In the beginning the world was silent and pitch black.
Then, she heard the distant sound of a harp and became aware of sensations.
Slowly the errant strings became a melody, building in intensity, a tremor on skin,
and with it there was light.
In the center of the darkness, a spotlight shone in a great white circle.
Casting a shadow in the center of that circle was the graceful figure of a woman. Her hair was partially covered by a long, dark blue veil, but much was still visible. She had a matching blue outfit with long sleeves, a high neck, with simple yellow embroidery forming geometric patterns across her chest and flanks. Gaps in the fabric exposed some of the upper back and belly in diamond cutouts; a long and covering skirt from the waist down completely hid her long, graceful legs. She wore a single black glove that seemed out of place with the rest.
It was evident that she was a dancer, and in that instant, the music queued her.
Joining the harp was the sound of drumming and jingling metal rings at once.
To her music, the figure began to dance.
Hers was a natural progression with the music. Between sweeping, dramatic full-body movement; toward tight, slow and deliberate waving of the hands, fluttering of the fingers, turning of wrists, and flowing extensions of the arms. She would spin once with her arms wide and then pull them close, to cover the face, while gracefully separating them, with a confident gaze slowly unveiled. She would cross her wrists, flutter her hands like a bird’s wings while slowly taking a shallow bow, before rising suddenly, spreading them out as if casting something into the air. In her every move, there was that flowing of states, between precision and release, tension and freedom, slow deliberation and wild passion.
In the middle of that spot of white light, surrounded by nothingness, she danced.
But she was not alone. There had always been someone watching.
Yearning from afar, a girl stepped forward out of the shadow and held out her hand.
To her surprise, the dancer moved nearer, and made to touch her with her gloved hand.
Soft fingers met the sleek plastic– slick with blood slowly coagulating between.
Then there was no dancer, and the light shone accusatory on the girl alone instead.
As if she had dared in yearning and now suffered for her greed.
She stood framed, her shadow immensely long like a trail of gore-ridden sludge.
And there were bodies. Crawling, shambling toward her. Begging for their lives back.
“No! No, stay away! Stay away from me! I didn’t– I didn’t want any of this–!”
She fell back, swatted with her hands, crawling, her eyes filled with tears.
Then there was no spotlight.
An unsettling half-darkness suddenly loomed overhead. In her defense, a mechanical arm extended that bristled with weapons, attached to a massive body– a Diver. Great flashes and detonations and the booming reports of the guns made their own music, and the bodies burst into blood and meat that sprayed across her in great whipping gusts of viscera,
And she screamed and cried and she begged hoarse for it to stop–
It would never stop– she felt like she was defiled forever–
A dark-haired, cat-eared young girl opened her eyes and squirmed in her bed.
Her breathing came in fits and starts, and the blanket felt so heavy that she felt trapped, and it provoked a sudden and intense need to get it off herself. She crawled up against the headboard, lifting her back onto her pillows, but she found the task so monumentally difficult to perform with her missing arm and leg that it engendered ever mounting desperation. She continued to feel ensnared until she had fought for almost a minute.
Then she realized what she was doing–
and felt so deeply pathetic she could have cried.
Dripping with sweat, her long hair disheveled and gritty and greasy, dressed in a little white hospital smock clinging to her breasts. Her breathing started to normalize.
Her panic-addled sight came slowly into focus.
Homa Baumann bowed her head.
Examining what had become of the arm that Nasser cut off.
There was dim illumination from a tiny white LED on her headboard. She could see how her arm, missing above the elbow, had a black cap grafted onto it. They did not even try to make it look pretty– Homa had seen some prosthetics around Kreuzung before that had these sleek carbon-fiber and transparent glass looks. This was a simple metal cap with the grooves and holes to affix the rest of the arm later. There were exposed mechanical ligaments which would probably be connected to the rest of the arm once the whole thing was installed.
Maybe it would look okay when she had the whole thing.
She felt a bit disgusted.
Her left leg was in a similar state. Nothing but a cap and the wriggling ligaments.
When she tried to “move” the parts of her which were gone, instead the ligaments would move, but they were connected to nothing. So it appeared to her that worms were trying to crawl out of what remained of those lost limbs. It sent a chill down her entire body, it was so disgusting, it made her want to cry. But sometimes, she couldn’t help but try to move her lost limbs anyway. In the attempt the ligaments wriggled uselessly out of her control.
Tears welled up in her eyes but she tried not to cry. It was stupid to cry.
But she was that weak– weak enough to just cry and do nothing and hate herself.
She laid back against the pillows and the headboard. Tears spilled from her eyes.
While the blanket did not feel so heavy anymore, she was still trapped.
Homa could not get up out of bed. And even if she could, she was not in Kreuzung.
Kreuzung was impossible to return to now. She had abandoned her old home.
And had instead found herself aboard a ship that rescued her.
Because of the drugs, and the suddenness and horror of the surgery, she had been going in and out of sleep, dragged into fantastic nightmares and then back out into the mundane nightmare of living over and over again. She did not really know where she was, nor what kind of people had rescued her. It was only now that her wits were beginning to slowly return to her, and she could worry about what sort of situation she was in.
But that brought its own new agonies as well.
Her newly lucid thoughts filled with shame that she struggled to cope with.
“Good morning, Homa. Have you been awake long?”
“Oh, no, only for a little while. Sorry; my head’s been all fuzzy.”
“You do sound much more lucid. I was worried about your mental state yesterday. You may not have been in a condition to realize before; there’s a labeled button on the bed arm. Here. Do you see it? Whenever you feel any discomfort or distress please try to push that button. Even a quick tap will do. I will be at your side as fast as I can. Do not hesitate to use it.”
“Thank you. I will keep that in mind.”
They were both speaking Low Imbrian; or at least, Homa could understand her easily.
Everyone here had just a little bit of an accent, but Homa could not place it.
Her new doctor, who had been responsible for her surgery, was Winfreda Kappel. Despite how much a blur the past day had been for her, Homa still remembered this name. She was a truly colorful individual– quite literally as her hair was a few different shades of blue. Homa wondered whether she dyed it that way as a color theory kind of thing, like the reason that hospitals for children had walls painted certain colors to be inviting and calming. Probably not. Her attire under the white plastic coat was pretty casual, with a synthetic orange turtleneck and skirt and what looked like black tights or a black sheer bodysuit.
That led Homa to think she may have been saved by a merchant vessel or something of that nature. It felt foolish to speculate any further than that with the information she had.
“Doctor, can we talk?” Homa asked. “I– my head has been kinda hazy before, but now–”
“Of course. But I want to bring you food and medicine, and give you a check-up first.”
“Oh, yes, thank you.” She tried to sound grateful– and not too sad.
Dr. Kappel left the room with a brisk walk, after turning the bed’s arm around presumably so that Homa’s plate and drinks could be set on it. Homa looked around the room.
There was nothing too identifiable in her immediate vicinity. There was a green plastic separator set up between herself and an adjacent bed that seemed too quiet to be occupied. All of the walls were bare metal, and projecting different charts, reminders, and posters. Next to Homa’s bed the wall projected a poster with a pretty blond girl striking a pose with bionic limbs, the caption reading, “She is your comrade! She can do anything!”
It was pretty strange– the art style, and especially the choice of words. Comrade, huh?
Homa appreciated the attempt to motivate her, not that it actually helped much.
When the Doctor returned, she had a plastic bowl that had spork in it, along with a plastic cup and a tiny pill bottle containing yellow and blue pills. The bowl contained a porridge, from the look and taste Homa recognized it as maize. White corn porridge dusted with cinnamon and speckled with fruit. Meanwhile the drink looked like a creamy coffee.
Homa had not realized how hungry she was until just then.
“Would you like to try eating yourself? Or would you prefer to have assistance?”
“I can feed myself. Thank you.” Homa reached for the spork with her good arm. She took a sporkful of porridge and discovered the fruits were jammy, preserved figs. It was a good porridge, creamy and gently sweet. She put down the spork and picked up the cup to taste the coffee; and almost smiled at the sweet and heartwarming creaminess of the condensed milk that had been added to it. It was a simple but invigorating breakfast.
“Our chef, Minardo– her favorite trick is adding sweet condensed milk to dishes.” Doctor Kappel said, with a bit of a sigh. “If it is too sweet for you, let me know so I can scold her.”
“Oh no, it’s lovely. Please let her know I liked it and that I am very grateful.” Homa said.
“She’ll love to hear that. We’ll hopefully get you something more substantial later today.”
Dr. Kappel sat by Homa’s bedside, watching her eat with a relaxed contentment in her face.
One arm was more than enough to eat porridge, drink coffee and swallow some pills.
It took more effort than if she had both. Sometimes she tried to reach for the cup with her nonexistent arm, or thought of shifting the spork to her missing hand.
But she could do it.
Homa felt like if she asked for too much help, it would be shameful of her–
“Oh, wait– Doctor–” Homa had a sudden, arresting thought. “I– I can’t really pay for–”
“No, no, it’s all free. You worry about recovering, not about money.” Dr. Kappel said.
Homa blinked her eyes hard. “It’s free? I don’t understand. Is someone else paying?”
Dr. Kappel nodded. “You don’t owe us or anyone, any amount of money. Don’t worry.”
“But– you’re giving me a new arm and a leg, right?” Homa said. She was still shocked.
“Absolutely. Please do not be concerned about our supplies. We want to help you.”
Homa felt a continuing swell of concerns. “I mean– the drugs too– all of this costs–!”
