“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”
“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
“Got it. On the move.”
He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.
Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.
He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.
“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”
He reached back around to his pouch.
“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“
In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.
Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.
While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.
When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.
She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.
His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.
Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.
Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.
He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.
She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.
Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.
Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.
“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”
Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.
She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.
It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.
Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.
So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.
That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.
There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.
She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.
He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.
Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy B-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between B Block and the C and D blocks and even the E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.
There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.
I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.
She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.
But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.
“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”
“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”
“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”
She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.
Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.
Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.
I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.
Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.
Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.
She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–
Swapping between whatever active body cameras–
“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”
Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.
Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.
He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.
“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”
In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–
His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–
Zachikova took off running again.
She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.
“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”
“Shit, shit he’s gone–”
Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.
They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–
Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.
She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.
As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–
Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.
There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–
Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–
“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–
“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–
In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.
She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–
But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.
Please hold on! Please!
Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.
“God damn it.”
She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.
Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–
Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.
Zachikova stacked at the corner.
Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–
Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–
Light ‘em up—
Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–
Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.
One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–
Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–
A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.
Nine rounds, five direct impacts.
Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!
“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”
“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.
Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.
“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”
“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”
They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.
Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–
Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–
Alone with her gun to her chest.
Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.
Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.
How– How did it come to this?
Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.
Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.
Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–
How had it come this?
Several days earlier...
At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.
In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.
It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.
No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.
They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.
“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”
“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”
“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”
“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”
From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.
“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.
“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”
Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.
“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.
“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”
“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”
“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”
Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.
“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”
“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.
“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.
“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”
Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.
“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”
“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”
“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”
Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.
“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”
“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.
Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.
But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.
She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.
Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.
She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.
Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.
In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.
Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.
Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.
That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.
“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.
As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.
Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”
Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.
Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.
At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.
“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”
“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”
One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.
When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.
Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.
“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.
Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”
“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.
“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”
“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”
Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”
“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”
“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.
A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”
“Hubby dearest now, huh.”
Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.
Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.
Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.
A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“
“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”
She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.
Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”
“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”
“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”
Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.
For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.
She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.
“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”
“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”
“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”
“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”
“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”
“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”
“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”
Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.
In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.
She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.
Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.
“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”
“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.
“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”
Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–
“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”
“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.
Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.
Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.
“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”
Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.
Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”
“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.
“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.
She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.
That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.
Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–
“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”
Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.
“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.
She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.
God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.
After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.
“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”
Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.
“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”
“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.
“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”
Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.
“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”
Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.
Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”
“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”
“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”
Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”
“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.
“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.
“Of course not.” Murati replied.
Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.
There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.
They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.
Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.
Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.
And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.
That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.
In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.
“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”
“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”
“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.
“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.
Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”
A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.
Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”
“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”
For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.
Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.
Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’
Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.
To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.
Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.
All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.
Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.
Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.
Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.
All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.
For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.
Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.
“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”
Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.
“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”
There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.
“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”
And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.
As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.
“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.
At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.
“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.
“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”
One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.
Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.
Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.
“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”
At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.
“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.
“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.
That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.
Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–
“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.
“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”
Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.
“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”
In the middle of all this chaos–
“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”
The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.
While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.
“Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.
She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.
Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.
However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–
Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.
“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.
She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.
Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.
“Captain,” Aaliyah said.
Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.
“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.
“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”
“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”
“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”
“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”
Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.
Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.
“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”
Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.
Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.
“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.
“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.
“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.
“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”
Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.
A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.
“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.
Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.
There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?
And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.
Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.
For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.
Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.
One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.
And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.
“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.
“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.
“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”
“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”
“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.
“Don’t start, you two.”
This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.
Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.
She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.
“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.
Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”
In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.
On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.
“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”
“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”
Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”
“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”
“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”
Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.
“Maryam, can I ask you something?”
“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”
“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”
Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.
Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!
She would have to discard that advice immediately.
Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.
Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.
In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.
An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.
Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.
Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.
Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.
She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.
Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.
Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.
She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.
“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.
It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.
Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.
Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.
She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.
It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.
And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–
–the entire situation unfolded from there.
Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.
Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.
And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.
But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.
She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.
Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.
Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.
When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–
“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”
Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.
She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.
Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.
It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.
Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.
She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.
Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.
Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.
Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–
“Do you know about video games?”
“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”
“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”
“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”
“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”
“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”
“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”
“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”
“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”
“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”
Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.
It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.
She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.
It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.
In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.
“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”
She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.
It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.
Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.
“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”
“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.
Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.
“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”
Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.
“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”
Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.
Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.
So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.
It did not lift, however.
Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.
She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.
After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.
“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”
Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.
“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”
“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”
Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.
Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.
For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.
Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.
Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.
Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.
When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.
“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”
Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.
Saint’s Skin: Vestment.
Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.
In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.
Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.
Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.
Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.
Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.
She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.
Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.
“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”
In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.
When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.
Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.
Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.
She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”
“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”
In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.
Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.
Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.
An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.
“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.
“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”
She loved her so much.
So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–
Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.
It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.
Until, on the fateful day–
“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”
Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–
That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.
Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.
“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”
“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.
“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.
“We want to see you, Sonya.”
A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.
Shalikova grit her teeth.
There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.
Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.
“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.
“Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.
Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.
At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.
She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.
From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.
“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.
“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.
“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”
Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.
At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.
“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.
“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.
“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”
“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.
“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”
Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.
“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”
Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.
“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”
Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.
There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.
It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.
She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.
Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.
Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.
She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.
So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.
Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.
Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.
Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.
Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.
So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–
“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”
Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.
She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.
So she hit someone, and–
A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.
She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–
–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.
There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!
But she was so distracted.
Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.
Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.
Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.
So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?
As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.
“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”
Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.
Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.
Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.
“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”
Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.
Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.
There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.
“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”
“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”
“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”
“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”
Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.
To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–
Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.
“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.
Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.
“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.
“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”
Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.
“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.
“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.
That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.
Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”
There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.
In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.
Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.
“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”
“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”
Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.
And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.
Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.
With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.
There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.
By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.
“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.
In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.
However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.
“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.
“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.
At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.
They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.
Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.
Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.
“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”
In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.
“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”
“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”
Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”
“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.
Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.
“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.
Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“
“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“
“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.
“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“
Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.
How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?
The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–
“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“
“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.
Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“
Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.
The United Front.
A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?
And Daksha Kansal was involved?
So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.
This was not something they could run away from or ignore.
That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.