Surviving An Evil Time [10.4]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content.

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić stood alone in a corner of Ballad’s Paradise’s model village attraction with her back to a wall, hands behind herself. From a nearby open ventilation grate, a black cable sprouted that linked up to a device in her pocket, and broadcast audio to a pair of pods tucked into her ear fluff. At the end of that black cable, dropped all the way through the ventilation one whole story down, was a wireless receiver. It was connected to a transmitter on a certain waiter.

She shut her eyes and imagined the scene, and the characters within, as she listened in.

Kitty McRoosevelt–

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”

Majida al-Khaybari–

“Are you out of your god damned mind? You think I’ll join this senseless massacre?”

(Internally she amended her view of al-Khaybari. She was not so bloodthirsty as to join Kitty in this act.)

Surprisingly, Raaya Al-Shahouh–

“There are Shimii in this station complex! You want us to kill our own people?”

“Calm down!” Kitty shouted. “We’re only using it for leverage against the core station! We’re not going to complete the process, we won’t destroy the station, we’re just going to cause a temporary shutdown.”

Majida audibly scoffed.

“Leverage? Leverage for what? Everyone in Eisental will call you shaitan after this!”

Imani smiled. Yes, go on, Kitty. Let her in on your plan, why don’t you?

“Leverage against the governor. Shut everything down, isolate him, and take control.”

“You and what army? If you do this Kitty, the hammer will come down hard.”

“I’ve got forces waiting for the go-ahead. Majida, we have this figured out!”

“I’m about to pretend I never heard any of this, Republican. You are completely insane.”

Kitty continued. Finally she began to let Majida in on the substance of her plot.

“We’re planning to infiltrate a small force into the station, sneak through the lower dock interstice, commandeer the core, and put Kreuzung temporarily out of commission. Our goal is to overturn the government of Eisental. I have a small army at my disposal that will come in once the core station’s defenses are out of order due to the Core Separation and disarm the Volkisch– but with your forces, Warlord al-Khaybari, we could practically guarantee total control of the region!”

There was a long silence. Imani could picture Kitty’s smug face.

“Control of the region– for whom? Who is running Eisental if this goes your way?”

“The Republic of Alayze.” Kitty said promptly, automatically. There, she made her biggest mistake.

She had completely misread Majida al-Khaybari. She didn’t understand her at all.

“Absolutely not. You and your Republic can go fuck yourselves with those reactor rods.”

“Wait–!” Now Imani could picture the woman’s immediate despair.

Kitty was shocked by the response. Imani could hear her palpable desperation.

“Majida, we’re only trying to do right by your people, we always have! We’ll make you a legitimate leader here! Your people will be able to come back to the stations, secure real livelihoods–!”

“The Khaybar ummah haven’t sacrificed everything just to serve a different hegemon, G.I.A.”

“Majida–! Just– take the fuel rods and think about it, okay? Free of charge.”

Raaya Al-Shahouh spoke up with a melancholy tone of voice. “We need the fuel.”

Majida grunted. “If you’re so insistent, Kitty, then we’ll take your fuel rods and regard it as Jizya. But you can forget about my troops coming here to support your plot. I’ll extend my stay here to make sure you don’t get the Shimii here killed with your stupidity. But I won’t help you clap a prettier set of chains around us. You should’ve kept things strictly business with me, G.I.A. This is our last transaction.”

Imani heard her pick up the case with the rods, and perhaps throw the one with the money.

There was an indistinct clanging sound followed by silence. The point was made. Conversation over.

Imani felt very satisfied with the situation. Khaybari would have been a formidable opponent.

Among practitioners of Sihr, Majida al-Khaybari was quite notable.

Or at least, a certain cat made boisterous note of her as a dangerous element.

Thankfully, Kitty McRoosevelt and her G.I.A. cronies were utterly out of their depth.

Where the Imbrians and the Cogitans both read Majida wrong was that they called her a pirate and a mercenary and believed that wealth was her foremost aim in her activities. They lacked the context to understand that she was actually the most extreme Shimii nationalist in the Imbrium ocean. Kitty could have limited herself to simply promising to topple the regime in Eisental, but she was a Cogitan imperialist through and through, bonafide G.I.A. She made the worst pitch possible.

Now, with Majida in the sidelines, the G.I.A would need more of their “army” to appear.

Imani could let them get far enough to gather the entire gang in the Kreuzung Complex.

And then she could eliminate them all in one blow.

She just needed to know how many, when they would appear, and to keep track of Kitty.

That way, she could interfere to shape the battlefield to her needs.

“Mysia, take off from here tomorrow and go to Aachen. Give them an update.”

“Of course ma’am. I take it I’ll collect my payment from there as well?”

“Yeah, yeah. For someone who didn’t grow up there, you’re such a fucking Katarran.”

Imani wouldn’t be able to count on Kitty’s chaste little enby any further, then.

That was fine. She had a more reliable helper now anyway.

She lifted the cable to pull the wireless receiver out of the ventilation, wrapped the cable, and stowed it along with the earpods into the white box which Mysia had given her in secret when she and Homa had breakfast. That was the end of their arrangement, and Mysia had been paid up front, so there was no need to take care of that end either. Imani had gotten her way on every single item.

For a moment, though, she remained inside the model village.

Smiling gently to herself. She could almost see herself and Homa still chatting away here.

Homa was interesting. She had potential– so much more potential than she knew.

“It’s unfortunate.” Imani said to herself. Touching her lips, where she had been kissed.

She had to give her up now– but it was fun while it lasted. Brief as it was.

In this surreal little calm before all-out war. She had gotten her taste of living.

Now she was prepared to die for Vesna Nasser’s cause once again.

“Homa. My little ho~ma~. After this is all done if we’re both still here. Maybe.”

She knew she was being stupid. What an irrational crush– love at first sight? Foolish.

But– for a girl who had never really experienced such things, it was strangely powerful.

Worth spending her time off to indulge it.

Doubt brought weakness. Satisfaction, surety, and experience, all brought strength.

That was what a certain cat taught her. A lesson learned from a life of immortality.

Leaving behind her wistful girlish feelings in the place that stoked them, Imani exited Ballad’s Paradise through the rear entrance to the visitor center. There was another fancy wooden bridge, this one abutted by a fake waterfall. There was almost no one around. She had waited a few hours before coming out just to be certain she was moving at off-peak times. A gentle breeze blew her hair– she ignored it, but it was a bit irritating to have it blown about when she spent so much time brushing it silky smooth.

Then as her heels clattered dull on the fake wood–

Her eyes blinked, red rings glowing around the iris as she tapped into her power.

There was a brief disturbance in the auras.

“You can come out. Get in the elevator with me. I’ll lock it down.”

As she approached the elevator, a dark figure surreptitiously climbed up from the side of the bridge and slipped inside alongside her. She withdrew a keycard with a Volkisch eagle upon it and thus commandeered the elevator by special decree, making sure it remained locked for her. She set a contradictory pair of tiers to guide the elevator up and down enough to have a chat.

