Bandits Amid The Festival [11.4]

Once again Murati Nakara found herself in a place that was becoming familiar: Euphrates and Tigris’ solar within the wing of Solarflare LLC’s headquarters. This time, her hosts had summoned her to a room which appeared to be a convertible court. There were a variety of balls, racquets and other sporting equipment on a rack in the wall, and there were slots on the floor and the walls to affix nets, baskets, goals, whatever was necessary. The floor had the same sort of digital projector plating that the walls of living quarters would have, but this was used to display the correct markings for whatever sport was being played. It was not a full-size court for any given sport, but it was more than large enough for recreation.

Murati was surprised by its very existence.

“You two didn’t strike me as the sports-playing type.” Murati said.

Immediately her hosts delivered their expected reactions:

“That’s so fucking rude! I keep extremely fit! Don’t lump me in with this nerd!”

“Can you defend yourself without abusing me? I exercise a bit too, you know.”

In the middle of the court, Tigris and Euphrates welcomed Murati inside.

“We’re not here to play ordinary games today. It’s time for your training, Murati.”

Euphrates lobbed an easy baseball pitch and Murati caught it in her hands.

She felt a string of anxiety plucked in her chest, rendering an arrhythmic little tune that caused her to shudder. It was these two, and it was this place, so clearly they were talking about psionics, and Murati had been hesitating to try so much as shaking an object lightly. She had caused nothing but disasters to herself and her environment every time she attempted to use psionics.

“I’m a bit worried about this. I’ve been having a lot of issues controlling my psionics.” Murati said.

“Both of us can recover very quickly from injury.” Euphrates said.

“That doesn’t help me. I could throw something too hard and hit myself.” Murati said.

“You heal up from injuries unnaturally quickly too.” Tigris said.

“It’s– It’s not unnaturally quickly.” Murati said. “My ribs were broken for–”

“Less than two weeks? Maybe even less than one?” Tigris said, with a little grin on her face.

Murati blinked. She felt like she didn’t know where to put her hands.

All her life she had recovered a bit quicker than others from injuries, but that wasn’t–

Her anxious train of thought was interrupted.

“Regardless, don’t be afraid.” Euphrates said. “We’ll keep things from getting out of hand.”

“Chuck it at me as hard as you can with psionics.” Tigris said. “I’ll demonstrate.”

Tigris clapped her hands together and took in a deep breath. She was concentrating.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Murati sighed.

It’s not just whether anyone could recover from her uncontrolled blows or how quickly. Murati did not want to hurt people she cared about with her psionics. It was like being taught how to shoot with live targets. Even with rubber bullets in the chamber, battering and bruising your comrades in front of you was not a good learning environment. It discouraged her from wanting to try it at all.

However, Euphrates and Tigris were not ordinary people.

She was not about to walk out and refuse when they were prompting her to take action.

Maybe she could trust them and see where it went– but she was still not enthused about it.

“Okay, here it goes.”

She reared back with the ball in her hands and made to throw it.

In her mind, she pulled the mental trigger that unloaded her psionics on the object.

Her eyes felt warm, and in an instant, the optics of her psionics covered her vision.

Auras appeared in front of her, emanating from Euphrates and Tigris.

Her own aura transferred from her arm into the ball she was throwing, tinging it green.

She felt like she had no control over that color specifically– it was just how it happened.

As soon as the ball left her hands, she pushed on it with her mind. She concentrated on her desire for the ball to snap in Tigris’ direction as strongly as it could. And snap, it did. It felt like there was a barely perceptible instant where the ball transitioned from moving under the power of Murati’s ordinary throw, the energy of her arm muscles on the ball’s mass; to moving under the power of Murati’s mind, violently accelerating the ball perhaps five times as fast as she could ever hope to throw it.

It would strike Tigris, across the court, before Murati’s arm was done moving–

Oracle’s Voice. Saint’s Skin.

Ball struck hand with a soft thump despite all the brutal energy behind it.

“There, wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Murati blinked, and Tigris was holding the ball in her hand without a care.

“Are you still afraid of hitting me?” Tigris asked in a teasing tone of voice.

Murati was briefly speechless. She stammered. “I– I thought I– I heard you speaking–”

“You didn’t hear it. You felt what I was doing as I did it, but it would have all happened way too fast for you to hear it with your physical senses.” Tigris said. “As you get more used to it, your mental sense of psionic things happening around will alert you with greater fidelity. Can you describe it?”

There was no describing it. It was like a mix between a sound and a feeling.

“I don’t know. I thought I heard a voice.“ Murati said.

“Ah, a voice you say?“ Tigris looked like she understood more than she was letting on.

“Basically,” Euphrates added, “Tigris performed a psionic trick to predict your throw.”

“And to be able to catch it safely. That was what you felt.” Tigris finished.

“It’s actually really promising that you perceived what she was doing.” Euphrates said.

“Is it? I can’t really articulate what I heard– what I felt, as you say.” Murati replied.

Euphrates and Tigris both nodded their heads together.

“Even people who, baseline, know psionics exist and can see auras, can’t necessarily tell like you could that something was going on with me in that moment.” Tigris said. “That voice you think you heard, your psionic reckoning, is called the Oracle’s Voice– it’s a gift not many people have, even people who, like I said, can see auras and understand that psionics exists. But that’s totally not 101 stuff.”

It must not have been, because Murati had no idea what to make of it whatsoever.

Even in the recesses of her own mind. It was impossible to articulate again what that voice in her head had told her she had felt and experienced. It had already faded like a dream– or if she were to use Tigris’ own word, fidelity, then it was like barely hearing a message while tuning a communicator’s frequency but quickly losing it to the noise, never to be found again. Like almost everything about psionics, it felt so frustratingly vague and immaterial that she was not sure how to approach it and master it.

“Even if I could be a generational psionic talent or something– I’m not right now! I have no idea how to even begin to exert precise control over this!” Murati said, hands closing into fists.

She had raised her voice in frustration. Euphrates and Tigris remained as steady as ever.

“It all starts with having emotional control, Murati.” Euphrates said. “Psionics is the power of the mind, but, more than that, it’s really the power of human emotion. Your mind is a conduit that turns your intention into power, but that intentionality is ultimately steered by emotions. Control emotion and you will control your psionics. It will never be perfect, but it can be managed and directed.”

“We’re not going to leave you in the lurch. I’ll teach you how to get started.” Tigris said.

Murati tried to pull herself back to the center, dial down her anger and anxiety.

She took a deep breath. “If you have some baby’s first psionic exercises to share–”

“Eh, you’re past that stuff.” Tigris said. “You figured out how to ‘turn on’ your psionics without anyone telling you anything. You can flip it on and off when you want. That’s the first part; and being able to throw stuff on command too. You’re solidly in the intermediate range of psychics now.”

Murati had not thought that was anything special. It felt like a perquisite to any psionics.

Clearly, she had to find a way to turn off the auras or she would have gone insane.

So she developed that intentionality before the colors everywhere fried her brain.

How was that not ‘step 0’ to learning psionics? It felt so natural when she did it now.

“Okay.” Murati triggered her psionics, rendering the auras visible. “What now?”

She intended for Tigris and Euphrates to see the red around her eyes, deliberately.

“Now you have to start developing intentionality in other parts of the process.”

Tigris took the ball she had in hand, showed it to Murati, and threw it up in the air.

Up in the air, the ball suddenly veered to the left with a thud, as if something had stricken it from the side. This sent it flying quickly to the other western end of the court– where with another loud thud, the ball was struck again in mid-air and soared toward the eastern end of the court instead. Tigris was not even looking at it. Throughout the rest of their conversation that ball would continue to be struck from side to side in the court as if by an invisible bat, over and over without affecting Tigris at all.

“When you begin practicing with kinetics, it makes sense to think of the psionic force as coming from you, like it moves forward from your position.” Euphrates began. She had shifted into her very professor-like voice and demeanor. “You’ve been characterizing kinetics as thrusts that push something forward, bearing from your physical position. However, psionics is the power of your mind. It isn’t that limited.”

“For an object that is in your physical presence, you don’t actually need to be able to touch it physically in order to affect it. Hell, it doesn’t need to move in a direction that makes sense for the position of your body. I could stance up to pitch forward but have the ball go over my shoulder.” Tigris said. Murati looked at Euphrates, then at Tigris, and then up at the ball, which was still being batted around over their heads as Tigris spoke. “Your psionic force can come from any direction and from any position around you.”

