Surviving An Evil Time [10.2]

Madame Arabie casually reached for Homa’s face, taking a lock of her dark hair, and rubbing it between her fingers, feeling the texture. She looked pleased with herself, touching Homa’s hair, rubbing her cheek, as if she had been tending a garden and found bushes flowering. Her proximity and the liberties she took with Homa made the elevator ride extremely uncomfortable. But she did not feel like she could protest.

“Lovely, lovely. You’ve been taking care of yourself.” She said.

“Yes, ma’am. Skin and hair care, like you taught me.” Homa said.

When she could afford to do so, anyway. Shampoo and moisturizer was extra in the shower fees.

“Good. It’s beautiful. You do make a pretty girl, Homa. This is your mother’s hair, right?”

No. That was wrong.

“Yes. That’s right.”

It was her father’s hair color and texture.

Her father was an Imbrian; her mother was Shimii. But Madame Arabie didn’t really care.

And Homa did not want to spoil her seemingly good mood.

Looking on the bright side, she was being taken to Madame Arabie’s club and restaurant.

The Flowing Scarlet, the headquarters of Arabie’s gang and nexus of control over Tower Eight, was a grand building impossible to miss. Its home in tier four was an “open” type layer of the tower, where rather than having a high-ceiling corridor with spaces set into its walls, there was a free, cubical space with discrete buildings inside it and streets which ran through them. This allowed the Scarlet, a two-winged, three-story structure that looked like an entire hotel, to stand on its own over the smaller shops and houses surrounding it. Everything around the Scarlet looked fairly ordinary but the main thoroughfare from the elevator leading to the Scarlet was well lit and amply beautified, like a carpet into the venue.

Once upon a time, this tier had been a warehousing district, with crates stacked high. When the tower was converted from an industrial hub to a segregated habitat for the Shimii, this particularly spacious tier started to be built up by Shimii that had connections to powerful Imbrians in Eisental and beyond.

Homa had heard that this was before Arabie’s time, but that she came in like thunder afterwards, sweeping everything up and quickly climbing the Shimii underworld. She could believe it easily.

Now, this place was her temple, the symbol of her wealth and the pleasures it bought.

Homa had been to the Scarlet before, and she knew the interior well. From the front door was a dazzling lobby branching right and left. On the left wing of the building on the ground floor there was an upscale bar space, while the right wing contained the main attraction: a restaurant space with a theater and a runway that bifurcated the floorspace, surrounded by tables. Dancing girls in revealing, “exotic” clothing performed for the crowd, singing, dancing, putting on short, sexy skits, flashing skin at the men below.

Even Imbrians came into Tower Eight exclusively on the promise of a night of adventure at the Flowing Scarlet. This mystique surrounding the venue helped Madame Arabie to rake in a lot of cash.

Between her qualities as a hostess and all the heroin she traded in, the Madame had made a lot of friends.

On the higher floors of the Scarlet, Madame Arabie herself made her residence, and her close business associates came and went. Behind those beautiful, marbled halls, were nestled the spoils of bribery, extortion, and drug trafficking. Sometimes, even committed by boys and girls Madame Arabie “hosted” as a “benefactor” to lost and orphaned Shimii. This was all part of her power– and it was all tacitly supported by the Imbrians, for whom Tower Eight was a lucrative attraction as well as a ghetto.

Here, the lowlife Shimii unworthy of Imbrian grace could do everything illegal the Imbrians couldn’t.

They provided pleasures that became desirable because they were forbidden and distant.

It was for that reason, and almost that reason alone, that Tower Eight was how it was.

Homa was keenly aware of all of this, of its deepest depths. She had seen it all.

With all that said– the food was delicious. Madame Arabie had priority on goods after all.

Flowing Scarlet was the liveliest place here. Homa could at least enjoy the luxury.

Goods, talent, people’s bodies; Madame Arabie had her pick of all the best from the station’s Shimii.

They were all hers to use, whether they believed it or not.

Better to be used than discarded. Better to have a little pleasure than suffer frugally.

“If it weren’t for the girls being so sensitive, Homa, you would live with me.”

It was a promise she had heard a few times before.

Like everything else Madame Arabie said, it didn’t mean anything until she actually did it.

As soon as they stepped off the elevator, Madame Arabie removed a sash around her waist.

She wore it as a drape over her head instead, like Hijab, to conceal herself on the street.

“You’re not going through the front dressed like that. Come with me.”

Madame Arabie took Homa up the street in front of the Flowing Scarlet and then turned a sharp corner around it, taking her into an alleyway abutting a warehouse that was likely owned by the venue and its Madame as well. She swiped a keycard to open a side-door into the warehouse.

Homa’s assumption proved correct.

Inside, she found herself in a room dominated by long lines of racks from which hung dozens, maybe hundreds of costumes and uniforms for the waitstaff and the dancing girls. There were risqué strapless cut off tops with golden tassels hanging from the underwire, the cups designed to push up the girl’s breasts. There were long skirts with broad slits across the sides to bare the girl’s legs for the customer’s delight. Cut off translucent sleeves and veils added a touch of tantalizing sheer black to the costumes, which came in many colors, but all of which were glittery and filigreed in gold and silver seams.

Stereotypical “harem girl” style costumes– people went wild for these.

It was the complete opposite of what Shimii women were supposed to be like, but no one really cared.

Homa had to admit she would have gone wild for a girl wearing this too.

But about wearing it herself– she wasn’t too sure. She felt a hint of excitement, but it felt weird too.

Homa’s breasts and hips had grown quite a bit– but she probably still couldn’t pull it off.

Still– it was adventurous to think about– girl’s clothes fascinated her–

“Don’t worry, I am aware you don’t like this kind of thing, and besides, it’d only alarm people if I was seen walking around with a dancing girl, it’d be like preferential treatment. Those girls can get quite catty, you know? No, you’ll be wearing one of these instead. It’ll suit you better and draw less attention.”

She withdrew from the racks a button-down shirt, a waistcoat, and a pair of pants.

While it was much less embarrassing to wear, there was a part of Homa that was a little bit disappointed– being able to try on the dancing girls’ costumes harmlessly, without becoming Madame Arabie’s restaurant minion, might have been fun. Still, maybe the waitstaff uniform did fit her better.

Madame Arabie put Homa’s work clothes in a bag and watched her get dressed up as a waiter.

“Put this on too– you’ll be my gentlemanly guest, rather than seen as a waiter.”

Saying this, Madame Arabie handed Homa a blazer to go over the shirt and waistcoat.

“Do I get a monocle too?” Homa joked.

There was a little instant of fear– had she gotten too casual?

But Madame Arabie just giggled at her.

“Don’t get cocky. Usually it’s only people of refinement who get a date with me.”

She poked a shocked Homa in the chest.

“Be grateful and come on. You can get your stuff back from here on your way home.”

With a coquettish expression, she glided out of the warehouse.

Homa donned the blazer and followed her with utter bewilderment.

Inside, the Flowing Scarlet was as opulent as Homa remembered it.

Shiny white floors decorated with geometric, floral patterns, and the banners of the walls with Shimii heraldry, moons and stars and images of mosque architectures– these were the most authentically “Shimii” design elements of this fantasy venue. Golden chandeliers and fake wood desks and cabinets and tables, the torch-lit sensuous atmosphere of the restaurant, the dancing girls putting on their tantalizing show, all the rest of it, catered exclusively to the Imbrian imagination. Not that there weren’t plenty of Shimii enjoying it as well. Those who couldn’t afford the restaurant could go to the bar and get a glimpse of the girls every so often from afar. It was like paying for a drink and a sandwich just to get to watch a distant advertisement for the rest of Madame Arabie’s offerings. Homa couldn’t understand it.

Both halves of the venue were extremely popular, however.

Maybe because there just wasn’t anything else as lively as beautiful as this.

No other clubs, even those owned by Madame Arabie, had this atmosphere.

That mixture of high class with exotic, unabashed sexuality, existed nowhere else.

