Murati knew the history of the Empire and studied many theories about its economic system and social stratification. However, this was her first time seeing the Empire. Not only piercing the invincible front that the Union feared in Cascabel, but actually entering as an Imperial citizen would and setting foot within the steel colossi itself. This was entirely different than reading books.
It was the first step on their journey.
That immense mission, a quest so daunting they could hardly grasp its scope–
Serrano station would be their first step on this long, winding road.
Once the Brigand was fully docked into Serrano station’s central port, the cargo elevator descended from the rear of the hangar and touched down on the steel floor of the port landing below the ship, awaiting any goods “purchased” by the Brigand to be brought aboard. Each berth in the dock had thick glass and steel dividers that could contain the ship and either drain the water or expose the ship to water again, as well as the massive clamps that bore the ship’s weight. Everything was so gigantic, from the ships themselves to the berths that held them. Human bodies were utterly insignificant in mass compared to the fleet Serrano docked.
Steel paths with tall guardrails led from the ship landings to the port grounds.
There were warehouses and container parks for goods, a travel agency, and offices for the port authority and guards.
In contrast with the enormous architecture of the port, these places were eerily ordinary.
Murati, Shalikova and Zachikova descended with the cargo elevator.
Alongside them were two members of the security team.
Klara Van Der Smidse, the energetic platinum blond who had accompanied Akulantova to the meeting, swayed from side to side with excitement. Beside her was a second member of the security team, Zhu Lian, a long-limbed woman with a regal countenance. With her long black hair styled with even, blunt ends on her bangs and along her ears, and her easy, confident gait, she looked too sophisticated to be in the infantry with Klara. In the Union, of course, looks were very much deceiving in that regard.
Commissar Aaliyah had also come with them. She would be going in a different direction than the rest.
All of them were dressed in the Treasure Box Transports uniforms, with the teal half-jacket, white shirt and black pants or skirt. Aaliyah had left her peaked Union Commissar’s cap behind to better blend in. Zhu and Van Der Smidse had long jackets instead of the half-jackets worn by most of the crew. They concealed their pistols within the interior breast pockets of the full length jackets.
Once the cargo elevator touched down on the station, the metal and plastic scent of the treated air within the Brigand fully dispersed. In its place, the predominant scent was an herby pungency that seemed to waft from a nearby berth. To the right of the Brigand on the next berth over, a glistening, rotund crop transporter ship unloaded multiple plastic drums and steel crates full of what smelled strongly of pickled herbs. Dockworkers in light labor Diver suits were unloading this ship.
To the Brigand’s left, the next two berths were occupied by the same ship, just a bit too long for one.
That enormous ship was an Irmingard class dreadnought belonging to the Imperial Navy.
“Do you think we miscalculated just a bit, docking here?” Klara asked, pointing at it.
“We didn’t have a choice. We docked at the cargo berth we were given.” Aaliyah said.
While everyone else would be taking the direct path out of the port, Aaliyah would walk the path to the right, alongside the agri-transporter ship and to the warehouses. Her own mission was to gather information, and the dockworkers were apparently on the Union’s side. She bid farewell with a twitch of her ears. “Good luck. Don’t do anything rash and get back safely.”
For a moment, the team watched the Commissar go on her way before they too set off.
Murati was filled with emotion.
Her expression was cool and collected, but her skin brimmed with energy as she moved, and her heart was beating fast. She was full of anticipation for a lot of different reasons. Her first mission as part of the Brigand’s crew; she had read and even written tactical theories for a lot of different situations, but this was the first big one. She had to put into practice everything she knew.
Not only as a member of a team, but as the leader of the team.
Everyone was counting on her. And she was confident she could succeed.
After all, it was an easy enough mission. An extraction right under the enemy’s nose. The Empire did not even know that they had to be watching. Serrano was completely normal. No alarms, no lockdowns, not a hint of suspicion. As they walked between the port structures, nobody paid them any mind. Not from the heart of the docks, and not even at the open maw into the station sprawl.
In those thick crowds ahead of them, there was no way anyone would notice them.
“Alright, this is as far as we go.” Zhu Lian said. “Nakara, take this with you.”