“Does Khaybari’s presence make you as skittish as it does everyone else?” Imani asked.

“I have an adequate respect of her. She’s not my concern right now.” Said the figure.

“That’s such a characteristic response, ‘Radu the Marzban.’”

Standing at her side, never making eye contact as far as she knew. Taller than her by half a meter, a giant of a man, covered head to toe in armor, with wide shoulders and a broad chest. His helmet was completely sealed, even his Shimii ears were encased in the metal, even his tail was covered in flexible armor. His suit was powered armor of legendary Katarran design, driven by agarthic batteries. Interlocking plates like layers of an insect’s hide protected him, said to shrug off small arms up to anti-materiel rifles while enhancing the strength of the wearer through an interior carbon nanotube exoskeleton.

However, there were reflective surfaces all over the suit, LED pixel clusters.

He had a cape which had a false fur trim but was also covered in those LED clusters.

Nasser had told her that this helped his specific invocations of Sihr.

That voice which escaped his helmet was crisp, clear, human, his own. Unmistakable.

Radu the Marzban.

Imani stood casually next to him. She almost felt a bit of girlish pride in doing so.

Standing next to a figure of legend was no mean feat.

“I figured you would go off on your own. What did you turn up?” She asked casually.

“I want to ask you the same question.” He said.

“Oh, now you want to cooperate?”

“Hadžić. Why have you not stopped that G.I.A. agent? What are you plotting?”

“I stand to gain from letting her act freely for now.”

“She is going to get people killed. Our people, Imani, could be killed.”

Imani smiled. “Why didn’t you stop her then, if you know better?” She asked.

She looked up at him over her shoulder. His gauntlets closed into fists.

“Out of Vesna’s respect for you, and your loyalty to her, I am keeping my distance, despite my misgivings. But I do not trust you, Hadžić. If you don’t want me to act on my own, then tell me what you hope to gain from allowing Kitty McRoosevelt to attack the station’s reactor core and endangering its people.”

His tone was growing aggressive. Imani could see his aura warping and contorting.

All of the colors of his aura vanished under an erratic tidal wave of green and black.

He was imbuing— deliberately trying to flood her with aura, with controlled emotion.

Green, anxiety and fear; a stark matte black, the color that signified death.

Against an ordinary person, being battered by this aura would have driven them to frothing collapse.

Imani could sense the enormous power he possessed. The stories could have never described it in full.

Perhaps this man had really been a companion to Mehmed the Sorcerer.

Her knees rattled ever so slightly. It took all of her own prodigious power to resist.

This much resistance was enough to make her feel a little cocky, even.

“Is that the ‘King’s Gaze,’ Marzban? You’ve proven your point. You are as frightening as the folk tales say. I don’t want to make an enemy of the legend. Despite that, I must demand you leave the strategizing to me. If we stop Kitty now, we won’t be able to draw her organization out of hiding. I am not trying to extend the conflict. I am trying to destroy the enemy in one blow. Is that acceptable to you?”

Radu never even turned his head to face her.

She knew, however, that in his own way, he was scrutinizing her.

In the back of her mind she felt the pinpricks of intrusion.

He had ceased trying to humble her– now he wanted information, and this took a different skill.

Despite her resistance to his powers, he was reading what he could out of her.

It was possible to do this, but it usually required concentration and subtlety. He did it with brute force.

“In a vacuum that would be a sound strategy. In this case, your pragmatism will result in vicious cruelty. There are already mounting tensions in this station. Allowing a battle to play out at all will bring harm to innocents and leave scars here that may never heal. Do you only view this as collateral?”

His voice was growing irritating to Imani’s sensibilities.

She was tired of undying “legends“ like this deigning to show up only when convenient.

“Uh huh. You yourself are only here because of Nasser, right? This is what she wants.”

“I’m here to protect Vesna. I’m here for my kin’s best interest. Not just her self-interest.”

“Keep telling yourself that.” Imani said. “I’ll do things my way, and you’re welcome to help or hinder me as you so choose. I’m not going to bother to stop you. But ultimately, if you get in my way, you get in the way of Nasser’s ambition. And she won’t choose her kin over her goals. Nasser is not old school like you are, Radu the Marzban. She is a modern militant, not a noble warrior from your mythical era. Her own flesh and blood are as disposable to her as anyone else’s. You’re blind if you don’t see it.”

She gazed up at the helmet again. There was no way to see his expression.

But she did see his unrestrained, massive aura turning ever so slightly yellowed.

Disgusted with this idea, with the words that he heard, to the point he lost some measure of control.

He was so predictable. Inside herself, Imani was grinning.

“I’m stopping the elevator here. We have nothing more to say to each other.” She said.

“Hadžić.”

For the first time in their conversation, Radu turned fully around. His aura retracted, becoming an outline.

He leaned forward so as to put Imani’s eyes level with his helmet.

“If Homa Baumann and Leija Kladuša come to harm, I will avenge the wrongs done to them before I pass.”

“Oh–?”

Before she could respond, the elevator door opened to another indoor plaza.

And then Radu the Marzban disappeared as suddenly as he came, his entire body briefly glowing before the light bended around him to conceal him from view. She could hear his distant, heavy footsteps for a brief few moments before he either climbed or ducked away or weaved into the crowd somewhere else– or simply concealed the sound of them as well and continued walking using Sihr to be unnoticed.

Imani watched for a moment, until the elevator door closed again.

“Little~ Ho~ma~,” she sing-sang to herself, “she’s even more interesting than I thought.”

All of this she would have to report to Nasser as soon as she could.

With Kitty moving, and the Marzban aboard, things would be getting interesting.


On the northeastern side of the Kreuzung core station, near the tower’s base plate, was a place known as Old Iron. This was a cross-shaped street with two intersecting horizontal branches, where the largely impoverished residents of the subsidized habitats below and above Old Iron could have some nearby businesses and services, so as to keep them near Kreuzung’s base away from richer areas. That night, the brightest glow in the neighborhood, brighter than the damaged LED clusters, were the warnings on the walls to be careful because a main water pipe had broken, and the space had filled with water.

While the water had been remotely shut, the pumps were broken, and it would all need repairs.

Kitty McRoosevelt’s heels splashed in the ankle-deep water. Careful not to fall with each step.

She checked her portable to make sure she had the right place.

Surrounded by other ailing shops and small offices. “Unit 12 in Old Iron.”

There was once a bar there, “Majestic 12,” that was a cornerstone of the community.

Both the local community and the intelligence community.

Everything around her was dilapidated and dim. Those lights overhead were not simulating night, rather, they were out of order entirely, as were most of the streetlights. Aside from the flooding, there was clear wear and tear, steel panel seams on the walls splitting or bulging, automatic doors hanging ajar, the concrete layer of the street pitted and fractured. This place couldn’t be said to be “under served.”

It looked like it was entirely abandoned by the city government.