Murati’s eyes drew wider. She kept trying to follow the ball.

Then, she focused on the impact, where the ball changed directions–

She thought she saw something– a strange, visible burst as if illustrating a collision–

“You’re a quick study.” Euphrates said. She smiled proudly. “You see it, Murati.”

“Can you explain what I’m seeing?” Murati asked, blinking rapidly in disbelief.

“We call them vectors to help visualize the phenomenon, but it’s not entirely correct to treat them like physical objects.” Euphrates said. “It’s just a helpful illustration of the actual fact: you can decide the direction and location where psionic force executes and takes effect on an object, as well as its strength. There are limits, for example, a human’s body will resist being vectored just as much as their mind resists other kinds of psionic intrusion. Vectoring from inside an object means the object’s entire internal structure will distribute the force more or less evenly– etcetera. For now, think of it like a bat you can summon to hit a ball in any direction you want. That’ll help you get started on using vectors.”

“Using them?” Murati said. “I can’t even begin to conceive of how this works.”

“Catch!” Tigris declared suddenly.

From the eastern side of the court, the ball was subjected to one final snap, and tumbled in the air toward Murati. That final strike had been much softer than those preceding and Murati found it easy to grab the ball out of the air once it neared her. She looked at the soft surface of the ball, which had started to look a little beat up from all the strikes it had received. She turned it over in her hands.

She got a very fleeting sensation, the feeling that this ball had been struck by Tigris.

It had her aura on it, faint traces of it, a similar texture– that was how she conceived it.

There was a trace of Tigris on it, of Tigris’ emotion, the signature of her psionic power.

“Here’s an exercise you can do.” Tigris said. “With your hand, throw the ball up, not hard, just enough to get it in the air. Then, bat it over your own head in the opposite direction to where you’re looking. Try to imagine you’re creating an object in front of yourself to strike the ball while it’s in the air.”

“It doesn’t matter the shape.” Euphrates said. “Just imagine something hitting the ball.”

Murati suppressed a desire to continue complaining. It wouldn’t help her.

She would just follow their instructions to the letter and see where it led her.

Holding the ball in one hand, palm up, she casually pitched it into the air.

Following it with her eyes, Murati pulled her trigger.

Imagining– something— striking the ball and launching it behind her–

There was an enormously loud bang, followed by a shower of shredded fibers and cork.

One instant, Murati had been staring at the ball, and the next– it was completely destroyed.

There was a dull aching on one side of her head, and she flinched from the sound.

Everyone present was left momentarily speechless as the debris collected on their heads.

“I’d never seen someone reach this extreme on their first try.” Tigris whined.

She batted fragments out of her hair while Euphrates softly brushed her own shoulders.

Then she suddenly picked up a fragment of the ball from Tigris’ hair and looked at it.

Murati could see debris had a faint trace of red aura on it. Euphrates must have seen it too.

“Murati– how do you conceptualize using your psionics?” Euphrates asked.

Tigris sighed openly and swatted Euphrates’ hand away as she tried to pick another ball fragment out of her ponytail without asking. “Don’t ask her that way, she’ll overthink things too much. Murati– take this completely at face value. Imagine you’re a star football player: name your signature kick right now.”

As instructed, Murati took it at face value. “The Nakara Cannon.” She replied easily.

Euphrates and Tigris both grimaced, staring at the fragments of the ball with worry.

Murati gestured with her hands, exasperated. “What do you want from me?” She cried.

“She’s normally such a sweet girl, but her heart is just full of violence.” Tigris mumbled.

“Murati, can you try hitting the next ball with less– repressed fury?” Euphrates smiled.

Murati closed her hands into fists and shut her eyes, sighing deeply.

Even her most pessimistic assumptions of the task of learning psionics now felt too kind.


Shalikova and Maryam sat on one of the beds in their room and Elena Lettiere sat on the other.

While her cuttlefish partner was smiling brighter than the sun and stars as depicted in books and movies– Shalikova herself had a dour and somewhat confused expression turned on Elena.

Despite everything else she had seen and experienced on her journey, this was still a scene that felt a little too storybook for the young ensign. She had never sat this close to anyone politically important, just peers and higher ranking officers. Not any politicians, not even local apparatchiks– there was a public safety corps officer, once upon a time when she was younger, but that hardly counted, they were just playing detective. In essence, she had never been near political power, and did not know how she felt about those figures generally– and there was the fact that this was a princess. Some part of her was fascinated by the improbability of meeting a princess. Having a princess sitting across from her– with bright indigo hair and pointed ears and such a vibrant and pretty face. Just like a cartoonish storybook.

Even though she had been briefed on the basics of Elena’s situation, she felt compelled–

“Uh. Forgive me for asking but– are you really a Princess?” Shalikova said.

Maryam eyed Shalikova for a moment, her skin and hair colors turning slightly duller.

It was an awkward question, but she felt she needed to hear it to truly process.

“I used to be!” Elena said. “But I am no longer a member of the bourgeoisie!

She proudly showed them a book– a primer on communism for Union schoolchildren.

Shalikova had not seen a book like that since she was eleven or twelve years old.

With it in her hands, Elena was as cheery and smiley as Maryam had been.

“I’ve forfeited all of my titles and lands and am adopting a proletarian outlook on life!”

“Well– congratulations.” Shalikova said awkwardly. This all felt incredibly surreal.

“Sonya, she really is– was– a princess– and not only that, but she’s also got psionics too!” Maryam said. “She’s not as strong and cool as you of course, but I felt it from her! That’s why I helped her before. Also because I think she looked a little bit pitiful I guess.” Her head fins flapped a little as she spoke.

“Thank you for your help, wise sister!” Elena said. She bowed her head, a little bit pitifully.

“Oh no! No bowing! It’s fine. I’m just a very helpful girl.” Maryam said, her skin turning tomato-red.

“Maryam, what did you do to help her?” Shalikova asked, narrowing her eyes.

“That doesn’t matter Sonya!” Maryam said with a nervous little smile and a voice full of casual levity, raising her tentacles up like hands in her own clumsy defense. “Look, Elena is asking for help again! We should hear what she has to say and try to help her! Good deeds will do the soul good after all!”

Shalikova couldn’t help but smile. Maryam was a harmless marshmallow anyway.

“Fine. Fine.” Shalikova sighed a little. “Elena, tell us what’s happening.”

“Thank you! Wise sister– and gallant ensign!” Elena declared, clapping her hands together.

The Princess proceeded to tell them about her history with psionics.

She told them about her friend, Victoria van Veka, who left her life one day and just as suddenly returned in a time of a crisis with a strange new power. Elena explained what she had seen her do, and Shalikova immediately realized it. Telekinetics, possibly aura reading– the way that she seemed to “see through” Elena. She even attempted to control Elena’s body, and Marina McKennedy’s too, but both of them were able to muster some level of resistance and completely foiled Victoria’s attempts. Then she began to talk about her own experience trying to use psionics to “calm down” Marina McKennedy–

Shalikova could tell she was lying about some of the events and some of her motivations.

Elena was a sloppy liar. She must have been used to being believed at face value or having her lies accepted due to her status. Shalikova did not need to read auras to know this. Elena’s own tone of voice elevated and fell with the ebb and flow of her embellishments. She had a particularly awkward pause and rise in pitch when she said, “I was trying to calm Marina down– she was scaring me–” Her soft cheeks subtly tightened or twitched too, and it never happened when she was saying words she had clear confidence in. “My schoolfriend Victoria van Veka,” “she seemed to know that our other friend, Sawyer,” etcetera. She spoke with such a noted contrast in both the statements and the shifts in her mannerisms.

Shalikova was too observant, had seen too many such expressions and statements.

She knew all too well when a young girl was blatantly spinning a narrative for her.

Despite this, she allowed Elena to finish her story and kept her reservations to herself.

“When I try to use psionics now, I see a vision of Norn– and she hurts me.“ Elena finished.

In the end, it didn’t change anything whether or not Shalikova and Maryam knew the tiny details of her life to the letter. She already had the power and already could not use it anymore, and Shalikova trusted Maryam would judge her character and deem whether or not she was worthy of it–

“Wah! That’s so tragic! You’ve been through a lot! Come to the cuddlefish right now!”

