar Bashara turned her eyes from Murati and forward to the rest of the bridge.
“Keep on keepin’ on, Murati. You’ll be fine.” The Captain said, by way of parting.
Swallowing some nasty things she wanted to say, Murati turned and vacated the bridge.
Despite everything, Murati was pretty excited that the pilot group was so diverse.
They had a few dark-skinned North Bosporans (herself included), a few Volgians, a Pelagis and a pair of Shimii. There were three other transgender women with her, a transgender man, and even a pilot identifying as nonbinary. She shouldn’t have been surprised — there were a lot of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the Union military, particularly transgender women who got to transition after the revolution. A lot of them became pilots for the respect afforded them.
Almost everyone in the Union had a military background these days, and the Union was pretty colorful.
It made sense the military reflected that.
The Union was fairly socially progressive: it was after all the place where the Empire sent many “undesirable” people to “cleanse” its internal population, so it made sense there would be a lot of their causes championed institutionally in the Union. That by itself did not stop social prejudices, but it did mean the state would protect Murati’s rights. And it also meant she could end up leading a squadron that was so varied in gender expression and sexuality. As a bit of a social activist herself Murati was a champion of workplace diversity — even if Gunther might have been disappointed in her sidelining of some other workplace ethics.
Her pilot group looked very strong. She put a lot of faith in them.
Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.
Some of their history was a bit more complicated than Murati would have liked.
As a leader, however, she set aside those issues.
Her goal was to lead the people she had. To lead them to safety; to lead them to victory.
At 1200 hours Murati and her pilots finally convened in the hangar.
Even wearing the same uniform, they really did seem like an eclectic group.
“Welcome, comrades! I am Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara. I apologize for the idleness of the past few days, but I am pleased to formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron! Today we begin our mission to uncover, unite, train, and equip anti-imperialist forces in the Imbrium. This was a doctrine originally envisioned by our founder and first Premier, Daksha Kansal. We’ve had many difficulties as a nation since then, but the tide of history turns in our direction and the Union Navy is finally ready to do whatever it takes to seize victory! We have finally embarked on this historic mission, and I wouldn’t have any other crew but this one at my side. Let us work together to topple imperialism in our Oceans!”
Murati had spent some time in her books researching for her little speech.
To say Kansal created this doctrine was putting a heavy coat of paint on the events. She had insinuated in her Premiership speech that she wanted the Union to serve as a beacon for other revolutions in the Empire, and on more than one occasion believed the Empire would someday be split up by revolutions. When she ultimately left the Union, it was broadly believed that she did so in order to foment unrest in the Empire using the skills she gained during the revolution.
That being said, Murati was the only military and political history expert among the pilots.
So she thought it was a good way to get them thinking positively, if they knew no better.
After all, if Kansal had thought of it, then it wasn’t some random idea thought up yesterday.
Despite her passion, however, the response to the speech was a bit muted.
A blond Shimii woman among the pilots gave her an energetic clap and a big smile.
Next to her, a second Shimii started clapping slowly when the blond woman wouldn’t stop.
Shalikova averted her gaze.
Everyone else stood eyes forward with hands behind their backs like good soldiers.
Murati moved as fluidly as she could away from the subject.
“Now, I want each of you introduce yourselves to the group. It would be pretty frustrating to operate day to day without names, so let’s all become more familiar. I will go first and then I will select the rest of you to come up one by one. I’m Murati Nakara, I’m 29 years old. I piloted at Thassalid Trench, and before that, I did every odd job you can think of in the military. I really like electronic music and I actually played in a football club, so I’m going to push for us to get some nets down here sometime.”
She smiled at everyone, and a got a few small smiles in response, except from Shalikova.
“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”
There was an almost audible groan from Shalikova as she walked forward to join Murati.
Stiff and unsmiling, Shalikova turned reluctantly to face the rest of the squad. Murati had seen this unfriendly face before at Thassalid Trench. Shalikova was thin and pale, with long, white hair and wonderfully indigo eyes that really popped amid her pristine skin and girlish facial features. For some reason she had stopped wearing her jacket since they embarked on their journey. With the sleeveless TBT button-down, Murati could see her arms and shoulders had a bit of wiry, athletic definition to them.
“I’m Sonya Shalikova. I’m 23 years old. I also piloted at Thassalid Trench.”
Shalikova started to walk back and Murati gently tapped her on the shoulder to stop her.
“Do you have hobbies or interests Shalikova? Anything you want to go back home to?”
Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.
With much consternation, she turned back to the group.
