Shortly after closing their video discussion with Euphemia Röntgen, Marina McKennedy appeared on the bridge, and Maryam Karahailos was also summoned — peeled off the side of the Cheka, where she had been standing in determined, unwavering support of Sonya Shalikova as a gaggle of engineers struggled with the mech. Together, the group huddled around the Commissar’s and Captain’s chairs on the bridge, going over the situation and then the conversation with Röntgen.
When the Doctor was first mentioned to her, a wave of white colors washed over Maryam’s skin.
Ulyana knew that this was an involuntary stress reaction on her part.
She grew suspicious, as it was obvious to see Maryam recognized the name.
“Who is Euphemia Röntgen? She told us the history of the outpost, that it was established by Admiral Gottwald and used by Katarran mercenaries for running supplies skimmed off the Southern Border Fleet. You must know about this; can you corroborate her story at all, Maryam?”
Maryam put her hands behind her back and rocked side to side while speaking.
“Euphre– Euphemia Röntgen is some kind of scientist– she uh, she’s kind of a repeat customer with mercenaries, that’s how I met her. Her company and the Foundation make money together from making gadgets. The Foundation can get expensive and rare materials, and Solarflare makes stuff with it. As for this outpost, I– I think the Doctor is right! I just knew where it was hidden and who used it, but no specifics. It’s just one of a lot of places where Katarrans can hide out for a while– it’s nothing more to me.”
Maryam laughed, a bit nervously, as if trying to play off the seriousness of it.
Ulyana felt predisposed to believe her, despite a few clear verbal stumbles here and there.
That said, she was not ready to let it go quite yet. It was part of her job to overthink things.
The Captain turned to Marina McKennedy and gestured toward Maryam to her. “What’s your thinking on this, G.I.A? The way you talk about Katarrans makes it sound like you have experience with the underworld, am I right?”
“Of course I have experience with it. If you’re in the intelligence business you need connections to the underworld. And in the Empire, the underworld runs on Katarran blood and muscle.” Marina said, crossing her arms, and fixing her gaze on Maryam before continuing, “Truth is I’ve never heard of this kid’s ‘Foundation’ or that Röntgen’s ‘Solarflare’ company, but plenty of legitimate companies are set up just like she says. Dealing in the underworld is cheaper but risky; however the ‘risk’ becomes essentially free if you don’t care what happens to the workers that will suffer the risk. And if you manage to get rare and valuable materials using cheap disposable merc labor and without a heap of bribes to corrupt officials, that’s more profit for you. It’s well known that Katarrans have a knack for getting their hands on stuff, and if they die doing it, everyone says good riddance.”
Though Ulyana certainly saw the sense in her words, the unkind, blunt way in which she spoke about this depressing topic rubbed her the wrong way. Perhaps that is why she was a frontline officer and not a political or intelligence apparatchik.
This turn in the conversation finally prompted Commissar Aaliyah Bashara to join in.
“Capitalism has always run on the back of an underclass, whether officially with colonial slaves or under the table with Katarran mercenaries. I have to say though, for even scientific companies to be tied to the underworld is surprising to me. The Empire is more corrupted than even the bleakest theories in my political training.” Aaliyah said. Ulyana wondered if she felt unnerved by the discussion, as a Shimii. She turned to the Captain sternly. “That said, we need to get back on track. We can reasonably confirm there won’t be a thousand Katarrans ambushing us now, and I’m not sure we need to be concerned about Röntgen’s business either. We didn’t escape from that Inquisitor to waste time playing Inquisitor. So, Captain, have you reached a decision?”
Aaliyah fixed her lovely eyes on Ulyana, who felt put on the spot.
There was a sense that, before she made any move, she felt she needed it to be fully solved.
Being chased by the Iron Lady, and almost killed in the event, instilled in Ulyana a sense that she needed to be far more cautious than she was. The Imbrium Empire was a more deadly and complicated place than they had ever given it credit for. Aaliyah was right. She had to reach some kind of decision quickly to get them moving again. Ulyana was not so sure they should let Röntgen’s “business” go, but there was nothing more that they would gain by deliberating among themselves.
Ulyana stood up and addressed the bridge crew.
“Zachikova, I want you to bring the drone back from long range reconnaissance and instead go over the wreckage of Röntgen’s ship and compiled a graphical record for me. Kamarik, we’ll move in and dock beneath the outpost structure. It does seem like everything is sufficiently quiet, and the outpost seems to have no defenses, but I want you to keep your eyes and ears peeled, al-Suhar. Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa should remain ready to fire at a moment’s notice. I also want all the gas gunners at attention as well, I want a flak barrage ready if we see any Divers. Let’s all move with caution, for now.”
Around the Captain, the bridge crew members and acknowledged and quickly got to work.
Marina stood off to the side of the door, her part for now completed, and Maryam skipped out to the hangar again.
Their course was clear. They were going to dock at this outpost for their repairs.
When Ulyana sat back down, she tried to relax, but her shoulders were stiff.
She had a lot of tension in her; and there was still a lot of tension around all of them.
“I can’t help but think we’re missing something in all of this.” Ulyana said.
Her voice was low, but her Commissar heard her. With Marina standing with her head down and her back on the opposite wall, they had the small amount of privacy they usually did and could talk to each other how a Commissar and a Captain usually did. Aaliyah’s ears perked up when she heard, and without turning to face each other, they spoke, dissimulating their discussion.
