“Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Tell me– what you’ve forsaken.”
In the shadow of the Patriarch, standing raised upon the church stage, a great gold sun disc hanging on the wall at his back– there was a girl in her blue sailor uniform, ears folded, tail held straight and alert. Around them the church was like a suffocating cage of hard-edged shadows cut only by candles and torches on the stage. A red gleam exposed the severe expression of the Patriarch from around his long hair and thick beard.
“Answer me, Gefreiter— what is the fate of the Loup? Do you know better than God?”
She knew the answer she would not speak.
Just as he knew her name and would not use it.
Loup were born into servitude.
Servitude to God, through worship; Servitude to the state, through following of the rightful authorities; Servitude to the Family, and to the Father above all. God, the King, the Father of his House, they were all tiered delineations of the same principal figure of absolute power and respect. Loup valued order, authority, and were born to defend both.
“Salvation is a grueling process.” Said the Patriarch. “It begins, it continues, it never ends, until the Sun finally shines upon you and takes you into the firmament. Salvation requires baptism, its beginning; then it requires supplication and worship, to sustain it. Loup, Gefreiter, are a people of great humility and supplication. Our virtue is to toil in life so we can smile in heaven. But look at you; an apostate under my roof. You wear the uniform of a state you betrayed; given life by a God you swear against; and so you wear the skin of a people you reject! You spit on everything that we are. You humiliated us; humiliated me. ”
“She was my mother.” The Gefreiter finally spoke. “She was your wife!”
Tears formed in her eyes. She cast a helpless, wavering gaze up at the looming Patriarch.
“You were supposed to protect her! You speak of my betrayal; you betrayed her!”
From the stage a swift kick struck the girl in the neck and knocked her on her back.
“Silence! You are truly her child! You hellspawn! I ought to split your skull open!”
“That’s enough Gregor. Or you will meet the same fate to which you consigned your wife.”
White light cut across the center of the red streaked darkness of the church.
Casting the Patriarch into the long shadow of another man much like him, approaching.
Dressed in a black and gold uniform, a tall hat. On his ears and tail, the fur deeply grayed.
At his side was a younger woman in a similar attire, swarthy-skinned and dark-haired.
The two Inquisitors approached the church stage to shield the girl from the Patriarch.
When the girl reached the side of the Gefreiter she made to assist her–
“No, Gertrude. Not yet.” Warned the older man. He turned to face the Patriarch.
“Samoylovych. The southern heretic.” Said the Patriarch, disdain ample in his voice.
“Gregor.” High Inquisitor Samoylovych replied. “I’ve come to reclaim Imbrian property. That’s how you see us, isn’t it? I am appalled with you. I cannot stop the Council of Officers from enabling zealots like you; but Aatto is completely innocent. She was not in league with anyone, nor plotting anything; she is just a scared girl witnessing the destruction of her family. You cannot charge her with capital crime as you see fit. Even in the Host.”
Never once did the Patriarch cede from his position. His tail swayed gently behind him.
He was not rattled by the words of the High Inquisitor. In his eyes there was only zeal.
“I have done nothing in my life out of convenience.” The Patriarch said. “I have only ever done what was required of me by God or country. To have brought a child into the world with a liberal and a blasphemer and traitor, is a shame to me, a shame to my country and a shame to the Church; and I have done my duty in setting it right. I was tested; I stood with God.”
“And what? You will murder your daughter for God? Is that in the Revealed Truths?”
“Salvation is a grueling process.” The Patriarch said. “None of us can escape the Destiny that God sees in the instant of our birth, Samoylovych. That is why we must submit to the church and the Revealed Truth and set aside our hubris. Leniency nurtured vipers in my home. You ask what I will do? I will repent until my death; and remain devoted to the rightful order.”
The Patriarch turned his back on the Inquisitors and disappeared into the back of the church.
High Inquisitor Samoylovych grunted. He stomped his foot on the floor.
Putting a crack in the tiles. He let out a wheezing cough from the exertion.
“Inquisitor Samoylovych,” Gertrude Lichtenberg asked, “what will we do with the girl?”
“We’ll take her, of course. She can still serve in Rhinea or Veka.” Samoylovych sighed.
On the floor, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather looked up at the gold sun on the wall of the church with terror in her face. As if staring at the candle-lit face of God itself, a horrifying God of blood-letting that longed to devour her. That sign of the collective immiseration of the Loup in the pursuit of further submission to the will of the Divine. That Sun and the God it represented and the teachings that were associated with it had destroyed more human lives than anything in the world; they had destroyed all of Aatto’s life as she had lived it and everything she cherished. In an instant, it had blinked, and the force of its shutting eyes ended her long-held stability. Submission to what family? Submission to what state? Submission to what God? She had nothing and was helpless to do anything!
Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s life as she had known it ended without warning.
“None of us can escape Destiny.” She mumbled to herself. Weeping profusely.
“He’s wrong.” Samoylovych said. “The power to defy Destiny exists. But those who wield it have turned their backs on the Loup and on the atrocity of the Host. That is the truth.”
Aatto would ponder those words for years. Perhaps far longer than Samolovych intended.
Since they left Kreuzung, the Brigand resumed a feverish level of activity.
In the halls, sailors and technicians and engineers, of which the Brigand had well over a hundred, went from repair jobs to meetings, from the hangar to the cafeteria, from work to bed, having but a lunch and three twenty minute breaks throughout the day with which to decompress. It was busier than it had been during their expeditions in Goryk.
Chief among the reasons for this heightened activity was the depth. In Thassal, Cascabel and Serrano, the average depth of human activity was between 900 to 1500 meters deep. It was in these depths that the Brigand had been built and though it was tested at up to 2500 meters in the Nectaris Continental Rift, it was not ran for weeks and months in such depths. Eisental’s floor was on average 1800 to 2800 meters deep, just narrowly avoiding Hadal or Deep Abyss depths. The Brigand would be at this depth for an indeterminate period.
As such, the Brigand was subject to close to twice as much strain from the depths, since the deeper the water, the greater the pressure on all systems of the ship. There was no fear that the Brigand would suddenly spring a leak and explode completely– if that were the case all of humanity would have gone extinct already. Pressure hulls were very sturdy, and advanced forms of flood mitigation, as well as the presence of sealant gel in the centers of plate structures and between the armor and pressure hulls, meant that strikes from ordnance were actually survivable for the internal modules. It was very rare for a ship to implode from mishandling. It had to be considered as a possibility, but it was still rare.
However, the actual routine problem was with small parts. Particularly, the water system and electrical infrastructure. Water for the hydrojets was sucked in through intakes using powerful turbines and pumps– from there, some water was diverted into internal tanks, the crew water system, and reactor cooling. Then the water would go back out eventually, either directly through the hydrojets or fed out of waste chutes or reactor control pipeline.
Pipes inside the pressure hull were prone to leaks, and because the water system had to work harder and under more stress, it demanded more electricity, stressing the electric systems and possibly stressing the reactor core array as well. Sailors and technicians’ time at these depths was spent monitoring for leaks, actively monitoring power, swapping any electrical and electromechanical parts that were stressed or failing, and most importantly, tightly planning maintenance, replacement and recycling of such crucial parts.
Almost anything on the Brigand could fed into the ferricycler to be turned into mineral mush that would then be fed into stitcher machines to make new usable parts to cycle back in. But at some point, new, unrecycled parts had to be introduced back into the system– there were unavoidable diminishing returns involved in recycling parts continuously.
Other things that broke with some regularity included doors, kitchen appliances, the games in the social area, and most of all, the Divers. Divers had to be considered “broke” the instant they left the ship, because their anti-corrosion coatings would start wearing off, joints would take a beating, and small instruments like the sensors would certainly receive some abuse. This was before the sailors considered any battle damage the Divers took on top of that unavoidable wear. As such the hangar saw frequent spikes in activity.
On mission, the sailors kept pretty busy. There was always something to do.
Therefore, the Brigand’s halls and hangar always saw at least some people moving through.
Sonya Shalikova, meanwhile, had precious little to do on any ordinary day.
As an officer and a pilot, she had the privilege of relaxation.
In exchange, she braved the ocean in defense of the ship, risking her life every sortie.
Not everyone was cut out for that.
There were some people who had panic attacks just seeing the empty black ocean all around them, their spotlights unveiling only the endlessly falling rain of biological matter known as the marine fog. Others became greatly sick from the way the Diver moved out in the water, as the Strelok or even the Cheka cockpit was poorly stabilized. Still more refused to have anything to do with the endeavor, as unlike a ship, it was quite easy for a Diver to receive any sort of damage and fail catastrophically, since their hulls were much thinner.
