“Okay, so you want to hold them like this–”
Inside one of the Diver simulation pods, Maryam Karaihalos buckled herself into the seat, while behind her, Sonya Shalikova showed her the controls. It was a fairly tight fit for Shalikova. The Diver pod was realistic in its dimensions, so there was hardly space for her behind the seat. Usually the only thing back there was a slim box containing emergency rations, an air tank, and a mostly useless survival suit. Had Maryam needed any more legroom up front, Shalikova could not have fit behind her.
Thankfully, Maryam was not especially tall.
Shalikova reached over Maryam’s shoulder and pointed out the sticks.
“Each of these controls one of the arms. You can rotate it on the socket, and you can also lock the rotation and you can tilt the stick too, and this will affect the movement of the arms. It’s really unnatural at first but you get a sense for it. As you pilot more you will start to understand the degree of motion the arms have. These triggers are for the weapons, and the grip buttons on the stick can control the fingers in groups. It’s weird at first, but you hardly ever need to flex the digits if you have your weapons. Your issued weapons will be connected to the Diver triggers by the mechanics during dive prep. Oh right, and you can push the stick assembly forward or backward like levers, that controls the leaning of the chassis; down there you have your pedals and they–”
“I see. I see! I see.”
Maryam’s eyes lit up with such excitement as Shalikova explained every detail.
Together they adjusted the cameras and diagnostic screens to Maryam’s liking.
They tested the pressure on the pedals too. At first Shalikova, once again deceived by Maryam’s outward appearance, wanted to make the pedals more sensitive, as if her companion’s feet were too dainty to have an effect. However, Maryam was actually very strong, and the pedals needed more resistance to prevent her from flooring them constantly without meaning to do so. Similarly, Shalikova had to adjust the sticks on the pod to make them less sensitive to motions.
“Remind me to readjust all of this stuff for non-cuttlefish use later…”
“You’re so considerate Sonya!”
With the controls sorted, and Maryam having been shown where everything is, Shalikova started the simulation. After the start-up screen, they found themselves in the deployment chute of a nonexistent vessel. Shalikova helped Maryam skip the deployment, and the chute deposited them into simulated water without having to open the hatches or wait for pressure to equalize.
“Ohh, it feels floaty when we sink down.” Maryam said, backing up into her chair.
In turn her chair backed up into Shalikova. “Careful, I’m back here.”
“Ah, sorry Sonya! What should I do now, can I start moving it?” She asked.
Shalikova nodded in the affirmative, leaning forward so she was almost cheek to cheek with Maryam. Maryam engaged the pedals, and pushed the sticks forward, causing the Strelok they were meant to be piloting to charge chest-first, arms at its sides, taking in water through its intakes and accelerating it out of the hydrojets in the back and the legs. The very concept of the Diver’s mechanical movements seemed to inspire fascination in Maryam, who was laughing throughout the demonstration.
“Sonya! This is so fun! No wonder you signed up to be a pilot!”
“I didn’t sign up because it was fun! It’s different if someone’s shooting at you!”
Maryam began to explore the extremes of the Diver’s movement.
In the middle of a dash, she suddenly let up on the pedals and jerked the controls back.
Unmoored in the back of the cockpit, Shalikova lurched forward.
“Ha ha ha!”
Maryam rammed the pedals and discharged all the fuel-engaged verniers.
In an instant the simulated Strelok shot straight up like a missile.
Shalikova was thrown back and up from the sudden changes in direction.
She came to land back behind the chair, her vision briefly spinning.
“It’s just a game right? Can I get more fuel for the thrusters?” Maryam asked.
“We can reset it– if you promise not to burn it all up at once again!” Shalikova said.
“Ahh, nevermind! Let’s shoot the gun a bit!”
On the screens, the simulated gloomy ocean lit up as several rounds of simulated 37 mm ammunition detonated in the distance. Maryam rammed the trigger and looked around as if she was expecting something more dramatic to happen than her ammo counter going down, and small explosions to begin blooming nearly at the edge of visibility. The 37 mm AK rifle had some recoil when not held in place with both of the unit’s hands, but nothing the pilot would actually feel.
“Hmm. That was kinda boring.”
“We could swap it out for the 76 mm braced cannon or the shoulder gun.”
“Naaaah. I think I’ll just pirouette a little bit more. Thanks for teaching me, Sonya!”
Shalikova nearly hit her head on the side of the seat as Maryam returned to her joyriding.
As an experienced pilot she couldn’t help but notice how unrefined Maryam was with the sticks in her hands. Her movements were jerky, she would lift her feet off the pedal entirely, and when she wanted to move the arms she would move the stick very stiffly as if inputting each movement separately, rather than turning the stick fluidly to achieve complete motions. It had been so long ago since Shalikova had been learning the basics– she couldn’t have remembered if her first outing in a simulator was any better. It brought to mind how far her own skills had come from where she was even at Thassal.
She breathed out a bit of a sigh.
Though the world was in shambles, there could be enemies everywhere, and the Brigand was still in the initial stages of its mission, Shalikova felt a certain sense of peace. Maryam was happy, smiling, having fun– they could still allow themselves humanity even in this situation. It felt like a release valve for the tense guardedness and helpless anxiety that colored recent days.
In a sense, Maryam had already proved herself every bit the VIP–
“Maryam, I have a question. I won’t judge you, okay?”
“Sure, Sonya! Anything!”
Maryam let go of the sticks and turned her head to gaze sidelong at Shalikova.
“You used psionics to trick our agents into letting you aboard the Brigand, didn’t you?”
Her hair and skin color flashed white as the shock ran through her body.
Her hands slackened on the controls and her lip trembled.
Shalikova reached a hand down to put it on the controls, over Maryam’s own.
She was not angry whatsoever, and she wanted to comfort Maryam.
“When you started saying you were a soothsayer and all that other stuff to me, I kind of suspected it would be something like this. I mean, I couldn’t have known it was like magic from a fantasy story but I assumed you’d turn out to be a swindler– no offense. I don’t blame you– you wanted to go to the Union to get away from mercenary work right? I’m sure tons of people have lied to be smuggled out. I’ll back you up if it becomes an issue. I just wanted to know the truth for myself.” She said.
“Sonya– thank you. I– I understand that what I did was selfish, I really do.” Maryam said. “I did not think I would end up in a military vessel that had an important mission when I fooled your agent. I thought I would be smuggled out to the Union on an ordinary ship and escape the Empire and live peacefully. But now– I want to help you! I have a lot of information and skills. I feel like this must be the will of God. I have a chance to do good deeds and make up for my selfishness.”
“The will of God? I guess you really must have been a nun once.” Shalikova smiled.
“I’m very pious, I’ll have you know. I still pray and read the book every 7th cycle.”
Maryam smiled gently. Shalikova looked into her eyes and felt contented.
“Alright. You can play for a few minutes more, then we should go back to the room.”
“I am feeling tired! I’m all cuttled out.” Maryam yawned, her head fins drooping.
Shalikova nodded. She felt that a burden had been lifted from her.
There were still so many questions to ask, mysteries to delve further into–
–but looking at Maryam, she felt satisfied for now.
When the pair left the simulation pods, they found that they were no longer alone in the hangar.
There was someone approaching the pods, who drew back as if himself surprised to see anyone there.
Shalikova recognized him– it was Aiden Ahwalia, suited up, hair tied in a bun.
“Sonya Shalikova. I’m surprised to see you here. You hardly need the simulator, do you?” He said.
When he spoke, she felt a temptation to try to view his aura, because she couldn’t read his tone. That tiny flicker of thought, that desire, was all it took to switch the auras on as if a lens had flipped over her eyes. Coiled around him like rope or chains of gas, feeling tough and stiff, the aura was mainly green and purple with notes of red and yellow. Pride and irritation, anger, disgust. That sounded about right for him. Shalikova had only ever known him as a loud, inveterate asshole.
“Or perhaps you do. Maybe the secret to your success has been harsh and intensive training every night– no, wait, I would’ve seen you. Because it’s me who usually comes out here at night to train. Despite how much you all disdain and suppress me, I continue to work so hard. I hope you’re seeing this, acting squad leader! In fact, I invite you to watch me.” He said.
She did not have the same virulently political disgust that Khadija showed him.
His conduct during their previous sortie was enough for her to be disgusted with him.
At her side, Maryam was still all smiles, not a care in the world.
“Good evening! Um, I don’t know what you meant by all that, but we were just playing around.” She said happily.
Shalikova raised her hands feebly as if that would have stopped her.
Aiden raised an eyebrow and looked irritated to have received any acknowledgment.
“Playing around? Wish the rest of us had time for date night, Acting Squad Leader.”
His disdainful gaze sized up Shalikova as if he could glean anything from staring at her.
There was something about his tone of voice which grated on her nerves.
Even when she couldn’t see his arrogance in the colors, it was plain in his mocking tone.
“You have no responsibilities Aiden, so I think it isn’t time that’s stopping you from having as much of a social calendar as me.” Shalikova said. “Come on Maryam, let’s leave now. I’m not in the mood for any more tonight–”
Aiden looked over at the pods behind them, cracking a smile.
“Since we’re all here, how about you and I have a spar in the simulators, Shalikova?”