“Homa, if it helps you feel better, maybe once you’re recovered, you can help around the ship. You could help the cook, or be a nurse, or something like that– but nobody will demand compensation. It costs us money, not you. All of your care will be absolutely free.”
Dr. Kappel stood firm. Homa could not understand it.
In Kreuzung everything cost money. Even existing cost money.
Failing to make rent at best landed you in a shelter until you could save up for a place– at worst it landed you on the streets at night until a K.P.S.D cracked your skull open one day. Food cost money! Without money you would have to find a soup kitchen every day, or beg, or starve to death. Healthcare certainly cost money. There was no place that would see you without at least some token bit of payment. Right now, Homa was eating their food, taking up space and time, taking hormones; she was getting two limbs replaced–! For free?!
Who were these people? Were they crazy? Was this some kind of a cult?
Dr. Kappel narrowed her eyes and looked suddenly a bit exhausted.
She could see the fright and confusion on Homa’s face.
It looked to Homa as if Dr. Kappel was torn up about what she wanted to say.
“Homa– the reason it’s free is because we are communists.”
Homa blinked. “Communists?”
“Yes. We’re communists. We are not trying to profit from you. Do you understand?”
Dr. Kappel seemed to be bracing for Homa to be upset at her, but Homa remained confused.
Nobody could have lived in the Imbrium with their eyes and ears open without hearing the word communist at one point or another. Older Imbrians grumbled and blamed the communist rebels for various things. Ever since the Volkisch took over they accused various people of being communists, and people accused the Volkisch of being communists too.
This did not engender an understanding of what communism was, but Homa had certainly heard the word. She did know that the people at the gender clinic received some money from social democrats whom, as Homa understood it, were kind of like communists. These grants were part of the reason they could keep the clinic open at all, since the Rhinean government was not fond of transgender people or their healthcare needs.
She had also heard that communists followed military dictators who completely controlled their government. But that it was different from swearing fealty to the Imbrian Emperor; sometimes she had heard communism compared to the people who had followed Mehmed the Tyrant during the Jihad in the Age of Heroes too. Homa did not know what to think about Mehmed, and she certainly did not know what to think about communists.
Her mind spun around in a momentary circle, moving quickly to arrive nowhere.
“I– I have to admit I didn’t know there were really communists here.” Homa said.
“We’re not from around here, really.” Dr. Kappel said in a guarded tone.
Homa picked up her spork again and took another bite of the porridge.
“I guess that explains things.” She said. She hardly interrogated it any further.
Imbrians were all greedy shaitans, but these folks were just political oddities.
Maybe they were Bosporans– she had heard the Bosporans had a revolution now too.
Her thoughts started spinning again.
“I promise we will explain everything– for right now, I would like to focus on your care, and I would like you to focus on resting, taking your medicine, and letting us know how you feel.” Dr. Kappel said. Homa nodded wearily. “Right now, we just need to observe the interface for a day or two for any rejection symptoms. Then I can install the mechanical limbs.”
Homa nodded her head with compliance. She was in no position to resist anything anyway.
And even if she was– she didn’t even know what kind of a life she could even have now.
All of the rationality left in her mind was screaming at her that this was too weird.
But so what? What did she have left? Maybe– if she died, it wouldn’t even matter now.
The Homa Baumann who worked and lived in Kreuzung was dead anyway.
Dr. Kappel reached out and laid her hand over Homa’s good hand, with a smile.
“I know things must be very tough for you right now. But I am not lying nor exaggerating when I say, we all want you to recover. Even the sailors who got you out of the Diver have been asking how you’re doing. You’re not alone; we want to help you, Homa.”
“Thank you. I– I’ll think about it. Things are– things are fine right now.” Homa said.
After the pep talk, the doctor gave her a closer look, asking her questions about the remains of her limbs, how they felt, whether she had certain symptoms or discomfort. She had Homa try to move her limb remnants, which resulted in the exposed filaments wriggling out of the metal interfaces. Unlike Homa, the doctor seemed pleased by their appearance. She also examined Homa’s good limbs, and checked her for cold and flu symptoms. Everything she found, she would input on a portable computer– a quite chunky and beige model that Homa had never seen the like of. It was nothing like the sleek devices sold on Kreuzung.
“Thank goodness, everything seems to be going well. I want to take a few scans soon to make absolutely sure, but there don’t appear to be complications.” Dr. Kappel said. “You may not see it that way, Homa, but you are very lucky. You’re all set for a full recovery from very serious injuries. Once the limbs are installed, we’ll start physical therapy soon after.”
Homa again nodded her head compliantly. She had nothing to say. She was not elated.
Dr. Kappel sat down again and reached out her hand and patted Homa on the shoulder.
“I wanted to ask you– with your consent, I have a volunteer willing to help with your care.”
Homa nodded her head. “I don’t mind.” She muttered, staring at the empty porridge bowl.
Avoiding Dr. Kappel’s cheery face. Even if she was sincere, Homa couldn’t meet her eyes.
“Alright. She did say you were acquainted– if there are problems, please let me know.”
Homa’s ears stood on end upon hearing that. Acquainted? Who could it possibly be?
She started wracking her brain and her heart started to pound.
There were very few people she would consider herself “acquainted” with–
And in this situation–?
“Knock, knock~ is it okay to come in, doc?”
From around the open door threshold, there was a sound like metal knocking on metal.
“Ah! We were just talking about you. Please come in, Ms. Loukia.”
Sounds of heels clicking the floor, moving closer.
Loukia–? Just as she started to remember–
Around the green barrier, appeared a woman Homa was surprised to be able to recognize.
A Katarran woman, identifiable as such by two rectangular horns coming from the back of her head and framing a reddish-purple ponytail of shiny, silky-looking hair. Her skin was a matte pink, with a lighter shade of purple eyeshadow and lipstick than the color of her hair, and her beauty and style were as elegant as the art by which she applied those pigments. Her fashion was quite arresting as well, with a fancy steel-grey jacket worn over a button-down shirt, and a pencil skirt and tights. Her high heels could not be seen from Homa’s vantage but she could easily hear them, and in her mind, she had filled them in.
Homa had indeed met this woman before, and never imagined she would see her again. She had tried to assist in finding a prosthetics shop that used to be in Tower Seven. It was a somewhat embarrassing memory– Homa had been utterly crestfallen, coming home from a date with her ears folded and her head down. She then walked right into the lady.
Judging by the one black glove, she must have actually found some help.
“Fancy meeting you here, Homa Baumann.”
She waved elegantly with that one black-gloved hand.
It was so surprising– why would anyone remember her?
“Oh! I– wow–” Homa blinked hard as if disoriented. “I never thought–”
“Me either.” Said the woman. “But life’s little coincidences can sometimes be beautiful.”
Dr. Kappel smiled. “I don’t know the circumstances, but this is Kalika Loukia, Homa. After your surgery, she confided in me that she had met you before and was worried about you. I thought it would be helpful to have a friend here with a shared experience. She also had a traumatic injury requiring a prosthetic, so you can lean on her experiences for support.”
While the Doctor spoke, Kalika removed her glove to show Homa her mechanical hand.
Homa vaguely remembered that Kalika’s old, broken arm used to have a syntheskin cover.
She wondered then if she, too, would just have bare metal limbs exposed at all times.
“Of course, this is only if you are comfortable with it. Feel free to say no.” Dr. Kappel said.
“Thank you. I’m– I’m okay with it. Thanks.” Homa was rather taken aback by Kalika’s appearance. Why was she on this ship; could it be that it was a mercenary ship that rescued her? She assumed that all Katarrans were mercenaries– Homa tried to push the detective-level thoughts into the back of her head, but the coincidences were staggering. She shook her head, and twitched her ears, trying to recover her sense and to speak without affect. “It– sorry– It looks like you were able to get your arm fixed. I’m like– I’m glad.”
No matter what, she was having trouble speaking.
Her thoughts as murky as the deep ocean.
“It was actually all thanks to you, kind stranger.” Kalika said. “I was standing on the verge of a nervous breakdown when you went out of your way to help me in Kreuzung. No one else would have bothered– I think it’s only right that I be your kind stranger now.”
Homa smiled. It was a bit wan. But– Kalika was nice. It was nice to see a smiling face.
Nothing else that had happened to her recently was this nice–
even if it was an exceedingly odd little coincidence.
“In my memory of it I just bumped into you and acted like an idiot.” Homa muttered.
“Are you trying to downplay being a nice girl? It won’t work on me.” Kalika said.
Dr. Kappel seemed pleased with their rapport.
“Homa, remember that you can always tell me anything or make any requests to me; but Kalika is– well, she is an employee of ours on this ship. I trust her, so you can trust her too.”
Kalika put a hand on her chest.
“I am a typical fixer.” She said, smiling. “I think it will help with the physio and all that to have someone who has experienced it before. Also, I think you ought to take her out of this stuffy room, and maybe give her a shower– you’re supposed to be on station, but I can do all that. Is it depressing being bedridden like this, Homa? Wouldn’t you like to ride around a bit?”
“Hey now– wait a second–”
Homa interrupted Dr. Kappel. “No offense, but it is a little depressing. I’d love to go out.”
“Well– she’s not so delicate she can’t go out, but–”
“Then it’s settled. Can we get a blanket and a wheelchair?” Kalika said.
Dr. Kappel looked between Homa and Kalika and looked a bit helpless herself for once.