For Sonya Shalikova, throwing her life into this maelstrom was all she knew how to do.
It had never been a question of whether or not to pilot a Diver.
Piloting was all she had to give to the world. Or so she thought.
Lately, at least, she had experienced a few positive additions to her worldview.
She had forgiven herself for the death of her sister Zasha.
Rather than throwing away her life because she felt useless and listless doing otherwise–
Shalikova now wanted to fight to protect her crew and many precious persons aboard.
To uphold Zasha’s memory and the wishes she had for Shalikova.
Fighting to enjoy her moments of happiness; rather than fighting out of a sense of misery.
So now, as she wandered the halls full of sailors, with nothing to do herself,
rather than think,
I’m so useless– all of these people are the real heroes,
she instead reminded herself,
I need to relax more– no use being high-strung then flaming out when it matters.
Taking care of herself and her body and mind was part of her responsibilities as a pilot.
Her free time, that privilege, was also part of the needs of the job.
Ever since the escape from Kreuzung’s core station, something had been bothering her.
They had an encounter outside Kreuzung. Shalikova recalled not only the psionic powers of the enemy pilot and her fearsome aura, but also the sturdiness of a new type of Diver she had been piloting. It had withstood several close bursts from the Cheka’s AK-96 assault rifle. Firing from a distance at a moving target would have severely diminished the effectiveness of the rifle’s 37 mm supercavitating rounds. These weapons had an effectiveness that sharply declined beyond 50 meters or so. In the water, if you could see something to shoot it, it was only then that it was in the effective range of a Diver assault rifle.
However, Shalikova had fired from close range on a stationary enemy, several times.
Everyone else seemed to overlook this freakish durability, but Shalikova could not.
Murati might say that with appropriate tactics, they could still defeat this new model.
Shalikova, who experienced it first-hand, began to believe they needed stronger weapons.
She was not savvy enough to determine what they could do with their current resources.
So she ultimately decided to take the concern to someone who could research it better.
“Valya, do you have a moment?”
“Oh! Shalikova and Maryam! Just a sec!”
These days Shalikova never went anywhere without her brightly smiling marshmallow.
So even as she walked the halls, Maryam was always following along.
Valya could most easily be found in the hangar, where they had increasingly taken on the role of the squad mechanic for the 114th, the Brigand’s assigned Diver unit. In the center of the hangar, along the walls, there were several gantries, each of which held a Diver aloft. Metal arms assisted the Diver so it would not need to stand under its own power while recharging and while undergoing repairs. They also held the machines in place as the ship maneuvered. Shalikova met Valya in the shadow of a Strelok, still the most common mecha in the hangar despite several recent acquisitions. It was the mainstay of the Union soldier.
Like all Divers it was roughly person-shaped, with an oblong cockpit encased in explosive-resistant armor plates that met precisely on the center of the chest, where they could open to allow entry. A hip section attached a pair of legs slightly offset of the cockpit, while a pair of shoulder sections affixed the arms. Atop this stocky body plan was a rectangular, roughly square head. Two cheek plates held together an array of cameras and sensors hidden behind bullet-proof glass, the “eyes” of the machine. Behind the machine were the main thrusters, fed by water from the shoulder and hip intakes. Mounted on a multi-sectioned “backpack,” the jets could rotate as two independent sets for greater maneuverability.
Shalikova whistled when she saw the state of the machine. This Strelok was receiving some specific attention. The unpainted steel plates on its legs having been taken off along with the cap on the hydrojet intakes set into the Diver’s knee that fed its legs jets. In addition, the support thruster for that leg had been removed and set aside. Known commonly as a “vernier” or “solid fuel” thruster– the latter moniker had come to refer to the fact the thruster was not electric, and in truth the fuel used by the Union was usually cheap liquid, though staged-burn solid compounds were higher quality. Under the armor, additional structural plates had their bolts removed and were peeled off, exposing flexible pipe, wires and the inner workings of the Strelok’s knee, such as the mechanical joints.
Inside the exposed metal there was a layer of black-brown grime that had accumulated.
Climbing down from a ladder, Valya removed their goggles, leaving a streak of grime on their own cheek. They smiled at Shalikova and Maryam with a refreshingly sunny demeanor. Dressed in a black sports bra beneath a half open gray jumpsuit, soaked in sweat and smelling of grease and metal. Some grime had even streaked over Valya’s salmon-pink hair, which they had not put a cap over while working. With a heavy tool in one hand, and the other waving jovially, Shalikova thought Valya was truly in their element.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you! It looks like a lot of work.” Shalikova said.
“Well, I’m already down! So it’s fine. There’s plenty of time to get back at it!”
Shalikova had thought of Valya as a reserved person, but they seemed to light up more when they were able to work on the machines. Despite the clear grueling effort they were going through, they never seemed to shine as brightly and talk as confidently as when they were covered in grime with a tool in their hands and safety goggles pushed up over their hair.
“Is something wrong with the Diver?” Maryam asked.
One of her tentacles flicked toward the Strelok’s bared knee.
Valya followed the tentacle with their eyes, then laughed.
“Just a routine checkup. It’s filthy inside, isn’t it? This is the Strelok that Ahwalia trashed back in Goryk, and then it got fixed up and returned to the reserve. Recently a sailor piloted it to go out and check how the missile launch bay covers were holding up in the water. When the sailor was on his way back, the leg jet started getting sticky. I think it had microfractures this whole time in the leg so the jet was losing a tiny bit of water into the plates.”
“Wouldn’t it explode or something?” Maryam asked.
“Nope, the leg interiors are not pressurized, but it is still a problem.”
“I see, I see.”
Shalikova patted Maryam on the shoulder, silently asking her to defer questions for now.
Maryam noticed and nodded her head.
“Valya,” Shalikova turned to the salmon-pink haired pilot, “I need to talk to you.”
“Ah, they’re in high demand today I see.”
Valya and Shalikova both turned to meet the owner of a familiar voice.
Elegant, enunciated in a sultry and playful fashion.
From behind them approached a familiar Shimii with long, blond hair and a strikingly glamorous affectation. Her sophisticated radiance was undeniable and it was hard to turn away when she was taking up attention. Heavy wine-purple eyeshadow and well-applied blush, glossy lipstick adorning a confident grin. A hint of wrinkles around the eyes and neck seemed as though an artful exposure of her maturity. On her, the standard uniform shirt and skirt seemed to flatter her curves, black tights accentuating the contours of shapely legs. Her ears and tail were perfectly manicured and had an almost divine appearance of fluffiness, while her tail was exceptionally brushed and strikingly silky and clean.
Her every movement oozed the easy confidence earned with age.
Shalikova averted her eyes before Khadija al-Shajara teased her for staring.
“Aww, I saw you turn away Shali-Shali.” Khadija said. “Don’t hurt a lady’s pride now.”
“It’s not that at all.” Shalikova said, turning a little red.
Teased anyway; there was truly no escaping from Khadija!
At her side, a cheerful Maryam waved to Khadija with both her tentacles and hands.
“Greetings to the lovely V.I.P. as well!” Khadija said. “You two arrived first, so you should conclude your business with Valya first before I steal them away.”
“That’ll have to wait Khadija– I still have to finish this one too.” Valya said.
“Oh, but I need my Strelok to be ready for standby.” Khadija said, leaning closer to Valya.
She put on an expression that was both pouty and somehow still flirty.
“You’ve got a point. I guess I can just leave this here.” Valya said, leaning back a little.
“Why is Valya doing all this work around here anyway?” Shalikova asked.
Valya shook their head. “Too much to get into– but I can handle it, so don’t worry.”
Khadija crossed her arms and leaned back on the leg of the Strelok, waiting her turn.
Her ears were clearly piqued to try to catch some gossip, however.
Shalikova sighed and laid out her request.
“Valya, did you get a chance to look at any data from the Cheka? Or Khadija’s data?”
“Uh huh, I’ve looked at everything with Murati.”
“I’m worried about the model of Diver we fought around Kreuzung.” Shalikova said.
Valya nodded. “That was Rhineametalle’s Panzer model. We actually have data on it from R&D leaks that were turned over to Union spies– but that was two years ago. We didn’t even load that stuff into the dive computers because we never expected to run into it.”
“I nearly emptied my magazine into it and it did nothing.” Shalikova said.
“You’re exaggerating, dame Shalikova.” Khadija interrupted. “You managed to fend it off and we are unsure of how much damage we did to it. Combat damage is more than just dramatic armor penetrations. For all we know it was limping away without life support.”
Shalikova felt mildly irritated at Khadija’s condescension– but it was pointless to pursue.
“Had the Brigand not been close I’m almost sure it would have kept fighting.” She said.