At the entrance to the port, where a small bridge connected the suspended structures of the port facilities with a sturdy city street, Lian and Klara stopped and fell behind momentarily. When Murati turned around to look, Lian extended her hand. There was a small bauble on her palm, with corners as if it were a cube but with round surfaces in between, nothing to indicate its purpose.
“If you’re in trouble, press down the surface I’m rubbing my finger on.” Zhu Lian said.
“We’ll come running to your rescue, my beautiful damsels.” Klara added.
She winked at them and showed them a little bauble of her own with a blinking light.
“Ours will blink faster as it nears yours. It’s a simple, concealable design.” Zhu Lian said.
“We’re good at playing hot-cold, so we’ll find you no matter what.” Klara added.
She gently bumped her elbow into Lian, who glanced at her from the side of her eyes.
Lian’s gently neutral face and Klara’s playful bubbliness painted an interesting picture.
“Thanks. Will you two be okay twiddling your thumbs here all day?” Murati asked.
“We better be. Orders are orders, you know?” Klara said, with a big happy smile.
“We’ll keep ourselves entertained somehow.” Zhu Lian added. “Don’t worry.”
“Hey Lian, we can play punch buggy.”
Zhu Lian smiled a tiny bit. “Let’s not, actually.”
Murati smiled too. They would definitely be okay. “Let’s go, Sonya, Braya.”
“Don’t first-name me.” Shalikova snapped.
Zachikova cracked a little smile.
“If you’re not going to call me mistress or goddess, only Zachikova will do from you.”
Murati felt suddenly foolish for wondering how well Zhu and Van Der Smidse got along.
Her mind returned to the task ahead.
Flowing before them was an absolute flood of humanity.
On that street adjacent to the port, alone, there must easily have been hundreds of people.
Murati fidgeted with her tie while she walked into this enormous, omnidirectional crowd.
For people used to pillar-type, segmented stations with numerous smaller floors and halls, the enormity of Serrano was a shock. City-type stations were something a Union citizen might never see since the Union only had two. In Serrano, the lower section of the station consisted of an enormous space encased in walls supported by massive steel and concrete pillars. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete high-rise buildings crammed into this space and winding roads between them. Overhead, the sky was composed of massive arrays of lights suspended from the steel supports for the upper section over a hundred meters above.
Surrounded by tall, multiple-use structures on all sides, the streets themselves were bright with fixtures and the colors from video-signs, but they branched into gloomy, forbidding alleyways that the crowds seemed to avoid going through if they could help it. There were all kinds of businesses and shops that shared the same buildings and street access, and computerized directories outside each building helped passersby to know if any one of the nearly identical grey spires contained the services they needed.
On the surface, all cities had this kind of layout, or so the theories and histories claimed.
While she had read that the lower section of Imperial cities was where the less fortunate citizens lived, there was a lot of variety in the way people dressed and carried themselves around Murati. She saw fashionable youths in bold, translucent vinyl and high-grade plastics; men and women in suits and jackets; people wearing nothing but a branded t-shirt and plain pants; and workers in uniforms and coveralls. Murati had expected to encounter mainly white Imbrians in the Empire, so she was surprised at the ethnic variety. There were even a few Shimii and Pelagis. It felt as though the whole world could be contained in this one city.
Out of all the sights she saw, Murati was most captivated by the street vendors.
People on the side of the road, in simple clothing, manning carts or kiosks.
She was reminded of plaza table culture back in the Union — exchanging or gifting things you made yourself.
However, in the Empire, everything revolved around money.
Every kiosk, every crate, every car, every shopfront, had big bold numbers so you knew right away if you had the money to get anything from them. Some people were selling out of the backs of electric cars, or out of crates with improvised wheels, but everyone had their prices up as large as they could possibly write them. Five marks for a snack fried before your very eyes, ten marks for a bag of oranges, a thousand marks for minicomputers in a self-described “back of the truck” sale. Everyone who was selling was shouting at passersby to come look at their goods. And they all had wary, intense expressions.
All manner of goods were being sold, but the most common products were food items.
“Real meat, huh?”
Murati briefly paused near a kiosk where an older woman selling Milanesas.
Thin cuts of red meat breaded on the kiosk table and fried on a portable burner.