“You’re not going to provoke me. Wait for Khadija if you want a response.”
“Provoke you? Are you so afraid of facing me that you make up excuses like that–”
Maryam looked between the two of them silently, her skin and hair colors starting to blur.
Shalikova sighed. She didn’t want to put Maryam in this awkward situation.
“I’m not afraid of you Aiden, I’m more emotionally mature than you. Good night.”
Shalikova interrupted him, calmly and coolly as she could. Ayden fumed at her.
Ignoring him was both the most offensive and most healthy thing that she could do to him as a leader.
Khadija always attacked him and insulted him, and it only fed his ego to receive that kind of attention. It only made him more eager to fight back, surer of himself as the righteous martyr. Shalikova had no desire to get caught up in the whirlwind of his personal narrative, especially now that she was acting squad leader. He was just a petulant kid who needed to cool off, but Shalikova was not herself so adult as to become the one responsible for it. She just wanted him to go away.
Aiden was not going away, however. He had clearly set his sights on her now.
“So even with two pilots down, you still dismiss me, you won’t let me prove my skills–”
“You’ve already lost to me just for thinking a duel would prove anything. Good night.”
Shalikova turned her back on him and began to walk away, dead set on escaping–
“Don’t walk away from me! How dare you! How dare you treat me like–”
Aiden stepped in as Shalikova tried to walk past him–
For a brief instant, she realized, before he moved, that he would try to grab her shoulder.
Acting almost as if between time, in the interstitial between seconds–
Shalikova batted away his hand with such alacrity he staggered back in confusion.
She confused even herself with the speed of her reaction. Maryam had noticed it too.
Aiden stared at her in a brief confusion, tears welling up in his eyes, his face turning red.
“Acting Squad Leader– If you gave me a chance– I’d show you–”
Shalikova was not only irritated, she was alarmed by her own reaction.
“Aiden, I’m leaving! Just go do whatever you’re up to. Maryam, not a word. Let’s go.”
Feeling suddenly stressed, Shalikova quickly turned her back again and tried to leave–
“You–” Aiden grit his teeth, closing into a fist the hand which Shalikova had struck. “All of you are the same! All of you resort to violence because you can’t mount a legitimate challenge! You can’t confront me when I bear the truth except by trying to suppress me! Jayasankarists, this whole ship, you rigged everything, you conspired in the shadows, I’m being unfairly sanctioned–”
Shalikova could hardly respond to his sudden, loud outburst of politics.
Then she heard a loud bang in the hangar, the stomping of a thick boot on metal.
Echoing across the vast space, the sound finally got Ahwalia to stop mid-cry.
At first she imagined it was Chief Akulantova having finally found them but–
Instead two women approached. Both were wearing the tight security suits that Klara and Lian wore.
And both of them were openly armed.
Across their chests, they had AK-72 personnel size assault rifles hung on shoulder slings.
Nobody on the security team was so heavily armed, but these two wore their firearms casually.
“What’s all the racket? You’re lucky Chief Shark’s not the one who found you.” One of the women began to speak with clear irritation in her voice. “Akulantova would actually do something to make you all behave. All I want is for all of you to shut the fuck up– Oh, wait, wait, isn’t that Sonya Shalikova? Sonya Shalikova! I never thought we’d run into each other!”
Her tone of voice was altered completely when she realized it was Shalikova.
Shalikova recognized the two women who approached from the adjoining hall.
One silver-haired woman with neon pink cybernetic eyes, tall and lean with a foxy grin.
With her, a blond woman with her hair in a ponytail, shorter, skinnier, inexpressive, quiet.
They were both good looking and fit, older than Shalikova but still young. Maybe Murati’s age.
“Do you remember us, Sonya?” said the silver-haired woman.
When the woman got close enough she reached out a hand to Shalikova.
Shalikova took her hand in both of hers almost automatically. It was– a childish gesture.
Like they used to–
Her hand dropped on top of Shalikova’s head and stroked her hair.
“You’ve grown a lot. You’re just like Zasha– you should be proud. She’d be proud too.”
“Stop it.” Shalikova mumbled.
“Ah, I’m sorry. I’m not treating you like a kid; it’s just my honest reaction.”
Maryam looked delighted to meet them. “Sonya, are these friends of yours?”
“Friends of my sister.” Shalikova said. “Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterberg.”
It made sense that they would be aboard the Brigand. Those two were Union navy elites.
Out of their cadre Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were undoubtedly the stars, good at everything.
A Brigand packed with the Union’s elite soldiers had to include them.
“Valeriya, go on, say something. It’s little Sonya! Give her some encouragement.” Illya said.
Behind Illya, her shy blond companion Valeriya raised a hand in a half-hearted wave.
She then lifted a tactical mask that had been left hanging from her neck back over her mouth and nose.
“You know how she is.” Illya said, shrugging at her companion’s symbolic self-silencing.
“I know.” Shalikova said. “What I didn’t know was that you two were marines here.”
“When Nagavanshi came to get us we didn’t have much of a choice.” Illya said with a wry smile. “Our actual job is surveillance, so we stay in the security room with Syrah. We were covering for Klara and Lian today, and checking up on the cameras while we’re at it. We’d only ever seen you on camera, Sonya! I guess we keep to ourselves most of the time.”
That struck Shalikova as more than a little strange for a way of life on a ship.
Shalikova did not want to make Illya’s business into her own, however. It was– too sudden.
Her heart felt so torn.
Illya and Valeriya looked the same as in Shalikova’s foggy memories of their past. She had not thought about them in so long, and now that they had appeared, there was a lot surfacing with them in Shalikova’s memories. They were not at fault– but they were associated with something very painful. Something she did not wish to think about at all. And Illya did not realize this, and of course Valeriya would realize even less. Illya was just being her usual self. Coy and a little too full of herself, but ultimately harmless, and quick to heap praise. Valeriya hiding behind her, inquisitive eyes scanning the surroundings, gently unsmiling beneath her mask of isolation, two inseparable companions missing their third from back in the day.
Shalikova was already tired and already reeling from feelings she wanted to set aside.
Why did it have to be them? She had no more room on this night for painful recollections.
“Secret midnight date with the VIP huh? So proud of our little ladykiller here–”
Before Shalikova could respond to the joke and try once again to leave, Illya turned to face Aiden.
He had been standing stock still and Shalikova had not looked his way since Illya and Valeriya arrived.
“–And who is this with you? Oh! It’s the Ahwalia boy? Did he get jealous of you two?”
Illya was joking still, but Aiden looked worse than Shalikova had ever seen him.
His expression came as something of a shock to Shalikova. His aura was quickly filling with red, yellow and a notable band of black. His hands were closed into fists, and he was staring at Illya with an expression that was as hate-filled as those black and red bands of gas coiling around him. They were tightening around his neck, around his wrists and ankles like binding tendrils.
Something was reaching out to bind him– it felt like the past– overwhelming regrets the texture of broken glass–
A flash of violence woke Shalikova from her rumination.
Without warning, Aiden launched forward and tried to punch Illya.
She stepped back in surprise and this was enough to spare her from the attack.
His fist swept in front of her chest, but he was taken by a sudden fury and charged anew–
In the next instant, the buttstock of an AK-72 struck him in the temple.
He staggered and fell on his back, blood drawing from his forehead–
Valeriya rushed him, dropping on top of his legs to pin him, and striking him again.
Two lightning fast, vicious attacks completely subdued him, the buttstock striking his stomach and then his upper chest in quick succession. She then pinned him by forcing the length of the weapon against his neck. Shalikova was stunned. Around Valeriya an entirely black and red cloud seethed. Her once inexpressive eyes were drawn wide, dilated with unrestrained fury. It was impossible to read her expression due to the black mask over her mouth, but her eyes told enough.
“Target suppressed. Awaiting confirmation to eliminate.” She said in an atonal voice.
Even Maryam was shocked at the violence. For that demure-looking girl to be so brutal–
“Oh jeez.” Illya had been as unable to respond as anyone else. “Lerya, stand down!”
Shalikova remembered, those distant old days with her sister–
Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were best friends, but–
Valeriya was always with Illya. She always regarded Illya as her “favorite person.”
I would do anything for her. Even kill.
Her behavior was not so bad when Zasha was alive but–
Obediently, Valeriya withdrew her rifle and stood up as if nothing had happened. In that instant, all of that evil black aura dissipated from her. Her intent changed entirely. Illya took her hand, looked her in the eye and began to gently reprimand her. She understood Valeriya’s needs. With the aura receding, Shalikova’s hazy, mystical thoughts gave away to practical feelings.
Despite the sheer aggression of the attack, Shalikova could not blame Valeriya for it.
That being said, she also felt a surging of emotion and a sudden sense of urgency. Had Murati been here she would have made it her duty to be responsible to Aiden, and so, despite her misgivings, when he was dropped, Shalikova rushed to the side of him and knelt down, trying to assess whatever injury was done to him. Maryam joined her, shocked so much her skin went pale.
Shalikova reached out to him, try to get him sat up– but Aiden struck her hand away.
“What is wrong with you?” Shalikova said. “You idiot! They’ll throw you in the brig!”
Coughing as he sat up, Aiden pointed an accusatory finger at Illya, eyes filled with tears.