Khadija did not respond, preferring to continue leaning with arms crossed and eyes shut.
“I can try to comb over the data more thoroughly.” Valya said. “I’ll talk to Murati about it too– if she thinks the 37 mm guns seem ineffective against that Panzer we can explore solutions. I think I know what she’ll say though. One encounter is not a lot of data.”
“We don’t even know if they have mass produced the thing.” Khadija replied.
“I just think we need to keep it in mind.” Shalikova said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Khadija winked. “You need to have more confidence in yourself, lady prince.”
“It’s not about self-confidence! One of us could lose our lives if we underestimate that thing in the middle of a fight! It’s senseless not to prepare every possible advantage!”
“Good answer.” Khadija said. “You do make a finer leader than me, Shalikova.”
Shalikova had raised her voice to Khadija, who seemed far too satisfied with the result.
“Hey, c’mon, relax you two. Khadija, you can stop teasing her.” Valya said.
“I’m relaxed. I said what I wanted to say. Come on Maryam.”
Over Valya’s scolding of Khadija, Shalikova turned around and left the hangar.
Trying to work out the frustration that she knew she felt, and hated feeling.
Despite her anger she had grown up just a bit, enough to have more perspective.
In her heart she understood what Khadija was doing.
It was the same thing Illya had told her in Kreuzung. She had to speak up her convictions, even against her experienced seniors. If she was wrong, she was wrong, like Illya said– if she was right then she had to be ready to meet the confrontation and prove herself right. That was part of being in the military alongside war heroes like Khadija and confident theoreticians like Murati. Shalikova had a fearful conjecture and Khadija challenged it with her own knowledge and experience– they didn’t know if there would be more Panzers and they didn’t even really know what effect they had on Nasser’s Panzer. Khadija probably wanted her to stand up for herself and her ideas instead of turning cheek.
Shalikova just was not used to having arguments and resolving confrontations.
When she was assigned to the Thassal fleet she just did whatever she was ordered.
She never would have thought she would have the ability to influence a mission long-term.
Some part of her hated the idea of ‘being a leader’ more than anything.
It was annoying! It exposed her to stupid contradictions! It meant talking to people!
But another part felt that it was necessary. Especially in this case, she couldn’t keep quiet.
“Sonya, are you okay?” Maryam asked. “Are you mad at Khadija?”
They got on the elevator to ride back up to the Brigand’s upper tier.
“I’m annoyed. I felt like Khadija was treating me like a kid.” Shalikova said.
“I think she respects you a lot! I’m positive she just wanted to help!” Maryam said.
“You’re too nice, Maryam.” Shalikova sighed. Her softie marshmallow at it again.
“It’s okay Sonya. I think everyone on the ship thinks highly of you!” Maryam said.
“It’s not that– whatever.” Shalikova simply let things lie at that point.
Once the elevator doors opened, Shalikova led the ever-cheerful Maryam back to their room. As soon as she was through the doors, Shalikova threw herself on her bed and hugged her hand-sewn teddy bear plush, Comrade Fuzzy, tightly against her chest. It was cathartic to hold something tightly. She needed a few minutes to decompress and she wished for silence– and Maryam had seen this enough by now to know. Shalikova heard her girlfriend sit on her own bed, and then no other sounds of cuttlefish activity. She felt grateful for the silence, and even more grateful that at least Maryam truly understood her.
“Maryam, just give me a minute. I’m sorry I haven’t been great company today.”
“It’s okay Sonya! You take all the time you need. I completely understand!”
Shalikova could see Maryam smiling in her mind’s eye and it warmed her heart.
Another thing she never thought she would find herself doing, back at Thassal.
In just a few months, she had changed a lot, hadn’t she? It all felt so– silly.
She hugged Comrade Fuzzy less tightly and a bit more tenderly instead.
Tension was slowly leaving her body. The voices in her ears began to quiet.
I’ve grown a lot I guess– but damn it if I don’t still have a lot of work to do.
Shalikova sighed to herself.
Nothing could ever be easy– not for every long.
Not for soldiers out fighting at sea.
After a short rest, Shalikova turned around in bed, still cuddling with Comrade Fuzzy against her chest. She faced Maryam’s bed and found Maryam seated cross-legged on top, with her eyes shut and her arms crossed over her chest. Her top fins wiggled gently and her tentacles swayed within her hair. She breathed in and out with a deliberate timing. Her soft facial features were slightly screwed close, furrowed brow and cheeks pulling up.
“Trying to concentrate?” Shalikova asked.
“Oh! Sonya! No, I was just relaxing.” Maryam said.
She opened her eyes and smiled. Shalikova’s face sank into Comrade Fuzzy.
“Maryam, don’t keep things from me. You’re no good at it.”
“Ah– well, alright. Since you caught me.”
Maryam shut her eyes, crossed her arms and put on a confident little expression.
“Sonya– I have been finking about our royal cuttlenundrum.”
“Did you think about it beyond what fish puns to make?” She said.
In response Maryam turned red and puffed up her cheeks, prompting Shalikova to be quiet.
“Okay, sorry–! I was just making fun! Go ahead.”
Maryam shut her eyes, lifted an index finger and looked deep in thought for a moment.
Shalikova stared at her while she puffed herself up for whatever she was about to say.
Lifting her pink hands and putting one fist on the other palm like a gavel.
“–it’s time to ask Euphrates, because I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Yeah I kinda figured we would arrive there eventually.”
Shalikova laid a hand on her own forehead, lifting up her bangs and sighing.
“After I confessed I was psionic to Murati she told me Euphrates and Tigris were helping her– so I guess it’s okay. As long as Murati does not become involved.” She said.
“Sonya, why are you so against the Lieutenant? She seems nice.” Maryam asked.
For a moment Shalikova imagined Murati fussing over her and Maryam and grimaced.
“Because she’s annoying. Let’s leave it that.”
Maryam gave Shalikova a scrutinizing look before dropping the matter herself.
Shalikova hid fully behind Comrade Fuzzy again.
While the two of them were staring from across the room, something lit up on the door.
In the middle of it a picture appeared in a square computer window.
Short blue hair, wavy and messy, on a youthful, fair-skinned face.
Euphrates was right outside the door, politely requesting access to enter the door.
Shalikova stared at the door with mild surprise.
She half-expected anyone looking for her to be like Illya and just bang and shout on it.
“Speak of the devil. Come in!” Shalikova called out.
Across the room, Maryam had a conflicted expression for a moment and averted her gaze.
Shalikova let go of Comrade Fuzzy and sat up, tossing her hair.
“Good afternoon, Maryam, Sonya Shalikova.”
Euphrates and Tigris crossed the threshold and closed the door behind themselves.
It was the first time Shalikova had a meeting in private with the ship’s “technical partners.”
Shalikova waved quietly in response. Maryam continued averting her gaze.
“I’m surprised she hasn’t turned tomato-colored yet.” Euphrates said.
In response, Maryam puffed up and went red and continued quietly refusing to respond.
“We just came to check up on you.” Tigris said. “On both of you.”
“In fact we just got done covering up for you.” Euphrates said.
“What?” Shalikova stood up straighter in bed. “What does that mean?”
Euphrates put her hands in her coat pockets and smiled.
“Your ability to use psionics came up in conversation– the Captain and Commissar were a bit alarmed to hear that Maryam was psionic as well. I knew she had to be responsible for the Ensign’s psionics.” Euphrates said. For a moment Shalikova went wide-eyed with burgeoning panic. Euphrates must have noticed, as she took her hands out of her pockets to make a comforting gesture. “No, no, no, don’t be afraid. We vouched for Maryam’s trustworthiness and made ourselves responsible for preventing such surprises in the future.”
Shalikova sighed. Maryam continued to give Euphrates and Tigris the silent treatment.
“I figured Murati would have to tell them eventually.” Shalikova said.
“Don’t blame Murati, she has been incredibly discreet.” Euphrates replied.
“Fine. So then– what are the two of you checking up on us for?” Shalikova asked.
“We’re supposed to–” Euphrates began–
“Slow down with the we,” Tigris interrupted. “You volunteered to compile everyone’s psionic potential on the ship. I’m a mechanical engineer, I have things to do. So you have fun covering up all the staring you’re going to do at people on this ship. I am not helping.”
“Can you help me just this once? I really need your assistance.” Euphrates said.
Tigris averted her gaze in the same direction as Maryam. She crossed her arms.
“Whatever. Whatever! I’ll stick around this once.” She said.
“Thank you. Now, take a look at Ms. Shalikova here– you’ll see the problem.”
Shalikova narrowed her eyes, meeting Euphrates and Tigris’ gaze with quiet consternation.
