Bandits Amid The Festival [11.2]

This chapter contains sexual content.

Alcor Steelworks was among the largest companies in Kreuzung.

They had an entire module near the center of the Kreuzung core to themselves, large enough to have streets and a sky and several buildings. It was mostly layered blacktop, designed to absorb the weight of the massive objects the company worked on such that the easily replaceable pitch was all that they damaged in the process, rather than the bare metal floors beneath. There were bubble trees and flower bushes lining the main road leading to the executive campus building. Overhead, a holographic array simulated a blue sky and a yellow sun that moved throughout the day, using complex lighting gear.

Most of the module was taken up by enormous workshops. All together they had enough space to work on multiple cruiser-size ships. Each workshop was a tall plastic building anchored to the pitch, simple on the outside, but the walls were actually established to hold scaffolding and gantries, the ceilings for cranes. In reality those simple walls supported a framework of complex machinery at the heart of which lay the ship being worked on. One of the workshops was actually a giant ferristitcher designed by Alcor themselves, with variable extruders on sliding arms mounted on the walls and ceiling.

Because the Pandora’s Box was being “cooperated on” rather than directly worked on by Alcor Steelworks, the company provided a massive caterpillar-tracked carrier, a crown jewel of Alcor’s technology development. This “mobile berth” could support a Cruiser in the empty blacktop lot next to Alcor’s workshops, allowing complete access to the ship. Alcor was not working on any other major projects yet, so the use of the ferristitcher and other tools was also available for Treasure Box Transports. While this arrangement did cheat Alcor’s workers out of labor time, while the company raked in Treasure Box’s money, it was necessary for Protocol Tokarev to maintain the crew’s secrecy.

Far across the module from the Pandora’s Box’s blacktop lot, stood Alcor’s “executive campus” or “executive suites.” These amenities were housed in a building entirely unlike the rest of the workshops. The façade was a sweeping, wave-like design of dark blue glass within steel frameworks, rising from 10 meters tall to a peak of 40 meters on right wing of the building. That artistic glass façade partially enclosed a massive central dome, while the rest of the building was quite ordinary concrete and steel, its interior walls painted a very sleek-looking glossy white while showing long paneled windows to the exterior. Within this piece of modern art, there were grand office spaces, luxurious dormitory rooms, hot baths and refreshing pools, a food court with a variety of restaurants, and even a pod movie theater.

While it was called the Alcor Executive Campus, the only part that was exclusive to Alcor executives and special guests was the dormitory, which ordinary Alcor workers could not access, not even temporarily. Everything else was part of the perks for Alcor’s workers, however. During their lunch hour or breaks, or after work, they could access the campus to relax. That campus and its accessibility made Alcor a popular and sought after workplace for both the blue collar steelworkers welding and ferristitching and carrying around heavy tools and materials; and the white collar executives and office workers.

Now, it was also at the disposal of Treasure Box Transports and the crew of the Pandora’s Box, on similar terms as the Alcor workers. The cheerful and bubbly Amelia Winn invited Ulyana Korabiskaya and her temporary adjutant Natalia Semyonova to visit the facilities for a tour. Both of them marveled as they approached the glass façade from the white-tiled path outside, flanked by rose bushes in partial bubbles. Automatic doors slid open to allow them into a broad and airy lobby and reception area.

“When the Director– we affectionately call him ‘Oskar’– when he came into ownership of Alcor,” Amelia Winn began as they walked into the lobby, “we had the workshops and a lot of empty space. He had this silly idea to build a break room with a pool for the workers, but the architect he hired built a very fancy little cabana thing– and the pool would get dirty from steel shavings in the air, so in addition to better air circulators, the pool was fully enclosed. And from there, it became one thing after another, and suddenly we had this building with a façade that gets put into magazines as representative of ‘New Imbrian Style’ architecture. It really ran away from him! But then Oskar figured we could move all the office space from the lower levels here, and have the whole company run out of here. Eventually, it paid for itself! Now we’re one of the Top 10 Places To Work right behind Rhineametalle, while being a fraction of the size!”

“That’s quite a story.” Ulyana said, smiling awkwardly at Amelia’s cheerful anecdotes.

Past the reception, the left and right wings of the campus were somewhat similar. There was a lot of office space, those outer white walls leading to rooms with blue and yellow tiling for ambiance, and desks, computers, enclosed soundproof pods for working in solitude. At the rear of the campus, there were a few dozen of the executive suites, each a luxurious 12 by 9 meter room with a gel bed that could fit two people in luxury, three in comfort, with their own shower, drink dispenser, and a very large screen on the wall opposite the bed. On the interior walls in the rear of the campus, Ulyana could look out and see the little garden path surrounding a central three story building topped by the dome visible from the front. That was probably the building that now enclosed what was once the “fancy little cabana thing.”

It was all so incredibly– bourgeois.

“Honestly, the garden path was probably the most expensive part.” Amelia said, with an awkward little smile as they walked through a door transitioning from the rear of the campus into its center, the dome shining overhead. Cobblestones lead the way around rose bushes, bubble trees, and into the seemingly humble concrete building amid the splendor of the rest of the campus. “All the trees cost an arm and a leg. But they make people happy, and ultimately that’s what matters. Anyway– over here, the first floor is the pools and hot baths, the second floor is the food court, and the third floor has a pod theater and arcade. We’ll just walk through for now, but feel free to reserve spots! Some quick back of the napkin math and I think we can accept parties of up to fifty at a time. I’ll give you the numbers later.”

“Thanks, Amelia.” Ulyana said.

Inside herself, she wanted to scream and point at everything and go Bourgeois! Bourgeois! All of this is bourgeois!; but such a thing would not have helped anybody. She had to remain silently vexed.

At her side, Natalia had been making faces of childish wonderment at everything around her. For the children of the Union, used to metal corridors and 3 by 3 rooms, this was an immense luxury. But– if this building was just a concrete square from floor to ceiling that used all of its space efficiently, it could have housed a thousand or two thousand people. Nevermind parties of fifty; and Ulyana was not even as much of a communist diehard as someone like Murati. She just knew wastefulness when she saw it.

Back then– Ulyana thought, recalling her childhood, if my family hadn’t been enslaved I would have probably only found work building something like this for Imbrian fatcats. After the closing-off of Volgia from the Imbrium, many exiles like her family who were sacrificed for the peace were ultimately purged from Imbrian society and sent to the colony, giving the Union its heavily Volgian character.

This created three different classes of Volgian. Volgians who remained in Volgia itself, right-wing loyalists of the Volgian kingdom that supported its continued vassaldom to the Imbrian Empire over any revolutionary wind of change; the Volgian peers, whose families comingled with the Imbrians from back when the two nations were viewed as separate and equal monarchic powers; and the exiles from Volgia, those who challenged the Kingdom and their entire families punished collectively for it, who hoped to attain independence from Imbrian influence or to outright stage a Volgian communist revolution.

In a sense, the Volgian revolution did happen– in the Union.

And the Bosporan revolution, too– only in the Union.

And– a Shimii revolution, as well, was the third major banner the Union carried.

Everyone on the Brigand was someone who had lost their old homelands.

They had rebuilt them in their beloved Union, as best as they could, but the hurt remained.

Haunted by the dehumanization they suffered; and perhaps still viewed as inhuman outside the Union.

While the Imbrians who profited from every upheaval could live– like this.

Ulyana wondered how Amelia saw her. For someone to openly sport a Volgian name in Rhinea in the present day, they would have had to be vassals or peers. Either people with the power to retain their names, or mere servants to the former. To Amelia, a ship full of ethnics with money to throw around– did she even view any of them as truly human? Was she another racist in a racist station?

“Captain? Is something wrong? You looked a little intense there for a moment.”

“Oh, nothing. It was a long day and a long night yesterday, I’m still a bit fatigued.”

Amelia smiled at her. Once she turned back around, Ulyana sighed.

Natalia looked at her and patted her on the back.

“Don’t worry Captain. I’ll remember anything important!” She said cheerfully.

Ulyana looked her in the eyes for a little bit. Was Natalia feeling similarly? Probably not.

Natalia was too young to truly know or understand everything that had happened, back then.

She sighed a little. There was no point in getting angry at these circumstances.

Her mission was to try to do something about it. That was where her anger had to vent.

“And– that’s everything for the tour! Like I said, you may feel free to avail yourselves of the facilities. Right now, there’s not that many of our workers around. I can have some folks from the office escort your parties around.” Amelia said. “Now, I would like to lead you back to my own office so we can talk about the next week or few weeks. There’s a few things about Kreuzung and Rhinea’s recent history that I feel like you ought to know so we can do business efficiently here. Please follow me, this way.”

Ulyana silently acquiesced, and Amelia led her and Natalia back to the offices.

Amelia’s own office was in the left wing of the building. It was a single office with a thick door projecting a false brown color and texture, with walls colored baby blue. There was a desk, a pair of chairs, a computer screen on an arm attached to the desk– very typical office. On the walls, there were plaques of some of Amelia’s achievements as well as those of the company. Best New C.O.O; Business Connoisseur Magazine Exemplary Executive 976; Top 10 Workplaces 978; and so on and so on.

“Have a seat.” Amelia asked.

She sat behind the desk, and Natalia and Ulyana took the chairs in front of her.

Behind them, the door closed and locked.

“It’s simply so we won’t be overheard.” Amelia said.

“What is this about, Madam Winn?” Ulyana asked calmly.

“It’s important for any big business venture to be undertaken with the full understanding of the times we live in. Ignorance is a critical weakness.” Amelia said. “Judging by your papers, you were out in the ocean during all the recent upheaval here, so I thought you ought to know. Right now, Kreuzung is not a stable place to do business. There is a tug of war between the Volkisch Movement and the elected liberal government of the station. Permits might be approved or disproved by one or the other. When there are conflicts, it’s impossible to know where the dice will fall until they do. It’s chaotic, Captain.”

Amelia went into a brief history of the political situation in Rhinea for Ulyana’s sake.

After the Colonial War, there was a period that became known in whispers as the “retreat of the Emperor from public affairs.” For the past nineteen years, the different ducal states began to develop in their own ways as central power eroded following the loss of the colonies and retreat of the Emperor. Rhinea became the most liberal of the states, in part, Amelia said, because of all the new money flowing into it. After the collapse of the colonies, a lot of the peers who were invested heavily in them became ruined. There had already been a process of transfer of wealth between the ennobled peers and new money capitalists, as the new generation of peers became more distant from their parent’s holdings, less competent in managing their affairs, and more reliant on third party administrators.

While this process had been slowly grinding for a hundred years, it hyper accelerated in the past twenty. Rhinea had seen enormous industrial development because it was the closest part of the Imbrian heartland to the colonies. All of that industry became liberalized and adapted to the loss of the Union’s vast reserves of raw material by investing in renewed exploitation of the Imbrium, as well as places like Buren and Veka and even trading with the warlords of Katarre and at times the Empire of Hanwa.

Rhinea became very rich and attracted more people, more investments. It grew and grew.