“That woman was there! On the day my family was attacked! I saw her kill my mother!”
Shalikova was rendered speechless. Maryam gasped and covered her mouth in fear.
“Those eyes! Those cold metal eyes! They were looking down on me then too!”
Aiden Ahwalia, son of Elias Ahwalia– five fateful years ago, his family had been put under house arrest.
Then Justice Minister Bhavani Jayasankar announced a sweeping purge of corrupt and abusive officials in the communist party, aligned with Elias Ahwalia, who had been lying to the public about spending on social projects, the rationing of goods, and other areas of the economy in service to themselves. Shalikova had been in her third year at the Academy, just entering the military program at 18 years. Solstice’s news channels broadcast all of the evidence of the corruption, including lurid details of secret funds and diverted stores of goods and materials. Scores of projects were cancelled that had aimed supposedly to digitize and automate various functions of the economy, build new machines and advanced systems to limit human working hours. Scores more secret projects were revealed that had sucked up the people’s resources. All of it was stopped, all resources reallocated.
There was a furor in the Union. Popular mobilizations supported Jayasankar’s purge. Troops from outside the Justice Ministry’s ranks almost unanimously backed Jayasankar, including all of the Navy High Command, insuring that civil conflict would not ensue on Ahwalia’s behalf against Jayasankar’s internal troops. Ultimately, Bhavani Jayasankar went on to assume control of the country as a whole when Ahwalia was ejected from office in an emergency all-union retention vote.
It was impossible not to know this about their history– not to know this about Ahwalia.
She turned to face Illya with a dreadful understanding of Aiden’s words.
Her eyes felt painfully warm as she tried to read Illya. Her aura was resisting scrutiny.
By outward appearance, it was impossible to tell Illya’s response to that accusation. Her expression never changed. She had been frowning because of Valeriya’s actions and continued to do so out of worry for her partner. Clearly her good mood had been dampened by the events, but she didn’t look guilty or boastful or like she had any emotion toward somebody accusing her of murdering their mother. Beyond the bare fact of murdering a civilian, to murder someone’s mother in front of them—
Shalikova did not want to believe Aiden but in the back of her mind, she simply knew.
She knew that Illya and Valeriya were soldiers worthy of the special forces.
The kind that would be invaluable assets, taking decisive actions in a time of turmoil.
Illya would carry out any mission. Valeriya would follow her anywhere.
For them to be marines on the Brigand, which was full of other elite soldiers–
The Brigand ferrying Aiden Ahwalia, who had suffered from the coup attempt–
Shalikova felt a terrible history assembling itself in her mind.
Illya sighed openly while Aiden continued to blubber accusations.
“Sonya, you don’t understand–”
“What the hell is going on here?”
Joining the ensuing drama, the broad-chested, wide-shouldered, towering figure of Chief Akulantova appeared from the adjoining hall, looking incredulously between the sedate Valeriya, the exasperated Illya, and Shalikova, Ayden and Maryam on the floor. As she stomped forward, Shalikova could only imagine how ludicrous the scene must have looked to the Chief, walking in on her two subordinates, the ship’s most controversial ward on the ground, and Shalikova, who should have been more responsible than this, in the middle of it with the ship’s weird new V.I.P.! It was mortifying– Shalikova remained dead silent.
“Why is Ahwalia on the floor? Rostova, Peterburg?” Akulantova grunted.
“Valeriya broke up a fight.” Illya said. “She was way too rough. You know how it is.”
“It was my fault.” Valeriya said sheepishly.
“Oh my god.” Akulantova raised her hands to her face.
“Chief–!” Aiden tried to raise his voice, prompting a coughing fit.
“Shut up, Ahwalia.” Akulantova said immediately. “Nobody say anything now. Especially not the two of you.” She pointed her burly arm at Illya and Valeriya. “You two have caused me maybe the biggest headache of my career right now. We’re going to have to get statements, file reports, involve the Captain– fuck, I’m going to have to call Syrah here too, I can’t believe this!”
Shalikova watched security deliberate with a wide-eyed, empty-headed expression.
It was going to be a much longer night than she bargained for…
“Why are you looking at me like that? Never seen me eating before?”
“I mean. I haven’t ever seen you eating before, that’s true–”
“Warm food and potable water are preconditions for warfare.”
“–That’s not remotely relevant to why I’m staring.”
“Stop staring then. For whatever reason it is. Get some food and sit down.”
Norn von Fueller pointed to a chair opposite her own in the cafeteria’s rows of long tables.
Selene Anahid ambled away from the lady (technically, lord) in charge of the ship and toward the self service area. The Antenora had a strangely ordinary cafeteria, with a closed kitchen that cooked two menus a day using typical appliances, and then stocked the meals in a dispenser machine at the far end of the row tables. The food dispensers stocked the morning or evening meal and kept it warm for hours. A touchscreen controlled the machine– a finicky resistive screen that Selene struggled with.
It was nothing like the sleek, responsive devices she was used to.
In addition to the dispensers containing hot meals, there was also a table set off to the side with a case of cold sausages, a tray of hard biscuits, and two automatic drink machines, one of them a kettle for hot pork broth, the other filled with lime water.
“Um. Hey. I guess I’ll have– Uh– let’s see, what are they actually cooking?”
Selene scanned the selections on the dim screen, feeling a bit discouraged.
For the centerpiece staple, there was a cornmeal and oat porridge with bits of meat in it, probably some kind of lard or pork scraps, which tended to be the Empire’s ground meat of choice. There was a dish of Wurstsalat, cut sausages with pickled gherkin, radish and onion bound in an oily dressing thickened with coarse mustard. Black bread and a simple fish soup were also on offer, along with small reusable bottles filled with a mix of coffee and sweetened condensed milk, a limited item on the Antenora.
Eyeing the available meals, Selene felt rather silly. She wanted to ask for a burger.
Back in Frederich’s Abyss, machines prepared all the meals at will.
They would cook practically anything. Selene wasn’t aware how.
She asked, and food appeared. Whatever kind of food she felt like eating!
Euphrates and her common companion, Tigris, loved to eat things like burgers and pizza.
Selene was used to getting her food from a machine at any hour, but she was not used to having her choices limited by whatever had been cooked by a real live human using a limited set of ingredients and then put into the machine at certain times during the day; and she had a somewhat spoiled palate on top of everything else. It proved difficult for her to fill her tray with the day’s meal, even when she could operate the dispensers. There was always a table with plain sausage and biscuits, so for the moment, Selene grabbed bread and sausage, a bottle of sweet coffee, and made the best of it.
When she returned to Norn’s table, the Praetorian gave her a critical glare.
“You can’t be serious. Go back there and grab some of the salad at least.”
Selene stared at her with narrowed eyes. “Huh? But I don’t like pickles.” She said.
“What?” Norn looked scandalized. “All this time you haven’t been eating the pickles?”
“Uh, I haven’t, yeah. I said I don’t like them.” Selene averted her gaze.
Norn dropped her spork and laid a hand over her face in exasperation.
“I can’t believe you. Do you want to die? When was the last time you ate a vegetable?”
“There was sausage and peppers for dinner three days ago!”
“Those peppers are pickled too!” Norn shouted.
Selene did not have a come-back for that.
Norn stared daggers right into Selene’s eyes.
“Do you think we live in a palace? Put some salad on your tray this instant.”
She pointed authoritatively in the direction of the trays again.
And so once more, Selene begrudgingly took her tray to the dispensers.
When she returned, she had added a bowl of the salad– and a little bit of porridge in a cup.
She figured she could cut the salad with some of the porky porridge if it was too pickle-y.
Selene sat down and stared at her plate and at Norn, awaiting inspection.
Finally her commander looked pleased with her.
“Good girl. Pilots need a balanced diet! Especially ones like you.”
Norn’s plate had some of everything in it, porridge, salad, bread, sausage, fish soup.
Big appetite for a big personality, Selene supposed.
Thankfully Norn did not watch her eat. After commanding her to get the salad, she focused on her own plate. Selene noticed that Norn ate fairly slowly and really seemed to savor her food. Did she really like this cafeteria slop? She had heard that Norn had a hard life, so she imagined that maybe Norn savored her food so thoroughly out of fear that she may never get to eat again.
That was pure speculation, but Selene thought she hit on something deep there.
Selene picked up a bit of sausage and pickles with her spork and lifted it to her mouth. At first she recoiled a bit at the vinegary dressing, but she was surprised by the taste. Crumbly, meaty sausage with the mellow tang of the gherkins and the sweetness of the pickled radish and onion. Taken apart, perhaps they would be gross, but everything worked together somehow. She did not spit it back out — furthermore, she picked up a second sporkful and chewed it a little bit longer.
“You’re pinning down your antennae.” Norn said off-handedly.
“Huh?” Selene raised her eyes from her plate. Norn’s eyes went back down to her food.
“I just noticed you had them out when we talked in your room, but they’re pinned now.”
It was true. Selene usually tied them to her hair so they bent down as if part of it.
“It’s annoying to have them pinned down all the time, but I don’t like them sticking out.”
“How come? I think they’re kind of cute.” Norn said, pointing her spork at them.
“Why don’t you swing your tail around all the time?” Selene snapped.
Norn narrowed her eyes. “Nice joke.” She said dryly.
