[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]
There was an air of tension and wicked possibility as the gathering convened.
The Brigand’s main meeting room was once again playing host to Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy on one end of the planning table and captain Ulyana Korabiskaya, and her commissar and adjutant Aaliyah Bashara on the other end. Maryam was her usual bubbly self while Marina had the same friendless look she always wore, despite having just walked out of the medbay without authorization.
Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.
“You will get lectured by Doctor Kappel. But I’m glad you could make it, it’s a welcome surprise. You’re the woman of the hour after all, Ms. McKennedy.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms.
“Despite myself, I always seem to end up in the spotlight.” Marina grumbled.
She was taking a sarcastic tone of voice, but the matter at hand was one of life and death.
Two or three days ago, depending on one’s metric for a “day” underwater, the Brigand had encountered the enormous Inquisitorial dreadnought dubbed “the Iron Lady” alongside a fleet that was likely drawn from local policing patrols at the last minute. As a clandestine ship, it was impossible to turn the Brigand in to the Iron Lady for inspection. While on the outside the Brigand looked like a civilian vessel, as long as its weapons were retracted and soundproof sealed, this secrecy depended on the hangar and the massive amounts of military equipment within it not being exposed to the wrong eyes.
As part of their plot to escape, Ulyana personally spoke with the commander of the Iron Lady, Gertrude Lichtenberg. She had been hoping to stall and distract Lichtenberg, whom Murati surmised was going to have a hard time controlling her slapdash fleet when her personal attention was drawn away from it.
She had been correct. Gertrude was barely able to keep her fleet in line, and the tighter cohesion of the Brigand’s two-man squads picked them apart. The confrontation allowed Ulyana to gather information. How did Gertrude find them? What was it that Gertrude wanted from them? They were both obviously cagey with each other in that situation, and Ulyana perhaps had a little too much fun with the younger woman, but she gleaned some valuable insight nevertheless. Gertrude wanted a VIP aboard the Brigand. This VIP was important enough Gertrude could not risk directly attacking the Brigand with her cannons.
And there were perhaps personal stakes for Gertrude Lichtenberg, who seemed too invested in the capture of this VIP, for an Imperial Inquisitor in the far reaches of the Empire. This may have accounted for the coincidence of the Iron Lady mooring next to them at Serrano. At the time there was nothing they could do about it and Ulyana did not see it as necessarily a risk. Ships of all kinds moored next to each other. On the docks, crews were too busy with their own ship to start inspecting those of others.
However, now she felt that Gertrude may have been tracking her VIP.
Perhaps Gertrude suspected something and confirmed it with new information at Serrano.
Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.
As a G.I.A. agent on the run, this made the most sense. She owned up to her cell being compromised, and to needing a snap escort to the Union to avoid capture. Perhaps she had lied to Murati about the proximity of her tail and the degree to which she was compromised, hoping for a quick out. All of these suspicions made sense in Ulyana’s head, but there was only one person who could confirm them. Whether she told the truth to them or whether she lied, Ulyana had to see Marina’s reaction to be absolutely sure. She decided that whenever she next met Marina, she’d press her for information.
While she had not expected to do this today, it would have had to happen at some point.
Maryam being in attendance wouldn’t really change anything. This had to be done.
At Ulyana’s side, the Commissar Aaliyah Bashara sat with her arms crossed and a serious expression on her face, her tail on end and unmoving. Ulyana had told her all of her suspicions and what she hoped to do with this meeting. Aaliyah would assist in the interrogation. Shimii had sharp eyes and this particular Shimii had a decent sense of people — except perhaps when she got drunk enough.
“You were knocked out for a while, Marina. What exactly happened to you?”
Ulyana started with a personal question to ease into things. She was curious however.
“We’re doing this now?”
“We’re doing this now.” Aaliyah replied, sternly. She was backing up Ulyana.
“Fine. I was in the hall with Elen when the ship was hit by the dreadnought guns. I’m pretty sure I lost my balance and next thing I knew, I woke up in the medbay.” Marina said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember it very well. Elen was completely freaking out. It was a nightmare of a day.”
“Officers Van Der Smidse and Zhu reported a physical altercation between you two.”
Marina scoffed. “Don’t you employ corporal punishment sometime, Captain?”
“It’s not my first choice to discipline a mentally unstable subordinate.” Ulyana shot back.
Her heart felt a brief swelling of anger toward Marina she had to get under control.
“I was grabbing Elen; I wasn’t in the best place mentally myself. But I didn’t strike her.”
Marina continued to respond coolly. She always acted like she was being interrogated.
Was this how all G.I.A. agents were trained to behave?
Given her conduct, Ulyana didn’t really care to conceal that this was an actual interrogation.
“What does Gertrude Lichtenberg, commander of the Iron Lady, want with you?”
The G.I.A. agent shot a bitter look at Ulyana. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.
She sighed deeply. “Look, I know what it looks like, but I swear I wasn’t being tailed.”
Aaliyah spoke up to support Ulyana again. A note of disdain crept into otherwise polite speech.
“Directly after we rescued you, the Iron Lady took an interest in us. Whether or not you were aware of the possibility hardly matters. You yourself admitted your cell was defeated by the Empire. How can you have been completely sure you would not be tracked or traced in a major city?” She said.
“You presume far too much, Commissar. We are experienced professionals. We can be chased, but what matters is that we know how to escape from the pursuers. And all of us escaped. When the Empire threw down our doors they found nothing of us left behind there. My colleagues have all probably escaped to the Union or the Republic-occupied zone in Katarre. I was the only one unlucky to end up saved by the Union’s special toy. None of us were being followed.” Marina sharply replied.
