Without fanfare good or ill, the Brigand finally entered Imperial waters by crossing the demarcation line set at the abandoned Cascabel station. A cylindrical pillar with ribbed sections, it was like an eerie sentinel, abandoned at its post on this empty borderland, watching the Brigand cross the rocky ocean between Ferris and Sverland. A field of pallid, plankton-eating stalks had taken over the sand banks that once hid defensive torpedo pods and cannon casemates defending this border. Bubblegum coral grew from the dismal patches of sand atop rocky, uneven surfaces making up the seafloor around Cascabel station.
Disparate groups of bioluminescent fish danced in the orifices of the hulking structure like flickering, ghostly lamps. A casualty of one of the final battles of the revolution, Cascabel was deliberately flooded to deny the nascent Union a useful forward base.
On the main screen, the crew was entertained by the first landmark they’d seen in days.
“Magnificent. What a sophisticated aura!” Fernanda said.
“It’s just a creepy hunk of metal.” Alex added.
“You know, they say that when the Empire flooded Cascabel, the souls of all the men and women who died defending it were anchored to the structure and could never rise out of the Ocean.” Semyonova said suddenly. “Even to this day, they are trapped, wandering the flooded halls. Illegal scrappers from both sides of the DMZ have gone missing in the station’s depths.”
She waited with a serious expression for the response from her comrades.
“Wait? What the hell? Really?” Alex asked.
“Such foul things do transpire within abandoned stations.” Fernanda said.
“Foul things? Do you mean the ghosts or the smuggling?” Alex asked.
“Apparitions and banditry are both within the purview of ‘lost places’.”
“So you also believe in ghosts? Fucking ghosts?”
“Hah! Do you disbelieve in the power of the great beyond? Living under the Ocean?”
Framing it that way made Alex hesitate, like there was something she missed. “I–”
Before Alex could continue, Helmsman Kamarik butted in with a groan.
“All of you need a serious brain checkup if you believe that crap.” He said.
“Another philistine discovered.” Fernanda said.
Her inflection carried a certain sadistic delight.
“I’m just being practical.” Kamarik said. “If I can’t hold it in my hands, it’s not real.”
“Aw, come on y’all.” Semyonova said. “I didn’t think y’all would take it so serious.”
“The work of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, is in all things, but this is verging on jinn talk.”
Fatima mysteriously spoke up at that point. Alex looked at her with a certain confusion.
“I feel like I didn’t understand half the things she said. No offense.”
“It’s Shimii religion.” Kamarik said. “I know a little about it. My name comes from it.”
“Are you a Shimii?” Alex asked, jokingly.
“Half.” Kamarik replied dryly.
Alex’s jaw dropped slightly. “Wait? What the hell? Really?”
“Yep.” Kamarik said mysteriously. He crossed his arms and nodded his head.
Fatima looked suddenly mortified.
“Ah, I apologize. I did not intend to cause offense by suddenly bringing up my religion. It’s just a reflex, my father studied under a Mawla, a religious teacher of our people– ahh, I’m doing it again. I’m sorry. If you want to talk about jinn, I suppose I can try to keep out of–”
“Ahh, don’t worry Fatima! It’s not your fault, it really isn’t.” Semyonova said affably.
She reached out and patted the excessively apologetic Fatima on the shoulder.
“Jinn are evil spirits, right?” Kamarik asked. “I think I remember they’re bad.”
“Oh, yes.” Fatima said. “They are evil apparitions responsible for all dark works.”
“Well, I don’t believe in that either. All of you need to be more materialistic.”
“It’s materialist.” Alex said. “What you wanted to say is ‘materialist’, Abdul.”
“Oh dear, the gamer presumes to patronize us about language and the supernatural?”
Fernanda grinned and gently covered her mouth with the back of her hand.
From the Electronic Warfare station, Zachikova piped up suddenly.
“I believe in something I can’t hold in my hands — it’s called data.”
She grinned to herself. She looked like she must have felt incredibly clever.