“Sorry.” Selene said. She knew immediately she had spoken carelessly and impulsively.
“I’ll be sure not give you any more fodder for your incredible sense of humor.”
Norn stabbed her spork into a sausage with great violence and chewed it brutally.
“Finish your salad, get out of my sight and watch your mouth in the future.”
In the next instant, a video window appeared on the surface on the table.
One of the bridge drones appeared on the screen.
Selene could tell because the officer drones had more elaborate uniforms and hairstyles.
“Milord, we have detected an approaching vessel. Sunlight Foundation Alonso De Ojeda class Frigate. We believe we’ve detected signs of deployment chute activity under the vessel. In case of Magellan-class Divers, how should we respond?”
Norn’s eyes drew wide. She stamped her hands on the table as she half stood.
“What? Tell Samoylovych to deploy immediately. Link me to the ship commander–”
Another window then appeared beside that of the bridge drone, also on the table.
This one had Potomac on it. She appeared to be down in the hangar, near a bearing monitor.
“Norn, this ship is picking me up. You can accept the Magellan that will come out of it.”
Norn blinked with surprise. “Oh this is rich. Who authorized them to meet us?”
“I’m leaving, Norn. I’m done putting up with you. I’ve arranged for a tech to replace me.”
Potomac’s window closed. Norn pounded her fist on the table again.
“Whatever then! I hate that bitch’s guts. She can fuck off! I’ll kick her out myself!”
“Milord–” the bridge drone began to ask for clarification, but Norn interrupted.
“Detain Potomac. Tell Samoylovych to deploy and escort that Magellan in.” She said.
Norn stood from the table and shot a sharp glance at Selene, who had a sporkful of salad in her mouth from when she was ordered to eat. Selene averted her gaze from the Praetorian, who in turn sighed and bid her to follow. At first Selene did not know what to make of the gesture.
“Bring your salad plate and eat on the way. Come on. I need you as backup just in case.”
Something stirred in Selene’s heart, and she bolted up off the table, salad in hand.
Maybe if she was obedient enough Norn would forgive the slight–
Maybe she already had forgiven her.
“Good. Follow me.”
Norn turned and walked at a fast, confident pace out of the cafeteria.
As she was commanded to do, Selene followed behind her.
She was dressed in her pilot suit, but she had no weapons if a confrontation broke out.
No weapon except her mind– but her mind was unusually powerful, after all.
Potomac was an Immortal, but Norn was an Apostle, and Selene– she was special.
“Don’t worry too much. I expect this will be easily handled.” Norn said.
She must have seen Selene’s expression, deep in thought.
To try to guard against further assumptions she started eating her salad again.
By the time they reached the hangar, Selene had an empty bowl in her hands.
As soon as she could, she handed it off to a drone.
There was a commotion in the middle of the hangar.
One of the deployment chutes was held open with a white Diver half-trapped inside, while Samoylovych’s Jagd started climbing out of the adjacent one to help corral it. Four marines with shoulder-mounted anti-armor missiles were aiming at the captive Diver in the deployment chute. While most ordnance used in the water was purely explosive, since penetrators were not as effective in water as in air, those AP missiles had very small explosive effects and instead perforated armor with a tungsten cored round. This made them safe to use in this situation — they could fire on the Diver without endangering the hangar itself.
In a corner of the room, Potomac stood with her hands up, eyeing with disdain the group of infantry surrounding her with assault rifles trained. Along with this group, Petra, Adelheid and Hunter III were helping to keep Potomac trapped. Selene was surprised by the efficient response. Norn had only ordered her detained and not mentioned any specifics as to how.
She supposed Samoylovych and Petra were just doing whatever and going with the flow.
Adelheid and Hunter III though looked like they had taken good command of the situation.
“Norn!” Potomac called out. “You know I don’t like fighting! Please call off the goons!”
“Let her go. If she wants to leave I’m certainly not going to keep her.” Norn said.
Having arrived at the hangar, Norn eased the tension immediately. All of the soldiers backed off and disarmed or engaged the safeties of their weapons. The white Diver in the deployment chute was finally allowed to rise into the hangar, while Samoylovych took her Jagd to the nearest gantry to be locked in and powered down. Hunter III and Adelheid left Potomac’s side and went to join Norn and Selene. Adelheid let out a long-held breath in relief, while Hunter III looked quite eager.
“Boss, is it time to eat her yet?” Hunter III moaned.
Norn patted Hunter III’s head like that of a dog.
Hunter III pulled her hood up over her head and sat barefoot on the cold floor, sulking.
“I saw her eyes light up.” Adelheid said. “Really briefly though.”
“Could you tell what she was doing?”
Adelheid shrugged as if that wasn’t her problem.
“I’ll set her straight. Selene, you go check on the pilot of that Magellan.” Norn said.
Selene nodded her head.
While Norn and Potomac commenced a loud, circular argument, Selene walked away.
In the middle of the hangar, the incoming Magellan-class Diver had been left stranded atop the deployment chutes without a gantry to hold on to. Selene had seen Magellans before — she had trained to pilot Divers using one. Going from that to piloting something like a Volker would have been a nightmare, but the Jagdkaiser was a decent upgrade from any other available mecha.
Still, Selene had a fondness for that white and blue Diver in front of her.
The Magellan’s body plan was like a Volker if it was done right.
Rather than simply round like a Volker or rough and angular like a Union Strelok-class, the design of the Magellan class’ body was all sleek beveled edges and complex surfaces that gave it a truly futuristic look. The upper body had round pauldrons and a rounded “neck guard”, with arms that could slot into the flanks of the body for improved hydrodynamics. Rather than trying to mimic a helmeted human head like a Volker or Strelok, the design had 360 degree armored “mono-eye” orb head that rotated on its own axis, allowing for a “main camera” with incredible vision supported by a few auxiliaries on the body.
Meanwhile the legs were thick, triple-jointed with an integrated water system with flexible channels, allowing for natural adjustment of the angle of the leg jets based on movement of the whole leg, allowing more precise lower thrust and quicker changes in direction. On the midsection, the pilot’s pod slotted between the chest plate and skirt, a loop of convex armor covering the gap. On the back, there was a standard magnetic strip and the hands could accept a variety of weapons.
While there were four traditional hydrojets, two on the legs and two on the back, there were also wake-jets on each shoulder. Like the Jagdkaiser’s jets, these were self-contained propulsion pods that accelerated water through themselves like a hydrojet but were lighter and more efficient, using a bladeless turbine– something about salt ions and heat and agarro-conductivity, Selene didn’t know all the details. Euphrates certainly made it sound impressive and it supplied all the Jagdkaiser’s thrust.
It was the pinnacle of Sunlight Foundation engineering, taking the crude concept of the Divers other nations produced, which grew out of labor suits and overblown dive bells and bathyspheres, and removing all limits to production, using only the most advanced materials and the most fit-for-purpose design methods. Or at least, that’s something Tigris once said to Selene.
When Selene stopped at the side of the Magellan’s kneeling leg, the convex armor ring in the middle expanded sideways, opening to reveal the entrance to the pilot’s pod. From inside the machine a young woman in a blue and white jumpsuit climbed out. The woman had her back turned; Selene’s eyes were immediately drawn to the definition of her shoulders beneath the tight jumpsuit, and a bushy tail with dark-brown fur swaying anxiously as she dropped down from the midsection of the machine.
“I was expecting a bit of a warmer welcome. That Jagd scared the daylight out of me!”
She turned around and nearly ran into Selene, who had wandered closer to the pilot pod.
“Watch where you’re going!”
Selene put her hands to her hips, while the pilot withdrew a step.
“Ah! Sorry! I’m a little clumsy getting off these– I still feel like I’m in the water for a bit.”
“Get yourself together already! What are you doing here?”
Selene looked her up and down.
She was a young girl, maybe even Selene’s age, slightly shorter but comensurately better built, with lean, muscled arms and shoulders and slightly wider pelvis. She had a soft rounded face that was framed with wavy brown hair, and thin-framed white glasses perched on her small nose. Atop her head she had two dark-brown, furry cat ears with visible white fluff. Her expression was strangely shy, almost withering under the disdainful look Selene gave her as she looked her over top to bottom.
Quite demure and gentle for that tough-looking body that she had.
Her suit covered most of her, but Selene noticed her fingers were subtly segmented.
Very thin grey gaps were visible, minute separations in the artificial skin.
Her eyes, too, were clearly cybernetic, with concentric cool green rings over baby blue.
“My name is Dunja Kalajdžić!” She said.
After a moment, she stiffened up and her eyes drew wide, staring dumbly at Selene.
“Ahh! No, no, no, forget that! I meant to say Neretva! My name is Neretva!”
A dramatic twitch worked itself out through her tail as she corrected herself.
Selene narrowed her eyes at her. “Okay, Neretva. What are you doing here?”
“I’m– I’m just a mechanic, here to replace Madame Potomac on the Jagdkaiser project! We’ll be partners– I mean we’ll be working together now, pilot! Rest assured that I have read all the appropriate technical manuals and memorized all of the equipment needs! I know I can’t measure up to an Immortal, but I did train under Lady Hudson!” Neretva cried out.
Selene ignored most of the blathering and focused only on what mattered to her.