“Without evidence of this, it will remain an open question.” Aaliyah said.
“I agree. It is useless to argue; but you need to tell us everything, Marina.” Ulyana said.
“It’s not like I’m deliberately holding back any information!” Marina said.
“Are you truly not? Again, we can’t be certain.” Ulyana said. “Until we ask you some pointed questions.”
Marina grunted, casting her eyes to the table. “Fine, of course, just say what you want to.”
Ulyana nodded. She sat back and relaxed and began to ask her questions.
“Right now, the fact is that Gertrude Lichtenberg is coming after us and if she survived our attack on the Iron Lady, she and who knows who else will know what they’re up against now. Just pretend that you did get compromised if it helps your pride. What does she want with you? What information do you know? You know who she is right? Why is this apparently personal to her? How long will she pursue?”
“Do you even think she survived? Didn’t you blast her ship to pieces?” Marina interjected.
“Irmingard-class dreadnoughts are extremely durable vessels.” Aaliyah said. “Our realistic goal was never to sink it outright, but to cause enough damage to sever important systems and cripple the ship enough to allow us to escape. Killing that Inquisitor would be better luck than we’ve had.”
Ulyana locked eyes with Marina. “Back to the subject at hand–”
Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.
“Look, I know a lot about the Fueller family. They must be trying to silence me.” She said.
“So that was the G.I.A’s operation in the Empire? Spying on the imperial royal family?”
“That was a large part of it, yes.”
“That sounds like it carried a lot of risk.” Ulyana said, pressing her for more.
That response seems to have finally crossed the threshold of the G.I.A. agent’s patience.
“No operation is perfect! You’re right, it was risky and I don’t know if I was compromised, I fundamentally can’t know that information! I did my best, but I may have fucked up somewhere. You have no idea what I’ve been through, so maybe you could just accept my apologies and regrets, and we can move on to planning for the situation at hand. Is that ok with you, Captain?” Marina shouted.
And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.
Who did this woman think she was–?
Ulyana narrowed her eyes into a glare and crossed her arms sullenly. “No it’s not ok with me, G.I.A. I don’t know what you’ve been through because you won’t tell us a god damned thing about it! We were polite enough not to grill you the instant you got on this ship; we thought you would come clean with us. What use is it having you as an equal partner if you’ll just drop a bomb like this on us and then refuse to elaborate? Don’t you think we deserve to know if the Fueller family is hunting you?”
“I can explain everything, but it’s not pertinent!” Marina shouted. “The late Emperor’s bedtime secrets aren’t going to save us, goddamn it! If you can get me out of this alive, I promise you’ll get the full fucking story, okay? You’ll fucking wish you hadn’t heard some of the details.”
Maryam hid her face behind her tentacles in the midst of all the shouting.
Ulyana was about to continue the shouting match when a gentle hand laid on her flank.
Imperceptibly, out of the sight of their guests. It was her Commissar’s touch.
The captain knew then that she was going out of line and tried to reign herself back.
Aaliyah rubbed her hands on her forehead, her cat ears drooping. “I hate to say it, but McKennedy is right that the situation fundamentally doesn’t change if she gives up her salacious secrets to us. We don’t really have a way to use that information, so it would only affect our peace of mind. At least now we have some idea of why Gertrude Lichtenberg is after us. We should plan our escape and repairs.”
“When you put it that way, fine.” Ulyana said. “Any ideas on the current predicament, G.I.A?”
“Fleet combat isn’t my strong suit, so no, I don’t really have any brilliant ideas for escaping this situation. You guys did pretty well for yourselves already though, so, I dunno. Why not just attack that flagship and sink it? You’ve got to have the resources on hand to do it.” Marina said.
“The Brigand’s armaments are just not strong enough for us to trade shots dead-on with an Irmingard class dreadnought. We’ll be on the losing end of whatever happens. You’ve seen this already.” Ulyana paused, frustrated at her own helplessness. “We planned a huge production and we ended up with several people in the medbay, a lot of damage, and only a temporary reprieve.”
Marina turned her cheek. Ulyana felt her own cheek twitch. What a bratty reaction!
“How was this mission greenlit if you were going to run into this problem?” She said.
“It’s also your fault that we’re having to fight a flagship, you know.” Aaliyah grumbled.
“It was never part of the mission profile.” Ulyana added. “We’re supposed to be guerillas.”
“Then fight like guerillas do!” Marina said. “Find a hiding spot to attack from and wear it down!”
“That’s easier said than done!” Ulyana said. “Where are we going to hide, McKennedy?”
“I can’t just improvise a whole hideout for you! I’m an intelligence agent, not a magician!”
“If your intelligence is so useless then maybe we should just turn you over to–”
Both of them started shouting again. Aaliyah seemed helpless to calm them down this time.
“Please stop fighting! I have an idea!” Maryam shouted over all of them.
Ulyana and Marina both turned to face her at the same time.
Her tentacles were raised as if they were her shaking arms surrendering to a gun barrel.
Across her body her chromatophores were flashing to white and back to their original color.
Silence fell over the gathering. Ulyana felt momentarily very stupid.
She was stressed out, everything felt like it was going to shit, and she was helpless.
Beating up Marina would not change that. She needed to get a grip on herself.
Maryam spoke up again with a whimpering little voice. “Let’s all calm down, please.”
Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.
