Sinners Under The Firmament [9.4]

This chapter contains a reference to suicidal ideation.

“All of us trust Murati Nakara. So let me show her the truth.”

Murati stood at her edge of the table, speechless, as Euphrates reached out her hand.

Colors floated off her, at first like wisps of vapor from the end of a vaporizer pipe. They spread and grew, and it was difficult to understand the dimensions of them, the breadth and depth, even the composition. Sometimes they felt like lights, an aura, or a rainbow that if touched would have no interaction with the skin, but at other times, viewed in different angles, it seemed like the gas of a nebula from images of outer space passed down through time by the remains of surface scientific discoveries. There were other feelings associated with the colors that did not even relate to Murati’s visual recollection.

When she focused on them for too long, she felt–

Sounds (soft and whiny like a tinnitus)

Textures (impeccably smooth like cellophane)

Tastes (chalky, salty, like putting sand in the mouth)

— there was no way to square these with the fact that she was still, only, looking.

Murati briefly licked her lips; she closed and opened her hands. She was not scared, but enthralled. Those sensations came and went with the intensity of the colors. Sometimes in focus, in sharp relief; sometimes gone as if they had never been there; but her mind wanted to chase them. She felt like a child staring at the world for the first time, wanting to see, longing to understand, boundlessly curious.

“What are you seeing, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Is she surrounded by colors?”

“You can see it too?” Murati said, turning to face the captain, to see her response.

Ulyana nodded. Aaliyah closed her orange eyes, rubbed her fingers over them.

“I’m seeing something too.” Aaliyah replied. “La Hawla Wala.” She whimpered after.

Murati did not understand the Shimii speech, but the sentiment was clear to her.

Everyone in the room was seeing something. It wasn’t just her– she wasn’t going insane.

“Fantastic. Colors are what you should be seeing.” Euphrates said with a smile.

“We know those colors as Aether.” Tigris explained. “For us jaded old hags, it’s really difficult to describe these feelings to someone– it’s easier if you can come to grips with it, Murati, and tell everyone else how it feels to you. That’s what Euphrates is getting at. She’ll teach you all about it– and Omenseeing will make a bit more sense to you. But what we do isn’t Omenseeing, so take it with a grain of salt.”

“If it’s not Omenseeing, what is it?” Murati asked.

“What Omenseers call ‘Omenseeing’ we refer to as psionics.” Euphrates said.

“Psionics? Like mind reading and clairvoyance? That’s all fantasy!” Ulyana shouted.

“She just moved an object in front of you without moving a muscle!” Tigris objected.

“That’s–”

Ulyana could hardly formulate a reply to that. She was just lashing out emotionally.

“You’ll see that it isn’t fantasy– if Murati Nakara accepts my proposal.” Euphrates said. “You can say all you want about us and what we are doing. You can claim that it’s all tricks, that we have gotten co-conspirators on-board to rig the room, or that we have prepared special devices– I’ve heard all kinds of explanations in the past from people who won’t accept the truth. But if Murati accepts, I can show her immediately how to access the same power. Would you believe Murati is faking it?”

“What if this is some kind of wild escape plan?” Aaliyah joined Ulyana in shouting.

“They couldn’t escape– they’d be in the photic zone without Arbitrator I’s protection.”

Murati’s was the calmest voice in the room. Though it was she they were all addressing and putting under pressure, there was something in the back of her mind that prevented panic. It was an almost nostalgic feeling. As if these sights and sensations weren’t entirely unfamiliar. She tried to recall– had she seen the colors before? Had she felt the presence of psionics, like she now felt from Euphrates?

Was that sensation of synesthesia she got from the colors truly alien to her?

There were no concrete recollections– but there was a feeling. A feeling kept her steady.

“Correct. Psionics isn’t exactly like Omenseeing. I’m not trying to escape.” Euphrates said.

“We can’t even put a toe out of place right now anyway.” Tigris said.

She vaguely gestured behind herself.

Illya and Valeriya had the two of them in the sights of their assault rifles.

“By any chance can you call off the hounds? I’m worried about accidents here.”

“It’s our duty to keep this crew safe. Be a good girl or I’ll shoot.” Illya said.

“I told the two of you to stand down. I wasn’t just shouting at the wall.” Aaliyah said.

“We’re all tense here, but we’re not shooting each other tense just yet.” Ulyana added.

“Okay.” A sad little monotone voice.

Valeriya stepped back, raised her rifle, and reached out a hand to pat Illya on the chest armor.

Begrudingly, Illya did the same a moment later, withdrawing from the confrontation.

Valeriya then lifted a mask over her face and averted her gaze to the door nearby.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad at you, so don’t worry.” Illya said to her.

“We’re going to have to talk about you two getting some problem-solving skills that don’t involve killing people, if you’re going to play a bigger role in this security team.” Ulyana said. She sighed, exasperated, almost grunted. “Murati this situation is insane, but I want to hear from you.”

Now everyone in the room was staring Murati’s way rather than Euphrates’ way.

She was not unused to this sensation either. After all, she delivered so many petitions.

In all of those petitions, she had to get up in front of a crowd, and then explain something which was deeply emotional to her in very rational terms. She had to make her aspiration to heroic military deeds and her belief in radical military action toward the Empire sound reasoned and cost-effective, and not just like the inner workings of a grandiose, self-indulgent fantasy. It was not so different here.

Murati was calmer than she thought she might be and thought she could explain.

“Captain, Commissar; I think I trust Euphrates. She came to visit me in the medbay to talk about my parents. She knew them– she also knew Daksha Kansal. I’d never heard anyone talk about Kansal the way that she did– she even compared me to her a few times, which I found very touching. I don’t know a lot about my parents, but I’d like to believe if Daksha Kansal is a name that comes out of a person’s lips with such affection, rather than scorn or slander, then that person is probably worth listening to.”

“Murati, Euphrates wants to do something to you, who knows what.” Aaliyah said. “You want to trust her because she spoke glowingly about one of your role models? Don’t you agree that’s a bit facile?”

“I’m glad that all of you are worried, but if it’s my choice, then I will talk to Euphrates.”

Murati turned to face Euphrates. She felt her heart stir, but she was determined.

When she first fired a gun, when she first learned to pilot, when she first killed–

In each of those situations Murati was also unlocking powers of the mind and emotion.

There was a frightening sense, each time, that the world would be very different afterward.

She felt shivers when she first touched a gun, first entered a Strelok’s cockpit.

When she took aim and put out a human life, it was an earthquake of horrific feeling.

But at no point, did she cease to be Murati Nakara. Each time, she did what she found just.

After each of these things, she could weep, she could laugh, she could live and love.

And her goals, passions, the duties she accepted and people she loved, did not disappear.

“Euphrates, you say I can access psionics immediately with your help?” She asked.

“All I need to do is touch your forehead for a minute.” Euphrates replied.

“Explain the mechanism by which this will work.” Murati calmly said.