As if to punctuate the insult to its people, now that the pipe and pumps had broken, the wall had a countdown to the arrival of maintenance services– the countdown went up instead of down, however, as the estimate for when someone would be able to repair the pipe drew farther and farther into the future. When Kitty looked at it, the crew was twenty-six hours away and counting up, farther and farther away.

“People here must be fending for themselves. It’s crazy.”

Kitty had never experienced poverty in the Republic, so she was predisposed to believe that the Empire was simply inferior in this respect, a worse place to live. Republic propaganda did depict the Empire as a backwards and brutal place, so it’s not as if Kitty had no idea that places like this could exist. But experiencing it first-hand was shocking. It made sense, however. Old Iron was supposedly a place the G.I.A. mined for discontented people to make into informants and assets, once upon a time. Several terrorists had allegedly been equipped by the G.I.A. from this place. The Majestic 12 bar.

Now, however, the see-through window panels had gone opaque.

Kitty tensed.

Though she had come to Kreuzung before, she had never explored so far in the core station.

Usually she got out of here as fast as possible, never straying beyond the darker corners of some dock.

When she approached the bar and tried the door, the automatic mechanism would not respond, and the manual lever had been locked in place. She kicked the door in frustration. G.I.A. information in the Empire was a crapshoot. It felt more like hearsay and folk tales than actionable intelligence. Nobody knew what they were doing. Since the dismantlement of the cell in Palatine twenty years ago, the G.I.A. had been subject to a game of whack-a-mole. Every year agents came in and went– body bags or imperial prisons or even defectors. It was like the Empire could read the rebellion in their eyes and single them out.

Kitty herself had only been at this for a few years. Her name was older than she was.

It had been such a struggle to get here. She had to see it through to the end.

But she was stuck.

She wasn’t half the agent the old Kitty was, and yet inherited her grave responsibilities.

The current Kitty McRoosevelt had been a gun runner, making dirty money and equipping dirty people to fund G.I.A. logistics in the region and foment disorder. She had never led a military operation, she had never plotted an attack. She handed other people the means to do so– and egged them on to commit such deeds. Her hands were bloody, but they had little experience with personally drawing blood.

The “old” Kitty, the one who was really meant to be here, had a far more illustrious career.

She could have led a fleet into battle against the Volkisch. She could have done anything.

There was no point at which Kitty stopped thinking, ‘if only she was here instead of me.’

But that was why they had to strike. If they didn’t take this chance, her cell would fall apart.

They could not return to the Republic. So they had to fight, while they still had the means.

That was the only reason she was doing something as desperate and taboo as she was.

However, Kitty’s ambition to strike at the Kreuzung reactor had a key flaw.

To get her entry team into the core, she would need bodies, diversions, a multi-prong attack.

But she did not have enough firepower inside the towers themselves.

As it stood, she would have to take over a dock to let the entry team in by herself.

To avoid detection, it was only her and Mysia who had come first, and they came separately.

She had hoped to find a local force here but there was none now.

Without the support of Khaybari and her fighters and without Mysia (who was no fighter), she had to recruit somewhere else. She hoped to find some support at the “Majestic 12,” but it was not to be. Her intelligence was out of the date and the place looked completely abandoned. If there was some secret entrance somewhere, she had no idea, and would not be able to access it at the moment. She could have the labor unionists in the Rhineametalle tower take part, but they weren’t fighters.

She needed muscle.

She struck the door to the bar again and again in frustration.

“Useless. Maybe I’ll see where the Katarrans hang out around here.”

Like many Republicans, Kitty was “wary about” (racist towards) Katarrans.

But they were useful– and their infestation of the Empire’s underworld was convenient.

With access to money and Katarrans anyone could get acceptable firepower anywhere.

Kreuzung, like much of the Empire, hated the Katarran race furiously as well.

And like much of the Empire they found the Katarran underworld irresistibly convenient too.

When she could not get any G.I.A. informants, Katarran “gossip” did the job in a pinch.

When she could not get any tactical support, a few violent fish did the job.

Regardless of racist policy, you could find Katarrans and their services nearly anywhere.

Of course, their precarious existence also served Kitty well in negotiating jobs.

Much like the relationship between the Republic itself and this peculiar race of people.

“It’ll have to be that. I can’t tell them the whole story, but they’ll be enough to welcome the entry team.“

As she was making ready to leave with a feeling like she had swallowed a stone, Kitty heard footsteps splashing in the flooded street. She put her hands in her coat pockets and slouched forward, beginning to walk away while sneaking glances around herself. There hadn’t been anyone around before, and while it wasn’t inconceivable that someone might come in, she couldn’t help but be wary in such a bleak place.

“Hey, wait a second! Is this the Majestic 12 here? When is it open?”

Kitty would have walked away, but the stranger’s call piqued her interest.

“No way to know at this point!”

Putting on a cheerful facade, Kitty turned around.

Standing at the door to the dilapidated bar was a woman.

Black suit, jackets and pants and shiny shoes, of an exact make that Kitty felt she knew right away. She did not wear a tie, and her shirt was partially undone to expose a humble bit of cleavage, but also a deep, dark pink scar on her chest. She was handsome, with both soft features but a certain weathered ruggedness, her black bangs parted to cover up one eye, visible scars. She wore the rest of her hair pinned to the back of her head, messily, without much thought to it. She was older, maybe.

She had her hands in her pockets and a certain devil-may-care posture.

When she flashed her own smile back at Kitty, she could see the easy confidence in it.

It was like a–

“Women like you end up sleeping with me after a meeting like this.”

–sort of grin.

Kitty couldn’t help but grin back at her.

She pointed with her thumb at the door to the bar.

“I had been hoping there was something there too, but this place is a dump.”

The woman smiled a bit.

“It is. Even the shitty hab I used to live in can’t compare. I feel sorry for these folks.”

Kitty tossed her hair a little.

“Well, maybe we can take this party elsewhere. I’m Kitty.”

“Kitty, huh? I’m Marina.”

They shook hands, but Marina’s eyes remained fixed on Kitty, looking her up and down.

“Like what you see, darling?” Kitty asked.

“I used to know a Kitty. Kitty McRoosevelt.” Marina said.

Interesting.

“I see. What a coincidence– that is also my surname.”

Marina’s grip on her hand strengthened. Not too rough, but firmer.

“You’re not her. She was older than you.” She said.

“Of course, but I think maybe, you understand that names are easily traded in.”

“Does McClinton mean anything to you?”

Sighing with a mild exasperation, Kitty reached into her coat and withdrew her badge.

She briefly flashed it at Marina, enough to catch her eye, before putting it away.

“Let’s talk at my place. I don’t like the vibes here one bit.” Kitty said.

Marina seemed to gain even more confidence from that.

“When women invite me in, I tend to stay the night, you know.”

“It’ll take a bit more than that to convince me to sleep with a corpse.”

Marina laughed. “Ah. Damn it. I shouldn’t have let on how uncool I was.”

