For Blake McClinton the summer palace at Schwerin Island had become a green purgatory. Those vast beautiful fields which surrounded the castle endlessly on each side made him feel insane as he relentlessly climbed sets of staircases, looking out onto the unchanging world below, rushing from the bottom of the palace to the garden several stories above. Staircase after staircase after staircase fashioned from stone, boasting artsy diagonal hex-shaped windows ever at his side.
Intermittent snapping gunfire punctuated his steps.
“Leda– oh my god Leda–”
He gasped for breath. Tenth story. Almost there.
That morning he’d had an ominous feeling in his chest. He had wanted to meet with Leda.
With his status as a G.I.A. agent they had to be discrete, but–
Ever since they got word that woman was coming, Blake couldn’t sit back and watch.
Leda had said she would meet him in their special place. She must have meant the garden.
But with this invasion happening would they really meet there?
Blake had no choice but to follow her directions. Even if they were given before the chaos.
On the twelfth story, when he looked out at the green, he could see a shadow in the falsely blue sky. An impression of what was looming outside Schwerin past the illusion they had created for themselves. Judging by the presence, in the gardens below, of those damnable powered armors that the Empire had begun building to fight the communists, this was a Dreadnought that was sent to suppress them.
That shadow signaled the end of their ambitions– but they could still escape!
And so Blake charged up the stairs again, silenced pistol in hand.
He began checking the corners, aiming up the staircase.
“Leda! I’m here! I’ll get you out of here!”
He shouted, almost hysterical in his desire to hear anything from the garden.
Charging through the door out to the enormous ceiling-garden in one of the Schwerin palace towers. Beautiful rows and beds of tall flowering plants, grapevines, berry bushes. Blake called out Leda’s name and ran through the rows. He reached the center of the garden structures, begging whatever cosmic force toyed with their fates to please let him find Leda standing there.
Blake should have known his fate could be nothing but cursed.
In Leda’s place, there was a woman in the field grey Imperial officer’s uniform, boots and peaked cap, blond, fair-faced, hair tied into a ponytail. She carried no visible weapons and had her arms crossed over her chest. She did not appear so formidable that she could simply stand there alone, but that mischievous glare and wicked grin could have belonged to no other than the famed Fueller enforcer Norn Tauscherer. Standing atop the garden tower and below Schwerin’s darkened skies.
“Where is she?” Blake shouted. He took aim directly at Norn’s head.
Norn put on an expression that felt surreal to Blake. Was she– was she laughing?
Nonetheless, she raised her hands in surrender with this amused expression on her lips.
“Blake McClinton is it? G.I.A special agent? No– there are more relevant names.”
Suddenly, Blake felt something press against the back of his head.
He ran his fingers through his long black hair as if he could’ve felt what was touching him.
Blake’s eyes drew wide as Norn’s smile grew wider. How could she–
“No– oh dear. I quite apologize. I found a more fitting name: Marina McKennedy?”
“Shut up! I’ll perforate that fucking stupid grin of yours!”
Terror stirred in Blake’s heart.
How could she know, how could she possibly fucking know?
Only Leda and Bethany called her Marina– only they knew what he felt deep down.
Only they encouraged his questioning.
Something so intimate, so strange; how was it possible for Norn to know?
No, even in captivity Leda would have no reason to speak of that!
And Bethany would never betray them!
“You’re wondering how I know? It’s because your mind is such an open book.”
Norn’s expression was filled with such evil delight it shook Blake’s gun arm.
This woman was a monster– this was the only explanation.
There was no time to ponder it any further than that.
Fueller’s monster had come for them. As Blake had feared in his worst nightmares.
Blake was hardly listening to her ramble– he had to move with haste. Leda was in danger.
“Where is she? Where is Leda Lettiere? Where are you keeping her?”
Blake stepped forward with his pistol trained on Norn’s forehead.
“Miss McKennedy, it is truly not my desire to cause any harm to Leda Lettiere.” Norn said. For a second, Blake’s heart rushed with a misplaced sense of relief. It didn’t last long, just until Norn finally spoke up again. “I am one of her many admirers. Oh, such pain and heartache that she brings to that stupid man. When Konstantin sent me here, I was expecting to turn up evidence of her sleeping around, and then to thoroughly ignore it so long as she was discrete. Unfortunately, you were here, G.I.A.”
“What do you mean? What the fuck do you mean Norn?” Blake asked desperately.
Norn sighed. “If only you hadn’t been here. I could have even ignored Leda’s plot to kill Konstantin, but if it’s supported by the G.I.A., that won’t do. I can’t let the Republic become emboldened.”
“You’re talking really confidently for a woman with a gun to her head.” Blake said.
She tried to regain her confidence. Norn was not some superhuman.
Blake had all the situational advantages. Strategically they had been completely outdone but in this particular moment all she needed was to shoot Norn and escape with Leda. She just needed to know where Leda was. She had a few assets still in play, she could still potentially slip by those Diver armors. She had tricks up her sleeve. If Norn was up to talking she could let her talk.
