Thieves At The Port [5.7]

After their eventful walk into the industrial core of Serrano station, Murati and her team finally stood before the Warehouse No. 6 office door. All of those tall, tight buildings slowly gave way to the low, broad warehouses that stood within their fenced blacktop. There were workers organizing goods in the other warehouses, but No. 6 looked almost deserted. Discarded equipment outside, nobody going down the back or sides of the building. They couldn’t hear any activity from in or around the building.

Zachikova was sure that this was the location indicated in the E.L.F. message, however.

Their VIP would be waiting for them inside, and they would then escort them to the ship.

“Will you be okay, Lieutenant?” Zachikova asked. “You’ve been out of it.”

“She’ll be fine.” Shalikova butted in suddenly.

Zachikova blinked hard at her in surprise and narrowed her eyes.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’ll be okay.” Murati said, before Shalikova could make some kind of response to Zachikova’s glaring. She was surprised that Shalikova had stood up for her. “I’m sorry about before, but that– it won’t happen again. We’ll meet with the VIP, and extract. I’ve seen enough of this awful city to last me a lifetime, so I won’t be distracted any longer.”

Murati felt quite embarrassed. She had really been failing to lead them.

Zachikova had gotten them to the VIP’s location. Now Murati had to take charge.

“You once tried to comfort me by saying you trusted me despite the tension during our technology meeting. I’ll return the favor. I trust you, Lieutenant. I’ll let you do the talking.”

Zachikova briefly saluted her. Murati could not help but smile.

She had thought Zachikova was angry at her, but she was glad to still have her support.

Even Shalikova looked a little surprised to see them getting along now.

“Thank you, Zachikova.” Murati said. “Shalikova, I’ll be relying on your instincts in there too.”

“Just do the talking and let’s get out of here.”

Shalikova averted her gaze from the two of them, kicking her feet a little.

Who knew what was going on behind those big indigo eyes of hers?

Murati laid her hand on the door-handle, took a deep breath–


Zachikova tapped her ear as if to indicate something, while reaching out to stop Murati.

Was she getting a message?

“Is it the Captain?” Murati asked. She swallowed a bit of bitterness that crept into her voice.

“We have new information. Identify yourself as coming from ‘Cyril Station’ at this office.” Zachikova pointed to the door. “That will let the man on the door know who we are. Apparently, there have been a few individuals asking for passage to the Union lately, and the dockworkers are on edge about it. The Captain said not to contact her in front of them: it might freak them out.”

“Got it. Thanks for the heads up.”

“It’s just my job.”

Zachikova winked her eye with an otherwise completely deadpan expression.

Murati turned back to the door, twisted the handle and finally, walked inside.

“We’re here to pick up!”

Entering from the city street was jarring. Warehouse No. 6’s front office was tight and clean and sparse, entirely utilitarian in nature, a sharp contrast with the city that surrounded it. It resembled Union offices in a sense, nothing more than a square room with a few chairs that folded out of the wall, and a single long desk behind which an older man stood. There was a poster on the wall that explained the “cargo cycle” as if it was an organic, circular process driven by nature.

Behind the desk there was one door, slightly ajar, the crack fully shadowed.

Two women stood on the opposite side of the counter, arguing with the old man behind it. They were dressed in tailored suits, black and grey with sharp jackets and pants, white shirts, black ties. There was a younger woman, maybe even an older teenager judging from the gentleness of her features, with the clearest skin Murati had ever seen and flowing, silky dark hair; and a taller, clearly more mature lady, leaning on the counter and seemingly doing most of the talking. She had her hair pinned up messily behind her head, bangs over one eye, and a severe expression. Her black bodysuit covered up to her neck. Though not as strikingly beautiful as her partner, the older woman clearly made up well, and exuded a sort of gritty handsomeness.

When they turned around to meet the arrivals, the younger woman seemed untroubled.

 But the older woman’s expression was almost wild with anxiety for a brief moment.

The pair reminded Murati of stereotypical depictions of foreign agents.

“G-men” they were called. Even in the Union, tropes like that persisted in media.