There was something bewildering about it for Murati.
Animals were a precious commodity in the Union. Nobody in the Union ate animal meat.
So to see a seemingly proletarian street vendor casually frying meat was so unusual to her.
Union cattle were heritage breeds from the Empire. They had been brought to the Union to serve as the backbone of dairy production in the new colonies, for items like freeze dried bulk cheese and powdered milk that would then be sold in the Empire. The Empire did not get their dairy in the end, but the Union kept the cattle and nurtured them. The Union enjoyed access to dairy products in the present day because they were careful with those original cattle and continued to breed them well. There was bulk fishing in the Union, but fish were not eaten. They were used to manufacture certain specific products like fish glues, fertilizer, skin patches, and ointments. Animals were too precious to eat. Everything Murati ate was made of plants, fungi or yeast.
It had been Murati’s understanding that even in the Empire, meat was for the wealthy.
Murati almost wanted to try one of those snacks, but she had no money, and it might have made her sick.
Instead she watched for a moment as the vendor exchanged one with a young man.
He gave her a single bill worth five imperial marks, and she fried the cutlet right there.
Zachikova appeared by her side; Shalikova had walked out of view before turning back.
“Are you hungry?” She asked.
“Oh, sorry, no.” Murati said, surprised. “I was just catching my breath here for a bit.”
“We should get moving before Shalikova decides to complete the mission without us.”
“I heard that.” Shalikova said, arriving at their side once again, arms crossed, fangs bared.
“Right. We can go in a second. Sorry, it’s the crowd. I’m not used it.” Murati said.
Though she was nowhere near tired, it was a more respectable excuse than the truth. She didn’t want to tell them that what she was actually doing was admiring a cheap snack kiosk and thinking about meat production and class politics in the Empire. Murati knew and forgave herself for what distracted her, but it was still a bit embarrassing to admit to in the middle of a mission.
Once the meat fried thoroughly, the vendor picked it up with a pair of tongs and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. She wrapped the item and reached her hand out to the customer. He was about to take it, but right in front of Murati’s eyes, someone suddenly shoved in between them.
A young child wrapped in a hood intervened, snatching the croquette, and running past.
“You little shit! Get back here!”
The vendor shouted after the kid and waved her tongs, but the child was long gone.
Vanished into the crowd amid hundreds, maybe thousands of faces and bodies.
Sighing with frustration, the vendor promised to fry the customer another piece of meat.
Murati stood speechless for a moment.
Why would that happen? Was that child that desperate for a snack?
“Caught your breath yet, Nakara?” Zachikova asked.
“Yes. I’ll lead the way. Thank you for being patient with me.”
Murati started walking along with the crowd, keeping a cool façade but feeling a bit uneasy.
The Empire was different than she thought. In her reading, she had almost come to think of it as the Union but with a greedy upper class. Labor value was alienated from workers, who had to pay their dues to the Imperial government. Proletarians led humble lives while the Imperial aristocrats could have any luxury imaginable and as much of it as they wanted. Goods were exchanged for currency and currency was earned as a wage. Those technicalities were still true, but Murati was starting to ponder what luxury actually meant, and what kind of lives you could actually have on your wage in the Empire. That girl who stole; was that bit of meat so valuable as to directly harm another person for it? To steal their hard work and products so easily?
Murati knew that people in the Empire had to earn money for food.
Surely, anyone could earn enough for the measly five marks the vendor asked for?
How much was five marks actually worth then? It was troubling her.
In the Union, petty theft was nearly unheard of. Murati had a hard time wrapping her mind around the motivations because of this. Seeing that act transpire made her reflexively compare it to the Union context. She might have understood stealing from the aristocrats, but stealing from people in the community? And what for? For a snack? Maybe meat really was as valuable as Murati had thought and the vendor was actually much wealthier than she looked. Something was not adding up.
“I got a hold of a city map from the official Serrano visitor’s web page.” Zachikova said. “The warehouses are to the northwest. There’s a small statue park between those two high rises,” she pointed ahead of them and to the right. “We can cut through there, less people, and it’s faster. The crowds avoid it, but those alleyways are supposedly cleaned and inspected regularly.”