“Of course. Those colors that you see around you, the Aether, are imprints of human emotional and mental activity, left upon the world by our existence.” Euphrates began to explain. Nobody interrupted her. “Aether will resonate more strongly with people who are psionic. We leave our aether not just in places we go to, but even in objects we have an attachment to, and even in people who care about us. Eventually, those people’s minds will develop their own psionics and begin to see our aether, whether fleetingly or in full, via a process we call Aether Baptism. I can accelerate that process.”

“Wait a moment.” Ulyana said. “Can we see your aether, then, because of Arbitrator I?”

Murati knew that what she was actually asking was–

–when did we change? Are we fundamentally different than normal people, and if so–

–when was the crew of the Brigand baptized by Aether if Euphrates is speaking the truth?

Euphrates in turn looked almost excited to be sharing this information.

Her tone was animated, friendly, calm. Even despite the evident tension in her ‘students’.

“It takes a long time for baptism by environmental aether to awaken a person’s psionics. What I’m about to say is pure speculation, but there are a few possibilities: very traumatic and sweeping emotional events, like the Union’s revolution, could have awakened tiny kernels of the power. The Sunlight Foundation has observed that Shimii and Katarrans, who suffered massive ethnic hardships, have more psionic potential. So it is possible that Union folk are also ‘more psionic’ than others. Maybe you also had parents or colleagues with powerful psionics. Contact with Murati would certainly do something— I didn’t choose her solely for emotional reasons. Korabiskaya and Bashara would be more difficult to baptize. Korabiskaya, you, particularly– I can tell you have a near-impenetrable will. Even Norn couldn’t overcome it.”

Ulyana blinked, with Aaliyah staring at her momentarily.

“A near-impenetrable will, huh?”

“Norn was psionic too then?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah looked like pieces of something were falling into place for them.

“We should evaluate the narrative here only after we have a concrete demonstration.”

Zachikova spoke up, uncharacteristically interjecting in the course of events.

It was a rational enough point. Euphrates had set a condition by which ‘psionics would be proven to be definitely true’ — clearly Aaliyah and Ulyana wanted to believe it was true, more than they wanted to be skeptical. But in terms of the scenario, they needed to confirm things before devolving into wild speculation. Not only that, but Murati would have been able to prove that ‘psionics work exactly as Euphrates said’ by having access to psionics herself. In that case, there was only one solution.

“Does everyone trust me and trust my decision?” Murati said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other and spoke up at almost the same time:

“I thought that was self-evident.”

“Of course we trust you Murati.”

The two of them looked at each other, smiled, sighed, and acquiesced visibly.

Murati nodded in acknowledgment. “Then I accept the terms as discussed. Once I have been given access to psionics, I’ll try to explain what I felt and demonstrate its use, and depending on what happens, we’ll decide whether we believe all or part of Euphrates and Tigris have been saying.”

She didn’t really know why– but she still felt that burgeoning confidence in this task.

Just like learning to pilot, learning to shoot, learning history, learning military tactics–

–and an even more salient example, learning about communism and capitalism.

All of these things fundamentally altered Murati’s perspectives and abilities.

She was not afraid that Euphrates would change how she viewed the world.

In fact, there was a part of her that was excited. A part of her that realized before the rest of her faculties that she might become part of uncovering a great, hidden truth about the world. Communism became a clearer and clear example in her mind of a paradigm as magic as this. She imagined Mordecai in his study, when he first drafted a history of productive relations that had been physically present in the world but never named, never truly observed in an analytical way, and explained to people.

Murati thought he must have felt the same way as her.

Trepidation about the world that would follow; and a determination to change it anyway.

In a world before Mordecai, capitalism might as well have been a force of nature.

Things that simply existed; things that were simply done. As invisible as magic was.

When that hidden power was finally exposed and surgically understood–

It created a paroxysm of revolutionary grief at the injustice of it all, lasting to this day.

Understanding communism as an alternative to capitalism could change someone’s world.

And perhaps that knowledge could drive the person a little insane.

But to build a better world, the truth had to be exposed, understood, analyzed.

Murati had to peel back layer of reality– she would not back away from this truth now.

It might even expose something that could help achieve her ambitions.

“It’s the duty of a communist not to shy away from reality. Euphrates, I am ready.”

Murati stepped forward, closer to Euphrates.

With the consent of the room, Euphrates stood, and raised her hand to Murati’s head.

Putting her palm on Murati’s forehead, the fingers gently brushing her hair aside.

“Whether your eyes are open or closed, you’ll see and feel things. Let them come and go.”

For an instant, Murati saw Euphrates’ eyes flash with red rings around the irises.

She felt something push against her, for long enough for her body to record feeling but too quickly to contemplate it. For that infinitesimally small instant of sensation, she felt hot and cold, wet, and dry, and in the next instant, her vision was clouded. She was overwhelmed by color and could not see Euphrates, or the room around her anymore. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange, and tight bands of black and white at the far edges, sweeping toward her like a tidal wave so tall that Murati could see nothing but the body of those great bands of color, near and far, rapid, and slow. She was submerged in them.

Then — she did not know when, could have been minutes, hours — she was drawn back.

Rather than a tidal wave, now the colors appeared as a great vortex in a black, empty space.

As her vision focused on it, and she realized the length and breadth of the phenomenon and the notion of the space around it, she began to see trails far above that fed into the vortex, like the clouds that were known to science but impossible to see from humanity’s new home. These trails fed into the whirling body of the vortex. And the more she focused, the more Murati could see thousands, millions, billions of trails all individual, each its own color. It was not an object, but a mass– made up of innumerable lines.

Murati felt a great shame that she had not known it was so complicated at first.

Now she felt a desire to see, not just each individual line, but how they all connected.

They were a mass, a community, a language, in contact and interaction, communicating.

She wanted to understand– she wanted to know–

if the system was just, if it was worth maintaining and if it needed to change,

if there was someone to help, if there was a battle that needed fighting,

if there was a pain, and if there could be healing, if there was need, that she could fill,

It was difficult to think, to keep her thoughts from drifting, but–

Euphrates had said to let them come and so she did.

Her soul screamed for understanding, justice, and redress.

Suddenly the vortex flashed as if in response to her desires, overwhelming white.

In the blink of an eye, Murati saw out of her eyes not a void but a world.

White walls, white lights, but steel enclosures, LCD screens, beakers, fluids, artificial light. Machines and the logic by which they were operated. She saw humans; she saw, primarily, a man in a coat, shirt, red tie, shiny brown shoes. He approached an enclosure where there was someone trapped, a woman. Her skin was mottled with red rashes and yellow pustules. She was starkly naked and reclining against the back of the enclosure. There was scarring across much of her face, but her mouth could still open, and she had one eye and half a head of pristinely blue hair which was strikingly beautiful.

“Good morning, doctor.” She said. Murati understood the language.

But she also understood it was not her own. There was a strange texture to the words.

Her soul knew what they were saying– not her ears.

Outside the enclosure, sickly green and yellow colors surrounded the man.

While the woman was clad in pristine, euphoric white despite her physical condition.

“Good morning, Euphie.” He said.

That unmarred half of the woman’s face stretched, with visible effort, into a smile.

“It’s dire outside, isn’t it? Your troubles follow you in. I can see them.”