Maryam practically jumped across the room and wrapped Elena into a tight embrace.

Elena sat speechless and stiff as a sculpture while Maryam hugged her.

Her tentacles relentlessly patted Elena’s head all the while.

“Sister! I appreciate your sympathy! But I’m truly okay, I’m– I’m healing and growing!”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes at the two of them. Maryam started openly weeping.

“Of course we’ll help you! Sonya and I would never turn down a girl in need!”

“Maryam, you– ugh, whatever.” Shalikova mumbled.

Some judge of character she was! Marshmallow-for-brains!

–and yet that was part of what Shalikova truly loved about her too.

Even if she was getting pulled into another surreal event– she would do it for Maryam.

“Sister Maryam, do you really think you could help me?” Elena asked, smiling.

Maryam let go of Elena, walked solemnly back to Shalikova’s side and sat there.

Her tentacles positioned themselves under her chin, as if she was steepling her fingers.

“It’s tricky-inky.” Maryam said.

“Tricky-inky?” Elena asked.

“Maryam, please be serious.” Shalikova sighed.

“Sorry. I’m just trying to cheer you all up! It was such a sad story!” Maryam said. She deflated and sighed and the chromatophores in her skin turned a little duller. “How much do you know about Norn the Praetorian?” She looked principally at Shalikova, causing Elena to turn to face her as well.

“Huh? I don’t know anything.” Shalikova said. “I know what happened recently and that she’s a bigshot Fueller family noblewoman or something like that. We don’t get history for people like that in the Union, it doesn’t really matter to an Ensign. Whether or not I know her history, if she shows up, I have to deploy and then fight her and her troops. Out of all of us officers, probably only the Captain and Commissar would be aware of who an enemy commander is, so they can strategize against her.”

Maryam nodded. “And to you, she’s your aunt, right?” She looked at Elena.

Elena averted her gaze, hands folded over her lap. “She became my aunt when I was a kid. She was adopted into the Fueller family, as an honorary sister to my father, Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. So she became Norn von Fueller that way. I think back then, my father must have been thinking his heirs needed more time to grow into leadership, so he wanted to leave the family in the hands of his strongest retainer. But– before she was my aunt, Norn was just a really scary knight my father employed.”

Maryam nodded again. “Okay. Well– the way I know her is as Cocytus, maybe the most accomplished psychic in the world right now. She was the woman who killed Mehmed Khalifa, the greatest psychic who was ever born or lived. So that’s why it’s going to be tricky to undo her psionics, princess.”

“I’m not a princess. Please call me Elena; or Lettiere if you want to be formal.” Elena said. “And– as for Norn, I sort of guessed she had to have a lot of power to be able to do this strange thing to me.”

“Hold on.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, is she even more powerful than you?”

Maryam smiled a little. “Speaking in terms of ‘power’ is not really accurate. Sonya, if you were issued a Kratov pistol or an AK assault rifle, would you always take the largest caliber weapon?”

“No–” Shalikova was already realizing her foolishness. “It depends on what I need for the job.”

“Indeed! In the same way, psychic ability can’t be summed up as power. I have a lot of psychic things I’m good at. I would say I’m really good with auras for example. I can read and influence moods really well–” Maryam’s fins stood straight up, and she started gesticulating defensively with her hands and tentacles, “–but I haven’t done it to you Sonya! Please don’t distrust me for saying that kind of thing!”

“I trust you!” Shalikova said, smiling and patting Maryam on the back to console her.

Elena meanwhile averted her gaze from the two of them again. She looked– embarrassed?

“Ah, sorry, sorry. I got nervous– Anyway.” Maryam said, smiling. “I couldn’t tell you what Norn has been doing with her powers. Hazarding a guess, she’s probably gotten really good at killing people with them. What I know Norn has on us that’s a huge advantage is experience. It’s a pure function of time– I’ve been practicing psionics since I was an older larva, but Norn is several times my age. Sonya, you have had your powers for a few weeks, and Elena has never been able to use hers properly. Norn is a veteran.”

“How do you know so much about Norn, Maryam?” Shalikova asked.

“Foundation stuff.” Maryam said. She smiled her ‘not saying more’ little smile.

“Oh, like Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday.” Shalikova said.

She recalled that when they had docked at the Goryk Substation, Maryam was very familiar to those two, they treated her like a kid. She had worked for their mysterious foundation, once upon a time. Shalikova had not brought that back up, and Maryam had been avoiding their guests from Solarflare LLC since then. Or rather, she was avoiding them because Shalikova herself was avoiding everybody.

“You could say, they have a catalog on really powerful psychics.” Maryam continued.

“Can they help us?” Shalikova asked.

“We shouldn’t let them know about Elena.” Maryam said. She looked serious again.

Elena looked nervous. Her voice trembled. “W-Why not? Will they dissect me?”

“Um.” Shalikova turned to Maryam and saw her squirming in her side of the bed.

“Of course not!” Maryam replied, once again waving her tentacles and hands in distress and surprise. “They’re not going to dissect you, that’s crazy! But first of all, they’re busybodies so they would want to give you a funny name and have you join their little club, which you shouldn’t because it’s full of selfish and weird people I don’t like. And then second of all, they probably wouldn’t help anyway.”

Maryam’s eyes narrowed and her tentacles snuck into her hair and wrapped up some of it.

She was trying to imitate Euphrates’ voice, expression and short wavy hair.

“We shouldn’t intervene in anything. It’s actually bad to help people and save the world.”

That was her imitation. Shalikova would have to take it for granted that it was accurate.

“Huh, Maryam is really talented.” Elena said.

“It’s in her genes.” Shalikova said jokingly.

Maryam’s cheeks puffed up and she turned red as a tomato– then she began to strobe red.

It was almost frightening to have that little marshmallow-y warning light beside her.

“Nuh-uh! I learned to do all this stuff! You need to drop the genes talk for good Sonya!”

“Sorry. I’ll stop. It was stupid of me.” Shalikova said, feeling properly ashamed.

Maryam’s skin returned to its normal pink color and her hair turned purple again.

She smiled sweetly. “I can’t stay mad at you Sonya.”

Shalikova could tell what was about to happen but did not avoid Maryam’s embrace.

Again, Elena averted her gaze. Shalikova wondered if they were embarrassing her with their PDA.

“Well, I’m glad I’m not going to have to sleep in the hall tonight.” Shalikova said, partially returning her girlfriend’s embrace. Maryam rubbed her soft, pliable cheek against hers. “We should get back to the problem at hand though. So Norn is way more experienced than us, and she has laid some kind of curse on Elena to prevent her from using her psionics. Is there anything we can even do about that? I had no idea psionics could even work this way. I thought it was just pushing objects and looking at colors.”

“Well,” Maryam’s voice was initially muffled as she was rubbing her cheeks very fervently on Shalikova, but she finally paused enough to speak coherently and separated herself. “It’s the power of the mind over matter, you know, there are a lot of unique things you could do if you believed in it hard enough.”

Maryam finally let go of Shalikova and then crossed her arms.

“I know what she did though. Sonya, look at Elena’s aura.”

“My aura?” Elena asked.

“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt or anything. Just relax.” Shalikova said.

In the next instant, she tapped into the power.

“Wait, her eyes? Is that her doing things?” Elena said.

Indeed, she must have seen the red rings around Shalikova’s irises.

Indicating that Shalikova was performing psionics.

Around and behind Elena, the colors that had she gave off corresponded to an ordinary spectrum of the human emotional experience. Green and blue and a little yellow. Anxiety and a bit of sickness, maybe butterflies in the stomach from the situation at hand, but ultimately, every human had some blue in their aura to indicate they were okay. Blue signified peace, but all humans exhibited some blue in their aura regardless of the situation. Shalikova thought this was the guarantee of life– there was at least always the confidence that a human being could take a step forward and see another day, and that was their blue.

She wondered if, perhaps, on their deathbed, a human’s aura would be consumed in black.

So, this meant Elena had a pretty ordinary aura. Its texture was soft; it was faintly fragrant.

An innocent young girl who truly bore no malice– at that moment.

“Look closely Sonya. You can see it at the very edge, can’t you?” Maryam said.

Shalikova focused. There was no “edge” to an aura, not really, it was amorphous.

And yet, Shalikova could see it, like a thick outline of a hand-drawn character.