“I apologize.” Ulyana said. At first she didn’t care whether Marina accepted or not–
“Fuck, I was out of line too.” Marina admitted fault, much to Ulyana’s surprise. She looked conflicted, arms crossed and eyes practically staring down at her feet. Like a student in a classroom who had been shouted down — Ulyana didn’t exactly feel good about that. “I’m sorry, Captain, Commissar. In this situation I wouldn’t blame you if you did turn me in. But it probably wouldn’t help you much.”
“Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” Ulyana said. “I just lost my temper.”
“Let’s just put it behind us now. So, partners, I vote we listen to the Katarran’s idea.”
Marina pointed at Maryam with a thumb, forcing a smile as if to dispel the tension.
Maryam puffed her cheeks up. “I’ve got a name! I’m not just the katarran, you know!”
“Glad to see we’re all getting along.” Aaliyah sighed deeply, her cat-like tail stabbing at the air.
Ulyana felt ashamed of herself. Her conduct had been ridiculous. She let the stress speak.
At the moment, however, there was truly nothing to do but move on with it.
“Maryam, we’re certainly open to hearing your ideas. First though, I would like to know some background on you too. Our goal is to foment unrest in the Empire. Our agents marked you as a VIP we had to rescue. I assume you must have information that can help our mission.” Ulyana said.
Maryam looked quite nervous, but Ulyana chalked it up to her personality.
She seemed like someone who was very soft and scared. A total noncombatant.
“Background, huh. Umm. I was made in Katarre as a navigational aide for Athena Kyriaki. Around the time I became an instar, Athena attempted to raid Imperial territory in Skarsgaard, and it went– bad.” She shuddered a bit, and every other word came out with a stammer. “Our fleet was wrecked, I got captured, and any Katarrans that the Imbrians thought were female larva got sent the Solcean church in Skarsgaard, while everyone else got scattered. So I was part of the church for years, but eventually, I escaped. While on the run, I ended up working for a really shady group. I had to get really crafty to survive. I picked up a lot of information and skills. Some of it might be totally useless, like the going-abouts of imperial bureaucrats but, I learned a lot about places and installations! I wanted to go to the Union because I heard Katarrans can be free there, so I traveled to Buren, the Palatinate, down to Rhinea, and finally Sverland. I talked with the smugglers in Serrano, and they set me up with a Union agent. And that’s how I got to meet all of you. After talking with the agent, he said I’d be a very important VIP.”
Ulyana scrutinized the details of the story while it was told. She chalked up the nervousness to the kind of person Maryam was. She seemed like a very sweet girl who had been through a lot, and Ulyana felt a certain predilection to believing in her. When Ulyana herself was young she was forced to be “crafty” to survive enslavement in the colonies, so she understood Maryam’s telling of the story. There were details to surviving in harsh situations that were best left abbreviated and did not need retelling.
Ulyana wouldn’t push her to qualify every tiny blank that she had left.
Her route to Sverland had been incredibly long though. If the Union was her goal, she could have gone south through Veka and crossed through Nama Flow. Nama Flow was a landmass wall that divided the Union from Veka north-east to east. It was created by landmass collapses and rearrangements that seemed to have happened in the late Surface Era, whether directly by human action or as a result of the Surface’s catastrophes. The Union controlled both sides of Nama Flow.
It wasn’t easy making it to the Union from anywhere, so why choose the longest route?
“That’s a crazy route you took to get here.” Ulyana said. “How did that happen?
“I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was supposed to be on a mission for my bosses.”
Maryam smiled nervously and raised a hand behind her head, patting down her own hair.
“Can you tell us more about this ‘shady’ group of yours?” Ulyana said.
“They’re called–” She stammered again for a moment. “They’re called the Foundation.”
“Doesn’t really sound like a revolutionary organization.” Aaliyah said.
“They kept things pretty discrete.” Maryam said. She started getting the confidence to speak a bit candidly for a moment. “They’re not really ideological; they were out for themselves mainly and that’s what I didn’t like there. You can think of them kind of like a mafia I guess.”
“Organized crime, huh? I have to say, that’s not really what we wanted to hear.” Ulyana said, slightly disappointed with the story. However, it did make sense. Ulyana had learned that most immigrant Katarrans were ultimately forced to turn to crime in order to survive the rampant discrimination in the Empire. It must have been quite convenient for wealthy, corrupt Imperials to have a ready source of desperate clandestine labor at their bidding. Poor Maryam wouldn’t have had the choice to become some fabled socialist revolutionary in the realities of the Imbrian Empire.
Maryam’s colors shook briefly again. But she seemed to gather her courage after that.
“I wasn’t a big freedom fighter or anything, but I was made with a really good brain and memory, so I know tons of information that can help!” She put on a proud little smile. “In fact, I know a place we can go. It shouldn’t be too far, judging by the map I saw on the morning update!”
At Maryam’s prompting, Aaliyah turned on the display on the table and loaded that same map from Semyonova’s Morning Update to the crew. It was a zoomed in topographical cutout of Northern Sverland, generated by the navigational computer from its preloaded atlas. Stopping short of the Khaybar range that separated most of Sverland from Bosporus to the North, and the open border to Rhinea and the Yucatan gulf in the northwest and center-west of the region respectively.
The Brigand’s current position on the map was updated by the navigation computer.
Maryam pointed to the north, closer to Khaybar, running her finger along a specific area.
“See this dip here? That place is actually a big, long hole the locals called Goryk’s Gorge. There used to be a small outpost there, but I heard it’s been declining. I think it’s because travel through Khaybar dried up the past few years. It should have enough space though! We can dock the ship there for your repairs! There might not be many functioning amenities, but it’s a place that we can hide in that not a lot of people know. To be found there, the imperials would have to be searching the whole grid.”
