Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.
It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.
She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.
What are you looking for?
Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.
His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.
He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.
They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.
“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”
Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.
“Are you looking for the Apostles?”
“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.
“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”
“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”
“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”
His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.
He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.
So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.
“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”
“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”
Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.
In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.
King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.
A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.
He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.
“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”
Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.
He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.
“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”
Her words came with a secret mourning.
She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.
When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.
To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.
Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.
She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.
Now she had to escape from him.
As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.
Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.
He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.
His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.
“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”
Maryam closed her fist.
“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”
He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.
Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.
A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.
This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.
She was born the Apostle of Air.
And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.
From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.
Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.
“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”
She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.
Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.
Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–
–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.
She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.
Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.
They had only met a few days ago!
She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!
And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!
She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.
All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.
That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.
Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.
“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.
For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.
Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.
Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.
She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?
In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.
Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.
Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.
Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.
Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.
Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.
None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.
Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.
So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.
She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.
Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.
Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.
Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.
After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”
Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.
She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.
“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”
Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.
“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”
“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”
Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.
Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.
Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.
Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–
–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!
In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.
“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”
Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?
Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.
Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.
“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?
“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”
“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”
“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.
“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”
“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.
Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–
–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.
I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.
“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”
Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.
Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.
Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.
“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.
Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.
Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.
Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.
She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.
“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”
“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”
“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”
“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”
Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.
It was something Shalikova had never felt before.
A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.
It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.
Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.
They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.
And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.
Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.
One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.
Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.
“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”
Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.
“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”
Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.
Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.
But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.
“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”
Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.
“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”
Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.
Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.
Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.
On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.
Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.
While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.
She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.
Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.
Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.
After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!
And oh, did the characters save it.
As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.
Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.
Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.
And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.
As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–
“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”
Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!
“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”
She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.
Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.
“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”
Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.
Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.
“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”
Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.
Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.
“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”
“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”
“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”
In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.
“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.
Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–
“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”
Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”
“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”
“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”
Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.
There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.
“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.
Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–
–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.
–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!
“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.
“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.
“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.
Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.
“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”
“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.
“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”
She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.
But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.
Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.
There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!
However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.
After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.
“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”
Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.
Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.
“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.
Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.
“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.
She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.
Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!
Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.
Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.
Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.
In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.
When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.
Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.
So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.
Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.
But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.
She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.
But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.
Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.
Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.
It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.
Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.
For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.
But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.
So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.
When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.
“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”
She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.
Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.
“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”
“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”
Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.
Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.
Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.
Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”
Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”
“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”
“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”
Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.
And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.
“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”
“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”
Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.
“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”
“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”
Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.
She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.
For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.
Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.
“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”
Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.
That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.
Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?
And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?
Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!
“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”
Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.
Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.
Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–
“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”
Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.
She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.
With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.
“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”
For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.
“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”
Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.
Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.
After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.
“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.
Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”
“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”
Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.
“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”
On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.
Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.
It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.
With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.
“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.
Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.
“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”
Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.
She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.
“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”
“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”
Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.
“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”
Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.
Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.
Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.
Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.
“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”
Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.
“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”
“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.
“I suppose you’re right.”
In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.
“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.
“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.
“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.
“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”
“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.
Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”
Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”
“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.
No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.
“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.
Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.
Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.
Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.
Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.
“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”
Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”
She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.
Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.
Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.
When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.
“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.
“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”
“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”
Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.
“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”
“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.
“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”
That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.
Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”
“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”
“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”
“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”
“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”
“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”
“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”
“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”
“Whatever. I’m over it.”
In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.
They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.
Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.
They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.
She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.
Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.
This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.
That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.
It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.
Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.
And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.
Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.
In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.
At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.
But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.
Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.
So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.
She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.
There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.
“My little Braya~”
Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.
“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.
“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”
Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.
“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”
Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.
“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”
“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”
Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.
Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.
There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.
She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.
Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–
“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”
Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.
She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.
There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.
“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.
“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”
“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”
“Do you trust me? Do you really?”
“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”
“That’ll do then, I suppose.”
Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.
“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”
“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”
She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.
“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”
“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”
“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”
Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.
On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.
“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”
“Then explain it already!”
Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.
“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”
She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.
Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.
“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–”
For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.
Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–
“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”
Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.
She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.
Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.
“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”
“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”
“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”
Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.
“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”
“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”
Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.
It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.
“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.
“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”
She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–
In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.
Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–
–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.
Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.
Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–
–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,
clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,
teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,
joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,
–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.
Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.
When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–
A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–
Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–
And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.
Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.
Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.
Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.
“To surviving hell!”
“To beating the odds!”
Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.
“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.
“You only live once. Hit me.”
Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.
Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.
They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.
Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.
Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.
Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.
Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.
On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.
It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.
Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.
Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.
They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.
It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.
And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.
They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.
Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.
“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”
“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”
“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”
Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.
“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”
“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”
They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.
Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.
Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.
Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.
That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.
“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.
“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.
She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”
“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.
“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.
For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.
Glasses tapped together, they drank.
Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”
To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.
And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.
“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.
“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”
Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.
“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”
“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”
“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”
Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.
“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.
Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”
Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–
Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.
Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.
A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.
Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.
Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.
“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.
“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”
“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”
Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.
“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.
Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.
“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”
“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”
Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.
Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”
She was smiling– nervously.
For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.
“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.
“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.
“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”
Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.
She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.
Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.
She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.
“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”
“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”
Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”
She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.
Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.
Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.
“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”
Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.
“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”
Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.
She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.
Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.
“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”
Marina forced a little smile at her.
“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”
Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.
“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”
Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.
“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”
“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”
She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.
“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.
“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.
Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.
“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.
“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.
Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.
A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.
Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.
“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”
“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”
“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”
“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”
Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.
Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.
If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.
“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”
Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.
“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.
“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”
“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”
Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”
“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.
“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”
“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”
“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.
Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.
Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.
Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.
It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.
“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”
“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”
After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.
The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.
There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.
Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.
Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.
A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.
“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.
“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”
“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”
“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.
“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.
Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.
Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.
In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–
Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.
Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.
“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”
“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”
“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”
In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.
Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.
In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–
From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–
Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.
But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.
While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.
“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”
Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–
“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”
–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.
Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.
Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.
And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.
She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.
In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.
In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.
Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.
Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.
Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.
He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.
What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.
There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.
One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.
He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.
But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.
“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”
Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.
“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.
“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”
“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”
Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.
He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.
Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.
But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.
And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.
“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”
“No. Of course not. Never.”
They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.
Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.
With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.
“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”
Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.
Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.
Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.
“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”
His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.
“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”
On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.
Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.
She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.
Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.
“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”
Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.
It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.
By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.
“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.
On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.
“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”
Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.
“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.
“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”
“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”
Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.
“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”
“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”
“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”
Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.
In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.
A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.
“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”
There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.
“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”
As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–
Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.
“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”
Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?
His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.
Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–
But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.
One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.
There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.
Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.
Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?
“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”
Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.
Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?
He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.
Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.
“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”
His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.
EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.
An entity called “The Aer Federation.”
“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”
There was nothing Carthus could say to that.
He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.
So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.
“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”
Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.
And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.
All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.
With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.
Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.
He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.
“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”
Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.
“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”
Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–
Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.
“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”
On a corner of the screen, something appeared–
–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?
Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.
“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”
She cut off communications at that point.
Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.
Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.
At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.
What would that history even look like from now?