“Fine, fine. Kalika’s right, I have other patients and you could use some cheering up.”
Kalika gave Homa a victorious little thumbs up.
Homa felt ever so slightly more elated than before. She wanted to look around.
“Have you ever been on a ship before, Homa?” Kalika asked.
“Not for years and years. I can’t really remember what it’s like.” Homa replied.
“It’s my habit to say ‘it’s not so different’ from living on a station– but Kreuzung is a bit more luxurious than here. It’s a Cruiser though; as sardine cans go, it’s spacious.” Kalika said.
Homa wanted to ask whether Kalika thought this was comforting– but suppressed the urge.
Perhaps this was just a Katarran’s sense of humor.
Dr. Kappel left their side for a moment and returned with a foldable wheelchair. She set it on the floor near Homa’s bed and stretched it out, locked in the plastic frame parts and made sure the arm and footrests were leveled correctly. Homa sat up and slid herself to the side of the bed and Dr. Kappel lowered the railing for her. But as much as she initially desired to do so, she could not get onto the chair by herself. Instead, Kalika soon picked Homa up without much effort and laid her gently on the seat. A synthetic blanket was then laid over Homa’s lap, covering her legs. She could pull it up to her chest with her good hand.
Behind her back, Homa felt Kalika’s hands take hold of the push handles.
Her ears twitched ever so slightly, as did her tail, at the proximity of her touch.
“Comfy? Ready to go?” Kalika asked.
“I’m fine enough.” Homa replied.
Kappel waved her hand at them and watched them leave the clinic.
As she was wheeled out, Homa noticed that there were several more beds in the clinic, and that several of them had other patients too. She could see through gaps in the green dividers set between each bed that they appeared occupied. It had been very quiet in the clinic, so she assumed she was alone all this time. She wondered whether they had rescued any more people– and how badly wounded they must have been to be so deathly quiet.
Dr. Kappel really was busy. Homa felt a bit ashamed about it.
She felt that a Doctor’s time and medical resources ought to have gone to anyone else.
Rather than all of this apparent focus on herself. What good was she, anyway?
“There are not very many places to see, but I will take you to the nicest ones.” Kalika said.
“Anywhere is nice enough.” Homa said. “Nicer than being in bed all day.”
Kalika wheeled Homa at a gentle pace out of the clinic door. Directly outside there was a large connecting hallway that seemed to go from one end of the ship to the other. Homa was not able to gauge its length. All of the wall panels had separators with exposed bolts, and there were vents on the lower wall and on the ceiling that hummed constantly. The air smelled stale and there were two dozen people walking up and down the hall at any given time, not mention the ones ducking into and out of meeting rooms and other facilities. Everyone had the same uniform: white shirts, teal half-jackets, black bottoms.
Homa knew nobody, and nobody knew her– but there were people waving at her the instant she stepped out onto the hall. Homa bashfully waved back with her good arm– at first. It happened enough throughout her trip, however, that she ultimately started nodding her head or smiling when more of the crew would wave or wish her well. There were so many people greeting her. At least Kalika was there to keep people moving. None of them stopped to talk, they all had places to go and work to do. But Homa must have received two dozen well wishes and salutations in just her first short trip down the hallway alone.
She did not know how to feel about that– and so she tried to push it to the background.
Something immediately surprising to her was how many different kinds of people there were on the ship, judging by the crew in the main hall. There were a few fair-skinned blonds and brunettes around, but there were also other Shimii, and more Katarrans than just Kalika, and dark-skinned Bosporans as well. Homa was aware that Kreuzung had a particular problem with racial divide, and did not expect everywhere in the world to be as racist– but the veritable melting pot on this ship was still bewildering to see. Everyone was wearing the uniform, or work coveralls like Homa used to wear. Nobody had weapons.
“Hey, um, Ms. Loukia–”
“No~; please call me Kalika, Homa.”
“Kalika– what kind of business is this ship involved in?”
“Ah. Well. It’s part of a ‘transport company.’ That’s all I can say.”
“So they’re doing something illegal.” Homa whispered.
“You didn’t hear it from me.” Kalika said, betraying a hint of amusement.
Working at Bertrand’s, Homa had first-hand experience with the shady outfits coming and going under that euphemism. ‘Transport company’ meant smugglers, hired guns, gangsters; port privatizations in Kreuzung created a boom in illicit logistics for syndicates and privateers alike. Men like Bertrand took anyone’s money. Homa’s sense of morality led her to look upon criminals unkindly– but then she quickly felt she no longer had any higher ground to speak from anyway. Not after everything she had done in Kreuzung.
But– there was also another thing she heard that was difficult to square away–
“But they’re communists? Communist mercenaries?” Homa asked.
“It’s funny how the world works sometimes– that’s all I’ll say.” Kalika replied.
Homa was not an expert on the interiors of ships, but in the ‘After Descent’ era, there was no part of humanity that was not confined to a metal habitat of some description.
So living on a ship was perhaps not so unfamiliar to her. From what she saw, the interior of the ship felt only ever so slightly more confining than her old hallway in Kreuzung. In the hall, people could easily move two abreast with potential room for a third, rather than single file like the training ship Homa had sailed with during her vocational studies. The clinic was bigger than her old room several times over. Kalika wheeled her past a social area that looked actually cozy, with several plush couches and booth seats, and even games. She imagined the individual accommodations for the crew were probably as cramped as hers back home, but overall, it seemed surprisingly humane and livable for a ship.
“Want to go see the ‘ship’s tree’? It’s the darnedest thing.” Kalika asked.
Homa gasped. “Wait, what? They have a tree in here? Do you mean a real tree?”
“It’s a real tree! I had the same reaction. It’s apparently a tradition where they come from.”
A tradition? Keeping a tree inside of a ship of all places?! Homa was quite curious to see.
Despite Kalika’s gentle demeanor and measured pace, Homa still felt strange being pushed around on a wheelchair. It was comfortable enough, and it was nice seeing a different set of metal walls, as well as people coming and going. However, it was hard not to succumb to a feeling of helplessness. As much as she was under the thumb of various forces in Kreuzung, Homa had her independence. She could fend for herself. She had been fending for herself for years. It was routine to her. Wake up, eat from the pot, go to work, come back, eat from the pot, go to sleep. For close to four years that had been her stable, unbroken routine.
As reliable as the beating of her heart.
Or the movement of her limbs. When they were whole, anyway.
Food could be scarce; wallets got tight; but her room was her room, her life was her life.
Everything that once constituted that life was now as distant as a dream.
Homa could not help but feel trapped. Her blankets felt heavier than they should. There was a restlessness working itself out in the remaining muscle of her missing limbs. She wanted to stand up! She wanted to get her own food; she wanted to ‘go to work’ again like she used to.
There was an even more devastating thought that had embedded itself in the back of her mind like a knife, sending a burst of pain through her when prodded– what would her life even be like now? Without a home; without family; having done– the things she had done. (She could hardly envision the events of that awful day again without breaking out into shivers and sweats.) She was a criminal now. She was a killer; she was not innocent.
Before she could fall into a spiral, an elegant and rich voice shook her out of her thoughts.
“Homa, we’re almost at the lab. You can meet the science officer there too.” Kalika said.
Her gloved hand laid on Homa’s shoulder and gave her a friendly little squeeze for comfort.
“Oh. Sure.” Homa replied. She did not know how to feel about mingling with the crew.
She was still not able to fully accept her situation– everything felt transient, surreal even.
Why bother ‘introducing’ her to anyone? Why would anyone here care to know her name?
But she did not say the impolite things that had come to mind. Kalika was trying to be nice.
“She’s a real chipper one. If it gets to be too much, just wink at me.” Kalika added.
At the end of the hallway, there was a doorway into a very large room. Larger than any of the other spaces Homa had seen on this ship. It was even bigger than some of the upscale stores Homa used to see on her way to work. White-ceilinged and brightly lit, the middle of the room had several desk stations and work benches with glass boxes, plastic baubles, table-mounted machines and various smaller devices bubbling and whirring. There was some kind of analysis being done on some fluids and tissues with the results pending.
Homa thought that the equipment appropriately conveyed the function of a ‘laboratory’.
Much of the wall on two sides of the room was taken up with tanks, one of which was covered in grey mushroom caps each the size of a fist; the other full of vibrantly green and blue algae. Each tank was divided into sections that could be independently controlled, and each section had its own diagnostic screen. They were rather orderly and surprisingly clean. Though there was a lot of growth, the strata for the mushrooms looked healthy, and the algae tank was not too murky. Everything seemed close to ready for harvesting.
However, what truly dominated the space was an enclosure of steel, glass and plastic that was indeed encasing a real, live tree available for everyone to see. Boasting a vibrantly green crown, a multitude of sturdy roots and a thick brown trunk. Beneath the tree was a mound of black soil. When she approached it, Homa could even smell the earthy, sweet scent of the leaves, piped out of the enclosure. This tree was planted in the center of the laboratory– everything else Homa saw was arrayed with this tree as a reference point.
Even enclosed as it was and surrounded in its life support machinery and the rest of the laboratory amenities, seeing that beautiful lush greenery through the glass lifted Homa’s ailing heart just a little. For a moment, her emotions were arrested by it. Kalika wheeled Homa close to the tree and then walked beside the wheelchair and kneeled down. She smiled and looked over Homa’s expression as if hoping to see the same– and sure enough, Homa found herself smiling. Inside this can of sardines there was a living thing.