With its economic liberalization also came a political liberalization in Rhinea– the new money capitalists wanted to run the government and rip its institutions from the peers in order to set policy for themselves and their friends. There had been a slowly growing movement toward democracy in Rhinea, led by moneyed capitalists and the workers to whom they promised upward mobility and meritocracy. The Emperor did not step in to prevent the peers from losing privileged positions in the bureaucracy to capitalists, so Rhinea became “fully professionalized” over time, led by capitalists who had, in their own mythology, earned their wealth rather than inherited it, and drove out the decadent, unproductive peers.

Soon Rhinea’s corporations spread throughout the Imbrium, becoming national names with vast business empires. For almost two decades, while the Major Corporations profited greatly from the Empire’s failure to retain its slave colonies, Rhineans experimented with democracy, with workers voting for the capitalists who then set the terms of business and security for the state, forcing the duchy and peers to surrender more and more of their priviliges until the one true nobleman of Rhinea became the Imperial Mark bill.

It remained nearly impossible for anyone but the rich to access political power, but now it was the noveau rich who monopolized it. And yet, there was fervor in each election, as the public completely accepted the rhetoric of the officials. Surely this election, this candidate, this vote, would bring about social change.

“Then came the Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening,” Amelia said. Her tone of voice made evident her disdain for the group. “They’re an odd bunch altogether. Their fuhrer Adam Lehner himself is new money and was a liberal like any other not that long ago. He saw an opportunity to stir the pot in his own favor the past few years, by calling out the new liberal order, as elite, decadent and perverted. His message resonated with a lot of people, from esoteric religious cranks to opportunistic small money thugs, to political regressives who want to harken back to an idealized past. Unfortunately, he wasn’t totally wrong either. Literally all of the government of Rhinea is composed of people with money and connections. Basically no one has achieved that promised upward mobility and meritocracy.”

“With all due respect: seeing how you are talking about the culture of the moneyed in Rhinea in such a critical fashion, can I ask how you managed to become a successful executive?” Ulyana asked.

“Oh, I’m not different. I’m a product of nepotism.” Amelia said cheerfully. “It is what it is. I am still very well aware of my position here. Ultimately, the greed of people like us was what led the Volkisch to take power. It was the terror and disbelief of that night where Lehner’s people crushed the liberals in the elections that truly opened my eyes to the problem we were facing here. I just needed you to understand this duality. Right now, there’s a shadow war between the fascists and the liberals for control of the money and opportunities here, and Kreuzung is one of its fronts. We’re all forced to fight it, Ulyana Korabiskaya, day by day, phone call by phone call, meeting to meeting. Any one could be our last.”

“I thank you once again for your candid words. But how does that affect us today?” Ulyana said.

Amelia locked eyes with Ulyana. Her lips twisted into a small but amply malicious grin.

“We are not yet being candid. This is candid, Ulyana Korabiskaya– I did not go into this deal without knowing what ‘Transport Company’ actually means. Solarflare LLC must also be well aware that they are lavishly hosting a mercenary unit. A mercenary unit that, in fact, was ‘transporting’ the mysterious Euphemia Rontgen, the quiet, unremarked genius rumored to be behind Solarflare’s groundbreaking research into nanomaterials and new ferristitching processes. I’m curious to learn about you.”

Natalia grasped her clipboard computer against her chest. Ulyana narrowed her eyes.

Giving her own dangerous glare back at Amelia Winn behind the desk.

“Madam Winn, I hope you are still my ally– you won’t want to become my enemy.”

She said, internally cursing herself for thinking any of this was safe to begin with–

Amelia’s grin once again turned into a soft smile. “I wouldn’t dream of making an enemy of you, Captain. Fact of the matter is, Alcor Steelworks is a bunch of civilians. We have plenty of money and dare I say it, the finest luxury shipbuilding and industrial ship repair in Kreuzung– but zero security power, even less than Solarflare LLC who have clandestine mercenaries for muscle. That’s why we need to talk with you.”

Ulyana sighed inside, but outwardly, cracked a little grin herself. “Good choice.”

Acting cocky, but still completely bewildered by the turn of events.

“Captain, all I want is for Alcor Steelworks to be able to navigate these stormy waters and come out on top.” Amelia said. “With mutual understanding, we can do so much more for each other. Beyond what is in the contracts, and beyond what is rote. For your benefit as well for mine, entirely in secret.”

“Alright then, Madam Winn.” Ulyana said calmly. “Then, first, what can you do for me? Treasure Box Transports is paying substantial sums of money for a certain special relationship already.”

Natalia looked between Ulyana and Amelia like a little shrew caught between two cats.

Amelia steepled her fingers, holding them in front of her red lips.

“Well, Captain, what would you say if I told you my ferristitcher is not directly connected to the station network? It’s our custom model after all. It could conceivably be fed the profiles for say, cruise missiles or headless torpedoes, or diver hulls, among other things. Maybe a new 100 mm cannon, or two. Particularly at night, where no one is looking or working, and the security system is recording static images. And maybe even while a visiting guest brings in the proper ferricartridges too.”

Ulyana tried not to let herself be surprised. She had not expected such an offer.

She had been talking with Euphrates about how they might transport new gun barrels and other sensitive items out from Solarflare’s own ferristitchers to equip the Brigand. With an industrial size ferristitcher at their direct disposal, they could build anything they wanted directly on-site. New barrels, large munitions, chassis and weapons for Divers. In whole units and in usable numbers. They already had all the necessary blueprint data. If the device was off the network, they could have Zachikova on-hand to make sure everything was scrubbed off the machine after they left and retain secrecy.

It was an amazing opportunity. Not just to repair the systems but restock the weapons.

Maybe even upgrade or install some new hardware as well. Cruise missiles sounded nice.

“In that hypothetical, I would say ‘what would it cost me’?” Ulyana said.

“Right now, all I want in exchange is a meeting with Euphemia Rontgen.” Amelia said. “Despite everything that has happened in Rhinea, Solarflare LLC has continued to grow steadily and attract incredible talent. They have lavish facilities and innovative production, while only posting modest revenues. And that mysterious Madam Rontgen who barely shows her face and comes and goes as she pleases– I want to know what’s up. And I want to see if Alcor can become a part of her success. I am starting to feel like if I play my cards right, I could be the boss around here instead of dear old Oskar.”

Amelia winked at Ulyana and sat back on her chair, crossing her arms over her chest.

“So, what do you say? Do you think we can make this happen?”

Euphrates was probably amenable to at least talking with Amelia.

Maybe even amenable to bringing Amelia into whatever conspiracy she had cooking.

Ulyana reached out a hand with a smile. If all she wanted was to talk, they could talk.

“Looks like we have a deal, you conniving vixen.” Ulyana said.

Amelia took Ulyana’s hand with a gentle shake. “Deal, my handsome roguish friend.”

Natalia continued looking between the two of them in utter, silent bewilderment.

Located on the five-o-clock position of the Kreuzung complex, Tower Five was accessible via both a civilian walkway bridge, through which electric cars could also be driven if they were elevated or lowered from other modules; or via a watertight tram rail that clung to the bottom of that same bridge. Alcor Steelworks had partially funded the tram in order to move products and people more easily from the Rhineametalle and later Solarflare modules into their block for work.

Solarflare LLC representatives would say that it was impossible to miss their campus when looking through Tower Five. Indeed, within their module near the center of Tower Five’s tiers, Solarflare LLC’s campus dominated the layout. Its central spire was visible from any corner of the module, which otherwise only contained a few streets hosting smaller office buildings with marked up rent costs, under the premise that “blue sky” modules commanded higher prices. Solarflare’s HQ was the skyline.

A white façade with some touches of orange brickwork greeted anyone who entered, from any direction, characterized by the golden sun-disk was affixed to the front of the central spire, which was almost 200 meters tall. Two smaller spires rose from the left and right wings of the base of the building, which was over 400 meters wide and 200 long. While the architecture was far more basic than the modern art façade of the Alcor campus, the size of Solarflare’s HQ dwarfed anything in Alcor Steelworks.

There was nothing so aesthetically lavish as Alcor’s cabana building and indoor garden, but the accommodations were larger and more diverse. There were hot and cold showers, baths and a pool; a vending machine food court that was restocked with materials and meals frequently; pods with surround sound and large screens that could play media or run simulations; and one thing Alcor lacked, which was its own hospital, adjacent to the various laboratories, auditoriums and offices which took up the rest.

Solarflare’s HQ had far more dorm space than Alcor as well, and though this space was nowhere near as luxurious, it was available free of charge to employees, students, interns and guests of the facility. The amenities at the HQ promoted a life spent within the company and apart from the wider world of Kreuzung and its ongoing strife. Katarrans in body armor conspicuously provided security.

Much of the entertainment, dining, bathing, offices and the dorms were housed in that beautiful central spire, while the wings contained restricted research areas. Treasure Box Transports had the run of the place where it came to the central spire, able to go anywhere except for the restricted wings.

However, a certain officer, escorted by a certain woman, was touring the restricted areas.

“Behold, the Iron Tigris V! It’s one of my most genius feats of engineering prowess!”

Inside the left wing of the campus, near the back, was Euphrates and Tigris’ own solar, with a shared bedroom, private amenities, their own library, gym and workshop, and a gallery with a few trophies and cases of personal curios. It was precisely in that gallery where Tigris proudly displayed a 2.2 meters tall suit of power armor, red and brown with glossy paint clean enough to see oneself in.

“And to think, you made fun of me for how I wanted to name the Agni.”

“Shut up! You wish you had something with a name this cool!”

Murati Nakara laughed to herself. She had to admit, it was an impressive power armor. Imbrian power armor was designed to be able to outfit a whole unit with the philosophy that one should be able to create a shock trooper by simply giving any soldier a suit of armor. It contained the bare minimum elements of a suit of power armor: batteries and mechanical body augmentation. Union power armor was exactly as simple but a bit heavier and denser, less comfortable. Neither could compare to the legendary Katarran power armor, which was heavier and more complex, requiring a strong physique to operate it: but conferring unmatched protection and combat power, turning the wearer into a veritable tank. There had been attempts to copy the muscle systems and plate formula of Katarran armor, but all failed.

It was legendary for a reason. Everyone but Katarran workshops were missing some key element of it.

Tigris’ design resembled Katarran power armor, but it was larger. Almost like a cross between a Diver, which one did not “wear” but instead piloted, and a suit of power armor, which was usually thought to be “worn” rather than piloted. This philosophy seemed proven true when Tigris demonstrated opening the chest of the power armor, which unfurled to accommodate her body. It seemed designed specifically for her own height and figure, which was modest and light. Her arms did not slot into the machine’s arms, and her legs barely entered the machine’s too. She was practically seated in a “cockpit,” instead.

“While the arms are fully mechanical and not directly controlled by the user’s movements, the interior structure is pure synthetic muscle with a layer of armor over it, so it’s just like swinging some meaty arms yourself.” Tigris explained, briefly climbing into the Iron Tigris V and briefly demonstrating. “In the armor itself, your arms slot into digital peripherals that map subtle muscle movements to the mechanical arms. Your legs slot into the suit’s legs, but it’s the same principle, it moves biomechanically by mapping electric signals from the digital peripherals. Simply put, with a bit of practice, you can move a much larger and stronger body than your own without any physical training requirements. It’s all the power of Katarran armor but even for non-Katarrans! But you do have to be a bit short and skinny to fit into it.”