“Everything is dire, Euphie. But you’re doing good. You’re our little miracle.”

His aura writhed as he said those words. Clear, painful lies filled with regret.

There was an increasingly black band filling the edges.

“You’ll cure it soon. You cured the last two. We’ll save the world, doctor.” She said.

She heaved a tired little sigh and closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I can’t keep fighting it. Death. I’ll talk again soon. Once I’ve recovered.”

Murati stood uncomprehendingly as she saw, for a brief second, what she thought were lashing tentacles or worms bursting from the pustules on the woman’s body and striking the enclosure. Blood and fluid splashed on the glass of the enclosure and the woman’s body grew limp inside. Then, she vanished in a cloud of white gas released inside the airtight chamber that had become her grave. There was still something writhing inside– but before Murati could truly understand the horror of it, she, too, vanished.

Disappeared in a white flash and ferried somewhere else.

Above her, there was suddenly a ring of blue sky.

In the distance, seething fog that pulsed bright purple with frayed red edges.

There was a mass of people. Screaming, crying, fighting against a line of armored men.

On the edge of the sky, and the edge of the ocean, there were great, enormous structures, metallic struts and scaffolds of vast size, imprinted with symbols of patriotism that Murati did not understand, flags and insignias. There was an unbroken line of people moving shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, into the great machines. There were colors everywhere, vaporous, and furious, red, and yellow and black, deep and broad black auras, everyone was certain of death, and everyone was afraid of death.

Amid that crowd, a woman with blue hair stood out from the masses.

Wrapped up in a thick coat and fedora, gazing over her shoulder mournfully.

She forced herself to look forward, shook her head, and kept walking to the machines.

“I have to keep moving forward. That’s my curse in this world.”

And she knew, and now Murati knew as well– it would be her curse in the next world too.

For all that she suffered fighting for humanity.

She would be spared the bliss of death.

Murati’s world shifted again, the sight before her eyes–

–dimming

–darkening

She smelled oil and smoke, soot, and concrete dust in the air. Yellow air that dried the mouth.

Amid the ruins of some place, a habitation of some kind, roofs and walls, shattered streets.

Overhead the sky was grey and below the earth was muddy and strangely yellowed.

“We killed more of the civilians than anything. This is a god damned mess.”

Two men in black uniforms with masks over their faces trudged through the mud.

Red armbands on their sleeves contained a strange symbol like a lightning bolt.

“How much gas will it take to kill two million Ayvartan troops?”

“How many did this take out? A battalion? We’re fucked. I’m not even reporting this.”

“We have to say something. Lowball it. Say it was a squadron or something pathetic.”

“That won’t work. They’re dead set on this. They’ll say even that much is progress.”

“Fuck me. We can’t possibly keep doing this shit, can we?”

“Wait–”

The two men paused for a moment. It was impossible to see their faces under the masks.

However, their emotions were not inscrutable. Murati could see the colors wisp from them.

They were surprised and shocked– and there was a brief flash of death in their eyes.

“Is that a kid?”

They walked forward, into a dilapidated house. Murati could see inside it.

“This is– she looks clean as a newborn baby. How the fuck did she survive this?”

There was a girl. Svelte, maybe malnourished. Her little dress was in tatters.

Skin pale as pearl, untouched, not a nick on her. Breathing gently, as if asleep.

Her hair a shocking, pristine blue, long, and loose, lightly curled.

“I– I don’t know. But we can’t just leave her here. Help me with her, quick.”

“Messiah defend, there’s not a scratch on her. She’s breathing. And what’s with her hair?”

“Forget her hair. Look. Her feet have blisters, from the poison in the mud. The rest of her is fine. There’s corpses everywhere. Everyone else around her died. How did she survive the shelling?”

“How would I know? Let’s take her to the medics, we’ve got bigger problems.”

In the distance, Murati heard a whirring noise, and she saw the clouds parting–

Numerous machines, flying high in the air, explosions following in their wake–

As she vanished into a white light with the surroundings she knew Euphrates survived this.

In the next instant–

Metal walls. Vanishing colors.

No texture, except the smoothness of her uniform when she touched it.

Just to feel something– something familiar.

Smell– treated air, circulated by machines. Vaguely sweet, inoffensive.

Surrounded by people and silence.

And the comparatively low pressure of 300 meters of water above them, threatening to crush them any second, with the only comfort being that the ship was used to surmounting over a thousand meters more and could survive close to 8000 meters deep in total. She was back on the UNX-001 Brigand. She was Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara; she was alive. She was back in her own world.

On the shoulders of Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara, she noticed wispy bands of green color with a little band of green and yellow. Aaliyah had just a little bit of red at the edges. These things communicated to Murati’s mind, she understood them as if they were facial expressions or body language. They were waiting, afraid that something had happened to Murati. Aaliyah was trying to restrain her anger that this situation had taken this turn, struggling to take control of it back.

She realized that her eyes felt warm. She knew that there were red rings around the irises.

Though she couldn’t see them she knew that this was the case.

Murati turned around from them and quietly faced the woman in front of her again.

Euphrates retreated back a step, having withdrawn her hand.

“How do you feel?” She said gently.

Looking down at her–

There was a flash in Murati’s mind. Visions of a blue haired girl, lonely and in pain. Tortured endlessly. Places whose forms sat just on the edge of her memory, speech in a language she barely understood, some events in motion like a grainy film with frames missing, her mind had the texture of these things, but the complete form was just out of reach. There was an outpouring of them in her mind’s eye.

Murati’s warm auburn eyes began to weep uncontrollably. Her lip trembled. Her body shook.

She bowed slightly and grabbed hold of Euphrates suddenly, embracing her tightly.

Weeping profusely on her shoulder, stroking her hair, wanting her to feel any comfort.

“I’m sorry!” She shouted. “I’m so sorry! What they did to you– I’m– I–” Murati wailed with an agony she did not understand even in part. Words cascaded out of her lips that sounded less connected to anything concrete with each passing second, channeling the formless pain of another body, as the things she saw and felt in the aether moved farther and farther from the mind but remained in the heart.

Euphrates, smiling, weeping gently herself, silently returned the embrace.


“I apologize. I acted too familiar.”

“That’s quite alright. It just tells me you have a very big heart, Murati.”

Murati sat back down on the table, raising a hand to her chest to feel her pounding heart.

She was red in the face and feeling a little nervous after everything that happened.

“How are your faculties, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Anything feeling off?”

“I had a strange experience. I went to places and saw things– but I can’t really tell you all of the substance of it. I had visions– I think I saw bits and pieces of Euphrates’ life, maybe.” Murati said, stumbling over words just a bit. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing what I can recall unless she allows it. However, I think I am actually ready to try to move an object without touching it.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. That red portion of her colors got just a little bit wider.

Murati turned to Euphrates, who walked over to Murati and bent close to her, looking over her shoulder. She took Murati’s hand and guided her to stretch her arm out toward another, intact pen which also sat in the middle of the table. It was out of Murati’s reach and away from the other pen which Euphrates had allegedly collapsed into a sphere of carbon, still sitting at the far edge of the table.