Ulyana followed Maryam’s finger across the map. This Goryk’s Gorge wasn’t too far off.
However, the fact that Maryam was trying to correct their map bothered her.
Any standing station should have been listed already. So why was that location empty?
Who was it that set up this so-called ‘outpost’? What was it really for?
Aaliyah seemed to be on a similar wavelength to Ulyana and voiced her own doubts.
“Would this ‘outpost’ happen to have been set up by Katarran mercenaries?” She said.
Maryam rubbed her head nervously. “Historically. But they’ve probably moved on!”
There was another brief but awkward silence as Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Maryam.
“I’ll take my chances with Katarran mercs over Lichtenberg any day.” Marina interjected.
“And it’s relatively closer than Rhinea. I suppose it’s worth taking a look.” Ulyana said.
She was not too impressed with Maryam’s information quite yet.
And she felt she should have learned to temper her hopes about these things much sooner.
Regardless, at least they had a direction to go in. She didn’t think Maryam was lying. However, more and more, it felt like this entire excursion to Serrano had been a big mistake. What were the Union’s foreign agents doing and thinking? What did they actually see in Maryam? She was a sweet girl who had been through a lot, but she did not seem like a VIP asset worthy of this painful detour.
Ulyana tried to clear her head and push it out of her mind. Like Aaliyah had said before, it was pointless to hang onto topics like this. They could not simply dream up alternatives to reality.
“Alright, we’ve decided, we’ll set a course for Goryk’s Gorge. Marina and Maryam, you’ll be given formal security clearances as advisors. You’re welcome on the bridge any day.” She said.
Marina quietly nodded her head and Maryam beamed with delight, raising her arms.
And so the Brigand would change direction and head north to its next destination. Goryk’s Gorge, and the mysterious station supposedly at its edge. Ulyana could only pray that she was making the right choices in this awful situation. They adjourned the meeting, the future still unsure.
She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as she prepared to leave the room.
Aaliyah behind her again, smiling. “Let’s talk later, just us, Captain.”
Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”
It was a labored smile but reminding herself Aaliyah was there did wonders for her morale.
You’re here Braya!
Her human body was seated next to Karuniya Maharapratham in the science officer’s lab, but the signals that Braya Zachikova’s brain felt as tactile sensations and visual input were now being drawn from a drone strung on a kilometer of fiber-optic wire in the open waters. She was cold, and she felt the effort of the hydrojets behind her and the sense of her body’s increased weight and stiffness. Her drone body collected data on its status, and this feedback was given directly to Zachikova’s brain.
It was a second body, a main body while the flesh and blood stayed behind.
This curved, finned metal body two and a half meters long and two meters tall deployed from the utility tube into the murky ocean, searching, following all biological noises as Fatima picked them up and discarded them as irrelevant from the Bridge’s computer. With access to this data and everything else that the ship supercomputer was processing, Zachikova was finally able to track her beautiful dancer through the gloom of the deep ocean, following featureless rock and swimming past ghostly white plants and corals and crawling rockfish and crabs, geysers of methane that drew up slight purple sparks when their bubbling hot discharge came into contact with the agarthic salts in the water.
Marine snow fell over her in great waves — this was the thick biomass suspended in the water around them, eternally raining from the rich, living environment above. Peering through the fog of decaying matter and the minuscule beings that thrived in it, Zachikova felt her human heart shudder with surprise and warm with delight. Those beautiful fins, that graceful body, the color that shone brightly under the lights cast out by the drone, even amid the dark blue-green filter of the ocean.
She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.
A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.
There was such relief in her heart. Her dancer hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t come to harm, and she could do her part now to protect her for good. She steadied the cameras and extended the arms so that Karuniya could capture footage of the animal playing harmlessly with the drone, its slender body bereft of any implements of destruction like biocannons, tail spikes or vibrating power-jaws. She lead a life free of worry or burden, unseen in the deeps. Zachikova felt blessed to see her.
“This is Science Officer Karuniya Maharapratham, we spotted this creature on–”
Karuniya had begun to record her audio to play over the evidence footage.
The Dancer would go on the Brigand’s record as a subject of study.
Zachikova could hear the voice, distant and muffled, through the antennae on her human body rather than the drone’s sensors. This mix of the two sometimes shook her out of controlling computerized devices, but in this case, she was so transfixed on the ravishing figure circling around the drone, that there was no way her sight would shift back to her human body. Zachikova wanted to touch her.
She laid the arms of the drone “palm”-up hoping for a touch as the dancer arced gracefully around her. When the sensation of those soft, silky fins played over her arms, her soul fluttered.
Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.
Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.
Bright placid blues trailed from her fins and tail and around her body that spread like a splash of paint wherever she swam, surrounding Zachikova and the cameras which could only see that majestic blue, the color that should have been the sky, she thought. Her eyes were filled the light, and she felt like she could feel colors around her own body, green and purple and blue; and around Karuniya, green and blue with a band of black around the edges; and the Brigand itself was dyed in massive colors of all kinds. Every living thing, painting a glowing tapestry in the water, Zachikova felt like she could see it all.
As the Dancer wove a circle of colors in front of her, Zachikova saw beyond the water.
“We’re going to get out of here.”
Through the clearing mist of the colors and the murk of the marine snow Zachikova saw–
Metal walls, darkness, bars, the blue glint of LEDs and a single tiny window.
Through that window, an impossible, clouded sky with purple flashes of lightning.
Within the gloom, despair-maddened eyes drawing wide illuminated with each flash.
Laughter erupted from a slim girl with copious long red hair–
–scratching at the side of her head, where a horn-like protrusion parted her skin.