She saw red rings appear on their eyes. Tigris in particular scrutinized Shalikova for longer.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Tigris said. “I can’t see anything, no matter what I try. What the hell?”
“Indeed.” Euphrates said. “Ensign, are you employing psionics at the moment?”
“No, I’m not.” Shalikova said. “This is something Maryam said too. My aura is weird.”
Tigris took a deep breath and looked at Shalikova again with renewed intensity.
Shalikova heard Tigris’ speaking in the back of her mind–
“Oracle’s Voice: Epexegesis.”
Shalikova instinctively responded with her own psionics having detected Tigris invoking a power. She then saw several thread-width lines of colored light, connecting the fringes of Tigris’ aura to her own– or perhaps to where her own aura should have been. Except, the threads stopped just short of Shalikova and hung in mid-air utterly disconnected from anything. She knew right away that whatever Tigris had attempted to do failed.
“Now you can see why I wanted you to try.” Euphrates said.
“Yeah? But I still can’t understand anything even with Epexegesis.” Tigris sighed.
“What are you two up to?” Shalikova asked. “Why are you trying to read my aura?”
Despite the sudden intrusion and strange behavior of their guests Shalikova was not fearful. This was because Maryam, on the other side of the room, was still pouting and staying out of it as if it was just any other casual occurrence. Maryam would have definitely rushed to defend Shalikova from anything violent or harmful. In addition, Shalikova almost felt like she had her own voice in her mind which was telling her that it was harmless, or perhaps more accurately, it was making that knowledge implicit to her understanding.
Shalikova felt like she had always known, somehow, what this power was meant to do.
It was meant to read auras more deeply than was possible by simply looking.
“Aura reading is something common to psychics. It should not offend you.” Euphrates said.
“She has a right to be offended.” Maryam said. “It’s not up to you.”
“Finally, my dear former pupil deigns to speak with me.” Euphrates smiled.
Maryam stuck out her tongue at her.
“I’m trying to read the aura to get a feel for your psionics, but it’s impossible.” Tigris said.
“And we’ve never seen anything like it.” Euphrates added. “So it’s quite novel.”
“Okay? I have no idea what means for me.” Shalikova said.
“Neither do we.” Euphrates said. “But you don’t look unhealthy, at least.”
“She’s fine.” Maryam said. “Sonya is special! She will use her powers for good.”
“Right. And she’s particularly special to you, isn’t she?” Euphrates said.
She reached out and poked one of Maryam’s head fins, causing Maryam to flinch.
“Ugh! Don’t treat me like a kid.” Maryam said. “I’m not the same as I was!”
“No, you are not. You’ve traveled, found a purpose and people to care about. I think that is lovely, and it was never our intention to bar you from it.” Euphrates said. “You can disagree as vehemently as you want with our ethics as you see them. But to me, you will always be a special pupil whom I had a wonderful time teaching. I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Hmph. No thanks. All you taught me was to do the opposite of you.” Maryam said.
“She’s become such a cuttletrarian.” Euphrates said.
“Ugh. I’m leaving.” Tigris mumbled.
“Wait.” Shalikova said, raising her hand. “We need your help with something.”
She turned to face Maryam. “Maryam, tell them. You yourself said we needed them.”
Maryam’s colors went dull for a moment. Her fins and tentacles deflated a little.
“Maryam, please.” Shalikova said. “We promised to help, remember?”
“We did promise.” Maryam had an uncharacteristically disagreeable expression.
With her eyes narrow and an unfriendly glower, she explained their predicament.
Recalling how Elena Lettiere told them that Norn prevented her from using her psionics.
Euphrates and Tigris were quiet as Maryam explained Elena Lettiere’s predicament.
At various points in the story they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes.
Shalikova noticed it– Maryam might have not, or not cared.
After the conclusion of the story, Tigris looked conflicted and Euphrates unmoved.
“So– I dunno, you tell me. How do we exorcise a psionic effect from someone?”
Maryam asked with some of her quiet innocence returning to her mannerisms.
“Maryam– tell me this. How do you define what is real?” Euphrates asked back.
She smiled as if she had just said something very profound.
Maryam’s face instantly turned tomato-red and her eyes went suddenly wide with fury.
“I knew it! I’ve had it up to here with you! Goodbye! I’m not dealing with this again!”
In an instant Maryam stood to leave–
but just as fast Shalikova stepped forward and grabbed her by the jacket.
They stood in the center of the room, with Maryam frowning as she was ensnared.
“Maryam, c’mon, have some patience! For me!” Shalikova pleaded.
Arms crossed, face boiling red, cheeks puffed up, Maryam sat back down on the bed.
This time Shalikova sat beside her to comfort her while Euphrates and Tigris stood.
“I know how you feel– but try to endure it. I get what she’s saying.” Tigris sighed.
“I’m not that annoying, am I?” Euphrate asked. “It’s actually important to consider for this scenario, Maryam. You heard Elena Lettiere describe her experience and drew a conclusion, but think about it: what makes an experience ‘real’? Is there an objective quality, extrinsic to humanity, that makes information, experience, or sight, concretely ‘real’?”
Maryam stared at Shalikova and gestured toward Euphrates with exasperation.
“I’ll answer.” Shalikova said, before Maryam could say something rude or irascible. “I’m not the biggest brain around here, but I’ll try my best to answer earnestly. In the Union, we are taught to be materialists. We believe that the world and its laws are knowable– thinking comes from material conditions. So I guess that, whatever someone experiences, comes from a condition of their material existence. So– whatever you think, it is rooted in something which is real. So Elena must have a reason for what she saw.”
“That’s a good answer– but, do you think you fully verified Elena’s ‘experience’ here?”
“We took her at her word. She told us what she felt.” Shalikova said.
“But people can misinterpret fraught subjects such as these. Especially naïve people.”
Even Shalikova was starting to get agitated. “Look, I’m not a philosopher.”
“Alright, let us set aside the frameworks.” Euphrates said. “Let me clarify what I mean as much as I can. Maryam has presupposed that Elena is ‘under some kind of curse’ that ‘Norn put on her using King’s Gaze’ which then ‘prevents her from performing psionics.’” Euphrates held out fingers for each of these conditions in her argument. “However, how do we confirm this is the case? These are some big leaps of logics. I actually have a counterexample: it is also possible that Elena simply believes she is incapable of performing psionics due to Norn’s influence, without the existence of an actual ‘curse’ at all. You said you read Elena’s aura, but that aura is primarily borne of her own emotions. Even if you think you can feel a trace of Norn there, you do not know why or how. It could all still be ‘in Elena’s head’.”
“That’s what she means by whether something can be objectively real.” Tigris said. “How can we be sure of what happened to Elena? It’s actually easier to believe that Norn influenced Elena’s behavior like, on a traumatic level perhaps, without it having anything to do with ‘curses.’ It could be Elena’s got some learned helplessness to deal with. Or she’s been in Norn’s shadow enough to have internalized a fear of her retribution.”
“Why does any of this matter?” Maryam said. “You’re just philosophizing not helping!”
“I never said I wouldn’t help.” Euphrates said. “But you have to understand, where psionics is concerned, we have to be really careful to consider the variability of the human psyche and of human emotions. My answer from experience is that there is only observable reality– therefore we must be careful what we make others believe to be real. Maryam, if you had tried to ‘remove a curse’ from Elena without understanding what is truly happening, you could have irreparably influenced her mind and damaged her sanity. Imagine if by tinkering around with Elena’s mind within this rhetorical framework of ‘removing Norn’s curse’, you caused her to irrevocably believe Norn is her enemy? You have to be careful.”
Shalikova nodded along. She was a bit fascinated by Euphrates’ logic.
She supposed human minds were still highly complicated, even to experienced psychics.
Henceforth she would have to be careful when she encouraged Maryam to use psionics.
She had not realized she could so much harm to a mind.
“Human minds are conceptual spaces. To their owner, the information that their mind can process is the only thing they can confirm to be ‘reality’. The information and ideology they acquire throughout their life is a function of their material circumstances, that is very true. But what you see, hear, and even smell or taste can still be altered by the condition of the mind. There are people who see things that are not real, and staunchly believe in things they cannot substantiate.” Euphrates said. “Knowing this to be true, you have to be wary of executing a ‘conceptual attack’– using psionics in a way you think is helpful, but that could alter their reality in a way you might not have intended. Not only will the effort be very taxing on your psionics, the end result could be horribly disruptive to your patient.”
“Norn doesn’t even need to use her King’s Gaze to affect Elena.” Tigris added. “For example, if she got to Elena as a kid, when her mind was the most pliable and vulnerable, she can make her believe anything. She could have already been under conceptual attack– we don’t know.”