“Alright, Murati, focus on the object you want to move. You’ve seen the Aether auras, the colors, around other people now, right? Did you focus your eyes on them to make them sharper?”

“I think so. I think I can do that.” Murati said. She had done so with Aaliyah, she thought.

At first the “auras” were just colors and a vague understanding.

If she focused on them, she could appraise them better. She realized this now.

It was like the trigger of a gun. She could pull it with her mind to set off the effects.

“Now, try to focus on this object, using the same method. Compel it to move away from you. Trace a line to where you want it to go. It’ll get easier, but for the very first time you attempt this you will really need to focus. Create from nothing a reality where this object is moving.” Euphrates said.

She stepped back from Murati and took seat next to Tigris again.

“By the way, if you want to relay anything you saw in the Aether to the Captain and Commissar, you are free to do so. Those memories are irrelevant to the world of today, and I do not let them govern how I live my life in the here and now. But thank you for the hug. It was very warm.” Euphrates added.

Murati nodded her head. She breathed in deep and then reached out her hand to the pen.

She tried to focus on the pen. She spent a few seconds staring at it.

Move. Move. Move.

She felt like when she was assigned to a psychologist at school, after her biggest protests.

Ink blots and mental exercises– stuff that felt too abstract for her to get a hold of.

It felt silly, talking in her own head like she was talking to the pen.

As the seconds passed, she began to fear she had created a reality where the pen had not moved, and one in which she did not know what would happen next. After all this anticipation, they would be going back to grilling Euphrates about this, trying to prize from her what was real and false about her, about her intentions, her narrative. Murati really wanted to spare her any more pain.

She could not remember in exact terms what she had seen in those visions.

But she knew that Euphrates was extremely old, ancient despite her pretty face, and her long life was filled with such pain that Murati couldn’t even imagine feeling. She felt compelled by her own humanity, even if this feeling was not fully substantiated, to try to do what she could to help Euphrates, to absolve her of other’s doubts and suspicions. Murati’s skepticism told her that it was possible Euphrates was now deceiving her. It just didn’t make sense though– the medbay visit, the HELIOS, all of this.

Meeting her was perhaps serendipitous. One of the greatest coincidences of her life.

Murati had the feeling, however, that Euphrates was not a malicious person.

Even had they never met, even though they disagreed philosophically about certain things.

Euphrates was following her convictions and doing what she believed was right.

Move, damn you!

In the next instant, the pen did not just move at Murati’s command.

It sailed to the opposite wall like a projectile and shattered upon striking it.

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at it, speechless for a moment.

“Oh. I think I have the hang of this a bit.”

Murati shifted her gaze to the sphere that Euphrates had crushed the other pen into.

She reached out her hand and compelled to move toward her instead.

A microsecond later, an instant of thought, and the little ball shot toward Murati.

Striking her in the chest, and then dropping on the table with a series of little thuds.

Murati grabbed hold of her chest, wincing with pain. Gunther turned to check on her.

“Agh! Damn it!” She cried out.

She had just told her doctor her ribs were okay, and now her sternum hurt like hell.

It did not feel like anything was broken, but she nearly doubled over from the pain.

That would almost certainly bruise.

“Be careful!” Euphrates said cheerfully at the unfolding theater. “You don’t know your own strength. But you’re a very fast learner. You applied the concept of moving the object away to pull the object toward you! Not everyone figures that out within seconds of their first telekinetic thrust. You’ll be learning about vectors in no time with that level of conceptualization– I knew you’d be impressive, Murati.”

“Hmph. I learned it pretty quickly too, you know.” Tigris butted in.

“Yes, and I praised you for it in the moment– many, many, MANY years ago.”

Euphrates laughed and Tigris scowled at her and turned her back once more.

“Hmph!”

Murati could hardly see the humor in the situation because her sternum was still hurting.

“Murati, do you need to go to the medbay?” Ulyana asked.

She glanced toward her officers, trying to appraise their current emotions.

All of the red and yellow had melted from both the captain’s and commissar’s auras.

In their place, thin bands of purple and white appeared to compliment the blue and green.

Pride, Murati thought. Pride and awe or euphoria.

They were both anxious, but they also were starting to realize, perhaps–

–that their worlds had changed a bit too now.

Murati shook her head, in response to the medbay comment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah almost at the same time brought their hands up to their faces.

“What is this even going to look like in a report?” Ulyana lamented.

“It’s not.” Aaliyah said. “I am not going to report any of this. What would I even say?”

“How is this possible? I want to wake up from this.” Ulyana continued to lament.

Zachikova had her arms crossed, deep in thought. Gunther looked quietly shocked.

Euphrates sat back, clearly less tense now that she appeared to be getting her way.

“You are free to disclose any information I’ve given you to your authorities. However, I won’t be able to provide physical evidence of anything at this moment, so I recommend to withhold your reports for now. I do have a condition I must set for myself and Tigris’ continued support, however.”

“Hey, don’t assume I’ll just do anything you want. I’m pretty pissed at you.” Tigris said.

“I would be heartbroken if my irreplaceable partner left me.” Euphrates said.

Tigris’ shoulders tensed. “Ugh. Shut up. Fine. I’m in for whatever, then.”

Ulyana ran her hands over her face, through her long blond locks. She tossed her hair.

Resetting herself. Letting off a bit of steam.

After heaving a sigh, she responded, clearly frustrated. “What do you want, Euphrates?”

“I want to hire all of you. I promise I won’t interfere with your ‘mission profile’.”

“Hire us? Like the original agreement we had with Solarflare LLC?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates reached out a hand across the table, symbolically.

“Exactly. Take me to Rhinea and help me investigate Yangtze’s actions. I need to confirm her true intentions. All of us need more information to determine our next moves. Yangtze has ties to the Imperial factions, so ultimately, if you help me, you’ll gain a lot of juicy information on some very bad people. While we are there, you can continue your own activities. I’ll support you as a consultant, and this lady here will help maintain the HELIOS, and help out around the ship. She’s handier than she looks.”

“You’re the one who looks, and is, useless!” Tigris cried out. “They know I’m helpful.”

“Both of us can teach Murati Nakara more about psionics,” Euphrates continued speaking, ignoring Tigris, “then you’ll be able to determine whether it is safe or useful based on her progress. You don’t trust us completely, but Murati is someone you know for sure that you can trust, right?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged a look. Both of them stood up as if to speak definitively.

“Murati has nearly died for this crew multiple times. Of course I trust her.” Ulyana said. “To be clear– you’re quite right. I don’t trust you anymore, Euphrates, but not because of your actions. I still want to be able to trust and cooperate with you. However, too many unknowns have been introduced.” She paused briefly to gather her breath. “So I’ll tentatively agree to your terms because I don’t have much choice. However, if you step out of line, I am quite ready to shred the paper and do something about you.”

Aaliyah’s ears and tail stood up, tense; but her eyes smoldered with determination.