The Iron Tigris V easily lifted a showpiece hanging on the wall. It was another arm, that looked similar to an Iron Tigris arm, but it had been severed from its body and had scorch marks. She held it aloft, pulled back her arms, launched it gently into the air and then caught it again quite easily. She lowered the piece so Murati could try to push on it with her own arms and feel the massive weight of it.

“Impressive. It looks stronger than Union power armor, definitely Katarran level.”

“Hah! You get it! I just wanted to show off a little– everyone thinks I’m just Euphrates’ sidekick, but I’m a professional too! In fact, I make more and cooler stuff than her all of the time.”

Tigris put the broken power armor arm back on the rack where it was being displayed.

In the soft yellow lighting of the room, it took on an almost sentimental atmosphere.

Was Murati reading too much into how reverently she affixed this piece back on the wall?

“I’m curious,” she asked, “why do you have that broken arm on the wall?”

“Heh, yeah, of course you’d notice.” Tigris sighed. “It’s to commemorate something.”

“Was it your first test or something like that? But it’s ripped off and scorched–”

Tigris exited the Iron Tigris V and sighed loud enough when she her feet touched the ground that she interrupted Murati’s speech and train of thought. She stood below the arm, looking up at it and shaking her head as if remembering something painful. She was dressed in the treasure box uniform, her red hair collected into a ponytail, her dark olive skin untouched, glasses perched high on her nose. She looked as she usually did– but there was something different about her, about her body language.

Then, she put on a smile. A smile, Murati was almost certain was completely false.

“Hah! Well, with this, I stood toe to toe with Mehmed Khalifa himself. He tore apart the rest of it, but it was a real clutch moment for me. We might have all died had I not pulled out every little ounce of fight I had in me. Think about that whenever you wonder whether Tigris is super cool or not!”

Something told Murati that Tigris did not actually feel super cool about that moment.

“That was the Iron Tigris III. So I hung it up on the wall as a memorial to that battle.”

“You never really struck me as the battling type.” Murati said gently.

“Ah jeez– the way you sound–” Her dark skin flushed a little.

“I can tell that you’re lying, Tigris. But you don’t need to tell me the truth.” Murati said. “I accept if it’s not for me to know. But please don’t hurt yourself trying to fabricate something to distract my attention. I can tell that it’s something that’s brought bad memories to the fore. We can just drop it.”

“You’re so frustrating sometimes, Murati. I can’t be mad at you like I can with Euphrates.”

Tigris raised a hand to her face, wiping away at her eyes.

She was not openly crying, but she had wept a few tears. Murati felt troubled by it.

“Maybe we can go somewhere else. I’d love to get a look at your library.”

“No, Murati. I– I brought you here to give you back your parent’s legacy, so its like– we were already living in the past. There’s no point in trying to avoid the past when it comes to this. But I will say that the whole story is not mine to tell– but I want to tell you a bit so you can understand us better.”

Tigris turned fully around and fixed her gaze on Murati’s own.

“Mehmed Khalifa was a member of the Sunlight Foundation. He was a uniquely powerful psychic– we call his type ‘Apostles.’ People who have a powerful soul. Apostles are honorary members of the Sunlight Foundation, and when we find one, we extend them the offer to join under the codename we gave to their immortal souls. He was Phlegethon– the river of endless fire. What do you know about him?”

Murati did not know much. Even among the Shimii, he was a figure bound up in myths and legends. He was the most prominent of the figures involved in the ‘Age of Heroes,’ the ten year period of open Shimii rebellion and struggle that ran parallel to the Imbrian events of the ‘Fall of the Nocht Dynasty’ and subsequent ‘Fueller Reformation’. Speaking only in objective fact, he could only be described:

“He was a very influential Mahdist-leaning Shimii anti-government revolutionary. He declared a Jihad against the Imbrian Empire in A.D. 932, but he scored his greatest string of victories during the Fueller Mutiny and Fueller Reformation in 933 and 934 A.D. concluding with the Battle of Bad Ischl, where his followers tell that he died defending one of his base areas in a geothermal gorge.” She said.

“Even Mahdist Shimii are ambivalent about him, huh?” Tigris said. She sounded sad.

“I don’t know.” Murati said. “He’s a complicated figure. The Union’s history connects him to a broad pastiche of anti-imperial revolution of which even the Fueller Reformation itself is something of a part. You don’t learn almost anything about him in general education. I read history for fun.”

Tigris smiled, but there was a bitter note in her words that was impossible to ignore.

“You know, he was once called ‘the Imam of Imams’ by Mahdist Shimii.” She said.

“I can imagine he must have meant the world to his followers. What did you think of him?”

“He was a treasured colleague.” Tigris sounded wistful. “He was so curious, and he pushed himself tirelessly. He really had a fire in him for learning. For a while, I liked having him around to teach things to, because he took such an interest in everything we did. He reminded me that time was passing.”

Murati averted her gaze before speaking. “You all must consider the Jihad a betrayal.”

“We didn’t even know that was him, at first. We were idiots; we had no idea what he had been really plotting or ultimately what he did with all we taught him and all we gave him.” Tigris said. “He was deeply interested in Aether and Agarthicite. Psychics sometimes feel weak when they stare deeply at an Agarthic reaction. It fascinated him– he wanted to understand it. And he did. He came to understand Agarthicite to a degree that was uniquely powerful and horribly destructive. He was– a dangerous guy.”

Tigris ran her fingers across the surface of the Iron Tigris V.

“All of us had some idea that the things we discovered could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Euphrates drilled her non-interventionist ideas into us, and we thought that was enough, for us alone to have the right ideas. But Mehmed really broke all of us. And to make things worse, it pulled in a lot of unrelated people to break. Murati– Mehmed’s plot at Bad Ischl would have culminated in the destruction of the lower Palatine’s ‘Loup Belt’ of special habitations. It would have killed 80% of the population of the Northern Host Loup. Despite all that we taught him– he was going to go through with this.”

Murati felt a muted sense of dread building in her chest as she thought about that.

80% of a population– millions of people– could anyone really kill that many people with a ‘plot’?

“So then– all of you fought and killed him. That’s where Iron Tigris III met its end, and why its remains are hanging on that wall.” Murati said. “And then you covered everything up about him.”

“Yes. What more can I say? That’s the kind of organization the Sunlight Foundation is.”

“It’s beyond me to do anything about it– but I think the Shimii deserve to know the truth.”

“You don’t know the whole story. And it’s not my story to tell– you should ask Ganges or Norn the Praetorian. My side of this is too bias– but anyway. If somehow they tell you the story, maybe you’ll understand our reasoning. And then you can decide to tell the story going forward.”

“Alright.” Murati said. “That’s– that’s not what we came here for. So let’s move on.”

Tigris looked at her sad eyes in the reflection of the Iron Tigris V’s shiny armor.

“If only I’d thought to bring it on our expedition– maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

She sighed deeply. But she looked almost relieved after that short conversation.

“Had I done that though, I wouldn’t have met you, Murati.”

She turned and face Murati, wiping away a few more tears and smiling.

“Murati– you’re a truly fantastic girl, you know?” Tigris said. “Your parents were really nice people. I may not show it often, but I am actually happy I got to see their kid grown up, and that I can talk to her like this. You have a lot of compassion for others. Please never lose sight of that, okay?”

Murati almost wanted to respond, that she would never become like Mehmed Khalifa.

But there was a part of her, a little, dangerous part of her crooked and cracked soul–

That may not have passed up the power to kill millions of Imbrians like magic.

She pushed it down, down somewhere deep and dark, and tried to smile back.

And tried to tell herself she was above such desperation and wickedness.

That, even faced with whatever horrors contorted Mehmed’s soul, she would be different.

“Thank you.” She deflected with a smile. “Were my parents part of the Foundation?”

“Oh, no.” Tigris replied. She did not seem to catch on to Murati’s somewhat darkening mood, thankfully. “They orbited around Ganges, so they kind of knew and kind of didn’t know that she was part of some kind of organization– or syndicate. We met them through Ganges, but they were never inducted, and Euphrates always resisted us getting involved in politics, even for people as good as your parents.”

“I see. Thank you for telling me.”

“Are you relieved?”

“I don’t know how to feel about any of it yet. But I’m glad to have a chance to know more.”

The Sunlight Foundation was such a mystery to Murati. She admired Euphrates and Tigris specifically, but the organization seemed to have been part of many unsavory deeds. While she tried to separate Euphrates, Tigris, Daksha Kansal and her parents from that history, she knew that it was pure sentimentalism on her part to do so. In reality, there were tragedies where the blame laid on them, and Murati had to be fair to reality and place that blame where it belonged. A part of her feared discovering her parent’s involvement in something uniquely terrible. That Euphrates and Tigris characterized them as such nice and harmless folk, only made her more concerned about it.

It was all too big and too distant from Murati, though, so all she could feel was hollowness.

A hole in her heart, filled with a low-frequency buzz of dread. She didn’t understand it.

“Tigris, what is the goal of the Sunlight Foundation?” Murati asked.

“To live in a world full of sunlight. ‘May you be blessed by the light of the sun’.”

Tigris smiled at her. Knowingly– she was well aware of the bullshit she had just said.

Before Murati could comment on it, she shrugged. “That was the slogan, anyway.”

Murati nodded her head. She wasn’t bothered by that answer. She put together the subtext.

“I take it all of you suffered a split; like Ahwalia and Jayasankar did.” Murati said.

“I hope it’s not that bad. I’d hate to have to fight any more of my colleagues.” Tigris said. “But you guessed right. We were all big personalities with our own ideas. Over time– I think we failed as a collective. But our little individual visions bore fruit. So we all just focused on those.”

“But you outright told Euphrates she should go against Yangtze.” Murati said darkly.

“Back in the interrogation on the Brigand, yeah.” Tigris said. She averted her own gaze, staring down at the ground. Murati got a sense of resignation and sorrow from that expression that made her want to apologize again. “Murati, that was what Euphrates needed to hear at that time. Because it’s her unique responsibility. Not just to herself, but also to Yangtze. Because she put Yangtze in that position, she is also responsible. But I don’t want to fight Yangtze. I don’t even want to fight Norn. I wish we could all go back to those years when we really, honestly thought our collective labor could heal the planet.”

“I’m sorry.” Murati said. “I’ll stop prying into your affairs. Thank you for–”

Tigris shook her head, still smiling. “Man, you’re just such a selfish girl, Murati.”

“Huh?” Murati could scarcely comprehend what had drawn that reaction about.

“It’s nothing– it is actually nice to talk to someone unrelated about this. I need it.”

“If you say so.”

Tigris straightened herself out and looked over her shoulder at the arm on the wall.

It was clear that she still wanted to talk about the past.

“Euphrates has regrets, you know? She still kicks herself for what happened. First with Mehmed, then Ganges, and now– everything else. I hope you won’t hate her. She really thought she was doing the least possible harm by sticking to her principles. It was only until Norn, recently, that Euphrates started examining her own attitude. She’s trying to change now. That’s why I wanted to talk to you– she and I have a routine, and we understand each other too well. Both of us have talked to too few other people lately. So, Murati, do with her as you have done with me. Make her think; make her cry and mourn. Show her that time is still passing for us. I know that’s a big favor– but I’m being a little selfish now too.”