“It may even be simpler than that, far simpler. At least, simpler in comparison to a decades long conspiracy.” Euphrates said. “Before we do anything, Maryam, I need to talk to Elena Lettiere myself. I want to ask her about Norn and their relationship and then see how she feels. To take it for a given that she is under attack by Norn, and try to tinker with her mind to change that– it could be a horrible mistake. You can’t do such things lightly.”
“Fine, fine, fine,” Maryam said, averting her gaze, crossing her arms and pouting.
“It’ll also have to be another day. We’re kinda busy, you know?” Tigris said.
“I understand.” Shalikova said. She turned to Maryam and touched her shoulder for support and affection. “Maryam, I know you wanted to be the big hero, but they’re right. Elena should not just go along with our conjectures. Even if we have the best intentions we need to be careful. Let’s get everyone together and try to figure out more, okay?”
“Sheesh.” Maryam snorted. “Fine, fine, fine. I never said I wanted to force her or anything.”
“Of course. You just got a little over-enthusiastic. It’s part of your charm.” Euphrates said.
“Hmph. I’ve not forgiven you two.” Maryam said. Pointed glaring at the two women.
“Forgiven us for what? We haven’t ever done anything to you.” Tigris said, exasperated.
“For being bad and selfish people!” Maryam said, raising her voice.
“Huh?” Tigris cried out, taken aback by her tone and forcefulness.
“Hmph!” Maryam averted her eyes and puffed her cheeks up.
“Tigris is extremely altruistic. You can be pointed and say it’s my fault.” Euphrates said.
“Hmph!!” Maryam puffed her cheeks up to an even greater degree.
“I won’t disagree with you either.” Euphrates said. “I am– amending– my ethics a bit.”
For the first time her words sounded just a bit hesitant and unsure.
Maryam opened one curious eye to stare sidelong at Euphrates.
Even Tigris started staring at her too.
Euphrates held her hands together in a plaintive gesture, still smiling.
“Inaction and indecision– played more of a part in my thinking than I’d like. I admit it. I allowed events to spiral out of control. I lost perspective.” Euphrates said. “Being on this ship has made me feel that time is moving again for me. And that I must move with it. I can’t remove myself from culpability. I am looking to set things right. Norn, Mehmed, Ganges, Yangtze– any pain they caused is my shared responsibility. I accept it now.”
“Great. Could’ve fooled me.” Tigris replied, glaring at Euphrates again.
“I am not asking for forgiveness, Maryam. But I’d love to have your help in the future.”
Euphrates adjusted her coat, and bid farewell, with Tigris following close behind.
Still arguing about what Euphrates meant and whether she was serious.
That conversation was not for the two left behind, however.
When the door shut, Maryam let out a breath that must have been held long.
She then leaned heavily on Shalikova, squishing her cheeks up against Shalikova’s chest.
“Sonyaaaaa that was super annoying! You have to be really nice to me now, okay?”
“Sure, Sure. Come here. You’re still a big hero to me. A big, squishy softie of a hero.”
Shalikova held Maryam close, stroking the fins on her head and laughing a bit.
Thinking about Maryam and Euphrates, she felt a bit silly about her feelings toward Murati.
After what she considered a somewhat embarrassing appearance at the ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’, Murati made for the brig. Hardly knowing what to make of it that the enemy officer whom she had captured had requested an audience with her specifically. She had no investment in whether or not she would be effective in extracting any information from the captive, so it made no difference to her and she was not exactly anxious.
But she was perplexed and a little bit annoyed.
What would she even say to a fascist, face to face?
Murati had argued with fascists in her head for years.
Anyone who studied theory would likely have had similar moments– putting together a worldview and acquiring a set of convictions required challenging their competing notions in her own head. In Murati’s mind, she had argued with the Imbrian Empire, and lately she had argued with the Volkisch Movement as she learned more of their ideology while continuously refining her own. Why was she not a Fascist? Why was she against Imperialism? Answering these questions was necessary to arrive at the truth of communism.
But she had never thought about what she would say to a living fascist in a discussion.
She had at most thought about what she would say if she had to execute a fascist.
“The People make up a Nation; you’ll never build a Nation without lifting them up.”
Then she would pull the trigger and turn around without even looking at the gore.
Maybe it could use some refinement–
At any rate– on the walk over, Murati wandered what she would say.
To Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, sitting in the brig, requesting to speak with her alone.
Without much progress made in refining a concept of this encounter in her own mind, Murati stood at the door to the brig and gathered her breath. When the door slid open, Murati saw Dr. Kappel jotting something down on her portable clipboard computer. The doctor noticed Murati at the door and gestured for her to wait before coming in. She then stepped outside the brig and shut the door and bid Murati follow her a few steps away, so they would be farther from the brig when speaking. Murati figured she had been evaluating Aatto, and caught a glimpse of a photo of Aatto taken with the computer camera for her file.
“Murati, I completed a preliminary evaluation of Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Dr. Kappel said. She clicked the switch to shut off her computer. “This evaluation was performed for the sake of her health, as one of my new patients– and I will not disclose any specific physical health conditions, or anything she specifically confided in me. But I thought that it might help you to speak with her more effectively if I gave you my basic assessment of her first.”
Murati bristled a little bit. “So the fascist also has medical rights on this ship?”
“Murati, everyone has rights on this ship. As long as I am the ship’s Doctor, we will not deny captives basic treatment. It would be senselessly cruel.” Dr. Kappel sternly said.
“Fair enough.” Murati replied. She felt a little embarrassed in her response.
However, she was also too stubborn to apologize, and still felt she was justified too.
“At any rate. I am not a psychotherapist, but I am trained enough to serve as a counsel for the ship, and I performed some initial assessments of Aatto’s mental health. Are you interested in hearing them, or would you prefer to form your own?” Dr. Kappel asked Murati.
“I’m interested. How coherent is she? Is she holding up well in the brig?” Murati asked.
“She’s quite coherent.” Dr. Kappel replied. “She is willing to talk and is in fact affable in conversation. She answers questions and does not appear distressed by her current predicament. She has realistic expectations about her captivity, but has not expressed any anger, frustration or anxiety about being imprisoned. Her physical health is adequate. However, despite her attitude– I would say her mental health could be at risk.”
“How so?” Murati asked.
“I believe she might be a suicide risk.” Dr. Kappel said. “And my true motive for speaking with you is that, during your interrogation, please be wary of Aatto and if needed, stop her from hurting herself. She has expressed that she holds her life in low regard, and made a few morbid jokes without prompting during our discussion that trouble me. Coupled with the certainty and confidence she projects, I fear she may decide to– escape, in that way.”
Murati was a little bit shocked. She was briefly unable to speak as she processed.
More shocked about her own reaction than anything– she felt a bit of a pang of nerves.
Why would she care if the fascist does anything to herself? They were lower than dirt.
And yet– she didn’t want to be party to someone trying to hang or stab themselves either.
Not in this sort of environment. There was no battle raging in here.
“I won’t bring in anything into her cell, and I’ll watch her carefully.” Murati said.
“Thank you. I don’t expect you to treat her kindly– but remember we have standards.”
“I know.” Murati said. Internally, bristling at the idea that Aatto deserved anything.
Dr. Kappel nodded her head in acknowledgment and turned to leave.
“Wait, Doctor.” Murati said. Dr. Kappel paused to hear her out. “Do you know why Aatto wants to talk with me? Did she tell you anything about that? The Captain and Commissar have not had time to properly interrogate her just yet– but they wanted me to acquiesce to her request. I do not know what benefit she gets out of talking to me.”
“My fear aside, I think it may be a matter of pride or respect for her.” Dr. Kappel said.
“That makes sense. She confronted me directly and I made a fool of her.” Murati said.
“Right. She may want to look into the eyes of the person who captured her, to hear her voice, to be processed by you, as a form of accepting and coping with her failure. I will keep to myself exactly what she said, and like I said, I won’t ask you to moderate your voice.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I will do my best to try to handle things– humanely.” Murati replied.
“That’s all I ask. She may be unworthy of our respect, but she’s still our responsibility.”
Dr. Kappel reached out a hand and Murati shook with her, leaving on better terms.
Now, however, Murati was actually troubled by the idea of meeting Aatto.
Her situation became more complicated than ‘yelling at the fascist.’
Nevertheless, Murati returned to the brig with her hands closed into fists.