“I like hardbass music. And I like crafts. I like– making stuff. I made a bear once.”
“That’s great. Thank you Shalikova. I can have some supplies brought to you–”
Shalikova interrupted Murati. “It’s really not necessary. I’m going back to the line now.”
She returned to the lineup with a bit of desperation in her voice.
However instead of returning to the side of the blond Shimii woman, where she had once been standing, she conspicuously walked all the way to the other end of the line and stood there next to Aiden Ahwalia. Perhaps it had been because the Shimii had been making rather energetic gestures of support throughout Shalikova’s introduction and she did not want to be near her now.
“Well, alright.” Murati suppressed a laugh. “Next up is Lieutenant Khadija al-Shajara.”
Once more, the bubbly blond Shimii clapped her hands together.
She walked to the front with a long, graceful stride and took her place beside Murati.
Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.
“Hello darlings! As she said, I’m Khadija al-Shajara– ah, do I really have to say my age?”
Murati blinked, surprised. “Err, I suppose it’s not really necessary.”
Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.
Everything about Khadija seemed to shine brightly. She had a confident, foxy appearance, and her makeup was glamorous. Dark wine-colored eyeshadow; long black lashes; well-kept, slightly thick eyebrows; a rich, dark red color on her lips. She had a sophisticated air, more like an actress or a singer than a soldier. Her figure was more rounded off than Murati’s or Shalikova’s, but still plenty fit. Her natural Shimii features were charming enough on their own too, with her long, tapering ears and fluffy tail.
“Let’s forget about my age then. Let’s just say, I’m a woman in the prime of my life. I’ve been a Diver pilot longer than anyone among us, and I would love to see how all of you keep up with me in the ocean waters. As for my hobbies, I love board and card games, so if you ever want to lose a few social credits to a very beautiful gal, we could play some mahjong or poker.”
She winked at the other pilots with her hands crossed over her breast.
Murati had her official age in the roster, forty one, and she could see the gray in that voluminous and otherwise golden ponytail, and the hint of crow’s feet mostly hidden by her makeup. Khadija definitely wore her beret, nestled between her cat-like ears, to hide some of the gray where her hair parted. Murati found her little vanities charming. She could only hope she would look like Khadija did when she herself turned forty-one years old, after decades of intensive military service.
Maybe she would ask Khadija for her secrets some other time.
“Next, I’m calling on,” Murati paused briefly to look over the entire name before saying it. It was quite a mouthful. Like the name of the bridge officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa it was a combination of the mother’s and the father’s surnames. So it ended up being long and somewhat foreign to Murati: “Senior Ensign Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.”
“Ha ha! Oh my god– please just use al-Shahouh or Raisanen, not both, and not my Loup soulname.”
From beside Khadija, the other Shimii on the team walked forward with a serene smile.
“You want me to pick?” Murati said. “I guess I’ll use al-Shahouh.”
She shrugged as if amused by the decision. “Heh, do I look more Shimii than Loup then?”
Murati simply did not know enough about Loup to answer. Certainly, Sameera had the ears and the tail that resembled those of some kind of heritage mammal. Shimii ears had all kinds of shapes, so it was hard to tell whether Sameera’s tall and bristly ears were more cat-like or dog-like. Her tail was certainly a bit different. Most Shimii swayed their tails gently, but Sameera was wagging hers fast, and the shape had slightly clublike girth — maybe more like a dog. Who could say?
Loup were a rare sight in the Union. By the numbers among the rarest ethnicities there. Shimii were incarcerated and deported to the colonies that would become the Union by the Empire, starting thirty years ago, creating a significant population in the Nectaris ocean. Loup retained a privileged position among the minorities of the Imbrian Empire, and few were deported. Sameera’s roster entry listed her as biracial, both Loup and Shimii — a testament to the barriers that could be broken in the Union.
There was more to her than her ears and tail of course. Everything between them was quite distinctive.
With a sleek nose and a sharp jawline, a tall and lithe build and a confident, graceful demeanor, if Murati was “husband” material in women’s eyes, she felt Sameera would have been a trophy husband. With her brown hair tied in a long ponytail with messy bangs and her light, sand-brown skin completely unembellished, she had an earthy, handsome beauty that was easy on the eyes.
“I’m Sameera. Just call me Sameera or ‘Sam’ please. I’m 27 years old, and single.”
She did a cheeky little bow in front of everyone, with one arm crossed over her chest.
One of her ears did a little twitch. Her tail continued to wag excitedly.