“I can talk– talk to them–” She laughed and struggled to speak. “I talk to the monsters.”
Her free hand scratched on the steel floor a series of lines from bloody disfigured fingers.
“I’ll save them– You’ll be one, and I’ll be two– Then we’ll kill them all–”
Zachikova could barely make out the scene through the intrusion of the colors.
At the side of the girl that was talking, sat another girl, with bright lilac eyes, staring–
As if at her.
Inquisitive, aren’t you?
That red-lined gaze pushed Zachikova’s soul as if across the very horizon.
She felt a power squeeze her and hurl her, throw her away–
“–And that’s why I will be inducting this Leviathan as USL-0099 in our database. Positive interactions with Leviathans are few and far between and for the future we are fighting towards, we should foster an environment of understanding and progress in not only political but scientific development. Scientists work in the military to be able to explore the mysteries of the sea. It would be remiss of me, in my capacity as an advisor, to turn a blind eye to this creature and allow its needless destruction. As a subject of study, this Leviathan cannot be fired upon without my express permission.”
Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–
Zachikova shook her head. Her human head. A breath crossed through her human throat. From the lab’s drone control terminal, she manually switched the cameras around, moving them like machines and not her own body. The Dancer was still there, but distant, coy, starting to wander away from the drone. Zachikova had the panicked thought that she had done something wrong.
“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“
Her head was foggy, and she felt images slipping away from her like a dream fading from the wakeful mind. She had seen a girl, for some reason, and she knew she had seen some kind of strange color phenomenon in the water. It could’ve been signals issues, some kind of cybernetic synesthesia, she already experienced all sorts of odd things when she interfaced with machines.
Those situations never felt quite like this. Zachikova’s heart was shaken.
She was losing her cool. Emotion had never overcome her like this.
Zachikova thought she might cry, and she hardly knew what she was crying about!
Swept up in that current of colors swirling around the Dancer–
It was the most beautiful thing she had seen underwater, but her mind was–
–Mourning the image of it.
Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–
“Zachikova, are you okay? Did you disconnect from the drone?”
In front of her, Karuniya Maharapratham seemed to fully reappear as if stepping in through a cloud of mist. Her soft brown skin, long dark hair, white coat. Her gentle eyes. And the stark metallic lab walls and equipment returning to the background. Zachikova felt more grounded in reality, and reality set in for her anew. She shook her head and turned back to the drone console with haste.
“I’m okay. I lost connection. I’m going to link back.”
“It looks like USL-0099 swam away.” Karuniya said, looking at the monitor.
“I want to follow it.” Zachikova said suddenly. Almost interrupting Karuniya.
“It seems to be roaming around, we’ll probably see it again.” Karuniya said.
“I’m–” Zachikova paused briefly. She hated how desperate she sounded, but she could not deny the fear that had taken hold like ice in her chest. “I’m afraid I might have scared it off. I’d like to make contact again. I won’t be out for long, and I won’t need to take up your time further.”
Karuniya scratched her hair in consternation. “No offense, but I don’t understand–”
At that moment, the sound of running footsteps nearing the door caught their attention.
Through the threshold crossed an agitated Sonya Shalikova, panting heavily.
“Maharapratham!” She shouted. “She’s awake! Murati is awake!”
Whatever Karuniya was going to say to Zachikova would hang in the air for good.
Speechless, on the verge of tears, Karuniya ran past Shalikova, who then ran after.
Zachikova remained, seated on the drone station, alone. Her antennae shifted slightly.
She suddenly and immediately reconnected the drone and began to dissociate her body.
“I have to find her again.”
I have to ask her— this thought reverberated in Zachikova’s mind as it left her human body.
What would she even ask? And how would she ask a question to an animal?
Those small insanities sank to the back of Zachikova’s mind.
“How many fingers are we holding up?”
Officers Zhu and Van Der Smidse both held up two fingers to form peace signs.
They waved these fingers in front of an awkwardly smiling patient in a medbay bed.
“Is this a trick question? Two fingers in two hands, so four fingers.”
Murati Nakara answered with as much enthusiasm as she could muster energy for.
“I guess she’s ok.” Zhu and Van Der Smidse agreed.
For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.
She felt that she had not been in a deep sleep but had been sleeping and waking, finding herself first in her diver, then dragged out, in the medbay, in the ocean itself, in places unfathomable that seemed to skirt just beyond the edge of understanding. Long sandy stretches of surface land, war-torn; a great and awful tree of flesh in the middle of a romantic, gothic town; a sprawling city where people could do anything with their minds but were beset by monsters; nonsense dreams.
She had a headache, and she did not feel rested.
She was famished and had a hard time keeping her eyes wide open in the medbay.
Craning her head, she took note that she was not the only one interned in the medbay.
Sat up on her bed, Sameera seemed to have been recovering well, the mixed Shimii/Loup gently wagging her tail under the sheets, laid on three pillows and smiling placidly. Always chipper, that one. She looked like she had been awake for longer. Rather than a hospital gown, she was dressed in a long casual shirt and from one dangling leg what seemed like soft, baggy pants. However, when she tried to move, she seemed uncoordinated, as if drunk or sleepy, and ended up laying back down.
“Two days or so, if you were wondering.” Sameera said.
Murati stared at her. Sameera laughed, voice deep and gentle.
“That’s how long you slept, but I think you were coming in and out. I heard you cry once.”
“You heard her cry?” Zhu Lian. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Sameera looked untroubled. “It felt like she just needed to work something out.”
“What if she was working out a heart attack?” Van Der Smidse said.