There was a very thin band of black around Elena’s aura.

“Elena, are you afraid of dying? Or are you thinking about death?” Shalikova asked.

“No, I’m not.” Elena said. She put a hand over her chest. “I admit I’m pretty nervous and my mood is not in the best of places, I guess. But I at least know I’m safe with all of you. It’s safer than I have felt in months, maybe even years. So no– I’m not concerned with death. Why do you ask?”

“Your aura is a series of colors that psychics can see on you that give a little clue as to your state of mind.” Maryam explained. “We’re seeing a band of black color– that usually means that the person is concerned with death. Either thinking about it or thinking about inflicting death on another person.”

“I’m not thinking about either!” Elena said.

For a moment, the band of black shook and expanded just a little.

“She’s thinking about death now.” Shalikova said. “But not before.”

Elena blinked. She looked like she wanted to crawl away from sight.

“Maryam is that what Norn did to her?” Shalikova asked. “Did she tamper with her aura?”

Maryam nodded. “She affected her aura, yeah. That black band is Norn’s influence. It’s not just the color. When you’ve seen enough auras, you can feel a texture and stuff– it feels Norn-like to me.”

“Norn can really do something like that? Victoria could only smash stuff.” Elena said.

“Anything is possible.” Maryam said. “But, within anything, there are a few specific things which people have observed. It is definitely possible to mess with auras– I can do it to some degree even. That is kind of like, a sub-discipline inside Psionics. You could call it Aetherics. It’s actually really rare, but there are people who can just inject aura into you to change your emotions to what they want.”

Shalikova had never thought it was possible to interact with aura.

She could see it, sure, and she could read it– but to think that she could alter it?

Then she remembered when she saw Maryam completely change the color of her aura.

“Maryam, can you do that?” Shalikova asked.

Maryam shook her head.

She then lifted her hand, holding up the middle three fingers.

“There are three aetheric abilities known by the Foundation. We call them the gifts because they’re rare, when you compare everybody who could do psionics– that’s because only some people figure out they can interact with aura, and even fewer do it a lot.” Maryam said. “The three gifts are Oracle’s Voice, Saint’s Skin and King’s Gaze. They have these names because people who have Oracle’s Voice can feel that this is what the abilities should be referred to as when they experience them. Almost anyone can figure out Oracle’s Voice, it’s just an extension of being able to see auras. Saint’s Skin comes next, it’s the ability to manipulate your own aura and the environmental aura in complex ways. And then– very, very few people in the world are able to use King’s Gaze. It’s the one that lets you manipulate other people’s auras.”

Maryam’s fins drooped and her colors dulled again. “I’m only able to use two.”

She lifted two fingers on her left hand and wiggled them, strobing the colors of their skin.

“So you don’t have the King’s Gaze.” Shalikova said bluntly, coming to a quick conclusion.

“Nope.” Maryam shook her head. “It’s rare! People used to call it the divine right of kings!”

Shalikova felt a shiver of fear deep in her chest. “But Norn has that ability somehow.”

“If anyone alive right now has the power of kings– it’s definitely Norn the Praetorian.”

“I’m doomed.” Elena moaned, holding her face in her hands.

“No you’re not!” Maryam said in a dismissive, whiny little voice. She cleared her throat and crossed her arms and tried to look terribly serious. “Give me some time to think and come up with a plan. This isn’t something we were ever going to confront on a whim one afternoon. Put it out of your mind for now, don’t tell anyone and don’t try to do any psionics. I will think about how to fix this, and Sonya will help me, right Sonya?” She turned to her girlfriend with big, bright and expectant W-shaped eyes.

“Of course. I told you before, I’ll stick with you and protect you, no matter what.”

Shalikova replied quickly. She was not only adamant on upholding the oath she made to herself, to protect her heart and cherished treasure– but also curious about these powers that Maryam had explained and interested in seeing how Maryam tackled another psychic’s antagonistic devilry. It struck her that it would be their first confrontation with psionics that were inflicted on someone to do harm. She felt a grim sense that it would be the first of many if they stuck to their chosen path.

For a girl who desired to spread psionics to the world and make a positive impact–

–exorcising the evil deeds of other psychics would likely play a tragically large part too.

Elena smiled. “Of course. Thank you. I’ll be patient and follow your instructions, sister.”

“You can just call me Maryam.” She pointed her two tentacles to her right. “And Sonya.”

“Don’t call me Sonya.” Shalikova said quickly to Elena. “Shalikova will be fine.”

“Thank you, Maryam, Shalikova.” Elena sighed with relief. “I feel better already.”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit. We’re two heroes chosen by God– we’ll reverse Norn’s curse!”

Maryam hyped herself up, but Shalikova couldn’t imagine it would be easy.

She herself had absolutely no great talent for psionics.

And Maryam herself had admitted to being less accomplished than Norn.

Elena looked quite satisfied, however, as if she had gotten it all off her chest now.

She left the room with a bubbly smile and a spring in her step.

As soon as the door closed, Maryam hooked an arm around Shalikova’s shoulder.

She started rubbing her soft, squishy cheek up against Shalikova’s face.

“Didn’t that feel good Sonya? Don’t you feel so fulfilled?” Maryam asked.

“Not especially.” Shalikova replied, sidling closer to Maryam to return her affection.

Maryam giggled. “She called me wise sister.” She seemed elated by this for some time.


“Apologies for the wait, valued clients. Here are your goods.”

A tall blonde woman set down a case on the table and opened the lid. Inside, in three neat rows, there were a variety of ID cards organized alphabetically and by type, and a fourth row had several plastic lanyards in packs. Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara picked up their own cards which were slightly above the rest, in order for Cecilia Foss to be able to easily pick them out to explain the differences.

“Madam Bashara has a Shimii work permit ID, you can tell it apart by the green stripe.” Cecilia said. “This allows her freedom of movement in Kreuzung for the purposes of going to and from work, as well as frequenting restaurants and shops in Kreuzung between the hours of 0800 and 2000. This means she is subject to a curfew in the core station. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the law, and we can’t get around it.”

Cecilia touched the top of Aaliyah’s ID, running her trimmed red fingernail over the stripe.

“There are 39 work permit IDs here for every Shimii that you disclosed to be aboard. For Katarrans and North Bosporans there are 31 temporary access permits each of which lasts thirty days with a single potential sixty day extension. Those are the ones with the red stripe. You, Madam Korabiskaya, are holding a provisional Station ID. I secured an appropriate amount of these for all Volgian and Imbrian personnel. We have registered all Volgians as Imbrians. Those IDs are the ones with the blue stripe, and provide full freedom of movement without curfew, as well as 180 days of stay. These can’t be extended, but you can apply for a full citizen’s ID within that time period if anyone wants to stay long-term.”

She spoke quickly but with clarity, and with an easy confidence in herself.

“For your security, we went through a process of identity laundering. Each individual should check their card for the name written on it, but it will only matter if they are stopped. Anyone who looks too closely and has enough access can determine the documents are fake and that the personages referenced do not exist, but no station security guard will go that far unless they request a departmental investigation, rather than just a stop or even an overnight arrest. A departmental investigation is unlikely, but possible.“

Ulyana was quite impressed with Cecilia Foss. She could understand easily how Euphrates entrusted her with day-to-day management of Solarflare’s personnel operations. She was the image of a high-powered lawyer, with her pencil skirt and business attire, long orderly blond hair, perfect makeup, steeply angled black pumps. Every movement she made looked deadly precise, and every word she spoke was said without any hesitation. It was as if her every second was planned ahead. Not only that, but she had these connections to the underworld and seemed to have an impressive ability to break the law.

“I’ve provided lanyards for all personnel that were disclosed. I would strongly advise for all personnel to wear their IDs around their necks for the duration of your stay. In the event that one of your personnel is stopped by a law enforcement officer, their ID card will be scanned and will show that they are legitimately registered with the Kreuzung government, and their false identity will not be questioned right away. Please insist upon your crew not to backtalk or argue with Kreuzung security personnel– every single word can be incriminating, and every officer is looking for an excuse to take punitive action. Should an incident occur, it is imperative that I be contacted right away. But your personnel must request that I be contacted. If you desire, I can offer a script you can pass along to them to memorize as well as my business card for representation. The script is short, simple and it’s all they ever need to say to an officer.”