Kitty smiled bitterly. “My name lineage is no less tragic than yours, McClinton.”

“I’m going by McKennedy these days.”

“How fortunate of you to have lived in a manner that let you choose a name.”

That was a choice Kitty had never had.

“There’s nothing fortunate about me.” Marina McKennedy said.

Leaving Old Iron, they headed for the central-western part of the tower, close to the dock where Kitty had left her yacht, Bertrand’s. They made a paltry bit of small-talk on the way, which suited Kitty just fine at this point. Her habitat was past the shopping mall with the big pavilion and one tier up. The elevator dropped them off at a hallway upholstered with colorful synthetic carpets, painted white walls and unassuming brown doors. Nothing was actually painted, nothing was really wood, nothing was made of real cloth, it was all plastic and carbon and metal, but it made for a convincing facsimile.

“After you.” Kitty said, opening the door to her room and gesturing in.

Marina walked in and Kitty glided in behind her, moving fast.

Soon as she cleared the door threshold, while Marina was staring at the furniture–

Kitty surprised Marina and clapped a pair of cuffs on her, binding her arms behind her back.

“What–?”

And pushed her off the landing with a kick, knocking her onto the floor between the bed and desk.

“What the fuck? What are you doing?” Marina shouted, struggling on the ground.

“Just making sure.” Kitty’s speech turned rather dead in tone– she was done acting.

“Don’t touch me! Get away from me!”

Kitty kneeled down on top of Marina, using her body weight to keep the woman’s legs pinned. She rooted around Marina’s jacket and pants, while Marina struggled, thrashed, she was openly weeping with fury, throwing her shoulders, trying to snap up her head to strike Kitty and failing. Finally, Kitty found her fold-out leather badge case in her back pocket and popped it open to view the badge itself.

While Marina continued to struggle impotently, Kitty produced a pen-shaped object from her coat and fixed the end of it over the badge. Around its circumference, a series of tiny lasers scattered over the badge, and a tiny screen on the object informed her this was a genuine badge that did indeed belong to a certain Blake McClinton, once upon a time. Was it really this woman now, however?

“Don’t touch me! Get off me! I’ll fucking kill you!”

Kitty finally stood and stepped back from Marina, allowing her to thrash on the floor at random and crawl away in a panic. She was sweating, her breathing troubled. Kitty looked down at her, a dispassionate expression on her pretty face, still holding the badge. She waited until Marina had crawled all the way across the room, and hit the opposing wall, teeth grit, eyes red with tears and agitation.

“I’ll– I’ll fucking kill you– you bitch–”

Breathless, extremely invested– was this a trauma response?

“You’re getting too worked up. How did you get this badge?”

“That’s me! You fucking idiot! What do they teach you at Madison these days?”

She knew where the G.I.A headquarters used to be, at least.

“They teach the same shit; but I picked up a tiny bit of caution over time, rather than just vibes.”

Kitty threw the badge back at Marina. It landed on her lap.

“Blake McClinton was killed in a failed coup twenty years ago.” She said.

Marina kicked her feet with frustration.

“I guess the news didn’t reach this side of the Imbrium then! I was not killed, you idiot!”

“And you’re a chick now? What happened? Why would they bother to spare your life?”

“Fuck if I know! To torture me for the remainder of it! I don’t know!”

“How did you get this badge? I know for sure it’s not a fake now.”

“It’s mine! It was at the fucking jail, lady! In an evidence locker!”

“And what jail was that?”

“The Ergastulum! Where the fuck else would it be?”

Kitty was surprised. “So you were broken out in the Ergastulum Massacre?”

Marina shook her elbows, still struggling.

“Yes! The Katarrans didn’t massacre the prisoners! They just let us out!”

Sighing, Kitty threw the key to the cuffs at her and sat on the bed.

“Calm down. Relax. Undo the cuffs. I believe you. I’m sorry for touching you.” She said.

“I don’t– I don’t forgive you. You bitch–” Marina said, catching her ragged breath.

She maneuvered herself to reach for the key and undo the cuffs.

Kitty half expected her to jump up and start attacking like a wild animal.

But she just stood up at the end of the room, straightened out her jacket, dusted herself off. She was shaking. She hugged herself briefly. Kitty could not understand the intensity of this reaction.

“You’re lucky I don’t put my hands on cocky chicks like you.” She mumbled.

“Wow. How chivalrous.” Kitty said, rolling her eyes.

What an exhausting night– she really just dug up one of the G.I.A’s ancient graves.

For all the good it would do. She was becoming more convinced everything was fucked.

“Tell me what the hell the G.I.A. is doing here.” Marina demanded.

“For what? Are you back in the game? You’re lucky you’re still alive. Just run away.” Kitty said.

Marina shouted. “Shut up! Not one hair on my head is lucky! Look at yourself! You’re desperate and paranoid, wandering around looking for an old fucking safehouse. Tell me what you’re doing, and I might be able to help you. You’ve clearly got no god damn direction you’re going in right now. It can’t hurt to clue a veteran in and see what happens. If I don’t like it I’ll just stay out of your way and that’ll be that.”

Kitty couldn’t really excuse herself of any of those charges. She really was desperate.

“Fine, veteran. But pipe down. Someone might hear you.”

Kitty kicked her feet and laid back upon the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

Reminiscing about where it all went wrong.

“Two months ago– was it? Yeah, that sounds right. Over two months ago. There was a battle in the Great Ayre Reach. You know, like we always do. The Imperials won this one, but some of our warships managed to break through to Rhinea and hid in Sefar’s Gorge. Whether it started as an attempt at desertion, or a deliberate mission of the G.I.A. I never received an answer from anyone. But a flotilla of Republic ships, with Divers, ammunition, fuel, and supplies, all came to be stuck here in Rhinea as the Empire succumbed to chaos. I’d been working as a logistician and rabble rouser in Eisental for a few years now. I met with an older G.I.A. agent, Kitty McRoosevelt, and she requested my help to gather the Republic forces in the Aachen area and use them to take control of Eisental. Eisental borders the Great Ayre Reach, so we could act as a bridgehead. Unfortunately, Kitty was killed, and I barely made out alive. Now I’m having to come up with the final act of this tragicomedy with nothing but her name– or else the fleet will be helpless.”

Marina listened without reacting or responding until the end.

“So you’re thinking of occupying Kreuzung and holding here for Republic relief?” She finally said.

“That’s about it, yes.”

“How strong is this fleet?” Marina asked. “Can they actually hold Kreuzung?”

“Twelve vessels. Ten Frigates, Two Cruisers. We’ll be using ten, holding back two for recon.”

“That’s a lot of firepower. But it’s not war-winning firepower.”

“The Volkisch are in disarray. We can hold if we take Kreuzung’s stationary defenses.”

“Right, so, new question: how do you plan to capture those stationary defenses?”

Kitty rolled over on her side. She could see Marina leaning back against the wall.

She wanted to see the reaction on her face when she said it.