And on that night, the proprietress herself walked through the front.

As soon as they entered through the door she pulled off the covering from her face.

Madame Arabie began to embody the “madame” once more.

Swinging her hips, smoking her vaporizer pipe, walking with an entirely different cadence.

Keeping up behind her, Homa felt more like a butler than her “date.”

All eyes were on the Madame, every visitor in the lobby and everyone who could see from the bar or the restaurant out to the lobby, they were all following after her tail with their eyes, and she never once deigned to return their attention. She walked as if none of the world existed but each tile she stepped on, as if with the confidence that wherever she trod there would be a step for her.

Of course, nobody dared approach. Madame Arabie touched you if she desired you.

Raising hands to her yourself was tantamount to death. She was nobody’s plaything.

And Homa knew very well– it was not just her goons who could kill you.

If it was just that, anyone who could be Madame Arabie.

Madame Arabie gave her no instructions. Homa just followed behind her.

They got on an elevator together. She blew a puff of fig-smelling vapor in Homa’s face.

“See? You play the part excellently. That’s why I like you so much.”

What part? Boy-toy? Homa liked this situation less and less by the minute.

“Ma’am, I–”

“I’m only teasing you. If you want to me to stop, then stop reacting to it.”

“No, it’s just–”

“Shush. We’ll talk business soon. Just enjoy– not everyone gets this treatment.”

She pinched Homa’s cheek, then the elevator opened.

Homa followed her out onto the floor of what was clearly the private residence. From a small hallway they entered a luxurious living room, by itself two or three times the size of Homa’s room. A false wooden floor painted a rich brown and a pearl-white roof seemed to suggest earth and heaven, and impressionist paintings incorporating fluid geometries interwoven with Fusha calligraphy adorned the walls.

There was a trio of white couches arranged into a square on a raised island, sat around a tea table in the center of the living room, and the space branched from there into a dining area separated off by a long metal island with an overhead air circulator, and a hall likely leading to the bed and bathrooms.  

Though she couldn’t help but be bewildered by the opulence of the upper crust, there was one incongruous element in the living room that quickly caught her eyes– and Madame Arabie’s.

As soon as they walked in, there were people already in room, waiting for them.

Homa glanced at Madame Arabie.

She was grinning, but twining her own hair on one finger– fidgeting. She was agitated.

“My, my. Who let you two in?”

Ana asef. I didn’t have a reservation, so I let myself in.”

There were two seated on the bigger couch, both Shimii women judging by their figures and features.

The one speaking had her arm wrapped around the other, who in turn had her eyes closed and was gesturing apologetically with her hands. That dominant woman was taller and slender, with silver hair down to the shoulder, slightly wavy and with an unevenly cut ends. One of her ears looked like any Shimii ear, sharp with trimmed grey fur in a masculine style; the other ear however was grey and hairless and bent in an interesting angle. Her tail, too, was hairless and gray, and it forked slightly at the end. She was dressed in a gaudy, flowery shirt, and brown pants. Homa had no memory of this woman at all.

Her companion had on a sundress and hat, and was nearly a head smaller, with long brown hair. Her own ears and tail looked completely standard for a Shimii, if a bit unkempt, the fur on them slightly frizzy.

Homa realized quickly that Madame Arabie recognized these two.

“Hmph.”

Madame Arabie switched off her vaporizer and left it on an end table near the door.

“Should I introduce you, or would you prefer to do it yourself?”

“To the kid? Go ahead. But I’m going by Madiha al-Nakar right now. So use that name.”

Madame Arabie turned to Homa and gestured vaguely at the couch.

“Fine then. Homa, this is ‘Madiha,’ a Katarran mercenary playing a Mahdist Shimii activist.”

With a cruel grin on her face, she pointed out the grey-brown skinned, silver haired woman with the odd ear as if introducing an actor to a play. Upon closer inspection Homa thought she could tell– it wasn’t just the ear, but the tail, too, it was so cartilaginous and hairless. Homa had never been aware that there could even be Katarran Shimii– she barely knew anything about Katarrans generally except that they were usually violent criminals and “mercenaries,“ and they were “made in vats full of fish ovaries.“

Madiha glared at Madame Arabie with simmering displeasure.

“Pfeh. You’re lucky you’re too useful to be angry about.”

Madiha’s companion patted her lap with a hand as if to comfort her.

Madame Arabie ran a hand through her hair, thinking. Staring at Madiha’s companion.

“And the girl– I believe that’s– oh, that’s Al-Shahouh, isn’t it? You’ve grown up. How is your mother?”

“She’s fine.” The girl muttered a reply almost on instinct, then realized she did wrong.

“Call her Parinita!” Madiha shouted. “Like I said, we’re here on specific business.”

Madame Arabie sighed. “Fine. I have a date, so let’s get done quickly so you can leave.”

Again with the word ‘date’– Homa wanted to sink through to the ocean floor.

“Happy to. I’d be glad to never hear your harpy voice again, inshallah.”

Madiha stood up from the couch.

She raised her hand, and in an instant, something appeared in it, which she was suddenly holding in her fingers. It happened between a blink of Homa’s eyes, like a magic trick, and drew a sharp reaction.

Madame Arabie took a step back in response and raised a hand in front of Homa suddenly, as if protecting her from something. Homa could not understand the situation at all, but she thought Madiha’s eyes had briefly glinted red, and she had stopped approaching. There was a bar in her hands–

–a bar of metal? A sleek, shiny metal?

“Your sorcery doesn’t work on me, Katarran!” Madame Arabie hissed.

“Relax. I’m well aware and I’m not doing anything to you. Here.” Madiha grinned, bearing sharp fangs.

She stretched out her hand. What she had in it– was a bar of gold.

Or at least, it looked like pure gold, shimmering slightly orange-yellow. It was stamped.

There was a moon and a star embossed across the top of the bar, along with numerical codes.

Madame Arabie’s posture instantly softened. Her eyes drew wide at the sight of the bar.

“Mehmedist Gold? Mashallah.” She said, in awe of it.

Mashallah, indeed.” Madiha said. “This bar weighs 12 kilograms of pure gold. Not the ferrostitched bullshit they put in machines. Real, valuable gold, a king’s ransom right in my hand, from a king of our people himself. I want you to take this, and in turn, give me two million of those despicable Imbrian marks from your little gang’s war chest. I have some shopping to do and gold would raise too many eyebrows. You must be well aware of what a tidy sum that leaves you with. Aren’t I generous?”

“There must be a catch.” Madame Arabie said. Glancing between the gold and Madiha.

“Of course there isn’t, Leija–”

Leija?

“Don’t call me that, Khaybari.”

Madame Arabie’s hands closed into fists. Madiha shrugged her shoulders.

“Look, I also need papers to come and go, and that’s your deal, isn’t it ‘Arabie’? And I might need a few favors while I’m here. Favors worth a couple million marks. It’s still a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”

Madame Arabie grit her teeth and narrowed her eyes.

“Two-faced Mahdist, it’s always like this with you.”

Madiha locked eyes with equal displeasure. “Look who’s talking, you Rashidist viper.”

Parinita ran from the couch and shouted, putting herself between Arabie and Madiha.

“Can we cut it with the name-calling? Please? Let’s behave like adults.” She pleaded.

Madiha looked at Parinita and sighed deeply. Her aggression subsided quickly.

Madame Arabie was far less moved but did not press any further.

Parinita relaxed and clung to Madiha’s side as if to contain her.

“I’ll be needing a lackey sometimes while I’m at Kreuzung. Why not that kid? I can pay.”

Madiha spoke up again after a few moments of silence, her tone moderated.

Homa didn’t know what she was getting into, but the word ‘pay’ was tantalizing.

However, she couldn’t speak in this situation. Not unless Madame Arabie decreed.

That thickening tension between the two of them– someone like Homa could do nothing.

In this atmosphere, she was like a chained convict.