“Badge,” Shalikova whispered. “Back pants pocket.”

Murati did not visibly acknowledge.

“Um. I’m Murati– I mean– I came from Cyril station!”

She raised her hand up to her shoulder and waved with a smile. Stupid! I’m so stupid!

Zachikova looked at her with a bit of confusion. Murati was thrashing inside herself.

I can do this, it’s not a problem! Remember your speeches at all those navy meetings.

Murati steeled herself. She didn’t know what she was seeing yet, but she had to take charge.

The old man behind the counter clapped his hands together and greeted the new arrivals.

“Cyril Station?” He said. “Then the women of the hour have finally arrived! My name is Benji! You came for the girl in the back, but can I have just a bit of your time first? I got some friends here who could use your help too. We’re all comrades here, right?”

At the counter, the older of the pair of women turned fully around.

She leaned back against the counter with a crooked grin on her face.

“You could call me Benji’s friend.” She said. “But my name’s Marina McKennedy.”

She then pushed off from the counter and walked forward, extending a hand to Murati.

Murati looked down at it briefly and took it, shaking hands with Marina.

“Heh, I thought you’d leave me hanging for a second, Union.” Marina said.

At that moment, the younger woman stepped forward with sudden determination.

“I’m Elen–”

Marina wrapped an arm around her just as suddenly to quiet her.

“This girl’s my partner, she’s a bit clueless! Let’s talk, Union, just you ladies and I.”

Elen did not look very happy to have been swept up against Marina’s chest.

Just then, Marina reached behind her back.

Murati would’ve had her hackles up had Shalikova not told her about the badge.

Instead of a weapon, Marina did indeed produce some form of identification.

She flashed her badge at them.

Carried in a plastic folding wallet, it was a badge with an owl atop a shield.

“Marina McKennedy, General Intelligence Agency or G.I.A. I’m from the Republic.”

“That badge is pretty banged up.” Shalikova said. She was staring daggers at Marina.

“Well, I’ve been pretty banged up myself.” Marina said. She winked at Shalikova.

Unlike Shalikova, Murati could not tell at first glance anything much about the badge.

In that brief moment when Marina unveiled it, Shalikova must have been able to notice.

“Hand the badge to my associate.” Murati nodded toward Zachikova. “She can verify it.”

They did not confer about this beforehand, of course, but Murati trusted Zachikova.

Marina sighed deeply and handed the badge over to Zachikova as Murati instructed.

Zachikova quietly complied with Murati’s tactic and scanned over the badge.

Tiny yellow lights played about the surface of her eyeballs.

She was deep in thought for a moment. Then she handed the object back to Marina.

“It’s a gold Osmium alloy. It has her name and some identifying information. Or, well, it has a name.”

Marina looked conflicted for a moment. “If you want to interrogate me on the name, fine.”

Elen looked between Zachikova and Marina with her gentle brow furrowed in confusion.

“Lieutenant.” Zachikova looked to Murati. “Republic ID badges are known to be alloyed with Osmium. It’s a relatively rare metal as far as the composition of the planet’s crust, but it’s in high supply due to Agarthicite mining. They are found together in nature. Osmium is the only known agarthic suppressor: a dense piece of Osmium will rebuff small exposures to agarthic energy, and a very large annihilation can be “slowed” by Osmium, causing less destruction.”

“I see.” Murati said. “They add Osmium to the badges as a symbolic gesture.”

“Correct. It will probably not survive a ship’s annihilation, but it is more durable. At any rate: this badge is authentic.”

“And it has her name on it– or you said, a name. Can we confirm her identity with it?”

Marina looked like she was bracing herself to hear something she did not want to.

“It has the name Blake McClinton.” Zachikova said. Marina cringed a tiny bit and sighed openly. “It also has a message printed on it. Any ordinary person would not be able to tell, but it’s encoded text. I bet that it can be read by machine to ID an agent, but the agent would know the content of text as a challenge. What’s the message on the badge, Marina McKennedy?”

“I give this blood not for love or country, but for world peace.” Marina replied bitterly.