“It might sound crazy, but looking at it just fills me with cheer somehow.” Kalika said.
Homa did not respond, because she was still taking in the sight of the tree. It’s not like she had never seen a tree before. Kreuzung had trees in enclosures just like this. And yet, seeing this tree inside this ship, with its tight halls and small rooms, it was different than meeting it in a station. She did not know where ‘they’ had come from who had this ‘tradition’, but Homa thought in that moment that she understood it. Sitting in front of that marvelous tree, a real tree, a living being that survived so much, as alien to the ocean as human beings were.
It could live in this ship too. Heedless of the circumstances, it reached skyward.
It almost felt like– Homa had a responsibility to sit up a bit straighter for that tree.
Like a venerable elder was watching her and wishing her well.
“Oh! Visitors! I’ll be there in a moment!”
On the far wall of the room there was storage space for the lab. A woman deposited a big brown cube of carboard into one of the units and slid it into the wall. She then turned around sharply and walked briskly around the tree to greet Homa and Kalika. Homa was surprised to see a pretty girl working in the Science pod. She was a Bosporan, too, dark haired and bright-eyed, her brown skin a bit more of a light honeyed color. She wore a white coat instead of a teal jacket over the sleeveless button-down and black skirt that was common on the ship. She was lithe and lively and probably older than Homa by a few years, but still young.
“Welcome to ‘Science & Observation’! My name is Karuniya Maharapratham!”
In her hands, she had a phial of white fluid which she quickly shoved into a pocket.
Homa opted not to bring it up. In fact she had lost all desire to raise her voice.
Looking at the bubbly woman in front of them, she tried to make herself small.
“Back to see the tree again? You must be really fascinated with it.” Karuniya said.
“I’m showing our guest around.” Kalika said, tapping her hand on the wheelchair handles.
“How kind of you! Hopefully the vibrant color of our tree can help lift her spirits.”
Karuniya winked at Homa, who said nothing and averted her gaze.
“Homa this is the ship’s resident expert on all things non-human. We met a few days ago. Now that I think of it, is it alright to call you ‘doc’?” Kalika asked Karuniya suddenly.
“Nope! I haven’t earned it and I don’t want to hear it.” Karuniya said, shutting her eyes and smiling mischievously. She spoke quickly and with a strangely cheerful and excited affectation. “I have not gone on my scientific commission, and I haven’t formally completed my thesis. Therefore, I am but the people’s very own lovely Karuniya Maharapratham, one of the ship’s ‘Four Beauties’– and not a doctor of any kind! Please just call me Karuniya!”
“Wow, okay!” Kalika said, laughing. “Karuniya it is then. Or perhaps ‘Karu’?”
“Only my hubby gets to call me ‘Karu’!” Karuniya replied sharply.
Kalika shrugged comically. “You’re really a stickler for names, aren’t you ‘doc’?”
Both of them laughed.
Homa looked between Kalika and Karuniya and wondered how they could be so chummy.
Then Karuniya bent over a little to acknowledge Homa specifically.
“Homa Baumann! Our latest guest. I hope it’s not too awkard to say, I’m happy to see you, miss! You may be surprised for the attention you’ve been receiving, but it was a dramatic scene when you were rescued. There were a lot of people in the hangar, and everyone who was not there passed on the story about what they saw– everyone on the ship was so nervous and hoped you would pull through against the odds. It’s like witnessing a miracle. Sailors love their death defying tales– I hope you can forgive their enthusiasm.”
“It’s alright. Everyone’s been quite kind.” Homa said politely. “I– I appreciate it.”
Karuniya nodded her head and patted Homa on the shoulder. She was far too chummy.
She then stood up to full height and smiled at Kalika.
“Feel free to look around. I’m available to answer any science trivia type questions.”
Of course– but not any fundamental nature of this ship type questions, Homa supposed.
“What do you say Homa?” Kalika asked. “Want to bask in front of the tree some more?”
“Let’s keep moving. No offense.” Homa avoided Karuniya’s gaze. “It’s a lovely tree.”
“No worries at all. Feel free to come to me for help if my crazy husband annoys you.”
Homa fixed Karuniya a stare suddenly. “Your husband? What does he want with me?”
“She’s a military nerd and is impressed with the data out of your Diver.” Karuniya said.
Wait– She–? Did she not just call this person her ‘husband’?
Homa averted her eyes again.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep your fans off of you.” Kalika said, leaning close to Homa.
Somewhat mortified at the idea that anyone grabbed the combat data from the DELTA and could plainly see all of what she now considered ‘her crimes’; Homa was wheeled out of the lab in a state of quiet consternation. She had managed enough politeness to wave goodbye to Karuniya Maharapratham, but dreaded ever meeting her ‘husband’. The idea that anyone could have poured over those records and not felt immediate disgust, and instead become excited– it troubled Homa. What possible reason could they have for that?
“Homa, the bathroom is vacant. What do you say to a nice refreshing shower?”
Homa was unprepared for that suggestion. “I’m– I don’t know that I’m able to– my arm–”
Kalika read right through the stuttering. “Of course, in this case I would assist you.”
Homa’s ears folded. She shrank a little in her seat. Her face felt hot and her skin shuddered.
“We don’t have to.” Kalika said gently. “But I think you’ll feel better afterward.”
When she thought about it– Homa could practically feel the grit in her ears. Her hair had a bit of salt in it too. It had been a while since she had the opportunity to bathe. How her body was now– it was a direct product of that day– all of it– so awfully filthy– covered in blood–
Thinking about it instilling a sudden, driving need to be cleaned.
“Alright. Please help me.” Homa said. She tried to suppress a sob and partially succeeded.
Her head was spinning with shame when Kalika took her into the bathroom.
Thankfully, it was empty, just like Kalika had said.
Half the space was a blue-tiled set of showers that were completely open and undivided, essentially just six or seven shower heads hovering over drains, each spaced about a meter apart. The other half of the room had basins for washing hands and faces, stalls enclosing toilets, and a few mirrors. There were dispensers for mouth wash, toothpaste, soap and hair formula, as well as recyclable synthetic towels and wipes. Despite the comfortable size and openness of the space, there was no privacy in the shower. Homa sighed to herself.
Behind her, she heard Kalika’s coat rustle. Her ears and tail stood on end.
Partially turning, she saw her volunteer chauffer undressing. Hanging up her coat, undoing the buttons on her shirt and pulling down her skirt. Homa spread her lips as if to speak but the words caught in her throat catching a glimpse of a fancy, lacy black brassiere and a hint of Kalika’s breasts. She turned back around sharply. Kalika tittered in response.
Of course she had seen it.
“I can stop if it bothers you; but I’d rather keep my clothes dry, you know?” Kalika said.
“No. I’m just– I’m being silly.” Homa said. “It’s okay. I– I really– appreciate the help.”
After putting up her clothes on a series of hooks and drawers outside the shower area, Kalika sought and received Homa’s consent to remove her blanket, and pull off the hospital gown she had been wearing and hang both up with the rest of their clothes. Gingerly, she lifted Homa onto her remaining good leg, with her good arm held over the shoulder. She helped Homa walk to a pair of shower heads, and sat with her on the tiled floor.
“Hot or cold?” Kalika asked. She reached up to a square of wall that accepted touch input.
“Warm.” Homa said dispiritedly, looking down at the bare remains of her leg.
Kalika set the temperature on the wall. A few seconds later, water came out of the spouts that was just warm enough, causing little wisps of mist begin to rising around the two of them. It was a somewhat pleasant temperature on Homa’s skin and hair. Regardless her mood had cratered. Sitting down in the shower, she felt like she did not know how she would stand up again. Everything felt too heavy. She sat under the water despondent and silent; while Kalika sidled closer. Homa’s skin shuddered when she first touched her, Kalika running her slender fingers through dirty dark hair, holding her shoulder for support.
Into a dispenser on the wall, Kalika reached her hand. She collected a bit of foamy, thick fluid on her palm. She spread the foam across Homa’s scalp, working it into her hair, between and around the cat-like ears atop her head. Homa shut her eyes. It was strange but not necessarily unpleasant. Had her mood been stable and all of her wits available, she would have appreciated Kalika’s gentle ministration. Having someone wash her hair, lather her back and breasts with soap, looking over her in detail. It was a luxury she had never experienced in her life. And yet she could not fully appreciate it, not in that moment.
Kalika must have felt the tension.
Her hand stopped along the middle of Homa’s back.
“How are you feeling, Homa? You can be honest with me; and yourself. Under the shower nobody can tell whether your eyes are full of tears, nor hear you sobbing.” Kalika said.
Homa finally broke down at Kalika’s suggestion.
That unwarranted kindness was finally unbearable.
Tears that streamed down her cheeks along with the water washing over her hair.
Her chest seized into an ugly sob. Her shoulders slouched.
She grit her teeth and closed the fist of her good arm.
“I don’t know what to do.” Homa said. “I feel like I don’t know why I am still alive.”
“Your life is irreplaceable Homa; as long as you have it, there’s hope.” Kalika said gently.
“How?” Homa shouted. “I don’t have a home– or job– I don’t have anything anymore!”
Leija– she could not even say goodbye to Leija. She would never know if Leija was okay.
Her gnawing sorrow began to tear free the resentment and anger inside of her.
Kalika rubbed her shoulders a little. Homa shoved back against her suddenly to push her.
She suddenly wanted Kalika off of her and gone. Her heart surged with violence.
“Why are you paying me any attention?” Homa shouted. “What’s in it for you?”