Madame Arabie crossed her arms. “Hmph! Homa, I have some errands for you too. And I expect them to take precedence– but whatever you do with this woman, I don’t care about it, nor will I stop you. But if you take her money, I won’t be able to protect you if she retaliates against you. Be smart about it.”

She said all of this without even once looking at Homa. Madiha laughed about it.

“Look closely, ‘Homa’, at how this woman is. Anyway, whatever. Do it or not.”

Homa would definitely be after this woman’s money as soon as she could– if she could.

But in front of Madame Arabie, she would put on a façade of nonchalance about it.

Finally Madiha reached out with the gold bar again. Madame Arabie scoffed at her.

“Put it down on the table, Katarran.” She hissed.

“Whatever you say, Leija.” Madiha replied. She flicked her wrist with the bar in hand.

Madame Arabie grit her teeth at the taunt again but did not respond.

Homa hadn’t even considered– 12 kg, just casually held in one hand like it was nothing.

At least dumbbells had a grip between the weights. That was a solid bar of gold.

Was that the legendary strength attributed to Katarrans?

Madiha flicked her wrist once more and the gold bar disappeared from her hands.

Suddenly, it was on the table, without even making a sound. Again– like a magic trick.

“You fancy your wicked powers of illusion, I see.” Madame Arabie said.

“I do. Now the gold’s yours. Where do I get my money?” Madiha pressed.

From the sleeve of her dress, the Madame produced a strip of what looked like red plastic.

In the light, it shimmered with lines like a circuit board.

“Take this out of the restaurant, and across the street, to the warehouse front office. You’ll get your money from the bookie there. Don’t cause any fuss. Just have them scan this and tell them the exact amount of money you need, not a cent more. And you better not use your magic tricks to take back the gold after you collect your payment. The entire station will be after your head if you try to cheat me, understood?”

Madame Arabie extended her arm to its full length, offering Madiha the card at a distance.

Madiha’s eyes shone red again, for just a moment. Had Homa imagined it?

Then she laughed again.

“I see– so if you’re holding it, your aura is on it– because you’re resisting– interesting.”

“What are you mumbling about?”

“Nothing~” Madiha put on a mischievous little song-like voice. “Pleasure doing business~”

She snatched the little card from Madame Arabie’s fingers.

With Parinita in tow, they left the room to the same elevator as Homa and the Madame.

For a moment, Madame Arabie just stood there and quietly seethed.

Staring daggers at the gold bar. Then, her shoulders visibly relaxed. She breathed in.

“Money’s money. This will be more valuable even if the Imbrian mark inflates. Idiot majus.”

“Is everything okay, ma’am?”

For a moment after the words left Homa’s lips, she saw the briefest glimpse of the rabidly furious eyes that Madame Arabie had been giving the gold bar but turned upon her instead. Enough time in that glare for her heart to seize in her chest like a heart attack, for her soul to try flying out of her body in terror– but it was only an instant in real time. Madame Arabie softened considerably quickly– her eyes cast down at the floor, just as briefly taking on a sadness and age that Homa rarely saw in her face.

She then smiled again. She put a hand on Homa’s hair and shook it.

“Of course I will be fine. I’m the boss around here. Think about yourself instead.”

Homa could tell she was still troubled, but she was back to putting on an act.

She felt strangely compelled to sympathize– she had to very specifically pull herself out of that thinking.

“I won’t let her ruin our date. Come on, Homa.”

I wish she would stop saying that. I don’t want to think about being on a ‘date’ with her.

She and Madame Arabie had a weird relationship– but it was not that degree of weird.

Right? It wasn’t– it couldn’t be allowed to get that way!

“Sit.”

Past the living room they entered a comparatively intimate dining room, with a glasstop table that sat four at most on artsy glass chairs arrayed in a cross. Overhead hung a lamp with adjustable lighting for mood. There was a button on the table and Madame Arabie pressed it as soon as she and Homa were seated across from one another. While the button was held down, the glasstop exposed itself as a touchscreen LCD in the guise of a tabletop. Madame Arabie ordered dinner via digital menu.

“You don’t have any allergies right? You can eat anything?”

“I can eat anything ma’am.” Homa replied obediently.

“Fantastic.”

While they waited, Madame Arabie laid her hand hovering just over the table.

Homa reached her own hand out, and Madame Arabie held it, stroking the knuckles.

“How have things been, Homa? Have you gotten to pilot a Diver often?” She asked.

“Whenever Bertrand needs it. His other pilot is an old guy.” Homa said.

“Do you like the job?”

“I do ma’am. I like being around the machines. And going out in the water is exciting.”

It was impossible to say, ‘I wish the job you got me paid more’. But she wasn’t lying either.

Her job was the tiniest bit of freedom she had, so she enjoyed it.

Madame Arabie smiled, her eyes narrowing a little, keen, and bright.

“You are allowed to tell me when you are hurting, Homa. And to come to me for help.”

Homa nodded. “I didn’t want to bother you ma’am.” She wasn’t lying about that either.

“Nonsense. You can rely on me, Homa.”

But she didn’t want to.

She didn’t want to crawl back to Madame Arabie and be further in her debt.

Homa needed her own power, her independence, to escape from this rotten place–

“You’ve helped me a lot, you know? I wasn’t aware of the difficulties you were facing– but I heard that it was lean times for some of the private docks. So I wanted to compensate you, bring you back in, give you a little job. Show you that I’m still on your side and make up for any negligence.”

Madame Arabie’s slender fingers pressed down on Homa’s hand, tracing to her wrist.

That touch sent a quiver into Homa. She had to calm down.

If the Madame wanted to hurt her, she would have. She had nothing to hide from her.

For some reason– Madame Arabie needed her. So she just had to play along.

“I’m grateful ma’am.” Homa said, smiling politely. “It’s been kinda fun already.”

“Not the kind of fun I wanted, with that damned Katarran interrupting. But, anyway.”

She leaned a little on top of the table, coming closer to Homa, eyes fixed on her–

Homa trying desperately to keep her eyes up and off her breasts as they rested on glass–

Her whispering voice like a warm breeze. “Now we can continue our little date.”

She winked at Homa and drew back, laughing a little to herself.

“My, my! You’re so red, Homa! Look at you! Such a cute little thing; you can’t handle a woman at all still, can you? I’m telling you, if you keep being so fun to tease, I won’t be able to control myself.”

Homa averted her gaze and grumbled silently.

Then, finally, their food arrived, sparing Homa from more teasing.

One of the waitstaff from the restaurant below came up with a cart and deposited their plates gently on the table. Madame Arabie had ordered two plates of pulao, rice with nuts, peppers and figs layered through it, and topped with hefty slices of glossy red chicken breasts. Chicken breast had never been Homa’s favorite, but the cooks at the Flowing Scarlet never missed (or Madame Arabie would let them know it). For a chicken breast it was richly juicy, pull-apart tender, and the firm exterior of the breast had been fully coated with the spicy glaze– it was to die for, an explosion of savory flavors that made Homa’s life before it feel utterly monochromatic. Meanwhile the varying textures and tastes of the pulao, sweet and spicy, soft rice with firm green peppers and snappy chilies, it practically tasted of wealth.

Homa tried to keep her pleasures as close to the chest as possible.

Madame Arabie’s curious eyes tracked her closely, with a little smile on her red lips.

“Homa, do you think I’m being cheap with you for ordering this?”

“No ma’am! This is fantastic! Thank you for the meal!”

She wasn’t lying, but she did sort of think Madame Arabie was being cheap.

That “melt in your mouth” beef that Hasim had been advertising at his shop was something that Madame Arabie could have any day of the week. In fact, she had better, because Hasim and all the other shops that got shipments from the Imbrians had to sell the absolute best to Madame Arabie first. So for Madame Arabie to choose a chicken dish instead of the high quality beef her restaurant VIPs got–

“Pulao is my favorite dish. This is my recipe.” Madame Arabie said. “I wanted to share it with you.”