“So Potomac is taking this thing back out?” She said, pointing to the Magellan.
“That’s the idea. Ojeda frigates can’t handle shuttles.” Neretva said. She looked around the hangar in confusion. “Ah– forgive me, I don’t know the whole situation, but I was told there would be a Jagdkaiser Type II to service here. I see a Type I over there that looks like it took a few lumps– and there’s some Foundation compression crates all the way over there–”
“You’re in luck!” Selene said, her voice taking on a cruel tone as she found another way to make sport of the shy mechanic. “You’ll be getting so dreadfully hands on with the Jagdkaiser Type II, in that you’ll be assembling it from scratch, because we don’t have any gantries to put it in. You’ll also be disassembling my Jagdkaiser Type I as well! Have fun!”
Neretva stared at her with nervous eyes. She then fixated on Selene’s antennae within her hair.
“Oh, are these the interfaces– you clipped them down–”
She reached out a hand absentmindedly to Selene’s head. Trying to touch her–?
“What do you think you’re reaching for? Creep!”
Selene batted her hand away and Neretva blanched in response.
“I’m sorry! I wasn’t thinking! I’m really sorry, your antennae are part of the equipment–”
“Go to hell! Norn, I’ve got your stupid pilot here, she’s fine! I’m leaving!”
Hands balled up into fists at her sides, Selene tossed her hair and turned her cheek, leaving Neretva by the side of the Magellan with an aggressively brisk walking pace. She was met halfway by Norn, escorting Potomac to the Magellan class. With one look, Norn got Selene to stop and join them briefly. Potomac had her arms crossed and was looking away from everyone around. It appeared that those two had come to a final understanding and were no longer on cordial speaking terms.
They barely wanted to look at each other, it seemed.
“Selene, got anything to say to this gasbag before we get rid of her?” Norn asked.
“Hmph!” Potomac made a noise to protest but did not follow through with words.
Selene stared at Potomac only briefly before deciding. “I have nothing to say to her.”
“Selene, I hope you won’t become embroiled in this woman’s warpath, for your sake.”
With only those words, Potomac advanced past her and Norn, past Neretva.
She climbed into the Magellan-class Diver and plunged into the deployment chute.
Soon, she was gone. Neretva took her place and quietly resumed work on the Jagdkaiser.
Of course, the Antenora hardly felt bereft of Potomac’s presence in the ensuing voyage.
There was no friendship to be had with her; and Norn just had one less person to fight with.
Briefly, an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation had graced this vessel. But like the rest of those ancient conspirators, she left no mark, and took with her all that she had learned and done. Euphrates once extolled to Selene the virtue in not interfering with the world, but Selene knew it for what it was. It was the selfishness of a woman who toyed with the world only for her own use.
“It’s the luxury of all those freaks to live like that. I won’t follow them.” Selene mumbled.
With a sense of surreal non-absence the Antenora’s course for Goryk’s Abyss continued.
“Zdravstvuyte! May I come in?”
“High Volgian is fully unnecessary. Come on in.”
“Well, I don’t get to use it very often at all. Warm greetings, First Officer, Science Officer.”
When the door the medical bay opened, a cheerful, blue-haired woman with very intricate eyes appeared to greet Murati and Karuniya in the ancient Volgian tongue. The Union had a very strong Volgian character, but High Volgian was hardly used, and certainly did not carry the cultural importance that High Imbrian did for Imperial subjects. Nevertheless, the perfect pronunciation made an interesting first impression. Murati found herself thinking that high language must have been the kind of pursuit that occupied the spare time of an intellectual woman like Dr. Euphemia Rontgen of Solarflare LLC.
Now Murati’s next question was: what did this passenger want with me?
It was very early in the morning. The Medbay was quiet, the lights dim, Doctor Kappel had not even been in yet for the morning checkup. She had stayed up late checking up on and treating Aiden Ahwalia, who had been the victim of an altercation and now occupied the third bed in the room, bruised but ultimately still whole, resting peacefully after being given a strong painkiller. Sameera had been awake overnight due to the commotion and so lapsed into a deep sleep at this hour.
Murati had been asleep for most of it, due to her own strong dose of painkillers.
She had learned of everything that happened when Karuniya had appeared with a sweet cornmeal porridge and a cup of broth to feed her that morning. Karuniya had learned of the events from Braya Zachikova, who had found out in her capacity as Electronic Warfare Officer by readingthe incident logging without permission. Those two were working together on some project.
“For some reason Aiden confronted one of the surveillance room girls.” Karuniya said. “It got ugly. They’re intelligence officers who aren’t good at handling security situations safely, not like Klara and Lian are, or even Chief Akulantova herself. I don’t know why they were patrolling, maybe Klara and Lian were overworked. But anyway, it got out of hand and one of them absolutely thrashed Aiden. Honestly, that kid had it coming, if you ask me. He gets on everyone’s nerves and acts so arrogantly.”
Murati sighed deeply. “I was afraid it’d come to that. I’m just glad it wasn’t Khadija.”
“Ah, I suppose that’s true. You’d have been the one filing all the incident reports then.”
“Worse. If it happened last night, it would be Shalikova dealing with the paperwork.”
It was at that point that Doctor Euphemia came to visit without prior warning.
Murati was decently informed about the nature of her presence on the Brigand.
She was a private science theorist working for an Imperial company who had become stranded after a failed excursion to the Goryk Abyss deeper into the gorge. It was the duty of all sailing ships to conduct rescue if they found civilians in danger. This was a maritime honor that no decent ship would ignore, so they rescued the Solarflare crew. But of course, there was much more to it than that. Euphemia and Theresa were apparently frequent employers of mercenaries, and the Brigand was doing business in that capacity in the hopes of acquiring some extra supplies. It could be a good scheme — if it ultimately paid off.
Certainly, Euphemia did not fit Murati’s picture of an avid underworld player.
“The Captain gave the green light for me to visit, on the condition I agreed not to pry into the particulars of the Brigand’s origin. She happened to drop the surname ‘Nakara’ in conversation, you see, and I wanted to see the child of Kauthik and Lakshmi Nakara. This is quite a chance meeting. Perhaps there is indeed wisdom to what a certain Daksha Kansal believed about people.”
Murati and Karuniya looked at each other in disbelief as Euphemia spoke.
Neither interrupted her, despite how long-winded she was getting.
“I was also informed the Science Officer would be taking care of Nakara, so I will defer to the two of you if I should be allowed to stay or leave.” Euphemia finally said, bowing her head in deference to the pair.
“Of course you can stay.” Murati said. “But– you sure know a lot of meaningful names.”
She was hesitant.
Her heart lit up when she heard the names of her parents spoken, and that of the first Premier of the Union, Daksha Kansal. Of Kansal much had been said and much had been written but Murati had so precious little about her parents. In the early Union, the sermons of communism which united the rebels were mainly oral in nature, and her parents had little time to write. They deferred to the teachings of Mordecai, and on writings Kansal had published before her exile explicitly for the dissemination to prisoners and slaves. She knew that her parents were also prolific activists and writers. She was old enough to understand they led dangerous lives in the Empire that ultimately led to their exile and enslavement in the Nectaris Ocean 23 years ago.
But those writings they did in the Empire, and those actions which they took, stayed in the Empire if they had been recorded at all.
In the Union’s archives, other people’s words extolled the virtues of the Nakaras among many other names in the early revolution. Their own words and own voice were hardly represented in those archives. Murati did not believe there was anything about this that was deliberate or malicious. Her parents had died to Imperial forces in battle near the end of the Union’s revolt. They had been busy with commanding and organizing people. They had the responsibility of commanding the Union’s first dreadnought. They didn’t have time to write theory or to pen memoirs before they were taken.
It was a tragedy of history, not some kind of conspiracy.
Deshnov had believed it was a conspiracy– but Murati knew better than that.
He was, after all, for all his virtues, an Ahwaliaist, and Murati was a Jayasankarist.
They had their separate biases and that was fine–
Despite the rationale, despite the logic, however, Murati still lived with a lingering doubt.
Who were her parents, truly? Were they simply and vaguely, nothing but ‘heroes’?
So when Euphemia spoke those names, she had begun to hang on every word.
Like that curious little girl searching desperately in the archives in Solstice again and again for any sign of her own history. Suddenly, a piece of that history hitherto unseen had walked in. Murati did not know where to place it.
And she didn’t even know whether she could trust it.
After all, who was Euphemia Rontgen?
“How did you come to know her parents?” Karuniya asked.
God bless her– she had overcome Murati’s hesitations for her.
Euphemia smiled, calmly and pleasantly, as if they were sitting down together for a warm cup of coffee on a peaceful day. “So to preface, I didn’t know them personally, but I am familiar with their work and I was well aware of their exploits through Daksha Kansal. Only a few people know the name Nakara in the Empire, people who had been involved in the old academic and labor movements. But for some the name ‘Nakara’ gave hope for change to an entire generation of reformers in the Empire. Many of whom only came to find their reform in founding the Union and have yet to export it back to their old home.”
The idea that her surname was famous to anyone in the Empire made Murati nervous.
“I suppose I should conceal my surname to avoid any odd questions then.” Murati said.