“Thank you kindly, Madam Foss.” Aaliyah said. “We would be most grateful for it.”

“Duly noted. I’ll send everything to Madam Semyonova for dissemination. Is that acceptable?”

“That would be great. Thank you.” Ulyana said. It was hard to say anything more.

Cecilia smiled at them and bowed her head. “Again, I apologize for the time it took to secure these permits and IDs. And don’t worry about us– in the event there is a full investigation, we will be able to escape liability, even if you are forced to escape.” She gestured with a hand towards the wall. ”Your crew is always welcome at Solarflare LLC, even past curfew. May I escort you to our premises now?”

“We’ll take you up on that offer.” Ulyana said. “We have a meeting coming up over there.”

“Indeed. I was already informed. Whenever you are ready, I can lead the way to our campus.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana clipped their ID cards to the provided lanyards, left the rest of the IDs in the meeting room for Semyonova to distribute, and followed Cecilia Foss out of the Brigand and to the tram station that would take them to Tower Five. Aaliyah marveled at the buildings, the wide open space, the false skies and the sheer scale of the operation being carried out to repair and refit the Brigand. Her wide-eyed wonder was incredibly cute to behold as they trailed together behind Cecilia. Ulyana felt relieved and elated that Aaliyah finally able to leave the ship and get a breath of the station’s air.

Especially owing to the purpose of the day’s meeting. She needed Aaliyah by her side.

They were headed to Solarflare to meet with Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Despite receiving some heartening news about the Union’s exploits farther south, Ulyana and Aaliyah agreed that their mission and its parameters had to remain the same for now. They had to help train, equip and support dissidents in the Empire with the ultimate goal of safeguarding the successful revolution in Buren. Pursuing that goal gave them options and opportunities, and it let them interact with what was directly in front of them. Allies, enemies, and the moment to moment. So they had to pursue their leads with the United Front, and only then could they dream about joining the Union war effort.

“Ultimately, our course and actions aren’t changed because the Union occupied Sverland.”

Aaliyah had said that during their discussion.

Ulyana agreed wholeheartedly with that wisdom. They would stay the course for now.

“Once we leave Kreuzung, we’ll launch a comm buoy and request additional information from Nagavanshi.” Ulyana said. “Then we’ll keep going our won way until we hear back via the ELF.”

Staying the course, meant tackling the opportunity Kremina Qote had given them.

They would pursue her leads to the United Front, in order to train, equip and support them.

First on the agenda was the S.P.R. and their militant wing, Reichbanner Schwarzrot.

Euphrates and Cecilia had organized a little office for the meetings to take place on the Solarflare campus. White walls, a door with a digitally-operated lock, no windows. There were gel-cushioned chairs, a long table, plenty of outlets and ports for devices, a monitor on an arm if it was necessary, and a dispenser for coffee, water or mushroom and algae broth. There was a bathroom nearby, and small wheeled table in a corner had writing implements and stone paper if it was needed. Aaliyah and Ulyana waved goodbye to Cecilia Foss, who had a packed schedule, and set up in the office.

“They know to come here, right?” Aaliyah asked.

“They know to meet us at Solarflare. The receptionist will send them here.” Ulyana said.

At the appointed hour, someone knocked on their door.

Hallo? Any comrades here? Is this the right place?” A casual and relaxed voice.

“There are comrades here, of a sort.” Ulyana called out. She unlocked the room remotely.

When the door opened, a fair-skinned man in formal attire walked in with an easy gait and sat down in front of them. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, Ulyana thought. He had a long-limbed and somewhat thin physique with strong shoulders. He had a good jaw and was clean shaven, but seemed to pay little attention to the state of his hair, which was cut short but a little bit fluffy as if uncombed. His eyes looked distant and tired, narrow with the beginnings of bags under them.

He wore a very nonchalant expression. Ulyana would have described him as an “everyman,” a cipher for the average Imbrian man who might still have been derisively called “boy” sometimes by his superiors. His dark grey suit was spectacular however, it was easily the most notable part of him, exceedingly well-tailored, perfectly fitted, and it looked almost as if it had been made with actual cotton or even silk.

It was the kind of suit that took a guy like this from 5/10 to 7/10 somehow, Ulyana thought.

He had a portable computer with him that was the size of an adult’s head, and which came with its own stand by which to prop it up. With a sort of briefly exasperated look on his face, he set up the computer on the table so that it would face Ulyana and Aaliyah. There was a frame around the screen that had embossed pink roses and gold filigree. When he had stood it up, he pressed down a switch on the side, before sitting down next to it on the other end of the table, crossing his arms and sighing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah watched him go through this process silently.

“Her highness will be connecting shortly. I hope. May have to muck about with the WiFi.”

“Gloria Innocence Luxembourg?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s her. Hopefully you weren’t expecting her in person.” Said the man.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, I suppose.” Aaliyah said.

“Can you introduce yourself? Are you able to speak for the S.P.R?” Ulyana asked.

“Uhhh– in some capacity.” He said. “My name is Orlan Aries. I guess I’m not a particularly political guy, but I got caught up in all of this for some reason. I don’t have strong opinions. The pay is good, and I like to say I see things through to the end, so here I am. Um– I was originally just joining the security team at Raylight Beauty, but I guess my hard work was noticed. Gloria must like me, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m representing — forgive this extremely presumptuous name — the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.”

Ulyana did not believe a single word of that.

It wasn’t that she was predisposed to distrust anything the United Front groups said.

Far from it– she wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt as potential partners.

However, for someone rich, connected and powerful like Gloria Innocence Luxembourg to trust someone to “accompany her” (in this unique capacity) to this exclusive, clandestine meeting, that person could not possibly have been someone who viewed his own career with so many somehow, I guess and Um. His too-casual demeanor was definitely a front for something, but she couldn’t say what it was.

Orlan eyed the display with his jaw set. “Any day now, princess.”

Beside him, the screen suddenly flickered the manufacturers logo and then displayed a video feed, as if beckoned by Orlan himself. It happened with such little sense of transition that he was looking at the display with exasperation as it was turned on. In his surprise, he jerked away from it and nearly fell– this reaction looked humorous when contrasted with the overwhelmingly saccharine girl that appeared.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long! Thank you so much for your time!”

On the screen appeared a young lady, soft featured and pretty with dark eyes that glimmered in the center like they had a small starry sky for pupils and irises. Her pink hair was voluminous and long but very fastidiously orderly, with a neat and trimmed fringe and sidelocks. Some of her hair was collected with a red rose ribbon into a single small ponytail on the side of her head. She appeared to be wearing a white, long sleeved top or dress with a tall, lacy and frilly collar, along with a white capelet with red rose decorative trim. On the video feed, she appeared from the shoulders up, emphasizing her smile.

“I hope you are having a blessed day. Allow me to introduce myself.” She said. “My name is Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. I am the Presidential Candidate and chairwoman of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Rhinea. I am also the founder of Raylight Beauty Products GmbH; the biggest private employer of women in the Imbrium. My blood type is O, my constellation is Leo, and I love cute girls.”

Gloria flashed Ulyana and Aaliyah another sun-bright smile.

“This is an encrypted connection, right?” Aaliyah asked, staring at Orlan.

Orlan looked surprised to have been addressed. “Uh yes. Yes– it is, isn’t it ma’am?”

He looked with a sudden nervousness at Gloria as if he could no longer be sure.

“Absolutely. Unless you changed all my cute little settings on my portable.” Gloria said.

“Wouldn’t dream of touching the damn things.” Orlan sighed.

“Alright, since we can speak freely. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, Captain of–”

“–the super-cool UNX-001 Brigand!” Gloria interrupted happily. “Alias Pandora’s Box.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes slightly. She was starting to get fed up with Gloria’s whimsy.

“Looks like Kremina did fill you in.” Aaliyah said. “I’m Aaliyah Bashara, Commissar.”

“Indeed! Then we are all meeting the right people. Isn’t it lovely, Orlan?” Gloria asked.

Orlan again looked confused about being addressed. “Yes, it’s a little tea party alright.”

Even he sounded exasperated with her already. Gloria continued smiling, so carefree.

“A tea party! How wonderful– I truly would love to host you someday, Ulyana, Aaliyah– circumstances permitting. However, I know we’re all short on time and long on business, so I will stop fooling around. I want you to know, even if you decide not to join our Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, I will still regard you as fellows, and I’d be happy to collab someday! To me, we are all part of one struggle. Now then, I also want to answer all of your questions today and see if I can’t snatch you away for myself, of course.”