“What did you do with Leda? You’ve captured her, haven’t you?” Blake said.
“Do you really think Leda would honor your little rendezvous here in this situation?”
Norn tilted her head, gesturing toward one of the higher rear towers of Schwerin Palace.
Of course. Blake had been so stupid. Leda was going to get Elena from the tower.
How could he have believed Leda would choose him over her own daughter?
“Unfortunately, I have to put an end to these fantasies.” Norn said.
Blake bared her teeth at her in fury. “Says the bitch on the other end of my gun! Shut up!”
Norn took a casual step forward in defiance of the agent’s orders, hands still raised.
There was no hesitation on Blake’s part. He was a trained killer.
He pulled the trigger, twice in quick succession, a bullet each in Norn’s neck and chest.
Shooting a gun gave a brief sensation of recoil and an instantaneous sense of violence. The imagination of the layperson could have never accounted for the speed of a bullet. It was as if they were summoned into the world instantly in collision with their targets within the blink of an eye. So Blake’s response to the attack was trained, purposeful; at such close range, he knew when he hit something.
That made the shock he felt as Norn continued to step toward him even greater.
Blake stepped back, retrained his aim, and fired, both hands, center mass, no fancy shit–
Norn closed in from across the garden, closing meter by casual meter, step by step.
“What the fuck?”
His head felt blurry with anxiety. Had he been drugged? Why was he missing?
There was no way. No one had any opportunity to tamper with his gun or with him.
He fired, twice, three times, fired at Norn until the gun clicked empty.
Nothing, not a single bullet had even grazed her. It was if they went through her.
“What’s wrong? Want me to stand still so you can hit me?”
Norn stopped, scant meters distance from Blake, shrugging her shoulders.
Blake drew a knife from his belt and rushed toward Norn with all his might.
Desperate, foolish, ignorant–
Nothing to lose–
She was unarmed, he would take her down and rip out her fucking guts on the floor!
There was no way she could avoid that!
Norn swung her arm and batted aside Blake’s knife.
It was such a precise, dismissive gesture that Blake could hardly believe it as he staggered back from it. His knife arm had been stricken with such force he thought his wrist might have snapped. In the midst of that sharp and sudden pain he never realized how quickly Norn had stepped inside of his guard. Her fist flew like a bullet. In an instant, it was summoned to his stomach and battered him.
Blake fell back on the floor, grabbing hold of his belly, coughing, struggling to breath.
Norn’s punch was like a battering ram. He felt like stomach was moved out of place.
No way! No way! No way!
How was she so strong? How the fuck was this Imbrian bitch this strong?
Blake’s mind raced. Could she be a fucking Katarran–?
With a look of disgust on her face Norn kicked Blake on the floor.
Coming in from the side, he felt the hard boots strike his ribs and cried out.
Blake turned on his other side, tried to crawl away–
When that same boot came stomping down on his hand.
He gritted his teeth. She was not trying to break it. Just holding him in place.
He could not help but notice how quickly she had moved from one side of him to the other.
“I don’t do this without pity or sympathy for your cause. Konstantin should not be the winner here.” Norn said. Blake’s heart was racing, and he was in such pain, that all he could do was spit on the floor, not even on her shoe. He could not speak. He could do nothing but act defiant where no defiance was possible. Norn continued. “I’ll avenge the two of you one day. If what you want is the death of Konstantin von Fueller, then have patience. That day will come; just not by your hand, G.I.A.”
Behind them one of the towers suddenly exploded, casting debris and fire into the air.
Norn looked at it briefly, cursed in indignation, and turned suddenly back to Blake.
Her foot came down on his face and shut the light from his eyes–
–Transporting her back to the UNX-001 Brigand, almost twenty years later in 979 A.D.
Marina woke in a bed and quickly closed her eyes again.
She resisted the urge to wake with a start.
It was not only that she wanted to excise what she had just seen in her mind with all of her concentration. That was only one consideration. But it was also part of her professional paranoia. In some situations it was more advantageous to pretend to be asleep or dead, this too was part of her training. Whenever she woke, she closed her eyes and took stock. As she pushed away the fragmented memories being cast as nightmares in her messy subconscious, she also remembered where she had been last.
She remembered arguing with Elena.
Her heart hurt, scarcely remembering that Elena had been furious with her.
Something happened after that. Maybe an attack on the ship knocked Marina out.
Everything was a little fuzzy. To her consternation, her dream was more vivid than that moment.
They had been in a dangerous situation, but she was not dead, so they must have escaped.
Or been captured.
She quickly opened her eye–
And closed it.
Union ship layout with automated doors with no locks; every Imperial quarter had a digital lock so it could be shut out by officers in case of mutiny. Bare metal walls, bedframes made of interchangeable bare plates of carbon fiber that fitted together and could be used to make chairs or tables or other furniture, as opposed to Imperial single-cast bespoke furniture molds. And the other beds were occupied by women with sandy or dark skin. She was probably still on the Brigand.
