For a few minutes, Homa drifted in reverent silence through the open ocean.
Outside her cockpit, through the cameras, she could see the bubbles from her exhaust trailing up, she could see the water rushing as she descended, and the bodies of the towers growing larger and farther around her. So she knew she was falling. She had a smile on her face, she could not help but be happy. Encased in metal armor, out in the water, free from the station’s confines.
When the feet of her stripped-down Volker mech touched ground, she pressed down the pedals to engage the hydrojets and accelerated toward the base of Tower 7, where her target was.
Homa’s every muscle brimmed with excitement.
When she was in the Diver, she felt bigger, stronger, freer than ever.
Everything was quieter, too. But she wasn’t just alone with her thoughts. Controlling the machine with the sticks, the pedals, the switches, and triggers, glancing across her monitors and the instrument panels, switching cameras. She was engaged the whole time, working as if with her whole body in rapid succession, but the task was peaceful, almost relaxing, as it frequently occupied all of her faculties.
“Homa– you– hear me?”
Emma’s voice was scratchy, cutting in and out, but Homa could technically still hear her.
The headphones slotted into the fluff of her cat-like ears were connected to the Volker’s acoustic and laser-channel digital communications system. Depending on which could provide the most fidelity, the computer would switch between them automatically. The audio quality going to hell meant that Homa was far enough away now from the laser router at B.S.W to switch to acoustic data transmission. This was basically decoding long-distance soundwaves as a digital signal, from sound to bits and bytes.
Transfer rates over acoustic data protocol were atrocious.
“Barely.” Homa replied.
Homa knew Emma well enough to fill in her characteristic ‘oh dear’.
She was Bertrand’s secretary, but she was a licensed sonar, radio, and laser/acoustic router operator, so when Homa went out on the Diver to work in the water, Emma was always the voice in her ears. For worker safety, Emma was supposed to fill in Homa on any weather updates from the station, or on any traffic that might be headed her way. But Bertrand cheaped out on his laser router, so most of the time, Homa could barely hear Emma unless the job was at base of the Kreuzung core tower.
Today, Homa was headed out to pry open a stuck runoff gate at the base of Tower 7.
Dockyards got jobs like these from time to time, dockworkers called them ‘gigs.’
Money was money. Getting a gig like this was more marks in her pocket.
Her rent was paid, but her conviction to leave Kreuzung was still as sharp as ever.
For that, she needed money and a lot of it. No two ways about it.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff! I’ll finish this and be back soon!” Homa said.
She was sure only every other word of that got through to Bertrand’s.
Between the towers Homa traveled over slushy dirt, made up of the same raining marine biomass that made up the marine fog swirling around her. There were many animals, pale or transparent, soft-bodied, abyssal fish and crustaceans and worms, congregating on the remains of larger animals from brighter waters that had drifted from above and made it into the Kreuzung sea floor.
There was no way to move in her great machine without disturbing these natural sites. Clouds of fish and krill felt water displace around the area and leaped defensively away, before returning to the carcasses in which they made their livelihoods once Homa moved far enough way from them. Out in the water, there was so much more life than anyone would ever see just staring out the sea viewing windows in the Kreuzung complex. It was easy to think the world outside was entirely dead. Walking through the Kreuzung seafloor, Homa got a firsthand view at everything they shared the crater with.
Somehow, while the people were all trapped in ships and stations, life teemed out here.
And up above, from where all the food for these beings fell continuously from the sky.
Homa peered toward heaven, and all her floodlights illuminated was more marine fog.
Brown dust suspended in dark water, and the distant, looming shadows of towers and their bridges. Allah and the promise of heaven. It was far out of her sight, infinitely beyond her reach. At the bottom of the Kreuzung crater she was 2500 meters from the surface. To think, even then, that there were human beings even deeper. Some parts of the complex, deeper underground, went as far as 4000 meters.
Nothing habitable– just old maintenance tunnels and mining shafts, Homa had heard.
Sometimes, when she piloted, she marveled at the enormity of what surrounded her.
But she also felt strangely powerful. She felt a thrill in the center of her chest.
Because she was out here, walking this forbidden land in her suit of armor.
As bad as she sometimes felt for the fish– she felt better than ever about herself.
Closer to each tower, the muddy, biomass-heavy earth was replaced with the steel base plate for the tower. Some of these rings contained massive entrances into underground spaces, but others were just there to provide anchor points and power supply inputs for heavy equipment. There were slots on the floor in places, contact points where construction modules could be attached to power huge cranes or massive underwater welding gear which could be used to repair or replace exterior plates on the tower. There were ships that could repair station towers too, truly massive ones that plugged into the baseplates, Homa had learned about them in school. That was neither here nor there though.
For Homa, at that moment, it only meant she was gliding over steel, rather than soil.
Slowly, the marine fog lifted as she closed in on the structure and she could see the varied man-made geometry of the exterior of Tower 7’s base. The runoff gate she was commissioned to pry open was dead ahead, its indentation in the tower wall visible once Homa got close enough with her Diver.
There were four handholds on the exterior of the gate in case it needed to be forced open, but it was otherwise a door that slid out when enough water was pumped through the connecting chute to force it open. This particular gate, Homa was told, was one of the places water was periodically pumped out to in order to empty the station’s desalination pipelines so they could be cleaned or replaced. When it became stuck, the pipes and tanks couldn’t be fully emptied. It was a quick and dirty job to go out in the water and get it open, so it was contracted out to any company with a Diver. That way the maintenance crews in Kreuzung would not have to keep, train, or assume liability for any Diver pilots and their gear.
“I’m at the site. I’ll just get this cracked open and be back shortly.”
Fuzzy gibberish came through in response. Homa slowed and stopped before the gate.
Technically it would have been possible for Homa to connect to Tower 7 itself and route back to Bertrand’s that way. She could have talked to Emma and had any guidance whatsoever from her; but B.S.W would have assumed the cost of the data transfers and she would have gotten yelled at for it. So instead Homa just assumed nobody would hear her if she died screaming in the open waters.
Not that anything would happen at this point.
She pushed her sticks forward, engaging the finger switches to spread and close the digits on the Diver’s hand. She grabbed hold of two of the handholds on the gate door and pulled back her control sticks to pull with just the mechanical force of the arms. This had no immediate effect, the runoff gate remained shut. Homa angled her hydrojets away and slowly ramped up the thrust, pulled up and back, feet leaving the ground as the current cycling through the machine lifted her completely off the base plate.
Despite the amount of force being applied, the gate remained firmly shut.
“Ugh, this is really stuck!”
Bertrand didn’t want her to use the solid fuel boosters if at all possible. Solid fuel was a misnomer — it was just what people came to call power generation other than agarthic batteries. In this case, the “solid fuel” was actually liquid– they could burn anything that burned, depending on the kind of boosters equipped. Bertrand filled theirs with diesel because it was cheap, but cheap wasn’t free. With a few licks of solid fuel boosting she could have had this open in an instant. She was starting to think she had no other choice, however. She had not come with any tools, just the vibromachete on the magnetic strip.
Cutting through the runoff gate was of course not an option.
“Well! I don’t have a choice! Hey, Emma, if you can hear, I’m hitting a booster.”