“Like I said, only a few people would know nowadays. Almost everyone who was involved with them back in the day would end up exiled or worse.” Euphemia replied. She looked amused at how Murati recoiled, but the Lieutenant was being practical. Euphemia should not have come to know they were all from the Union just from hearing a surname, that would have been brutally awful opsec. “Do you have any questions about them? Or about Daksha Kansal?” She said.
“Should I have any?” Murati said. “I know they were organizers in the Empire. They were deported to the Nectaris colonies for inciting riots. That’s not mundane, but it’s also not a great secret. How much more is there to know?”
That was a fact that always plagued Murati’s attempts to uncover her family’s past.
What questions do you ask to get beyond the most superficial facts?
Euphemia sat back in one of the free chairs and smiled knowingly.
“Well, firstly, young lady, they would have blanched at having their project reduced to ‘inciting riots.’ They organized mass activities with students and workers, and ultimately strung together networks of solidarity that almost lead to the Empire’s first General Strike. It was the threat of a massive stoppage of work, premised on punishing the failed promises of the Fueller Reformation, that got your parents exiled. It was not just riots. Once upon a time they resisted the idea of rioting in fact.”
Euphemia spoke with the cadence of a lecturing professor, long-winded and self assured, her cybernetic eyes scrutinizing Murati’s face for reactions, a little smile creeping as she spoke and as Murati stared speechless at her. This description did make it seem like her parent’s activity was far wider and grander than simply burning a few government offices in North Bosporus. Murati briefly looked to Karuniya to gauge her reaction and found her wife-to-be similarly stumped by the doctor.
“By trade, your parents were oceanologists.” Euphemia said, continuing unprompted. This got Karuniya to widen her eyes further. “This afforded them the pleasure to travel all over the Imbrium Ocean, which is something not many get to do. In our time, most people are bound to their station and maybe a few neighboring ones. Your parents made many connections, and studied a lot of theory that they then spread. They formed a network, a fabric between many far flung organizations and interests: because they believed that Oceanology had to be sociopolitical. To save our Ocean, to protect our resources, to sustain our lives and livelihoods, we had to completely change not just environmental policy, but our modes of production and social organization. Like Daksha Kansal, they believed that humans who had become individualized, needed to communalize to survive.”
“My parents became Mordecists because they wanted to protect the Ocean?” Murati said.
Her voice sounded more skeptical than she wanted but– she had never known this.
In her mind her parents were materialists– not idealists like her beloved Karuniya.
Oceanology was important– but it was an animal and chemical science, not a politics.
“What an interesting response!” Euphemia said. “Does it strike you as a contradiction?”
“Topics like this are my constant battle with this narrow-minded woman.”
Karuniya cracked a grin and rubbed her elbow cheerfully against Murati’s shoulder.
“Listen to her! Oceanologists can be very politically conscious!” Euphemia said, putting on a similar face.
Two of them, Murati thought. Now there were two of them ganging up against her!
“Oceanologists are constantly swearing as if ocean salinity numbers are some form of divination of where we are as a society and that all production and consumption should veer dramatically to protect corals and leviathans.” Murati said. “But if the two of you accept that Mordecist organization of production and society are correct and superior then we finally agree on something, and I can’t fault whatever alarmist nonsense has led you to that conclusion.”
Murati didn’t actually believe what she herself was saying to such a harsh degree.
She just felt defensive, and it made her want to contradict the two of them.
And what she felt was a gross mischaracterization of her positions on Oceanology.
“She’s just going to stubbornly quote the Union’s environmental policy at you next.”
“Ahh, she’s so unlike the stories of her parents! She’s so much more like Daksha Kansal!”
Euphemia and Karuniya seemed to reach a silent understanding to make sport of Murati.
So Murati’s response to them had completely backfired. She was in the nest of two snakes.
“Are you having fun?” Murati snapped. “Let’s get back to the point. I was a little kid when they passed away. In the Empire I only remember them leaving through a door and coming back in through another. I didn’t even get to go to school because we kept going from place to place and they were always out. So thank you, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen. I now know that I was entirely wrong in my conception of them, and that they were not the militarists I thought they might be.”
“Oh Murati, don’t be sore.” Karuniya said. “I think your parents sound wonderful!”
“Of course you would.”
Murati felt strange. It was, in a sense, as strange as she had felt about almost dying in battle.
She felt nothing. So her parents were pacifist idealists who wanted to “save the Ocean.”
Murati herself didn’t really put stock in such things.
She was a materialist, some would call her a militarist in bad faith, even. She believed firstly in promoting the power that humans had collectively, through the sharing of their resources, through the improvement of their systems and tools, through the things they could build — and the forces they could muster, and the enemies they needed to destroy.
Things like the condition of the waters or the affairs of animals were purely secondary concerns to her.
She saw them as something apart and distracting from human events.
So what? That was frustratingly mundane. To find out her parents were just big dreamers.
“Were you expecting me to reveal a big secret? Like maybe you’re the heir to the Empire? A secret princess who was spirited away at birth and could return to claim the vacant throne? But who has instead been enlightened by mordecist communism to bring revolution? Perhaps you’ll develop secret magical powers too? Quite romantic!”
Euphemia smiled broadly and indulged in a little chuckle.
She really had a way with people; it was like she could read Murati’s thoughts.
And then say the most annoying thing possible.
“This is nice, you know. To bequeath a legacy to someone, however mundane.”
She gave Murati a fond look that the latter was not willing to receive.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Murati said. “So my parents were boring–”
“–Murati!” Karuniya interrupted as if scolding an unreasonable child.
Murati did not pause. “–So what about Kansal? What was their relationship like?”
“Daksha Kansal was their enabler. She knew them far better than I.” Euphemia said. She continued to speak with gentle eyes gazing as if past Murati, delivering a lecture but not necessarily engaging the audience. “If your parents were the heart of the operation then Kansal was the fist, maybe the knife or the gun. She grew to love styling herself an adventurer and a rebel, an international woman of mystery juggling many conspiracies, but in reality, by trade she was a neurobiologist radicalized by the Empire’s racist politics.” She paused for a moment as if falling deep into remembrance. Perhaps she could see Kansal in her mind’s eye. Murati could as well. Her brown and white hair tied up in a bun, her pristine uniform.
“Even Kansal was not just a plain militarist. She had an interesting belief which she infected your parents with.” Euphemia continued. “Remember when I talked about individualism versus communalism? Kansal did not just believe this in a political sense. She thought that there was a way of thinking, not just in the sense of political theory, but biological theory– literally a mode of thinking which had been lost to individualism and which had to be reclaimed via communalism. A brain chemistry that humans were developing in the tight, desperate quarters of underwater life and that could unite our society.”
How was she supposed to respond to complete pseudoscience like that?
Was this really still the same Daksha Kansal she was talking about?
“You’re telling me she believed a bunch of quackery too?” Murati said.
“But what is quack-ish about it? Isn’t it a beautiful thing to believe?” Euphemia said. “Isn’t it lovely to think that humans are destined to reach a communal enlightenment that will elevate not just their material conditions, but the very way we think and communicate? Whether or not it be empirically proven, it reflects optimism and a great love of people.”
“Murati’s rarely this entrenched in materialism versus idealism as she is today.” Karuniya said with a hearty, mocking sigh and a quick, dismissive wave of her hand. “Please forgive her, good Doctor. She’ll be less grumpy when fed.”
“What do you want me to say?” Murati protested. “Do you believe that nonsense for a second?”
“Well, not necessarily.” Karuniya said, with a little shrug and a mischevious little smile. Which she now turned on Euphemia instead. “That is a pretty out-there thing to claim about the first Premier, doctor. Other people on this ship might pick a fight with you for acting like Daksha Kansal, the great liberator and founder, was actually a weird religious freak.”
Euphemia winked at them. “But why does a band of mercenaries care so much about it?”
Karuniya covered her mouth in shock.
“Hah, don’t worry. I’m not blind, but of course I’ll keep my suspicions to myself.”
“As long as you’re professional about it.” Karuniya sighed.
Murati forgave her wife’s carelessness quite easily.
It was clear that Euphemia had them figured out from the start. If she walked through the hangar even once she must have realized it, and she and Theresa were supposedly helping with the repairs, so the fact that the Brigand was full of Union personnel couldn’t be kept strictly secret. Clearly the matter of what Euphemia knew about them was being handled by Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara in some way and Murati had to trust them. That was not at the forefront of her mind.
Daksha Kansal still was.
This idea of hers– did she really believe something so near mystical in nature?
Mordecai argued for communism from a material standpoint: economics and structural organization.
This idea that human brains were undergoing a change was purely idealist.
Did Dakshal Kansal really hold that conviction so deeply it led her to fight for liberation?
When did she, Murati’s parents, lose these ideas and take up the practical fight in the Union?
Did they ever?
“What about you, doctor? Do you believe Kansal’s ideas? Or my parent’s ideas?”
Euphemia smiled at her. “I don’t necessarily believe it. But it roused their spirits. The road that began with those ideals ended in the liberation of a nation of slaves and the downtrodden, which even today is an inspiration and refuge for dissidents; so can you truly criticize them for being idealistic? Their convictions helped them repel the world’s mightiest nation.”
Murati kept quiet.