“You are deserving of kindness, simple as that.” Kalika said. “When I saw you dragged out of that Diver, and how badly you were hurt, I was upset with myself. I was in Kreuzung; I was able to fight; but everyone in my crew was blind to the true danger taking place all along. We were caught up in the crisis as helpless as anyone else. We couldn’t stop anything.”
“Nobody could’ve done shit to stop that.” Homa grunted. “Nobody fucking wanted to.”
“You wanted to.” Kalika said. “You fought hard, all alone, trying to stop it. Am I wrong?”
Despite Homa’s petty resistance, Kalika never raised her voice back to her or judged her.
She remained unfailingly kind despite how petty Homa was acting.
She even praised her.
“I’m sorry.” Homa whimpered. “I’m sorry for yelling. And shoving back at you.”
“I don’t hold it against you.” Kalika said. “I know exactly how you feel right now.”
“You think you know?” Homa said, sobbing. “Because you’re disfigured like I am?”
“You’re not disfigured and neither am I. We are more than our limbs.” Kalika said. “But I still remember exactly when I lost my arm. I remember what I lost with it. People I cherished; a place I belonged to; a path I believed in. I fought as much as I could, alone against a tide, to the bitter end. I will never forget that. I know you have suffered a scar like mine too.”
“Yes. That’s right.” Homa replied weakly. She was exhausted; the tears wouldn’t stop.
“But, I’m here now Homa. I survived back then; and so I am alive now. I am still living.”
Homa could not help herself but to scoff. “Yeah? So then– what? I become a merc too?”
“You can do whatever you want to. Nobody here will coerce you, I promise you that.”
In that moment Homa was too resistant to empathy. Too bitter and angry still.
She was collected enough not to snap or shove or be too awful to Kalika.
But she did not want to listen to sense. Not right now.
She just wanted to feel the water washing over her head and back, and nothing else.
All around her the warm water fell in a steady stream of fast, heavy droplets.
She wished it would dissolve her and pull her down the drain.
Homa remained quiet. Trying not to think of anything or have any sensations.
Kalika respected her silence for a few minutes. Then, the water shut off.
All of the warm mist began to fade.
And at least– Homa felt just a bit less filthy.
“Here, I can dry you off. It’s really okay.” Kalika said.
She retrieved a towel, and rubbed it over Homa’s hair and shoulders.
“Thank you.” Homa mumbled. She turned to look Kalika in the eyes.
“It’s nothing.” Kalika replied. She smiled. “I’m just a fellow survivor.”
“No,” Homa whimpered, “I really mean it. Thank you. For everything. Kalika.”
Kalika pulled the towel from over Homa’s hair. “You’ll be okay, Homa.”
“…for too long, military planning has concerned itself exclusively with the political, social and economic basis of the military endeavor, with only pale reflections of thought spared to the actual military conduct, as in the movement of the weapons and the combat aims of the forces. There is a widespread belief in the Imbrium that as long as sufficient ships are built, and the crews of these ships have enough biscuit, and the people’s unrest against war is sufficiently nullified, then the carrying-out of combat is a secondary concern. Admirals of the Imbrium Empire, during the Revolution, performed maneuvers like rigid chess strategies based purely on intuition without thought to the Union’s intentions. They had become used to equally languid Republic forces that emerged from Ratha Flow in specific formations with limited operational thinking, then clashed over the Great Ayre Reach, a flat and shallow domain with limited possibility. They expected that their larger resource base and greater quality of arms presupposed victory, and they lost many battles and ultimately retreated in shame because they had no operational theory by which to adapt to the new conditions the Union imposed on them through hit-and-run warfare and new improvised weapons, like the use of Divers hidden in benthic rifts to create unexpected marine ambushes.”
“However, the Union, having won their right to exist, also entered a languid period in which the operational art was given very little thought. The Kansal administration believed that the building-up of the productive forces of the state was a sufficient military endeavor, and the Ahwalia regime then tried to abandon military build-up altogether. Even in the current Jayasankar administration, in which the military is the primary receiver of the state’s resources, military thinking is subordinated to production of arms, to building up rations, and conditioning the people militarily. There is great concern about having ‘only’ built a fleet numbering the low thousand of ships, supported by several thousands more Divers and scores of logistical objects and even bigger thousands of supporting personnel otherwise. While there are theorists among the military high command, the development of an operational art is nascent, and Academy graduates are still mainly taught the basic handling of weapons, and for the officers, the basics of managing people socially and politically. Thinking about the battlefield is still at a nascent, improvisational stage, where it is subordinated to thinking about shipyards, agrispheres and councils. It is not my aim with these writings to say such things should not be seen as military concerns. But focusing on these concerns exclusively, leaving the battlefield itself to happenstance, is just as foolish.”
“It is incomplete thinking to view, solely, the deployment of economic, social and political forces as the means to render the foe suppressed; and to respond, if the foe has greater such forces, by surrendering that our own must surpass them to succeed or all else is lost. Logistics remains the mother concern, without which there can be no war– but it is in the operational art that the appropriate usage of the arms must be found, and theory developed to employ the arms and personnel that we possess in a way which maximizes a strategic aim. The Union did not secure its freedom because it had more arms than the empire, nor because its economy was stronger, and not because its social conditions were more stable. Rather, the Union operationally employed its forces to maximize their strength, exploit weaknesses, and shape the conflict itself. This is not solely because the Union has developed the most correct political system. It is not solely because of war communism as a productive model, or because the proletariat are better conditioned for war. It is my intention in this thesis to fully detail the lessons we should have learnt from past conflicts, and draw solid and sensical conclusions from them in order to extrapolate how to properly conduct war in the terms of employing arms, interacting with the enemy, and shaping the battlefield–”
Murati Nakara heard the door to her room open behind herself.
She adjusted her reading glasses and turned around from her desk, expecting Karuniya to have barged in– but finding someone else in her place. A salmon-pink haired, soft-faced young Diver pilot with a curvy figure and a reserved body language– the unassuming Valya Lebedova had appeared at the door. Dressed in black-spotted coveralls and work goggles, they resembled a bit more their formidable aunt, the mechanic chief Galina Lebedova. Except Valya was a bit rounder where Galina was much more well-muscled.
“I apologize for just walking in Lieutenant! I wanted to talk to you.” They said.
“It’s not a problem. I would have locked the door if I wanted privacy.” Murati replied.
“I also apologize if I smell a bit oily. I was lubricating all the Diver’s joints.” Valya said.
“That’s nice of you– but shouldn’t Cohen be in charge of that type of thing?” Murati asked.
“Engineering is busy with the machine we picked up.” Valya said. “And, um, if I’m allowed to speak freely ma’am–” Murati nodded and Valya continued. “I feel that Gunther’s work has been noticeably bad lately. I don’t know I trust him much with my machine anymore. And if I have time, nowadays I also tune up the squad’s machines myself too. It’s fun anyway.”
“What do you figure is wrong with Cohen? Have you heard anything?” Murati asked.
Valya loved to do little optimizations to the machines, so they were the pilot who was most often around the engineers. Murati knew she could trust them when it came to hangar chatter. Valya was a bit bashful, but they never withheld anything from Murati.
“It’s because of Tigris.” Valya said. “I think Gunther feels like Tigris has disrupted things.”
“I’d call her disruptive too.” Murati sighed. “But probably not in the way Cohen means.”
“He seems less motivated since Tigris has unofficially become our technology chief.”
“There’s nothing I can do about that.” Murati said. “Tigris is an incredible resource for us.”
“I agree.” Valya said. Then their voice picked up and they looked even more excited while they spoke. “I’d love to learn from her, to be honest. And she’s not just loud– she works hard! She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and she’s the first one who lines up for repairs– we’ve already seen her suit up and go repair the ship while it’s in the water and in motion a few times already. She’s not just a ‘hangar queen’ like some big-headed engineers can be. That’s why the crew as a whole really likes her, I think. Cohen is a rules type of guy, not a fast action type of guy. I think Tigris makes him look bad, so he sulks and tries to throw the book at her.”
Murati smiled. “I appreciate your candor, Valya. I’ll try to be in the hangar a bit more and see the situation for myself. Then I might bring it up to the Captain– I do trust you, but I don’t want to use your own experiences as evidence, otherwise you would be dragged in.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I don’t like ‘office politics’ either– but it is what it is.” They said.
“I believe I interrupted you though. You did not come here to talk about Cohen, I presume.”
“No, I did not.” Valya said. “On a break from tuning stuff up, I looked at that combat data.”
“What did you think? How would you rate Homa Baumann’s piloting skill?” Murati asked.
Back in the Union, Valya participated in the Diver training programs for the Academy. Because they had mechanical engineering and piloting skills, they helped the Academy to update their Diver simulations. Valya themself was the opponent that the current crop of Academy pilots would test themselves against. The new simulations also made use of new material models for movement, weight, response, and other such properties that Valya helped to implement. Because of this, Murati sought a second opinion from Valya on the data recovered from the Delta, the diver the injured Homa Baumann had piloted.
They had the machine down in the hangar and were working to restore it, and to make the necessary changes so it could wield Imbrian and Union weapons rather than its stock Republic kit. Murati was curious about Homa Baumann’s predicament. Had she used the machine to try to escape from danger, or had she been deployed to do battle against the Volkisch? She found her answer in the combat data of the “SEAL Delta.” It was an impressive machine, but Murati found Homa’s piloting of it quite remarkable. Before she made any decisions that the officers might typify as rash, however, she wanted a second opinion from someone whom nobody would be so quick to dismiss as reckless or impassioned.