“We’re career military, so we’re used to working in an information-rich environment.” Aaliyah said. “I don’t blame you for worrying. We’re going to have to get used to not being entirely in the loop about some things. Best guesses seem to be the nature of this kind of mission. But we can’t lose sight of our own interests, Captain. Even if Röntgen is lying, does her lying affect us negatively? We can revisit this question when we let her go; but for now, we ought to play along with her.”
Ulyana smiled. “You have an uncanny ability to keep a clear head, Commissar.”
Aaliyah smiled as well. They were on the same wavelength.
They weren’t turning their heads or fixing each other’s eyes with passion, but they knew.
Both of them still understood one another, in the little conspiracy that a Captain and her Commissar formed on a Union bridge. It was nice to be able to engage in this closed conversation even with everyone around them.
“A Captain and a Commissar should be everything the other is not.” Aaliyah said. “When you have doubts, my role is to help you clarify them. When I am unsure, your role is to give me direction. That’s how we make a good team. And I do appreciate the caution you’ve shown. Being perfectly honest, I was worried you would be more reckless and impulsive.”
“So have I finally proven myself to you, then?” Ulyana asked with a swelling of pride.
“Of course. I acknowledge you as the picture of Union gallantry, Captain Korabiskaya.”
Ulyana’s heart fluttered somewhat at the response, and she tried not to react too strongly.
But her Commissar seemed to realize or perhaps even expect the effect of her words.
“That being said,” Aaliyah shut her eyes and grinned a little. “I will continue to be critical of you, so don’t think you can slack off. In fact, now that you’ve shown yourself so capable, I will certainly be upset if I see you making a stupid mistake. Keeping you honest is part of my role. When a Captain errs, her Commissar should strongly correct her.”
Ulyana sighed a little inside, but she should have expected this anyway.
It wasn’t like she had put a ring on her finger or anything.
She had not even confessed just how deep her feelings for this furry-eared, bright-eyed, thin-tailed Shimii had become. How much any word of support from her meant to Ulyana. Aaliyah, more than she knew, turned immediately into Ulyana’s guiding light whenever she spoke. With this woman at her side, the Captain felt like she could go anywhere and conquer any obstacle.
This was not something that Ulyana could say aloud.
Despite all her experience with sex, she was unused to having such powerful feelings for someone else. Whenever she dated someone it had been fun, and she certainly cared for them, but she never felt such an irrational girlish longing before.
All this time she had been trying to do little things for Aaliyah but, of course, she wouldn’t reciprocate.
In their profession, such a thing was even more difficult to confess to.
Geninov had once joked they were like mother and father.
That was indeed part of the relationship of a Captain and a Commissar to a Union crew. They were like mother and father — a divorced mother and father with a professional parenting relationship over their children, the crew.
So Ulyana had to hold her heart still and maintain her usual calm, coy demeanor.
“Of course, Commissar Bashara. I welcome your principled critique. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Ulyana said.
“Oh, wouldn’t you?”
For the first time since they began speaking, their gazes briefly met.
Was Aaliyah teasing her? What was that tiny smile playing across her lips?
“Eyes ahead, Captain. We’ve got work to do.”
She crossed her arms, looking self-satisfied– she had put Ulyana quite off-balance!
“Of course.” It was all Ulyana could say, but now there was a greater thrill in her heart…
When the Brigand finally descended into the Goryk’s Gorge outpost, they found little room to maneuver around the pillars that anchored it to the rapidly encroaching edge of the cliffs. Serrano had dwarfed the Brigand, an absolutely vast city akin to a rectangular mountain into which they could dock, but this outpost had barely enough space to cover the ship’s width between the legs. Small ships could have fit tightly, but it was impossible to service more than a single cruiser. Beneath the steel disc of the habitat, debris littered the benthic surface, rusted out lengths of steel twisted into every imaginable shape had fallen to the soft earth, skeletal when the floodlights turned on them, forming cavernous walls around the rim of the outpost.
There was not enough space on the underside of the habitat for a moonpool and definitely not enough for a completely dry berth for ships. There was instead a rudimentary anchoring structure, accompanied by an L-shaped side duct that slotted in with a ship’s shuttle bay ramp, giving access to a cargo elevator. This improvised design was not unknown to Union sailors, as ramp access chutes were used in situations where an automated system conveyed raw materials into cargo ships. What terrified the Brigand’s sailors and engineers was the idea of that design taking people up and out of the ship– that was innovative.
“No one is going on that without personal dive suits.” Chief Mechanic Lebedova declared.
Everyone in the boarding party accepted this safety measure, and donned dark green dive hardsuits with life support backpacks and visored helmets. Among those boarding were two sailors selected by lottery, led by Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and “Acting First Officer” Sonya Shalikova, along with Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse for security. As soon as Shalikova was recruited to the boarding party, she immediately began to protest, but this was just as immediately followed by Maryam Karahailos demanding to follow in an advisory capacity. Her overbearing enthusiasm shamed Shalikova into participating alongside her.
And so began their excursion into Goryk Outpost.
Despite a seemingly rickety appearance, the elevator remained dry and retained the correct pressure throughout its ascent.
Shalikova had not worn a dive hardsuit in a long time.
Everything was just a little heavier than she would like, as if her limbs had a pair of bedrolls duct taped to them and she was forced to carry a backpack full of steel pipe. Despite this, the material was flexible enough to allow her a decent range of movement. While the elevator rose, she extended her arms and closed them over her chest in repetitive stretch motions, trying to get used to it.