“I’m going to cripple Kreuzung with a Core Separation.” Kitty said, smiling.

Marina stared at her.

“You’re going to– what?”

“It’s bold, isn’t it? Marina, do you have sex with men or women or both?”

“The fuck are you asking that for? Are you out of your mind? A Core Separation?”

Kitty laughed. She felt so hollow inside– no more acting. This was her real self. Nothing.

Nothing without the characters she played.

“I never understood taboos. It’s a sound strategy, isn’t it?” She said. Her voice neutral.

“How the hell will you even pull it off?” Marina replied. Impassioned.

“We’ll get physical access. I’ve already got the route planned out.”

“Kitty, the collateral will be immense.”

“As long as we reconnect the core when we take over the station, everything will be fine.”

Marina slammed her fist against the wall behind her.

“You don’t understand the scope whatsoever! Separating the core will cause a monumental panic! Electrical systems will start going into low power modes that never get tested! People will run out into the streets, there will be rioting, looting, it will look like the fucking end of days in this station! Innocent people could die, in hospitals, in homes, on the street. That neighborhood we saw? It’ll probably flood because any power rationing plan will not include the fucking pumps there, if they work. And while this tragedy happens, you’ll be trapped! You’ll be surrounded from literally all sides by the imperials!”

“I don’t care.” Kitty said. “Marina, you don’t understand anything.” She felt like tearing up for a moment. “You’re just a lone wolf, doing whatever you want. I was put in charge of this operation. I’m responsible for giving people hope that they can win a war and go home again. I watched her die, Marina. And now a ton of people are counting on me. I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure this out. This is the only plan that works with what I’ve got right now. Because it’s chaotic, because we all have this taboo that you don’t do anything to reactors or shoot at stations– Marina. When I held her bullet-riddled body and became Kitty McRoosevelt. I realized we’re in an era where anything is fair. Even using core pylons as weapons.”

Marina grit her teeth. She closed her fists and stared at Kitty with visible frustration.

“Look at you. You suffer one setback and start spouting nihilist bullshit and killing civilians.”

“No wonder you failed.” Kitty shot back. “With your stupid sense of justice.”

“Fuck you.” Marina said. “None of you have to do this. All of you can just stop.”

Kitty rolled onto her back in the bed again, shifting her gaze from Marina back to the roof.

Empty and white.

Just like her–

“Marina. You and I are G.I.A. We voluntarily left the Republic to have adventures here. You and I can blend into this world, we know how, it’s our entire way of life. If it was just us, that would be one thing. But most of the people working for me now are soldiers. They were forced to leave the Republic, and they are trapped here. Without my assistance, they will all die here. They can’t make lives in this place. All they can do is fight. They can’t blend in. They can’t just disband. Everything they see is the enemy. Thousands of aimless people in steel coffins. That’s why I want them to fight for something. The only hope I know how to give people, is to give them targets to attack. I hope you can understand that now.”

Kitty McRoosevelt, before all this, was a senior G.I.A. operative, like Marina was.

But Missouri McFord was a just a scoundrel who gave disgruntled people guns, fuel and bombs.

It was true– everything was fucked the second the real Kitty McRoosevelt died.

“That’s still all I’m doing. You can help me or not. But it’s going to happen.”

She reached out the roof, staring at it between the five gloves fingers of her hand.

“Kitty McRoosevelt doesn’t have a future, Marina. It isn’t a living person’s name.”

“God damn it. Shut up.” Marina said.

There was silence for a few minutes. Kitty didn’t say anything more until Marina spoke.

“I won’t help you separate the reactor core. But I can assist you with logistics.”

“Thank you, Veteran. Then, maybe we can help each other. What are you doing here?”

Kitty sat up in bed. Out of habit, she was putting on a blithely false smile again.

Marina initially resisted the question, but then handed her a photo, printed on a pixel sheet.

There was a woman, a thin and long-limbed woman, wearing a white coat over a brown blouse and a black pencil skirt. She had very long purple-ish hair, tall Shimii ears with a good bit of fluff in them, a deadpan but unassumingly pretty face. Boxy glasses perched upon a small nose. Her green eyes, even through the photo, seemed to pierce through the viewer with an overwhelming directness.

“She was going by the name ‘Asan’ once upon a time. I want to know what happened to her. I’d– I’d like to reconnect with her if she’s alive.” She hesitated. “We– we have some business to finish.”

“A Shimii? You think she’s around here?” Kitty asked. Marina nodded her head.

“Once upon a time, her employer was headquartered here. A biological research group, Bio-Radiance.”

“A Shimii scientist? Here? Marina, Kreuzung is extremely racist toward Shimii.”

“That doesn’t preclude anyone from living or hiding here! Can you help or not?”

Kitty smiled. “Well, sure. Alright. I have a reliable agent that is leaving the station soon. I will tell them to dig up what they can before they go, and to leave you something at Aachen that you can find so you can continue your search. In return, I need your help rounding up some Katarran lackeys.”

Marina crossed her arms over her chest. “Why would I go to Aachen?”

“It’s the next place that makes sense for you to go, if you don’t find anything here.”

“Alright. Fine. I can get you some Katarran mercs, no problem.” Marina sighed.

“Don’t tell them about the Core Separation, of course.”

“I’m not stupid. Of course I won’t tell them. You come up with the cover story.”

“Okay. I’m counting on you.”

“I know a Katarran merc who is at loose ends. I’ll hire her, and she can help with the rest. Trust me.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad I have someone so resourceful to count on. Sounds good then.”

“No, it’s actually dreadful, for you. Having to rely on Katarrans is never good.”

Kitty stared at Marina for a moment. She almost wanted to laugh. It was all so ridiculous.

She really didn’t look half-bad. Not as good as her Kitty but–

“Do you still want to stay the night? It’d be fun to have you.” Kitty asked.

Marina’s response was immediate.

“No. I have to leave. I’m working with some people I don’t want to find out about this.”

Kitty didn’t really care about the details of Marina’s life. She didn’t care about her at all.

That part of her, that really, truly, cared about someone– it had broken.

In that moment she just really felt like she wanted a comfort she was not going to receive.

“How did you know the old Kitty?” She asked. Just for Marina to stay a little longer.

Marina fingers opened and closed into fists at her sides.

She averted her gaze, and began to walk out. She answered only once she was past Kitty’s bed.

“She was a field agent around the time I was. But she never got caught. How did you?”

A bit of bitterness involuntarily crept into Kitty’s smile as she remembered–

“We had sex. It was comforting. She comforted me a lot. That’s how we got close.”

Marina grunted, said nothing. She ran her fingers through her hair, her movements tense.

“I kinda wish you’d stay.“ Kitty said. “We could comfort each other.“

Marina sighed.

“Of all people, I have no right to judge you. Please just try to keep living, Missouri.“

There was another long, awkward silence. Kitty did not speak, and Marina walked away.

When the door shut closed behind her– that was when Kitty finally let herself cry.

Hugging herself in bed, helpless, overwhelmed. Everything was too inexorably in motion.