Her left hand moved instinctually toward a button panel in front of her, in order to flip open a plastic cap enclosing the trigger that unlocked the solid fuel boosters. On normal Divers the boosters were immediately accessible from buttons on the stick or pedals, but Bertrand installed a mechanism to lock those controls and then put a plastic box over it to really make Homa think about using fuel.
As soon as she unlocked the booster, however, she was alerted to sudden movement–
On her monitors there was a flashing red box placed by the computer over the runoff gate–
Which burst suddenly open, ejecting a cloud of salt residue and water stuck inside.
Unveiling flashing red eyes and a long, eerie shadow–
Homa rapped the buttons on her sticks that engaged solid fuel boost and thrust upward.
She felt her cockpit rattle as something lunged past and slammed into one of the feet.
This threw her off but not enough to completely lose control. She tried to get her bearings.
Glancing at one of her secondary monitors showed her one of the underside cameras. On the feed, there was the long, dark form of a creature about twice the height of her Diver in length, but slightly thinner. A bulbous main body like a huge four-part jaw that attached to a sack for the eyes and brain, tapering into a tail with yellow biological lights glowing across it. Two structures on the rear end of the sack-like portion of the body ejected water and dirt– bio-hydrojets, fed water from the enormous mouth and from four sets of gills on the sides and top of the sack. That meant this eel-like being was a Leviathan.
Twisting around, its jaws and four malicious eyes atop its sack-body suddenly faced her.
“Leviathan! Emma! Leviathan!” Homa cried out.
Jerking her control sticks, Homa faced down the creature, trying to gauge its next move.
A red targeting box drawn around it by the predictive computer, labeled the creature.
Gulp-class, a “lifeboat” level Leviathan. Fourteen meters long.
Had it been hiding in the runoff gate? For how long? How did it get in there?
It must have been holding it shut until Homa disturbed it.
Now it was clearly aggravated.
Engaging its hydrojets and the muscles on its tail, the Gulp-class lunged at Homa.
Rows and rows of vibrating silver teeth gleamed inside its enormous, distending maw.
Monomolecular edges, each one, just like her machete.
They would shred the unarmored Volker. Homa once more launched herself aside.
“Emma! Emergency! Leviathan!”
Homa repeated words, rather than phrases, hoping something would get through.
But there was nothing but static on the acoustic network or laser messaging.
The Gulp-class lunged past her, but this time it slammed its tail at her as it went.
Her entire cockpit rattled and shook, Homa clinging to her controls with a deathly grip.
Gritting her teeth, eyes racing between monitors, heart pounding.
She could connect to Tower 7, but she needed her hands and concentration on avoiding the attacks, she could not work on the computer to swap connections and ask for help. After sweeping past her, the Gulp-class seemed to have learned something from its short-ranged and sudden leaps, and instead gathered momentum by swimming away into the marine fog and doubling back.
“No, no– this is– this can’t be–”
Homa’s vision swam, her undershirt clung to her cold sweating chest.
Her limbs tensed and shook, her feet shook hard enough to tap her pedals.
Shrill screeching roars sounded the violence hurtling her away.
As the monster threw itself forward, Homa shrank away from it with her whole body.
Forward boosters threw her aside the charging, snapping jaw.
Three vibrating teeth grazed the exterior forearm of her Volker, scratching the metal.
And the body disappeared again into the fog, twisting to resume attack.
Had those teeth caught on a pushrod she would have been without an arm.
“No no no no no!”
Was this how she was going to die? All alone out in the ocean, torn out of a Diver by a screeching monster, screaming her heart out without a soul to hear? Every centimeter of her skin was brimming with anxiety, she felt her heart like bass echoing through her pores, into her roiling gut. She could not unclench her jaw and her fingers shook wildly enough on her controls to make up a drumbeat. Flooding tears stung her eyes and clouded her vision. She could not feel her tail.
If even one of those teeth dug deep enough her entire body would be extruded–
“I’m– I’m not going to die here! I’m going to escape this place! I’ll escape! Damn you!”
Homa shouted herself hoarse and drew her vibromachete from the magnetic strip.
It was just large enough to hold in both hands like a short sword.
On her monitors a red box indicated the resurgence of the Gulp-class and its heading.
Homa engaged all thrust, throwing itself into the Gulp-class’ charge.
Holding her sword from the shoulder and thrusting with all her might and momentum.
Crashing into the Leviathan’s fat snout and driving the sword between its four eyes.
Its distended jaw slackened from the attack and could not close around her Volker.
Hysterical, Homa pounded her feet on her pedals, tugged her sticks. “Die! Fucking die!”
Furiously tearing across the soft palate and nostril, Homa drove her sword back out. In the wake of her cutting edge issued a geyser of red biomass. The mildly buzzing vibration of the monster’s teeth died out, its jets sputtered and clogged with gore, the mutilated body sank slowly away from the Diver. Coming to fall upon the tower base plate, where curious, wandering krill and shrimp convened.
Homa watched, heaving breath, eyes incredulous, as all the tiny creatures invisibly lost upon the surface of the tower base plate showed themselves. Visible in contrast with the dark body of the Leviathan, they started picking apart the corpse. To them, it did not matter whether it fell to the brown earth or to the metallic plate surface. It was a needed injection of life-sustaining biomass.
Something about the sight of the creature that had brought her so much fear, being so easily colonized by the bottom feeders, left Homa speechless. That feeding frenzy of dozens of creatures the size of one of her fingers, playing about below. Her tears continued to flow, but she fell back upon her chair, releasing her sticks, her feet slack on the pedals. Catching her breath, holding her necklace reflexively. She had fallen back into the habit of doing that, from when she was a kid.
This Is Life.
Homa– did not think that.
It felt like it came from the place of her thoughts but–
It was as if– she heard a voice–?
A very gentle– very soothing voice–?
“Homa! Come in! We bought laser access! Are you okay? Did you say Leviathan? Homa!”
Emma’s voice. Homa was snapped out of her reverie by a crisp call from B.S.W.
She almost wanted to shout back for Emma and Bertrand to go fuck themselves.
But she valued her job– she needed the money.
Homa needed the money to get out of this hellish place. Before it killed her.
So despite the swelling emotion rushing over her body like a shower of stress–
She politely explained what happened.
“Solceanos defend you Homa! Oh gosh! We’re so glad you’re okay!”
Homa practically heard the next words said before they were spoken and braced for them.
“We’ll talk about the fuel and all that when you get back. Be safe, okay?”
Mildly different than what she thought, but still. She grit her teeth.
With the runoff gate forced open and the Leviathan killed, the job was done.
“Bertrand should try to wring some more money out of them for the Leviathan.” She said.
“Oh he will! Don’t you worry!” Emma replied cheerfully.
Homa engaged her hydrojets again, gliding just off of the sea floor. She could have moved faster now that Emma was paying to talk to her, since she would know if there was any traffic. But out of force of habit, she took her time getting back to Bertrand’s to have a stern, frustrating chat about her use of fuel to save her own life from a violent death. Another day at the office.
After Homa left Bertrand’s office and finally found a moment’s peace, she pulled out her phone and found a few messages from Imani Hadžić. She stared at the mails in disbelief for a few minutes. Because she could see the previews in the notification bubbles, she knew only two messages, the first and last, contained nothing but black hearts. However, the other mails had actual content to them, so Homa took a bathroom break in order to read them in private and respond.