That didn’t mean they were not captured, but it did mean she could probably be awake.
Marina sat up in bed.
She had a headache, but her body was as whole as it could be. Both arms, both legs.
Her cybernetic eye was doing fine.
In a corner of the room, a young, slim blond girl wearing her hair in two long braids spun around on her office chair. She had a stun gun clipped to her hip and wore the thick bodysuit of a Union security officer, with bits of ceramic bulletproof plate over her ample chest and slender limbs. When she noticed Marina, she stopped spinning around, gasped, and walked over to the bed.
“Afternoon!” She said. Her voice was very cheerful. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
She made a peace sign. Marina sighed audibly.
“I’m fine. You’re Klara Van Der Smidse, right?” Marina said.
“Yes! You know, I didn’t think you’d recognize me!”
“I memorized the roster as much as I could. You’re Gallic, is that right?”
“I mean, ethnically. My family is Gallic, I guess. It’s not a huge deal in the Union.”
Gallics were one of the ethnicities persecuted by the Empire and deported to the Union. Particularly Eastern Gallics, with their “Van Der” names. Despite being fair-skinned blonds even.
They had an independent kingdom in Skarsgaard once– so they resisted integration. And as the borders of Imbrian identity strained to cover the entire ocean, the Empire could not tolerate an ounce of resistance.
Marina shook her head. That was not pertinent, but with the Union, she just could not help but think about the roots. After all, everyone from the Union now was probably once a slave or the child of a slave, or a “criminal” or otherwise “undesirable” element. This Klara Van Der Smidse looked sweet and cheerful at face value, but she probably had a lot of pain she had to deal with.
Understanding this was important to making allies.
Or manipulating enemies.
That was the north star of the Republic’s General Intelligence Agency.
Empathy was useful: but only insofar as it could be used and never a drop more.
“What does my ethnicity matter though?”
“I just wanted you to see that my mental faculties are in order.” Marina said.
“Ah, yeah, it looks like you’re okay. The doctor told me to test everyone who wakes up.”
“Did she tell you to give them any drugs if they’re groggy?”
“Oh, yep, I’ve got a stimulant–”
“Administer it anyway. I can use all the help I can get staying awake.”
“Uhh.” Van Der Smidse blinked at her. “I mean– I guess I will.”
She went to the table she had been spinning near, withdrew a punch injector and returned.
“This goes into–”
Marina practically snatched it out of her hand and punched it into her arm.
Nonchalantly she discarded the case.
“Uh, wow!” Van Der Smidse put her hands behind her head. “Are all GIA this prompt?”
“We’re in a critical situation. It’s all of you who are acting too lax. I take it we escaped?” Marina said.
“From the Iron Lady? Yes, that was a few days ago. All thanks to our pilots.”
“Good. Then I need to speak with your Captain. I want to know what the plan is now.”
Van Der Smidse sighed. “The plan is you need to slow down and wait for the doctor to clear you.”
Marina abruptly stood up out of bed. She still had all her clothes on, and her bodysuit.
Good — nobody had touched her. Or at least, she felt confident not thinking about it.
She started to walk away and practically dared Van Der Smidse to stop her.
That girl never did, however. She shouted after her a bit, but then stayed behind sighing.
Marina had to keep moving. Her past was trying to catch up. She couldn’t just stay still.
It was not only a critical situation for the ship, but for herself too.
That dream shook her a bit.
But she had to be done mourning the past. What mattered now was getting Elena through this.
Norn Tauscherer and Leda Lettiere, were far, far away, as far out of reach as Schwerin Island.
If she ever saw any of them again, it would only be in death.
Lately the Brigand’s laboratory and its adjoining hall were blessed with the sound of a beautiful voice, humming, and sometimes singing, no discernible lyrics or songs, just little notes strung innocently together with great sweetness. In the storm of activity and the danger of the outside world, it was a touch of humanity that reminded those around of what they stood to lose if they faltered.
That voice belonged to Chief Specialist Karuniya Maharapratham.
She didn’t really know any songs by heart, and she wasn’t good with lyrics, but she had been told she had a cute singing voice, so sometimes her lips released vaguely musical noises while she was working. In the laboratory, the day to day work lately had involved the algae and fungus gardens, and it was repetitive. So Karuniya sang while she began to prepare and move along batches of mushrooms.
Union mushrooms began their lives as preserved cultures in vials which could be taken aboard ships in large containers. All agrisphere mushroom cultivars had been chosen specifically for their fecundity, and each of these vials by itself could grow enough fruiting bodies to cover large sections of the garden wall. Karuniya had a climate-controlled chest which stored the vials, and that chest, properly cared for, represented enough food to give everyone on the ship at least a meal a day for eight months in the direst circumstances. And in certain circumstances she could renew the mushrooms a bit too, or even introduce cultivars from stations or from cave systems if they went near the continent.