She had nothing except what she was given. Weapons and a mission to complete.

Kitty McRoosevelt was a dead person’s name.

All she had left of her was a dead name worn like a fetish.


“Tch!”

Majida al-Khaybari grumbled, walking aggressively with a forward slouch, hands in her pockets, periodically kicking her feet at nothing. Making a variety of disapproving noises to air out her tensions. At her side, her partner-in-crime Raaya Al-Shahouh had an airy, free-spirited gait as they made their way back to their apartment in Tower Eight, frequently stealing glances. Majida had been livid, after leaving Kitty McRoosevelt and her insane scheme back at Ballad’s Paradise. Not just livid at that G.I.A’s freak’s insane plot– also livid that she had to find and hire a Katarran mercenary courier at the last second.

Had it been the low-grade fuel stuff, Majida could have transported it herself.

With high-grade rods she needed someone with a big ship, or the right gear to isolate them.

And nobody official or reliable would have let her transport Agarthicite fuel rods to Khaybar.

“I swear if that courier steals them– ugh! Damn Kitty McRoosevelt’s bitch of a mother!“

“Manners.” Raaya said. “Where did the goodly Warlord who reads scripture go?“

Majida averted her gaze in response. Her cheeks flushed just a little bit.

She really was ashamed. She had a fiery temper and she was the first to criticize it.

“If it means anything,” Raaya said, “I think you handled everything admirably.”

“There was no handling it. We have no choice but to stay out of that madwoman’s mess.”

“I just was afraid you were going to kill her for a second.” Raaya said, shrugging.

“Not in front of you.” Majida replied.

“You’re so considerate. But I’ve seen death too, Majida. I’m not naïve.” Raaya said.

“I’m not disrespecting you. I just– I just don’t like you seeing that side of me.”

“Just don’t treat me like a kid. You may be taller but I’m older and more mature than you.“

“Older? By a few weeks maybe. And I don’t treat you like a kid. I just esteem you highly.“

“Hmm.“

Overhead, the station lights had begun to dim. Rather than white and yellow more and more of the sun lamps shut off, and in their place gentle dark-blue LEDs began to cast the station into the darkness of night. This was part of controlling the habits of the population, but also to achieve a sense of normalcy, to allow their present state to compare to the ancient lives that humans once had in their true home.

Night created other moods as well–

Raaya put her hands behind her back, smiling sweetly. “Majida.”

“Hmm?” Majida gave her companion a brooding look.

“Our business is concluded now, right?”

Majida grunted. “I’m staying until I hear from Zahira that the rods got back. We might need to find an additional seller if not– and I’ll have to fucking kill that courier’s whole gang too. Ah, damn it that’s another thing, I need to find where we can send an acoustograph to Zahira to let her know–”

Raaya tapped Majida in the back. “Majida– our business is concluded.” She said again.

When Majida’s quizzical gaze fell over her, Raaya looked a little bit demure. Her face flushed.

“Wait– You little minx–?” Majida laughed. “Well, well, well! Fine. I’ll take care of you.”

She got up close and nuzzled her companion’s nose with her own.

Raaya laughed and immediately turned a bit bratty. “I’m glad you finally got it, you oaf.”

That little scene caused Majida’s mood to visibly lift as they made their way back from the Kreuzung Core.

It was dark, the halls were cold, the world was full of troubles, but she could smile.

Because their business was concluded. So then– only pleasure was left.

Soon after getting home, in one of the basement habitats of Tower Eight–

“Are you comfortable? Your body feels so relaxed. I could hold you like this forever.”

“It’s nice to have your arms around me. I can tell you’re excited too.”

Majida’s head rested on the girl’s shoulder. Her hands gripped pleasantly rounded hips.

Her tongue tasted the side of Raaya’s neck– the smaller woman tensed slightly.

“What are you feeling up to? I’ll only do as much as you want.” Majida cooed.

Raaya briefly hesitated. She spoke to her partner in a timid whisper.

“I’m not ready to bear your child.” She said– clearly embarrassed to have said it.

“Hmm. Understood. I’ll just fool around a little then, okay?”

Majida’s hands glided across Raaya’s ribs and over her chest, sliding on the smooth, soft skin to cup her firm, pliable breasts in her hands. She was not shy with her affections, her fingers gripped with force, lifting the soft little mounds while teasing the nipples with the tips of her index fingers. A little yelp escaped Raaya’s lips– Her slim, narrow back arched into Majida’s chest, her pelvis grazing Majida’s lap. Majida fondled Raaya’s breasts with enthusiasm, delighting in the pleasant give of the skin, its smooth softness, the heft of the flesh, and the humble shape that fit into her eager hands so exactly.

“Caught you by surprise? What a tasty little sound.”

“Majida–”

Her name drew from those lips like a ragged breath.

Majida could feel her lover’s pulse elevate through the touch of their skin, through the hands cupped over her chest. It drove her wild. Majida was up on the bed against the cold, steel wall of their rental unit, with Raaya sat on her lap and backing into her whenever Majida got rough. Or whenever Majida actively pulled her closer, easily lifting her weight, as close as she could maneuver the shorter woman into her body. In this position, she could reach anywhere she wanted on Raaya’s body, and having consented and given her oath, Raaya gave no resistance. But whenever Majida aroused her, she felt the pressure of Raaya’s weight shift into her, up against her groin– the softness of the girl’s buttocks against the length of Majida’s shaft particularly– it took some willpower not to cum from that sensation alone.

“Hmm? What was that?”

She leaned against Raaya, breathing into the nape of her neck, whispering.

Taking in the simple, earthy smell of her long, loose brown hair.

Raising her head up almost over the smaller woman, Majida bit down on the silky-soft, cartilaginous edge of her ear, kneading the flesh playfully between her teeth, causing both of Raaya’s ears to twitch–

“M-Majida–!“

“Hmm?“

Majida played dumb while continuing to tease her.

One hand retained a firm grip on her splendid little morsel of a breast, but the other began to travel.

Drumming on the flesh as she went, crawling digit by digit down her belly.

Tracing a little line in her lower abdomen with a pressing finger, as if over the womb.

Raaya’s tail curled around Majida’s thigh. Her own tail held one of Raaya’s legs.

Majida felt every shudder and shake of the woman in her grasp, transferring skin to skin.

She couldn’t see Raaya’s face, but Majida imagined her bitten lip, her eyes shut in euphoria.

It was intoxicating. Her head felt hazy.

She wanted to pin her down– but restrained herself.

Oaths were extremely important to Shimii, in business and in courtship.

Raaya whimpered, barely forming words–

“What was that? Got something to say?”

With the question came a renewed interest from Majida’s fingers, lower, near her–

“N-No– it’s nothing– keep going–”

“Thought so. Don’t keep too quiet though. Let me hear that lovely singing voice.”

She did not have to wait long or make much effort to play Raaya like a lovely instrument.

“Aah!”