After a few moments, Maryam began imitating her for seemingly no reason at all.
“Quit playing around, you two. We’re almost up.” Ulyana said.
Shalikova grumbled; Maryam was clearly smiling through her visor.
When the elevator finally stopped, a noisy bulkhead opened to admit the party into an enormous landing where air levels and pressure were controlled before admission into the habitat. Tall steel walls grown opaque with disrepair, protective paint peeling, hearing mechanical sounds from unlubricated instruments around them. Shalikova felt unsteady on her feet. All of the worlds she lived in were mechanical in nature, but the standards of ships and stations gave her confidence to walk as if on earth.
The state of this outpost starkly, grimly reminded her that under the ocean, only metal walls kept her from death.
With every step, she thought of the water flowing freely beneath the habitat floor.
Could her foot go through the old, welded seams of the steel and cause her to fall through?
Her feet felt suddenly unsteady. As if this was not ground like any other.
Feeling pathetic, she tried to swallow that anxiety and hold herself firm.
After minutes that felt like hours the inner bulkhead opened into the habitat proper.
Past the bulkhead door they stepped into a broad square lobby attached to a long, dark steel hall that branched off into innumerable closed rooms. The only illumination came from a single cluster of LED lights that shone intermittently from the corner of the ceiling. Every other light had the merest flicker, as if a dying ember, and contributed very little in their burnt-out state. Shalikova thought this lobby must have once actually been a cargo processing area. There was a conveyor belt along the left side of the area that led to a dark hole in the wall, places now unknown and unseen for what must have been years. There was a fenced-off area on the right that had a dismal little pile of broken-down parts of different forklifts and labor suits.
“You are welcome to take off your helmets. Air quality is acceptable.”
That voice belonged to Doctor Euphemia, and she had a few companions with her.
Three figures altogether occupied the neglected lobby. It seemed that they had left all of their belongings in this hall as if they hadn’t the curiosity to venture further inside. Organized neatly along the walls were three crates about six or seven meters tall and over two meters across. Bedrolls had been stretched and discarded packaging for food items lay strewn about. Shalikova figured they must have been living in here for a day or two, judging by the amount of trash, about eleven containers.
“It’s good to be able to meet in person, Captain. Welcome to our hopefully temporary abode. I hope you can tell the mood here is more along the lines of ‘gloomy school dorm’ than ‘evil organization’s secret lair.’” Euphemia said.
Ulyana removed her helmet and extended a hand to the doctor, grinning.
“You can never be too cautious in this line of work, Doctor. Pleased to finally make your acquaintance after all this.”
On the Union side, the sailors and officers took their helmets off to greet the Doctor.
Shalikova looked briefly at Maryam when taking her helmet off and found her bashful expression puzzling.
Her colors were a little muted, she was quiet, and she was trying to hide behind them.
Doctor Euphemia shook hands with the Captain. “Let me introduce you to my colleagues.”
There was a young woman who had been standing close to Doctor Euphema ever since the boarding party arrived, and she was introduced first. Slightly taller than the doctor, longer-limbed, with skin a dark olive tone but with the same brilliantly unblemished and soft facial features. They both seemed young, older than Shalikova but maybe not by much. Like the doctor, her companion wore a white lab coat with an ID card hanging from a pocket clip lanyard. As if they had intended to form a pair, this colleague had shockingly bright red hair tied in a simple ponytail, in contrast to Euphemia’s messy blue hair.
“This is Doctor Theresa Faraday. I’m purely a theorist; she does actual mechanical work.”
“Without that fathomless brain of hers I wouldn’t have anything to assemble.”
Ulyana shook Doctor Theresa’s hand as well when offered, wearing a smile that the redhead did not return. Though Theresa’s lightly nasal voice was energetic and did not indicate any anger or offense by itself, the doctor had a thoroughly friendless look to her eyes and down-turned lips, as if she were scrutinizing and judging everything that crossed her line of sight. It was a haughty and conceited sort of look, Shalikova thought, perhaps even bratty, certainly ill mannered all the same.
Faced with that expression, Shalikova responded with trepidation when the captain silently urged her to step forward and shake hands as well. She knew she had to– she was First Officer on this excursion and had Murati’s responsibilities.
Euphemia smiled when taking the young girl’s hand, offering a gentle shake; when it was Doctor Theresa’s turn, she shook quickly, firmly, and perhaps in a perfunctory sort of way, but her expression never once changed.
Getting close to her, Shalikova peered briefly into those complex, mechanical eyes of hers.
Both she and Euphemia had visible cybernetic implants– were their eyes the only augmented part of them?
After Shalikova, the two security officers shook hands with the pair of Doctors as well.
While they were shaking hands, the third member of the doctor’s entourage left the side of her bedroll farther down the hall and forced herself to a stand, stretching out her arms and yawning. It was at that point that the Doctor introduced her, by way of gesturing vaguely in her direction as if beckoning her forward. Soon enough, the woman followed up on the Doctor’s gesturing and joined the Doctors, grinning the whole way, until she was finally within arm’s reach of the boarding party.
“Yo!” She said, drawing out the ‘o’ sound. “I don’t wanna work, so let’s all play nice.”
“This boisterous girl is Xenia Laskaris.” Doctor Euphemia. “She’s a security contractor.”
“That’s just boardroom jargon.” Xenia said. “‘Katarran mercenary’ is way more honest.”