After retrieving a vial, Karuniya seeded the mushrooms in a nutrient-rich substrate made of a cardboard-like recycled vegetable matter that was enriched with phosphate fertilizer mined near the lower continent wall in Lyser and Solstice. These media were kept in an atmospherically regulated unit. When she seeded one medium, she took the previous medium from the enclosure. Once there were signs of initial growth, the fertile medium was added to the garden wall on the side of the laboratory. From there, the fungi would spread across the environment of the wall. One box could grow a lot of food.
Then she set to work on the algae.
This was much less work because the algae wall was a fully enclosed aquaponic device. There were less blocks of glorified cardboard to shuffle around. Karuniya had the algae starters in vials too, but she rarely needed to start algae because algae were constantly growing in the tank and if she didn’t liquidate the whole thing she could get more out of it. Instead what she needed to pay attention to was canisters of nutrients and the atmosphere regulator. All in all, the algae wall could provide a vitamin rich accompaniment to one meal a day for even longer than the mushroom wall.
Though, in such a situation, misery would set in long before starvation did.
Still, Karuniya felt happy with the fact that she was helping sustain life.
There were also some frozen cultivars in the cargo; and of course, canned and freeze dried mushrooms and other foods ready to heat and eat for the kitchen. But having some kind of fresh food was good for morale, so Karuniya, since the beginning of the trip, had decided to make tending the gardens a priority. This was more important work for the mission than ocean salinity reviews or writing histories of biomass concentrations. Karuniya had a lot of respect for the basic gardening work.
After all, was it not the work of humans now to be responsible for life, after all the death they had caused? That was a key part of the philosophy of her work in oceanography. Aer had essentially been destroyed. If aliens from outer space looked at the planet she imagined they would see an inhospitable rock, its atmosphere steeped in runaway agarthic reactions, devoid of any life.
To survive now, the planet needed stewardship. It could not fix itself.
Aer was a garden, it was artificial, it was tended to. Much of its biomass was unnatural in origin now. Or at least, whether or not Leviathans were natural, they wouldn’t exist without human tampering and agarthicite. If humans could tamper with the world to such a disastrous point, should they not run with it and design more of the world such that life could be sustained indefinitely?
In the same way that Karuniya grew garden walls to feed the ship–
Maybe someday, the people of Aer could come together and grow themselves a better world; clean the waters, create communities sustainable not just for humans and not just for the next few hundred years, but that promoted the growth of helpful species, that rebuilt the natural life cycles of the world from the tormented half-alive state in which they were. Understand the place of Leviathans instead of destroying them as threats or hiding from them indefinitely. Cease to waste resources in endless wars and instead share everything humans had left in communities of mutual benefit.
A bitter laugh escaped from those lips which had been singing.
“What a stupid thing for a soldier who married a soldier to be thinking about.”
When the thought of Murati entered her mind again, she almost wanted to cry.
In fact, it was not simply that gardening was good and necessary work.
It was strenuous and time consuming and kept her mind off her fiancé in the medbay.
“This is how it’s going to be, huh? For God knows how long? If we even survive?”
Maybe she should have persuaded Murati not to follow her ambitions.
“No, hell no. Don’t lose sight of what you love about her.”
Those weren’t just ambitions. Murati could have never been an artist or a teacher.
Murati’s justice would have always led her to soldiery. Her character was defined by it.
Because Murati believed strongly that social problems could perish as if by military force.
As strongly as Karuniya believed that social solutions could be grown like algae in a tank.
And yet, that was what attracted her to Murati in the first place. That strong sense of justice.
Those strong shoulders too–
That time before they started dating that she saw Murati fucking her roommate so hard–
“Ah man, I don’t want to think about weird shit like that! What the fuck am I doing?”
Karuniya clapped her hands against her head.
A voice from behind startled her so badly she nearly jumped at the algae tank.
Karuniya suddenly turned around as if nothing had happened, and nothing had been said.
Behind her, Braya Zachikova tilted her head in confusion, staring at her with an utterly expressionless face. Zachikova’s large grey antennae had their LEDs blinking profusely, but no bit of her from that tawny spiraling ponytail to those mechanical eyes of hers nor any part of that slender frame, showed much discernible consternation. Karuniya surmised that Braya had not heard her thinking out loud and so she tried not to be embarrassed about her sudden appearance.
“What do you need Ensign?” Karuniya said. “Are you going to play with the Super again?”
That was Karuniya’s shorthand for the supercomputer box at the far end of the lab.
“I don’t play with it. Anyway, that’s not what I am doing. I have a request.”
Zachikova did not usually request anything. She was a bridge officer and had been broadly authorized to perform any kind of computer related work with the least red tape possible. So she did not need to make requests of Karuniya and she usually did not. She would come and go and do what she needed as she pleased. Karuniya basically served at her pleasure on such matters.