“Statue park, huh?” Shalikova said, seemingly interested in her surroundings for the first time.
“Yes. There’s even a famous statue commemorating Serrano’s mascot, a stuffed pepper.”
“What? A stuffed pepper?” Shalikova’s eyes drew briefly wide in surprise.
“A stuffed pepper.” Zachikova said. She nodded her head solemnly.
Murati had not been paying much attention to Zachikova before; she wondered when she had time to look up all of this and how she had accomplished it without bringing a minicomputer along. Could she “see” data through her eyes? Murati had seen little digits flitting over the surface of cybernetic eyes in the past. Data was being downloaded to her brain technically, so maybe she had a “sense” that let her parse that data. That sounded challenging to do while walking, too.
Looking at Zachikova, she seemed completely untroubled and in command of herself.
Walking calmly and confidently, eyes forward and attentive.
She must have conquered any difficulties with her implants long ago.
They navigated the stream of bodies to an alley a block away and sneaked out.
Even in the alleys, there were people.
Delivery people bringing crates into the backs of shops from electric trolley carts, customers smoking near the side doors of clubs and restaurants after being asked to step out, workers throwing trash down chutes carefully hidden from the street view. In the gloomy world between the buildings, there weren’t crowds, but the tight alleys made every person seem like they took the space of ten. A group of three uniformed women stuck out amid scratched walls, puddles of nondescript fluids that had leaked, peeling paint and discarded refuse, and the rusty ductworks laid bare in places; but nobody gave more than a passing glance.
There were a few people who just stood in the alleys, back to the wall, as if asleep.
Murati thought they looked abandoned there. They looked as if forbidden to step outside.
Serrano somehow contained a world so much more expansive than anything at Thassal, but also a second world much more confining and inhospitable than anything in the Union. There was a certain greasiness, a rusty smell of decay and neglect, that permeated these alleys. They were designed not to be seen. Even the poor, or at least, the non-ennobled, could be stratified like this. Some workers could be walking out in the streets or tending to shop fronts. But others did their duties in these alleys, away from the eyes of those massive crowds in the main street. Murati for a moment thought perhaps she was ascribing it too much significance and tried to check herself. As a student of history, Murati wanted to make everything a grand narrative.
To the people of Serrano, this was clearly just normal. It went wholly unacknowledged.
But then– why was there so much tension in the air?
Soon enough, the shape of that tension began to make itself clear to her.
Beyond the alleyways, the team made it to a little park which stood at an intersection between several buildings that were larger than average. The park was about thirty meters of sparse-looking green turf with a few statues on display. There was a tree, whether it was a synthetic air purifier or a real tree, Murati could not tell. And of course, the statues were indeed of a stuffed pepper with eyes and arms — a rather silly sight, but city mascots were not usually dignified.
However, this particular statue had company.
There was a group of people sitting on the green, at least a dozen scattered in different places. When they saw Murati and her group approaching three men began to wave at her. All of them looked a little shabby at first glance, but she became alarmed as she walked closer. Their clothes had seen some wear, and their shoes in particular looked completely worn out. Everyone was skinny, too skinny, their limbs and necks were too thin, and they had not had a shave in a very long time. Seeing them in such a state led Murati to accept their invitation and come closer.
Zachikova looked at Murati with confusion as the Lieutenant stepped on the green.
She kneeled in front of the men to try to make eye contact with them. They barely held her eyes with theirs. They tried to smile — they looked incredibly happy to be acknowledged at least.
“Hello, what happened to you? Are all of you okay?”
Murati asked what must have sounded to them like such a naïve question.
One of the men responded with a kind voice.
“What happened? Ah, this and that, ma’am. Everyone’s got stories. I was laid off for missing too many days of work. My head wasn’t right with me, you know. But right now, we’re just happy to see a friendly face. Me and the lads here, between the three of us we haven’t a mark to our names, nothing to eat. If you could spare anything for us, we’d never forget it.” He said.
Not a mark to their name? Nothing to eat? Did they not have a place to stay?
“You don’t have food? Do you have any place to go? We could escort you.” She asked.
“Ah, no ma’am, we appreciate it kindly, but we don’t have any place to go.” He said.