Everything about the girl did scream ‘Katarran’ to Shalikova.
Dressed in a brown vinyl jacket over a zipped red shirt and sturdy-looking blue work pants with thick boots, wearing a Union spec Gepard SMG on her chest, hung on a plastic belt from her shoulder. She clearly trod the path between civilian and soldier, the place where the Katarran mercenaries had made their reputation legendary. There was a certain messiness to her. Her hair was colored a dusty orange-brown, cut unevenly about level with her neck, bangs slightly swept, two dark green colored antennae peeking out from under; her skin was mainly dark grey, but mottled orange around her neck and hands. On closer inspection, her clothes had a few patches here and there, covering rips perhaps, while the finish on her submachine gun was clearly worn out.
Behind her, there was something protruding, like a thin, stiff, hard tail that could hardly bend.
Shalikova thought she had a girlish appearance and demeanor, carrying herself with strange ease. Like a college kid from the shooting club, just happy to be there. It was the way she smiled, and her casual body language. Shalikova thought she was not taking things quite seriously, or maybe she was too confident that everything was under her control.
When she spoke, her voice had a mysteriously saccharine sound for what she was saying.
“Such cute little guns! Suits are all Union spec too! Y’all are real serious business huh?”
Xenia pointed at Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse, who had Karov handguns holstered to their dive suits and openly carried. However, the scuba suits themselves were painted Union green and were undoubtedly Union designs, since imperial design air tanks were supposedly lighter than theirs, with a smaller capacity. Shalikova realized that a keen eye could tell they were stuffed to the gills with Union gear. Compared to that the spec of Xenia’s Gepard was an inconsequentially small detail.
“I get it; Imperial stuff’s all shit,” Xenia continued, “the equipment is more complicated, the spare parts are expensive, and they grift you on service packages for everything. Communists make stuff like they won’t ever get another one, like they’ll have to take care of it. They get real quality. And just like a communist, a merc has to cherish every bit of gear they have.”
She walked closer to Shalikova and looked her up and down with a smile. Her hand caressed the side of her firearm in a way that briefly raised Zhu and Van Der Smidse’s hackles, and the two brought their hands closer to their holsters.
“Relax! I’m just showing off my little guy, I’m real proud of it– but all your stuff is so brand new-lookin’!”
Xenia’s hand left the stock of her weapon and extended suddenly to Shalikova.
Shalikova shook it without reservations. Xenia had a gentle shake, with nothing to prove.
But all the while, she was looking right past Shalikova.
Her eyes fixed briefly on Maryam and the Captain and darted past the rest.
“With how paranoid you sounded on call, Korabiskaya, I thought you’d all storm in guns blazing. Y’all are so disciplined– two security with nothing but small arms, two unarmed officers, one out-of-place fishie and two unarmed randoms. You must have been confident in the good Doctor to come in so light. So orderly, no like any ordinary Imperial mercs.” She said.
That forced cutesiness of her voice had risen to the level of outright mockery.
“We’re just better than your run-of-the-mill Katarran outfit.” Ulyana said confidently.
Xenia’s lips curled into a little grin. “Nah, I don’t think so. Only better equipped.”
She stretched out a cheeky hand to Ulyana for a shake.
Ulyana took it without raising a fuss.
Not once did Xenia’s provocations get any rise out of the Captain. Ulyana kept an inhuman cool, even as Xenia was clearly probing her for information. Had she been ordered by Doctor Euphemia to do so or was she simply this disorderly? For all she knew about how vicious they were, Shalikova did not know what kind of discipline Katarran mercenaries were known for under contract. Xenia’s demeanor suggested she was being rowdy– but maybe she was just that sly, too.
Barely a moment passed; Doctor Euphemia implied an answer to Shalikova’s thoughts.
“Forgive her clear attempts at needling you, Captain Korabiskaya.” Doctor Euphemia said. She smiled serenely at the captain. “I don’t like to shout down at kids, and I’m glad you’re a cool-headed professional about such things too.”
Now it was Xenia’s turn to avoid the doctor’s obvious provocation, smiling wryly.
“Well, I’m sure she’s fantastic at killing anything that threatens you.” Ulyana said.
So far all the conversation had been carried by the Captain.
Shalikova tried to look dignified as the (acting) First Officer, but she had no handle on what to say, especially when the conversation was being scrutinized so thoroughly by both sides. She feared saying something that would give Xenia more information than she needed to know; and that could have been anything, with how tense that Katarran made things. Meanwhile Doctor Euphemia acted like the tension was nothing but the sound of the air conditioning inside this old outpost.
For a moment, Shalikova thought her head would burst open from the pressure.
Thankfully, the Captain did not seem like she needed much backup at all.
“We both hope your mercenary won’t have much to do for the foreseeable future, Doctor, so let’s just get down to business. I’ve got some lads here to assess your cargo, then I’ll get more lads to get it loaded up. I’d be curious to know how you got it out by the three of you, those crates look pretty heavy. Have you got a Labor suit or a Diver around?” asked the Captain.
“We had a loader around; regrettably it broke down.” Doctor Euphemia said.
“So, what, did you also destroy it to protect Solarflare LLC intellectual property?”
“Indeed. You will find it among the scrap beneath this outpost.”
Ulyana turned a weary expression on the Doctor, who remained understatedly cheerful.
“So what’s in the crates? Would you mind if I scanned it?”