“I’ll do my best.” Murati said. But Tigris was not yet done with her speech.

She fixed Murati a determined look that allowed the Lieutenant to see the water in her eyes.

“Murati– when you meet Ganges, too. Ganges– she stopped believing in what we were doing because of Euphrates’ policy of non-interventionism. Out of all of us, Nile and Hudson still had their own goals, and Yangtze had her obsession with the surface, and Euphrates felt it was her duty to hold us all accountable. And I– I just followed what Euphrates wanted. Ganges desired for more out of us and never got it– so she joined the leftists to try to organize the General Strike, and then let herself be taken to the colonies after. You are a product of Ganges’ ambition more directly than you’ll ever be related to me or Euphrates. And I’m afraid that she’s going to end up regretting things– so Ganges needs to hear from you! And you will tell me if she resists. Because I’ll knock some sense into her and make her confront you myself.”

Murati nodded her head silently. “I’m fully planning on holding her accountable.”

“Good. I know you are.” Tigris began to weep again. More openly, more emotionally than before. It was not just a few tears she could wipe this time. She had to keep wiping and the tears would not stop. “You have a strong sense of justice, and you always want to do what is fair. That’s part of what I call selfish about you. You still have that naive sense that you can help everyone around you. We– we prevented Mehmed from committing his slaughter– but we still lost whatever hope we had for the future.”

Murati stepped forward, and without saying a word, wrapped her arms around Tigris.

She pulled the smaller woman tightly into her own chest, stroked her hair.

Almost weeping herself, but mustering up her own strength, she managed to speak–

“Forgive my arrogance– but on their behalf, thank you. From the bottom of my heart too.”

Was she speaking for her parents? For the Loup that unknowingly lived another day?

For all the people Daksha Kansal touched, whom she wouldn’t have reached without Tigris?

It didn’t matter. In that moment, Tigris seemed to understand the gesture.

She clung to Murati’s uniform, grit her teeth, and the frustration shouted itself out of her.

“You really can’t help yourself, can you?” Tigris muttered.

Murati smiled, hugging Tigris tighter.

“No. I can’t. If I see an innocent in pain and I can do something about it, I have to try.”

“An innocent– Murati– you awful girl–”

Tigris said nothing more and gave herself fully to weeping.

Murati’s hold never wavered.

She held her for as long as Tigris needed it. Alone in that gallery, for however long.

When they finally parted, it was natural on both sides. Some healing had been done.

Tigris beamed, bright and shining, arms behind her back, almost girlish with new energy.

“Alright. Enough reminiscing! I feel like working in the present again!” She said. “Don’t tell Euphrates you saw me cry, okay? Not unless you’re going to make her cry twice as hard right after.”

“Your secret is safe with me!” Murati laughed.

“Follow me to the library. I’ll get your parents’ Chronicle for you.”

Murati nodded. “Euphrates kept all her findings in a Chronicle? Is it encrypted then?”

“It is, but you’ll be able to open it. Whenever you are ready.” Tigris said.

Some part of Murati felt relieved that it wasn’t a book or just a simple memory card. To decrypt a Chronicle took time, enough time to regret it and enclose the contents again. It had to be deliberate. She would have been tempted, if it was too easy– but she really wasn’t ready just yet. She wouldn’t open it.

Her heart was not ready for it– whether disappointment, tragedy or elation. She wasn’t ready.

“Thank you, Tigris.” Murati said.

“No, thank you, Murati. Like I said– I’m happy to have met you.”

They left the gallery together, and unremarked, left behind the past interred there– for now.

Owing to an “improvement in the working relationship” Alcor Steelworks promised more resources to Treasure Box Transports, which would alter the overall plan for the Pandora’s Box refit project. On their second day in Kreuzung, the crew of the Pandora’s Box began to work on pressing repairs while they waited for a new, more ambitious upgrade plan to be drafted by the staff. The day’s chosen work became fixing the water system for the Pandora’s Box and making it more robust to cope with a future crisis.

After their adventure at Goryk, the ship had performed a rapid ascent to the surface waters. Such rapid changes in water pressure, as well as forcibly ejecting all the water, damaged the pipes, valves and turbines, which had greatly increased the amount of service work the sailors needed to perform on a day to day basis to stay on top of maintenance. Fully re-plating the main intakes, replacing the damaged filters, upgrading the turbines with more resilient materials, hardening the primary jet stream channels, and then replacing the interior tubing that handled personnel usage– this was the repair agenda.

Once they discovered the extent of the damage, it was truly miraculous they survived Goryk.

Lifted up on its carrier, the underside of the Pandora’s Box became slowly exposed, as the watertight outer hull plates had to be cut away in sections to access the water system feeding the thrusters in the aft. Its main, largest intakes that fed the jets were located in the sidepod and the underside aft, but there was also piping to the front of the hull as well that diverted water for personnel use. Since the hull armor had extensive damage, there was no loss from having to tear it all open to fully expose the intake channels and other systems. Seen from the outside in, it was an impressive amount of work, with over a hundred sailors, mechanics and managers taking part in the effort. However, this was not the only work.

Inside the Pandora’s Box, the hallways became crowded with additional sailors working on exposing the interior water-works. While the hydrojet thrusters used state-of-the-art hydro-turbines to funnel water from the large external intakes through to the rear for propulsion, the interior water system that served the kitchen and bathrooms, as well as the agarthicite reactor, used ordinary pumps to divert water instead. These pumps and their ordinary pipes were located in the walls and floors, and interior metal plates had to be removed and the wire-strewn guts of the ship exposed so that work could be done.

Among all of this mess, Elena Lettiere made her way to the cafeteria with a book in hand.

Once upon a time, she had been known as Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller.

But the bright indigo-haired, fair-skinned half-elf had given up that title and all of her privileges. Now, she was just any other woman on the Pandora’s Box, or so she told herself. She walked the halls, dressed in the sleeveless white shirt and black skirt of Treasure Box Transports, and as she slipped beside teams of sailors ripping out wall panels and jumped over holes in the hall, she attracted all manner of attention. She attributed it to being young, slim and pretty, with a soft, youthful face and kindly disposition, and she told herself that it was the mutual admiration her fellow proletariat had for their comrade.

“Good luck with the work comrades!” Elena said, making her leisurely way to the cafeteria.

Bless the hearts of those good-natured, hard-working sailors, they simply waved back.

At the cafeteria, the Chief Victualer, Logia Minardo, leaned against the front counter while sailors tore into the wall behind her. She was a beautiful, mature woman, with an impressive figure, short dark hair and a lovely, honey-tan face, with full lips colored glossy red. Elena was always very impressed with the older women in her life. Her conception of aging, as a baby-faced young woman, was rather skewed.

To her, Minardo was exceptional, having clearly ‘aged like fine wine’.

“Good morning princess.” Minardo said. “You’re right on time. All the food I’ll be cooking today is out, nice and hot. We’ll be bringing in stuff from the caterers later on.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “We’re getting our water system broken into for repairs, so I can’t cook more.”

“Good morning– but I’m not a princess, Minardo! I’ve become proletarianized!

Elena puffed out her chest and wore a smug little smile. Minardo grinned at her.

She leaned even closer and suddenly stretched her hand out to Elena’s face.

Her thumb stroked Elena’s left cheek. Her eyes and lips were so close, Elena flushed.

“I’m afraid you still have the pampered babyface of a prissy noble girl.” Minardo teased.

“Hmph! I’ll have you know, I not only gave up all my titles, but I’ve been reading theory.”

Elena lifted the book she had been holding– a primer on communism for Union schoolkids.

Minardo retreated, sitting back on her chair behind the counter with a self-satisfied smile.

“You should talk to Murati about that. I bet she’d tell you whether you’re proletarian.”

“Oh? Then is Lieutenant Nakara particularly scholarly?”

“Have you talked to her even once? She’s the most cartoonish communist you’ll ever see.”

“I see.” Elena felt mildly intimidated. A real scholar of Mordecai-Jayansakarist thought.

“I was joking. Don’t ask Murati that; you both have better things to do.” Minardo said.

“I suppose she wouldn’t deign to answer such a silly question from a newbie.” Elena said.

“No, she would, and that’s the problem.”

Elena was the only one who was sitting down to eat, nobody else had come in. Everyone was quite busy. She sat down at the counter and Minardo handed her a plate of food that already had some of everything. Today, the Chief had made Union-style bigus for breakfast. Canned soured cabbage and pickled onions served as the base, with fried wheat gluten in place of sausage for protein, and a dollop of a white sauce over it. It looked like sour cream, and tasted close, but it had a secret ingredient–

“–a bit of canned sweetened condensed milk. Just a touch. Bigus is sometimes flavored with a bit of honey if you can get it anywhere. Condensed milk adds creaminess to help reconstitute the sour cream powder, and the hit of sweetness adds depth to the sour veggies and the neutral protein. There’s some other things in the white sauce, but that’s the Chef’s little secret.” She winked at Elena.

Alongside the bigus, there was hard biscuit slathered with hummus and topped with shredded powdered egg and shredded boiled algea. Elena went for this first as it looked more familiar. Crunchy bread with a hard crust couldn’t be beat; the savory, creamy hummus and egg complimented the tight crumb well. It was not the taste of home, but it made Elena want to explore the rest of the meal. She took a sporkful of cabbage and a bit of wheat gluten into her mouth. Immediately, the insides of her cheeks contracted– there was a powerful, rich savoriness from the sauce that fully coated the silken-soft vegetables and protein, followed by the slightest sweet and sour, creamy notes. It was not just powdered sour cream– the umami and richness of the sauce must have come from the other secret ingredients.

“So, comrade, what’s on the agenda today? We’re at a bigshot Imbrian station now. You could apply to the Captain to get off the ship and go have some fun around town.” Minardo said.

Elena swallowed the next bite of her food before responding.

“I was actually looking for Maryam Karahailos, have you seen her?”

“The Solceanos sister with the cuttlefish puns? Haven’t seen her in a while.”

“That’s a shame. I have something I’d like to talk to her about–”

Minardo grinned. “I did hear some juicy gossip about her, though.”

“Oh? Can you fill me in?” Elena’s lips curled into the exact same conspiratorial little grin.

She took another sporkful of food in while attentively waiting for Minardo to tell the story.

“Khadija told me,” Minardo leaned in closer. “Maryam and our dear Shalikova have been shacking up in their room for the past week. Barely going in and out. Taking every sick day they got for the month to be together. They came out together for the briefing yesterday. She thinks they’re a thing.”

They’re– a thing–

Upon hearing of Maryam and Shalikova’s circumstances, the moistest neurons in Elena’s brain started to rub together. Manifesting in her mind images of the handsome, slender Shalikova in the carnal embrace of Maryam’s tentacles– a thought which she cut short with a physical cringe, with her cheeks stuffed full of cabbage. This prompted Minardo to narrow her eyes at the ex-princess.

“Are you okay? My food can’t possibly be that bad.” Minardo said, sounding glum.

“No, no! Your food is great! Sorry, I just swallowed wrong.” Elena said.