That was a surprise– it was just more teasing though. “Thanks ma’am.”

After carefully going through her own meal, eating so as not to spill anything or spoil her cosmetics, Madame Arabie had the plates taken away. Homa felt fuller than she had been in months, maybe years. However, as soon as the waiter and their cart had gone, Madame Arabie leaned against the table again, fixing her deep emerald eyes on Homa’s quickly wavering yellow gaze once again.

“Homa, I promised old man Radu that I would look out for you. I am well aware that my business is not godly, and out of this respect for my esteemed elders and of course, my affection for you, I have tried to keep you on a respectable path. I have only asked for you to run errands when necessary, and I try to keep your hands clean. But I do need your help again, Homa. I have taken every precaution to insure your safety, but it is an important task, maybe the most important I’ve ever given you.”

Homa’s ears stood on end.

Entranced by the cruel but enticing intellect and beauty of those eyes holding her tight.

Mentioning old man Radu was a cheap emotional appeal.

But it was one she very rarely played on Homa.

“Sometime in the next few days, a ship will arrive at Bertrand’s for an extensive repair. There will be a blond woman on the ship who will likely pose as a customer. She is very dangerous, Homa, and she is plotting something, but she will not suspect anything, and you must see that it remains that way.”

Madame Arabie pressed the button on the table to bring up the LCD screen layout again.

On Homa’s side, a photograph appeared of a woman in a dark blue military uniform.

That woman in the picture reminded Homa of Ulyana Korabiskaya, tall and blond standing on the edge of the docks, cutting a dashing figure in uniform, but it wasn’t her of course. Her hair was a different shade of blond, darker, and longer, and her countenance lacked some of the regal maturity that characterized Korabiskaya. She was younger, maybe, or less refined; not that Homa, who was only 21, could say anything like that for sure. Homa had never seen a uniform like hers. Imbrian soldiers had grey uniforms, and the Volkisch dressed in black, not this ocean blue color that this woman was wearing.

Maybe it was ceremonial?

“When you confirm the appearance of this woman at the dock, you will take this letter for me to Tower Twelve, the Laurentius Military Center. It sounds daunting but you don’t have to go in, just call for Standartenführer Imani Hadžić and she will come see you on the gatebridge. Give her the letter and tell her everything you saw and heard. She will likely make you into her informant at that point.”

From her shirt, Madame Arabie withdrew an actual sealed plastic envelope.

Inside, there was likely, from the weight of it, an actual rock paper letter.

Homa could imagine it. Maybe even written in real ink. Containing deadly secrets.

As much as she disdained Madame Arabie and her duplicity–

she couldn’t say,

this wasn’t,

adventurous.

All kinds of dark fantasies began spinning off in her mind.

There was something happening in Kreuzung. Something big and dark and dangerous.

Labor strikes; economic hardship; the Volkisch movement; and these strange visitors.

And Madame Arabie was connected to it? And there was a military officer involved too?

Imani Hadžić — that was a Brenic Shimii name, one of the western cultures.

–her wild leaps of thought were finally interrupted as Madame Arabie spoke up once more.

“Do this for me, Homa, see it through to the end, and if officer Hadžić is satisfied with the result, Inshallah I will make any dream of yours come true. Hell– you may even get to pilot one of your machines for the military or merchant marine, instead of a dingy little dock. Just take this offer from me, and then do what Hadžić tells you. You’ll be a real hero at the end of all of this. You’ll have cachet beyond your dreams.”

Homa– a hero? Fingers in her mind pored over those words, the texture, the color, sound.

Even beyond the grip of spiraling fantasies– the promise of payment alone–

Yes– she couldn’t just fantasize wildly! Madame Arabie was still the same liar as always!

There was some ulterior motive to this. It would be dangerous. It wouldn’t be honorable.

But this wasn’t the first time Homa had done something awful for the Madame’s favor.

She had street smarts, she knew she was she was getting into. She couldn’t escape it.

If she saw it as a gig, she could not turn it down. She wanted the money– needed it.

“Of course, Madame.” She took the envelope. There was no other choice. “Always.”

“Excellent. I would ask you to stay and celebrate, but, you have to go get ready for work, after all.” Madame Arabie winked at her. “Just come see me after everything is done. Keep the clothes.”

So much for things not getting too weird with Madame Arabie–

There was no choice if she wanted to survive. “It’d be my pleasure, madame.”


Homa saw herself out of Madame Arabie’s home, her head still turning over everything that had happened. She just barely registered that she had agreed to rat out someone to the military. She imagined it must have been a business rival of Madame Arabie’s, maybe someone trying to run in contraband or drugs from another station, or maybe someone who owed her money. It didn’t matter in the end. No matter who it was, Homa knowing or not knowing the whole truth would not change anything. If not her, someone else would do the job. Money always found its way to people.

She did not have naive expectations of herself– but some part of her really wanted to be a hero.

On the way down, she almost imagined she might see that “Madiha” character again.

But there was no fuss being made at the warehouse. That woman disappeared too.

Homa got her clothes and bags and left without being noticed by anyone.

Overhead, the artificial sky had turned dark, with only the tiniest crest of false moonlight.

She slunk home.

Homa made her way down the halls, quietly, looking at her own feet.

There was a sense of tension inside her, filling her chest and stomach like a balloon.

Restlessness, anger, worries about the future. Frustration.

Dropping her bags on the floor of the room, undressing, taking off her boots, putting the goods she bought into the cupboard and the refrigerator. Setting her pot to keep the stew barely warm through the night. She hung up her new, fancy set of clothes as well as her work clothes and paid the fee to have them misted, scented, and dried. Then she paid the fee for the shower and locked herself in the bathroom like a sardine. Water came pouring down over her head and back, her arms at her sides.

Her black hair came down over her eyes as she bowed her head, putting it to the wall.

In the shower, she was alone, and no one could see or hear her.

There was no neighbor on the shower’s side of the room.

And even if there was, the mechanisms around the shower that served and drained water and cosmetics and shampoo, the sink that came out of the panel, the toilet that could pulled in, all of those things meant the shower was surrounded by mechanisms. So she was insulated, nobody could hear.

Sealed up tight. In a place truly, completely, alone.

She flipped the lights in the shower on, and via touchpad, also turned on the mirror.

Drawing in a breath, she screamed at the top of her lungs into the mirror.

Breath ripped ragged through her lungs and neck. Her fists clenched hard enough her nails might have drawn blood had she gone any further. Her whole body had tensed. Then she spread her lips, lifting gritted teeth from each other and heaved a sigh. Looking up at her reflection.

She did feel somewhat relieved. But it was not enough.

So she screamed again.

Her tired yellow eyes and long black hair in the mirror, over her soft, smooth face, slick with the little trails of water coming down from her crown. Water trailed down the muscles of her back, across the slope of the shoulders, over her breasts. Sometimes, Homa needed to look, to remember that she wasn’t a mass of scars, that her hair wasn’t going white yet, that her back wasn’t out, and she had all her limbs.

She was very young– some people still called her a kid.

And yet, she still felt like she had lived too long and lived through too much sometimes.

What did other early twenty-somethings do? They still went to school didn’t they?

Homa looked at the sad girl in the mirror and narrow her eyes.

“Listen up. None of this is going to bow down your back.”

She told herself. And that girl in the mirror– didn’t look any less sad.

Homa banged her head against the mirror, gritting her teeth.

Thankfully, the “mirror” was only the LCD layer over the wall, projecting her face.

“Old Man Radu, huh?”

Hearing that name again after so long, it bothered her then, it infuriated her.

What did that man care how Madame Arabie treated her?

And why would Madame Arabie care what he told her either?

It was all cheap emotional manipulation!

Radu the Marzban was somewhere out there having adventures without her.

Some big hero he was supposed to be! Her mother was dead! He couldn’t save her!

And her father– who knew who that was?

All she’d ever known was Kreuzung, Tower Eight. Loneliness and Arabie’s fickle moods.