Zachikova nodded. “Lieutenant, she either ran a thorough scan on this badge after she stole it and has a lot of inside information about it; or she is the owner of this very authentic badge, but placed in interesting circumstances.”

“Are we done?” Marina said. “That was my old name you just blabbed out. I’m the owner of this badge.”

At that point, Murati truly understood the situation.

Elen’s gaze turned to focus on Marina. She looked like her brain was working overtime to decipher this.

Murati nodded in acknowledgment. “Let’s not be insensitive, Ensign. Please apologize.”

“Of course.” Zachikova bowed her head to Marina. “I apologize for deadnaming you.”

“Whatever. You did what you had to do.” Marina met Murati’s eyes. “So, Lieutenant, you can confirm that I am who I say I am. My partner here is just an analyst, not a full-fledged agent, and she’s also a cis woman so there’s nothing you can grill her on.” She was making a joke, but it was a pretty bitter-sounding one. “Do we want to go through more tedious interrogation, or can we talk?”

“I’m also transgender, so please forgive us for what happened. I’d like to hear your story, Marina.”

“My story is much too long; the reason I need your help is that our spy cell disbanded and scattered.”

Murati nodded. She retained a neutral expression, but she was anxious about Marina. This whole situation was very irregular but if she was cautious, it could become an opportunity too. “Are you compromised?” She asked. It was the most obvious sticking point.

“No. I made it out with my partner. We’ve been avoiding the authorities, and I am certain we don’t have a tail or a trail of any kind. We just need to escape somewhere safe. We don’t have any contacts or resources left in the Empire, so we can’t resume operations here. However, we have inside information about the situation in the Empire. We have a lot of value to the Union.”

Marina reached out and confidently tapped Murati on the chest with her index finger.

“If you get us out of here, we’ll make it worth your superior’s time, Lieutenant.”

Murati looked around Marina. Behind the desk, Benji nearly jumped from her gaze.

All of Murati’s pent-up malice was channeled into the glare she was giving Benji.

“Benji, Marina is not the person we came to pick up. She’s your ‘friend’ — right?”

“Yes, that’s correct. I told you, the girl you want is in the back right now.” Benji said.

“So you just told Marina about us. And you just promised her she can get on our ship?”

Benji was caught in a vice. Murati understood everything.

Marina needed to run away, and she had depended on the smuggling dockworkers of Serrano to get her over the Union border, like many before her. But his arrangement with Marina had fallen through, and to avoid the wrath of a G.I.A. operative he desperately promised her a spot aboard the Brigand, whom he had already arranged to deliver a different person. So he knew they were coming to pick that person up. Marina was not the VIP — he had tripped up and told them this immediately.

Too honest for his own good, and yet quite conniving away from their eyes.

He was slowly devolving into a stammering mess as Murati stared him down.

“I mean– Ms. Lieutenant, ma’am I– I didn’t promise anything–”

Marina grit her teeth. “You miserable fucking sack of shit–”

“Benji, it looks like nobody is happy here. I’m not happy. She’s not happy.”

Murati shook her head at him. To play these games with military personnel was not wise.

But she judged the situation as one that she could gain from. She had him in her grip.

“I’ll take Marina and her analyst to meet my superiors on our ship.” She said. “But you have overstepped the bounds of your relationship to the Union, so we’ll need you to do us a favor, or we’ll leave Marina and her friend here to take out her anger on you. Are we understanding one another, Benji?”

Her voice was icy cold, ruthless. She did not betray an ounce of sympathy to this man.

Marina seemed to understand what she was doing and started to grin.

“Y-Yes, of course ma’am. I don’t want to upset any of my clients after all.”

Benji submitted but was still apprehensive. “But ma’am, I’m not sure what I can do–”

Murati raised her hand sharply as if to block his words and interrupted him, keeping up the pressure.

“We’ll be leaving with more people than we intended. If we all exit as a party, we’ll draw more attention. Unwanted attention, Benji. For ourselves and ultimately for you. So you will help us get back to the port faster and safer. You’ll deliver us to the port in one of your lorries. We’ll also be needing some additional supplies for the extra people. Are we clear on that?”