Farthest from the door were the few barred cells on the ship. On the right-hand side were the solitary confinement cells, all of which were now unoccupied. Just past the door, standing between the landing and barred cells, Zhu Lian stood guard. Murati found her in the midst of untying her long, dark hair and retying it into a ponytail. She dressed in the same nanomail bodysuit she usually wore, with thicker plates of separated armor on her chest, gloves, waist and leg guards. She had a collapsible baton hooked to her belt and no other weapons. Murati waited for her to be done with her hair before speaking.
“Greetings, comrade. How’s the prisoner doing?” Murati asked.
Zhu opened one eye and let go of her ponytail. “Oh! Hello Lieutenant. She’s behaving.”
“I’ll be stepping in to talk to her.” Murati said.
“Yeah, I heard from the Commissar. She’s all yours. Where should I wait?”
“You can stay here for now. Has she said anything?”
“She said she was excited to meet you. Weird, huh? Like I said, she’s quite well-behaved. I expected her to be more aggro but she has been remarkably quiet and polite.”
Murati nodded her head, walked past Zhu Lian and stepped up to the bars of the cell.
As soon as her shadow crossed the bars, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather’s gaze lifted to follow her every move. Aatto was seated on the fold-out bed provided in the cell, her hands crossed on her lap with eyes cast downcard. She smiled and raised her head upon seeing Murati approach. Aatto had been stripped of much of her uniform. Her coat was gone, her boots were gone, her hat, all of her pins and collar patches and armbands. Aatto was only allowed to keep her button-down shirt, sans tie, as well as her pants, sans belt.
Even her brassiere had been taken– exceptionally evident with her shirt halfway open.
Dark blue eyes meet auburn; Murati stood across the bars.
Aatto stood in turn to meet her.
“Thank you for granting my request. I’ve been dying to meet you.” Aatto said.
“I am just following orders. I’m only curious to know what you want.” Murati replied.
Aatto smiled, a little too happy for Murati’s taste.
She was shorter than Murati, though she would not have called Aatto short overall. She was a well-proportioned young woman, busty, average in figure, decently fit. Fair skinned, dark-eyed, with sleek cheekbones and a small nose with a tight bridge and slightly rounded end– she certainly could have been described as attractive. Her long, brown hair was well-kept, silky and shiny even with minimal hygiene the past few days. Blunt bangs covered her forehead, while the rest of her hair was long and straight. Her tall, sharp ears had abundant fluff while her tail was bushy and bristly, widening with fur across its length.
Her body language was confident and quick. Her hands moved a bit as she spoke.
Unlike her stern commands in Kreuzung, her voice in captivity turned somewhat sweet.
“I would like to throw myself upon your mercy, and under your power.” Aatto said.
She bowed her head, at first– then dipped into a stage bow, with one arm out.
“No mercy is necessary. As far as I know, nobody intends you harm.” Murati said.
“It’s more than that. It’s about my purpose.” Aatto said. She stood back up to full height.
Her voice reverberated through Murati’s chest like a shockwave.
Those dark-blue eyes flashed a strange gaze at Murati’s own.
In that instant, Murati pulled her internal trigger in reaction.
Red rings glowed around her eyes which met their counterparts in Aatto’s own.
They were reading each other’s auras– Aatto had some psionic ability.
Not only that– Murati could see in her aura the bizarre euphoria slowly becoming evident in her expression as they stared each other down. Aatto’s tail began to wag so strongly it started striking the bed repeatedly. A cheek-to-cheek smile flashing white teeth; embroiled in a white and blue flame of an aura, impassioned, exuberant, sublime–
With a texture like a waterfall, like rushing silk, an unbroken current–
There was no denying what was going through her mind.
“Murati Nakara, please take me as your own instrument! Let me be of use to you!”
Murati was stunned to silence. Those words completely shattered her composure.
There was not a hint of aggression or hesitation in Aatto’s aura or her body language.
She was sincere; utterly sincere. Her every emotion was sharply focused on Murati.
“I want nothing more than to serve you! I wish I had been born a part of your body rather than all of mine. I want to see your power! Let me defect and I will show you how useful I can be! This body– you can do anything you want with it! All of my life has led me to this moment. Take me, or strike me down, whatever you wish! But I know that in life, I can be a great asset to you! I will tell you anything you want about the Volkisch! And I’m not just an informant; I’m a great analyst and organizer! Let me be your personal adjutant!”
Aatto’s speech continued to rise in volume and her expression grew wilder.
As if by continuing to speak she was making herself more and more excited.
When she finally finished, there was an enormous void where her shouting had been.
Readily filled anew– by the roaring indignation within the object of her admiration.
“Are you insane?” Murati shouted back. “You want to defect because of me?”
“Yes! Please take me under your command! I will do anything!” Aatto said.
“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! I would never–! You insane fascist!”
“I’m not a fascist! I’ll be whatever you need! Please let me join you!”
“Do you even hear yourself? Have you any shame? How can I possibly trust you?”
“Give me a chance and I will absolutely prove myself worthy of trust!”
Murati and Aatto shouted back and forth at each other, as if neither was listening.
Nothing could have prepared Murati, this situation was in none of her plans.
None of the possible conversations she imagined with this woman led to this outcome.
Aatto did not seem suicidal, at least– but she was certifiably, completely insane!
It shook Murati– the kinds of words she had never heard in her life.
Murati had never been so admired, no one had ever thrown themselves on her.
And all of this desire was coming from the imprisoned fascist?
Some part of her was susceptible to the flattery– but she categorically rejected it!
“Why me?” Murati asked, sounding like a mortified girl. “What’s wrong with you?!”
“Of course it has to be you!” Aatto said. “You demonstrated true power to me, Murati!”
“Power– right! You’re also– no, shut up, one moment–!”
Murati turned around suddenly. Near the door, Zhu Lian stood with her mouth covered.
She saw Murati turn to face her, and silently realized the reason for her doing so.
Zhu Lian, nearly laughing, left the room instantly. Hopefully she would be discreet.
Murati turned back to Aatto to find her holding the bars with her face against them.
That demented smile as if a permanent feature of her expression.
In her mind, Murati superimposed the black uniform full of fascist symbols over her body.
She shook her head, balled up her fists with frustration. Her head filling with violence.
Stepping up to the bars herself to lock eyes with Aatto, so close she could feel her breath.
“Be completely serious. Nobody is listening. Tell the truth. Now.” Murati said.
“You know I am telling the truth. You can see it. I am not lying to you.” Aatto said.
She was not lying to Murati. She was completely earnest, completely certain, and peaceful.
That smile on her face that seemed like it would never wipe off was utterly sincere.
But none of it made any sense!
“Who are you? Who are you really, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather?” Murati asked.
“I was but a living corpse until the sight of you made me want to live again.” Aatto said.
“Ugh! That’s insane! That’s nonsense! Stop making shit up! I won’t fall for your tricks!”
Murati knew Aatto was not tricking her. Murati knew that Aatto was telling the truth.
However, in the landscape of what should have been true, her answer was impermissible.
“Tell me the truth! The actual, whole truth, Aatto! What are you trying to do?”
“Murati Nakara, the Loup are a warrior culture of the Imbrium Empire. We are born to follow the orders of unworthy masters. I was nothing but a soldier, but hardly any good at direct combat– in Rhinea, they made me into an intelligence analyst and then a field agent. I did this task for the Imperial Navy and then the Volkisch inherited me like an old coat left in a closet. But I was never loyal to the Volkisch– in fact, I actually saved many Liberals from persecution! I falsified information, rerouted patrols! I betrayed the Volkisch!”
“Like I believe that.” She was telling the truth. Still telling the truth. Her aura was bright and untroubled and unmistakably clear. “Do you have any proof?” (She was telling the truth.)
“Ask the social-democrats in Aachen about Illaria Howell and Heimdall.” Aatto said.
“I suppose I will.” Murati said. Her resistance remained firm. “But why would you spy on or turn against the Volkisch? Why help the Liberals? What was in it for you? I know you possess powers yourself. You just showed them to me– I’m sure you meant to do so as well.”
“Yes, I meant to show you– though my power is far weaker than yours. I can only see.”
“Fine. Answer the question. You had personal power and standing– why risk yourself?”
Aatto’s smile wore steadily away as she answered.
“I helped the Liberals because I thought that they would take up arms and fight against the Volkisch. It all came at me like a flash. Several most-wanted persons cases fell onto my lap. In the course of my typical work, I had the opportunity to fix papers and assist in the escape of Illaria Howell, a big liberal politician, before she was purged by the Sicherheitsdienst. We met briefly in the course of events, and she vowed that she would form a resistance network, and I agreed to help save more liberals in order to help her do so. My heart fluttered– I wanted to see the Liberals destroy the Volkisch and reassert their place in the world– I wanted to see if they could overturn what seemed like their wretched Destiny.” Aatto said. Murati noted her darkening demeanor. “But all they wanted was to escape with their lives. Illaria had lied, none of them resisted. They simply wanted to go into hiding and avoid any danger. Their cowardice sickened me– I endangered myself for nothing. So– I resigned myself to return to the Volkisch, to what seemed like my own fate. Then I was captured by you.”