With her head up against the mirrored wall, she looked down at the water draining at her feet.

“If Kreuzung goes through something really bad– what’d be left for me, then?”

There was nowhere to go. Out there, was only the Imbrium Ocean.

Stations were only connected by ship docks. Nobody could just travel or move anywhere.

Everyone was trapped!

And ships were a luxury– or a grave danger.

“Old Man Radu. You might as well have just thrown me out of an airlock.”

She was full of trepidation– and now she was in the clutches of Madame Arabie again.

How could she ever get out?

There was no way to get out clean– without dirty work, without blood on her hands.

“I wish! I wish everything could be fucking perfect! But it’s not possible!”

At least she would have money now! She would be taken care of!

“Who cares if I’m doing some nasty thing for that bitch Arabie! What choice did I have?”

She shouted her heart out in that empty shower where no one could see or hear.

“I need money to live! Now I’m getting it! I’m not going to feel guilty or afraid!”

She continued to shout. As if a voice long suppressed needed to finally escape.

“In fact, I’m glad! I don’t have to worry about the fucking rent! No one else will help me! So nobody can blame me for this! I’ll get out of this place! I won’t die old in this ghetto! I’m glad! Thank you Madame Arabie! Yes ma’am, I’m grateful ma’am, I’ll do anything you say ma’am! Nobody else will help!”

Her mind was made up. She set her feet, straightened her chest.

She wasn’t going to change her mind.

(Not that she could– not when she gave Madame Arabie her word.)

“Fuck!”

Once more she banged her head against the wall.

Everything from her ethnicity to her womanhood to her livelihood, everything was so much trouble, nobody made it easy, nobody helped her, nobody ever let her just have anything she wanted. She was a freak to everyone in Kreuzung who thought themselves a “decent” person so all she had left was the basements, the dark corners, places unwanted. She struggled for every bit of cheer she ever had.

Whoever it was Madame Arabie wanted her to feed to the sharks– fuck them.

That was her thought. They could complain if they had a solid alternative.

“Fuck them.”

She looked up in the mirror.

Now that was a determined little grin from that once sad and downtrodden girl.

That’s what she wanted to imagine herself looking like.

“I’ll get out of this place. I’ll get out of here, whatever I have to do.”

Overhead, the stream of water shut off, having dispensed what was paid for.

Homa felt a warm breeze instead, blowing to partially dry her off.

Without waiting for it, she stormed out of the bathroom and threw herself into bed.

Nude and still a bit wet, she rolled up herself up in her blankets and closed her eyes.

Trying to lose herself to the comforting softness of the mattress and the bed’s warmth.


“Homa! If any ships come in today, you take the lead, okay?”

“You’re being awful kind, Becker.”

“Well, if you don’t get any work, Bertrand will fire you, and if he does, I’ll have to quit. If I can’t look at your little ears and tail all day, there’s just no point to coming back to this dump every day.”

Homa grumbled and thought of throwing something at Becker.

But she wouldn’t say ‘no’ to the work.

Around noon the next day, Bertrand Shore Works got a new customer approaching, and there was a great excitement about getting two ships in two days after such a drought in the work.

Unlike the Brigand, which had been an enormous Cruiser, this was a humble yacht, just 40 meters long and 13 meters tall, with a blue and white livery that was generic to the specific model, made by a company called “Tigershark.” It had an exposed bridge compartment at the top, a sleek pointed box that followed the profile of the hull, with a long, thick titanium-strutted glass roof allowing for the person at the helm to look at out into the water above them as they sailed. The rest of the hull was beautifully curved down to its keel, it looked flawless. Through and through a rich person’s toy.

“They’re coming in for a full maintenance and repair job, repainting, and a jet replacement? And they’re coming here for that? We either have God or the Devil on our side here.” Aicher said.

It was a big job, it’d be a lot of piecework on a delicate ship, a lot of expensive parts.

Everyone was surprised. Yachts usually went to subscription yacht clubs for this kind of thing. Bertrand’s usually worked with larger ships that didn’t travel to Kreuzung enough to pay for an expensive licensed space in the Seaport or didn’t want to deal with Seaport security or pay union rates for repair work. Old Bertrand would collect a premium on having a little toy taking up space he “could” be using for industrial ships — if there were any coming through, which there weren’t, but he wouldn’t tell the customer that.

He would definitely play up the opportunity cost to seem aggrieved.

So B.W.S was buzzing. Becker and Aicher were leading the crew like a battalion.

Homa meanwhile just acted surprised. She recalled the conversation with Madame Arabie.

Someone knew this ship was coming, and that someone was working through the Shimii in Tower Eight to snoop on it. Madame Arabie had warned that it was dangerous– Homa tried to act natural, but as the ship was brought into berth, and then deposited by the metal arms from the drained berth into the workshop area, beached inside the dockyard, her anxiety and trepidation grew stronger. An icy chill gripped her heart as the side of the hull opened and a ramp extended down from it.

Aicher waved Homa over to go greet the owner of the ship and get them an airstair.

And from out the bulkhead door, came the woman Homa had seen, exactly as the picture.

Rather than the uniform in Arabie’s photograph, the young, long-legged blond beauty was dressed in an extremely fancy-looking fur coat (it couldn’t have been real– it had to be synthetic) over a collared shirt and shiny leather-like pants. She wore tall black pumps for shoes and perched on her strong nose were a pair of black spectacles. Her earrings and fingers glinted with jewelry, with rings and gems.

Bonjour!” She called out with a glossy red smile, descending the airstair like a runway model.

Homa found her brain utterly arrested by the sheer aggressive beauty of this woman.

In the damp, drab environment of the B.W.S. dockyard she was like a flashbang grenade.

Aicher surreptitiously tapped Homa in the back, and she walked forward to meet the lady.

As soon as they neared each other, Homa caught a strong, sweet scent from her.

“Oh what a dear! I’m so happy I decided to berth here. I’m Kitty McRoosevelt.”

“Uh. Hello!” Homa smiled awkwardly. “Welcome! I’m Homa Baumann, I– I work here.”

She hastily extended her hand and “Kitty McRoosevelt” gave her a firm shake.

Not a common name but that didn’t matter; Homa wasn’t an expert on names.

Madame Arabie’s words rang in her head as she shook that soft, slender, but strong hand.

This woman was dangerous. She didn’t seem like it, but appearances weren’t everything.

All of this, her glamor, sweetness, energy– it could be an act.

“Pleasure to meet you. Got my papers right here.”

Kitty handed Homa her portable and Homa scanned it. Everything came up fine.

Her last port of call was Worms, which, from what Homa knew, wasn’t too far, and made sense. Worms and Mostar were the two closest stations. For a yacht, 40 meters was big, and pretty seaworthy, so she could travel it between stations. She had one item of listed cargo, which was a leisure submersible stored in a cargo hold in the prow. None of them would need to touch that. All their work would be in the back, with the hydrojets and the intakes in the rear underside, and on the bridge and the living quarters in the rear center where they were swapping some electronics. And everything was indeed registered under Kitty McRoosevelt. Her papers were stamped by the Aachen Station Authority. It was all legit.

That didn’t mean anything by itself though.

Madame Arabie could get legit papers for people who didn’t exist.

Maybe this Kitty was the Madame Arabie of Aachen Station. Homa couldn’t know.

“Checks out. You can go into the office to work out pay and a work schedule.” Homa said.

Kitty smiled at her. “Thank you dear. By any chance, will you be working on her?”

Homa blinked at her, briefly stunned at this deviation from the typical script.

“Oh, yeah!” She averted her eyes from Kitty’s own. “They’ll probably have me doing the exterior. I can help out a little with the duct work too, but I am not certified to do anything with the electronics. So uh, I guess I’ll be painting and shining and applying the anti-organic coating and stuff like that.”

“Ah! So all the stuff I care about the most. I’ll be looking over your shoulder then.”

She briefly met Kitty’s eyes out of shock, and then averted them again.