“Ho~ma~” began the most substantial message, “During your work, please keep an eye on Kitty McRoosevelt for me. Make idle conversation and try to get her to speak on current events or local politics if you can. Let her run her mouth. If she asks you for any favors, such as hiding or moving things from her yacht, comply promptly and let her use you. Report to me any such events, as well as any names, places, or times she mentions, for example, if she talks about going on dates or being indisposed on certain times. Earn her trust, be compliant to her requests, but take care of yourself. She cannot be allowed to suspect you. If she tries to harm you, do anything that you can to contact me.”
That message, too, ended with a little black heart.
Homa typed up a quick response from the bathroom.
“Will do. Are you okay?”
By the time she was back outside, she would find that this message had been responded to:
Homa took that to mean Imani was indeed okay.
And despite her complicated feelings toward Imani, she felt relief, nonetheless.
All of the rest of Imani’s messages were just her being needy or sending black hearts.
For all that she said she wouldn’t demand immediate answers, Imani harassed her anyway.
Her slate would have been buzzing nonstop had Homa not been out in the Diver.
Despite having that near-death experience, she still had half the workday to go.
Bertrand’s profits stopped for no one.
“Homa! Our little hero!”
On the dockyard, seated atop barrels of ship coating gel and fluid next to Kitty’s yacht, Becker and Aicher cheered Homa’s return. Becker had one of Bertrand’s portables in hand and showed Homa the footage they extracted from the Diver. Homa felt her stomach turn for a moment at the sight of herself shouting ‘Die! Fucking die!’ while butchering the Leviathan. It was too surreal.
“Crazy piloting out there Homa! Schecter could have never done this!” Becker said.
“I’m glad he didn’t go out then.” Homa sighed. Imagining an even more tragic scene.
“My time on patrol didn’t coincide with a lot of Diver stuff.” Becker said. “But even I can tell Homa, your reflexes are amazing! And that charge? You’re made of stern stuff little lady.”
“I was just freaking out. I’d have really rather not had to fight for my life at all.”
“Well, look at this way. Yes, you cost old Bertrand a little bit money short term for all the fuel, but long term, you’ve proven you’ve got skills Homa! Bertrand won’t have to worry about sending you out anymore. I bet once his fuel cost is covered up, you’ll have a promotion coming!”
Becker’s continued gushing caused Homa’s ears and tail to droop in embarrassment.
“Hell, Homa should just take off of here and join the navy. Better money there!”
Aicher was joking, but Becker quickly shot him a glare.
“No, Homa shouldn’t go near the navy, Aicher! It’s not managed right these days.”
“Didn’t think I’d ever hear that out of you old Beck. I thought you loved the navy.”
Becker’s expression darkened. “Not these days. It’s not– it’s not run right anymore.”
Homa knew what he meant. She recalled their earlier conversation.
The Volkisch Movement was in charge of the Navy now.
But Homa didn’t know that she could agree that the Navy was ever “run right.”
After talking with Imani, she didn’t know whether any part of the world was “run right.”
And after today, she knew she didn’t want to be anywhere near a fight again.
Thankfully, Becker and Aicher ran themselves out of steam on this topic pretty soon.
Soon Homa was left to begin the work on the yacht.
First she was tasked with the exterior, which would take a few days. She had to remove any old coating in order to insure that any new coating was applied evenly. That meant dousing the exterior with a thinner chemical, using a plastic wiper to peel off all the coating; shining, polishing and painting the bare metal and filling any dents or scratches; and then applying the new coating in layers, waiting for each layer to set. Each layer would take, by Emma and Bertrand’s calculations, about eight hours to set. So that meant it took half as much time in reality– but it did extend the work schedule by several more days.
Staring at the massive yacht in front of her, Homa recalled Imani’s message.
If she was supposed to be snitching on Kitty, that meant Kitty was also alive and around.
So Imani and her had not killed each other on that night in Ballad’s Paradise.
Homa internally berated herself for having such a stupid idea in the first place.
Of course these spy games were a lot more complicated than shootouts in public places.
Donning a plastic mask and putting a pair of plastic sheets over her ears, Homa popped a cap off one of the barrels and firmly affixed a hose to it. That hose she connected to her chemical sprayer, and set herself to work, hosing down the stock livery of Kitty’s yacht and with it, the old layers of coating. With a 40 meter long and 13 meter tall yacht there was a lot of hull to hose down.
Her sprayer could launch a jet of chemical as high up as the yacht’s bridge and even higher, but to do things safely and smartly, Homa had the nozzle set very tight, and instead used a personal elevator to get up higher. Standing close to the hull, she lifted her platform to the section she was working on and sprayed a cone of chemicals at a low speed, to get a thin film over the hull, enough to wear away at the old coating without wasting product or spraying it everywhere. This method also took more time, which was probably the actual reason that the company did it this way.
When she was done with most of the port-side prow section, she elevated herself almost on top of the deck, and saw over it, in time to spot the bulkhead door into B.S.W opening and admitting a woman into the path toward the main dockyard. Heels clacked on the steel floor, and the approaching woman threw her blond hair and waved at Homa when she saw her over the yacht. On that day she was dressed in a blue blouse with a deep v-neck, and a tight, ruffled yellow skirt, but still wore her distinctive coat.
Kitty McRoosevelt, all smiles, had come to pay them a visit again.
“It’s fine if I look over your shoulder, isn’t it?” She asked, shouting up at Homa.
“It’s fine! It’s your money!” Homa replied. “But put on a disposable face mask!”
Safety first. Homa was spraying chemicals everywhere after all.
And she supposed it would be bad if Kitty McRoosevelt had to go to the hospital.
For Homa at least, if not for Imani Hadžić.
Now that Kitty was physically around and watching her from below with her back to a barrel of coating thinners with a little face mask on, fully integrated into the surroundings– Homa had to think about how she was going to get her to talk. Clearly Imani was not just going to come down here and cuff her. So there must have been something Imani wanted Homa to learn from Kitty before arresting her, or something that she wanted Kitty to do. But Homa had no idea, and she was not the biggest social butterfly in the world, so she had no idea how to extract it from her.
And of course, far be it for Imani not to be frustratingly cryptic and actually tell Homa anything.
“Have you ever thought of just blasting the side of the hull from down here?” Kitty asked.
“Huh? Uh, no, that’d be super dangerous. This stuff is really toxic.” Homa said.
She pointed a finger at her chemical sprayer, and Kitty nodded her head.
“Well, I’m glad they’re thinking about your safety around here.” Kitty said.
“I mean, yours too. You should back off a bit more. You don’t have a zip-up suit like me.”
Kitty heeded Homa’s warning and backed up from the yacht– but only a few steps more.
“It’s really impressive how you’re the only woman here. It’s such a male-dominated field.”
“Ah, it’s not really that hard. My co-workers are all super old guys. They can still do it.”
Despite trying not to feel flattered, Homa’s little tail began fluttering in its protective bag.
While Homa worked, Kitty remained near the site, often asking questions about the process or about the equipment Homa was using. These would be interspersed with questions about Homa personally, every so often. “So how old are you kid?” “How long have you worked here?” “How was vocational school?” “Do you guys get lunch breaks? You’ve been at it for a while!”