She raised her head again to look at Murati. Some of her bright cheer slowly returned.
That way she looked at Murati– with such fondness and tenderness– it was frightening.
“You rescued me from them, Murati! From my indenture to those weaklings!”
“Stop calling me by name, I don’t know you!” Murati grumbled.
“Oh! Of course. Of course! Forgive my impudence. You are someone who is worthy of the utmost, strictest respect. What is your rank– or should I just call you my Master?”
“What?! No! People will misunderstand! Don’t call me Master! I’m nobody’s Master!”
Murati stepped away from the bars while Aatto kept a thoroughly fixed gaze on her.
“Of course. Whatever you say.” Aatto replied. “You are my King.”
“Absolutely not! I’m nobody’s King!”
Exasperated, Murati turned her back on Aatto to avoid her eyes.
Behind herself, she heard a sharp intake of breath as she took steps toward the door.
“Please don’t go! I’m sorry! Please! I’m truly serious! I am defecting! Please!”
Murati fully intended to leave and did not immediately pause when she heard the cries.
“Please don’t abandon me! I truly can get better! Please! I want to change my fate!”
Close to the door, Murati fully stopped. She sighed to herself. She laid a hand on her face.
Aatto was openly crying and screaming and begging like she had been beaten.
I want to change my fate.
At no point had Aatto been lying to Murati. She knew that well.
Maybe even without psionics, she would have felt Aatto’s bizarre sincerity as well.
Her demeanor had changed entirely like she had swapped one identity for another.
It was shocking– but it was also hard to trust anything she said.
“What the hell do you mean by that?” Murati asked, still not turning around.
She felt a pang of a truly wretched sympathy.
“My father once said– the world is a barrel-organ that God turns. We are just spectators to a song already recorded on the drum.” Aatto said, breaking out into outright sobbing and weeping. Her voice cracked– Murati thought she heard a banging on the bars and recalled Dr. Kappel’s words. She turned around immediately and found Aatto thankfully unharmed but drooping against the bars with all of her brightness and strength sapped. “I was born to be a servant– to unworthy rulers– but I don’t want the fate of the Loup– I don’t want the fate of the Loup–! Please, don’t abandon me– don’t– when I found hope–”
“Be quiet!” Murati said. “Just for a moment– be quiet. Please. I won’t leave yet.”
Aatto seemed to have spent all of her exuberance. But she dutifully quieted down.
Hanging against the bars as if holding them was all she could do to stay up.
Her eyes running red, tears down her cheeks, lips quivering with sobs.
If this was all acting– it was terribly convincing.
(And could her aura even lie about such clear and open intentions?)
Murati was torn in half by opposing instincts.
There was a part of her that reveled in the power to cause Aatto suffering.
That voice said,
“this fascist should die screaming with the agony the Volkisch inflicted on the world.”
There was a part of her that softened to the plight that had reduced Aatto to begging.
That voice said,
“this girl should be able to overcome the ideology that has had her captive for life.”
How was it that a person lived ‘inherited like an old coat’ by an evil military regime?
But then again– Murati did not know that much about Imperial Loup culture either.
What was the fate of the Loup? What would Murati be consigning Aatto to suffer?
What had Aatto suffered already that led her to this place? To her present mania?
Murati walked back to the cell and stood opposite Aatto once again.
Aatto raised her head and stared at Murati. Not smiling anymore– broken down.
It was tough to look at her now, having seen her previously carefree smile shatter to this.
Knowing that all she did was turn her back once to cause this to happen.
“Do you believe in the racial superiority of a class of ubermenschen?”
Murati’s question momentarily perplexed Aatto. But Murati did not follow up.
She did not even meet Aatto’s gaze until the captive provided an answer.
“Of course not. I’m a Loup. I wouldn’t be considered as such.” Aatto whimpered.
“Do you believe there’s an untermenschen class unfit to have agency in their lives?”
There was a heavy note of bitterness in the next answer.
“I believe the Imbrian people are largely a smooth-brained rabble.” Aatto replied.
Murati’s eyes narrowed.
“Do you believe there is ‘life unworthy of life’ such as social parasites and degenerates?”
Aatto paused for a moment, catching her breath. “Well– It depends–”
Murati frowned. “Do you believe that all Imbrians form a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ that must carry out their unique racial destiny through the conquest of enemy racial communities?”
“I guess my definition of Imbrian is pretty broad, if I were to submit it–”
“Do you think there is a conspiracy of enemy races against the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’?”
Aatto put on a small carefree grin again.
“Well– I think, if you look at the evidence, the Cogitans and Hanwans recently–”
Murati slammed her hands on the bars in exasperation. She failed every question!
Aatto drew her eyes wide with surprise at the striking on the bars.
“You think exactly the same as a fascist! You’re still a fascist with fluffy ears and a tail!”
“Please forgive me! All I’ve ever known is the Northern Host and the Volkisch Movement! I can change if you help me! Show me your books! Teach me what you believe!” Aatto said.
“Damn it, you’re just saying whatever I want to hear?! You manipulative bitch!”
“No! It’s the truth, you know it’s the truth! You can see it! Please– I’m begging you.”
Aatto lifted her hands from the bars and clapped them together, shaking.
As if in prayer or reverence, a supplicating gesture. Her ears folding, tail dropping.
Murati was utterly exasperated and out of sorts with this whole charade, but–
No matter how much she wanted to harden herself and cast this woman into the fire.
It may well have been cruel and inhumane to simply walk away and ignore Aatto.
She could feel what she believed to be truth in her heart and it weakened her front.
There was no equivocating that Aatto was an Imperial officer and had worked for the Volkisch. Wearing that uniform was an atrocity. She tried to do some good in her position, maybe– but she had warped reasons for doing so. Even if she was perhaps not an ordinary fascist she was certainly an elitist and a mystic. That idea of hers– trying to find someone who would fight the Volkisch to “overturn Destiny,” it was clearly a gigantic delusion. Aatto could have easily just been fishing for the winning side to save her own skin.
But– it felt more difficult to condemn her after seeing her break down.
Murati started to retrace the path of her own current convictions, searching her heart.
Child to labor organizers who were punished with slavery, and who died in the service of communism. A nun and a traveler who became scientists, who became communists, who became fighters willing to kill for their beliefs. They had changed over time. Like all citizens of the Empire they had not been born communists. They had arrived at that conviction.
Murati became a communist in the nation her parents helped to found, and now she could judge Aatto for what she thought with a lifetime worth of living and studying under communism. Her material conditions led her to her present state. It could have all gone quite wrong somewhere in the middle. Even in the Union, there were still nonbelievers in communism and even people who still held on to nationalistic or liberal ideas.
Murati had an opportunity that was explicitly denied to someone like Aatto.
Aatto had been brought up to an entirely different set of circumstances. She could have been said to have been a slave herself. Loup were a racial minority in the Empire, raised and valued as military manpower. That much Murati knew, even if she did not know the exacting cultural specifics of the Loup Hosts. She did not know much about their religion or traditions or family lives, and had only superficial knowledge that the Northern and Southern Hosts differed culturally. She did know that Imbrians could put Loup in torpedoes and shoot them at enemy ships to try to board them. She did know that the royal family once upon a time had a tradition of keeping a royal guard brigade half-composed of Loup kidnapped from their homes as children and raised as soldiers entirely within the captivity of Heitzing.
Even if that tradition had been overturned by the Fuellers– it still spoke to something.
Imbrians saw the Loup as inferiors. They were not equals in society. Far from it.
They were all objects; instruments of war that could only thrive in the military.
Despite this, there were plenty of Loup still fighting for imperialism and the Volkisch.
There were many Loup who still internalized fighting for this status quo as a virtue.
But there was one Loup, in front of her, begging for a chance to do otherwise.
Perhaps a Loup could not be a fascist in the way an Imbrian could. It was more complex. Perhaps that was only an excuse Murati was making for herself, for this Loup. For this fascist— specifically. Because she could see her hurt right in front of her eyes. Even despite her convictions. Even despite everything she had come to believe. Her rationality told her that it was too convenient to view Aatto as a special case among the fascists.