“I agree with the Captain. This whole situation has gotten out of hand. We’ll have to think carefully about what this means. Psionics, Aether, Omenseers and the Sunlight Foundation– all these capital letter terms hint at a world we were not prepared to tackle with our own resources. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how much of this I’m even prepared to believe. I’m ready to wake up at any moment. But in the material reality of the here and now, we have few choices. However, there’s one whale in the room here.”

Ulyana glanced over to Aaliyah, looking a little bit surprised.

“I think I understand what you’re going to ask. Go ahead.” Euphrates said.

Now it was Aaliyah’s turn to breathe deep and sigh.

“You must have known all along, Euphrates, but we are soldiers beholden to the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. We are on a Union mission. Your Sunlight Foundation has stayed hidden all this time, but now you are sharing all this knowledge with us. It seems to me that you are desperate for shelter from your organization, so you need us. In that case, I have conditions of my own. Everything you have told us will have to be formally told to the Union government. All these secrets have to be confirmed and reported.”

Murati scanned Euphrates’ face for any sign of concern. There were none.

She was calm as she ever had been, and her aura was as soft and pristine as before.

“Of course. I understand. Here’s my response: help me find Daksha Kansal. I trust her and I want to talk to her about the Union. Depending what she and I decide, we can make formal disclosures to the Union.”

Euphrates truly had a gift for saying things that rendered the floor speechless.

Ulyana raised a hand to her own lips and grinned to herself, laughing a little at the prospect.

Finding Daksha Kansal, the first Premier and legendary hero of the Revolution–

“Daksha Kansal left the Union to foment revolution in the Imperial territories, many years ago. If she’s still alive– well, it could actually be very useful to our mission as well to find her and see what she has been up to all these years. However, none of us have any idea where she could be right now.”

“We all want to believe she’s alive, but we can’t guarantee that.” Aaliyah said in support of Ulyana.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you find her. Let’s just tack that on the agenda as an item, then.”

Euphrates stood from her chair, reaching out her hand for a shake, still smiling affably.

“Do we have a deal then? Make Rhinea our next destination, and I promise you with your military power and my knowledge and resources, we can absolutely find Daksha Kansal, investigate and overturn Yangtze’s ambitions, and tackle the next phase of your own mission, whatever that might be.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged another glance, but both of them smiled. Hearing the name Daksha Kansal, and perhaps having the thought of finding her again, clearly lifted their spirits. It was insane, but it was perhaps the least insane of all the things they had talked about today. It was insanely hopeful.

“You better not dare to betray us after all of your theater, Euphrates.” Aaliyah said.

“Bah, if she steps out of line after all this, I’ll be the first one in line to kill her.” Tigris said.

Euphrates laughed.

“I feel excited about this partnership. I think we will do fantastic work together.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked around the table and shook hands with Euphrates and Tigris.

They had sealed a deal of absolutely monumental proportions, brought together by fate.

A casual handshake between the material and supernatural worlds.

Murati could hardly fathom where this would lead them all. Those colors eluded her.

Looking down at the little ball, spinning rapidly atop her palm, at her mental command.

Everything felt terribly ominous– but she couldn’t turn her back from it.

Just like when she first understood communism, imperialism, and the war for the heart of the world.

If the world was bigger; then there was more of it to fight for, more of it to liberate.

If there were more enemies; then she would still take them all on as they came.

Her ambition was to set things right. Short of achieving her justice, she knew she would not stop.

“We need to get you a room, then. Maybe move Fernanda and Alex together.” Ulyana said.

“Whatever you decide is fine. Oh, and whenever you’re ready, Captain, we can go over the data from the HELIOS too. First, though, I want to check up on our little empath over here and see how she’s doing.”

Euphrates left the captain’s side for a moment, and given freedom to move, went to Murati’s side.

“Are you asking yourself right now, ‘why me’?” Euphrates said, smiling, patting Murati on the shoulder.

Murati looked up at her, wearily. She saw the colors around Euphrates, calm and unmoving.

She shook her head, smiling a bit herself. “I’m just asking myself what happens now.”


While the Brigand at large put another eerily quiet day in the photic zone behind them, the Captain and Commissar completed their inquiries about the previous run of events, to what was a satisfactory conclusion for the two of them. Both of them agreed to the following immediate terms:

Marina McKennedy’s final G.I.A. rank of Ensign would be respected, and she would hold a position on the Brigand as an intelligence analyst with the rights of any other officer. She agreed to support the Brigand’s endeavors until the formal end of the Brigand’s mission or until they could secure passage for Marina and for Elena Lettiere into the Union. She would work in the conference room next to the bridge, and she would have main screen access from there, to prevent the bridge from becoming too crowded.

Arbitrator I was inducted into the Brigand’s crew as Petty Officer Arabella Oikonomou, a Katarran surname as her appearance could be easily explained that way. As far as the sailors were concerned, she was rescued in Goryk’s Gorge, and anything else about her was classified. She would consult on navigation. While she was also initially meant to work in the conference room with Marina, she demanded to sit down on the floor near Braya Zachikova’s station. This would block one of the four-step staircases up from the gas gunner’s tier below the main bridge floor, but her cheerful insistence wore the officers down.

“I don’t mind it. If a fire breaks out, I’ll throw her in it to open the stairs.” Braya Zachikova said.

“Don’t.” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied.

Zachikova grumbled. “It was a joke.”

“She’s so funny.” Arbitrator I smiled. “Braya! We’ll get to work together every day!”

Euphrates and Tigris were each given the rank of Specialist. Euphrates was placed under Karuniya Maharapratham, formally as a laboratory assistant. Karuniya, who was not privy to the interrogation, stared quizzically at her new charge, instantly recognizing her– but quickly grew fond of the idea of having what she described as a “minion.” She vowed to make Euphrates work hard and earn her keep.

Tigris was subordinated to Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova, who was happy to have her.

“Ah, fantastic! She was a real workhorse during the repairs.”

Tigris puffed herself up with pride. “Good to be back ma’am. What’s there to fix?”

Unbeknownst to Ulyana, the two of them had really hit it off.

They chatted away like old friends about all the menial maintenance work there was to do.

In this way, their new acquaintances would be able to quietly integrate into ship life.

However, as part of the terms, both of them were also asked to reveal their “actual” names.

“We’re not going to use Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday. Tell us your real names.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah clearly still felt somewhat slighted about being lied to by them.

“We’ve gone by our codenames for so long it really doesn’t matter. But sure, for you.”

Euphrates was actually Euphemia Levi, while Tigris was Agni Pradesh.

“Levi? That’s an Eloist surname, isn’t it? Pradesh sounds North Bosporan.” Ulyana asked.

“Pradesh is just the High Bosporan word for ‘region’, I didn’t have parents.” Tigris said.

“Eloim is how they are known now.” Euphrates said. “But that surname is as old as I am, so it is as irrelevant as its origin. Humor me, Captain: does the word ‘jew’ mean anything to you?”

“Fine. I get your point. But I’m putting both these down on the roster, end of story.”

“How old is this lady supposed to be, anyway?” Aaliyah mumbled to herself.