Homa had curt answers. She was engaged in work, and it was a little bit annoying.
However, she did feel a bit flattered. Even though it must have been part of Kitty’s scheme.
Few people ever took so much interest in what she was doing.
By the end of her shift, she had spent hours with Kitty, and she felt exhausted as she waved the crew goodbye and shambled up the ramp toward the elevator and the journey home. It was like she had done twice as much work today as normal. She almost forgot to account for the fact that she had survived being eaten by a monster. It had been an eventful day and the first many, as Kitty would start visiting the dockworkers every single day, punctuating Homa’s blurry days of eating, sleeping, and working with an intrusive but not always unpleasant or unwelcome burst of color.
Kitty was not alone in disrupting Homa’s life, however.
That afternoon, as Homa exited into the pavilion, she saw new digital signage up on every shop window, and the coming-and-going crowds of busy people began to pool in front of shops, some with their portables out, others asking strangers if they knew or had heard anything about this. On the shops, the signs read ‘Dynamic pricing in effect’. When Homa approached a shop that had sweaters for sale on the front window, she saw, for the first time, a price tag’s number fluctuate before settling on a slightly higher price than before. That sweater’s price rose by 26 Imperial Mark right before her eyes.
It was not a big change, and it did not happen often– Homa kept looking for a few minutes but did not personally see another price change that night, but she thought, it must be happening all over the shopping center, probably with more dramatic effects.
What did it mean?
On the tram, Homa sent Imani a mail. She was part of the government, wasn’t she?
“Imani, the shops in Kreuzung have ‘Dynamic Pricing’ now. Did something happen?”
She received an answer as soon as she got off the tram.
“Yeah, something happened.”
Gritting her teeth by herself on the elevator, Homa sent another message.
“Can you tell me what happened, Imani?”
This one did not receive an answer. Not right away, anyway.
Homa looked around the Shimii market, but there was no ‘Dynamic Pricing’ there– yet.
She stopped by Hasim’s for some more marrow bones and another bag of cabbage.
Paying careful attention to the condition of his wares– everything looked normal.
Those beef cubes must have really been selling out a lot.
“Hasim, has it been tough to source beef lately?” Homa asked.
“Ah, looking to pry into my business secrets, miss Baumann?” Hasim joked.
That was his good-natured way of suggesting she not ask that question.
Nevertheless, she satisfied her own anxiety. The Shimii shops weren’t out of goods.
Prices hadn’t changed either. Yet.
So what was happening in the core station? Homa felt perplexed.
After she returned home she immediately tapped on the wall twice to bring up the launcher and tapped the icon for the television. She already had the news channel playing. While she took off her jumpsuit a few commercials played advertising for Volwitz Foods’ latest ready-meals, for data plans for portables, Epoch Clothiers’ new line of all-vinyl see-through clothing, and finally, the news anchor reappeared on screen. Homa sat in her underwear, on the edge of her bed, ears twitching and tail swishing freely from the back of her shorts, awaiting any pertinent news.
Finally, after a few local puff pieces and some reminders that a murder happened recently, the anchor introduced a colleague who was at a massive wholesaler warehouse. Three enormous cargo elevators were packed full to bursting, and there were a lot of people buzzing around in the background as the camera panned over. The warehouse itself, for all the people in it, looked pretty empty of actual goods. Homa had never seen a place like this, but she assumed the stuff that got brought into Kreuzung from the agrispheres and factories had to be kept somewhere–
“We’ve never seen anything like this!” the reporter said excitedly, “Volwitz’ wholesalers all over Kreuzung have been posting massive delays in returning stock, and its led to a feeding frenzy of ship suppliers rushing in with their bulk orders. In all my years of covering the shipping biz I’ve never seen a warehouse this empty–” the reporter caught sight of a dark haired woman near one of the elevators, clipboard in hand, coordinating a series of forklifts full of crated-up food. He approached her, using a handheld remote to maneuver his drone camera around the other side of her. A dirty trick to make people feel trapped into an interview. Homa saw this often in this news channel.
“Ma’am looks like you made off good before the warehouse got ransacked! What’s your name? Do you work for a ship in port around here? Did you have any idea it’d be this crazy?”
“Um.” The woman stared awkwardly into the drone camera. She was rather pretty, her lips and eyes lightly reddened with makeup. Her uniform looked familiar too. She had a motherly sort of look to her, Homa thought. “I’m– Minardo. I am a ship victualer. I had no idea it would be this busy. I suppose I got lucky? I’m just trying to do my job here.” The drone camera hovered closer and she shooed it away.
Homa thought her Low Imbrian sounded pretty weird– definitely not from the region.
“Got any wisdom for the viewers at home on what these wholesale shortages might mean?”
Again the drone camera got closer to Minardo’s face– meeting a gaze full of killing intent.
Homa thought it looked like when Madame Arabie got mad–
“Leave me alone already!”
In the next instant the drone camera was on the floor and the reporter was shouting.
“No! I have freedom of the press! I was just trying to get some man-on-the-street–!”
As soon as the video cut away to an embarrassed-looking anchor in the studio, Homa felt a buzzing transfer through her bed, across the sheets. Homa realized the only person it could be and practically dove to the other end of the bed to pick it up. It wasn’t a call, however, but a mail, from Imani Hadžić.
She had responded to Homa’s earlier inquiry in much more detail now.
“Rhineanmetalle’s consumer brands have temporarily formed a cartel with Volwitz Foods and Epoch Clothiers, colluding to reduce output sold specifically to Kreuzung core. The cartel is trying to collectively turn the public against further labor strikes and break the strike in Kreuzung through economic shock. It’s a play by the fuhrer Adam Lehner using his influence over the capitalists. Volwitz and Epoch Clothiers were both majority-owned by liberal stakeholders who have since been targeted by the Volkisch. They are in no position to refuse for now. Supplies won’t run out entirely, one hopes, but prices will go wild.”
Homa read the mail twice, trying to pick apart every word for comprehension. She mostly understood it– a bunch of the big brands were refusing to sell to Kreuzung as revenge for the Rhineanmetalle strikes so that people would be scared off from supporting the strikers. Despite this, she still wrote and sent a mail to Imani, her skin tingling with anxiety, that read– “What does that mean for us Imani?”
Her eyes remained glued to the portable for almost ten minutes.
Fingers quivering over the cold metal.
What does that mean for her? Would she be okay?
Then, finally another mail from Imani arrived.
“Together, the cartel represents 63% of all goods sold in Kreuzung. About the Shimii in Tower Eight: a few people like Leija Kladuša have the authority and ability to import goods produced by Shimii in other stations per certain agreements and will continue to make these available. But doing some quick back of the paw math, 43% of consumption by Shimii in Tower Eight is of cartelized goods. There’ll be shortages, especially in food. Volwitz products account for over half the Shimii’s food consumption. It’s only in local textiles and hygiene products that we begin to see a gap in local goods over cartelized goods.”
Leija– that was Madame Arabie’s name. Leija Kladuša. Few people knew it.
Madame Arabie brought in poppy from outside Kreuzung and refined it into drugs.
Homa knew this was the most lucrative pillar of her criminal Empire.