Gloria winked at them. She spoke and acted so casually, with an easy, natural confidence.

Ulyana appreciated her friendly openness, but she wasn’t completely sure of its sincerity.

It felt too easy to like Gloria, or to overlook her. Was she just being manipulative?

“We are certainly open to working with you. Kremina may have told you, but we would like to assist the United Front that is forming in Aachen. We have combat equipment we can distribute to you, and we can offer training– and of course we can also fight alongside you if you have operational plans.” Ulyana said. “I’m curious about the S.P.R. You’re an underground party, so we can’t just find your agenda recorded on our computers. Can you explain the S.P.R.’s origin and your own involvement in it?

Gloria’s cheeks lifted, her biggest, most girlish smile accompanied with a tittering laugh.

“Perhaps ironically, I learned that the world was fundamentally unjust at my family’s own Luxembourg School for Girls.” She said. “My older brother controls the school now, but I attended as a teenager. I tried my best to lead a normative life, but I realized that regardless of my name and wealth, there were elements of myself which made me lesser than other people in the right-wing culture of Imbria. I began to take an interest in dissident literature and in secret became one of the rebels of Luxembourg school. The seed of the S.P.R. was my secret reading group back then.” Gloria looked proud of herself when she spoke up next. “I even met with the dissident queen herself, Leda Lettiere, one fateful day.”

Ulyana made note of that. It was name she had heard a few times already.

Queen Leda von Fueller, Elena’s mother; Marina’s lover; victim of the Emperor himself.

Leda Lettiere was executed directly after the Union’s victory in the Revolution.

For Gloria to have met her as a student, she couldn’t be a cutesy girl in her twenties.

She had to have been in her late thirties. Ulyana’s age– maybe even older.

“How did you feel about what happened to the lady Lettiere?” Aaliyah asked.

For a moment, Gloria seemed to pause. Her arm shifted just a little bit. It tensed.

“It was such an atrocity.” Gloria said. She was still smiling or trying to smile. But she did look just a bit dimmer than before. “She was taken from her previous life by a man whom she could not deny, and then he destroyed her utterly. One of the most iconic women of our time, who did her best to inspire women to strive for better. A beautiful angel who even fought a secret battle from inside that cage in order to liberate us all.” Gloria’s tone took a slightly sharp edge but then suddenly became a little more upbeat.

Ulyana thought, maybe she felt she had said too much that was too personal. So she corrected herself.

“Politically, that moment did not affect me. I already knew that women were disposable. Eccentric women, rebellious women, queer women, even more so. We are allowed to work, to speak; to own property and earn money; even to fight in the military; but we are always lesser-than. It’s an inextricable pall which Imperial society casts over us. Right-wing society; fascist society. I founded Raylight Beauty as a haven for women and girls. A place where they would be valued, selling things which made other girls feel beautiful and confident. But my goal was always to do what Lettiere couldn’t. To build a weapon that could strike against Konstantin von Fueller. Of course, there’s necessarily a different target for it now.”

“Was Mordecai among your dissident readings?” Ulyana asked.

“He featured prominently. His work on class conflict is absolutely necessary.” Gloria said.

“What led you to align your party specifically with social democracy?” Ulyana asked.

Gloria’s smile returned in its full force. “Mordecai did not advocate any specifics for how to organize a government in his works. He did not talk about how ministries and bureaus would come about once the old ones fell, or how to distribute power. But he did hold the fight for the suffrage of the lower classes in high regard as a condition for the social advancement of the proletariat. I believe that representative democracy with a one-person to one-vote approach is the fairest way to communicate the desires of the total mass of the proletariat; and like Mordecai, I believe that the failure of representative democracy in Rhinea specifically is due to its class character rather than the sum minutia of its mechanics.”

While many people would have argued the Union was not democratic whatsoever, and that it was a dictatorship now ruled by Bhavani Jayasankar, the distinction cited by Gloria for her vision of democracy was very specific in nature. In the Union, there was a practice of “council democracy” though the democracy part was, nowadays, often left out, and Bhavani Jayasankar did not acknowledge that word. She called it instead “council governance” or “sovietism.” There was universal suffrage in the Union but the mechanics of this suffrage was not carried out as specifically individually as it was in Rhinea.

In the Union, the mass of the working public was represented by delegates. A station’s population was organized into workplace unions, student unions for higher level educational institutions, and for Shimii, the Marja was its own institution with delegation as well. Each group directly voted for delegates (Shimii got to vote for delegates for their workplace and for delegates of the Marja as well), and those delegates represented them at their station council or soviet. In turn, station councils chose delegates for regional councils, and regional councils chose delegates for the Supreme Soviet. After being elected, the delegates made any legislative decisions in the interests of their constituents, with the check that recall or dismissal was possible if they failed to secure the population’s interests. Beyond local policy, a lower-level council could influence the higher-level council that they voted into power by petitioning in the interest of their local constituents for a regional or supreme policy action, again with the implied danger of dismissal.

It did not always play out this way– local and regional eccentricities abounded in the specifics of governance, but that was the model and that was how it worked on average. Policy was supposed to be set at each level, while also percolating up and down between them. It was a delicate balance that still allowed local decisions to be made by locals, and national decisions to be made collectively, nationally. There was an element of direct democracy in petitions, which were available at all levels of the system to reflect the desire for a certain policy, and communicate that desire to the appropriate level of council.

It wasn’t perfect– but it existed. It was the Union’s own version of “representation.”

Everyone outside the Union would find this unconvincing. After all, Bhavani Jayasankar ”took power in a coup” and now enjoyed ”supreme leadership;” but the power she took was that of the Premier, who was supposed to be beholden to the national and Supreme Soviets. The Premier faced a “vote to retain,” in which the Soviets had to express positive sentiment toward her rule in order for her to stay in power. In addition, Bhavani was not so all-powerful, even after her “military coup,” that she was able to directly set local water-use policy in Sevastopol or arbitrarily set holiday benefits for textile workers in New Karach.

Rather the system was supposed to be read as such: the Premier set the direction of the country, led the military, drafted economic plans, and tried to create an agenda for the country; the Supreme Soviet took that agenda and created “national legislation;“ the regional councils handled “legislation for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice individually;“ and station councils created “legislation for the people living in the station.“

Regardless; Ulyana felt she read a certain defensive undertone in Gloria’s statements.

She was doing something fundamentally different than the Union. She was asserting that fact.

People voted directly for national representatives in a congress, and voted directly for a President.

According to Gloria, this she derived from Mordecai himself, the “fairer” form of democracy.

Ulyana was not someone like Murati, however, so she would not argue the point.

But the point had been clearly laid out before her by the ever-smiling Gloria.

“We are Union communists. Do you feel comfortable working with us?” Aaliyah asked.

Now that was the response of someone slightly closer to Murati than Ulyana was.

Their guest did not appear to be perturbed by the question whatsoever.

“Like I said, I believe we are friends in this struggle. Both of us despise the Volkisch Movement and we want to see it destroyed and that is what ultimately matters to me. I’m happy to work with anyone who will oppose the spread of their evil– in fact, the United Front was my idea.” Gloria replied. Ulyana and Aaliyah both lifted their brows a little with surprise. “I reached out to some of the anarchist cells that use the Iron Front insignia, and I reached out to the Rotfront. I’ve even reached out to some of the ousted politicians– unfortunately, it was even I and my group who confirmed the death of Ossof Heidemann, who opposed Adam Lehner in the presidential election. The Volkisch’s petty revenge, no doubt.”

Kremina had never said it was Gloria’s idea initially, though she also never said otherwise.

But both of them had assumed that it was Daksha Kansal’s doing as they learned more.

“That’s a pretty impressive organizational lift, especially to keep hidden.” Ulyana said.

“I have a lot of help, and I pay really well!” Gloria said. “Isn’t that right, Orlan?”

Orlan glanced sidelong at the display, crossing his arms and leaning back.

“Huh? My pay? It’s fine. I could make more as a mercenary– but with no benefits.”

“Hmph! My benefits package is industry-leading! How could you want to be a mercenary?”

“I didn’t say I wanted to be one! I just believe in myself a bit is all, your majesty!”