Kamarik stared at her while Alex looked at him like she was trying to find something.
“Where do you keep the tail? Do you have one?”
Above it all, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been put in charge of a zoo.
“What is this conversation? I feel like I’m getting dumber for having to listen to this.”
Commissar Aaliyah Bashara saw Ulyana with her face in her hands and reassured her.
“This kind of banter is important for a crew, Captain. It forges stronger bonds.”
She spoke just low enough for their conversation to be private.
“I feel like they’re forging some pretty stupid bonds down there.” Ulyana said.
“The Brigand’s crew is…eccentric. But sailing is sailing. You must have seen this before.”
“My old crews used their inside voices a little more in the presence of Nagavanshi.”
Aaliyah’s ears wiggled a bit. “Was the Commissar-General that frightening?”
“How can you have worked with her and ask that? She’s a demon.” Ulyana said.
“I guess I never worked with her closely. I, personally, believe in having an open bridge.”
She looked proud, as if she had said something of great meaning just then.
Ulyana grinned. “Okay, well, do you believe in ghosts or jinn or whatever?”
“Unlike a lot of Shimii I’m a dedicated atheist. So no, I don’t believe in such things.”
Aaliyah gave the Captain a look as if she were annoyed by having the banter raised to her.
“Then how do you think all those stories Semyonova brought up attain cultural purchase?”
“Cascabel is in disrepair and dangerous. Scrappers probably just die in it because of this.”
“You know, that’s actually a very practical explanation. Nevermind this nonsense then.”
Ulyana sat back in her chair, stretching her arms. Aaliyah shook her head gently.
“Okay, so then what do you think about video games, Commissar Bashara?” Ulyana said.
“We don’t need to reproduce their banter, Captain.” Aaliyah said with a bit of growl.
“Well, if it’s good enough for down there, isn’t it fine here too?” Ulyana winked.
Aaliyah turned a little red and glared at her. “Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”
“Oh? What’s that supposed to mean? I need it explained in strictly materialist terms.”
“Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya–” Another low growl, this time through teeth.
And now full name and rank was coming out. Ulyana staggered, sensing a sudden danger.
Thankfully, the absolute chaos that had overcome the bridge was soon interrupted.
“Captain! Sensors are picking up trace long-wave radiation — might be an E.L.F message.”
Extremely Low Frequency was one of the few forms of long distance wireless messaging available underwater.
Massive antennae buried in Solstice could send these messages through any amount of water out to extremely long ranges.
But the throughput was abysmal — it was text only, and character-limited.
Fatima shouted up to the Captain. Besides sonar, her station had access to the sensor array.
“I can confirm! I’m capturing and deciphering as we speak!” Semyonova added.
Ulyana was taken aback. She had not expected official communication this soon.
“Send it up to me when it’s done! If it’s HQ this soon, it must be urgent.” She said.
“E.L.F. message received, decrypted, and sent to your station, Captain!”
Semyona turned around and did a happy little salute. This was the first official message from HQ she had transferred as the Brigand’s chief of signals, a milestone on any maiden voyage.
Ulyana smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, turned her computer screen sideways.
Using the arm that was attached to her seat, she was able to angle it for herself and Aaliyah.
“Can you read it?” She asked her Commissar.
Aaliyah blinked. She leaned forward on her seat to look at the Captain’s screen.
“Yes, I can but– do you need my help? Are you having trouble reading it?”
“Oh, not at all. I just want you to be part of this discussion also.”
Aaliyah looked confused. Ulyana wondered what her previous ships must have been like.
Nagavanshi practically demanded to be shown every message. She was very hands-on.
In time, Ulyana came to see it as a resource, a form of help, rather than a hindrance.
So it made sense to let Aaliyah be part of these situations from the start.
“Alright, let’s see–”
Ulyana read the message, printed in four short lines of text.
VIP IN SERRANO.
“Looks like we’re being asked to dock in Serrano to pick up a passenger, who will be with us for the journey, if I’m parsing this right. I’m a little taken aback honestly.” Ulyana said. “It’s not as if we don’t have extra supplies. Sailing is all about being frugal and planning for the worst. But as far as picking up a VIP, don’t you think we’d just put them in danger, Commissar?”