“Well, we lack some context. We don’t know her background.” Valya said. “But just from the data we can read off the Dive computer’s logging, I feel that she has strong fundamentals. In my view, she has definitely piloted before, and I think she piloted regularly. She has certain habits; you can see patterns in the hardware inputs that were recorded. I think that she mastered moving efficiently in a Diver, trying to cover distances quickly. Her use of weapons is not meticulous though. I don’t think she had problems killing, which is a normal hurdle for a rookie in a combat situation. Her computer recorded several kills, including a scout ship. She used all available weapons; but she was reckless with her ammunition usage.”
“From what you saw, do you think she is a republic soldier?” Murati asked.
Valya shook their head. “The machine was activated using an external hardware ID and did not log a pilot ID, so I cannot be certain that it was intended for her. The Delta’s depth logging began tracking the water table just above the baseplate, while the Republic ships came from above to attack Kreuzung below. If I were to extrapolate, I think Homa Baumann somehow got her hands on the Delta, activated the Delta from a lower port, and then fought her way up. She fought exclusively Imbrian model hardware, so she must have been trying to help the Republicans against the Volkisch. We can only speculate about her origins.”
“Thank you. Your insight is invaluable. I knew I could count on you.” Murati said.
“My pleasure!” Valya said in a chipper voice. “Let me know if you want a typed-up report.”
“Valya, I think I want to try to recruit Homa Baumann to our cause.” Murati replied.
“That explains your interest.” Valya said. “Well, I’m not opposed to it. She can definitely pilot that machine, and there are not a lot of other convenient options for it. Maybe if she joins the squad I can retire from piloting and focus on tuning up. Give me Cohen’s job.”
They grinned with a little bit of mischief.
“You’re going to have to slow down a bit on that one.” Murati said, in good humor.
Valya laughed. “Well, that’s my report Lieutenant. I should get back to the hangar.”
“Indeed. Good luck, future engineering chief.” Murati said, with a little laugh.
With a final salute, Valya left the room, the door shutting automatically behind them.
Though the question of Homa Baumann would have to wait for some time, Murati felt that she had the answers she needed. There were more pressing concerns needing her attention.
Murati turned back around. On her desk there was a portable and a digital keyboard.
She had begun writing her own book.
Untitled as of yet; but a military treatise in nature.
After she talked to Premier Erika Kairos, Murati had gotten the idea to write a book in her spare time. At first she considered writing a political thesis, but she realized there were enough spirited defenders of Mordecism and Jayansakarist thought in the world already.
However, when she sat down and thought about the state of Union scholarship, what she realized was missing was a central military thesis. A collection of techniques that actually fit the conditions of current warfare, and not the past. The Academy taught a lot of military history, and combat training taught weapons handling as well as piecemeal “tactics.” But many officers followed a script, and lacked complicated critical thinking about warfare.
If Murati had to describe the current state of the Union’s military doctrine, and as far as she knew the Imbrium as a whole, she would have likened it to handing officers a hand of playing cards to use. “Flanking” was a good tactic, you should try to do it, the card has a pretty symbol and a high number in the corner; direct assault was a tough card to play, not one you want in your hand; the teaching of officers was trapped at that level of thinking. Specific maneuvers that should be used based on their desirability rather than the situation.
Murati had already experienced several cases of this simplistic mentality.
For example, The Third Battle of Thassal, where Admiral Gottwald presupposed that dividing his forces to attack from two sides would be advantageous and so he split the fleet as soon as possible, long before the battle had started. Murati predicted they would meet one element far sooner than the other and thankfully her superior officers listened to her. The Union concentrated their forces and completely nullified the advantage of the pincer by destroying one half of the flanking attack before the other half could join battle.
However, prior to the intervention of Murati, the Union was planning to divide its forces too and meet both sides of the flanking attack. That was the entrenched, simplistic thinking.
Even outside of conventional situations the same tactics saw overuse.
Gertrude Lichtenberg, during the chase out of Serrano, seemingly believed her superior armaments would force the surrender of the Brigand and engaged in a direct chase of her target vessel. She gathered a fleet combat section with force protection, big guns and superior scouting capability. She had every advantage in a conventional scenario– but she did not realize that her chosen tactics contradicted her unique operational goal!
To retrieve Elena Lettiere alive, she could not risk heavily damaging the Brigand. Showing her hand and attempting to attack them directly was foolish. Murati saw an opportunity to fight back despite being outnumbered and outgunned, exposing the contradiction between Lichtenberg’s tactics and objective and ruining her plans. A more sophisticated approach could have allowed Lichtenberg to track the Brigand until it was vulnerable to boarding or could be surrounded or sabotaged for capture. Lichtenberg was too blunt and too desperate to achieve her goal and so she employed her considerable assets to complete failure.
Certainly, many officers in the Imbrium and the Union could exceed that level of thinking and become distinguished in battle. Murati did not think she was special. Any officer could potentially read their enemy and respond in an effective way to achieve success. But those who simply followed their script could be condemned to failure at the cost of many lives. Murati found it intolerable to accept this as the baseline for training. Officers could not be programmed like little machines with binary responses to complex situations.
But they had been; and it would cost them.
It was inevitable. One of many poor admirals would make a mistake someday.
She had seen many pathetic officers in her time in the Union. They were not rare.
And she knew this was not an individual but systemic issue. No one had fought with the Academy for better training more than Murati. Ever since she was a kid, in fact.
She could do nothing about this now. But she could do something for the future.
Murati wanted to teach prospective officers to read the battlefield, know their weapons, synthesize multiple types of information and consider the day to day employment of various technologies in developing plans that supported a comprehensive strategy. Best practices that could elevate an ordinary officer and empower already talented officers to shine even brighter and think even more radically. So if Murati returned alive from this journey, what she wanted to bring back to the people of the Union, was her first-hand accounts of real military combat, as well as her theories collected into a complete military doctrine.
Since she began to write, it had taken up many hours. It would be worth it.
In thinking about her book, Murati caught sight of the chronicle device at the end of the desk. Euphrates had given her parents’ records to her. They remained in arms reach.
And Murati had not dared yet to open them.
She knew some things about her parents. Her mother had been a Solceanos sister for a time and gotten an education that way, before leaving the convent with her father. Her father had been part of a long line of academics whose fates were tied to Bosporus’ chaotic world of scholarship. Until that lineage ended with Murati, who would never be a professor at a Bosporan college. And yet, she was afraid of some things she did not know.
There would probably be a disappointing answer as to why the General Strike failed to materialize; there would probably be some liberal ideas about war and violence; there might be some wishy-washy naïve hopes for some utopian future. Murati, who had once admired the idea of her parents greatly, now feared more disappointment in their reality.
Rather than worry about their legacy; perhaps she wanted to focus on her own instead.
So whenever she caught sight of that chronicle in the corner she felt compelled to write.
It was good inspiration; but perhaps not a healthy response.
After the shower, with permission, Kalika helped Homa to dress and got her back onto her chair. She then nonchalantly stepped in front of Homa and began to dress herself up seemingly without paying her any mind. Seeing this caused Homa to realize how close and how naked their bodies had been the whole time, and it made her run a bit hotter.
Kalika was laissez-faire about the whole thing, a confident nudist, to the point Homa wondered if this was what ship life habituated in people. That and the lack of privacy.
Homa tried not to act too childish about the situation.
She wasn’t a kid, and Kalika had already gone over all of her body in the shower; she tried to avoid acting embarrassing. It helped her a bit when she realized that Kalika was also transgender and had not made any untoward comments about Homa in the shower. She wondered what kind of hormones Kalika was on to get that kind of figure though– unless it was a Katarran thing. Maybe it was– Katarrans were custom made in tubes–
–or so Homa had heard. She had no first-hand knowledge of such things and,
then her wondering, largely brainless gaze descended to somewhere sensitive,
“Checkin’ me out?” Kalika said, a sly smile on her face. “It’s okay, I’m flattered~”
Homa’s gaze darted back up to Kalika’s face and then sideways to avoid her eyes.
She was remarkably pretty even with all of her makeup washed off. And her dick was–
“Uh, no, not at all. I mean– no offense or anything– I just wasn’t–” Homa mumbled.
Kalika giggled. “It’s okay. I think I know what you must be thinking, actually.”
Her eyes wandered down between Homa’s legs, causing her to twitch–
“I’m afraid while they might look similar, yours definitely works– while mine does not.”
Then with a fox-like grin, she pointed at Homa’s– and then at herself– and winked–
–as usual Homa found only misfortune when it came to the world of “gender stuff.”
Thankfully that was it for Kalika’s teasing. She must have seen how red Homa had gone.
So she put her remaining clothes on with her back turned and allowed Homa to cool down.
After that episode, they were all set to go. Kalika seemed excited to continue their trip.
Homa was not so eager however. She put a sudden stop to the festivities.
“Sorry. I’m feeling more tired than I thought I would be.” She said.
“I understand. I’ll come visit again, or you can call me any time you want.” Kalika said.
“Thanks. I really– I had fun.” Homa said. It was even true– partially– a little bit–
Kalika dutifully wheeled Homa back to the clinic and helped her back onto her bed.
She then left to collect the Doctor herself and inform her that Homa had been returned.
Homa sighed deeply when Kalika left. She both welcomed the silence but felt lonely too.