“Sure, I mean, I dunno how much help I could be.” Karuniya said.
“You like Leviathans, don’t you?” Zachikova said.
“Huh?” Karuniya made a face at her. “Who the heck would like those ugly things?”
She did like them– but that would have been a weird thing to admit to.
Zachikova was unfazed by the response.
“I’m not talking like they’re cute or cuddly, I mean they fascinate you, right?” She pressed.
“They’re one of my fields of study.” Karuniya said. What the hell was this conversation?
“You wouldn’t want us to unnecessarily waste resources hunting a Leviathan, correct?”
“Um, well, I mean, if it’s not threatening us, I guess. What is your point, Zachikova?”
Zachikova’s ears seemed to adjust their angle very slightly on her head.
As if beckoned by an invisible hand, the wall-mounted monitor near the garden beds began to display a video feed. It looked like it was taken by cameras on one of the Brigand’s spy drones. Internal and external camera footage was retained for 96 hours and was briefly reviewed by Karuniya, Zachikova, a security team member, and the Captain or Commissar. Anything important was backed up to tape and the rest was deleted. They had a ton of storage on the ship. Civilians were still dealing in sub gigabyte files, but the Brigand housed several petabytes of storage for high quality predictive imagery, algorithmic real-time video editing, and a ton of other fancy stuff. That being said, it would be reckless not to have storage management processes, so they held those meetings.
Knowing all of this, Karuniya realized immediately what Zachikova was asking.
There was a creature in all of the videos. Beautiful, certainly. Docile, perhaps.
Judging by the contrails of its exhaust — hell, by the very presence of an exhaust–
This was recent footage about a Leviathan coming very close to the Brigand.
“You want me to declare it a subject of study. So we won’t cull it.” She said.
Zachikova nodded. She spoke with a dispassionate tone, but–
“Out at sea, the ship science officer is an authority on matters regarding Leviathans. You can declare Leviathan alerts, issue a request for culling; ultimately, if I’m deemed negligent for not reporting the footage, you’ll be the key witness in that process. I want you to scrub this footage, make a request for study with the drone, and I’ll operate the drone and we can come into contact with the Leviathan again. Then you can name it, categorize it and declare it a subject of study.”
–Karuniya could tell that she really did care about not hurting this animal.
There was something almost touching about that.
She had always thought of Zachikova as a standoffish girl who only cared about her work.
All of these other soldiers would have shot down a Leviathan without hesitation.
“Well, if the Leviathan was out there now, wouldn’t Fatima pick it up?” Karuniya said.
“She’s not out there now.” Zachikova said. She said this with a strange note of confidence, as if she could actually tell something this uncertain. “Fatima would ignore biologic noise at this point. I think we’re all too nervous about being attacked by a ship again to really care too much.”
Wait a minute– “Did you mean to say ‘she’ to refer to the Leviathan?”
Zachikova briefly averted her gaze. “Yes. I believe it is a young female.”
That was such a weird thing to say. But Karuniya would not tease her for it any further.
“It does look really interesting. I will file a request for study right now. So sit tight. We’ll go look for her. It’s not like I have anything better to do. I welcome being able to do my real job.”
Karuniya gave her a mischievous smile and made a little peace sign to lighten the mood.
While she was playing it cool, she really appreciated having a project in that moment.
Zachikova bowed her head a little. “T-t-thanks.” For the first time– a bit of emotion.
“You can be really cute when you want to, you know?” Karuniya winked.
She turned and walked to her work terminal to begin the project in earnest.
Zachikova followed behind with an almost pitiable expression, like a lost puppy.
Karuniya thought then: even the most hardcore soldier types could be wonderful people.
Rousing gently from sleep, Elena, for a brief moment, saw the familiar four walls of her room at Vogelheim, sunlight peering through her window, the chirping of birds and the feeling of warm air. She was afraid to shut her eyes, to the point of tears, but inevitably, she did. In a blink, the familiar scene dispersed like color peeling off the walls, like a painting burning in her face.
Elena was on the UNX-001 Brigand.
For a brief moment she recalled where she had been last.
Looming tyrannical over Marina’s mind with the strange power Victoria had admitted she had.
She had wanted to hurt Marina, to force her submission, to destroy her soul.
And the thought of it scared and disgusted her now.
What had come over her?
“Feeling better? How many fingers am I holding up?”
A voice shook her out of her contemplation.
Seated on a chair near her bed was a young woman in a thick black bodysuit, interlocking plates of bulletproof armor covering her slender chest and limbs. She had a baton and a stun gun clipped to a utility belt, and there was a first aid kit spread open on an adjacent chair. Elena focused on the fingers, two slender, black gloved digits making a peace sign. Elena let out a tired sight.
“Two fingers. I’m alright. You don’t have to worry.” Elena said.
“You’ve been out for days, but you at least you were stable enough to stay in your room.”