She glanced over at Shalikova and Zachikova, who nodded their acknowledgment.

Marina looked like she was holding back an uproarious amount of laughter.

Benji looked mortified at the prospect of handing over warehouse gear to them.

“Supplies? And a lorry? Well, with all due respect, ma’am– I’m not sure I can get you–”

“Do you want my security detail to have to come escort us, Benji?” Murati said.

That threat visibly shook Benji to his core. “No, of course not. I’m at your service.”

Murati grunted, maintaining her aura of displeasure to keep Benji under her foot.

“Very well. Then I would like to finally meet our actual charge and get her out of here.”

“She’s at the door.” Shalikova said suddenly.

At that moment, the door behind Benji did finally open up. He almost jumped with surprise.

A soft, gentle, but firm voice addressed the room with great confidence.

“Indeed, how observant. I’ve been listening. I’m in agreement with the plan, Lieutenant.”

Stepping out of the shadows, a young woman pulled down her black hood to show her face.

“My name is Maryam Karahailos. I met with a Union agent here in Serrano who promised that he would help me escape. I’m a political refugee and have information to give the Union. I apologize if I caused any trouble.”

Her long, straight hair brightened before Murati’s eyes, taking on a pale purple hue, and her pink skin very slightly lightened as if adapting its color to the light. What looked at first like two discrete lengths of hair shifted and moved from the sides of her head, shaking themselves free of the interior of the hood and revealing round, paddle-like ends that could move independently.

Two thin, fin-like structures atop her head wriggled slightly as the hood brushed over them.

Her retinas were deep purple with green and black pupils the shape of a W. When Murati looked into her eyes she thought, for an instant, that she saw something like a red glow to them. This effect was brief, and they quickly returned to their previous color. Murati chalked it up to the same effect as her hair and skin. She must have had some ability to change the pigment of her body.

There was no doubt that she was a Pelagis. From the looks of it, with cuttlefish traits.

Nonetheless, all Pelagis were human, and this was by all accounts just a harmless, slender young lady.

Murati could not openly give her the benefit of the doubt that easily, however.

“I also wanted to say, I believe we would all benefit from the G.I.A. agent’s information as well.”

Maryam gave them a sweet smile that really made her delicate features shine.

Though perhaps, part of that shine was also the color manipulation.

Marina crossed her arms and stepped aside to allow Murati to approach the Pelagis.

“We were ordered to pick up a VIP here.” Murati said, trying to size up the gentle and waifish-looking Maryam. One could not put all their trust on surface appearances when it came to military affairs. “I assume that’s you, but I have no way to confirm. So I am hoping that you prepared for this eventuality and can provide proof for us. Do you understand, Maryam?”

“Of course. You are right to be cautious. It was like this when I escaped from Katarre too. Your agent and I thought ahead, and we furnished these– hopefully, it’s enough proof.”

From her long and modest black dress, Maryam produced an item to hand to Murati.

It was in fact a thin, plastic folder of Union ID sheets. They even had a stamp on the corner.

Murati had seen and dealt with identification documents.

She could not be sure that the stamp was up to date or accurate in any way, but the idiosyncrasies of Union documentation were clearly visible. For example, the fields for “self-identification,” “sexuality” and “gender” which Pelagis usually filled with jokes. These were never present in Imperial documents, and sloppy forgeries would not have bothered with such a minor detail, but Union documents were exacting about allowing the person to choose their own identity to be referred by. In Maryam’s case, she had doodled a smiling, round cuttlefish for her self-identification and written “inky” in her gender but she did disclose her bisexuality.

A Union citizen definitely issued these documents to Maryam.

While Murati looked over the sheets, Maryam turned her odd gaze to Shalikova.

Her face turned a slightly flushed color. Even her hair shifted to look slightly brighter.

“You have beautiful eyes, and so sharp. I’m not easy to see, you know?” She said.

Shalikova stood stiff and speechless. She averted her gaze — their eyes had briefly locked.

“I’ve only come this far because of my camouflage. I’m glad you’re not my enemy.”

Maryam lifted her long skirt in a curtsy for Shalikova that quite upset the indigo-eyed girl.