From Raaya’s lips sang desperate little moans, music to Majida’s ears as her fingers teased her, entered her, finally reaching between her legs. She was softer than silk between her thighs, Majida’s roaming fingers delighting in the texture of her, in the warmth. She leaned forward, squeezing up as close as she could to Raaya without bending her over, her breasts pressing against her soft, warm back, glistening with building sweat. Majida’s lips, tongue and teeth journeyed across lean shoulder-blades to the base of the neck. Her mouth left hungry, sucking kisses and bites across Raaya, little red claiming marks of her desire.

“Nngh! Oh–!”

Raaya’s tongue lolled momentarily from her gasping mouth.

Her upper body lurched forward, while her hips backed up against Majida.

In response, Majida felt a dire need to press herself even closer, to move in rhythm with her.

Under her breath, a barely audible grunt escaped from her.

She couldn’t hold back from making a sound. Her vision briefly swam.

Raaya was grinding right on her cock– it was definitely deliberate.

And it only made her hungrier for more.

Beautiful, enrapturing, a dream-like haze of pleasure.

“I didn’t think you knew what you were doing.” Majida said in a low voice.

“I’m– ugh!” Raaya shook. Majida’s fingers– “I’m a grown woman, Majida– hngh!”

“I just didn’t think you had this kind of malice in you–”

“Shut up– and just–”

“With pleasure– my pure little Raaya.”

Majida cooed as her index finger rolled slowly and deliberately over Raaya’s clit.

A most beautiful little noise escaped from Raaya’s lips.

She lurched forward, and as one body Majida moved with her.

Bent down on her elbows, Raaya put her head down into the pillow, her shoulders rocking, her tongue lolling, her lower body shaking. Majida loomed over her, the taller woman, hugging her breast to back, her hanging cock hard as steel, kissing Raaya, reassuring her. One hand holding and stroking her abdomen while the other caused a tumultuous unceasing passion to echo through her skin, down bucking hips, through shaking moist thighs, bent knees. Raaya’s delicate hands gripped the bedsheets, she smothered her head, grit her teeth, while her body moved in a wild synchronicity with her lover.

Her tail lifted from Majida’s leg, and instead joined Majida’s own, curled together like a coil.

Incoherent, passion-slurred words half in Fusha and half in Low Imbrian escaped Raaya’s lips.

As her flesh was held by the center and played by the lower half to a thunderous climax.

Majida was relentless, her body enveloping her partner, wanting to take her closer, closer and harder. She could feel Raaya’s orgasms through her working fingers, could feel her body tensing, convulsing, the spasms of each subsequent tremor of her pleasure. It spurred her to continue, to escalate, her own breathing heavy with effort, smiling, head foggy with joy, drawn in by her partner’s song.

When Raaya was fully exhausted, Majida could feel it too. She smiled with satisfaction.

Pulling her finger from Raaya was like taking out a load-bearing rod.

In the next moment, she completely fell down onto the bed, slowly rolling on her side.

Her slim, heaving chest, her quivering thighs and legs. Beautifully spent, unwound.

Looking up at Majida, who was sitting against the wall again, with a precious little grin.

Which Majida returned by putting the fingers she had used into her mouth to taste.

“You really are special, Majida.” Raaya whispered, echoing an oft-heard sentiment.

Majida cracked a little grin. “I am special. I reside beyond the bounds.”

After resting for only a moment, Raaya suddenly made herself sit back up.

She leaned forward with a final flicker of passion–

“Oh!”

Now it was Majida’s turn to be surprised.

As Raaya, supporting herself with her arms on Majida’s hips, gave her a sucking kiss–

–right on the very tip of her cock.

“Ugh– Raaya–!”

Her tongue slipped from between the kissing lips, applying a sudden warm pressure–

Erect just from fingering and grinding with Raaya before, Majida lasted no time at all.

A trickle of thin fluid dribbled from Majida’s cock into Raaya’s awaiting tongue.

Just as soon, Raaya lifted her head, crawled back up onto Majida’s lap, and kissed her.

There was not much of the fluid for their tongues to share, but they still reveled in it.

Kissing with the last of their strength until their clumsy bodies fell together in exhaustion.

They laid beside one another, locking eyes. Sweating, breathing hard, skin aquiver.

Raaya tipping her head a bit to stare, Majida tipping down. Enjoying the difference.

Glowing. Fulfilled. Having satisfied an urge they could partake in at no other time.

“Sometimes I wish I was a little bit more– fertile.” Majida said.

Raaya laughed. She was so beautiful. “It’s the right amount of adventurous for me.”

Majida reached out and held Raaya close, stroking her fluffy ears and hair.

She wanted to hold her like that forever.

Their adventure to Kreuzung had seen them swearing a temporary marriage, rendering their rendezvous religiously permissible under Mahdist beliefs. Though it was not necessary to do so for Majida to escort Raaya out of Khaybar, it was something they both had wanted to do, and which they had done in a limited capacity before, in order to explore their relationship more intimately. Of course, they could not swear such a thing to Raaya’s mother, Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh– rather, it was an uncle of Majida’s main lieutenant Zahira. He was also a religious authority and witnessed signing the temporary marriage.

Zahira and her family, being of military bearing and very loyal to Majida, understood and encouraged the Warlord to take brides and partake in sex, but Majida did not view things in such casual terms. And she hoped that Raaya did not see it that way either. To her, these oaths were preparatory, a statement of Majida’s intent for Raaya and a presage for a true consummation of their romance and intimacy.

Mahdist Shimii put a lot of stock into contracts and oaths, as a people who survived a history of painful betrayals. Rashidun Shimii looked down upon these temporary unions as prostitution, but Majida was not treating Raaya with disrespect. She was following her oath. And someday, she wanted Raaya to be her woman, and she treated her as such. She was faithful and protective of her. She coveted her and cherished these rare moments where they could have the pleasure of each other as adults. In Khaybar, under the watchful eye of Mawla Asma– they were both not ready to talk to her about it yet.

But the few times they had a chance like this, they relished it.

“Raaya. You are the greatest treasure which God has given me.” Majida said.

“And you are my hero, Majida. I’m happy to be able to share these feelings with you.”

Holding her temporary bride there, in their temporary bed on this strange station, Majida felt suddenly that she never wanted to let Raaya go. She could do anything as long as Raaya was there, either beside her or waiting for her to come home. Raaya was Khaybar’s future, Majida’s future, God’s gift.

And now, she was here in Kreuzung with her.

In the middle of whatever tragedy was about to unfold in the station.

Allah forgive me. In my lust I’ve made a foolish decision.

She should have never brought Raaya here– had she known–

“Majida, are you okay?” Raaya asked weakly. “You’re squeezing me a bit.”

Ana asef.” Majida said. Asking for forgiveness. She let her grip slacken.

Raaya nestled herself against Majida’s chest, making herself the little spoon.

“Thank you, Majida. For taking me places. And– showing me a good time.”

Her words turned a bit sheepish. When it came to sex, she really acted like a kid sometimes.