At least she knew where they were now– but how to approach them?

Elena had made it her next little mission to talk to Maryam about her power.

She knew, had seen and felt, that Maryam had the same power that she possessed. Power which her lost schoolfriend Victoria had shown her when she saved her from the doomed spire that had been her cage for all of her adulthood. Elena knew that she had this power, but she could not use it properly. When she had attempted to wield it last, desperately and out of malice, she found herself greeted by the grinning face of her adoptive aunt Norn von Fueller– and an agonizing punishment.

Perhaps Maryam could understand what Norn had done to her– she had to try to ask.

For Elena, her stay on the Brigand was an opportunity to become independent.

But to do that, she needed her own power, her own strength and abilities.

She already had this inside her– so why couldn’t she control it?

“You look troubled, little comrade princess.” Minardo teased. “Come on, tell me about it.”

Out of the Brigand’s personnel, the officer Elena interacted with most was Minardo.

They had talked about Elena’s problems before. She was always very kind. Elena could not possibly tell her about the strange power or Maryam’s secrets or anything like that, however.

“I– I wanted to talk to the sister because I thought it might relieve some of my worries.” Elena said. “I feel very useless. I want to become someone better. Someone worthier than I am.”

“Worthier of what?” Minardo asked.

“I don’t know. Dignity, respect, forgiveness– love. Worthier of anything, honestly.”

Elena sank against the counter, hiding her face with her arms. “I just feel really worthless.”

She felt a firm and gentle hand that began to stroke her indigo colored hair.

“Elena, self-improvement is always admirable, but you have to do it for you, not for anyone else.” Minardo said. “You can become the strongest woman in the world, and some people won’t respect you, much less forgive you, much less love you. That’s how the world is. But if you’re a good girl, and you try your best, you’ll definitely find your people, and they’ll be worthy of you. So you need to be good to yourself.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to keep that in mind, I guess.” Elena moaned.

“I know one lecture isn’t going to change anything. I think though, that it would do you some good to talk to the sister– because it’s something you decided to do. I support you making decisions for yourself, seeing where they take you. That’s how you start growing.” Minardo said.

“I guess so. I have been feeling a bit helpless. Like I don’t really control my own destiny.”

“It feels that way, but you do. You just have to leave behind the mindset that there are hard boundaries and walls that contain you. Learn how to get away with a little bit of mischief!”

Elena smiled. She used to get up to all kinds of mischief. She never listened to Bethany.

“Minardo, my old head maid would hate you for encouraging me like this.” Elena giggled.

“Well, I’m not some stuffy maid! I think girls ought to drink and fuck and be rowdy!”

“Oh, she would despise you if she was still here.” Elena said, a bit more animated, laughing.

Minardo and Elena laughed together. Elena emptied her plate with warmth in her heart.

With Minardo’s support, Elena left the cafeteria and headed for Shalikova’s room.

She stood in front of the door, straightened herself out, and knocked on the entrance.

“Officer Shalikova! Ma’am! I forgot your rank! I need to talk to Maryam Karahailos!”

The door broadcast a response. “Who? Wait– princess? Um– you can come in I guess?”

As soon as the door opened, a nervous, bleary-eyed Elena charged in and bowed her head.

“Please help me unlock my secret powers, wise and mighty sister!” She pleaded.

Inside the room, Sonya Shalikova and Maryam Karaihalos stared, wide-eyed, confused.

“–turns out I’ve become unexpectedly busy today, I’m afraid, but I’ll be keeping in touch.”

On the big screen inside a particular conference room on the Brigand, which the Captain and Commissar had been using as a temporary HQ to organize the refitting project, Euphrates had appeared with a sunny disposition, despite her calendar becoming quite packed. In part because of Ulyana’s deal with Alcor Steelworks– but also, the pile of responsibilities that she had left behind upon her expedition to Goryk, and a larger pile more which had arisen while she was gone.

“It appears that my colleagues Potomac and Hudson both contacted Solarflare LLC to gain access to my facilities. They are fellow Immortals of the Sunlight Foundation.” Euphrates said. “Hudson gave it up quickly, but Potomac was insistent. Thankfully, my fixer Cecilia Foss would never budge no matter how irate someone got. But it means I have to sort out some access controls internally.”

“Do you need any help with security?” Ulyana asked.

“No. Neither Potomac nor Hudson would bother to come here. They were just trying to get access remotely so they could steal my data or inconvenience me. Hudson is just mischievous, but I am worried about Potomac, because she’s much more aligned with Yangtze and might have malicious intentions. I am just going to promote a few other employees, so they can help Cecilia.”

“And there’s only one kind of promotion that’d protect them against someone like yourself trying to manipulate them. Am I reading the subtext right?” Aaliyah said, crossing her arms.

“You are quite correct.” Euphrates said. “I don’t like to do this, but if it’s Yangtze egging Potomac on to target Solarflare, then I need to prepare some people to defend their colleagues psionically. It’ll be a little messy because of my own interiority– but I trust the people I’ve got lined up to receive the baptism. I have had my eye on them for a while and they trust me too.”

“Well, doc, we’ll leave you to induct your people into the mysteries, then.” Ulyana said.

“I’ll be meeting with Amelia Winn today as well.” Euphrates said. Ulyana shuddered a little, but Euphrates was still all smiles on the picture. “I know you must have received the mail about that, but I wanted to confirm it with you personally. Don’t worry– I’m not upset that you agreed in my place. I am indebted to you and happy to help with anything you need. Plus, I’ve been meaning to talk to Amelia about our shared business interests anyway. I’m just a massive social procrastinator. So thank you.”

“Good to know we didn’t overstep our bounds. It was a tense situation.” Ulyana said.

“I wish I had been there to consult. I don’t know how to feel about this.” Aaliyah said.

“Your permits will be approved soon. I truly apologize for the delays.” Euphrates said. “But I have nothing to be upset about. In a way, this is all my fault. I should have known that Amelia Winn would approach you as a way to sidestep her own company and strike a personal deal. When I first discussed terms, she volunteered to personally oversee the yard to enforce our deal– an executive doesn’t ever give a customer white-glove treatment like that without having an ulterior motive.”

“Can we trust her? She seems like a walking conspiracy of a woman.” Ulyana said.   

Euphrates nodded her head. “You can trust her. Especially if she’s personally involved.”

“She must be gambling Alcor’s reputation for her personal advancement.” Aaliyah said.

“Exactly.” Euphrates said. “In order to keep her own reputation spotless with the Volkisch, Amelia would have had to report you before a deal was struck. Now that she’s done a bunch of actual work on your ship and signed a bunch of contracts, if she decided to report you, the Volkisch would question her failure of oversight and attack her character. Instead, she’s deepened your relationship and made it more personal. It’s incriminating to her specifically, but it is also going to profit her more than anyone. Risk and reward. Especially because I am going to offer to help her take over Alcor.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Euphrates, who said something so dire so casually.

Euphrates laughed a little, in good spirit.

“Anything short of that and we’ll lose that youthful fervor she’s committing to our cause.”

“We’ll leave the corporate maneuvering to you then.” Ulyana sighed.

“I don’t like this one bit!” Aaliyah reiterated, opening and closing her fingers over the table.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got hundreds of years of experience with this kind of thing.”

Euphrates paused momentarily. Her eyes drew wide as if she was struck by something.

“Oh! That reminds me. Kremina Qote will be visiting you on the Brigand today.”

They had agreed that Euphrates could direct Kremina to meet with them instead of herself.

However, they had not really given a lot of thought as to the venue

“She’s coming here?” Ulyana asked. “I thought we would talk at Solarflare.”

“She wanted the Commissar to be present, and the permits aren’t ready.” Euphrates said.

“Well, thanks, I suppose. I would indeed want to be present for that.” Aaliyah said.

“Kremina Qote is a communist, right? Just like you. I’m sure it’s fine to let her aboard.”

“Well, if we let you aboard, it would be a bit farfetched to be paranoid about her.”

“Aww, that stings, you know. But I understand. I’ll just continue to prove myself useful.”

Ulyana smiled. “I trust you, Euphrates. Aaliyah is just a little bit pricklier is all.”

“Hmph. Someone has to keep this big-mouthed Volgian out of trouble.” Aaliyah said.

With a final chuckle, Euphrates left the two of them to wait for Kremina Qote’s arrival.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both sank all the way back against the soft gel-cushion backing of their chairs, and partially against one another as well, brushing shoulder to shoulder and sighing with great trepidation. Aaliyah’s tail curled around Ulyana’s waist. They were not strangers to having these sort of tense negotiation events and felt a bit pessimistically about their collective ability to navigate them.

Kremina Qote was once not only a communist, but a member of the Union government–

–but that didn’t make things easier.

“If our awful luck holds, there’ll be some horrible trap behind all of this.” Aaliyah said.

“It’s a bizarre position to be in. Kremina Qote is a Union hero! An associate of Daksha Kansal’s who shaped the Union military in its inception!” Ulyana said. “But then, she just retired alongside Kansal and completely disappeared. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking nowadays. I’m curious what she’ll even propose. It’s hard to prepare for a discussion with an enigma like her.”

“I agree. I didn’t even know she had left the Union. Now I feel like I can’t trust what little we knew about her public life. At least she probably won’t report us to the Volkisch or conspire against us, so we don’t have to be circumspect with her. But Ulyana, I have a pretty bad feeling that she will try to manipulate us toward whatever Daksha Kansal’s specific ends are.” Aaliyah said. “We have to keep in mind, our mission is taking place under the auspices of the Union government, and even more specifically, under Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi. Even if this is Daksha Kansal’s will, we are not duty-bound to obey her like she’s some infallible specter of communism.”

“Absolutely, I’m with you completely.” Ulyana said. “We can’t just fold to either of them.”

“I must admit, I did feel a bit star-struck about the idea of meeting Daksha Kansal.”

Every so often, Ulyana was reminded of the age gap between herself and Aaliyah.

Twenty years ago, during the revolution, Aaliyah would have been a small child.

Meanwhile, Ulyana was an older teenager, armed and organized into a fighting unit–

–by the very same figures their kids distantly idolized. Kansal, Jayansankar, Ahwalia.

Ulyana had served with all of those notorious people. She was deeply connected to power.

That was what the nearly ten years she had on Aaliyah had afforded her in life.

Still, being older did not confer Ulyana any power. She smiled to herself and sighed.

“Yeah, I also felt ready to bow before her and offer my sword. I’m not immune either.”

“I am fearful her visit might excite the crew. We have to be really careful.” Aaliyah said.

“That would be just our shitty luck, wouldn’t it? If Kansal suddenly stole away our troops.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah looked at each other and briefly and fondly laughed together.

“Damn it. Enemies everywhere, and we have to be worried about our friends.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah rested her hand over Ulyana’s own. She smiled at her with a smoldering gaze.

“Like you said– it’s just our shitty luck. But I’ll be here to support you no matter what.”

“You’d choose me over Daksha Kansal?” Ulyana said in a playfully teasing tone of voice.