“You really don’t have to! My eyes are nothing special! Lieutenant, is she legit or what?”

“She’s legit. She definitely got those papers from a Union agent. That’s good enough.”

Murati handed the sheets back to Maryam, smiling at Shalikova’s exaggerated displeasure.

“We’ll talk more on the ship. Just know, if you’re lying to us, we’ll jettison you right out.”

For an instant, Maryam’s skin and hair turned a spotty, dusty white, then back to normal.

“Of course. You have nothing to worry about from me. I was a Solceanos sister, you know.”

“So was my mother.” Murati said. “And that didn’t stop her from killing a lot of folks.”

“Are you able to tell me your name? I’d love to have something to call you.”

Shalikova grunted and turned her head away. There was not much else to stare at than Maryam and the walls of the crate around them. Even when she turned her head, Shalikova could still see a pale white light from the gentle bioluminescent glow of Maryam’s tentacles and from a strip of soft bioluminescent flesh across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. There was no avoiding it. She was stuck in a box with this woman, so she had to humor her at least a little bit.

“Sonya Shalikova. I’m no one important, so feel free to ignore me.”

“It’s a beautiful name. As beautiful as your eyes are, Sonya.”

Going for the first name this soon?

This woman clearly wanted Shalikova to die. There was no other explanation.

“Oh come on! My eyes are nothing special! They’re just like anyone else’s eyes!”

Despite Shalikova’s attempts to rebuff her, Maryam sounded as excited as ever.

“Your eyes have a beautiful and rare color. And they saw through me so easily.”

“Maybe catching you sneaking around isn’t such a big accomplishment?”

Maryam giggled. “It’s not just that you saw me, but the circumstances.”

“Ugh, can you calm down? You’re so cheery for no reason.”

“You knew I was listening at the door the whole time, right? Even before I came out.”

“I spotted you when I called you out. That’s it. Nothing fantastic about it.”

“Ah, well, if you say so.”

Shalikova couldn’t escape her, laying down, side by side atop tight stacks of pack rations.

Never before had she felt so unnerved beside such a peaceful and harmless person.

“Sonya, you’ve helped me feel relief for the first time in months. I can’t thank you enough.”

Maryam shifted onto her side. She was definitely looking at Shalikova.

With her back turned to her, Shalikova avoided the eye contact that would have resulted.

“I haven’t done anything. You’re just way too quick to heap praise.”

Maryam giggled again.

But she acquiesced to Shalikova’s desire to be left alone and in silence, for a little while.

For a while, the two of them simply lay beside one another, waiting for the end of the ride.

The sooner Shalikova could leave this crate, and this woman’s side, the better.

It felt like such a blur of events. How had she come to be trapped in here?

After Murati had satisfied herself with interrogating everybody at the Warehouse, with the help of that G.I.A. agent they cornered the old dockworker into driving them to the docks. He had an electric lorry, eight-wheeled with a ten-ton bed, associated with Warehouse no. 6 but rarely used. Already loaded on this lorry were a few crates of packed imperial rations, from which the dockworkers would dole out one or two meals for the road, to the people they smuggled out.

Two of the crates were emptied enough that someone could easily lay atop the rations.

“This will be sufficient. Open up the crates for us. Shalikova and the VIP in one crate, and Marina and Elen in the other. Zachikova and I will hide in the front. You’ll drive, Benji.”

“I’ll drive? Ma’am, if the fellas see me running around, they might have the wrong–”

“Who do you need to please the most right now Benji? Us or your friends?”

“Right. I suppose that’s true. And you’ll be taking the rations too?”

“That’s the plan. We’ll stop at the entrance to the docks to report to our security team, and then you’ll drive the truck over to our ramp. We’ll do all the unloading, and then you take it back.”

“And I am not gonna be able to negotiate you down to letting me keep a crate?”

“No Benji, you’ve failed at negotiations enough as it is, we’ll spare you another one.”

Murati could be really terrifying when she wanted to. Shalikova made a mental note of it.

Afterward, Shalikova climbed onto a crate with Maryam and that was that.