Her client patted her shoulder with a knowing smile before walking away to the office.

Becker and Aicher then, unfortunately, approached the stunned Homa at the airstair.

“Ah, damn it, the customer’s trying to steal her away– and she looks a damn sight nicer than I do.” Becker said. “I don’t have a chance. I better enjoy having Homa around while I can.”

Homa narrowed her eyes at him.

“Homa Baumann, popular with the guys and the ladies. This black cat’s got all the luck.”

Homa turned her evil, narrow-eyed gaze at Aicher instead.

There was some levity, everyone was happy to have more work and pay coming in.

As the woman disappeared into the office, and they began to assess the work that would be done to the ship, however, Homa felt that tension in her chest start to build again, constricting her breathing and heartbeat. Kitty was exactly the woman in the photos that the Madame had shown her. Come to think of it– it had skipped her mind, but she never got a name for the woman out of Madame Arabie, only the photo and her instructions. This was all deeply mysterious, but she had shown up, Kitty, the cosmetics, and fancy clothes aside, had the same face as the woman in the photograph.

After work, she would have to head to Tower Twelve.

Laurentius Military Center.

And there she would meet–

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.

“Becker? You were in the military right? Can I ask you something?”

She and Becker were sizing up the ship using a digital laser scanner when she asked.

Becker was holding the laser, and she the cable. His wizened face looked suddenly proud.

“Ah, but I was a volunteer patrolman, not really military. Those were good days though.”

Homa interrupted. “Is Standartenführer a really high rank?” She asked.

His expression darkened suddenly. He looked at Homa with surprise. Maybe– maybe fear.

“Homa– are you in trouble?” He lifted a hand from the laser. He looked startled, worried. “Is that why you’ve been looking down lately? Listen, if it’s anything with your papers, I can vouch for you. If the Volkisch are hounding you– If you have a citizenship hearing or something– I can–”

“No, no!” Homa replied, as surprised as he was. “Becker, I’m okay. I was just curious.”

“I see. Homa, that’s a Volkisch political rank. That’s– it’s not a– it’s not normal. It’s bad news.”

Homa tried to persuade the stammering Becker that she was fine, and everything was okay, but his reaction, and that little episode with him, just made the fear gripping her heart swell tenfold.


Tower Twelve loomed like a gun to the temple of Kreuzung station.

Homa had learned a lot about it in the past months due to the ongoing imperial unrest.

Laurentius Military Center was the main garrison of the Kreuzung Complex. While there were troops also stationed in the walls of the Kreuzung crater for defense and patrol purposes, if anything happened in Kreuzung’s core station, the response would come from Tower Twelve. Eight weeks ago, the election of Achim Lehner led to an enormous crisis in the Kreuzung complex. Imbrians rioted in the core station, prompting severe lockdowns, and the troops in Laurentius picked sides within the chaos.

Some of them joined the rioters, some of them deployed to contain the riots and ended up fighting their own colleagues, and others broke into factions within Laurentius itself. Perhaps the largest group of security forces simply refused to participate in this and guarded the Kreuzung government center at the top of the core station while the violence worked itself out elsewhere. The Volkisch eventually took control of Laurentius, but nobody was successful, whether Volkisch or not, in toppling Governor Werner, who navigated the entire crisis and came out of it with both the grudging respect and cooperation of both the rioters and the Volkisch. The Shimii in Tower Eight had been distant witnesses to the violence, because their tower locked down during the chaos, preventing them from resupplying needed goods.

She hadn’t been there to see any of it, but Becker and Aicher had a lot to say about it.

Especially Becker– he followed conflict news closely and knew a lot about the military.

So he explained everything to Homa– from his perspective.

Regardless, what happened, happened. And Homa had not been hurt, except that Kreuzung locking out Tower Eight led Homa to spend extortionate amounts of money for pitiful amounts of food in the Shimii market, barely keeping herself alive. It was a shock to her, one she had not felt since she first started her gender transition– at 19, she realized that for her, being a woman required the mercy of the Gender Equality Center and their policies. And now at 21, she realized, everything, food, shelter, electricity, was at the mercy of the Kreuzung Core Station’s security and stability. Tower Eight was their hostage.

Weeks later, things settled down. Life returned to a sense of normalcy at Kreuzung.

Laurentius, however, continued to represent the threat of the Volkisch attaining complete control over the station, or at least, that’s what Becker and Aicher thought about it. If there was a crisis again, the Volkisch might have the excuse they need to not just station their black-uniformed forces in Laurentius, but to replace the Kreuzung Core Station’s police and security– and the local government.

All of this grand politicking was over Homa’s head. She only vaguely understood.

However, the idea of Laurentius as a threat felt visual when she beheld the tower itself.

Unlike the rounded, drum-like towers meant for people to live in, Laurentius looked like a weapon from afar. From the gatebridge, she could stare out the glass panels at the tower, some thirty meters separate, its shadow like a coiled cylinder made up of brutal spikes. The Gatebridge itself was like the closed maw of a beast with black iron teeth and camera eyes. Laurentius was home to warships, armed Divers, missiles and guns, and the black uniformed soldiers that made old Becker pause, unable or unwilling to fit them into his heroic myths of the gallant frontier patrolmen. It was an evil place, death at the midnight hour.

Homa had traveled through a lot of Kreuzung to make it here.

Through elevators and steel hallways and civilian checkpoints.

Now, standing in front of the armored entryway to the station, she had no idea what to do.

There was an enclosed guard post, but the glass was tinted. Was anyone actually in there?

Swallowing hard, she pushed herself to go near the box.

She raised her ID and work permit to the wall of the box to be scanned.

A red square appeared around her papers that flashed. Normally it was green.

Confused, Homa raised her card and permit off the wall of the guard post and set them back on to try to rescan them. She got the same result. There was a red box around them and it started to flash. She waited a moment for anyone to say anything, but the guard post was silent.

Mind in a fog from the stress, Homa was about to try again–

When, from the guard post, an irate voice sounded.

“Are you fucking stupid? You’re not allowed in here, Shimii! Go back to Tower Eight!”

“I’m sorry!” Homa cried out. Her ears curled against her head in fear.

Suddenly, a line of green and yellow laser light traveled over her body from the box.

“You’ve got nothing in your hands, nothing in your clothes– consider yourself lucky.”

Homa stood there, briefly speechless. Staring with wide, nearly weeping eyes at the glass.

Unable to see a person inside– at least the Tower Eight border guard were visibly there.

“Fuck off kid. Keep standing there and I’m going to read it as intent, understand?”

“I’m– I’m looking for someone! Please, it’s really important!”

There was a grumbling noise over whatever hidden sound system the guard post possessed.

“God damn it. Name and rank and you better be exact, kid. Or I’m calling this shit in.”

Homa cried out, “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić!”

Silence.

When the guard spoke again, she sensed a change in his tone.

“Um. Repeat please.” Was that a tremor in his voice?

Homa blinked. What was going on? “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.” She repeated.

There was no further response from the guard post. For a few minutes, nothing but silence. No motion, no lasers, nothing. As the silence stretched, it scared Homa more than the shouting.

Just at the point where Homa thought she would scream with anxiety–

–without warning, the black teeth of the bridge gate began to spread open.

Then she heard a pair of sharp footsteps approaching, a tap and a clicking heel.

Looking through the open gate, Homa spied the figure and her long, confident stride.

A swishing noise– a black peaked cap twirling on one of her fingers.

Homa had been right. Imani Hadžić was a Shimii like her, with rounded off ears and a very long, thick tail perfectly manicured into an unbroken little cylinder behind her. She had long limbs and a young face, cutting an attractive silhouette, a Madame Arabie in the making, Homa thought, but she was far tidier. Her dark blue hair was shoulder-length and orderly, covering the sides and back of her head quite evenly, with perfectly arranged bangs over her forehead and a slight curl at the back. Homa couldn’t tell whether she was wearing makeup, but she had a tiny bit of a blush to her. Thin spectacles perched on her nose.