Aaliyah read the message and nodded her head. “We would not be able to guarantee their return from this journey. However, if we’re being asked to do this, it must be because they have information pertaining to anti-Imperial resistance efforts. Otherwise it would be truly pointless.”
“I wonder how they contacted the Union.” Ulyana said. “What’s the time frame here?”
“Our spy networks have their ways. I think it’s realistic they could have gotten a message out and arranged for asylum; especially since the Empire has apparently been on shaky grounds for a few weeks now. Before the Emperor was dead, he was dying, and I’m sure his retreat caused the Empire’s guard to slacken.” Aaliyah replied. “At any rate. Orders are orders. We must go to Serrano.”
“We were going there anyway. It’s a place that it makes sense to start getting information about the Empire. I know there’s tons of smuggling that happens there, some of it to the Union. I was posted at an Agri-Sphere once that got smuggled cattle from the Empire through Serrano. And if the dockworkers are ‘friendly’ it would behoove us to get in contact with them.”
Ulyana ran a hand through her blond hair and tossed it. She had worn it long that day.
She sighed and bowed her head a little.
“You seem unsettled still, Captain.” Aaliyah asked. “You can tell me what’s wrong.”
Ulyana found herself thinking “why do YOU look fine with it?” after hearing that.
“We’ve been given a pretty tough job. Not just the whole ‘organize a bunch of people who may or may not exist to topple the Empire’ business. I’m more concerned with the day to day ‘keep one step ahead of thousands of Imperial Navy ships trying to kill us’ types of business right now.”
“None of those ships know our intentions or objectives. Right now, we’re invisible.”
“Right now; but how do we stay hidden forever? We only have to blow our cover once.”
“As a Commissar, I swore to trust and support you. You must trust yourself too, Captain. Being fearful won’t keep us safe. We have to move forward bravely to complete our mission.”
“True but being too brave will put us in danger. I’m worried we won’t see that line when we cross it. Being frank, I’m worried that I won’t see it. Under the water, ships see each other as noise first. I am afraid I won’t know when we’ve made enough waves to be seen by our enemies.”
Ulyana looked at Aaliyah in the eyes, a contact the Commissar briefly held.
Seeing the Captain being so honest, the Commissar could not just respond with barbs.
Aaliyah seemed to hesitate, but then reached out a hand to Ulyana’s shoulder.
“Have faith Captain. This is not your mission or only your life to lose. You’re not alone.”
“You’re right, as usual.” Ulyana sighed yet again. “You’re right, Commissar. I know it.”
“Don’t fret too much. You have me– our whole crew.” Aaliyah corrected herself quickly.
Ulyana was not so distracted that she wouldn’t notice something like that. She smiled.
“You’re right. With a top notch Commissar like you at my side, how could I lose?”
Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She sat back in her chair, then pulled her hat over her face.
“Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”
“Good advice for all my anxieties, I suppose.”
Ulyana winked, but only because the frigid Shimii beside her would not have noticed.
More and more she felt very lucky to have Aaliyah Bashara at her side.
The Brigand received its first mission and left Cascabel behind.
Now in Imperial waters, the ship navigated carefully, remaining about fifty meters above the rocky sea floor and keeping a watch for incoming vessels. Since they were masquerading as a civilian vessel, silent running would have been quite suspicious, so no policies were set in place to regulate the sound of most human activity on the ship. What did have to be regulated was Diver maintenance and training, since the noises of heavy equipment would have been suspicious too.
Since the ship left Thassal station, the navigation computer had been keeping track of their position. Speed and heading and other kinds of navigational data were used by the computer to track the Brigand’s course on a slightly outdated Imperial map. In this way, Helmsman Kamarik always knew where they were and knew the way to their destination, at first Cascabel and now Serrano. This allowed them to retain the correct course even while astray in the Ocean wilderness.