“Hmph! Hmph! Hmph!”

Gloria acted comically upset by Orlan’s ungratefulness for a few moments.

Before sighing serenely and putting on a smile again.

“Don’t mind him. That’s the kind of relationship we have.” Gloria said.

“Duly noted.” Aaliyah replied dryly.

“How strong is the United Front militarily?” Ulyana asked, trying to move forward.

Gloria put a long finger on her lips and made a little ‘thinking pose.’

“We would have to see who shows up at Aachen for the formal establishment.” Gloria said. “I can only speak for myself. I told you I was building a weapon to destroy Konstantin before. While I have been organizing the S.P.R.’s political contacts surreptitiously, I have also been forming my own military. We use Raylight Beauty’s security corps as a front. I dubbed the group Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, after the black and red Rhinean ducal flag. We have amassed eleven vessels of our own design, and we have the numbers of Divers and infantry to match. You should see my flagship! It’s super great!”

She clapped her hands cheerfully. Ulyana nodded her head and jotted down notes.

“So we’ll have to join you at Aachen to really get a sense of its scope? Works for me.”

“Indeed! Until everything’s properly signed up, I can’t really speak with certainty. I hope that all of the friends I made will join me in my battle against the Volkisch, and all that is unjust in our Imbrium Ocean.” Gloria said, holding a hand up over her heart as if swearing an oath in front of them.

“Gloria, what role does Daksha Kansal have in your organization?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana was glad that Aaliyah was taking it upon herself to tackle the tougher questions.

It was nice to have her there as a counterpart. Good Captain; mean Commissar.

“She is one of my advisors in the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. We talk about politics and about military moves– but I don’t want to cause a misunderstanding.” Gloria’s eyes narrowed just a little bit. “I’m in command of the S.P.R. and the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. Daksha Kansal’s support is greatly appreciated, but she’s as appreciated as you, or the rest of my war buddies, and no better than anyone.”

Much like Ulyana and Aaliyah acted toward Kremina Qote, Gloria had to set her foot down.

It was another way of saying, I’m not Daksha Kansal’s subordinate.

A revolutionary leader with proven success was a potential problem to an up-and-comer.

Even if her charisma and experience was invaluable– it was the same tension they had felt.

“One last question.” Ulyana said. It was her turn to ask a very tough one. “We’ve been in Kreuzung for a few days and it’s been awful. What do you think of the attitude of Rhineans toward other ethnicities?”

Gloria continued smiling, unfazed by the question.

“Oh, it’s deplorable, surely. Eisental has a long history with Shimii and all of it has been truly regrettable. You know, working folk here keep to themselves a lot. I don’t want to blame them for a lack of social education– but it’s definitely something that must be set to right. I believe in universal suffrage, and universal participation. My presidency would entail an egalitarian revolution for Rhinea.”

Ulyana wasn’t impressed, but she kept that to herself. Gloria had no substance here.

Aaliyah wore no expression on her face as she heard Gloria’s response.

“I think we’ve got what we wanted out of this.” Aaliyah said. “Thank you for your time, Lady Luxembourg. We shall most assuredly take you up on that offer for tea in Aachen Station and discuss further.”

Gloria clapped her hands rapidly again. “Goodie! I look forward to it. Tah-tah!”

She performed a cutesy military salute, and the screen went dim as suddenly as it had lit.

Orlan looked at it for a moment before picking it up.

“Uh. Do you have any questions for me?” He asked.

“No, thank you for your time as well Orlan.” Ulyana said.

Orlan made a cutesy salute similar to Gloria’s before leaving with Gloria’s portable.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Ulyana and Aaliyah each let out a long-held sigh.

That was the first of the groups, and also the one directly supported by Daksha Kansal.

“What exactly is our esteemed first Premier thinking?“ Aaliyah moaned, lying her chest on the table, her cat ears folded. Ulyana laid a comforting hand on her back, thinking the same thing…


“Please, I’ll do anything you want. I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Hmm? You broke easily. That’s not terribly romantic, you know?”

Pavel Rovski was not someone known to ‘break easily’–

–except when staring at the crosshair eyes of the woman sitting back on a chair before him, whose legs she had lifted to rest directly through the center of his desk. He seemed to lose all composure as if he was no longer witnessing something human. Though she was startlingly beautiful, her presence was wrong.

But Rovski was cornered. They had found him out and he was not ready.

Behind him, the open door leading to the reception hall was guarded by two women, both very pale as Pavel’s assailant was. One was far more intricately dressed and decorated. The other appeared spartan, dressed in what seemed like a white uniform, with a capelet and pants and a weapon that looked like a cross between a rifle and a drying wound, covered in dark bruised flesh with a black barrel.

He spared not a second to stare at that alien sight, however.

His eyes were locked on those of Enforcer I of the First Sphere, Avaritia.

He could not tear them away. He was not being allowed to.

“Pavel Rovski of the ‘Rovski’ cell.” Avaritia smiled to herself. “It’s so delightful to meet you. I do love this scenario– you made such a beautifully romantic mistake. I thought of anarchists as being very mechanical, but I should have known, you have a very libertine ideology after all.”

Avaritia was overcome with joy at the circumstances that led to this meeting.

Pavel Rovski was a central figure (not leader, he never would have said leader, none of them would) of the ‘Rovski’ anarchist cell. It was only referred to this way outside of its ranks. To its members, this was the “Left Arrow” or “Third Arrow.” But Rovski was one of the secret keepers of the cell’s ranks– one of the few who could rally an entire thousand-strong battalion of the anarchist ranks, who were otherwise distributed in groups of fours and fives that communicated very sparingly and surreptitiously. He would only gather them when the time was right to take an action that ‘would mean something’.

Unfortunately, he was not dispassionate enough about the whole scheme.

He became interested in one particularly fiery young woman on his list, and sought after her.

That she was a lesbian– didn’t seem to deter him at all. He went to meet her in person.

Avaritia laughed at him. Such foolishness that brought him to this day!

She recalled something the Autarch had once told her.

“We have always been with them. Watching them. Laughing at them.”

Avaritia was laughing. But in her mind, she was not being cruel. Hominins were just so interesting.

She just loved the romance of it. Pavel Rovski, an unromantic man in a romantic situation.

From the doorway, her lover Gula spoke up, her arms behind her back, smiling daintily.

“Zozia is here with us today, you know? But you won’t meet her– she wouldn’t want you to. She was disgusted with you. You were an old man, and you should’ve never spoken to her. I do hope that you will not hate us for today. Hate yourself instead; despise yourself for your betrayal of your comrades.”

Pavel winced but was limited in his responses.

Avaritia’s green aura seeped into him, through green tentacles he could not see.

That had perforated him in a dozen places.

Filling him with crippling fear and anxiety that utterly warped his personality.

All of his much-vaunted bravery stood for nothing in the face of Avaritia’s commanding gaze.

“To think, a simple family lawyer could have been involved in a terrorist group!”

Avaritia laughed again.

Today, the site of their infiltration was a law office in Tower Six’s central commercial space. Beautiful brown interiors like fake wood, offices and halls amply varnished, the desks too, all earth tones, very peaceful. There were about two dozen clerks, lawyers, and the big boss of the place, Raszyn Grebber– Rovski was but one of many lawyers who worked here. An unassuming older man, average in every way, tucked away into a corner of this humble office, scheming to take down the Imbrian Empire!

Rovski’s jaw lightly unhinged, but he could not speak. He was far too crushed to do so.

“Gula, is it not terribly romantic? Is it not?” Avaritia said.

Gula, looking almost small beside her prince, tipped her head in a cute gesture.

“It is, my darling, atrociously romantic.”

Savagely romantic.”

Gula approached from the door and wrapped her arms around Avaritia’s shoulders.

Her head, peeking out beside Avaritia’s, bared suddenly sharp, saw-like teeth.

“So what happens to Monsieur Rovski now, my prince? Can I eat him?” Gula said.

Avaritia, still leaning back on her chair, raised a hand and stroked Gula’s hair gently.

“I’m afraid not, beloved princess. I need to disseminate the information he knows soon, and it would take too long if we ate him and loaded his blocks into our STEMs. We have an important meeting later today, after all. And like you said, it would be disgusting if he went near Zozia and Ksenia. It wouldn’t be romantic at all. So neither of us will eat him. We’ll transport him, and talk on the way.” Avaritia said.