Rich Imbrians loved the heroin and the even stronger and less cut up opium she produced.
That drug money funded a lot of the Madame’s less pernicious pursuits.
There was another buzz, and a third mail appeared from Imani shortly thereafter.
“Without goods to buy, money is useless. Restaurants will get more expensive soon. While you still can, buy a bag of flour, a thing of vegetable oil and buy zlatla. You know what it is right? Western Shimii love the stuff. Half cup water + zlatla + a cup flour, mix dough in a bowl, oil the dough, and fry. Three a day to stay alive. If you can’t fry, put the bowl near your room heater, add a bit more water, cover with a plate, to steam a dumpling. If you have meat or vegetables, eat a little a time with your cakes to ration it.”
Homa blinked at the instructions. Her tail stood up on end as much as it could in surprise.
Was she expecting some kind of famine? This was starting to become surreal.
“Can’t you do anything about this?” Homa asked. “You’re a big-shot, right?”
“Nope~” came the reply. “I’m just a soldier. It’ll get worse if we lose Kitty. So just focus up, okay?”
Upon mention of that woman again, Homa felt her frustrations with Imani resurface.
“What can she do to this station that’s worse than this?” Homa furiously typed.
Promptly: “Destroy the whole thing. Kill everyone. You and I included.”
Homa froze. That had to be a joke right? Nobody would– nobody could destroy a station.
Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the message. So curt and simple, but– terrifying.
Those were the most terrifying words Homa had ever seen on a screen in her life.
Destroy a station? Kill everyone– including Homa? No– that couldn’t be what Kitty–
Nobody would do that. Nobody would. It was completely insane. Out of this world insane.
Another buzz. Another mail. Homa’s shaking hands, her spiraling vision–
“Trust me and stay on task. Love ya~” it said.
A black heart to punctuate it. Homa’s fingers were shaking too much to form words back.
Imani was done talking to her, Homa knew it right then. There would be no more mails.
She leaped off the bed, turned off the television and rushed to her closet.
Throwing on her one good casual pair of pants and a shirt, along with her jacket, she walked back out to Hasim’s with her hands in her pockets and her gaze turned almost exclusively on her own feet. Focusing on walking and breathing while she could feel the walls warping around her. A bag of flour, a tube of cooking oil, and a can of pickles. She could swing that. And it would feel like doing something– in a moment where Homa otherwise felt like she had no control of her life.
There were a lot of things stewing in her brain. Too many things.
Bubbling up to the surface of her anxieties, however, was one question.
Was Kitty really capable of destroying Kreuzung? Was that even possible?
“Homa, what do you think about how the Shimii live here?”
Kitty’s voice snapped Homa out of a reverie.
She opened her eyes wide, suppressed a gasp. She looked down at her hands. She was done dissolving the coating on Kitty’s yacht, so now she had to repaint it to Kitty’s wishes. Her chemical sprayer, after a thorough cleaning, was performing double duty as a spray paint gun with paint canisters. Hefting the object in her hands, the world around her became clearer. She was at work; she had been painting.
Her head had been heavy, brain swimming in a thick stew of her concerns.
In cases like this, she liked to immerse herself in work and drown out the world around her.
Now, one of those worries that swam in her head was also present beside her.
Because the paint was not toxic, Kitty felt like she could stick closer to Homa.
She had been pretending to be interested in the painting, but she really just wanted to talk.
Homa turned her head and tried not to shoot her a glare.
“What were you saying?” Homa asked. Masking her irritation as best she could.
Whenever she looked at Kitty, Imani’s mail came to mind and upset her more than she was.
For her part, Kitty either did not notice or ignored Homa’s attitude. She was bright as ever.
“The Shimii in Kreuzung seem to have it hard– I just wondered how you felt about that.”
Homa grunted. “I mean– What is there to say? Yeah– it sucks. We just live with it.”
“Is there anything you can do about it?” Kitty said, gesturing with her palm up.
“No? I’m just an ordinary work-a-day girl.”
“Even ordinary people can make a difference! What if you campaigned for office?”
Homa fixed Kitty a look, as if trying to physically scrutinize how she could be so ignorant.
Kitty simply smiled at her. Ignorance must have truly been bliss. She was all smiles.
“I realize it would be difficult– but not impossible.” She said, as if realizing her mistake.
“It is impossible because Shimii can’t even vote in Kreuzung elections.” Homa said.
“I see. I come from Aachen. It’s different there.” Kitty replied. It sounded like it was true.
Homa’s ears twitched with a mild interest. “How much different can it be?”
Aachen was far in the north of Rhinea, on the edges of Eisental. Its waters bordered the Great Ayre Reach to the northwest and the Palatinate to the northeast, and Khaybar’s northern range wasn’t too far. Homa did not know much about it except that there was frequent traffic between Aachen and Kreuzung, both being major cities. When she started working at B.S.W, she would routinely see customers from Aachen, just because it was a major port that issued official papers, so it was a place ships could come from.
“Aachen has a more progressive culture.” Kitty said. “It’s a border station so you have Palatine big shots, Rhinean liberals, Bosporus transplants. It’s a travel hub so all kinds of people go there. There is a big shipyard there with a strong labor culture, and a technology university. And because it’s a border town, it’s a place where there’s been significant cultural exchange across its history. I like to think melting pots breed understanding and sympathy. I guess Aachen has a stronger activist culture than Kreuzung.”
Homa furrowed her brow, skeptical. “Are there Shimii there? Can they even vote there?”
“Interested now?” Kitty chuckled. “There are Shimii. And they can vote in local elections.”
“Do they have good jobs? Can they live anywhere? Do they get to go to the university?”
Kitty’s expression darkened a tiny bit. “They do have their own habitation there–”
“So they live in a ghetto.” Homa said. “Don’t mince words about it. I’m not a dumb kid.”
Words spilled out of her. She almost regretted becoming impassioned. But not completely.
Some part of her thought she should have shouted in Kitty’s face for being so naïve.
No matter what niceties the Imbrians let Shimii have– it was always like this in the end.
“I’m sorry, Homa. I am belying my ignorance, but I do think there is always hope for change. There are places where Shimii have it better– so the Shimii in Kreuzung have models they could follow and hopes that they can have for change in their own lives here. Their struggle isn’t for nothing.” Kitty replied.
“We already live in a ghetto over here.” Homa said. “So what’s there to aspire to?”
This was stupid. She was just trying to gain Homa’s sympathy for her own purposes.
While Homa painted her boat, she was just standing there spouting empty rhetoric.
But it was also the most that an Imbrian had really shown interest in Shimii specifically.
So Homa also felt a bit taken aback, and unable to be fully aggravated with her.
And besides, Imani wanted Kitty to win Homa’s sympathy anyway.
She couldn’t be too mad– but it was still frustrating. Voting? They had bigger problems!
“Why do you care about the Shimii all of a sudden anyway?” Homa asked.
She tried to sound gentle, but it did come off extremely confrontational.
Kitty did not appear offended. She smiled. “Because you are one, maybe.”
She winked. Homa scoffed. Did she think she was being charming?
“How shallow.” (She had to admit she was the tiniest bit charmed.)
“I was joking. You could say I am something of an organizer. Maybe I see an opportunity.”