“Two of them are spare mechanical parts, and the third is only research chemicals.”
“Is any of it ‘Solarflare LLC intellectual property’?” Ulyana pressed.
Theresa butted in. “I can corroborate her story, if you’re intent on playing detective still.”
“I’m sure you can.” Ulyana replied, her sarcasm growing more obvious.
“I believe we’ve amply proven we mean no harm. Can we simply let the rest go already?”
“You have someone else who can vouch for us too.” Doctor Euphemia said.
She looked past Ulyana and Shalikova, her eyes set firmly on Maryam.
Maryam raised her tentacles and pointed the paddles toward herself, acting confused.
“Maryam Karahailos. She’s a very special girl; I’m sure you are all acquainted with how kindly and forthright she is. It’s serendipitous that we would run into her among your party, Captain.” Doctor Euphemia said.
“Right, Maryam did say she knows about you and that you’ve worked together in the past.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms and staring sidelong at the cuttlefish girl. “I guess that explains why she wanted to come aboard so badly.”
“Um, I only wanted to follow Sonya.” Maryam said, throwing an arm around Shalikova’s and squeezing up against her as if for protection, an act that caused Shalikova to balk and try to peel her off, but only briefly– she could not challenge Maryam’s freakish strength. “But yes, I did know the Doctor, I worked as a navigational aide. It’s what I was made for. I can say that she’s a nice enough lady, but I don’t want to work for selfish people anymore. I only want to help people now.”
Maryam turned her strange eyes briefly on Shalikova, as if wondering why she was squirming.
Shalikova, sighing openly, decided to give up when Xenia appeared to be laughing at her.
“That’s a valid desire. I’m not just in it for the money though.” Doctor Euphemia said.
“You say that, but everyone else besides you and Theresa aren’t so kind.” Maryam said.
She did not sound too impressed with the Doctor. Again the doctor was utterly unfazed.
The two of them started opening up; Maryam was speaking candidly in her usual way, and Doctor Euphemia’s manner of speech toward Maryam was warmer, and Shalikova could see that her demeanor was less stiff and guarded. It was as if the presence of Maryam had assured her of something that the Captain and the Union personnel could not. It must have had to do with their previous relationship. Shalikova, unable to budge Maryam from her side, began to feel a growing curiosity for what Maryam had done in the past– even the Captain seemed to know more about Maryam now than Shalikova did. Must’ve been disclosed in their meetings, which Shalikova wasn’t privy too. She felt almost a creeping jealousy about this.
Suddenly, Doctor Theresa left Doctor Euphemia’s side, speaking up and approaching.
“Well I’m glad you didn’t die out in the cruel ocean too, you big purple dummy.”
Theresa walked up to Maryam at that point and laid a firm hand on her head.
Maryam squirmed as Theresa rustled her hair and messed with the fins atop her head.
“Wah! Stop it! I’m not a little kid, I wouldn’t have died.” Maryam protested.
“Hah! I know, you’re a big tough mercenary aren’t you?” Theresa teased.
“Do you treat all employees like this? She gets headpats too?” Ulyana pointed at Xenia.
Xenia shut her eyes and continued grinning in self-assurance.
Maryam’s squirming threatened to pull Shalikova back with her– it was a shameful scene.
Once Maryam was finally spared Theresa’s familial torment, which everyone silently agreed not to remark upon, and then finally released Shalikova from her deathly grip, the Doctors and Ulyana came to an agreement. They would bring the cargo in, Theresa and Xenia would help the repair crew until the Brigand was back in top form, Euphemia and the officers would draft a formal contract amenable to all parties, and any further discussion of Solarflare or Treasure Box Transport’s confidential business would be tabled until they disembarked at the next nearest station and collected their negotiated rewards.
Goryk outpost would be nothing but a bad memory for all of them come tomorrow night.
Shalikova and Maryam remained behind in Goryk Outpost for a few hours even after the Solarflare staff and the Captain had boarded the Brigand, nominally supervising the sailors as they moved Solarflare’s heavy cargo onto the ship, and then nominally supervising a sweep of the outpost, which largely found nothing as several rooms were sealed and may well have been flood hazards. At some point during this indeterminate, dull stretch of time, Maryam finally said something to Shalikova.
Her tone of voice and the Xenia-like smile on her face, suggested something conspiratorial.
“Remember, we’re on for tonight! The Captain’s order not to work late shift is still in effect, so we can sneak out to the hangar. I’ll teach you my powers and you’ll teach me Diver stuff. It’s a date, so you had better not forget it!”
After everything that happened, Shalikova was almost excited having Maryam to herself.
“Alright, we’ll go out tonight. But remember, you can’t tease me!” Shalikova said, meaning every word.
“Maryam, I’ve got a question,”
At Shalikova’s side, Maryam’s head fins stiffened and stood on end.
“Of course, Sonya!”
“What do you mean when you said you are ‘made for’ being a navigational aide?”
That night, as they promised, the two of them headed down to the hangar.
Shalikova was following Maryam’s lead. She claimed to be able to tell the direction that Chief Akulantova was patrolling in order to be able to avoid her. It felt a little stupid; there wasn’t a curfew, and it would just be a little embarrassing to have to explain themselves to the Chief, no harm would be done in the end. But Maryam was adamant that they needed to be sneaky, and Shalikova was happy to play along with her. She wondered idly if maybe it was because Chief Akulantova was also a Katarran Pelagis, and an older, bigger, and stronger one at that– maybe it triggered Maryam somehow.