“My previous piloting experience has actually all been Leviathan hunting. I was also the test pilot for that fancy new mech in the back there for a few months,” she pointed over her shoulder at the Cheka with a little grin on her face.
“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”
Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.
“As for my personal life, I like games, drinking, get-togethers, that kinda thing. I prefer being able to host a few friends, or maybe a single special someone.” She winked. Nobody reacted. “If I’m by myself, I like to do yoga actually.”
She walked back to the line of her own accord and stood between Khadija and another pilot, a colorful young Pelagis woman who briefly glared at her from the corner of her eyes. It just so happened that this was the next person Murati wanted to call.
“Thanks ‘Sam’. Maybe I’ll see you at the gym! Next, Ensign Dominika Rybolovskaya.”
Dominika wore a gloomy face as she walked to Murati’s side. That friendless expression, however, was framed with vibrant color. Her hair was a base of red with brown highlights, long and silky. There were black-striped strands of red that blended in with her hair but were actually cartilaginous pelagis fins. Her face looked soft, unblemished, and very uniformly pink, while her eyes were a bright pink with a blue limbal ring — unique and captivating. Her figure was almost as skinny as Shalikova’s. Curiously, Dominika wore the top three buttons of her shirt undone, exposing what looked like a series of tiny bumps of tissue running down her neck and presumably chest. Murati thought she saw a bit of a glow to them, but maybe it was just the lighting.
“I’m Dominika Rybolovskaya. If that’s too much of a mouthful you can call me Nika, but I’d prefer you don’t. I’m 25 years old. I was in the border troops along Campos and the ice frontier. I like target practice, archery, knife throwing. Anything with a target, I’ll be able to hit it.” She briefly and mysteriously sighed. “I guess I also like yoga– Don’t get your hopes up!”
Dominika was so quick that Sameera went from sudden elation to being put down into the ground in an instant.
“Um, thanks, Dominika.” Murati said. She opted to not acknowledge Sameera at all.
Notably, however, Dominika returned to Sameera’s side defiantly, without trying to avoid her but also without giving her any attention. She averted her gaze and Sameera stayed quiet. Khadija, to the right of both, looked between them with growing delight in her eyes. Shalikova stared dead straight at Murati, or maybe even past her, unwilling to acknowledge the rest of them.
A lively bunch, for sure.
Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.
Murati looked down at her roster again.
There were two members of the squadron left to introduce, and one was listed as a reserve for rather dire reasons, so Murati did not have to think much about who she would call next. It was the one nonbinary member of the roster.
“Next to step forward will be Ensign Valya Lebedova. Gender neutral pronouns, correct?”
“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”
Valya’s voice trembled just a little as they stepped forward in front of everyone.
They pushed their glasses up the bridge of their nose and held their hands behind their back.
“I’m Valya Lebedova. I’m 26 years old. I identify as nonbinary, um, thanks to everyone for respecting this.”
They bowed their head a little bit, their bangs briefly obscuring their gentle, demure face.
Valya took a rather guarded stance as they stood up in front of the squadron, their slight, curvy frame shaking from the knees up. They had a small nose and thin lips with a gentle expression, their face framed and partially hidden by messy, neck-length salmon-colored hair. Their long, straight bangs swept to the right side of their face, with one bright green eye peeking out. From what Murati could see, it was a stylistic choice — not covering up any kind of mysterious scars or anything so stereotypical. They wore the TBT pants and half-jacket uniform, all buttoned up over a dark blue bodysuit, quite tidy, with no customization.
“I’ve only had simulator experience, but um, my performance in the simulator was used to program the Veteran level OPFOR. So you may have actually fought against me in training. I really enjoyed simulator work but I was called on to join the team here, so I couldn’t really say no! Um, for my personal life, I like computers, programming, tinkering with stuff. I know how to solder!”
Their last words escaped them like an anxious gasp. Their cheeks flushed lightly.
“Thank you, Valya; relax, you’re among friends!” Murati said.
Finally, Murati got to the last name she wanted to speak about on the roster.
Not knowing what to expect, good or bad, she drew in a breath and prepared herself.
“Last but not least, our reserve team member, the cadet Aiden Ahwalia.”
Valya, Khadija, and Dominika all turned to face Aiden when his name was spoken.
Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.
Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.
Murati nearly cringed. She had really hoped to avoid things like this.
Aiden looked a little annoyed, but he walked forward with his head held high. He was a thin, athletic, smooth-faced young man with long, tidy black hair, tied into a short ponytail. His bright red eyes stood out more in contrast with his dark brown skin. His expressions and movements conveyed a bit of arrogance, and it only made him look more like a kid putting on airs. Even compared to Shalikova or Valya who had somewhat similar height and figure to him, and were not much older, he looked somewhat babyfaced and far too young to be among them.