But Aaliyah was dead serious. “Absolutely. Because Ulyana, you had your ups and downs– but you saw the Union through and through. You dealt with everything and you continued your service, while Daksha Kansal left everything behind in confusion and on a whim. We can’t say such criticism aloud, but this situation got me thinking about it. You are more a hero than she; I would always rally to you.”

Ulyana could hardly believe what she was hearing. It made her face fiercely red.

“I’m– I’m flattered– but those would be fighting words around here, so–”

Aaliyah interrupted. Her ears stood up sharply; she took Ulyana’s hand into both of hers.

“Then I’ll fight them. Any of the sailors! I’m your Commissar, Ulyana Korabiskaya. We won’t yield anything to ghosts from our past. We are not their subordinates or their lessers. We are here and fighting. So let’s hold our heads high and face Kremina Qote and Daksha Kansal as equals. And if we must, we will also expose their lies and ambitions, just the same as any other opponent. We will stand for the truth.”

Ulyana’s mind was racing for something to say. Her heartbeat tripled in speed.

It almost hurt, to be compared to such great heroes of the past in this sordid situation.

While Ulyana felt that she had failed so much and acted so selfishly all throughout her life.

But, her self-derision was not what Aaliyah wanted, and it wasn’t what she would get.

“Thank you. Commissar, with you at my side, I feel like a hero. We can do this together.”

Ulyana clapped her free hand over the two that Aaliyah had brought up.

So that they were holding each other’s hands with both of their own at once.

And it was with that smoldering determination that they finally met their mysterious visitor.

Around noon, at the deployment chute, Akulantova stood by, watching her climb up.

Akulantova would have been old enough to remember the woman in question quite well.

Aaliyah and Ulyana awaited for her to clear the rungs of the ladder and stand in the hangar.

For a woman counted among the giants of the Union’s revolution, Kremina Qote looked quite charmingly ordinary. She was dressed in a black turtleneck with a checkerboard pattern skirt and black tights with low-heeled sandals. She wore a dark brown jacket, synthestitched using textures that faked a rugged tanned-leather look. She was rather tall and slim, a bit lanky even, with her silver and white hair tied up in an elegant ponytail that swayed behind her. For a woman in her mid-fifties, she was stunning, the lines on her face lending character to her mature beauty, as if painted by an admiring hand. Ulyana would have certainly loved to look like her in twenty years, and to retain the confidence of her stride and smile.

“Interesting. So this is Nagavanshi’s handiwork? You must be formidable to have come this far.”

Kremina turned her head and scanned around the hangar.

Her eyes settled on the Divers under repair, the workshop, the sailors.

Then returned to meet Ulyana and Aaliyah and narrowed, her gaze piercing, inquisitive.

“Greetings, Captain, Commissar.” Kremina said. “My name is Kremina Qote, but I also answer to the codename Tamsa. I am sure as fellow communists you have much you want to speak to me about. However, I am going to keep on mission today– I am not here to elucidate on the past.”

Ulyana knew what that meant. There was no point in pushing her to explain herself then.

“No codenames. We will much prefer to call you Kremina Qote.” Aaliyah said defiantly.

“We’ll drop discussion of ‘the past’ for now. But it will be contingent on such a discussion being promised to us in the future. There is a lot about you and Kansal that begs clarification.” Ulyana said.

They had to come out firmly out of the gate. Establish control and set terms.

“I do think Daksha owes you all an explanation– but I don’t. So that is that, Captain.”

In the background, Akulantova pretended not to pay attention to any of the belligerence.

Ulyana and Aaliyah escorted Kremina through the ship, up the elevator and to their one conference room. They had set up two chairs for themselves behind a desk, facing out of the room, and one chair for Kremina which would only face the desk and the wall. They offered Kremina her seat and took theirs, before locking the room remotely. From her jacket, Kremina procured a memory stick to put on the table between all of them. It was thumb-sized, with a universal port.

“Originally I had planned to meet with Euphrates to discuss sending supplies to Aachen to assist a revolutionary movement which is assembling in northern Eisental. There are a few separate groups, but they are forming what they call a United Front in an attempt to craft a common agenda and pool their strengths. I will continue to harass Euphrates specifically about supplies on Daksha’s behalf. But with all of you, I have a different and more complicated request. After Euphrates spoke to me about you, I contacted Daksha for her blessing to meet you. She is acting as an advisor in one of the groups, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Rhinea. Among the items in that drive is some evidence of that conversation, if you want to prove my identity and agenda, or her participation.”

Kremina began the discussion. Aaliyah took the memory stick and connected it to the universal port on the side of a portable terminal to display the contents. She then put it down on the table without checking further, and returned her attention to Kremina, who seemed interested in the gesture. Ulyana took the floor next, also dismissing the portable terminal and its contents.

“We trust that you aren’t falsifying your identity. Euphrates would know.” Ulyana said.

“You trust her a lot. Are you sure that trust won’t backfire?” Kremina asked.

“Euphrates exposed her deceptions willingly to give us reason to trust her.” Ulyana said.

It was an obvious barb, but it went ignored. Or perhaps even accepted by the recipient.

“Fair enough. You’re right– Euphrates is actually quite trustworthy.” Kremina said. “Her attitude is consistent to a rigid set of morals. She is a self-righteous pacifist perpetually hesitant to take needed action for change. It’s this set of morals that makes her trustworthy but frustrating.”

“This isn’t about her. You said your request to us is more complicated than what you first requested from Euphrates. When we spoke to Euphrates she also mentioned our particular skills would be more useful to you than hers– so I take it you want us to lend our combat power and fight alongside the rebels.”

Ulyana could tell where the wind was blowing as soon as she heard the words United Front.

During the Union’s revolution, the Shimii, Mordecists, liberals and anarchists undertook a “United Front” strategy against the Empire. After the first uprisings that led these factions to take control of several stations, vessels and weapons, they agreed to pool their resources, presented a united leadership to the enslaved and the exiled of the colonies. Ultimately, however, the Mordecist faction and the Shimii faction outgrew the others, made agreements with one another, and dictated the policy of the Union going forward. Accepting in Katarrans then bolstered this faction further.

Knowing that history, Ulyana felt a sense of foreboding about this so-called United Front.

And of course, Kremina knew this history. That term had this exact same meaning to her.

Kremina put on a wicked grin, acknowledging the darkening faces across from her.

“My request to you is even more complicated than that. You see, the United Front is doomed to failure. Ultimately, they will only be crushed. You folks are just going to be my insurance policy.” She said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes.

“Why would you even bother with them if that’s what you believed?” Aaliyah said.

“Even a Union hero is not allowed to blithely waste our time, Kremina Qote.” Ulyana said.

Again, Kremina did not rise to the provocations that Ulyana continued to throw her way.

“I’m telling you up front, so you understand the nature of the task and the effort required.”

Kremina pointed to the portable terminal dismissively.

“That terminal contains information about each of the groups. You should get acquainted with them and their ideologies and current dispositions. I would like you to meet with them in the next few days and talk with their current representatives in order to ultimately forge an allegiance with them. Pour all of your effort into them, steer them from destruction, and shepherd them toward the construction of a new, more productive military operation. This is not incompatible with your current mission, is it? Nagavanshi must have sent you out here for some clandestine purpose. Any of these groups could be a worthy ally to you.”

“You want us to pick a faction to side with? But you are certain the United Front will fail?”

“That is the gist of it. The factions of Aachen have manpower and equipment, to varying degrees, but you have something more valuable. You are professional soldiers. You have training and experience. You have a realistic understanding of what it means to go to war. They don’t, and so they will hit a wall they cannot overcome. When they do, you’ll be there to raise them from the ashes.” Kremina said.

“Our mission is to train and equip forces to foment unrest and revolution in the Empire.” Ulyana said. “So you are right. We are interested in meeting these groups. But we have the capacity to assist a lot of people– I don’t see why we can’t help the United Front as a whole instead and prevent their defeat.”

“You know what happened with the United Front in the Union itself.” Kremina said. “They’re doomed.”

“Pure sophistry!” Aaliyah said. Her eyes were smoldering. “You know we won because of an alliance between the Shimii and the Bosporan and Volgian communist troops. An unlikelier alliance couldn’t have been dreamed of by the original United Front. It’s disingenuous to ignore that communists and Shimii could find common cause and take up a common ideology, integrated in a way that persists to this very day– and then say this United Front is simply doomed! The past doesn’t so easily repeat!”

“Calm down, little lady.” Kremina said. “I’m just trying to get you all to use your heads.”

“Don’t tell her to calm down, Kremina Qote. We don’t need your patronizing.” Ulyana interrupted, raising her voice sharply. “Ultimately, we do not have to do anything you say. You are here to make a request of us. You need us; so it’s time for you to stop provoking us, or walk out of this ship with nothing.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah were being rather belligerent themselves– but it was not for nothing.

They had already discussed their stance and were supporting each other in the discussion.

Kremina Qote had to be confronted with hostility, in order to disabuse her of the notion that the Brigand would be subservient to her cause. Someone namedropping Daksha Kansal so much, and invoking the communist past so frequently, could only be doing it in order to command deference from fellow communists. To protect their independence, Ulyana and Aaliyah had no choice but to assert their indifference to Kremina’s stature and drive a hard bargain. Ulyana had come to realize that the provocative way that Kremina was carrying herself, from the moment she immediately shut down any attempt to discuss outstanding questions about herself, was her own way of asserting control.

Would they be demure, or would they be rebellious? Kremina must now have her answer.

“Alright, Captain. I do need you; and I apologize. I will conduct myself better henceforth.”

Kremina bowed her head apologetically. But her lips were still curled in a little grin.

“Like I said before, I am simply trying to get you all to properly consider the scale and danger of this moment. This United Front is going to be much more fractious than the one formed in the colonies. It has more liberal and more bourgeois elements, and its members have very little access to local industry. It’s a completely different situation, but the problems are very similar. As a concept, I do not believe it will last– and neither does Daksha Kansal. She has already chosen her own favored faction. I would almost urge you to simply do the same, and to pool your strengths, to preserve as many forces as we can.”

“We are not going to simply and blindly follow Daksha Kansal’s lead.” Ulyana said.

“We serve Commissar-General Nagavanshi, and Premier Bhavani Jayasankar. So we will come to our own conclusions here, Kremina Qota. Go over these factions so we are not completely in the dark.” Aaliyah slid her finger over the screen on the portable terminal, causing it to turn on and light up. “We won’t make any decisions right now, but we will hear what you think about these people in detail. You have experience with them and clearly you have formed some opinions, so be forthright with us.”

“Alright. Then, forgive me, but I will start with the most practical candidate.”

Kremina reached out a hand and flipped through the touchscreen options.

She brought up a file which began with a picture of a rose entwined by long, curling arrows. There was a bicolor black and gold background to go along with the red of the rose in the organization’s logo.

“The Democratic Socialist Party of Rhinea, in High Imbrian Sozialdemokratische Partei Rhinea, known as the S.P.R or also called the Rote Rose.” Kremina said. “They possess the largest constituency of common folk, with clandestine support from various trade and industrial unions, as well as the largest amount of troops, some of whom have a little fighting experience. They have a flotilla of converted civilian ships. All of it funded largely by Gloria Innocence Luxembourg and her inner circle, the Reichsbanner Schwarzgold.”