Of course, that was not something she felt comfortable asking about.
Still, she wanted to know something about Maryam’s past, after all these insinuations.
“Oh! That? Yeah, I can explain it! You know how Katarrans are born right?”
“You’re made in artificial wombs, right? They use stem cells to create the babies.”
Shalikova could not fully keep her tone under control as she described it.
There was something about the reality of that process which made her skin crawl.
Maryam seemed to notice her trepidation.
“Right, okay. So in Katarre there’s groups of people, or companies, who are able to make babies. They manufacture eggs and put them in womb machines to simulate birth. Uh, you’ve been weirded out by Katarran stuff before so brace yourself for what they’re called: Embryo Farms– Are you okay?” Maryam paused and looked behind herself at Shalikova.
Her skin turned a little grey; Shalikova was outright grimacing at the name.
Embryo farm? How much more dehumanizing could this be!
“Sorry, it’s a lot to take in, but go on, I want to learn.” Shalikova said.
“If you say so, but I’m going to be blunt. To me this is just normal stuff.” Maryam said. “Anyway. Embryo farms make babies and sell them to people who raise them to work. One time, Athena told me that maybe 5% of Katarrans can actually reproduce, so Embryo Farms are really important. Depending on how much unique human genetic material is used to make your Egg, you’re more expensive. Some Kattarans are born from more synthetic and fish stuff than human, but they’re born all the same.”
“Do you–” Shalikova was practically reeling inside at this information. “Do you– know your–?”
“Nope! I don’t know what my price tag was, but it must have been pretty high. I was not made just to fight or to work, but with a specific purpose. That’s why I’m a cute cuttlefish girl.” Maryam pointed her index fingers at her cheeks, making a cutesy expression. “They’re the smartest fish in the world, so I’ve got a really good brain in my head.”
Shalikova had actually meant to ask about the percentage of actual human genes in her egg.
Not just her price– but she realized that if she asked that outright it’d be a social atrocity.
It would be akin to asking, ‘are you really human’? Definitely crossing an awful line.
“So– your purpose is to help navigation right? But don’t Katarrans have computers?”
“Making a larva is cheaper than installing a ship supercomputer.” Maryam said.
“I mean– I– really? A supercomputer is more expensive than you?”
Maryam puffed her cheeks up, her skin and hair color cycling through a range of reds.
Shalikova raised her hands and smiled awkwardly. “Jeez, I put my foot in it didn’t I?”
“My price is beside the point Sonya!” Maryam said in an exasperated tone of voice. “Let me finish, okay? Katarrans buy navigators and raise them to hold information that nobody ever commits to a standard map anyway. My actual job was to keep track of all Athena’s secret bases, supply caches, the unpublished routes of her logistics vessels, and stuff like that. Super-secret war stuff where if you ever wrote it down you’d burn the stone paper afterwards. Do you get it now?”
“When you put it that way it makes total sense.”
Shalikova felt like an idiot.
She thought she was really saying all the worst things to Maryam and felt quite sorry.
“Hey, Maryam, listen, I’m really–”
Maryam sighed. Her skin turned pink again and she put on a gentle expression.
Interrupting Shalikova, she turned around and took her hands gently into her own.
“I can’t stay mad at you Sonya. You’re just too earnest. I really like that about you.”
Shalikova averted her gaze.
“Well, I’m glad you’re not mad. You’re probably the nicest person on this ship to me.”
Where did that come from? Why had she blurted that out like a fucking idiot?
Maryam’s entire body turned the color of a tomato, a soft red rather than an angry one.
“I’m– Uhh– I’m glad you think so!” She teetered from side to side. “Anyway!”
She turned around on her heel and resumed leading the way through the halls.
Still wondering about her own loose lips, Shalikova followed along a step behind.
Rather than the elevator banks, they snuck through an emergency stairwell, and got down to the hangar that way. Shalikova had never seen the place so empty. It was dark, with only a few dim ceiling LEDs left on to keep the space from being completely pitch black. Shalikova could hear nothing but their footsteps and the biological noise of her own body as they crossed the hangar. Everything was a monochrome except for a few gently glowing bits of bio luminescence from Maryam.
In the hangar, the broadest bit of open space was the shuttle bay, at the far back of the hangar past the workshop and diver pods. Because the shuttle was not designed to stand on its own but had to stay inside the ship for protection and maintenance, it was suspended from the roof of the hangar, and the length of the closed shuttle ramp beneath it was free. Shalikova led Maryam there and urged her not to start jumping and trying to smack the shuttle– but Maryam did it anyway, giggling.
“Come on, focus, Maryam. I’m really serious here.” Shalikova said. In a fit of emotion she reached out and took Maryam’s hands. “Listen. I want to learn about these colors. I’ve been seeing these weird lights and colors floating every so often ever since I got out to sea. I’ve been trying to ignore it, but they pop up at the weirdest times. I can’t make any sense of it but when I saw you trying your weird tricks in the cafeteria, I knew it wasn’t just me being stressed out. We could both still be completely insane– but I’m willing to believe if you promise to tell the truth about them. So please stop joking around.”
Maryam looked down at Shalikova’s hands holding her own.
She intertwined her fingers between Shalikova’s with a soft smile.