“I’m Aiden Ahwalia. You all know my family, from the looks on your faces, so I won’t need to explain it. I’m 19 years old. I completed my initial enlistment like everyone else. I scored highest in the simulator against the Valya-level program out of any cadets in my class.” He put on a little grin. “My outstanding scores and performance are why I’m here. I want to represent my family and restore our standing. You all probably hold it against it me, but to be frank I don’t believe we deserve–”
“You’re doing nothing but taking up space here, you brat.” Khadija butted in.
Aiden’s outrage was immediate. Almost as if he had been ready to put on that face.
“Hey, nobody else got interrupted! You see what I’m talking about here?”
Aiden looked to Murati for support, but Khadija quickly continued to argument.
“I interrupted because you’re talking a load of shit. Like your god damned father–”
Khadija turned and poked her finger right into Aiden’s chest accusingly.
“Everyone, calm down!” Murati raised her voice. While she did not like Aiden’s attitude, she did not want this to escalate further. Khadija really looked ready to beat him up — and capable of it. “The Captain approved of him coming aboard, and I’m responsible for him. It won’t be a problem unless we all collectively make it a problem, so please, just treat him professionally.”
“I have no problem with anyone but him. I’m probably not the only one.” Khadija said.
“I know where you’re coming from.” Valya replied. “But Lieutenant Nakara is right.”
“We must listen to the commander.” Dominika said, arms crossed and head down.
“I agree, let’s just relax. Why don’t I treat you later, Lieutenant al-Shajara?”
Sameera tried to sweet-talk Khadija, but the older woman was clearly not in the mood.
“I apologize, Nakara. Please continue. I would like permission to retire for the day after assignments.”
“Permission granted. Aiden, come talk to me after I finish the assignments.”
Murati looked down at Aiden at her side. She nodded, directing him to leave.
He crossed his arms and returned to the line of pilots in a huff.
Now that everyone was introduced, the final official step in establishing the squadron was the assignments. Khadija would have known that — she was a veteran who had been through several missions already. Union Divers worked in pairs, often two to three pairs per squadron. Working as a pair gave everyone in the squadron a buddy to rely upon. Pairs were more resilient than individuals and gave the squadron more flexibility. Originally the Brigand had five Divers with two reserves, but Murati successfully lobbied the Captain for Valya to become a full member.
“I’ll start giving the pair assignments. This will be short for today, but we’ll flesh out our roles and capabilities more in the coming days, when we really start training and when we will be expected to be on call 24/7 as part of the ship’s combat power.” Murati said. “First off, the flanking unit will consist of myself in the Cheka alongside Ensign Shalikova in the Strelok ‘I-bis.’”
Murati looked to Shalikova with a big, happy smile that was not returned in the slightest.
“Ok.” Not even a ‘looking forward to working with you’ or anything of the sort.
Hopefully, that withdrawn attitude was something they could work on together.
“Next, our breakthrough firepower unit will consist of Ensign al-Shahouh in the Strelok C.Q.C. ‘Cossack’ and Ensign Rybolovskaya in the Strelkannon ‘Modular Weapons Platform.’”
Sameera turned cheerfully to Dominika for acknowledgment. Dominika turned her cheek.
Clearly the assignments Murati had made on paper would need some work in practice.
“Lieutenant al-Shajara and Ensign Lebedova will pilot Streloks in our support unit.”
Khadija walked over to Valya and gave them a friendly squeeze on the shoulder that took the latter by surprise. Valya nearly jumped, and then tried to smile at Khadija to play it off. No sooner had the Shimii’s hand lifted off her assigned enby’s shoulder than Khadija took off casually toward the hangar elevator, wanting to leave the hangar as soon as possible. Murati sighed.
“Finally, Cadet Ahwalia will be in reserve. Everyone is dismissed for the day. At ease.”
As soon as they were released, the pilots wandered away. Shalikova waited for everyone else to take the elevator first; Valya headed toward their Strelok’s gantry to inspect it; Dominika found herself closely followed by Sameera who was quiet but had a cheeky expression as she quite clearly and obviously shadowed her partner but pretended to be merely going her own way.
Murati, meanwhile signaled for Aiden to come forward to talk to her. She whispered:
“I don’t care who your family is. I won’t judge you or protect you for it. Next time you get a rise out of anyone, it will be up to Akulantova to get the boots off your face, because I won’t.”
Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.