“I’m not afraid.” Raaya said. “And I don’t want you to be afraid for me. I know what must be on your mind. It’s on mine too, that’s one reason why I wanted a bit of– distraction, for us. But I’m not afraid. God saw fit to guide us here in a time of oncoming crisis. And my father entrusted our ummah to you, Majida, before he passed. I’ve always believed in you, even when Norn first brought you to Khaybar.”

“We should honestly leave while it’s still quiet.” Majida said.

“But we won’t.” Raaya said. “Because even for a bunch of Rashidun who might curse your name if they knew, you don’t want to see our people abused and killed by the Imbrians, no matter what. So you and I are staying here. I think that’s the right thing to do. I’m here with you, I’ll give you strength.”

Majida sighed. Raaya was speechifying, she always so brave. Always too brave.

“That’s what I’m afraid of. But you’re right. I even told that Kitty I wouldn’t leave.”

“You made the right choice not to help her. And you made that choice immediately.”

“Of course. It’s insane. She’ll be hated by all right-thinking people if they knew.”

“Yes. But nonetheless– you did not choose an easy path to victory. You were righteous.”

Raaya went silent for a moment. Contemplating, perhaps, before she spoke again.

“It’s scary, to think we live in a time where Kitty’s brutal thinking is even possible.”

Majida lowered her head into Raaya’s shoulders, into her hair.

“It’s because the Imbrians and Cogitans have everything in the world. They feel emboldened to destroy it all thinking they’ll rebuild over each other’s ashes. They are godless people who don’t see us as being really alive and worth living. They toy with our people. Someday, Raaya– I’ll bring judgment to them.”

“I believe it. But for now, let that righteous fire rest, and we’ll see what happens.”

Raaya was so much wiser than Majida ever gave her credit for.

Allah protect old Asma but– Raaya would make a magnificent Mawla too, Majida thought.


In order to drown out the noisy neighbors, the television turned up to full volume.

“…in other news, Kreuzung public security has launched a murder investigation after a body was found in the maintenance tunnel for the water systems in Weiss Park this evening. Public workers discovered the body after entering the tunnel for weekly maintenance. The area was then cordoned off for investigation. KPS told reporters that they believe the murder was recent and the suspect is at large and urged citizens to report all suspicious persons to KPS station guards. The victim has not been identified at this time and the KPS has urged the public to avoid speculation as to the nature of the murder until they issue an official report. In more light-hearted news, Epoch Clothiers has announced a campaign to donate 15% of each sale of their high-end line ‘Epoch New Horizons’ to providing baby formula to needy…”

Homa Baumann began to tune out what the news reporter was saying, on the television playing across the wall opposite her bed. Her room lights were all off, so she was bathed in the glow of the television as she lay sideways on her bed, her legs half-curled, half-naked in only a pair of underwear shorts. Her long, dark, fluffy hair was loose, wildly thrown about, with the band that once tied it cast across the room.

Her tail wiggled about as much as it could as her weary eyes scanned the face of the inexpressive man delivering the news, watching him flap his mouth but beginning to lose the words. Her tail kept wiggling as she laid on her back and over it, smothering the little ball of fur. Her lips parted with a yawn.

She stretched out her arms and realized she was wearing one thing up top.

Her necklace. It was the only thing Radu recovered of her mother.

As such it carried a dual identity.

An item of the mother she could hardly remember.

A gift from the great dark figure that pried her from the grip of death.

And now,

Cherish that little life in your hands,

Homa popped open the necklace container to expose the piece of silica.

She lifted it up in front of her eyes.

It was shiny, when hit by the light from the streaming video on the wall, an opaque white and silver prism. Rough hewn, it had dozens of surfaces, without definitive shape except that it was a sliver, sheared off some anonymous rock wall. Her mind briefly pored over it. Over the idea that it had ever been alive.

Homa grunted a bit with irritation. Tired, unable to sleep, but recalling those silly words.

Her head was full of troubles. Her life was truly no good– if this little thing was alive, it had it easy.

“I am barely cherishing my own little life, you asshole.”

Homa let the necklace drop between her breasts, without closing the container.

She felt it stir from her own breathing and the beating of her heart.

“…it’s Day 5 of the Rhineanmetalle steelworkers strike, and so far, there is no deal between the workers and the company. President Adam Lehner has issued demands for the striking steelworkers to reopen the steelworks and ‘resume their patriotic duty’ while Governor Werner has said he believes that a ‘mutually advantageous position’ can be reached for all sides in the dispute. Rhineanmetalle could not be reached for an official comment. The steelworkers remain barricaded within Tower Nine despite attempts…”

She was vaguely listening to the broadcast again with her head turned from it.

“How do they get food?” Homa wondered.

Maybe they had planned everything prior to striking, or the tower already had food stocks.

Maybe someone was helping them.

Homa put on a little grin, rolling over on her side. Her vision wavered.

“Maybe Korabiskaya and Kitty are all here to make the strike worse.”

Why was that woman on her mind? Idiot.

Her tail wagged a little. She smiled to herself.

“Maybe they’re the big heroes. And Imani and I are the awful villains.”

An embittered little laugh.

Compelled by her little half-awake fantasy, Homa reached for her portable on the end of the bed. She brought it up to her face, unlocked the screen with her thumbprint and looked at the mails in the messaging app. Imani’s black hearts were the only mails that she had ever received.

And she had not sent one since their date.

Homa wondered if she should ask Imani if she was okay, but she thought better of it.

“What’s going to end up happening to me?” She said to herself, dropping the portable.

Would she ever hear from Imani Hadžić again?

When she went to work on Firstday would Kitty McRoosevelt come check on her yacht?

Would one or both of them end up on the news, as anonymous as the corpse in the park?

“I– I went to that park today– didn’t I?” She said groggily. An icy fear gripped her.

She could have died– she could have been murdered.

Somehow, it was this that seemed to seize her into pure panic.

Shaking across her body, a creeping anxiety that bid her to hug herself, teeth chattering.

Her mind seized up, in contrast with her cold flesh her head felt like a furiously boiling cauldron evaporating every piece of thought that she could possibly have had. She felt her breath grow heavy, her legs feel numb, her vision fading in and out between names and places real and imagined. She was a child, stranded amid the leaping sparks of downed and flaming wires steadily slipping into a pool of water, a dark figure approaching; she was an adult, in a chapel, holding hands with her bride Imani Hadžić; she was the Coral Knight, in armor and lance, traveling station to station to right wrongs and punish the evil forces who wished to steal the life force of the good and kind folk of the Coral Kingdom.

Half asleep anxious visions paralyzed her mind and body.

Shaking hands, quavering breath. She grabbed the necklace in the middle of the attack.

Don’t Be Afraid–

A voice, beautiful, comforting, warm, but striking thunderously through the panic.  

Homa’s breathing slowed.          

That voice cut through the waking nightmares and ushered Homa to finally fall peacefully asleep.


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