“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”
Van Der Smidse and Zhu glared at her for a moment, until a pair of visitors ran in.
At the door, a pale, indigo-eyed girl escorted a familiar face, one Murati longed to see.
Murati’s exclamation was a little weak, owing to her condition.
Despite this, it reached right to Karuniya’s heart. At the door, she gasped and stood, the rest of the assembled group parting so that she could approach the bed. She held her hands over her mouth, eyes half-shut with copious tears, shoulders shaking. When she finally rushed to the bed she was mindful of Murati’s wounds. Rather than hug Murati, she laid gentle hands on her.
Karuniya leaned in her head, and they touched their faces together. It was the most affectionate form of physical contact Murati could withstand. Feeling the warmth of Karuniya’s cheek and her soft hair falling over her, the scent of the disinfectant clinging to her lab coat mixed with the woody smell of mushroom cultures. Murati almost wished she could return a full embrace.
However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.
Under her hospital gown, Murati had deep bruises in her chest and flank. Though she was on pain medication which helped her breathe normally, she could feel her range of movement limited by the sense of dull stinging that triggered when she tried to shift her weight. She supposed that she had broken ribs. Her arm was also broken and in a cast, slung over her shoulder. She had a bit of foam padding around her neck that suggested it was probably bruised or injured as well.
“Mu– Mu– Mu– rati–!” Karuniya cried out, sobbing, whimpering next to Murati.
“It’s okay Karu. I’m here for you.” Murati said, smiling with genuine elation.
“Don’t try to be fucking cool when you nearly got killed! You reckless idiot!”
Karuniya lifted her hands off Murati’s shoulder and then laid them back down.
Perhaps in lieu of the soft little punches she sometimes threw to tease or scold Murati.
She laid her head over Murati’s shoulder, gently, making sure not to lean too hard.
“I was so worried, Murati. I was so worried. I thought you– I thought you had–”
“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”
“Promise me this is the worst it’s going to be. Promise me it won’t be worse than this.”
“I promise. I really do.”
Murati understood. For it to have been “worse than this” she would’ve had to come back in pieces rather than whole. Or not have come back at all. They already understood how dangerous the mission was and that either of them could die– but even the most educated soldiers had feelings when they actually confronted death. Murati reassured her as best she could. There was no need to realistically contemplate their mortality right then. After all, Murati really wanted to keep that promise.
She would do her utmost not to break such a promise.
And if that promise had any power, then maybe there was a God after all.
Murati would pin her hopes on that.
It was eerie, having come near death. It did not feel like anything.
That absence of some grand experience was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all.
She had simply been beaten senseless, halfway to death in the middle of the ocean.
Halfway, but not fully. So here she was, alive in the arms of her precious wife.
Murati looked past Karuniya. Zhu and Van Der Smidse stood off to the side with faintly flushed cheeks, perhaps a little embarrassed at the display of affection — though with their fingers intertwined between them. Shalikova stood with the tiniest, barest hint of a smile on her lips, arms crossed as if waiting for something, or perhaps satisfied with the result of her handiwork.
“Thank you Shalikova.” Murati said. “You came to visit and then ran to get Karu, right?”
Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.
She turned her cheek, her brow creasing ever so slightly with indignation.
“Of course I went to get your wife, anyone would’ve done it. It’s really nothing.” Was that the tiniest bit of flushed cheeks on Shalikova too? Maybe Murati was just seeing things this time.
Now that other people had joined the conversation, Karuniya stepped back from Murati.
Van Der Smidse graciously brought her a seat so she could stay at her “husband’s” side.
“Thank you.” Karuniya sat down. She checked the board on Murati’s bed. “Broken ribs, broken arm– well, you’re not going to die, and you might be able to walk with crutches. Sheesh, at least you’re not going to get back in that death machine for a while. For good or ill.” She sighed and turned with an irritated expression at Zhu and Van Der Smidse. “What are you two doing? Go fetch me some broth, bread, and pickles. Murati must be dying of hunger, c’mon. I’ll feed her.”
Now it was Murati’s turn to feel her face red with embarrassment. “I really don’t need–”
Karuniya glared at her. Murati laid back and accepted this as the current state of affairs.
“Sure, we’ll leave her in your capable hands then.”
Van Der Smidse and Zhu seemed to sense the dark energy around Karuniya and complied.
After they left to get the food, Shalikova started to bid farewell– but Murati halted her.
“Shalikova, I need to talk to you for a second.”
Shalikova paused and returned to the side of the bed. “What is it?”
“Did we lose anyone?”
Thankfully, Murati did not have to feel the dread of asking that question for long.
“No. We’re all alive.” Shalikova said. Her confidence and quick response were a big relief.
While the time she had spent awake could be counted in minutes only, Murati was already back to thinking about the situation at hand. If she was alive and surrounded by familiar Union faces then they had escaped from the Iron Lady. She was in poor condition, however, so they had something quite important they had to settle so they could operate effectively in the near future.
“I have to talk to Khadija about it too, but– Shalikova, I’m making you squad leader.”
“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.
“Oh, good idea.” Karuniya added. “Shali-Shali has fought like an ace every single time.”
Shalikova stared between Karuniya and Murati with expressions of shock and disgust.
“That’s– But– No way! I’m an Ensign and I’ve only had two real sorties!”
“I’ve only had two real sorties too.” Murati said. “Shalikova, not only do you have excellent piloting skills, but you’ve shown decisiveness and a really fantastic situational awareness. Had you not intervened when you did, I would have almost certainly been killed out there. And you held your own against that mystery pilot and their mystery diver after that. This is not just empty flattery from me.”