“It’s a new world out there, Captain, Commissar! Free of the contrivances of the old and replete with its own. Let’s agree to focus on the things that matter in this world.” Euphrates winked at them.

Aaliyah and Ulyana shared annoyed looks with each other and agreed not to ask her to elaborate.

Xenia Laskaris, meanwhile, was fired by Euphrates and Tigris, which didn’t surprise her.

Ulyana and Aaliyah promised to let her go in Rhinea with enough supplies to tide her over.

Shrugging, the Katarran mercenary simply went back to reading what looked like old issues of fashion magazines. She talked back while her eyes were peeled on pictures of trends from years past.

“I won’t say no to free food, but don’t worry about me. I wouldn’t have cut it as a merc if I didn’t plan for this type of sitch. It was worth it to take this job to see Illya and Valeriya again, even if I didn’t get paid much. Besides, I get a free ride to Rhinea– I hear there’s a Katarran warlord stuck there on a business trip who’s supposed to be a big deal. Don’t tell anyone I told you– but I’ll get another job soon.”

She winked. Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes at her casual behavior.

Clearly, she wanted to be dropped off at a specific place, then.

With that smart mouth of hers, it was a wonder she ever got any work.

“How do you know Illya and Valeriya, exactly?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s classified. Ask Parvati Nagavanshi– or better yet, don’t.”

Xenia smirked at them. Both Captain and Commissar dropped the subject, for their mental health.

There was one final, unrelated task the two of them had to take on that day.

It was a discussion where there wouldn’t be a committee.

Ulyana and Aaliyah made their way to the brig. Because of the soundproof cells it was always quiet even when there were multiple people being kept captive. However, with almost all the occupants released, the brig felt emptier and more disused than it had been when the two of them last visited. There was one last prisoner whom they had to speak to that day: this one they left for last because it was one to whom they had no connection, and they had to be delicate with her. She had not made deals with them, fought alongside them, or saved them from a major catastrophe. Quite the opposite in fact.

They did not know, for example, how some of the more gung-ho communists among them might react to her presence on the ship. Or even worse– how Khadija al-Shajara might have reacted to her based on their tragic history. It was their duty nonetheless to evaluate whether Sieglinde von Castille was a serious defector, and what her agenda was. There were processes surrounding defectors to the Union, but these were drafted for the border forces to induct refugees, or for surrendering vessels. A single aristocrat who turned in the middle of the battlefield fell largely to the discretion of Captain and Commissar.

Complicating things further was the fact that this escapee was the famous “Red Baron.”

At the door, Ulyana and Aaliyah met with Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian. Since the crises of the past few days, the two amicable security girls had been kitted out for combat on a daily basis, wearing armored suits consisting of neoprene bodystockings with interlocking, flexible Kevlar and ceramic plates over the chest, arms, shoulders, and legs. They had been armed with shotshell shotguns, which they wielded with deadly seriousness, fingers off trigger, held at an angle away from people when idle.

Only Illya and Valeriya were formally trained and licensed for safe handling of AK-pattern assault rifles inside ships, so in a situation where the security team was allowed lethal force, but could not risk damaging ship infrastructure, the junior security girls were given shotguns armed with lethal shot. On a Union ship, it was seen as an extraordinary circumstance for security officers to bear lethal arms. It was not viewed the same as arming marines or sailors to secure a station landing.

But after all, they had been guarding a lot of strange individuals– like an imperial ace pilot.

These measures were not overkill when it came to such an unknown situation.

And especially now that Ulyana and Aaliyah had to worry about psychic powers too.

They were both ultimately glad that they decided to open the armory to these girls.

Even if nothing had happened–yet.

“Stay here, we’ll call out of anything happens.” Ulyana said.

She patted Zhu Lian in the shoulder, and the security girls nodded their acknowledgment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked into the brig, to the first door. They undid the sound-proofing both ways and opened one of the sliding plates on the door, allowing Ulyana to see inside. The Red Baron sat on the bed, her long blond hair flowing down her back. Her pristine uniform coat she had folded and set down as an additional pillow, exposing her skin-tight, long-sleeved under-shirt. She was a very tall woman, fair skinned, blond, with strikingly pretty face. Ulyana thought she had the build of a fencer, tall with lean, strong, long, and flexible limbs, but her features were like an idealized Imbrian princess.

She reminded Ulyana a bit of herself– not entirely by way of self-flattery.

However, Sieglinde von Castille was apparently Ulyana’s senior by two years.

“Baron, apologies for the delay. We would like to speak to you. We are opening the door.”

Sieglinde nodded her head, stood, and remained at the back of the cell.

Fully upright, she really was taller than Ulyana and Aaliyah.

Her countenance was so strikingly fair and regal, even as she avoided their gaze.

“Sieglinde von Castille, correct?” Ulyana asked.

“Correct.”

“During the battle, you retreated toward our side and broadcast that you were defecting.”

“I did.”

Her responses were quick, but more than enough to communicate her mournful tone.

She sounded on the verge of tears. Her voice was coming out of a ragged throat.

“I couldn’t bear serving that ravening beast Lichtenberg any longer. I felt disgusted with her.”

“And you are looking to replace servitude to her with what? Servitude to us?”

Sieglinde looked at Ulyana in the eyes and seemed to realize the trouble she was in.

“I won’t defend that dreadful Inquisitor; if it was up to me alone then I would be happy for you leaving that volatile tinpot tyrant behind and seeking brighter waters.” Ulyana continued, “However, the tricky thing about defectors is that our first and only impression of one is who they have betrayed. For the sake of my crew, I need to know more about your story and about what you are hoping to accomplish. We have a few people aboard who have good reasons to be wary of your presence, Red Baron.”

“Please don’t call me that.” Sieglinde whimpered.

“That is who you are. You are the Red Baron and you can’t avoid that.” Aaliyah said.

Her tone was rather more biting than Ulyana would have wanted in that situation.

Sieglinde’s gaze dropped to the floor.

“It’s– It’s not who I want to be. I swear to you. I would do anything to put it behind me.”

“And put behind you the lives that you took also?” Aaliyah said.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” Ulyana said. “Not unwarranted but– harsh.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and fixed her eyes on Sieglinde.

“All I’m saying, is that she can’t just run away from the title of Red Baron. Sieglinde von Castille fought with the Empire as the Red Baron. She killed our comrades in the revolution, she served Norn and Lichtenberg, fought against us, and endangered our pilots. She has to be held accountable for those things. She can’t run away from that and pretend she can be righteous from today onward by looking the other way. I might be acting harsh, but that’d be a bit too easy for a murderer, don’t you think?”

Sieglinde remained quiet for a moment, avoiding Aaliyah’s gaze.

She raised her hands up to her face. Rubbing her palms over her eyes, digging her nails.

“She’s right.” Sieglinde said. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could be born again today free of this sin, but that will not happen. I want to change– but she’s right. I’m the Red Baron, and I’ll never be able to give back the lives I took. But I want to face justice for what I’ve done. I– I’ve thought about taking my own life.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana both drew their eyes wide open at that statement.

“Absolutely not!” Ulyana said. “That would not serve justice! Nobody here wants that!”