“There’s this legend that people on the surface used to navigate by looking at the sky over the Ocean. You all know what the sky is right?” Kamarik said, turning back to the Bridge crew.
“It’s the heaven that’s far above the surface of the water.” Fatima said.
“That’s one way of looking at it I guess.” Kamarik said. “Anyway, you understand what it is. It used to be, people could look past the sky and see lights. You can even still do that — there’s been drone photographs of clear sky, full of lights. If you could survive up there, you could see the lights in the sky. And people used to navigate by looking at the groups of lights. Most of the sky isn’t like that anymore though, it’s just gas now, purplish thundering agarthic gas; but yeah.”
“I think I’ll trust the navigation computer over the ‘lights in the sky.’” Alex said bluntly.
“Duh, I wasn’t saying it was better!” Kamarik laughed. “I was just spinnin’ sailor tales.”
The bridge was riotous as ever. Their talents allowed them to keep that lively atmosphere.
One particular officer made an outsize contribution to that high morale during the journey.
Fatima proved herself worthy of having ‘golden ears.’ She was able to easily discern noisy civilian traffic, identify the models to the best of her knowledge even before the predictor could see them and she sounded no false alarms. Aaliyah had been correct about the state of the patrols. There were no military ships out on the hunt for Union vessels. Even beyond the Cascabel region, the only naval vessel they ran into after coasting past Cascabel was a single Maltier-class utility ship. Like every other ship, Fatima identified it quite easily and reported it calmly and promptly.
“Remarkable.” Captain Ulyana said. “Chief Petty Officer, you truly have splendid ears.”
Fatima’s black-furred, slightly curved cat ears gave the Captain a happy little twitch.
“Ahh, thank you Captain. I’m only sorry I was distracted for a moment and did not–”
“You truly have nothing to be sorry for.”
What an apologetic girl! She must have been maybe a millisecond off her own, already freakish idea of how quickly a sonar technician should detect and categorize hydrophone noise.
Aaliyah tapped the ecstatic Captain on the shoulder with a demure look on her face.
Her own ears gave a little twitch when acknowledged. Her face was a little bit flushed.
“Captain, I understand what you were saying, but to compliment a Shimii’s ears like that, it’s a bit embarrassing. It’s not exactly proper, you know. You must take care of what you say.”
“Hmm? Is it a cultural issue? Fatima did not look bothered. Her ears even wiggled.”
“You were saved by the context, and praise is all well and good, but decency must be–”
“Ah. I understand what’s going on. Don’t worry. You have lovely ears too, Commissar.”
“Captain! It’s different than when you talk about a Volgian’s ears. I am not joking!”
“How is it different?”
“It’s different! It’s just different!”
“Okay, okay. I’ll be more careful with my words. But you know, Nagavanshi never–”
“I am not Nagavanshi. You would do well to get used to me and stop bringing her up.”
“Ah, I’m so sorry. I will do my part to recognize and praise you for your unique merits.”
“This is not about that at all. This is not one scintilla, one iota, one whit, about that!”
Even the Captain and the Commissar expressed their high morale in their own ways.
Sverland used to be one of the “colonies” that the Empire founded after the expanding from the Imbrium. Due to its proximity to the imperial heartland, Sverland became a management hub for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s production. Unlike the territories that would become the Union, Sverland boasted a handful of actual cities, and the most southern of these was Serrano station, a commercial hub through which everything coming and going through Sverland seemed to end up.
A pillar-type Station of enormous size, Serrano’s base was set into a crater 1200 meters deep beneath the Ocean, while the highest point was at the 800 meter mark. There were three port structures, one at the base, one in the middle of the pillar and an exclusive covered dock at the very top. Fatima’s golden ears were overwhelmed around Serrano. There was a lot of traffic coming and going. There were perhaps a hundred large ships and many dozens of smaller, shorter ranged craft docked, docking, or departing from the station. In such a crowded scenario, the acoustic predictor was more efficient at analyzing the discrete models of ships around them than Fatima alone.