“Of course, Sonya. I’m sorry, I’ll take things super serious, okay? And I want to say, we’re definitely not insane, and you are right, I do know the significance of the colors that you have been seeing. I’ll tell you everything I know. But it’s really very weird– are you sure if I told you that you would actually believe me? If I promise to you that I’m telling the truth?”
Shalikova took a deep breath.
“If you promise you’re telling the truth, and not teasing me. I’ll absolutely believe you.”
“Then, I promise. I am telling you the whole truth, as I know it.”
“Are there things you don’t know?”
“Yes, there are. It’s something very mysterious.”
Shalikova felt her heart stir. “Alright. I accept that. So– I guess I yield the floor to you.”
She let go of Maryam’s hands and took a step back to give her room.
“Alright. I’ve been thinking about where to start, so I’ll just show you.”
Maryam held out a hand in front of herself, palm up.
“Do you see my eyes glowing?” Maryam said.
Shalikova could see red rings beginning to glow brightly around the edges of Maryam’s eyes, outlining the shape of her pupils in the gloomy hangar. At first, she could only see that glow and hardly anything else in the dark. On Maryam’s hand there was nothing visibly happening, and the colors had yet to make an appearance. But she continued to hold her hand out, so there must have been something on it. Shalikova focused, tried to make out anything that was happening around Maryam’s palm.
Just when she was about to give up and accuse Maryam of pulling a trick to tease her–
She noticed debris flying over Maryam’s hand.
Dust– there were specks of dirt and metal shavings dancing over her palm.
There was a current, a little vortex, dragging in particulate matter.
“Do you see the colors yet?” Maryam asked calmly.
“N-N-no.” Shalikova stammered out a response.
Maryam’s fingers curled slightly over her palm.
Shalikova’s hair began to gently blow as the current on Maryam’s palm grew stronger.
Now it was clearly visible, a tall and thin vortex of air spinning at storm-like speeds.
With this exertion of effort Shalikova could now see the colors around it.
Blue and white streaking the tiny windstorm like aerodynamic paint in a test turbine.
“Do you see it?”
“I see it. There’s colors around it.”
“Blue– blue and white.”
Shalikova’s voice left her lips like a gasp.
Her heart started banging in her chest, her head hurt as if something was trying to split it open, her vision was wavering and blurring, she was seeing something insane, something she felt she was never meant to see. She felt as if her eyes were doors to something alien that could not now be put back in its place after being released. It was her own assured understanding of the world and the things in it, changed forever. Maryam had no chance to prepare some kind of parlor trick, she had no tools, no devices, Shalikova had been with her all day. All she had was the flesh of her body, and the knowledge in her mysterious brain.
Maryam was not just a ‘soothsayer’, not just a wandering charlatan running a scam.
She had some kind of power. There was no denying it anymore, no papering it over.
There was some kind of unknown force out in the world that Maryam could control.
And it could do insane, amazing things.
As if to demonstrate that she had control over this spectacle, Maryam cupped her free hand over the hand which she had palm-up. Putting this cap on her little vortex, it suddenly warped, widening like a disc between her palms. It looked more like a hurricane than a tornado in that state. And when she raised her hand, the vortex grew taller and thinner, and widened again when she closed her hands together once more. When she clapped them together, the little vortex was suddenly gone.
“Maryam this is a hell of a lot more than soothsaying.” Shalikova said near breathlessly.
While the wind disappeared from Maryam’s hands, the colors had not.
Now those colors that Shalikova had seen in the air drifted, aimlessly at first, but slowly collecting around Maryam, joining the personal color that seemed to float about her like a nebula, like a glowing shadow, an after-image that trailed in her wake. Her color intensified, blue, white, with a band of green and a band of black. Shalikova could see it so clearly. The colors had “come back” — like in the hangar that one time, like around Maryam, like when Khadija was fighting–
Shalikova began to shiver, and she shut her eyes and embraced herself with fear.
“Maryam, everything’s turning into colors, I don’t understand!”
“Sonya! I’m sorry! I’ll get the colors under control– I just needed you to see them first.”
Footsteps; Maryam rushed to Shalikova’s side. She felt Maryam’s hand touch her forehead.
“This might feel weird at first, but please trust me! You really have to trust me, okay?”
As soon as she was finished saying this Shalikova opened her eyes, only to meet Maryam’s bright glowing red-ringed eyes directly in front of her own. She could almost feel Maryam’s breath on her own lips and thought to back up, but her body would not move. Maryam had a hand on her forehead, and touching Shalikova’s forehead, only the thin width of that hand separating their faces. Maryam’s wide-open eyes and blank, unsmiling expression, the purple bangs framing her face, this was everything Shalikova could see, and it inspired such fear and trepidation into her despite being so familiar.
Seeing those eyes so close, so vast, Shalikova began to feel lost in their magnitude.
Colors trickled up, a cloud of particulate matter like the marine snow out in the ocean, engulfing the two of them. Maryam’s colors became overwhelming, they completely shut out any possible vision of the world, they moved over Shalikova. She felt her body lose weight and rigidity as if she was falling down, suspended in the color, in a vortex of every color all at once–
“I have to trust her. I have to trust her. I have to trust her–”
Shalikova mumbled to herself, clinging on to the sensation of Maryam’s touch.
Even as everything else fell away to some kind of alien oblivion–
“I have to trust her–”
She could not see anything around herself, could barely hear her own voice, and yet–
The touch of Maryam’s skin was still there, so she was still alive!
Focusing on Maryam within the baptism of the colors–
For a moment, it quelled the vortex and revealed something in its place.