Draped over her shoulders like a cape, the empty sleeves swaying with her movements, was an all-black Volkisch coat, with two red armbands around the sleeves emblazoned with black symbols in a white circle. One was a black disc surrounded by lightning bolts, the disc itself made up of a single line, like a picture of a complicated maze; the second armband had a black moon and a black sword in the white. Neither of these were symbols that she recognized; it was a Volkisch coat, but their symbol was an eagle.

Aside from the coat and the hat twirling like a toy in her slender fingers, she had on a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a buttoned-up collar, a black skirt, and pitch-black tights. Those sleek, sharp heels of hers lent her footsteps an almost metallic ringing on the thick concrete of the bridge. On the collar of the coat draped on her there were several pins, maybe signifying her rank or awards. Homa could not read or understand their significance, but she recalled what Becker had told her earlier.

From just looking at her, before she ever spoke a word–

That cold, cutting gaze on her pretty face– her self-confident stride–

a little grin forming on her lips as she approached–

–and the casual way she wore and played with her symbols of office.

Something, maybe her own nervousness, Becker’s words, a gut feeling, it all told her.

Imani Hadžić was the most dangerous person she had ever met.

She could almost see a black outline, like a dimension of death swirling around her.

And a red, furious glimmer in her eyes for the briefest of instants.

Was Homa hallucinating? When did she get like this?

Homa closed her fists and caught her breath. She couldn’t afford to lose her wits now.

Not in front of this woman.

As soon as Imani Hadzic crossed the bridge, Homa extended a hand in greeting.

Try to be brave now. She told herself.

As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Hadžić accepted the handshake and answered in a sickly-sweet voice.

Wa Alaykum Salamu.”

“I’m Homa Baumann. Madame Arabie sent me to deal with you–”

Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words!

“Eh– I mean–!”

“Oh? Deal with me? That’s very interesting. Then, let’s deal, Homa Baumann.”

Imani leaned into Homa and pulled her close, invading her personal space instantly.

They were almost breast-to-breast– Imani was nearly the same size as her.

Her grip was much stronger than her appearance would have suggested.

“Imani Hadžić. But you knew that already.”

Imani’s tail curled around Homa’s leg, prompting her to quiver.

Her warm breath in Homa’s cheek, and the smell coming off of her chest–

–unlike the sweet-smelling Arabie with her perfume, Hadžić smelled like chemicals.

Homa almost thought she might faint when she caught a whiff of it. She held back disgust.

“Homa Baumann. An interesting name; enchanted to meet you.”

Imani drew back, releasing Homa from her viper-like grip.

Her smile looking particularly twisted for a moment.

“So, I take it you’ve confirmed the appearance of our mutual acquaintance? And so soon, too.”

Awaiting an answer, Imani seamlessly went back to twirling her black cap on one finger.

Homa was forced back to reality. She was on the hook to complete this job.

“Yes, sorry, I did. There was a yacht in today, from Aachen, by way of Worms. Registered to Kitty McRoosevelt. She came with it too. Blond– there was a picture that Madame Arabie–”

“Indeed, this picture.”

With her free hand, Imani produced a small portable handset.

On its LCD screen was the exact photo that Madame Arabie had shown her.

The Standartenführer transitioned seamlessly to a calm, interrogative tone of voice.

She was not playing around with Homa anymore.

“So it was this woman?” Imani asked.

Homa started to feel at ease. “Yes, it was her. I’m completely certain, I talked to her.”

“What did she bring the yacht in for?”

“A lot of work. Full hull repainting and coating, hydrojets, electrical system.”

“How long will that work take you and your company?”

“We quoted her seven eight-hour days. We have a 2-day weekend this week, and next week we only get the Seventhday off, so– we’ll probably be done the week after, on that Firstday, I think.”

“Ah, the bottomless joy of the Imbrian work calendar.”

“We could have done it in a few days but we’re trying to wring money out of her.”

“You’re an honest girl. Well, don’t you worry about being too greedy. I’m positive she doesn’t care. She’s not in here to get that yacht repaired. That’s the crux of our entire dilemma, after all.“

“Madame Arabie told me to give you this letter.“

Homa withdrew the letter from the interior pocket of her jumpsuit.

Imani took the envelope and dextrously split the glued flap with her gloved fingers.

She withdrew the stone paper from inside. A single sheet, folded closed.

Her eyes scanned over the contents quickly, and then stashed the letter in her coat.

She seemed far less interested in the letter– than in Homa herself.

Slowly, that playful smile from before faded back in over her once neutral expression.

“Ho~ma~”

She said the words in a too-sweet singsong voice.

“Yes. I believe this can work Ho~ma~. Indeed, indeed.”

Was she talking to herself? Homa couldn’t tell where the conversation was going.

For a moment, Imani tilted her head toward the guard post.

“Hey, dumbass. This girl is with me. You scared the fuck out of her. Apologize now.”

From the hidden speakers on the guard’s box, Homa heard the guard’s trembling voice.

“Y-Yes ma’am. Acknowledged. Ms. Baumann– I’m terribly sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“You’d better show her outstanding customer service from now on.”

She didn’t have to say more. They all felt it. From the dreadful glare she was directing at the box, the threat was implicit. Homa almost imagined that she had said ‘I’ll kill you,’ ‘I’ll torture you,’ ‘you’re a dead man’ after each of those sentences. It seemed like the natural extension, and it felt like a form of cruelty to withhold the obvious. But Imani looked delighted with the response from the guard.

When she turned back to Homa, she was all smiles again.

“Ho~ma~ heh, what a cute name.” She leaned into Homa again, but not as close as before. Homa tried not to breathe in the smell. What was it anyway? It smelled like the inside of a hospital. “I asked Arabie,” Imani continued casually, “if she had an urchin with connections to a private dock, so we could have a firm hand in Kitty McRoosevelt’s scheming. After our arrangement, I surreptitiously worked to have her land in B.S.W to keep an eye on her. I never expected to get such an interesting specimen in return though. Yes, I’m interested in you. Homa, from now on, you’re working for me, okay? Kitty McRoosevelt is a dangerous terrorist and has done many misdeeds in Eisental. I am afraid she might be plotting her worst attack yet. With your help, however, we can save Kreuzung Station from another catastrophe.”

“Ma’am–?”

She saw it again– those red glinting eyes that stared as if right through her.

What was it that Imani Hadžić was seeing through those eyes that interested her this much?

Madame Arabie had made it sound like she would be Imani’s gopher for a bit, which was an ordinary task for Homa, but she didn’t expect Imani to get so handsy. Her entire demeanor was terrifying. Her presence was so heavy, so morbid, but Homa barely understood where those feelings were coming from. She tried to be rational, to return to her own motivations. She needed to stay good with Madame Arabie, and she wanted money, whether Hadžić’s, Arabie’s or even that Madiha character’s money–

–and even more than that, the word terrorist began ringing around in her brain.

Joining the expanse of black, mottled with colors, that had overtaken her emotions.

There really was some catastrophe brewing in the station.

And if it hit, maybe Homa wouldn’t even survive it this time.

She didn’t think Imani Hadžić was a good or heroic person at all. She was a soldier, and in Kreuzung, the soldiers had been beating and killing people weeks ago in order to “restore order” and “prevent a catastrophe.” Homa had no sympathy for that kind of wanton terror. But if she could help Imani to keep things from escalating to that point, then maybe such an action could be called heroic.

There was another voice, that Homa didn’t want to acknowledge.

Because it felt childish, and simple, the thinking of a kid when she needed to be an adult.

However– she did, distantly, think that this would be adventurous, exciting

“What do you say, Ho~ma~? Would you be willing to help me– or–?”

Imani Hadžić was not going to give her a choice, anyway.

Homa saw it written in her face. She was already Imani’s puppet, she was destined to be.

But she wasn’t going to do it for nothing.