Though Elena felt a bit self-conscious to think of it, the girl across from her–
She was– exotic?
Her long, silky black hair framed her face with perfectly blunt bangs, and the rest gathered in a handsome ponytail. Her facial features were a little different than Elena was used to. Her eyes had a slight fold, and the tone of her skin was fair but with what felt like a golden sheen. Elena did not know what race or ethnicity she belonged to. She knew the Union had a lot of peoples who were once minority populations in the Empire, like North Bosporans and Shimii. But she could not at all place the woman in front of her. And something about that made her hate herself a little, made her feel inadequate.
Luxembourg School For Girls had been Elena’s taste of a “cosmopolitan” world and even in a place seen as a liberal haven, she had one Shimii friend and nothing but Imbrian companions otherwise. She hardly saw even the “fair-skinned blonde” foreigners of the Empire like Volgians and Gallics. She was sheltered; and this ship of communists seemed to keep reminding her of sheltered-ness.
“Your name is Elen, right? I’m with security. My name is Zhu Lian. Zhu is my surname.”
“Nice to meet you. I am– I’m Elen, yeah. I’m an analyst.”
Despite Marina’s paranoia, Elena was well aware of her script and character.
Zhu Lian smiled at her and seemed to have no suspicion or malice toward her.
“Can you stand up? We had you on an IV for a bit, but you must be feeling pretty weak.”
“I think I can stand, thank you.”
Elena shifted her legs off the bed and lifted herself up to a stand. It was not difficult.
She noticed immediately that she was wearing nothing but her bodysuit.
“Could I get a moment to change?” Elena asked.
“Of course. I’ll step out. Before that, though: I’m joining my companion Klara Van Der Smidse to eat soon. Why don’t you come with us to the canteen? That way we can make sure you’re ok.”
Elena hesitated at first, unable to get a firm grasp on her own feelings. She realized that she couldn’t keep avoiding the communists and hiding in her room. This was a good step forward. These girls were security officers for the communists but they might not be enemies. They might just be two girls.
“I could really use a good meal. Thanks for the offer, Miss Zhu.”
For a moment before she left, the security officer looked mildly taken aback. “Miss Zhu?”
Once Zhu Lian was out of the room, Elena found her suit had been laundered for her, so she switched to a fresh bodysuit and donned the button-down, pants and jacket. She checked to make sure she still looked inconspicuous. The dye job on her hair was still solid, and in a ship full of young, physically active and attractive people she probably did not look like a remarkable beauty.
Outside, Elena found alongside Zhu Lian a familiar blond girl with a flighty demeanor and a matching suit of armor. Klara Van Der Smidse waved vigorously at Elena before turning to Zhu.
“Oh Lian! Are you finally sick of me? Dumping me for a nerdy girl?” She wailed.
“Hey, don’t be rude to her. You don’t know if she’s nerdy.” Lian replied coolly.
“She’s a stark contrast to my vibrant physicality. You’re really trading down!”
Lian laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re my obligation for good. If I ever let you go, someone else would have to bear your evil little head. I couldn’t live with myself unleashing that on society.”
“How mean! If you’re going to play along, don’t put me down so strongly!”
Klara puffed up her cheeks in childish anger, while Lian gave her a smug look.
Elena was reminded of the banter between Victoria and Sawyer.
Sawyer would always shout and start some kind of argument.
Victoria would coolly and dispassionately dress her down.
Gertrude would intervene if Sawyer looked like she was going to hit Victoria.
And Elena watched quietly from the sidelines, just as she watched Klara and Lian now.
Somehow they continued to hang out, the four girls always together despite this chaos.
Seeing the security officers rile each other up gave her bittersweet memories.
“Lian, can’t you see she’s not feeling the vibe? You shouldn’t keep dragging things on.”
Klara pointed at Elena with a snickering grin on her face.
“It’s your fault that nobody on Aer can stand your vibe. C’mon, let’s go eat.”
Lian started walking without waiting on Klara or anyone’s response.
So Elena followed after, trying to match her stride, quick and elegant, almost gliding.
She had such a confident posture and step– Klara did too, Elena noticed it when she looked.
They must have been well-trained. Was everyone on the Brigand some kind of Union elite?
Or maybe Elena was just too stupid to tell if they were really professional or not.
In sharp contrast to the escalated level of activity in the halls and adjoining areas, there was nobody sitting down to eat at the canteen. Long row tables full of lines of empty chairs. People mainly seemed to rush to the canteen, fill a thermos with soup from the dispensers on the wall, grab some crackery-looking bread from containers near the soup dispensers, and then rush back out.
Elena supposed those were workers with something important to do. They were dressed in jumpsuits like the repairmen at Vogelheim sometimes did. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse led Elena to the back of the canteen, where there was a kitchen counter with hot food trays encircling the cooks.