Shalikova felt a flash before her eyes as if she was opening eyelids long closed–
When the world around her regained definition, she was no longer standing in the hangar.
She was no longer even on the Brigand.
At the edges of her vision the colors swirled in and out like a glitchy screen–
There was a sense that this was not her body. She was moving without control of herself.
Her lips parted to speak words she could not understand. Mournful, regretful words.
She stood in a pitch-black cavernous place intermittently lit by dim beams of purple light.
Surrounded by stone, a jagged roof, an uneven glass window like a slash cut in the rocks.
Outside there were seething, bubbling, roiling clouds of red biomass.
Strange creatures swam in the murk, their shapes irregular.
Waters so contaminated they could not possibly be anywhere real. Bodies so warped they couldn’t be natural.
It was stupid of you to come here. Stupid and pointless like your entire existence.
Inside of her brain, a voice spoke– but it also came from her side, where its presence was located. Involuntarily, Shalikova’s head turned, and she noticed, her body was thickly cloaked in a dripping wet, leathery clothing, almost as if the flesh of some bizarre creature. And at her side was a woman clad somewhat the same, in a white and black dress as if made of flesh, long red hair the color of blood, a black horn emerging from the side of her head as if it had been stabbed there.
An enormous tail trailed behind her, and at the hems of her dress tentacles stretched and squirmed.
That haughty voice had come from this woman, and it was directed at a figure approaching them.
Tall, straight furry ears atop the head marked the person as a Shimii.
Slim in build, long-haired, with a handsome countenance, wearing layers of thick robes–
–and bearing glowing red eyes filled with hatred, a solemn expression on the lips.
Streaks of glowing flame played about the figure’s tense hands and fingers.
The horned woman spread her arms. A cruel grin marred her perfectly pale face.
Do you feel like a big man fighting your way here? It’s so futile! Look around you! I’ve got nothing but raw material to make as many minions as I want. You’re in my kingdom, kitten priest! You have trapped yourself here with me!
He was not impressed with the woman’s threat.
“Give the lady back to me, and I’ll only take your powers instead of your life.”
Shalikova realized at that moment that she had a tail too–
–because the horned woman beside her grabbed hold of it with her long, thin fingers.
Idiot; she came to me herself! Unlike you and your ungrateful band of demagogues, she understands that fighting me is impossible, and has accepted my generosity in order to spare your people the punishment I bring.
Shalikova felt the figure’s eyes turn to her, filled with regret and longing.
“Stay put. This will be nothing but a bad dream from which we’ll both awaken soon.”
Then the woman at her side drew wide her snake-like eyes, and they began to glow.
Don’t ignore me, kitten priest! That God you’ve fabricated for your people can’t help you here!
Water infested with red biomass leaped from two currents running along either end of the room and began coalescing at the horned woman’s sides into monstrous half-alive figures, muscle and claw and razor-fanged jaws and serpentine hind limbs, violent maws dribbling stupidly and hungering for flesh. That man who had come to invade this alien realm confronted them calmly, drawing in a breath, his eyes never ceasing to glow red, fire circling his arms like snakes ready to lash out.
You fashion yourself a prophet? Well, I’m a real God! I’ll put an end to your stupid fairy tales!
Shalikova’s body wept, and drew back helplessly from the clash certain to come–
Images flashed of violence and struggle that were impossible to place–
Colors intruded on the vision and displaced parts of the images–
No! Please not this! Why are you tormenting me with this?
There was a voice, that was neither the Shimii prophet’s nor the horned woman’s–
Before her eyes another brief flash of glitchy colors disappeared the contaminated abyss.
In the midst of a maelstrom of colors, Shalikova saw a squirming, crying, suffering–
Maryam on the floor, weeping–
In the middle of the baptism of colors–
Shalikova rushed to her side, stood over her, held her shoulders and reassured her–
When her head turned, in shock at being touched, Maryam had disappeared–
In her place there was a darker-skinned, cat-eared, brown-haired figure leering at her.
Tears streaming down their tormented face, teeth grit, the tip of their tail cut off and bloody.
When their lips spread to speak, the words seemed to reverberate through the air–
You– you’re really coming here to throw this in my face– after all I’ve been through–?
Anger flashed in that face– Maryam’s features became superimposed over the Shimii–
Shalikova nearly screamed from the shock of what she was seeing.
In that instant, however, the colors receded, like an old screen blinking shut without power.
As if no time had passed, Maryam was still in her face, back in the Brigand’s hangar.
Her warm hand on Shalikova’s forehead. Her breath close enough to feel on her own.
Maryam smiled. She looked untroubled, as if nothing had happened to her in all this time.
“Did you get a vision? What did you see? Did it look like the past or the future?”
“Maryam, I couldn’t make any fucking sense of it if I tried.” Shalikova said.
Her heart had stilled. She was not panicking anymore. She didn’t even know why.
That alien presence of the colors had grown muted, had become almost something–
When she set her eyes on Maryam long enough, she could see the faint outline of her colors, however. And she felt like, if she narrowed her eyes and focused, they would come into sharper relief as well. And if she truly wanted them to disappear, she felt like she could “tune them out.” Somehow these felt like options she had– as easy as jumping if one mastered how to walk.
“Sonya, you really are a wonderfully special girl.” Maryam said gently.
Something had been done to her. Shalikova felt, in a truly eerie way, that something had changed.