“Socdems?” Aaliyah said. She made a glum expression, her ears folding, tail drooping.

“Doesn’t seem like Daksha Kansal’s style.” Ulyana said, slightly amused by that reaction.

“Daksha Kansal is a pragmatist who chooses the most effective means to accomplish her goals.” Kremina said. “In this case, the S.P.R. is the best possible instrument to rally popular support in Rhinea. It has existing ties to labor, it is Imbrian in character, is building an armed wing, and democracy as a political tool is uniquely attractive to Rhineans due to their history. Our only issue is that we are contributing to inflating the size of Gloria Innocence Luxembourg’s head, but that’s the far lesser evil here.”

“Is this woman the ‘Luxembourg School for Girls’ Luxembourg?” Ulyana asked.

Kremina smiled. “The very same! She is a Luxembourg heiress and part-owner of Raylight Beauty Products Inc., which is one of Rhinea’s major corporations. We can take issue with her class position, but she has money and connections and is the reason the S.P.R. is as big as it is.”

“I’ll try to put aside my– misgivings.” Aaliyah said, taking in a breath.

“We’ll see how we feel about them when we talk to them directly.” Ulyana said.

“Of course. Then, moving on, we have the anarchists around as usual–” Kremina began.

She tapped her finger a few times on the screen to fiddle with the user interface.

Bringing up a logo with three black arrows over a grey circle.

“This is the Eisern Front. These folk are maybe the most doomed out of all of the dreamers involved in the United Front. I would bet on them being the first to run away if things get tough. They have the least amount of troops and equipment, the least training, and are poorly organized– which they see as a strength, though I must disagree. However, they have a lot of experience and connections with the underworld. Smuggling, hacking, bombings, social engineering, name a crime, they can do it.”

Ulyana’s very first thought was that it was not even worth considering them.

Anarchists and the Union simply had too much bad blood historically and ideologically.

However, they needed to be impartial and take every chance they got.

Maybe the anarchists felt that way about them too.

“We’ll talk to them and give them a fair shake like the rest.” Aaliyah said stoically.

“Who is their leader?” Ulyana asked.

Aaliyah glanced at her sidelong. Kremina shrugged her shoulders in a comical expression.

“They are anarchists, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She said, with a slightly helpless tone of voice.

Somebody has to be able to speak for them. These groups just devolve into cliqueism over time, there has to be a valedictorian in there somewhere who everyone listens to.” Ulyana said.

“Certainly they’ll have members here who will talk to you. But no singularly big names like Gloria.”

“Are they connected to the anarchists from Bosporus? The ‘Commune’?” Aaliyah asked.

“They are cagey about that, but they almost certainly are.” Kremina said.

Kremina moved on to the next group, with a chuckle and an amused grin on her face.

She swiped on the screen, and a black, white and red flag with a yellow hammer appeared.

“Here we have the incredibly presumptuous Rotfront, who have taken to calling themselves the Nationale Volksarmee lately.” She said, her tone thick with an obvious disdain, as if she found them humorous. “They are Mordecists whose manifesto could have been written by Bhavani Jayasankar herself. But before you get too excited, you should know that this faction is almost exclusively made up of Katarrans. They have very experienced troops and possess military equipment from their past as mercenaries and from succesful raids– so they can’t be ignored. Unfortunately the quixotic so-called National People’s Army will have an uphill battle to capture the attention of any national people around Eisental.”

Ulyana understood all too well what she was communicating with that tone.

“Racism ill befits your character as a supposed hero of the Union.” Ulyana said grimly.

Aaliyah opened and closed her hands into fists under the table. Clearly aggravated by Kremina.

Kremina shrugged, unbothered. “I am not a racist. I’m North Bosporan; I may not get carded as much as the Commissar will, but I was sent off to the slave farms just like you two. What you need to understand here is pragmatism. When 80% of the Rhinean public deplores and distrusts Katarrans, it follows that a popular movement being led by Katarrans is fighting a hopeless battle and will be limited in usefulness.”

“And yet they’re risking their lives fighting for these people nevertheless.” Ulyana said.

“That doesn’t mean they are owed our support.” Kremina said. “If we want to succeed in the long term, we need to unify behind the strongest potential. Morals aren’t worth anything if we all die and our project fails. We can think about who is the most pure communist when the Volkisch aren’t on top of us.”

“Captain, have we heard enough?” Aaliyah asked. Her aggravation was barely disguised.

That signaled the end of any civil conversation they could have with this woman.

Even to the tiniest degree of what could be called ‘civil.’

“We have.” Ulyana said. “Kremina, we will talk to these groups ourselves, and determine our own course of action. Not for you, or for Daksha Kansal, but for our own mission. We thank you for the intelligence and for putting us in contact with them. I hope that as fellow communists we may have reason to work together in the future, but right now, I don’t believe we have further reason to speak. You will have to speak with Commissar-General Nagavanshi if you want to give us direct orders.”

“I never dreamed of taking command of the lot of you. Our current arrangement suits me just fine. I would just like to request one final meeting to hear your decision.” Kremina said.

“Granted. I’ll call Akulantova to escort you out. Don’t talk to anybody as you leave.”

Behind them, the locked door opened. Kremina Qote stood and with as much nonchalant elegance as she stepped into the scene, she stepped back out, escorted by the burly Akulantova who gave an awkward glance into the room as she seemed to notice the tension emanating from the Captain and Commissar. They watched Kremina amble away with murderous glaring.

“Bitch. I almost wanted to sock her– what a rotten supposed ‘hero’.” Ulyana grumbled.

“I was afraid it would be like this.” Aaliyah said. “God knows what Kansal is thinking.”

The two of them had little time to stew in their own anger and disappointment, however.

Soon after Kremina departed, Semyonova called them in the conference room.

She had an awkward smile as her commanding officers still looked visibly upset.

“Eh, Captain, our guest has left the ship. And you have a call from Euphemia Rontgen.”

Semyonova left the sentence hanging as if to give them room to decline, but they did not.

“Put her through. She’ll be a breath of fresh air to talk after all this mess.” Ulyana said.

“Noted. I’ll connect you all encrypted-like in just a seccy!” Semyonova said, faking cheer.

Moments later, Euphrates appeared on the screen. Still in her office, behind her desk. Her hair looked a tiny bit more disheveled than it was. She must have been out and about. “Captain, I am glad I was able to get in touch. I uncovered something.” She said, her hands clasped together.

She sounded more excited than before too– Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged quick glances.

“What is it, Euphrates? We just got done speaking with Kremina Qote.” Ulyana said.

Euphrates nodded. “Setting that aside for now. I have news– it isn’t going to be reported in the public media, and who knows when the government will own up to it. But the information leaked in private network spaces. I have people monitoring the web for this sort of juicy BBS gossip. The Volkisch are trying to scrub the network of it, but the cat is out of the bag.”

“Okay, we’ll take it with a grain of salt.” Aaliyah said. “So just tell us what it is.”

“The Union defeated the Volkisch Movement in a naval battle in Sverland, near Serrano.” Euphrates said. She continued speaking as Aaliyah and Ulyana’s eyes drew wide. “I am not completely certain of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, but it was apparently a crushing and costly defeat for the Volkisch. The Union has occupied 62% of the territory of Sverland. Everything that isn’t occupied by the Royal Alliance in the Yucatan Gulf, along with a tiny strip of territory that completes the Volkisch encirclement of the Gulf– everything outside that is now under the auspices of the Union.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced at one another, once, twice. Then held each other’s eyes.

Disbelief, dread, elation, a sense of the surreal, a maelstrom of emotions overtook them.

If this was real, then–

“I believe this alters the nature of your mission, doesn’t it?” Euphrates said excitedly to the still-stunned communist officers. “I know you were feeling foolish for not being able to make it to Buren and being stuck in Rhinea, but this development might mean–” Euphrates smiled. “If you can foment rebellion in Eisental, you could be supporting the Union in defeating the Volkisch Movement!”

–it did indeed change everything.

“Oh god– Zozia– nngh!”

Long, slender fingers trailed down the woman’s shirt, undoing the plastic catches one by one. Exposing her deep collarbones, the long cleave between her breasts, the ribbon in the middle of her bra band, the gentle, pronounced curve of her soft stomach. One hand hooking between flesh and fabric and slowly exposing a breast, fingertips prodding an erect nipple awaiting the graze of hungry teeth.

“You’re being loud, Ksenia.” Zozia said. “This is a shitty room. Everyone can hear you.”

“Ugh– fuck, don’t say that in that voice– oh god!”

Ksenia bent suddenly back, her hair falling over her back, fingers gripping the bedsheets tight.

Zozia’s soft, moist and firm tongue flicked quickly over the exposed nipple, stiff with arousal, rapping the vulnerable and sensitive pink skin with a copper-colored stud that pierced the middle of her tongue-tip. Every quick scratch from the sharp rim of the stud caused Ksenia’s back and hip muscles to tighten, her chest to shudder. She was already this excited, and Zozia hadn’t even gotten started.

“You’re such a pussy.” Zozia teased. “It’s almost funny– but it’s hotter than it is funny.”

Ksenia avoided Zozia’s mischievous eyes. She could not meet that gaze which deliberately locked on to her as that studded tongue tasted her nipple– as her red lips closed around Ksenia’s breast. Pulling the flesh into a sucking kiss and easily grazing and digging in her teeth. Sure to leave a mark– Ksenia’s face grew redder from the brief flash of sharp pain. She stiffened under Zozia’s hungry attention.

Her legs would’ve closed but Zozia had her knee between to prevent it.

Eyes shut, lips pursed, hands shaking. Ksenia was completely in her thrall.

Zozia’s free hand shove gently on her chest, a non-verbal command.

Ksenia didn’t question it. She promptly laid back on the bed. Zozia loomed over her.

The hand that had pushed her back glided over her belly, undoing the button on her pants.

With one expert twist, a quick pull of the zipper, those slender fingers snuck beneath her lingerie–


Ksenia briefly opened her eyes. Zozia’s lips were close enough to taste her breath.

“You’re so gorgeous when you know you’re fucked.“

The slender, blond-haired woman descended on her curvy and vulnerable prey.

 Copper stud slicing across her neck. Teeth closing around her earlobe. Pulling the button-down shirt fully off the woman’s round pink shoulders, peeling off the straps of the half-undone brassiere. Ksenia squirmed beneath her with eyes clouded and staring at the wall, helpless, in a fog of her lust.

Fully clothed and fully in command, Zozia left sucking marks and deep bites on pink-white skin.

“I’m gonna have you all night, Ksenia.” Zozia whispered in her ear. “I’m gonna leave you so fucked up you’ll barely be keeping together tomorrow. You better cover yourself up good.”

“God– god damn– Oh–!”

“Or maybe the mercs will see what a little slut the goodie-two-shoes organizer actually is.”

“No– I’ll be discrete–”

“Oh, but I won’t, you little bitch. I want everyone to know you’re my wet little toy.”

Zozia laughed raucously. Ksenia shuddered with fingers entering between her legs again.

Then– the door rang, the alarm noise overwhelming Ksenia’s breathy moaning.

“What the fuck?” Zozia grunted. “Nobody’s got any reason to ring that. Stay back.”