Sameera, lying back with her eyes closed, spoke up suddenly from her bed.
“I agree! I think the Ensign would make a very cute squad leader.” She declared.
“Shut up and go back to sleep! Nobody asked you!” Shalikova shouted. She then turned her agitation on Murati. “Pick Khadija! You said you had to talk– why decide now?” She asked. “She’s so much more experienced and skilled than I am! Why would you pick me over her?”
“You look like you don’t even want to hear the reasons she has!” Karuniya said.
Shalikova snapped toward her but seemed unable to raise her voice at Karuniya.
Murati was thankful that she could sense the evil within Karuniya and treat her gently.
“I think Khadija is our strongest pilot, and that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be the leader.” Murati said. “She has exceptional combat skills, but– let’s say skewed judgment. At any rate, a leader doesn’t need to be the strongest. After all, you’re a better pilot than me in raw skill, Shalikova.”
Of all the comments, this one really had poor Shalikova withering under the spotlight. She crossed her arms, tapped her feet, and turned her back, grumbling a little where no one could see.
“I’ll– I’ll think about it. You won’t force me to do this. I really have to consider it!”
Murati nodded her head silently, smiling at her. “Thank you. I really believe in you–”
Shalikova immediately started to walk out of the room unprompted, but she met someone at the door that she nearly bumped into. Pink skin, red and brown hair, a below-average stature.
“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.
“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”
The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.
Long, thin strand-shaped fins bristling among her hair, an unfriendly look on her face, the woman walked to the side of Sameera’s bed, holding a bowl of what looked like a quick porridge made by crumbling bread and pickles in broth. She sat down, grunted, and then started to feed Sameera, who easily accepted the attention as the woman forced a spoonful through her lips. It was her squadmate, Dominika Rybolovskaya. Her presence, the indignation in her every movement, silenced the room.
Murati wondered how long this bleak scene had repeated across the days.
Compared to the evil energy exuding from that woman, Karuniya was a glowing angel.
At least it brought a bit of color to the drab medbay.
“Karu, can I ask for your help later?”
Murati gave a slightly pleading look to her wife, who smiled back.
“Oh jeez, of course.” Karuniya sighed. “Back to work already? You’re hopeless.”
“Thank you for understanding.”
It was such a contrast to Dominika and Sameera that even those two were staring at it.
Another “night” fell on the UNX-001 Brigand, denoted only by the moving of the clock and the moving of people, and by the artificial dimming of lights. During the day, each light fixture had a small ultraviolet system to help the humans within feel at home, as if working under the rays of the sun. At night, those UV systems would be turned off, the ordinary light would dim, snuffing out the underwater “sun”.
With that snuffing out of the sun, there was a commensurate snuffing out of activity.
There were always some workers at night — it was a warship, after all.
But not for the next few days.
“No night shifts for two days and reduced daytime work hours, for all sailors!”
Galina Lebedova, Chief of the Brigand’s sailors, passed down the decree from Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to all the sailors working in the hangar. Everyone had been working hard for days, and it was clear the laborers really needed a break. Heavy duty work would resume once the Brigand made it to Goryk’s Gorge and could settle down for the final and definitive stretch of repairs.
“Prioritize maintenance, and don’t crowd the canteen and social spaces! And thank the officers!”
As such the hangar space was almost entirely empty that night.
The only sounds were the footwork and grunts of a certain Shimii, Khadija al-Shajara. It was so quiet that when she stopped moving, one could almost hear the drops of sweat striking the hangar floor, and her heart jumping as she stepped forward and back, attacking a shadow opponent. Dressed only in a pair of workout pants and a sleeveless crop top, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Her cat-like ears bristled with each burst of physical effort, tail stabbing at the air behind her betraying a sense of anxiety.
She had in each hand a thick, solid, and heavy carbon-fiber truncheon borrowed from the armory. Standing in a corner of the hangar, with the Diver gantries blocking her from the sight of the elevators and lower hall connections, she practiced striking with the truncheons. Solid one-handed blows in quick succession; coordinated attacks with both weapons at once; overhead, from the side, from left and right at once. She was not treating them as the two clubs she had, but as a pair of swords.
Swords like the saw-bladed, motorized weapons that her Diver could employ.
Her strikes grew more belabored, her breathing tighter, and she could hear herself, louder.
Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.
“It doesn’t matter. My body isn’t what’s on the line out there. It’s all in a fucking Diver.”
She hated how exhausted she felt. She hated the feeling that she was growing old.
Growing old; when there were other kinds of growing she still needed to do.
Her shaking fingers on the truncheons, the cold sweat of her iron grip; the explosive pain from her joints when she paused for even the briefest second, the soreness in her lithe leg muscles with each step. How she felt her shoulder nearly pop on the double overhead strikes. How hard her breathing came to her, almost as soon as she started. Khadija hated it, hated her age, hated her ailing body. She was as fit as she possibly could be, her lean, wiry muscles practiced daily, and still her strikes grew weaker.
There was a loud clatter on the hangar floor as she dropped the truncheons.
Slipping out of exhausted hands that couldn’t stop shaking.
Regardless of how sharply focused her mind had been, she could not make her body go further. Forty-two years; how was it possible that she was still alive after all of this? How had she not died back then with the Red Baron? Either in 959 or 979, whichever of the two. She doubled over, breathing ragged, hands on her knees, sweat trickling over her slim nose, her still-soft cheeks.
“Hah, man, this sucks. When did this become so much trouble for me?”
She started to think but– when was even the last time she had to train this hard?