How could they not have shelter? Were they expected to sit out on the street forever?
“Are there any canteens around here that you could eat at without having to pay?”
Murati was still bewildered. All of the men gave her dejected shakes of the head.
“Hello? We have to keep moving.”
Standing a few meters away, Zachikova called out to Murati again.
Shalikova stood behind her, staring out at the people in the park in plain confusion.
Murati looked back at her over her shoulder and looked at the men again.
The man who had spoken kindly gave her a gentle expression, as if saying she could go.
“We understand ma’am. Thank you for blessing us with your pretty face all the same.”
All of them resigned themselves.
Murati was briefly speechless.
She stood fully upright and wandered back to Zachikova’s side, but not all of her was there. Her head was swimming with scattershot thoughts. She could not understand it. Why didn’t they have shelter? It was a station, under the ocean, what were they expected to do? There was only shelter and the inhospitable world outside, there should have been a place for them to go. If they didn’t have a room, if they were just laying around on the street– why? Why would it be like that? It didn’t make any sense to her.
She had read a lot about the Empire, their history, their strategies and tactical doctrines, monetary systems, the theory behind their social and economic systems. At no point did she consider that people could just lose their job and end up without food or shelter. She had spent some of her childhood as essentially a slave, and even then, the Empire fed her. Meagerly, but they did. They needed her and her parents to work, to be obedient. Didn’t they need to care for these men too in the same vein? These were workers!
How could they be abandoned here? Why?
“Zachikova, have you seen anything like this before?”
“Like what, Nakara?”
Zachikova had a relatively inexpressive response to the people at the park.
“These people don’t have homes or food.” Murati replied. “How can that be?”
“I’ve never seen conditions like this. It just doesn’t happen in the Union. That being said, we need to focus on the mission.” Zachikova said. “You’ve been terribly distracted all day. You must have a lot on your mind, but I really want to get back to the ship as soon as possible.”
Murati looked at her, feeling a little embarrassed. She had not been much of a leader so far.
“Contact the Captain for a moment.”
She looked at Zachikova with a renewed conviction. She had an idea in mind.
“Well. If you say so. But let’s step a bit farther away.”
Murati gestured for Shalikova to follow, and the three of them returned briefly to the alleys.
Zachikova tapped her finger on the side of one of her ears.
“Murati wants you, Captain.” She said, her tone hinting at reluctance.
Inaudibly, there was a response. Zachikova stared at Murati, prompting her to respond.
“Ask the Captain if we have any Imperial currency to bargain with.” She said.
Zachikova relayed the question. “She says we do have a stock in case it’s necessary.”
Murati pressed on. “Ask her how much.”
“She wants to know what for. She wants me to tell her what’s going on.”
“Tell her we found some people who need our help.” Murati said.
Dutifully, Zachikova relayed the situation as Murati explained it to the Captain.
Again, there was an inaudible response, but Zachikova’s body language clued Murati to its contents.
Zachikova shook her head and crossed her arms. “She’s just sighing at you, Lieutenant.”
“Ask her how much money we have available.”
“Lieutenant, I don’t think–”
Murati stood her ground.
Zachikova sighed to herself.
“I see it’s useless to talk to you then. Okay– she says 3 million marks.”
Murati’s face briefly lit up.
“Those meat snacks were 5 marks each. It shouldn’t take much to feed them. Zachikova is it possible somehow that I can talk to the Captain about this myself? Can you patch me in?”
Sighing, Zachikova pulled out much of the structure of one of her antennae.
That long, flat-tipped, wrist-wide metal antennae that served as her “ear” came off.
She handed the piece to Murati, who held it up like a two-way handset.
Neither the mouth nor earpiece were clearly labeled, but Murati figured it out.
At her side, Shalikova was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face.
She stood close as if she wanted to try to hear what the Captain would say.
Murati spoke first.
She did not get more than a word in before a loud grunt cut her off.
“Murati, the answer is no.” Captain Korabiskaya said through the communicator.
Murati closed her fist and grit her teeth.
“But we can help them. We can just buy them a little food or find them shelter.”
She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper, but she wanted to scream.
How could anyone hear of this atrocity and even consider turning away from it!