“That makes a world of sense. You are so wise and so cultured, my prince, my knight!”

Gula stretched a long tongue from her mouth and licked Avaritia’s neck

Avaritia felt a sudden desire to bite her– but a voice from the door caught her attention–

“Um. I apologize for interrupting, exalted beings. But Vanguard L may perish from having to synthesize more gas– so, without casting judgment on your wisdom, I believe we should extract soon.”

Behind the two of them, guarding the door, in uniform and hat and wielding a bio-spike launcher disguised as a rifle, was Wizard III of the Second Sphere. She was one of the subcommanders of the Syzygy forces under Enforcers I and III. It had been difficult to convince the Autarch to part with Wizard and Observer type units, particularly to part with them for Enforcer I specifically– but eventually their exalted leader saw the wisdom in it. Just two people would not make a convincing force.

They would need to wield military power like the Hominins did, for the tasks that lay ahead.

Avaritia got her feet off the table and stood up, carefully gesturing for Gula to move aside.

Her gaze caused Wizard III to shudder as soon as it fell upon her.

She was, like most Omenseers born this side of the Holocene, a very pale girl with long, white hair and fairly thin and lean physique. She divided her hair into two tails, between which she laid the flat military cap that Avaritia had given her as part of Syzygy’s new, more “hominin”-fashionable uniform. Her twintails each had a stripe of blue hair running through them, which helped her to stand out more.

“F-Forgive me, Exalted Being. I spoke out line. Please forgive me.” She mumbled.

Avaritia smiled. She reached out and stroked Wizard III’s cheek.

“Wizard III of the Second Sphere.” Avaritia said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Um– of course– you’re our most exalted flesh, Enforcer I of the First Sphere.”

“Indeed. Do you know any more than that?”

“I was not afforded any additional information, your biological excellence. I apologize greatly.”

Avaritia grinned at her, bearing teeth. “When I was a Leviathan, I was a dreadnought class known among the Hominin as the Horror of Dys. I was the Island-Sinker, the Eater of Skies. Such is my power that I awakened myself too– the Autarch did not have to lift me from sleep as she did you.”

Her fingers squeezed just a little bit on Wizard III’s jaw. Not enough to cause any pain.

That is terribly impressive. I am blessed with this knowledge, exalted, superior being.

Because her mouth was seized, Wizard III communicated telepathically.

Perhaps so as not to disgrace herself to the Enforcer by babbling.

Avaritia lifted her hand from Wizard III’s face.

“Ultimately, my point is–”

She put that hand on Wizard III’s shoulder and smiled at her, winking one eye.

“Relax! Relax and be neither so scared nor so formal! Such things are not romantic at all. Had I wanted to punish you, my dear Wizard III, the violence would have been fast and vicious and required no dialog. Your assessment is correct, and we should indeed get moving soon before poor little Vanguard L has to exert herself again. With all the chemicals I made her digest, she must be in quite a state.”

Gula clapped her hands together with tittering delight. “Wonderfully said, my prince.”

Wizard III’s wide-open eyes narrowed, and she sighed with relief.

“How much do you know about anarchism, Wizard III?” Avaritia asked.

“Not a thing, exalted– err, Enforcer I.” Wizard III said.

Behind them, out in the halls and other rooms of the law office of Raszyn Grebber, there were several hominin toppled over wherever they had been sitting or standing due to the highly concentrated knockout gas that they had spread through the building. Vanguard L could be seen with her back to the wall farther outside, her jaw hanging open, coughing wisps of gas, her eyes twitching, limbs limp.

“Well, it is as I thought. We’ll need to teach you all how to be anarchists very quickly.”

Avaritia turned back to Mister Rovski, her crosshair eyes locking on to him.

She walked the way few steps back from the door, and Wizard III, to the side of the desk where Rovski was staring at them, crushed with fear, alive but immobile, no part of him having even twitched save for his horribly aware eyes that were tracking the alien figures, and his shaking jaw trying to cry for help to no one in particular. Avaritia walked over to him, and laid her hand on his shoulder, gripping her fingers. Hard at first, and harder still, until blood began to draw, until her fingers began to sink into him

“His resistance is weakened enough.” Avaritia said.

Around her irises, the red circles of psionic ability began to strobe and deepen.

She could feel his defenses collapsing one by one, until–

Biokinesis

drawn blood drawing backward into wound

reversing fingers spreading as stream

bone and sinew soft and malleable

skin and organ digesting into thread

spinning loom turning body about axis

hominin–

dehomininized–

“Oh! That is clever, clever indeed!” Gula smiled, with a sadistic edge to her little grin.

Avaritia had been careful not to spill anything despite how quickly she worked.

The tendrils which her hands had become, became hands again; in her grasp she had a rough white box of bones and skin the size of a human torso. There were a few silly decorations here and there– a crown of teeth along the top edge, filigree in sinew. Inside the box was a brain and everything a brain needed to be cozy for a little while, enough that they could probe its knowledge using telepathy.

Once they were done it, the box would be placidly ready to die permanently.

Left on the chair, behind the desk, was everything the brain didn’t need to be cozy.

It was most of the body, compacted, bagged-up–

–and it was the thing Avaritia now acknowledged as “Rovski.”

“Wizard III, please quickly clean up the remains of Monsieur Rovski, so we can leave.”

Avaritia shot an authoritative glance at Wizard III.

Staring at the unappetizing collection of offal on the chair, Wizard III sighed deeply again.

“As you command, exalted– I mean, Enforcer I.” She said, ambling toward the chair.

With a grimace, she knelt down near the chair as Avaritia left, and began to chew on the thing.

“Gula, please leave the rest of these kind folks in the office with the sense that nothing in particular worth recalling transpired during the past hour.” Avaritia said. “I would love it if they had calm blue auras and a sense of fulfillment and no earthly reason to care about Pavel Rovski for a long time. Though if any of them are psionic and resisting– Tristitia can make them disappear too I suppose.”

“It shall be done, darling.” Gula replied.

“Please don’t sneak a taste of any of them for now, dearest.” Avaritia added.

“I am more than satiated by the sight of you in command, beloved prince.” Gula replied.

Avaritia nodded. She started walking outside while stroking her own chin.

“From now on, my name is Zozia Chelik and you are Ksenia Apfel, my dear. We will take the place of the ‘Third Arrow’ at the Aachen conference, and with the Pandora’s Box today.” Avaritia said. “The Rovski organization had already contacted twenty people, of which we have intercepted twelve by now. The remaining eight will disappear and be replaced with Wizard and Observer units.”

Gula followed dutifully behind her prince. “Is there any risk of word getting out?”

“Thankfully the other two Arrows are not aware of the specifics of this organization, only their affiliation and their upcoming rejoining at Aachen.” Avaritia said, shaking her head while explaining. “They probably don’t expect to talk to Rovski specifically, even in Aachen. I think we can pretend to be them pretty easily. Rovski’s remaining 1000 members have not been contacted, and we won’t contact them. We’ll fill out our troops with Vanguards and Sentinels and if we have to, Hunters, to make up reasonable numbers.”

“Sounds fun.” Gula said. “Horror of Dys.”

Avaritia grinned. “Don’t call me that, Great Maw of Nysa.”

Gula raised fingers to her lips and giggled to herself.

Behind them, a miserable Wizard III lifted chunks of poor quality meat into her mouth and swallowed.

“I do wonder, my love,“ Gula said, “will this bring us any closer to the Origin Tree?“

Avaritia shrugged. “Anything brings us closer than we are now. Trust me, beloved Gula.“

She could not logically explain, but she certainly felt that it would bring them closer.

Every Hominin clawed and devoured so far had earned them meters toward the goal.

There were currents of aether gathering serendipitously around Kreuzung, around Aachen.

Eisental was a crossing of numerous fates. There was tension in the air among the Hominins.

It was in such times and such places– that homininkind was closest to their ancient keepers.

Rhinea, Solcea and Bosporus formed a triangle– and somewhere in there, the Tree slumbered.

“Step by step, hominin by hominin. We will lay hands on our venerated elder again.” Avaritia said.

She lifted her hand up as if reaching for something ephemeral, endlessly distant.

Grinning all the while. Her crosshair eyes locking on, in a growing obsession.

It would be romantic indeed.


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