Like all of her feelings, it was a paradoxical spiral that she could not get control over.
Nevertheless– she was in bed, she had her blanket up to the shoulder and a comfortable pillow behind her. Her skin was soft and felt moist and pliable. Her hair smelled minty like the shampoo. She felt so clean! There was nothing like the feeling of a warm blanket over freshly-showered skin. It was the best Homa had felt, physically at least, in days. Overcome with warm and tender feelings, She shut her eyes and emptied her thoughts.
She managed to rest a bit.
Hours later, her breathing was troubled, her heavy lidded eyes between sleep and wake–
“Homa? Homa, are you okay?”
Her folded ears stood up straight. Homa recognized the world around her again.
At her side, Doctor Kappel had been shaking her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, doctor.” Homa said, reflexively.
“Nothing to be sorry for. How do you feel? Your breathing sounded troubled.”
“I’m okay. I’m breathing fine, I think.” She couldn’t remember anything from her sleep. Maybe she had a nightmare. It wouldn’t surprise her. Her mind felt like pieces barely held together.
The doctor put her hand to Homa’s chest and wrist and seemed satisfied she was okay.
“If something is bothering you, please know that you can speak freely.” Dr. Kappel said, bending so she was eye-level with Homa on the bed. “I’ll do everything I can for you.”
“Thank you, doctor. I think I’ll be okay. Just a little hungry.” Homa said.
Dr. Kappel nodded her acknowledgment. “I’ll go get you a plate. Dinner should be out.”
Out the doctor went; and in a few moments she returned with a cheerful demeanor.
“Minardo had Khadija as a volunteer tonight, so they actually made some Shimii food!”
She brought a multi-sectioned tray of food, a vitamin pill, pain medication and a cup of citrus water clearly flavored by a powder. For the main course, there was a mound of fluffy yellow rice topped with roughly chopped cashews, raisins and carrot strips. There was a small mound of light brown spread flecked with chickpeas that Homa suspected was just itself mashed, seasoned chickpea. On the side, a fresh biscuit, still warm and soft, and a salad of pickled, chopped up onion, cucumber and tomato glistening with a fresh dressing.
Homa looked over the plate. Pulao rice, an attempt at humus, shiraz salad. Everything was fragrant with the vegetal smell of pickles and the earthy scent of the spiced rice almost feeling like home. Homa rubbed the fingers of her remaining hand gently over the surface of the plastic spork that came with the tray. She forked through the rice meticulously. Turning it over, mixing up the nuts and raisins, but staring at it as if searching for something.
After a few moments, she sighed and worked up the courage to ask what had been bothering her as she mixed the items on the tray. It felt embarrassingly selfish.
“Doctor– I am really grateful for the food– but is it okay if I have some meat?” She asked.
Dr. Kappel suddenly put on a helpless expression, perhaps involuntarily.
“I used to start every day with a pot of beef. I would make it myself– I had a little pot back home.” Homa said. She had called Kreuzung home and it tore at the glass cracks in her little soul. But she tried not to cry about it. “I would put cabbage and beef in the pot and flavor it with zlatla and top off with water. It was really simple, but I kind of miss it right now.”
She put on a little smile. Already, she sort of knew the answer.
Just from the Doctor’s face.
Dr. Kappel shut her eyes and shook her head gently.
“I’m sorry, Homa.”
“Can you tell me why not? Is it my condition, or–?”
“No. We just don’t keep meat aboard. It’s– well, it’s not part of our culture.”
Homa shed a tear, but she prevented herself from crying further.
She took a sporkful of the colorful rice and tasted it.
Her cheeks tingled suddenly– it was really quite flavorful.
There was the earthiness of the spice mix in the rice, the savory notes of the stock, the sweetness of the raisins, the crunch of the nuts. Strong notes of umami and a certain creaminess to the dish, an unctuous mouthfeel. While the humus was just okay on its own, it made a good companion with the warm, fluffy biscuit that melted in Homa’s mouth. Meanwhile, she was surprised at the subtle vinegary tang of the Shirazi. She expected the pickles to come in too strong and mushy, but they had bite and were dressed well.
Compliments to that certain ‘Miss Minardo’ in the galley, and her Shimii helper tonight.
Everything was delicious. Almost as good as Madame Arabie’s restaurant dishes.
It just did not have any meat– and Homa dearly wished for some.
She wished she had her pot from back home.
She wished that she was back in Kreuzung and none of this had happened.
“Doctor. What will become of me?” Homa asked.
Her little wan smile enduring bravely.
Even as the tears started to flood from her eyes that she could no longer stop.
“Whatever you decide, Homa.” Dr. Kappel said. “Our officers are good people, they would not force you to stay here. We are headed to Aachen– we can set you down there, with your new prosthetics, and with some money. We could help you find a place to stay. We have a few connections we can pull to get you a job, perhaps. Or you can stay with us.”
“I don’t know who any of you really are.” Homa said, her tearful eyes meeting the Doctor’s.
“I’m so sorry Homa.” Dr. Kappel said. She laid a hand on Homa’s shoulder and held her hand as well, trying to comfort her. “We are not trying to hide anything from you. Things are busy and I would just like you to focus on recovery. I can try to get our Captain to come talk to you as soon as possible. I understand you have many questions and need more information before making a decision. But right now, you don’t have to trouble yourself. We are a week out or so from Aachen. You can just relax and recover until your surgery.”
“Why are you all doing this for me? I don’t understand it! Am I worth all of this?”
Homa raised her voice.
Dr. Kappel spoke with a gentler tone in return.
“You are absolutely worth it. Your life is precious to me, Homa. I want you to recover.”
“What about your crew? What do they want with me? Why would they care?”
“They rescued someone from a horrible situation. They just want her to get better too.”
Homa knew she was just being difficult. But she could not help but be cynical.
“I’m supposed to believe you’re, what? A bunch of wandering heroes?” She said bitterly.
“I’m not asking you to believe anything.” Dr. Kappel said. “As your doctor, the only thing that I am asking is that you take your meals, take your medicine, and rest up. Right now, your life does not need to move at 90 knots, Homa. I don’t know what your life was like before; and I do not need to know. Whatever you believe; whoever you are; I just want to treat you.”
“A communist doctor; for some transport company. Whatever then.”
Homa stopped talking and doggedly polished off the rest of her meal.
She then turned her shoulder on Dr. Kappel, wrapping herself up in her blankets.
Staring at the wall. Not wanting to see the doctor or anything else.
“Let me know if you’re having nightmares, or a hard time sleeping.” Dr. Kappel said. “There are a few medications we can try to reduce your stress or to help you sleep better.”
“Fine.” Homa said.
“Good night, Homa.” Dr. Kappel said.
Still gentle with her. Still without cause.
Homa heard her walking away, and closing the green shutters around Homa’s bed.
She grumbled and turned and tossed in bed, feeling restless and angry. A directionless, amorphous anger, like barbed wire writhing in her chest. At first it was directed at this ship and its crew. Soon it turned inward. She felt so stupid. Ungrateful, childish, even evil.
But she would not call back the doctor. She wanted to rot in her wicked futility.
Later in the night, Homa rolled over in bed, groggy, and froze up at the sound of voices.
Across the barrier from her own bed, the doctor and a patient conversed.
Everything was dark save for a dim white LED cluster across the plastic barrier. It cast the shadows of the doctor and patient onto the wall. Nobody had noticed that she had awakened so they spoke candidly. Homa could hear everything as they spoke.
She made herself small and still in bed; deeply curious.
“–I don’t have the materials or expertise to repair this sub-dermal nanomail you have. I’ve never seen anything like it. I know you and her are under Nagavanshi’s curtain of silence. But as a doctor, I’m going to request a detailed specification of your body modifications.”
“You’re not getting one. But it’s fine. Don’t worry. What did you do to the wound?”
That was the patient then.
“I secured it with a sterile mesh-plate. I am hoping that promotes recovery.”
“That’ll be fine then.”
“Don’t get shot in the sternum again.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“No strenuous exercise for a few days. We need the wound sealant to incorporate. That’s only for the flesh wounds. I’ve no idea how your body will respond to other treatments.”
“I’ll be fine with just the mesh. How is Valeriya doing?”
“Better than you. Nothing wound sealant and stitches could not fix.”
“That’s great. I was more worried about her than anything.”
“You should worry about yourself some more!” Dr. Kappel sighed.
“I only worry about the things I have no control over.”
“Illya. Valeriya is highly dependent on you. That’s why you need to care for yourself!”
For once, the patient, Illya, was quiet in the face of the doctor’s scolding.
Homa thought she saw the shadow of the patient on the wall turning.
“I’ll avoid strenuous activity for as long as I can. It’ll heal up right. Don’t worry.”
Dr. Kappel shook her head.
“I’ll tell the Captain you’ll both be walking out of here tomorrow then.”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if she had me executed after you did all of this work?”
“No, it truly would not be. Go to sleep. If not for my sake then for your poor partner.”
Homa heard Dr. Kappel stand up and start walking away.
That one little LED cluster went dark. Casting the entire room into darkness.
Tired but with her mind abuzz, Homa thought about what she had heard.
On the next bed from hers, was someone who had been shot in the chest.
And she would recover from that injury, and leave as early as tomorrow?