“Do you believe in God, Sonya?”

Shalikova sighed. Her answer came quickly after, without much thought. “No.”

“Do you believe in something like fate then?”

“I guess I believe in luck.”

“I see! Then it was lucky that we met.” Maryam said.

“Look, you’re being really weird. How could you possibly think that? You don’t know anything about me.”

Shalikova turned around to meet Maryam’s eyes. She wanted to look at her.

She wanted to look at her so she could glare at her. But she was struck by what she saw.

When she met those w-shaped eyes they looked so soft and sad in return that Shalikova slowly lost her ability to be antagonistic toward her. Maryam in general was a very gentle-looking girl, so delicate and ephemeral that it almost felt like a strong gust of air could have scattered her like dust collecting on an intake vent. Shalikova dared not to touch her, but she imagined that the Pelagis must have felt like marshmallow, a skinny marshmallow, but soft and delicate, nonetheless.

It was hard to be angry at someone so vulnerable-looking, someone so gently full of sorrow.

“I’m sorry for getting too familiar. I’m just a very emotional girl I guess!”

Tears started to collect around the edges of Maryam’s eyes. Her jaw clenched a little.

“It’s really ok! You’re fine.” Shalikova said. A note of anxiety crept into her voice.

“I’m so sorry. I’m finally going somewhere safe, after all this time fearing for my life.”

Maryam sounded so emotional that even Shalikova could not just ignore her now. That Pelagis really was just going to break down crying in a box with her in it. Shalikova felt compelled to keep talking to her just to calm her down. As difficult as it was, she held Maryam’s gaze as warmly as she could. She could not just turn her head away again. That would have been cruel.

“You don’t have to be sorry! I’m glad you’re safe too! You said you were from Katarre?”

“Yes. I was born there. Unfortunately.” Maryam said.

It was tough to see, but her colors shifted. She turned paler than normal.

“Well. I don’t know how you could feel safer with me, but I’m glad you feel safer.”

Maryam laughed bitterly. “I’m just happy to know where I’m going and with whom.”

Shalikova almost felt like saying she herself did not know where they would end up.

But with Maryam’s teetering mood, it was better she learned about the Brigand later.

So Shalikova choked down that truth and held Maryam’s gaze as best she could.

“I’ll– We’ll all help you out. So you don’t need to cry or worry about anything.”

Growing up in Katarre must have been really rough. Shalikova could not imagine it.

She was just a baby when her family was deported to the Union. It was impossible for her to remember the battles of the revolution. And even then, growing up in a poor country after a horrible war, she knew she could not compare her experiences of pain and privation to those of a Katarran. Shalikova was not as much of a historian as a certain self-righteous Lieutenant she knew, but everyone who studied in the Union learned about places in the world like the Empire, the Republic, the Eastern lands like Hanwa and Yu and about the Empire’s neighbor, Katarre.

Katarre brought out the doomsayer in anyone who spoke of it. People called it an eternal battlefield, a hell on Aer where life had no value, a red sea of scattered ruins. Children there were born and bred for either slavery or death. Unethical sciences ran rampant in Katarre to the point that most of the population were Pelagis. It was a place where it was cheaper to tamper with eggs and sperm than to conceive children. A place where a gun was worth more than a human body.

Those who escaped from there did so with terrible scars and few prospects. All they had were their durable bodies, with whatever engineering the Katarrans did to them, and what little education they picked up along the way. In the Empire, they did dirty jobs, or became criminals and mercenaries in desperation. There were fewer Katarrans in the Union, because Katarrans wanted to build up wealth to return to their country and free their families, or start businesses.

A Katarran who decided to go the Union therefore had no use for wealth, no family. Maryam must have been like that. Running away, all alone. First from Katarre and then from the Empire’s religious cult. The more she thought about it, the more Shalikova couldn’t help but sympathize with her. Maryam looked nothing like Shalikova imagined a Katarran would look like.

She was just a sad and scared girl who had been running and hiding.

Or at least, that’s what Shalikova thought.

Maybe she was doing that thing again– where she read too much into someone else.