“Ma’am, I’ve been promised a lot of payment and gotten none. I need a guarantee.”

“Oh? How bold of you. Trying to extort something upfront? My, my, my–”

Imani’s fingers suddenly darted to Homa’s cheek. She thought she would be slapped–!

Instead, however, they simply patted on the edge of her jaw and sat there, holding her.

“–You’re lucky that you’re a Shimii. Or at least, half one.”

Her disdainful, icy gaze locked on to Homa’s own.

“If I didn’t have a soft spot for you, that would have been a slap. Little~ Ho~ma~”

She drummed her fingers on Homa’s cheek. Homa remained speechless in her grasp.

“I– I need money for my rent. It’s coming up. Otherwise I’ll be kicked out.”

It took all her strength to speak despite the smothering, invisible weight around Imani.

But Homa spoke up. She tried to meet Imani’s icy gaze with determination.

For a moment, she realized Imani’s eyes were two different shades of icy blue.

Among the Shimii, this was exceedingly rare. Mismatched eyes.

As rare as Homa’s mutant tail– but viewed as beautiful rather than shameful.

Imani Hadžić was not only a full-blooded Shimii, she was an exceedingly rare kind.

“That’s it? That’s such a humble request. It’s so cute. Sure. I’ll pay your rent. Personally.”

Imani drew back, crossing her arms and giggling.

“Ma’am–?”

Personally? Why did she emphasize that?

“But maybe I’ll use your address to come bug you too~ we’ll see!”

Oh no–

Before Homa could object or respond, Imani reached into her coat and procured a second handset portable of the same model as the one she had been using before. It was a trendy new model, handheld with a slate form factor, jet black with a crisp touchscreen. If Madame Arabie was 15 years younger she might have been glued to a device like this. It fit perfectly in one’s hands, could go into any pocket, but it had the same computing potential as a normal portable terminal or room computer connected to the station’s network. Homa had seen them advertised around the pavilion shopping center.

Nonchalantly, Imani handed to Homa ten thousand marks worth of tech.

“I’ll contact you through this whenever I need you. I’m not clingy, I don’t expect you to twist into a knot to call me back or answer my mails immediately, but if I don’t hear from you within the same day, I will camp out at your apartment and get answers personally. Fair warning not to leave me hanging.”

“What? I can just have this–? Ma’am, this– this is really expensive–”

“Yeah. You’re welcome. Take good care of it. Don’t lose it– or pawn it or anything.”

“I wasn’t going to! So to be completely clear, I can just keep this, to talk to you?”

“You can use it to watch videos or play games or whatever too. I don’t care.”

Homa blinked, looking down at the handset’s black LCD with confusion.

“I’m– I guess I’ll give it a go? Um. Thanks ma’am. This is– a lot more than I expected.”

“Uh huh. Anyway. I’ll call or mail you when I need you. We’ll talk about your rent later.”

She turned sharply around, waving her hand behind herself.

Homa could still see that grin, clear as day, still right in front of her.

That was how fast, how confidently, she dismissed her.

“Take care, my~ little~ Ho~ma~,” she laughed, as the black jaws of the gate shut behind her.

Leaving Homa paralyzed for a moment, still processing the wind that had swept her up.


By the time Homa had walked all the way back to Tower Eight from Laurentius, it was night again, and she wouldn’t have time to go food shopping. However, because she had eaten with Madame Arabie yesterday, she still had beef cube lonac in the morning, and could have more of it when she returned. Then tomorrow, she could set her bone marrow lonac to cook and have it for dinner.

She did not usually meet anyone on the way back to her apartment, but coming back this late at night, two nights in a row, made her feel a bit lonelier. There was nothing to be done about it, however. Homa had no friends, a generational difference to almost all of her coworkers, and was foreign enough, weird about gender enough, and secular enough, that she didn’t feel comfortable going to the mosque, or hitting the clubs. She worked, and she ate– her only hobbies were just reading fantasy stories, which was hard to do on the walls of her room, and sports, particularly waterjet racing, which were cancelled.

From her pocket, she withdrew the slate Imani Hadžić had given her. It was nice to have a portable.

When she graduated from vocational school, they took the terminal she got loaned for studying.

And Shimii weren’t allowed to withdraw anything from Core Station lending libraries to take home.

Maybe she would spend her days off playing with this portable. Figure out the games and such.

It’d be easier to read books on it too. She could pick up reading The Coral Knight again.

As soon as she returned to her home, she threw off all her clothes on the floor and jumped into bed. She would have to get up soon to eat and shower, but she had been walking for so long and she needed to relax. That cool comfort of her room’s climate control, the LED clusters overhead, the stale scent of metal around her, it brought her relief. She was home, she was safe. No more walking. No work.

She lifted the portable in both hands, holding it over her eyes. Her mind drifted off.

Kitty McRoosevelt, the terrorist. Madame Arabie, the gangster. Imani Hadžić, the cruel and dark soldier. Homa Baumann, the noble knight, caught up in the whirlwind of events. Her exhausted mind drifted off into little fantasies of this. Her pure heart standing determined against evil; but aside from fantasy, she felt no emotions. In that moment, she was not shaking, and the stress had passed her by. She felt fear when she was in the presence of some bigshot. But in her room, everything was eerie, normal.

Out there, outside her door, there was some kind of plan in motion.

In here however– well, wasn’t that always the case?

Homa was not an esteemed knight involved in some quest. She was just some kid.

Shimii had no knights. They lived in the shadows of the Imbrians’ wars and upheavals.

Things just happened to them. They did not have the power to be involved.

“Ugh. Quit thinking about that big brain stuff. You’ll go insane, Homa Baumann.“

She rolled over on her side, toying with the portable, her tiny tail wiggling what it could.

“I’m gonna pick up the Coral Knight where I left off this instant.“

A dose of pulp heroics would do wonders for her mood–

Then as she began to feel cozy and relaxed, the portable lit up suddenly in front of her face.

She saw a portrait appear on the display and a recognized name to match the face: Imani Hadžić.

Homa fumbled with the portable, sat up, put it to her ear; heart gripped instantly in fear.

“Oh good.” Imani’s tinny voice sounding from the portable. “You’re awake, Ho~ma~”

That little drawn-out singsong rendition of her name again. “Um, officer Hadžić, ma’am–?”

“Eww, don’t call me that. Homa, you are to call me ‘Imani’ at all times from now on, okay? Anyway. We’re going on a date. Meet me in Kreuzung, G3 Block, Tier 8, tomorrow at 9 o clock sharp. The block is called ‘Ballad’s Paradise’ if that makes it any easier to find it. Wear something decent, okay?”

Homa felt like someone had taken a mallet to her chest. “A– um– uh– a date?”

“Uh huh. You ever been on one? Don’t worry. I’m the kind of girl who takes the lead if she has to. You just show up and look nice next to me, okay? It’s a really nice place I’m taking you, expensive too.”

“Um. Imani. With all due respect– why are we going on a date?”

She heard a loud and clear and extremely dismissive scoff on the line.

“It’ll be super fun and you’re gonna love it. C’mon, it’s the last day off I’m gonna have in a while.”

Homa heard a softly ringing noise as Imani suddenly disconnected.

Surprised, she lifted the slate from her ear, stared at the screen in disbelief.

A moment later, a little banner on the screen notified her of a message.

Homa flicked her finger at the banner–

And found a mail, consisting of nothing but a black heart, sent by Imani Hadžić.

She fell back down to the bed, the slate slipping out of her fingers.

Up from her chest, she lifted a hand and set it over her eyes.

Homa drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs.

In silent awe and growing exasperation of the capricious witch she was involved with.

“What have I gotten myself into? She better fucking pay my rent.”

So much for all the adventure and mystery. This really was her life now.

Of course, there was no choice. Not with this woman– not with any part of it.

She was someone who things happened to. Not someone who could do anything.

So then– now the only question was, what would Homa even wear?

To her date tomorrow. With Imani Hadžić.


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