“Don’t tell Becker that. He hates workplace rabblerousers.” Homa joked.
“Duly noted!” Kitty laughed again. “You know, I wish I could tell you how I really feel.”
Homa turned off the paint sprayer, pointed it at the ground and looked over her shoulder.
What was this woman about to say–?!
Kitty took a deep breath. Those seconds felt like an eternity to Homa, who had far too many wrong ideas about what Kitty intended to talk about. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of things to try to change Rhinea, and the Empire, to try to do good for its people.” Homa practically deflated like a balloon full of anxiety but tried not to show it. Kitty continued to speak– her voice sounded a tiny bit more passionate than usual. “Not only in Aachen, but across the Imbrium Ocean. I know exactly how hard you have it, Homa. And there are a lot of people who wish it wasn’t so. I can’t say more, I just hope you understand.”
“It’s tough to see it that way from in here. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa replied.
What she really wanted to say, was something like ‘their wishes don’t help me any’.
But she thought, Kitty was trying to sound nice. So Homa should accept it for now.
Their conversation did stick in Homa’s brain for a little bit that day.
How did the Shimii live in other places? Was there anywhere that they were truly free?
And in the places where they were discriminated against– who was standing up for them?
In Kreuzung, it did feel like nobody was doing anything to help them.
Madame Arabie’s kind of help ran on favors and debts and commitments. It was crooked.
Imani was a member of the Volkisch. Was she really able to do anything from there?
On the way home, she thought about Radu the Marzban too. He was a hero, a living legend.
There were a lot of tales of him saving people in shipwrecks, delivering supplies during emergencies, killing Imbrians who committed heinous crimes on Shimii. They said that he and his crew of raiders wandered the seas righting wrongs committed upon the Shimii– but with all his strength, then, why did the Shimii still have to live like this? Couldn’t Radu the Marzban take down all the villains exploiting the Shimii? He saved Homa– but he couldn’t save her mother. He was a legend, flitting in the shadows.
But even their myths and legends couldn’t change things for them fundamentally.
“Could Imani do it? With all her money? With her Volkisch clout? But she isn’t–”
“Hey. You look pretty troubled.”
Homa arrived at her room and was about to head in when she noticed someone standing in front of the next room door over. In fact, this person was leaning against the door, with a small cartridge vaporizer in hand– one of the disposable models, not like Madame Arabie’s pipe. A faint smell of cinnamon wafted from her fingers. To Homa’s surprise, it was Madiha al-Nakara, her pale hair wrapped in a little bun, wearing a garish, flowery green shirt of a similar style to the last.
“I– I’m okay– Miss–?”
Madiha blew out a bit of cinnamon smoke. “No, not miss. Just call me Maj– Madiha.”
Homa stared at her for a moment and then stared at the door– the room right next door.
“Huh? You’ve been staying next-door all this time?” Homa asked.
“Since a few days ago.” Madiha said. “Our schedules don’t intersect much I guess.”
Homa blinked hard. “Is that girl with you too? You’re both staying here?”
“Parinita? Yeah? She’s worn out, taking a nap inside.”
Wait a minute–
Recalling that night, where Homa overhead–
impassioned sounds of lovemaking–
through the room walls–
had Madiha– with that petite companion of hers–?
up so late like that, and the yelling–?!
“Why are you making a face? Did Arabie tell you something distasteful about me?”
Madiha scrutinized her, while Homa took back control of her hanging mouth.
“No! Of course not! I have nothing against you. It’s– It’s really not that.”
“You look even more skittish now. Are you really okay?”
“C’mon out with it already. Tell Big Sister Madiha what the matter is.”
Could Homa really ask her to keep it down at night?
Would Madiha not immediately wring Homa’s neck if those words left her mouth?
Madiha openly sighed, discarded her vaporizer in a nearby trash chute, and walked over.
She clapped a hand on Homa’s shoulder– she was trying to be reassuring, but her grip–!
“Look, I’ve seen that troubled urchin look before. I can at least hear you out. Okay?”
Homa nodded. “Um, Madiha– what do you think about how Shimii live here?”
Ultimately it was impossible to ask her to fuck her girlfriend more quietly.
It was the fault of the shoddy construction here anyway.
So instead another topic that had been stewing in Homa’s brain came out in its place.
Madiha nodded sagely. “Ah. You’ve got money on the brain again– can’t blame you.”
Homa wished all she had in her brain was money troubles. It’d be so much simpler.
“Homa was your name?” Madiha asked.
“Um, yeah.” Homa replied. “Homa Baumann. I’m– I’m mixed.“ She added to explain her surname.
Madiha gave her a wistful look for a moment. She looked deep in thought.
“You’re a Shimii, Homa. Your parentage doesn’t matter.“ Madiha took in a breath. Homa had never been accepted so casually and confidently. It took her aback some, until Madiha started talking again. “Homa, no matter how bad it gets for us, there will always be dancing, weddings, big pots of stew and bread. Shimii use whatever we have to try to live through the era. We survived the cataclysm and live here underwater. We’ve been through much worse than this. Our religion was nearly destroyed, our people persecuted, our homes and names stolen, but we live. Our ummah pray for better times and live their lives as best they can. So to answer your question: we all know how things are. But why are they? That’s what I ask myself. Not how people live. I know that. They live as best as they can. So ask why instead.”
Homa was surprised. It was a more in-depth answer than she thought she would get. After throwing that dumb question out, Homa imagined she would talk about the food or about parties.
That was the kind of answer Homa expected out of someone much older than Madiha looked.
She had thought of Madiha as being another gangster like Arabie was.
Maybe she was something different. That look in her eyes, it was almost tender.
Homa could almost feel her sympathy wrapping around her like warm colors–
“So if you ask me what I think about Kreuzung; the Imbrian bastards here sicken me.”
She raised an empty hand to her lips, as if so distracted she forgot discarding her vaporizer.
This seemed to make her momentarily frustrated. She closed the hand into a fist.
Homa briefly hesitated. Her head stewing again. Kitty’s words; Imani’s words–
“Madiha, can anything change what’s happening to us here?” Homa asked.
“Fighting.” Madiha responded. Quickly; as if a quietly honed reflex.
She grit her teeth. As if it bothered her to have responded so quickly.
“Fighting?” Homa asked. “But– fighting who?” The Imbrians? All of them? How?
“Bah. I’m sorry. I just said whatever. Pay it no mind.” Madiha sighed.
“I’m not going to tell anyone, Madiha. You can speak your mind.” Homa said.
She really wanted to hear what Madiha had to say. She felt like she needed to hear it.
She was so intriguing. Was there someone around here with an actual answer to things–?
Madiha grunted. “Homa, I’m not going to tell you to fight anyone personally. We’re not all fighters. But just don’t be complacent, and never say thank you for the little crumbs you get here. If someone does resort to violence, do not rush to condemn them on that fact alone.”
Those words dropped like a heavy load of ingredients into the pot boiling Homa’s brain.
“I’m just trying to understand.” Homa said. Her emotions got away with her for a second. She started to weep. “You said fighting– but fighting who? How does living get better for us? For the past few months, everything here has been going to hell. Nothing feels certain anymore. I’ve always wanted to get out of here and go out into the ocean. But lately I’m thinking– what if there’s nothing out in the Ocean for me but more of this? Even if I survived all the trouble and got out? So what am I supposed to do? If I stay here I could struggle and maybe die; and it could be the same anywhere! What do I do then?”