There were always things to do. Patrols, mock battles, simulations, equipment testing, she had even done plenty of Leviathan culling alongside the Hunters. War, however, she had only practiced in a single solitary stretch, the year of absolute hell she experienced from 959 to 960. Twenty years ago, twenty whole years ago. She was treated like a senior NCO back then because she was twenty-two in an army that had a massive swell of teenage privates. What was she supposed to be now?
“Back then–” Khadija paused, still catching her breath. “I didn’t want the kids to fight.”
She still did not. And perhaps, that was the reason that, at forty-two, she was still here.
Forty-two years. No matter how much she exercised, how much makeup she wore, in this situation there was no escaping it, no embellishing. As lithe and athletic as she kept her body, as young and vibrant as she kept her face, deep down beneath skin and muscle, she was forty-two years old.
She was hurting. Even her fluffy tail felt like an old, beaten thing.
Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.
“Someone like me would’ve already been dead if this was a film. For the kid’s stories to advance.”
Maybe she should have been killed. If she could have just taken out the Red Baron back then–
There was a distant series of dull metal steps on the hangar floor.
When Khadija turned her head she saw someone approaching across the barely lit space.
Someone on crutches.
“So this is where you went. You look like you’ve been working really hard.”
Murati Nakara, step by labored step, leaning heavily on her crutches. Smiling.
She had on her uniform, and she looked like every step was pure agony.
“Ya Allah!” Khadija exclaimed, so surprised she was. “What are you doing, you fool?”
She rushed up to a stand and hastened to Murati’s side, trying to save her some walking.
Face to face, Khadija’s sweaty, bereaved expression, barely accented with a light touch of runny makeup, could not have measured to the deathly grimace on Murati’s face, sweating, panting for breath. Khadija looked around, wondering how the hell she made it out of the medbay without anyone stopping her. She helped Murati lean against her, and regardless of what the Lieutenant intended, Khadija had in mind to drag her right back. She started to gently urge her to turn so she could guide her away.
“It’s okay Khadija, Karuniya is in the hall with a wheelchair.” Murati said.
“What? Why didn’t she cart you out here? What is wrong with you two?”
“Because I want to talk to you alone, and she respects me enough for that.”
Murati continued to labor a smile, while Khadija stared at her quizzically.
“Didn’t you just wake up today? What could possibly–?”
“Khadija, I’ll get right to the point, because I’m really exhausted and hurting and honestly, this has been distressing me a lot.” Murati’s eyes looked almost tearful, as she worked her way up to asking and finally interrupted. When Khadija met her eyes she could barely look at the expression. And when she heard the words that her squad leader finally said, her body shook with shock and shame.
“Khadija, were you trying to die out there? Did you intend to martyr yourself?”
It was like her heart was perforated with a cold needle, a sharp pinprick.
When she had fought the Red Baron– She did intend to launch a suicide attack.
How could Murati have known? Did she suspect it when she snatched the bomb away?
In hindsight, it brought her a lot of pain and shame to think about that now.
She had tried to put that experience away.
To train and fight another day and move on.
Now it crashed into her exhausted mind and nearly brought her to the floor.
Especially because of Murati’s reaction. It was so shocking to see her so hurt by it.
Murati continued to look at her, openly weeping. She raised her working arm to wipe tears.
She took Khadija’s shocked silence as a confirmation. And it seemed to distress her further.
“Khadija, please promise me that you won’t consider such a thing again. I admit, I have not been in command of teams in real combat, probably nowhere near as much as you might have had. But I truly made it my duty to insure that everyone came back alive. My plan was never for a suicide mission. It hurts– I can do everything in my power to save my comrades, but if they decide–”
Murati paused as if she could not get herself to say it out loud. She sobbed openly.
Khadija had never seen her like this. She had never imagined her looking so broken up.
“Khadija, I don’t want the story of the ‘Lion of Cascabel’ to end like that. Please.”
“Murati, I–” Khadija hardly knew what to say to that at first.
She could have been offended to be called ‘the Lion of Cascabel’, a name which brought bad memories. She could have tried to explain her reasoning at that time, not that there was any. It had been pure gut, desperation, and a lot of self-loathing that led her to that. She realized what she felt, was that she was touched Murati had such a strong reaction to the idea of her dying like that– to her making a martyr of herself. At that time, Khadija had felt, if she went through with it, no one would mourn it.
Wasn’t she just a soldier? An unmarried childless old woman sharpened to kill?
Wouldn’t the success of the mission give meaning to her death?
For a long time she really thought of herself as someone disposable.
She never realized how that flew in the face of the comrades risking their life alonside her.
How it minimized their collective hope of protecting one another and returning alive.
Khadija wondered– could she really say she wanted to live at all costs? She looked back briefly at the truncheons she had dropped in the hangar. What she had felt back in the water, that desperation and frustration– she was here, fighting to never feel it again. She was challenging herself again, and if she had no intention of living, then she would not have been aching and sweating this much.
She finally knew what to say. “Murati, you’re unbelievable sometimes. I guess I have to become even stronger in the future so you kids will finally stop worrying about me so much.” Khadija made an irritated noise. “Honestly; knock it off, Murati. Go back to the medbay. I have more training to do.”
Murati smiled at her, wiping her tears. Relief seemed to wash over her like a wave.
“Thank you. Whether or not you realize it, Khadija, you’re a real hero.” She said.
Khadija looked away from Murati in a brief fit of shame.
Honestly, what was it with this girl and the earnest compliments?
But she couldn’t hate her for it. She really wanted to believe that she was.
Not just an old failed woman but the hero of a story still to be told.