But she couldn’t turn away when someone was hurting. It just– It wasn’t right.

So despite her reservations, Shalikova tried to comfort Maryam.

“Hey, don’t cry. You’ll be fine now. We’re communists, we help everybody.”

Maryam wiped her hands over her eyes. She smiled. Her color started to return.

“Your eyes are so kind Sonya. You’ll protect me, right?”

Shalikova felt Maryam’s tentacles reach out curl against her hip and shuddered suddenly at the touch.

Normally her tentacles masqueraded among her long hair, but now they were stretching out.

Her hands she kept to herself, but Maryam clearly looked like she wanted to get closer.

“I’ll– I’ll do what I can I guess–”

“You will protect me, Sonya.”

Maryam’s locked eyes with her, a bright red glow suddenly emitting from them.

At first Shalikova thought she was hallucinating it, but it was there, clear as day.

Her odd w-shaped pelagis eyes had a red, glowing ring that they did not possess before.

Shalikova almost felt like that glow was trying to consume her.

It felt so deep, like gazing through an open doorway–

And just as suddenly as it had appeared, it just vanished.

Maryam closed her eyes and smiled happily.

“You’re a very special person Sonya. God would not give your gifts to someone evil.”

“If you say so– I mean. Thanks, I guess. Sorry, I’m not good with random praise.”

Shalikova finally felt a bit of relief inside herself. She couldn’t have just laid there while a girl was bawling her eyes out just centimeters away. But what a tedious situation! She would have never predicted their VIP would be like this. What was all that about her eyes? If anything, Maryam’s eyes were far more interesting. She wondered if Maryam was like her — a bit too observant for her own good. Then again, everyone on the Brigand was a weirdo in their own way.

At least Maryam was calm and content the rest of the way. That was what mattered most.

On the busy street outside the entrance to the port, while nobody was looking, a group of people exited the back of a lorry. They easily filtered in among the crowd and crossed the bridge back into the port, now accompanying the lorry. Among those to drop unnoticed into the street was Elena von Fueller. She had regrettably already become comfortable being treated like cargo, as this happened to be one of Marina’s preferred ways of getting around unnoticed. So the ride to the port hardly caused her anxiety. In fact, she was somewhat numb to everything happening..

Nobody knew who she was with her hair dyed and her lavish dress and makeup long gone.

Having failed to come up with a cover, she was now “Elen,” a quiet Republic analyst.

Marina was the center of attention, and the real prize in anyone’s eyes. Nobody saw “Elen.”

At the entrance to the port, the communists collected the two unassuming women forming their security detail. Elena thought this, but of course, she should not have judged them so easily. After all she had been surrounded by characters like Gertrude, and then later, Victoria, and even Sawyer who apparently took everything away from her. Unassuming girls could be quite strong.

It was only Elena who was now unassuming but also weak. She was nothing but a little shrimp swept up in the great streams blowing around her. Marina told her to walk, so she walked. She told her to trust the communists, so she did. She told her to get on their ship, so she did it.

She could scream, and yell, and cry all she wanted, and she did, with great fervor.

But at that moment, she was just tired. This would be the fourth station she’d leave behind.

For what purpose? She did not even know what life she would have.

She stepped on the cargo elevator of the hauler Marina had been looking at when they arrived at Serrano. To think this was the ship of destiny Marina had been so anxiously escaping towards. This was the Brigand — the ship that would ferry her out to the Union. As she was lifted up into the bowels of the ship, she cast a glance down at the port. This was a moment that to her, should have had no meaning, like the rest. And yet, it was fateful, because she chose to do it herself.

For an instant, her tired indigo eyes locked with a pair of green eyes down on the port walkway.

A tall, handsome woman in uniform cast her own brief glance at the rising cargo elevator.

Elena could not believe it. Their eyes met and their gazes held as long as they could.

It was impossible that she had been seen and understood to be who she truly was.

Elena ignored it. She chose to believe that moment was a figment of her weary imagination.

She could not have known the tragedy that would unfold from briefly meeting those eyes.            

From briefly and fatefully giving a terrible hope to Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg.

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