Homa was dead certain now that they were mercenaries, but she also realized they must have been formidable. They had tough chicks with body mods so scary-advanced a medical doctor had never seen them. They had a Captain who had the power of death over them. Dr. Kappel treated gunshot wounds and amputated limbs every day because of all the combat they saw. They had Katarrans with them! A Katarran like Kalika, wandering the halls being a tart at a random girl they picked up. And that science lab was growing so much food, and had its own tree– were they rich? But then what did it mean for them to be communists?
Could there really be rich communists?
The more she pored over the details the more Homa just gave herself a headache.
Would she really be alright?
She was helpless to do anything about it.
Turbulent images turned over in her head. Homa shut her eyes, trying to sleep again.
“Hey, kid, trouble sleeping over there?”
Homa’s eyes drew wide and she curled up tighter under her blankets.
“I know you’re awake.”
It was the patient in the next bed over– Illya. Were her blankets rustling that loudly?
“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, I guess. Homa, right? You don’t have to be scared. I saw when they brought you in, so I know you’ve been through some shit. It will pass. Hell, if you’re like me, you might even like the bionic shit better. Anyway: they don’t let me ‘bother’ you, so I’ll just say this. If anyone gives you shit and I haven’t been executed for treason, you can tell me.” Illya laughed a bit, seemingly amused at the idea.
Homa swallowed a lump and kept quiet.
“I have a– let’s call her a ‘kid sister’. Around your age.”
“Where is she now?” Homa felt compelled to raise her voice after a moment of silence.
Illya laughed again.
“She’s on this ship actually. Maybe you’ll get along? She pilots Divers too.” Illya said.
“Maybe. I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa said.
“Good. Now go to sleep. Pretend you didn’t hear anything, and that we didn’t speak.”
At Illya’s prompting, Homa shut her eyes again– and somehow, she did manage to sleep.
She did not recall any dreams and nobody tried to wake her up hours later.
When she next opened her eyes, she did so slowly and naturally. Her blurring vision of the room slowly came into focus, and she lifted her head from her pillow and pulled the blankets from over her hair. She looked around with a bleary expression. There was gentle yellow light from the sunlamp clusters overhead, but the white LEDs that made up most of the illumination had not yet been turned on. On one side of her bed, diagnostic equipment which had been absent yesterday was now there, perhaps ready for her surgery.
On the other side– Kalika was sitting in a chair.
Homa looked at her, slightly dumbfounded.
Kalika noticed, smiled back and waved.
“Good morning, Homa.” She said.
There was a thick beige portable computer in her hands just like the Doctor’s model.
“Good morning.” Homa said. “You don’t have to wait for me.”
“I only got here a little bit ago.” Kalika said. “I don’t have much to do.”
“So I’m entertaining you?” Homa said. More bluntly than she intended at first.
“It’s not like that.” Kalika said.
Homa laid back down, adjusting her position in bed and staring up at the ceiling.
“Sorry.” She mumbled.
“It’s fine. I get it. But look, I actually brought something for your entertainment.”
Kalika stood from her chair, closer to Homa, and showed her the portable.
Looking at it up close, and being able to hold it with her hand, it was a little bit heavier and chunkier than the types of devices like this sold in Kreuzung. The screen was 200 mm by 140 mm or so, not counting the bezel around it, and it was about 9 or 10 mm thick on the whole. There were buttons on the front bezel as well as the sides. Kalika also demonstrated that part of the top bezel slid out, and within it there were a pair of small earbuds that were permanently affixed to the machine with thin wires. Homa had never seen a device quite like this, and it did not have any corporate brand logos that she could recognize.
Kalika helped stretch the earbud cord and put the buds comfortably in Homa’s ear fluff.
With a few taps of her finger, she summoned a woman’s voice; a pop music track.
Just as easily, she put on a video from one of the ship’s underside cameras, with full audio.
Mostly marine fog. There was the odd shadow rushing past that could have been a fish.
Then, Kalika tabbed through the interface and opened up a small book of poetry and puns.
“There’s a lot of stuff you can do with it. And, even better for your current situation,”
Kalika demonstrated that a pair of bracing legs could be pulled from the back of the device.
In this way, it could sit on Homa’s lap, so she would not need to hold it all the time.
“Um, wow. Thank you. It’s– it’s nice.” She was at a momentary loss for words.
Homa felt touched. She was not necessarily a fan of any of the pieces of media that Kalika had so excitedly shown her on the device. But there was something so warm about it that it made her want to cry. When Kalika slid out the device’s little legs, and she could look at it sitting stupidly on her lap, this thing which initially read as a chunky beige piece of crap that was uglier and heavier and less glitzy than the devices she knew– it now felt like something that was made for her. Perhaps even something that was made for humanity— something that was made for people rather than money. It even had little earbuds attached with a design, and long enough cord, for use with Shimii ears as well as other types of ears. That would have been a separate device worth fifteen or twenty marks in Kreuzung.
She almost wanted to ask again, who even are all of you?
Where does this all come from?
But she knew– communist mercenaries or whatever– no point in asking Kalika again.
Seeing the little device, its screen filled with a page of childish puns, made Homa laugh, a bit bitterly but also, a bit fulfilled. Her heavy heart was beating, her skin was warm.
Despite everything– she really was alive.
“Thank you. Now that I think about it, I haven’t listened to a lot of music.” Homa said.
“How did you pass the time before?” Kalika asked.
“I watched TV I guess. I read books sometimes. Mostly I worked.” Homa said. She let out a sigh and laid back in bed. “I used to work morning to night. Then I ate and I slept with the TV on. When I had a day off– ah, I can’t even remember. I guess, I haven’t thought about what I wanted to do with myself for a really long time. I wanted to make money to pay my bills.”
“Well, one positive about being a mercenary is having decent free time.” Kalika said.
“How about a positive of being a communist?” Homa asked bluntly.
Kalika grinned. “Having a decent amount of free time too. Also, being in the right.”
“Being in the right, huh.”
Homa brushed the top of the device with one of her fingers.
“I can’t promise promise anything, but I will try.” She whispered, smiling a little at Kalika.
Whether Kalika had heard her or not, she simply smiled back.
Homa started to play with the touchscreen controls again right when a new visitor appeared.
Having walked all the way past the other beds to stop at the end of Homa’s medbay bed.
Homa lifted her eyes from the screen to see a familiar fair and long-haired blonde woman.
Long-legged, busty, tall and fit, a bit of makeup; a mature beauty in mercenary uniform.
Along with a peaked cap that had a gold-bordered red star displayed front and center.
“Greetings, Homa Baumann. I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. Let’s have a little chat.”
After the Core Separation crisis, the Brigand finally escaped from Kreuzung Station.
Now they traveled across the rocky and deep terrain of Eisental, close to 2000 meters deep.
Rendezvousing with the rest of the Rotfront, before heading north-northwest to Aachen.
Between them and the destination was almost the entire length of Eisental.
And all of its many features. Barely recognizable in the pitch darkness and marine fog.
Low-lying underwater peaks, rising and falling mounts, rocky stretches of flat ground; smooth silt valleys and plains where dust and sand sometimes streamed across as if carried on a wind; mineral-rich continental rifts and underwater caves. Abutted to the west by the continent wall and to the east by Jabal Khaybar. Eisental teemed with humanity in its stations, substations and ships, along with aphotic creatures languidly exploring the deep with their bioluminescent bodies. At times, an abstract tunnel of fast-moving water could be observed to snake around the darkness, spiraling here and there and into the distance, part of the treacherous Rhinean jet-streams that could have shaken to pieces a smaller ship.
Commonly seen were small columns of gas wafting up from small pockets of geothermal activity throughout the region. Perhaps during the travel one’s sensors might pick up a particularly consistent outgassing in the distance while navigating the rocky terrain. In the northern and north-western Imbrium, like Rhinea and the Palatine, there were several areas that were home to notably livid rifts, seen to shine red with hot magma or even to crackle purple with massive, exposed clusters of high-grade Agarthicite too reactive to safely mine. These rift areas bore the prefix ‘Bad’ in their names, such as the site where Mehmed’s ambition met its end, Bad Ischl. In these names ‘Bad’ meant ‘Bath’ or ‘Hot Spring’.
As far as humans were concerned, Eisental was a producing region.
Vast mining projects cut deep into the rock to extract a king’s ransom of minerals. Clusters of Agri-Spheres in the calm silt valleys harvested seabed soil, pearlite and geothermal deposit to use in meticulous and vital agroponic works. These produced multiple millions of tons of food– much of it sold unprocessed, requiring extensive logistics to deliver it to upscale grocers and restauranteurs in good condition. Hydrocarbon rigs collected petroleum and natural gas necessary for plastics, an absolutely vital component of deep ocean living. Factory complexes turned these and many more millions of tons of raw materials into products for numerous brands that had become aspirational parts of Rhinean life.
Yet, the ocean was vast and dark, and each of these necessary parts of Imbrian living could no better see one another than the blind creatures of the abyss saw their next meal. Between all of these stations and substations were vast stretches of lonely ocean, within which it still felt as if humanity had ceased to exist and never rebuilt their world under the waves. So as the Brigand navigated the waters, the crew saw darkness, marine fog, and more silt and rock. Stray animals; and perhaps the distant blip of merchant vessels on sonar.
“Onward to destiny I guess.” Olga Athanasiou said sarcastically at the empty screen.
On the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand, Erika Kairos, who had sat beside her, stood up.
“Not for destiny!” Erika said. “To defy Destiny and those who would confine us to it!”
With a dramatic flourish and a self-assured grin, she pointed her index finger at the dark.
And so resumed the journey of the revolutionary ship from the communist Union.