For the first time, the Brigand saw Imperial naval vessels. Small patrol cutters covered the waters starting half a dozen kilometers from the station. They could not tell that the Brigand was a Union vessel. As far as they were concerned it was an old hauler that resembled several of the merchant vessels frequenting the waters around Serrano. So while their first brush with Imperial patrols caused the Brigand’s crew to break a sweat, the cutters merely floated by without incident.
After meeting the smallest imperial ships, they soon met the very largest.
Anchored to the same lower dock that was their destination, there was a truly massive ship.
Gunmetal grey with an elegant, spoon-shaped prow and a sweeping chassis and fins.
“Irmingard class.” Ulyana said.
“You know it?” Aaliyah asked.
“When I was Captain of–” the Captain began to reply but paused briefly as if staggered for a moment by the bitter memory she recalled. “When I was part of the Pravda project, the reason we were making such a big dreadnought was that a defector from the Empire managed to make it to us with the early plans for the Irmingard class. This was like, seven years ago. All of the Union’s current dreadnoughts are more advanced than the common Koenig class that the Empire has kept around for decades. But we have nothing against the Irmingard class. Not after the Pravda sank.”
Aaliyah seemed to be able to tell the Captain’s mood had suddenly turned a bit foul.
She put on an expression of sympathy and laid her hand on the armrest of the chair.
Not touching the Captain, but offering some proximal physical support nonetheless.
“The Brigand might not be the Pravda; but it’s no common ship you’re Captain of.”
“Don’t try to console me about the Pravda.” Ulyana said bluntly. “Just ignore me.”
That Irmingard dreadnought, like every other Imperial ship, had no reason to fight them.
They would have to ensure it remained that way. Aaliyah did not press Ulyana any further.
As they approached Serrano station, Kamarik took on the task of getting them docked properly, while Semyonova was in charge of communicating with Station Control to report in their ship and be assigned a space in the port. Owing to the indifference of a port that saw massive amounts of money going in and out every hour, the Brigand was not scheduled for a search and needed no further identification to berth. Imperial ports were famously corrupt, and the Brigand could have easily bribed its way through. And so the Brigand slipped in under a steel sky, above an ocean floor turned white by bright floodlights. The lower dock was accessed through massive openings in the base of the station, and was mostly inhabited by dismal-looking cargo haulers. The Brigand requested access via a cargo unloading berth — a massive structure into which the cruiser-size ship would be clamped, locked into place, sealed, and the berth would then drain. Finally, they would employ their cargo elevator for access.
While this was transpiring, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara left the Bridge in Semyonova’s hands and assembled the squadron who would be handling their first mission within the station itself. In the strategic planning room, Zachikova, Shalikova and Murati had been called to assemble, along with Akulantova and Ensign Van Der Smidse, a member of the security team. She was a young, bright-eyed woman with a mischievous smile, wearing her blond hair in two long braids. She had an athletic figure but was completely dwarfed by Chief Akulantova.
“Murati,” Ulyana began, “You will lead Zachikova and Shalikova into the city to recover a refugee from ‘Warehouse Six’. This team was chosen because of your practical abilities — Murati has a track record as an excellent tactician and speaker, Shalikova has sharp eyes and hands and quick reflexes, and Zachikova has unique skills with computing and reconnaissance.”
“Unless something truly unfortunate happens, the authorities won’t have their eye on you. So be cautious and don’t give anyone cause to follow you or suspect you of anything.” Aaliyah added. “Zachikova will be in contact with us through encrypted radio, and with her unique talents she’ll be able to tell if there’s any heat coming down on you by monitoring the station network. We’ll have part of the security team patrolling the docks just in case you find unwanted friends.”
Akulantova smiled. “I’m going to stay here to help the Captain and Commissar. But I’ve assembled some of my people to guard the docks. Like this young lady, Klara Van Der Smidse; and another of my team, Zhu Lian, who is preparing equipment for us. I will station these two at the entrance to the docks. They can rush into the city to help if you need a distraction or cover or anything like that. Like the Captain said though, we’re hoping you’ll keep a low profile today.”