“I do not wish death on you!” Aaliyah added. “Forgive me– I really was being too harsh!”

She really meant it. Ulyana could actually hear the contrition in her voice all of a sudden.

“I– I want to tell you my story then. I’m not actually of noble stock.” Sieglinde said suddenly. She clutched the fabric of her bodysuit over her breast as if to feel her heart through her fist. “Please hear me out. I was an orphan, but I was blond, fair, and blue-eyed, so I was adopted by the Castille family. They were a rich military family with a heroic lineage, but they were recent Peers, and had been stricken by many tragedies and left without young heirs. But because my race could not be confirmed, they knew that the Imbrian aristocrats would be prejudice toward me unless I earned achievements equal to the Castille name.”

“Your parents pressured you to fight in the war. So the aristocracy would accept you.” Ulyana replied.

Sieglinde nodded her head solemnly. Ulyana could hear the bitterness in her voice.

“I was eighteen during the Colonial War. I was a Diver pilot, I became known as the Red Baron, one of the very first Imperial aces. But it wasn’t prestigious. They expected us to die at any time and treated us badly. Every time I sortied, I was terrified. I was killing people out of fear. I was doing everything I could to survive without a point to it all. I couldn’t turn back for fear of being killed by my superiors for cowardice or disowned by my parents for retreating. After the war, they glorified everything to save face.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze. Twenty years ago– she would have been seven years old, just a kitten.

Ulyana had fought in the Revolution herself. She had been sixteen years old back then, even younger than Sieglinde. She understood all too well what it was like; in the moment, there was no killing for righteous reasons, there was only killing. Ideology was ascribed to her battles before and after. In the lead-up to a battle, it was righteous, and after the battle, it was liberatory. In the middle of battle she was killing to survive. It was still very different from Sieglinde’s plight, however. The communists didn’t have a home to return to if they failed. Their meager homes in the colonies were the ones invaded by the Empire.

In her mind that did not diminish Sieglinde’s tragedy, however. Ulyana was sixteen, and this woman had been only eighteen. Both of them had been children, compared to their leadership. Sieglinde had been thrown into war, used as a tool by every authority in her life. She was told that treading upon slaves and peasants was righteous, that it would clad her in honor and make her worthy. And she had to wear that cloak of blood to be legitimate, or her life as she had been raised to know it would end.

“That war taught me that the aristocracy has no ‘nobility’. It was not justice. We were not protecting our families or homes, we were fighting for the greed of the imperial landlords. I hated myself for my participation in it; but I convinced myself there was no changing the path life had given me. I was the Red Baron. Eventually my parents died of illness, the pure blood aristocrats kept me at arm’s length, I fought even more wars that I did not believe in– and I told myself each step of the way that all I could do was conduct myself personally with honor, even as I was surrounded by injustices. I wasted years like this.”

Sieglinde started weeping again. She sank against the back wall of the cell.

One fist held up over her eyes. Her lips quivering with fresh sobs.

“I wasted twenty years. Lamenting, pitying myself, but doing nothing to absolve my sins. I even fought for people like Lichtenberg– I told myself I was doing it to save Elena, but the princess was right to turn away that demon of an Inquisitor. But these past few weeks have been my life in miniature. A servant of evil.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah remained quiet, allowing Sieglinde to continue speaking as she wept.

“I’m so sorry. I know this is pathetic. I know that it is too late. I know I can’t reverse the evil deeds I committed. But even if I’m never forgiven, even if I am always hated– I can’t continue to live in self-delusion, believing my self-justifications while fighting for such depraved agendas! I can’t go back!”

Sieglinde raised her voice and was finally overcome by her tears.

Sobbing too profusely to speak, she slouched her shoulders, covered her face in her hands.

It was difficult to watch this woman so visibly overcome with a lifetime of agony.

She had looked every bit as regal as a princess from a storybook before.

Mixed with a bit of the gallant knight that usually saved such princesses.

Her story showed the ugly reality of such pretty fables. It was now written on her suffering face.

In the Imbrian Empire, princely knights like Sieglinde fought and died for the avarice of callous overlords who would never accept them as equals. Honor and justice were concepts they used exclusively to fool girls like her into protecting the wealth and power of the rich. People only had as much use to them as what they could be used for, and Sieglinde had been used. All of her life, since she was a child, to the current day, made to murder innocent people. Justifying the lies she was told, to live with herself.

For Ulyana, who had been born into the Empire, it was certainly possible she could have ended up the same. If the Imbrian Empire had not purged masses of Volgians like herself, she, and many more people like her and Sieglinde would have been raised to support the Empire, to fight and to die for its values.

Had she not been repressed, Ulyana would have not learned of repression, and rebelled.

The Imbrian Empire had seared into her skin and eyes the will she needed to fight them.

That was the only thing that dictated their opposing sides in the Revolution.

Back then, she wasn’t a communist yet. She was a scared kid fighting for her only home.

Sieglinde wasn’t an imperialist. She was a teenager, in over her head, pressured to fight.

Now despite her privileged position, Sieglinde moved closer to understanding exploitation.

Ulyana did not want to deny her a chance to break free of the Empire’s control.

But it was not so easy. Sieglinde had done their country and people several injustices.

“We will let you recover for a moment, Sieglinde, and then return.” Ulyana said.

She did not want to call her Baron, or Red Baron, or von Castille– not after that story.

Aaliyah nodded her acquiescence and followed Ulyana out of the brig, to the adjacent hall.

Zhu Lian and Klara van Der Smidse entered the brig and stood guard over the cell.

“What do you think?” Ulyana said. “She’s in pieces. I feel really sorry for her right now.”

“We shouldn’t let an Imperial officer’s life’s story sway our decisions.” Aaliyah said.

“Aaliyah, she was just a kid. They raised her like this– and she still turned her back on it.”

“She’s more admirable than other Imperial officers, you’re correct.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I understand your hesitation. It might cause a stink. She’s not a civilian, not G.I.A, not innocent.”

“Everyone saw her come in here on an enemy Diver and get arrested. She’s the Red Baron.”

“Right. But Aaliyah, out there– there’s nothing but Imperials, you know? You said it yourself, before.”

When they were discussing the mission previously, their positions had been reversed. It was Aaliyah who was advocating for working pragmatically with Imperials, even the Volkisch, if it would enable them to diminish Imperial power and support the anti-Imperialist revolution. They did not have the luxury to hold their allies to perfection. Ulyana at the time thought that it was impossible to work with Imperials. She was a communist revolutionary and could not trust them. In the abstract it felt so difficult, such a bitter pill to swallow, to shake hands with an enemy. Now, Aaliyah was confronted by a ghost of the old war, and she was hesitant to accept such cooperation, while Ulyana finally put a face on those nebulous dissenters she was supposed to help nurture, and she felt an emotional connection to their plight.

“I know, Captain. But I wager very few Imperial dissidents actually fought in the Revolution.” She said.

“You don’t know that. We can’t be that picky either. Let’s think of it pragmatically: what matters now, is that she wants to work with us. She wants to take concrete steps to fight against the Empire. She feels duped, she has no path forward, she insinuated suicide— we should welcome her aboard, Aaliyah.”