“Murati, it would attract attention we can’t afford. You will not do this. Move now.”
“It would attract attention just to give them money? Just to find them some food?”
“Yes. We shouldn’t discuss this much more. A bunch of encrypted traffic might–”
“How can you think of abandoning them! I admired you, Captain! You served in the–”
Captain Korabiskaya interrupted, frustrated. Murati had never heard her so upset before.
“This isn’t about me! I know it is unjust and I know it’s hard to ignore! Remember what we’re here for Murati! If you go off on your own to help a few people you could render us unable to help millions of people! Billions! You need to focus and do the job you were assigned!”
“What about getting them to shelter? Getting them a room? Is that so dangerous?”
“Murati, you don’t understand. Those aren’t just rooms on Imperial stations. All of that housing is owned by private people who sell it to citizens. A private owner can refuse to house people that don’t meet their standards. And food is also owned by private owners, who decide who they will sell to. You will be wasting your time trying to find someone who will give you a flat for beggars, because the landlords don’t want these people housed, and you can’t find them food because restaurants won’t sell to them! We are not in a position to help them directly, Murati!”
“How do you know this?” Murati asked, her voice rising almost to a shout.
“Because I grew up in the Empire!” The Captain replied. “I fought for the Union as a teen because I’d already had a childhood in the Empire! My family was stripped of our rights and deported! Murati, it is nothing like the Union. The Empire is not an entity that views its role as helping people who are hurting. Back then, men like these would have been deported to the colonies to work off their debts for life in mining or manufacturing. That’s what we’re up against.”
Murati listened, but she could not find it in herself to empathize with the Captain at all.
For the Captain to know of these people’s sufferings and still talk like this was monstrous!
“I can’t just stand here and do nothing, Captain. Those people will just die out here!”
“You will move from that location, and complete your assigned task, and that is how you will help them. This is an order, Murati. Think of the bigger picture, please, and keep moving.”
Murati felt something tug on her sleeve that drew her suddenly out of her building fury.
At her side, Shalikova wanted her attention.
She paused, briefly, finding it visibly difficult to say what she wanted.
“I understand how you feel.” Shalikova said at last. “But–”
Her eyes glanced back at the park with a sorrow that Murati could palpably feel.
Zachikova spoke up suddenly. “A public complaint was lodged on the station network.”
“A complaint? What do you mean by a complaint? What’s happening?” Murati asked.
“Citizens have reported the people in the plaza. Guards are being dispatched here.”
Murati’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing.
“Reported what about them? That they don’t have homes or food?”
Zachikova grit her teeth with frustration.
“I could read you the complaint verbatim but it’s useless, Lieutenant! We have to leave!”
“She’s right– Murati.” Shalikova added. “We can’t do anything to help them now.”
The normally icy Shalikova had such a mournful tone of voice that it shook Murati.
Murati felt so helpless then. She felt like an overgrown child, a stupid, powerless child.
A child who could not possibly do anything to affect the world around her. A child out of her depth, staring at a world cruel and callous beyond her imagination. Unable to form but the most amorphous idea of the wrongness she felt, or how she could possibly set any of it right.
All the theory she had read, all the things she understood about the Empire–
Those things leaked out of her skull like blood from a wound and emptied her mind.
Seeing those people abandoned to their deaths for no reason– Gritting her teeth with the frustration and pain of that moment– It was entirely different than anything she had experienced. Monumentally different than simply reading about capitalism. That formless, massive evil thing was flaunting its power and she was helpless before it. Her sense of justice was a bleeding wound.
“You’re right, Shalikova, Zachikova. I’m sorry for holding us up. Let’s go.”
Captain Korabiskaya’s voice came cross the handset one last time. “Thank you, Murati.”
Murati brusquely returned Zachikova’s antenna and started walking away before the rest.
Conspicuously she had not acknowledged the Captain in that final exchange.
That child inside her who was screaming and crying as if told of death for the first time in her life hated the messenger who had forced her to acknowledge her helplessness and lack of depth. She felt a terrible, stupid, petty anger toward Captain Korabiskaya. The Captain was right; and Murati did not want to acknowledge it. She hated it. She hated her with a sudden, insane passion.