She raised her voice, curled her fingers into fists, turned a red weeping gaze on Madiha.
For that instant, a repressed anger she couldn’t direct at Arabie, Imani, Kitty– leaked out.
And yet, the stranger upon whom this childish injustice was done did not condemn her.
“Homa, my answer to that is pretty bleak. I won’t sugarcoat it for you.” Madiha said.
“Then just say it. Nobody around here tells me the truth.” Homa replied, bitterly.
Madiha grinned at her. She crossed her arms, locked Homa’s eyes with a red glint in hers.
“There is no place in the Imbrium Ocean where you can go and lead a happy storybook life as a Shimii. You will run into the hatred the Imbrians project onto our flesh, their hatred of our marked bodies, their hatred of our worship of Allah. But I hate them in turn, and my hatred is a prayer of fire that will consume all of their works. Allahu ackbar. If you don’t want to fight them, Homa, I will fight for you. For every life the pacifists preserve, I will take ten to assure victory. We will kill as many as it takes.”
Behind Madiha, the door to the apartment opened, and a sleepy-looking girl walked out.
Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and a long blue skirt, yawning.
Homa and Madiha both turned their smoldering gazes her way. She pointedly stared back.
“Ma– oh, that’s the girl from the other night? Are you troubling her Ma– Madiha?”
Madiha shrugged dismissively. “We were having a lively conversation about life.”
“Elocution is a gift from Allah to our people– and you used it to make her cry.”
“I wasn’t trying to– she just asked for my opinion, and I gave it candidly.”
Homa sighed, wiping her forearm across her face. Her brain steeping in frustration.
“No, it’s okay. I appreciated her candidness. I’m sorry for the trouble, Madiha.”
She turned quickly from them and opened her door, as fast as an escape.
“Hey, listen. If you need any help, you can come to me. But think about what I said–!”
Even if Homa did not want to, she would be thinking about it, even as the door shut Madiha out. Even as the door behind her closed, and her legs gave out, and she sat back against the door weeping. Staring up at the ceiling with hands over her face. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Ah, Homa, welcome, welcome. If you’re looking for the marrow bones again–?”
“Hasim I can see it. You’re all out of them. Not even the smallest bones left?”
For days now the beef bones available had been shrinking, and less in the bag, but still–
There had to be something!
“Afraid so. It’s been tough, you know, I get these specifically from the Agrisphere in Suhar, from my Shimii cousins there, they work so hard, it’s the best quality in the whole country. Homa, when you go for quality like I do, it’s tough sometimes, sometimes you just come up empty-handed if you only get the best, but I promise you, Inshallah we’re going to restock soon, and you’ll be amazed at the quality–”
Homa was barely listening to Hasim’s little speech.
She cast disgruntled looks about the shop, taking stock of the potential soup ingredients. He was out of all the frozen vacuum bag meat he normally carried. His refrigerator and freezer were empty save for the frost. He had not done anything to cover them up, so he must have run out recently. He would probably get bony stockfish and throw them in there to look like he had something on hand. In his pantry section he had cans of stuff– there were cans of shredded chicken and ground beef. There was a can of green beans packed in water and salt. It wasn’t cabbage, but it would do. She couldn’t afford to eat restaurants, so she needed to cook with what she could get.
“Pleasure doing business as always, Homa. May Allah see you to safety.”
For want of anything to polite to say, Homa said nothing at all in response.
She walked out with a can of ground beef, a can of ground chicken and cans of green beans.
None of it was her first choice, but it would fill her belly.
She wasn’t at the level of eating fried flour with zlatla just yet.
The deteriorating quality of her lonac was not lost on her, however. It was depressing.
It was a week now since she last had beef cubes. Normally Hasim’s supply was steady.
Bone marrow lonac wasn’t bad– but Homa really wanted to have a nice meal again.
She had been working so hard! On Kitty’s boat– on snitching to Imani–
Didn’t she deserve a treat? But she couldn’t afford it. Especially with things getting worse.
For someone who had been taking care of herself like an adult for years now, she felt utterly without control of her own life. For days now, she had thought of begging Imani for the money to just eat at a restaurant without it coming out of her own pocket, so she wouldn’t have to be ashamed of doing so– but she was ashamed of asking Imani for any help. (And wary of the consequences.)
Everything felt more burdensome, more intolerable. She couldn’t just keep her head down.
As she walked through town, she looked around at the conditions of the other stores.
Imani had been right.
Epoch Clothiers, Volwitz Foods, Arleiter Tools, even Raylight Beauty–
All of the stores associated with Imbrian brands had closed early that day.
Signs on the window exhorted shoppers to subscribe to stocking alerts in their rooms.
Homa wondered if they had no supplies at all, or if they were still getting anything.
Volwitz Foods shops especially concerned her.
If they didn’t restock, all the “mom & pop” food shops would get hammered with orders.
There was an air of tension on the streets. People lingered in front of shops as if in a trance, as if uncomprehending. There were groups in the middle of the street passing around gossip and information. Homa almost wanted to tell them what Imani knew, but she had no idea whether it was public knowledge, or if it could be traced back to her and cause trouble. There were fewer smiles on people’s faces, fewer women in their best dresses going to dance, fewer lads at the pubs watching the football matches. Homa wondered how the Flowing Scarlet would look today too.
Was Madame Arabie still stocked up?
Homa trudged back home, feeling like she was dragging her own body weight.
At least she had the very last pot of bone marrow lonac to look forward to.
Her tail gave a sad little twitch in anticipation.
As soon as she rounded the corner to her own hall, her heart jumped–
She hardly had time to react when a woman’s arms wrapped around her.
Pulling Homa tight into her chest.
Brown hair, emerald eyes, a brown blouse with gold-painted lines.
“Madame?” Homa yelled out in shock. “What–?”
“Homa, I’m so happy! I’ve been looking all over for you!” Madame Arabie was giddy.
Her breath– she reeked of alcohol. Her words were slurred, her eyes distant.
She was drunk!
At least she was smart enough not to be using the drugs instead–
But it was still a bad situation! Homa tried to extricate herself from Arabie’s grip.
“Madame! I’m– I’m happy to see you too! Let me go and lets– let’s relocate to my room!”
Arabie was so strong! No wonder everyone was so afraid of her!
Homa had never been trapped in a hug so difficult to get herself loose from!
“Homa~” Madame Arabie’s voice slurred. “You’re such a good little kadaif. So good to me.”
Kadaif? As in the dessert? Her brain was truly going out wasn’t it?
“Allah give me patience!” Homa cried out. “Why me? Just– please get moving this way!”
Homa began pulling Arabie’s weight step by step down the hall, over to her door.
Before any nosy neighbors stuck their heads out to watch– especially one in particular.
“Because–” Madame Arabie tried to answer Homa’s cries, which were not directed at her.
She choked up for a moment, her head leaning into Homa’s shoulder.
Her fingers caressed Homa’s dark hair.
“I don’t– I don’t have anyone else.” She mumbled.
Homa grit her teeth.