The main cook was a dark-haired lady in the middle of chopping mushrooms. She reminded Elena of Bethany Skoll, her head maid back at Vogelheim. The focus and precision with which she worked on the food, like she was in her own world from which she could not be moved until her task was done. That same level of intensity surrounded Bethany in everything she did for Elena. She felt a little melancholy; the cook and Bethany even looked a bit like they were the same age, they had a motherly aesthetic.
While the cook was engaged in her work, an unfriendly looking blond served their food.
“No substitutions shall be abided, you knaves. Secure thy blessings and be grateful.”
“We know, we know.” Klara said.
She filled plastic trays with a scoop of white rice, a large spoonful of wilted greens in a runny brown sauce, one slice of a strange cutlet that looked like no discernible cut of meat to Elena’s eyes, and a baked brown pie that seemed like the only edible thing in Elena’s plate. While Klara and Lian took their plates quickly, Elena hung back and waved for the blond serving girl.
“Excuse me.” She asked, as politely as she could.
“Hmm? Yes, yes, you desire to savage additional portions, do you not?”
“Um.” Elena’s hands trembled slightly, holding her tray. “Can I have a bit of olive oil?”
Across the counter the blond serving girl’s eyes narrowed at her. Then she laughed.
“I’ve beauty akin to royalty, so I understand your confusion, but I’ve not a royal’s ransom to my name that I could give you olive oil. You’re the Republican, are you not? Mayhaps you can vote yourself some olive oil, for you will find none here. Now scram before I become enraged.”
Elena stood speechless as the blond tossed her hair with agitation and went about her way.
Completely ignoring what Elena thought was a simple, easy request for a bit of olive oil.
Back home she always had fresh baked meat pies with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Did the communists not have olive oil? They had oil for cooking, didn’t they?
“Elen! Stop bothering Fernanda and join us already!” cried Klara, from a row seat nearby.
Still dumbfounded, Elena took her tray over to the security girls and sat down with them.
She looked down with a wan expression at her food, while Lian and Klara dug in.
“Excuse me.” Elena said. “Do you not have olive oil available as a condiment?”
“As a condiment? That’s pretty wild.” Klara asked.
“It is? I always had it back home.” Elena felt suddenly ashamed.
“You Republicans sure are care-free huh?” Lian said, sighing. “Elen, we absolutely don’t have olive oil for you to just dunk your food in. Union oil is mainly corn oil or soybean oil and its just used for cooking in. It’s pretty flavorless on its own. The margarine or shortening is a little bit better because it has extra salt and flavorings added in, but still, you weren’t going to get any.”
“In the Union it’s pretty rude to ask for more stuff on your meals.” Klara clarified. “If you need a special diet you go on a special meal plan, but the cooks work their butts off to make food for like hundreds or even thousands of people who register at their canteen, not to mention walk-ins too. They can’t do that if everyone asks for extra oil all the time, does that make sense?”
“I see. I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was like that.” Elena said, staring down at her plate.
“I’m sure nobody would hold the culture shock against you. Union life is a little bit strict.”
“Well, you know, at least the food is free.” Klara said. “Lian and I walked around a bit in Serrano city, and it was crazy how such a big place that was crammed full of people also just had guys out on the street starving to death and begging for scraps. You don’t see that in the Union.”
“It was pretty disturbing. I’m hoping the entire Empire isn’t like that.” Lian said.
Elena didn’t have the heart to speak up about that.
She knew that the Empire — her Empire — was a difficult and violent place to live.
Though perhaps often naïve she wasn’t completely ignorant to the Empire’s history.
While she was sheltered in Vogelheim she read books and sought out information on the network and tried to learn the things they just would not teach her in Luxembourg, or that she would never get to personally see. She knew that housing cost money and certain people couldn’t pay. She knew that food prices went up and down with supply, demand, price controls or subsidies, tampering by bad market actors — and in turn she knew, at times, people couldn’t afford food, and it led to riots or even wars. And she knew that the Empire persecuted and ejected people for their ethnicity, and that this led to them losing housing, food and even their lives. Elena was sheltered, not stupid.
However, there was a gap in her knowledge about what anyone could do about it.
The Empire felt like a force of nature.
A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.
When her father took power from the Nocht dynasty, he had declared a grand project known as the “Fueller Reformation” that was supposed to end the unrest, the ethnic cleansing, the instabilities in food and housing, corruption among the nobles– a grand and sweeping rejuvenation of the Empire. Clearly, however, he must have failed. Had the Fueller Reformation truly succeeded the Empire would not be split into warring sides. Vogelheim would not have been destroyed.
Bethany would not have had to die, and Elena could have had olive oil on her pies still.
But those were things that could not concern Elen. Elen had an entire other life.
So in front of Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse, Elen began to eat her food.
Despite the lackluster appearance, the flavors of the food were acceptable.
Everything was well seasoned. There was plenty of unctuous mouthfeel and umami flavor.
Nothing could beat the feasts Bethany made with the highest quality ingredients.