She knew all of the story after her parents and Kansal, along with a few others like Bhavani Jayasankar and Elias Ahwalia, ended up in the Nectaris colonies together and began to organize the exiles and the enslaved. She assumed this was part that Euphemia would know less about. Murati now knew a bit more about the origins of some of these people– that their ideas were not as straightforward as they had been presented to her. They had taken their own journeys to arrive at the conclusions reached in the Union. Perhaps– perhaps that was beautiful in some way. Murati struggled to see it as Euphemia did, however.
“What was your relationship to Daksha Kansal?” Murati said. “You said she knew my parents and helped them when I was a kid. You don’t look so old as to have been a peer to her so long ago, that woman is probably pushing her sixties.”
“I’m older than I look, and I’m not afraid to admit it.” Euphemia said calmly. “Daksha Kansal and I used to be colleagues, though not in revolution. The Captain gave me assurances that my past would not pried into, so I will leave it at that. And then I won’t ask you how you went all the way to the colonies two decades ago and are all the way out here again.”
“Fair enough. Thank you for telling me so much about my parents.” Murati said.
“It’s truly my pleasure.” Euphemia said. “Daksha Kansal once believed that all of us were linked together, drawn together, by a force that was the sum total of all of our wills acting in concert. She compared it to a current. Whether you believe in that, or god’s will, or destiny, or dumb luck– I think our meeting was serendipitous, and I’m happy we got to speak, Murati Nakara. You are not a princess, but in my opinion, you are someone whose life was begot and protected by many bright people, and that is more special than any sort of heredity. Your parents were normal people — but they were passionate folk with hopes and dreams.”
She reached out a hand to Murati, and Murati reached toward her and shook with her.
Karuniya reached out as well, and Euphemia shook with her afterwards.
“I am scarcely worthy to say such a thing, but if you’ll indulge me, I think your parents would be very proud of you.” Euphemia said. “And not out of pure sentimentalism. I think they would have cheered the person you became.”
She waited a moment, as if to see if Murati would react harshly and stop her.
Again, Murati simply didn’t know how to respond.
It was something she had no feelings towards now.
As a teenager she had cried her eyes red many times over her parents.
There was no pain left there. There was little elation. “Normal” was a good way to put it.
Euphemia fixed a soft, admiring gaze on her. “Older people burden the youth with the idea that our experience was easily arrived at. We appear before them, fully formed, and even without us knowing it, we pressure them into growing up without teaching them the method behind our struggles. I think your parents would be proud that you have grown to be able to argue against their ideas. They would never want you to imitate them; they would want you to build your own convictions.”
“Thank you.” Murati said. It was all she could say. What else did one say to such a thing?
“When we make it to the Imbrium, I will return what effects I have of the esteemed Premier and the two revolutionaries that she fostered, to you, Murati. You are the correct keeper to preserve what is left of their pasts.” Euphemia said.
Murati blinked. “I– I don’t know what to say. I didn’t imagine there was anything left.”
“The Empire has tried to overwrite them in history, but the truth is not so easily buried.”
“Did her parents entrust you with something?” Karuniya asked. “What is it? Writings?”
“I was not entrusted with anything. However, as the one who they left behind, I felt it was my duty to preserve their work in the Imbrium. I saved writings, memories, curios.” Euphemia said. “You won’t find big secrets there though.”
“Right.” Murati said. “But we’ll be able to confirm what you’ve said, in their own words.”
Reading about her parents, in their own words, their own voices.
Murati felt a renewed surge of emotion that she had not expected. Her feelings were twisted every which way.
Euphemia nodded her head. “As a scientist, I don’t speak without having access to evidence, you know?”
“I really don’t know what to say. Or what to feel, right now. Thank you, Doctor.”
Murati sighed deeply. It was only the first thing in the morning, but she felt quite tired.
There was a lot of disorganized thoughts swirling in her head about all kinds of things.
But there was no point in asking Rontgen more — not if they would get the primary sources.
“They would be proud of you, Murati. Don’t let their ambitions interfere with your own.”
Euphemia stood from the chair she had taken beside Murati’s bed. Easily and mysteriously as she appeared, the doctor left with barely a wave of the hand. Karuniya looked at Murati and rubbed her shoulder in solidarity, but Murati could only watch the wake of her lab coat and wonder. How much more had this woman seen? In that old life cloaked in youth– how much did she know?
By the late afternoon, work on the Brigand had been completed ahead of schedule. Layer by layer the breach on the port-side near the prow, caused by the Iron Lady’s powerful 200 mm twin cannons, had been repaired. There were still electrical systems that were offline and needed to be physically reconnected. Tests would be needed to ensure the C6 block and other access ways connected to it could be used again safely under the correct pressure, by people unprotected by suits and without air tanks. But the hole was plugged in and the armor in that sector could withstand gunfire and the stresses of ocean travel once more.
And travel it did. Soon as the repairs were completed and hull’s exterior integrity verified, the Brigand undocked from the small substation on the edge of the abyss and gently traveled into the open water around it, performing a few circles over the station to test worthiness. While Kamarik coddled the ship back into its course, the crew got ready to leave Goryk in the past and begin the next leg of their journey into the Imbrium Ocean. Ulyana Korabiskaya felt relieved to be moving again.
“It’s not the prettiest reconstruction, but I’m pleased with the work we could do under these circumstances. Out in the middle of the ocean with only our tools and some elbow grease! It’s exhilirating to be able work up a sweat again!”
Theresa Faraday smiled with satisfaction. She arrived in the main hall dressed in a form-fitting mechanic’s scuba suit, which would be worn inside Labor armors or pressurized dive suits by sailors, in the same way pilots wore tight suits. Under one arm she had her helmet, and there was a small air tank on her back. Her red hair had been collected into a functional bun. She had gone out to work with the sailors. Ulyana initially thought it would make unnecessary trouble with the Chief Mechanic, Galina Lebedova, since they had read Theresa as someone prideful who would want to micromanage repairs, but Theresa showed humility–
“I’m not here to lead anyone’s projects. I just want to work like everyone else!”
And like everyone else, she worked. She installed and welded composite panels and steel supports, she replaced ducting and nitrogen tanks. Along with every other sailor, she heaved plates into place until the armor over the breach was as thick and perfectly joined as the untouched hull. She worked fast, efficiently, with more strength than her slim frame seemed capable of.
More than anything, this willingness to work elevated Ulyana’s opinion of her.
Euphemia Rontgen also seemed like a pretty harmless person. Acting the jovial professor, she had dropped in on Murati and had a conversation that Karuniya Maharapratham described as quite entertaining. Later, the good doctor joined the Commissar on the bridge and shared news about the Imbrium. She seemed willing to cooperate beyond anything Ulyana expected of her.
Their bodyguard Laskaris just sat around and read magazines on her portable terminal.
Ulyana started dropping her guard around the Solarflare group. They were agreeable.
She would have to take charge of finding them real lodging soon.
Maybe Fernanda and Alex could be moved to one room so the doctors could have beds–
However, as she began to contemplate such things, the doctor conveyed a personal message.
Theresa Faraday wanted to talk to her alone in one of the meeting rooms.
“I want to show you something I discovered.”
When Ulyana arrived at the meeting room, the doctor stood in her scuba suit holding a small segment of armor plate, taken from the materials which were brought out of storage. The Brigand was a unique vessel, and as such it had a large stock of its own spare parts. While they had a capacity to manufacture new parts themselves, in a pinch they had to rely on the materials already stored. Theresa brought her attention to the object, but it was just one of the surface armor plates, colored rusty beige.
When the Captain began to show obvious confusion, Theresa flipped the plate horizontally.
Now Ulyana could see the sections that composed it. Still nothing worth talking about.
“I wouldn’t know what it’s made of.” Ulyana said. “It’s not a technical detail we have any access to. Armor composition is kept secret by the factories isn’t it? So if you work with these materials doctor, you’d know more than me.”
“I guess I do then. So let me say first: this is not a normal piece of plate.” Theresa said.
She ran her finger along the flat sides of the plate. Where it would normally be welded.
“This is in fact an extremely rare form of composite plate. It has layers of alloyed metal, military grade, and a layer of complex nanoceramics. I would expect this from a high-end military vessel and won’t ask how you acquired this material. There are also layers of depleted agarthicite plate, very fancy. Even more unexpected however is that at a molecular level, low grade agarthicite has been ferrostitched into the plate. This piece of armor, Captain, is agarro-conductive. Watch this.”
Theresa set the plate on the meeting room table and withdrew a tool from a bag she had brought with her: it was like a forked prod hooked up to power block. Ulyana assumed this was Solarflare LLC property that was loaded up with the rest of her and Euphemia’s effects. Ulyana had never seen anything like it, but she wasn’t a materials scientist. There was a handle on the side of the tool that engaged the electric current, perhaps by physically sliding something between the battery and the prod–
–in Theresa’s hands, it looked like she was holding a very weird firearm.
One that glowed dimly purple, a color Ulyana had come to associate with nothing good.
“Doctor, what is that? What are you doing? Explain yourself this instant.”
Ulyana raised her hands defensively in reaction to the tool. Theresa blinked at her.