“She could just be acting.” Aaliyah replied. Her argument sounded feebler than before.

Ulyana smiled at her. She held back the urge to laugh at her pouting Commissar.

“We’ve seen better actors, haven’t we? We’ve been lied to a lot lately.” Ulyana said.

“I can’t disagree with your logic Captain. But I also can’t deny my own anxieties here.”

Aaliyah’s orange eyes met Ulyana’s green eyes. She was ashamed, indecisive, struggling.

Commissars were a visible symbol of communist orthodoxy. They were supposed to be “the best of us.” Learned in theory, law, and philosophy, good at speaking, good with people. With their every step and their every breath, wherever they went, the spirit of Mordecai was supposed to follow them. Aaliyah was a bit of a party girl, and her relationship to her religion was probably a complicated factor in her upholding the secular mores of the Union’s Mordecism. Therefore– could she really work with an imperial soldier?

But above everything– she was a good person. With a kind heart and a clear head.

She wanted to be kind to Sieglinde von Castille. She just forced herself to be harsh.

Commissars locked up imperialists. Imperial soldiers were symbols of reaction, counterrevolution.

But Aaliyah was not just a Commissar. Ulyana understood what she needed to do.

“You don’t have to be responsible for her. I will clean up the broken plates, don’t worry.” Ulyana said.

“Captain– But– I–” She looked surprised at that declaration. She stumbled over her words.

“That’s why there’s two of us, right? Each of us can handle what the other one cannot.”

Aaliyah’s serious face ceded to a very small smile. “Well. I can’t exactly disagree with that.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her. You can hold me accountable for my bad judgment if she betrays us.”

Ulyana reached out a hand as if to shake in order to strike a deal with the Commissar.

“If anything happens you can pass judgment and you can decide the issue. But please– trust me.”

In response, Aaliyah suddenly reached out with both of her hands and squeezed Ulyana’s hand.

The Commissar smiled brightly at her. Her cat-like ears folded ever so slightly, her tail quivering gently.

Her voice was so placid. For a moment, Ulyana was taken aback by Aaliyah.

“Of course I trust you. Ulyana, you are better Captain– and person– than I ever gave you credit for.”

Her fingers squeezed Ulyana’s hand gently before retreating slowly back to her sides.

She was overcome with emotion. Allowing it to wash over her soft face.

Absolutely beautiful. It was impossible to turn her eyes away. Ulyana was stricken utterly.

“I will support your decision. You are right– I was being overly emotional.” She said.

Her tone of voice shifted, she was trying to sound less elated than she was before.

Perhaps she realized how absolutely cute she looked before. Ulyana could’ve kissed her.

But she would not– not right now. She was happy enough to have seen Aaliyah relax.

“Thank you. Commissar, let’s talk to Sieglinde again, and come up with a plan.”

“You take the lead then, Captain. I will be at your side as always.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah returned to the brig with renewed energy. Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse must have been wondering why they were returning to the brig with such big smiles on their faces given everything that was going on. With the officers coming in, the security girls moved to stand by the door again. The Captain and Commissar reentered Sieglinde’s cell, where she was seated back on her head. Her eyes and cheeks were very red from the violent fit of crying that had wrung through her.

She looked up at the two of them, silently pleading. Ulyana spoke first.

“Sieglinde, we apologize for the treatment so far. We want to welcome you aboard.”

Aaliyah quickly added context.

“There are conditions. We will be monitoring you, and you will work to earn our trust.”

Ulyana clapped her hands together with satisfaction. Another situation resolved!

“You will be formally debriefed at a later date. We’ll move some folks to give you a room.”

Sieglinde stared up at the two of them from the bed, initially speechless.

For a moment, there was silence between the cheerful officers and the awestruck captive.

Then Sieglinde’s eyes filled with tears again.

She threw herself to the floor and bowed, putting her head right to the ground.

It was stunning– at that moment, she was no longer an Imperial noble.

“Thank you. I am overcome by your mercy. I swear I will right my wrongs. I am oathbound to it.”

When Ulyana and Aaliyah were about to tell her to get up, Sieglinde lifted her head again.

Her tear-stained red eyes pleaded.

From the floor, her voice trembled. “I– I apologize but– I also have a request. To meet with someone.”


It happened that evening in the cafeteria.

Because it was time for the sailors to change shifts, there was a decent size crowd in the cafeteria. Nothing like the rush hours that sometimes overwhelmed the poor Chef Minardo, but at least two dozen people, enough to occupy a sizeable percentage of the cafeteria seats. These folks were eating, and making merry, happy that the ship seemed to be faring surprisingly well in the photic zone.

At the Captain’s suggestion, Minardo released some of the ship’s liquor to diners that night.

As such, Khadija al-Shajara found herself sitting on the edge of the cafeteria, turning over in her hands a small square can of corn wine. Shimii religious scholars had lively debates over the legitimacy of liquor-drinking. For hardliners, all alcoholic drinks were haram. However, there also were those more liberal mufti who believed that the prohibitions extended only to grape wine, not grain liquor. Grape wine was an indulgence of the devil, delicate and sensual, that tempted people to sin. Corn wine was just booze.

Khadija, a lively woman who enjoyed a good party, naturally sided with that camp, and popped the top of her can. She took a sip. It was sweet– possibly sweetened to hide the blandness of mass production.

However, it had a nice boozy bite to it, and it would certainly fuck her up.

And getting fucked up was all she wanted in that moment, inshallah.

“Um. Excuse me.”

That voice within the din of the crowd was not as familiar as it should have been.

Before she could chug the contents of the can and try to finagle any more out of Minardo, however, someone had appeared at the side of her table. Khadija looked up, but from her seat, it was tough for her gaze to make it up any higher than a sizable pair of breasts in a button-down synthetic shirt, without staring directly up at the LED banks on the ceiling. Trying to be polite, she stood up from her table, still holding her drink in her hands, and found herself closer to the face of her sudden guest.

Fair-skinned, long blond hair, bright eyes, a striking countenance. Tall, taller than her certainly.

Teal half-jacket, button-down white shirt, black pants, red tie. The Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Khadija’s teeth spontaneously grit together. Her hand squeezed the can she was holding.

She was standing in front of– that shameless bitch

Sieglinde von Castille. Lower lip quivering, shoulders unsteady, face flushed light red.

“Khadija al-Shajara, Lion of Cascabel– I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’ll– I’ll do anything–”

She started to lower her head to bow–

In the next instant, Khadija’s hand cracked across the air like a whip.

Slapping Sieglinde across the face with such force it nearly knocked her over.

Leaving a red impression of her fingers on the woman’s pink-white cheek.

Without saying a word, Khadija stormed off, her own cheeks almost as red as Sieglinde’s had been left after the attack. Sieglinde watched her go with a dumbfounded expression, while everyone in the cafeteria and in the halls, literally everyone, stared directly at the two of them, held in suspense.

Standing opposite the cafeteria, Ulyana and Aaliyah covered their faces with their hands.


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