She managed to shuffle the drunk Arabie all the way into her room, through the door, which she locked behind her, and then finally cast her down onto her bed. Homa stood, breathing heavily, in front of the bed, with Arabie laying down on it. Arms spread, giggling, her chest rising up and down with steady breathing, legs hanging off the end. What was she supposed to do about this?
“Call me Leija! I’m too young to be a Madame!”
Madame Arabie– Leija curled up her legs on the bed and shifted over onto her side.
Looking at Homa through cloudy eyes, making herself comfortable.
Her cheeks and eyes were red, and the pale insides of her ears were flushed too.
She was completely off the precipice from the alcohol.
Homa could only imagine the disparaging things the town aunties could concoct about this.
Hopefully not too many people saw Leija in this position. Or would see her with Homa too.
“Leija,” Homa acquiesced with a sigh. “Can you tell me what happened?”
Leija shuddered in response. Her brainlessly cheerful demeanor darkened.
“It was so stressful. So stressful Homa. I just want to hide. Can I hide from them here?”
“Them? Who is them? Is someone after you?”
The only reason Homa wasn’t on the verge of a heart attack was that Leija was so drunk she could have easily been making the whole thing up in her head. Homa had enough problems as it was without having to be caught in the crossfire of Leija’s mafia troubles, but also, nobody ever messed with Leija no matter how bad things got. So she assumed it mustn’t have been anything important.
And finally, Leija herself confirmed: “Problems. Problems are always after me.”
“Fine. It’s not use talking to a drunk. Do whatever you want. I can’t stop you.” Homa said.
“You’re so nice to me, Homa.” Leija mumbled. “So good and nice and lovely. My little kadaif.”
Her words began to slur much more and to trail off much more quickly.
“Take it easy and sleep it off.” Homa said, trying to sound reassuring.
Leija did not run her own businesses, it was impossible for her to be at so many places or to make so many decisions by herself. She had managers and a chain of command, Homa knew this well from being part of her organization. Homa knew that Leija was not personally needed anywhere unless there was a dispute. She imagined the scenario in her head: Leija’s various cronies gave her the bad news about the shops and prices in Kreuzung, telling her that she would lose money and that things would be rough unless something changed. Feeling helpless about it, she drank too much to cope with it, and ran away from the Scarlet on some aimless anxiety impulse and went in search of someone familiar.
Now she was here, drunk out of her mind on Homa’s bed.
Things had never gotten this out of hand with her, but Homa never put it past her.
Though, she had once imagined that the day Madame Arabie personally came to her room, it would be to drag her out and shoot her. Not to get drunk and sleep it off on Homa’s bed. Out of those two nightmarish fantasies she did not even know which one she preferred. Once Leija came to her senses, she could still very well lose her temper at Homa over the whole thing anyway.
There was no winning with this woman.
Despite how much trouble Leija was causing, Homa didn’t want to disrupt her sleep.
She withdrew a spare gel pillow and a nylon blanket from beneath the bed and made herself a little nest on the floor to lie down on and stare at the ceiling for a while. She needed to decompress. Her stomach was growling for a bowl of lonac, but she did not want to move just yet. Life kept coming at her like hammer blows one after another. Breathing deep was all she could do to surmount it.
Leija’s slurred voice sounded far less cheerful all of a sudden.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Homa.”
On the floor, Homa turned her back on the bed. Leija had not moved, but if she did, Homa did not want to look at her spouting this nonsense. She grit her teeth, and her ears folded against her head as much as they could, but of course, she could still hear the woman on her bed moaning.
“I’m sorry Homa. I never took good care of you. I even– when I saw you in the suit– I even thought it would be nice to sleep with you. I’m a rotten woman, Homa. I am destined for the fire. You are a treasure that Allah sent to me. I looked you in the eye and discarded you every time.”
“Shut up. I don’t want this from you.” Homa mumbled.
“Homa. I’ve been wanting to say sorry. Ever since he came back. I’m so sorry.”
He? Radu? What was she saying? Was it still all nonsense? Homa sat up.
On the bed, Leija Kladuša was nearly falling asleep. With the last of her strength–
“Radu and Imani Hadžić. Those bastards– those bastards–” Her voice trailed off.
“Here you go! Everything went quite professionally, even for me!”
Deep in the Kreuzung Core station, inside a pressurized maintenance tunnel just under the rim of the baseplate. A woman dressed casually in a jacket, skirt, and tights, with orange-mottled gray skin and brown hair, handed Kitty McRoosevelt a small, handheld device, put together from parts.
An analog switch, an antennae, an electric circuit, a tiny system-on-a-chip, and the contacts for a crude little battery. When she said ‘everything went professionally’ she must have been referring to the preceding courier work to set it up, because the device itself had rather crude workmanship.
It was difficult to ascertain whether it was real in the dim, intermittent light in the tunnel.
“When you toggle this device on, you’ll have 12 hours to make sure everything is ready. I would suggest taking out the batteries right afterward– the signal is encrypted, and it will be sent to the drone faster than anyone can notice it, but if it stays on, it will keep transmitting and give you away. So just chuck it and step on it when you’re done. The drone will take an 8 hour journey to your buddies in the abyss of Masud. They are ready and awaiting the signal. Then, at full combat speed, the fleet will make it here in 4 hours. I informed them of the location of the B.S.W. dock– it’s up to you to have it secured.”
“Up to me?” Kitty McRoosevelt said. “You’re not coming?”
“Perimeter defense isn’t my thing. But I got you some big strong boys and girls for that.”
Xenia Laskaris smiled girlishly at Kitty and Marina McKennedy, their other witness.
Her dark-green, exoskeletal antennae rose slightly like arms spread in joy.
“She’s kept her word.” Marina said. “I never asked her to stand and fight with you.”
“I wouldn’t have gone this far for you if it’d ultimately lead to that. It’s just not my style.” Xenia said. “Marina will take you to meet the rest of the team. I need to start limiting my involvement because the local crews are skittish about outsider Katarrans. Apparently there’s a whole fleet from the Mycenean Military Commission stuck in Eisental, demanding mercenaries join them– it’s a whole thing.”
“But they won’t object to working for ‘Imbrians’. That is apolitical to them.” Marina said.
“Exactly. Don’t tell them you’re actually Cogitans by the way.” Xenia said.
“I never intended to. Well, I suppose if this thing doesn’t work, I’ll know who to curse.”
Kitty spoke gravely. Xenia seemed more amused by it than anything.
“Trust me, I want you to succeed. I live for this kinda shit. It’s job security for me!”
Chaos, she meant. War: destruction, killings, and upheaval.
Twelve hours away as soon as Kitty hit the button. The G.I.A.’s operation would begin.
Her fingers hovered over the switch. She did not flip it, not yet.
But now, the power to kill had been placed in her hands. Her empty heart unwavering.
She only needed one more day. Kitty would get what she needed from the Shimii girl.
Marina spoke up as they left the maintenance tunnel and Xenia Laskaris behind them.
“Think before you press that button. That’s all I ask.“ She said. With an air of grave finality.
“Marina. I’ve done a lot more thinking than you want to admit.“
There was a current driving Kitty McRoosevelt. The weight of ages, history itself given voice to haunt her.
Through her, through her grief, pain, ignorance and bigotry, it would conclude the inevitable tragedy.