She reached for the gun on the bedside drawers, while Ksenia, in a panic, scrambled further back onto the bed, up against the wall with the sheets over her half-naked body. Zozia stood from the bed, not bothering to set her shirt and coat right. From her coat, she withdrew a suppressor she had been intending to use in quite a different fashion and affixed it to the barrel of her gun.

It would make it unwieldy to shoot around the door, but it would be worse if she fired unsuppressed and woke up the entire floor. Pistol in hand, relatively silenced and ready, she stacked on the door. Unfortunately, their shitty room did not have a doorway camera. All it had was the ringer.

“Who the fuck is it? Don’t just that ring that shit, what’s up?” She called out.

“It’s Izak. Something’s come up. Stop making so much noise.”

That deep, breathy voice definitely sounded like Izak.

He wasn’t supposed to be here– but he was the one who got all their papers done.

Zozia was just a fixer, escorting Ksenia to meet Kremina Qote and now, some mercs.

It wasn’t exactly her business to question the anarchist “chain of command” so to speak.

Izak had seniority, so if he was back, he must have known some shit that she didn’t.

“Don’t just ring the doorbell next time then asshole, say something.” Zozia complained.

“I would prefer not to make a fuss, you know–”

In the middle of that sentence, Zozia opened the door and opened her eyes wide.

It wasn’t Izak– it was his voice, but it wasn’t him at all–


Be a good girl and don’t make any noise for me.”

A distinctly more feminine voice issued that command, which would go unheard.

“Fuck you!”

Zozia raised her gun and fired at the intruder’s chest. Ksenia shouted and covered her ears.

There was a tiny trickle of blood, the bullet penetrating just barely a centimeter between a pair of breasts partially exposed by the plunging neckline of a luxurious white shirt. Her target staggered briefly– but the woman who had once spoken in Izak’s voice was not slowed. In the next moment, the bullet seemed to fall out of the wound as if it had been invisibly tweezed out, and the wound simply closed.

An impossibly fast instant, and Zozia felt an overwhelming helplessness shaking her to her core.

King’s Gaze.

Zozia stared powerless at the woman, her knees shaking until she could no longer stand.

Behind her on the bed, her partner was panicking, in tears–

“Zozia! Zozia!” Ksenia cried. “Stand up! You swore you would protect me!”

“Shit–” Zozia mumbled to herself, weeping. “Shit– Shit– I’m sorry– Ksenia–”

Ksenia was speechless, clutching the bedsheets in terror.

“Hmm. A really sordid and romantic situation we walked into.”

Behind the assailant, a second, shorter woman appeared, closing the door behind herself.

“But isn’t it exciting? This will be a tale worth savoring.”

And the assailant walked forward, and easily picked up Zozia’s gun off the ground.

Just like that, she had assumed complete control of the situation.

“Now, we don’t want to expose to the world that you are most-wanted criminal anarchists. So let us all be quiet for a moment, while my dearest associate here gives us some more room for privacy.”

Behind the assailant, her accomplice raised her palm at the wall.

Zozia felt something almost imperceptible, something just barely there–

Blue– a faint blue–

rising from the


a coat on the wall like a false sky

spreading, swirling, spun from her fingers–

Saint’s Skin: Annoint.”

On her knees, Zozia stared at the two women who had intruded on her room.

She realized that there was something deeply wrong with them. Something that felt off.

Both of them had the appearance of beautiful women. Deathly pale but with perfect skin besides, not a scar on them, not a blemish, she could not even see the sinews beneath their skin like she could on her own fair skin. Both had whiter hair than any other color, but the taller woman who had barged in had her hair cut short, to the middle of her slender neck, parted on the left with long, swept bangs some of which were black, some of which were red, and the rest of her hair had streaks of both colors. Her partner had her hair long, almost below the waist, with a few bands of red and black running through it.

That taller assailant was dressed in a very fancy silk shirt with a deep plunging neckline exposing cleavage and a little cravat around her neck, along with a sportcoat and black pants. She was understatedly handsome compared to her princess-like, dainty, dolled-up companion, wearing a long dress with complicated patterns of cutout loops along the sleeves and sides, covered in lace-trim with ribbons on the cuffs, over her slender chest and along the hem, matching one larger ribbon in her hair.

Beautiful, otherworldly beautiful, the kind of women Zozia would have loved to toy with– but–

But some nascent sense of something in Zozia’s head was telling her– they weren’t normal.

Beyond their edgy style and the bougie filigree of their outfits– something was wrong.

“There, nobody will be able to hear us now.” Said the feminine-dressed intruder.

“Fantastic. Then let us introduce ourselves and then, formally bring their story to a close.”

Both of the intruders bowed in a similar, almost rehearsed fashion, grinning like devils.

“Syzygy Enforcer III: Gula, the Gluttony.” Said the daintier one.

While the handsome one locked eyes with Zozia. “Syzygy Enforcer I: Avaritia, the Greed.”

Zozia saw that Enforcer I’s eyes had a certain pattern to them.

At first, it was like a ring with four outward points that were star-like–

When their eyes met, the points shifted to the interior of the ring, as if to form–

–a crosshairs.

Locked directly on Zozia and sending a shudder of renewed paralysis through her body.

“Those aren’t names!” Ksenia shouted. “Who are you? What do you want with us?”

She was shouting, and her shouting caused Enforcer I to flinch briefly.

“So shrill. Please be quiet for a moment so we can properly send you off.”

Enforcer I raised her hands and now, Zozia could almost see it again.

Bands of green color, flying from her slender arm and impaling Ksenia’s own color–

King’s Gaze.

In an instant, Ksenia went quiet, hugging herself, teeth chattering, weeping.

Just like Zozia, she could not resist this and was instantly paralyzed.

Avaritia, these two have psionic potential.”

“I noticed, beloved Gula. But their emotional control is lacking.”

“Typical of hominin. But it does mean they will add their power to our own.”

“Yes, it’s a wonderful surprise.”

Enforcer I kneeled in front of the weakened Zozia, looking deeply into her eyes.

“You have visited a forest full of silver trees, taller than the sky. They spoke to you. You believed it was only a dream, but it was so comforting you sought out information on this superstition, and even embarked on a failed journey to an abyss in Bosporus. That journey was how you first met Izak Zielinski, a man whose thoughts I already possess. This is how you have come to be in this predicament. You have unknowingly experienced something rare and valuable; and you squandered the blessing it gave you.”

“It is unfortunate for you, but our Autarch is vying to complete a puzzle to which you hold a piece.” Enforcer III said. “I hope you will die without begrudging us what we must do. Had you not already expended the love of the Great Tree that blessed you, we would have had to let you go.”

“It appears you used your second chance to the fullest. So please go out without regrets.”

“Rejoice, even.” Enforcer III said. “After all, the two of us are lovers. So you and your woman will continue to be together in our bodies. In fact, your love in our flesh, will outlast any hominin’s lifespan.”

“Ahh!” Enforcer I cried out in satisfaction. “Gula, my treasure, that is a fantastic point!”

“My prince, let us each eat from the two of them together, and maintain a knot of their flesh inside us when we incorporate them. That way, the two of them will embrace, forever inside us.”

“Ahh, the romance! To have such endless romance inside me! It makes me feel so greedy!”

Enforcer I’s eyes flashed, those crosshairs seeming to tighten ever more on Zozia.

Zozia’s mind was in tatters trying to understand what they were talking about–

–but she thought bitterly that she explicitly hadn’t wanted Ksenia and her to get too serious.

Now, however, she lamented that it was her superstition that led this danger to their door.

She should have known dealing with the Abyss would have come back to haunt her.

Those trees– wanting that feeling again– it had damned her.

Had she been able to speak, she would have begged Ksenia for forgiveness.

Now she would die– with nothing but this monochrome girl-twink grinning in her face.

And with them, the mission of the anarchists in Kreuzung would die also.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry. Die in peace. We will take care of everything.”

Enforcer I drew nearer and nearer to Zozia, her strong hands crushing her shoulders–

Her mouth closing around Zozia’s adam’s apple and crunching through her throat–

There was no pain. Blood sprayed from her juggular, the gnarled strings of her flesh pulled apart, and yet all she felt was an almost sublime, anesthetic joy that drew her final tears from her glassy, dying eyes. She felt euphoric for as long as she still had senses, in her final moments she thought not of Ksenia or the anarchists or her fixer paychecks or even the distant memory of those peaceful silver trees.

Instead she felt power course through her flesh and felt herself become power itself.

Felt an almost orgasmic joy in the grip of this magnificent predator–!

She was joining something greater! She was becoming one flesh with a biological God!

Zozia perished in an insane exuberance.

Unable to hear Ksenia scream as Enforcer III tore into her chest.

Hail to the Syzygy! Glory to the Autarch! May the sun forever set on homininkind!

Enforcer III gleefully ran her tongue across the steel floor of the room.

Her lips and chin dripped with blood still lukewarm from contact with the heated tiles.

She was known as Gula, the Gluttony of the Autarch’s eight Enforcer-class omenseers.

All of the flesh, all of the bones, had already been disposed of, and she had eaten the most.

Anything she wanted to eat, she could. All she had to do was work up the appetite for it.

Blood was her little treat to herself, however. It was fun to pick it clean, it was like a game.

So, if there would not be consequences, she sometimes made a mess. Just to clean it up.

“My handsome prince~” she said in a singsong voice, noticing Enforcer I on the bed.

In that instant, what she wanted to eat– was the distance between herself and her prince.

So with a loving bite, she devoured– appearing in a blink in bed beside Enforcer I.

They laid together where the hominins had once been. The dainty Enforcer III ended up snuggling very close to the chest of her beloved Enforcer I. She was a head smaller and a bit slimmer and fit beside her perfectly. Enforcer I smiled that beautiful, handsome smile of hers and took Enforcer III into a close embrace. Her face laid against Enforcer III’s hair, and then nuzzled her cheek. Her long fingers prized some of the smaller woman’s frilly dress from her shoulder, exposing the slender curvature beneath.

Knowing exactly what her partner wanted, Enforcer I took a deep bite of Enforcer III.

Drawing blood; tearing deep into the muscle. Pain; her vision almost blurred.

Enforcer III tittered with delight, regrowing the flesh just enough to avoid lasting injury.

“Oh, you’re frisky– I am excited to have this room for the rest of the night.” She said.

“I can’t help it.” Enforcer I replied. “You always draw out my greediest feelings.”

Enforcer I traced her tongue along the slowly closing wound that she had made.

“Have you found what you were looking for yet, my princely Avaritia?

“My lovely Gula— I am still resolving blocks, but I think I have our next destination.”

“Oh? How exciting! It has been such a lovely journey. So many sights; so many tastes.”

“There will be more.”

Avaritia set Gula on the bed and loomed directly over her. Her arms held up her body, one near Gula’s head and the other near her breast. She licked her lips, still slick red with her lover’s blood.

“We’ll have business with some mercenaries tomorrow on the anarchist’s behalf. We did promise to take care of their business, after all. Before then, you will need to clean up all the blood like a good girl.”

“Of course.” Gula giggled. Eagerly hungry to be ravaged by her lover all night.

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