But Elena could understand that the Union had acceptable substitutes for such things.
Perhaps the life of the communists was not so bleak and joyless as she thought.
“I have a question. Maybe it’s a stupid one.” Elena said.
“Those are my favorite kind of question!” Klara said. “Throw it out there, Elen!”
Elena gathered her breath, laying her spork down on the pool of sauce left in her plate.
“Do you all really believe in the communist government?” Elena said.
Lian and Klara turned to face each other and turned back to Elena with puzzled expressions.
“Uhhh; are you lookin’ to start a fight, Republican?” Klara said, cocking an eyebrow.
It sounded like she was teasing her– at least Elena certainly hoped it was just teasing.
“Klara don’t scare her. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t really care about what the government calls itself or how they justify it when they do things.” Lian said. “What I care about is that the government does good things for us. And in the Union, the way we organize things has been good for us. Everyone gets a little slice of something. Enough of a life to be pretty happy.”
“I was a little kid when my family was deported to the Union.” Klara said. “I was like two or three years old so I can’t remember the Empire exactly or what happened to us. As a little kid we had some rough times when the Union was formed, but every time there was a shortage, the government was completely up front about it. They told us in school, you know? So I couldn’t blame them when that stuff happened. It felt like it was everyone’s shared problem, or something.”
“My family has a crazy history.” Lian said. “We were from this station in the Cogitum Ocean, like, far, far east, called Zhongshan, and our country had an enemy, Hanwa, who captured us and pressed us into service aboard their ships. Those ships went to war against the Empire and were defeated by the Vekans. The Vekans then deported us to the colonies as POWs. When the Union was formed, it didn’t matter that we were foreigners who had been shuffled around so many countries. We became people of the Union. We all had the same lot, and we shared the same space and resources. That’s always what I’ve called communism, even if I don’t know all the theory.”
Elena listened intently to their stories. Communism had always been the evil ideology of the Empire’s enemies. Communism tricked people into suffering and famine, killed billions, turned neighbor on neighbor, faithful servant against generous master. It was a tempting succubus that threatened to drain the soul of a nation. When Marina told her they would be fleeing to the Union, it felt like she was making a deal with the devil. This was all quite unlike what she had been taught.
In the Empire, communism was taught like it was a force of nature.
A current that swept through people and brought eternal strife.
The Union had rebelled against the Empire, but Elena knew how rotten the Empire was.
Could she blame them? Did she need to fear them like Marina said?
While the communists did not hide the fact that they faced difficulties and hardships in their nation, they did not speak as if they were subjects of a dictatorship who had everything stolen from them and were brainwashed into believing and participating in an evil plot. Everyone on the Brigand were just people. They were soldiers, but– also just people who just had lives and homes.
Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse– in the Empire, would they be hated? Persecuted?
And so, then, was it the Union that was truly just? Was the Union the truly virtuous state?
“I’m sorry for the heavy question. Things are different in the– in the Republic, is all.”
Elena deflected from this subject. She had quite enough on her mind already.
Without having to ponder the weighty questions of national politics.
“You two seem really close.” Elena said. “How did you meet?”
She put on a bubbly smile in the hopes they would play along with the lighter topic.
Thankfully Klara seemed to require little input to get going and ran with it immediately.
“Hah! Lian and I go way back. We used to be rivals in the infantry!”
Klara shot a little look at Lian, who returned it with equal intensity– and fondness.
“Back in camp, whenever I did 100 pushups, this dork would go and do 101.” Lian said.
“And when I set fast times in the obstacle course, you would go and top them!” Klara said.
“Yeah but I wasn’t loud about it like you. You’d go around bragging, it was obnoxious.”
“Of course! What’s the point in beating you at everything and keeping quiet about it?”
Lian looked at Elena, pointing a thumb at Klara. “I hated this bitch for the longest time.”
“I wanted to fucking kill her.” Klara said casually, gently shoving Lian in the shoulder.
“Um.” Elena started to go pale. Had she set them off in an even worse way?
Both were still smiling though. And they each threw an arm over each other’s shoulder.
“One time though, we ended up paired up in a mock battle!” Lian said excitedly.
“We smoked everyone. It was crazy how tuned up our frequencies were!” Klara added.
“After that, we ended up in the showers.” Lian said. She gave Klara a mischievous look.
Klara laughed it off, cheeks red, winking. “Couldn’t keep my eyes off her ever since.”
“Or your hands.” Lian said. The two of them rubbed their heads together affectionately.
Were people in the Union always so openly romantic? Elena felt herself shrink a little, feeling awkward around the two of them, but at the very least, they had gotten away from politics. There was another little bittersweet memory here. Elena was reminded of her childhood crushes, Gertrude and Sawyer. Of her friend Victoria who perhaps also loved her, too. Of the fighting and frolicking of their youth.
All of those people felt so far away. Perhaps she would only ever see them again in death.