“Huh? No! It’s perfectly safe! This is just an agarro-electric catalyst, for ore reactivity–”
“It’s a reactor tool?! Does it have agarthicite in it?!” Ulyana started shouting.
“It’s totally safe to use outside a reactor testing scenario! Just stop freaking out and look!”
Before Ulyana could stop her, Theresa pointed the thrumming tool at the armor plate.
For a moment, Ulyana felt her entire body tighten, her stomach squirm, awaiting a bright purple sphere to separate every atom in her body and turn the Brigand into two perfectly sliced halves of a ship. Eyes drawn wide she watched the prong touch the armor plate– and saw a tiny purple spark fly out that singed a tiny hex-shaped burn into the table, about the width of a finger.
Theresa then shut down the tool and tossed it casually behind her as if was made of trash.
“It tried to annihilate it! So I was correct!” She said cheerfully, throwing hands up.
Ulyana took several steps into Theresa’s personal space and grabbed her by the shoulders.
She started shaking Theresa’s body vigorously in a fit of nervous passion.
“Next time you will explain what you are doing clearly, you psychopath!” She shouted.
The Captain could have almost cried. She really thought this woman had killed them all.
“Ahh! Fine! Fine! Let me go! It was my fault, I’m sorry!” Theresa protested.
Once Ulyana had sufficiently vented her anger at the Doctor, the conversation resumed.
“This type of prod is used to test agarthicite before it is used in reactor cores. You can tell whether the rocks have a useful life ahead of them by the reaction. As you saw that piece of plate reacted very minimally to the prod: it’s low reactivity agarthicite.” Theresa said. “To put it simply, this is just one plate the size of my head with very little agarthicite content, and the agarthicite being used in it is really cheap and bad. You’d have to drop a station on it to get it to implode, it’s useless in reactors, so most of the time, only miners are relieved when they smack it out of its little osmium nest in the continent wall. That being said, because it doesn’t implode if you just look at it funny or tune a magnetic field wrong, it is used for batteries and electronics. Its use in this plate is really novel though — it forms a channel with the other plates around it, across the entire outer hull.”
Ulyana followed along as best as she could. So far everything she said made logical sense even without the context of the Doctor’s knowledge. Certainly Ulyana knew that agarthic material was used in electronics and Diver batteries, and she knew the term “depleted agarthicite” was used for a somewhat common type of alloy made up of crushed non-reactive cores within a composite alloy plate. It was not just the extremely dangerous energy source that thrummed demonically in their reactors.
That being said, she also knew the material in batteries and electronics didn’t glow.
It didn’t annihilate anything, not even a finger’s width. Otherwise it wouldn’t be used!
That purple glow as a tell-tale sign that something was about to get burned in a hex pattern.
Or entirely obliterated, turned to dust in a perfect circular hole.
“So you’re saying that low quality scrap agarthicite is part of the composite for our armor.”
Theresa sighed. “You should be much more surprised than you are!”
“Like I said, a ship’s crew isn’t told what the hull is made out of, we don’t need to know.”
At no other time in her life had Ulyana cared what the hull of a ship was made out of.
Fundamentally she did not understand why this was anything more than minutia.
“Fair enough. But as a soldier, you should know this: I think there’s probably a device on the ship that can make the entire armor reactive. If that was the case, you could use it to help deflect munitions from the hull. Think about it, if the entire hull repels an incoming shell, for example, and annihilates it and all the chemical that is trying to explode against it. Just think!”
That sounded far too convenient to possibly be true. Ulyana was instantly skeptical.
“How would you know about such a system if you’ve never seen this before?”
“I have professional experience with such things!”
Ulyana fixed a sharp gaze at Theresa. Was this capitalist trying to sell her something?
Theresa crossed her arms and put on a smug little grin.
She made a gesture as if to toss her own hair, but she had it in a bun, so she tossed nothing.
“My better half theorized such a system ages ago!” She declared, with a proud little smile. Ulyana crooked an eyebrow. Did she mean Euphemia Rontgen? She was speaking so casually and looked so happy to have said such a thing, that Ulyana wondered about their relationship. Theresa did not seem to notice Ulyana staring and continued. “It has no civilian applications! Because it would only be useful for ablating direct attacks by munitions. If a leviathan smashed into your ship it would just suffer a lot of hex-shaped burns and continue smashing the ship. Furthermore a purely defensive system is not interesting to military minds, who don’t so much care about the survival of crews as the potential offensive power that can be extracted from each ship.”
Theresa ran a finger up against the bridge of her nose as if adjusting nonexistent glasses.
“And even worse,” she resumed speaking with almost no pause between, “making so much composite plate with agarthicite in it, even the cheapest lowest quality agarthicite, is incredibly expensive and would require extensive connections to suppliers of raw Agarthic materials, who in the Empire are all highly regulated. So it’s not something Solarflare is in a position to do, but it is interesting. Seeing this plate, I immediately became curious who built this ship; but I won’t pry into it.”
Theresa was not the only one now curious about the Brigand’s origins.
They had already identified dummied systems before. Zachikova had been trying to test and write software to use them, but they were focusing on only a handful of discoveries that seemed like they had practical applications. Could this defense system be part of that too? Were there more hidden modules? Ulyana sighed inside. None of this was disclosed to her. How many more experiments were covered up within the bowels of this ship? Did Nagavanshi know about all of this nonsense?
She was mildly frustrated. They would need help figuring it out. Zachikova could not do so alone. So would she have to ask Theresa and Euphemia? Their relationship was cordial and they had business arrangements, but there were many secrets between them, and Ulyana felt hesitant to be the first one to reveal any of what went unspoken in their negotations.
She hoped their party would acquiesce first.
In the middle of all these personal deliberations, Ulyana found herself interrupted.
She expected to be able to press Theresa a little further but the ocean currents brought something their way.
“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon!”
Red lights began to flash in every room. It was just like when the Iron Lady attacked.
In place of the klaxons that felt like they should be blaring, was Semyonova’s voice.
“Unguided missiles detected off the starboard side! All personnel to alert semyon!”
Ulyana ran to the bridge without thinking any further, leaving Theresa Faraday behind without a word.
How could it possibly be, the instant they entered open water again? An attack already?
On the monitors in the halls, the profile of a ship appeared: an Imperial Ritter-class Cruiser.
It was the only response the Captain had to the sight as she hurried down the hall.
When Ulyana rushed through the door to the bridge, she found both Marina McKennedy and Euphemia Rontgen standing near the door, staring at the Ritter-class on the main screen. It had apparently been identified; it was broadcasting an IFF. Several secondary screens showed trajectories of missiles and camera feeds of the flak response from the Brigand. Semyonova was in the middle of broadcasting the alert, while Fatima was concentrating on the sonar. Fernanda and Alex in the gunnery section were looking at each other in disbelief, the two most prone to panic in the bridge, while beside them, Kamarik kept the ship steady.
Everything was in chaos, but everyone was doing their individual jobs.
Nevertheless, the captain’s job was to immediately turn that panic to purpose.
Ulyana quickly took her place in the captain’s seat, alongside Commissar Aaliyah Bashara.
Her Shimii companion fixed her a gentle look and seemed glad to see her.
Trying to seem confident, Ulyana winked at her.
There was a battle to fight, so once again the Captain had to look gallant.
“Gas gunners! Look lively! I want a truly brilliant flak barrage!” Ulyana shouted.
Aside from the description of the enemy ship, projections on the screen showed the gas guns taking out incoming missiles.
At the fore of the Bridge, the gas gun operators were the most frantically active people in sight.
Hundreds of rounds of 20 mm ammunition peppered the surroundings from remote controlled flak turrets.
Small explosions began to blossom harmlessly dozens of meters from the Brigand’s starboard.
The shockwaves caused the ship interior to stir ever so lightly. Ulyana could feel it in her chest.
“We’re keeping the initial volley at bay. At least it’s only one enemy.” Aaliyah said, exposing a momentary hint of relief.
“For them to come out swinging like this, they must have something to do with Lichtenberg.” Ulyana said.
“Vessel identifying itself as Antenora.” Zachikova said above the din of activity on the bridge.
Her words were a little slow and slurred. Her mind was still out in the water, still mostly in the drone.
“Stay in the drone, Zachikova, we’ll need it out.” Ulyana said. “Fernanda–“
She was trying to move quickly between orders, switching instantly into her Captaining style–
–until she was interrupted by a panicked voice that rose even higher above the rest.
“No way! No fucking way! It can’t fucking be! Not now!”
Ulyana turned her gaze back to Marina McKennedy.
She stood, lips trembling, staring with wide bloodshot eyes at the screen.
“No, no, no, please no–“
Ulyana almost reached a hand out– then recalled Marina’s trauma and retracted it.
The G.I.A. agent’s eyes were fixed on the screen, tears building, her whole body shaking.
“Norn.” Marina said, her voice filled with despair. “Norn the Praetorian.”
Euphemia Rontgen stared at her in disbelief and then snapped her head toward the screen too.
It was the first time Ulyana had seen the doctor look shaken.
And it was the worst she had ever seen Marina break down.
Soon Ulyana would come to understand the meaning of those reactions and the depth of her bad luck.
Just as the Brigand made itself ready to leave–
–the Fueller family flagship Antenora had finally arrived at Goryk’s Gorge.