Upon being mentioned, Van Der Smidse put on an almost smug look.
She did not say anything, but her face showed she was quite pleased with herself.
Murati showed no outward concern upon being given her mission.
She did have questions, however.
“Wouldn’t it be better for the security team to fetch and protect the refugee?”
“Have some confidence in yourself Murati.” Aaliyah said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Besides that, the reason you’re going and not the security team is that we’re not setting out to shoot anyone or extract under fire.” Ulyana said. “We assembled a team to blend in, make their way through city overlooked in crowds, and peacefully meet up with our refugee. Then assess the situation and return safely. Our Security team is better put to use guarding our perimeter here.”
“I guess I understand when you put it that way. Are we taking any gear?” Murati asked.
“You’re not getting a weapon.” Ulyana said. She had a faint, bemused smile.
“I didn’t ask for a weapon. I just want to know what’s available.” Murati said. “Beside weapons, what about armor? What about barter items in case we need to negotiate for something?”
“Murati, they don’t do much bartering in the Empire.” Aaliyah said.
“You’d be surprised. Historically, in times of war, the value of currency–”
“You’re all supposed to be civilian workers with a transport company.” Ulyana interrupted, before Murati could get too far into her history lesson. “Logistics personnel aren’t usually carrying around much on a quick trip into town. If you need to negotiate money with anyone, it’s going to be in imperial marks, not seashells and whalebone. All the gear you get is Zachikova.”
Zachikova nodded her head. Shalikova glanced sidelong at her.
“How will we find the meeting place? Warehouse Six, you said?” Murati said.
“It’s likely in the city map. I’ll download it when we get outside.” Zachikova said.
“We’ll also be making contact with the dockworkers.” Aaliyah said. “When you work with ships and cargo, you get all kinds of information. I’m hoping I can catch up on current events and see if there’s anything interesting going on in Sverland specifically. If I learn anything useful about your situation in particular, I’ll tell the Captain and she’ll inform Zachikova right away.”
“Do we know anything about the refugee? How will I know it’s them?” Murati said.
“I’m sorry to say we don’t know anything. To be honest, we’ve been assuming it’s only one person, but reading E.L.F messages can be like astrology sometimes.” Ulyana said. “That’s why I’ll be in contact. Keep me appraised of the situation.”
“We also trust your judgment, Murati.” Aaliyah said. “As the first officer, Zachikova and Shalikova will follow your orders on the field. In fact, I’d prefer you limit contact with the Captain to avoid suspicions. Only do so in an emergency.”
Ulyana sighed as if she was afraid it might come to that.
Then, for a brief moment, everyone felt a faint vibration transfer from the floor.
“We’ll be fully docked into the station soon. Is there anything else on your mind?”
Ulyana addressed Murati, and the First Officer responded by saluting.
Murati had a smile on her face. She looked at ease.
“No, I think I understand everything. This should be nice and easy.” She replied.
Shalikova crossed her arms over her chest. Zachikova stared at Murati as if knowingly.
“Any objections, you two?”
Murati turned from the Captain and Commissar to her fellow officers and team members.
“Of course I have no objections. Orders are orders.” Shalikova said bluntly.
“All things considered, I’d rather stay on the ship, but I’ll go.” Zachikova replied.
“Wow, so lively and full of enthusiasm.” Akulantova joked.
Van Der Smidse hid a small laugh behind her delicate fingers.
Shalikova threw a nasty glare at the too-affable security team member.
“I’m glad you’re all still lively.” Aaliyah said. “Murati, depart as soon as possible.”
“Yes ma’am. Will do. Thank you for choosing me for this mission.”
“Of course. It’s our first outing in Imperial waters, but I trust in every one of you.”
Ulyana stepped forward and shook hands vigorously with each of the team members.
“Bring that refugee back safe, and we can start taking the Empire down a peg. Dismissed.”
Everyone saluted. At least, the Brigand would enter the war-torn Empire and begin its quest.