Aatto had not been without choices. Her condition could not be entirely given onto fate. She could not be seen as entirely helpless. Even if she seemed to believe that she had been led to this by the nose, she always had choices. All humans did, even if those choices were grim and hopeless at times. To wear that uniform and work as a fascist, was a horrific choice– but she had also made the choice to rebel. More than once. And perhaps given a chance, Aatto could rebel enough to make amends for whatever circumstances led her to Volkisch service.
To condemn Aatto to “the fate of the Loup” as she put it– Murati did not have the steel in her chest to do that. As much as she felt like she was betraying her own convictions for not hating Aatto with every fiber of her being, for not stepping past those bars and beating her into a pulp the second she tried to beg for forgiveness. None of that would actually be justice. None of that would overturn the yoke the Volkisch had on anyone else. It would just be petty, senseless vengeance, in effigy, for the same monsters that probably tormented Aatto greatly herself. Murati grit her teeth at her own soft-heartedness.
Defectors existed in all causes to all causes– by that rubric, Aatto was not hopeless.
For everything else, Murati could only have faith and hope she would not regret her choice.
“I will talk to the Captain and Commissar about your defection.” Murati said.
She tried to keep a stoic tone and would not meet Aatto’s eyes any longer.
Aatto stared at her and smiled through her tears. Her face instantly brightened.
“Thank you! I won’t let you down! Your magnanimity is radiant! You are a true saint!”
“I’m not guaranteeing you anything!” Murati said sharply. “But I will talk to them.”
“Of course. I know you don’t have absolute power– though you deserve it–”
“Ugh. Don’t make me regret this.” Murati said. “You better be serious about it.”
“I am serious! I will be more than an adjutant! I will bear your scepter! I’ll be your knight!”
Murati could not have balled up her fists any tighter hearing all of that nonsense.
What kind of a mess am I getting myself into with this woman?
She tried to focus on material things. There was too much idealism in the atmosphere.
A Volkisch defector could be a great asset!
Aatto had been part of the Volkisch intelligence, the Sicherheitsdienst. If she truly had the kind of access to divert prisoners, fool patrols, and falsify documents, then Aatto could be a trove of information on the Volkisch and their operations and processes. Even taken with a grain of salt, it could help. And if she was telling the truth, she was crafty enough not to be caught, and she had connections with the liberals. They could use Aatto to help them find more Volkisch willing to turn and talk, or act as spies, perhaps. Even if she also insisted on being Murati’s adjutant– well, Murati could always use the help. She had been incredibly busy lately. But Aatto’s slavering displays of devotion were incredibly vexing.
It would be terribly embarrassing if she spent all her time trying to lick Murati’s boots.
But– Murati had given her word now. She had set her mind to being responsible for this.
Having Aatto locked up until she lost her mind and hurt herself was not a solution.
Maybe accepting her defection was not a perfect solution. But it was comparatively better.
So, Murati could say, in a unforeseen and surreal way, this was a productive outcome.
She could say that to herself repeatedly like a mantra until she shouted down her anxiety.
Still– Aatto’s behavior was unnerving. Something had to be done.
Something had to be said.
She turned her back again and found the words to voice her worry.
“I’m leaving. By the way, I have a wife. So– if you’re after me for– baser reasons, you had better not get your hopes up.” Murati said. She felt insane for feeling like she needed to clarify such a thing. But Aatto’s behavior had to be corrected somehow.
“I see! Well, that’s not a problem for me.” Aatto casually responded.
Murati was not facing Aatto but could practically see her expression in her mind’s eye.
Her mind was briefly overcome in a storm of emotions.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? WHAT–?!
Murati vocalized nothing of the screams and expletives going off in her mind.
She simply and silently put one foot in front of the other and vacated the brig.
Her head throbbing and pounding– but her heart lighter and less aggrieved.
“Marina, we’re back here again. Again! After all the times you withheld information from us that ended so well.” Ulyana said sternly. “What do you have to say for yourself now?”
“At this point I am not sure I’d ever trust another word out of your mouth.” Aaliyah added.
“I have nothing to say in my defense. I apologize profusely.” Marina mumbled.
“You apologize– and yet keep choosing to lie to us every time anyway!” Ulyana shouted.
For their final disciplinary meeting of the day, Ulyana and Aaliyah saved the worst.
Marina McKennedy in her suit and button-down shirt, with her hands cuffed behind her back. Seated on a table across from Aaliyah and Ulyana, with Klara van Der Smidse looking over her. Out of everyone on the ship who had taken some misguided action, Marina was the only one being treated as actively dangerous. Ulyana felt like she had ample reason to think so. Marina was the only one who had consistently been in a situation like this and simply never reformed herself. In every situation since they allowed her aboard Marina had deceived them. And now Marina was also the one who had caused actual, verifiable harm.
For Illya or Zachikova, their last escapade was the first time they disobeyed orders.
Both of them at least had a noble reason– saving their comrades.
Marina, meanwhile, had aided and abetted in the Kreuzung Core Separation Crisis.
She confessed to everything with hardly any prompting.
“I was looking for information on an old partner of mine– a scientist named Asan. In the course of that, I ran into Kitty McRoosevelt, a GIA agent who was behind the Core Separation plot. I knew what Kitty was up to, she told me up front. I tried to dissuade her from it; but then I assisted her. I helped her secure mercenaries and refined her plan. I knew if I didn’t do anything, she would just get herself killed. I could see it in her eyes that she was ready to die. I thought if she succeeded it might create an opportunity for you and that it might save her life. I was wrong. I knew I was the moment I saw those lights start flickering.”
“You’re damn right that you were wrong!” Ulyana shouted. She could not help but feel incensed at the unfeeling delivery of this excuse, for the degree of evil that had been committed. “Marina, potentially torching an entire station is not worth an opportunity! You assisted this madwoman in attacking a reactor! You could have compromised the entire structure! Citizens of a station have nowhere to run to or hide from that! If you destroy the tower they will die crushed within it! Without hope of escape! Anyone who could escape would be the rich or the Volkisch! Is this truly how the G.I.A. operates?”
Unlike in past confrontations, Marina did not try to excuse herself.
She did not meet Ulyana’s shouting with her own, nor did she continue equivocating.
Instead she looked down at the table, her hands tied behind her back.
Unable to meet the eyes of her now captors.
“An apology is worth nothing to us Marina. The scale of your deceit here is intolerable. You almost certainly have the blood of innocents on your hands for this.” Aaliyah said.
“I’ve always had the blood of innocents on my hands.” Marina mumbled.
“Don’t even try it.” Ulyana said. “You’ll find no sympathy from us with that excuse.”
While the Republic of Alayze and the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice were strategic allies against the Imbrian Empire, Ulyana would not tolerate Marina’s lazy and callous defense. The G.I.A. could lie, cheat and steal all it wanted, but all was not fair in the course of war– there were things which were beyond the pale for even special forces or spy agencies to do. There had to be a level at which brutality was not worth success– and there was one.
On a material level, attacking stations was difficult for any combatant under the ocean, because a station was an enormous prize that was easy to destroy, and thereby condemning and annihilating everyone inside it– but useless in such a state. Capturing stations was the most difficult part of any armed conflict, more difficult than fighting fleets. There were ways to do it. Compromising the electricity or blowing it up was not on the table.
It was taboo– because it was foreclosing the possibility of human life itself.
Such wanton brutality did nobody favors. It moved humanity closer to total extinction.
Even the greediest and most sadistic madmen of history had avoided the cardinal sin.
There was nothing but water out there– the human world was inside the stations.
Whether to plunder, whether to build power, or set people free– the stations had to stand.
To attack a station with the intent of destruction was to attack human life in itself.
Nobody would gain anything from it. All of humanity would simply, permanently lose.
“What can I even say to this anymore?” Ulyana said. She had shouted herself out of breath.
There was nothing more to say. Marina had gone too far. They could hardly fathom it.
It was hard to speak of punishments for something like this.
Somehow anything they said or did felt like it was not possibly enough.
Still, they had to reach beyond the emotional and assert a realistic response.
“I advise we strip Marina of the rank and credentials we afforded her.” Aaliyah said.
“I’m still on your side. I still want to help.” Marina said. Still staring down at the table.
“You have gone too far this time Marina. I am not able to excuse what you did, to myself, in any fucking way.” Ulyana said. “You’re damn lucky. We are not about to have an execution carried out on this ship. Your words are meaningless; but your actions may yet redeem you. For now what you’ve earned yourself is two weeks of solitary confinement, and the loss of your rank aboard the ship. Once you come back out, you’re a civilian to us.”
“An untrustworthy civilian who will be monitored stringently.” Aaliyah added.
Marina smiled bitterly. “You’re right. I’ve been lucky one too many times haven’t I?”
“Sit in the brig and think about what you did. It’s you who has to live with that.”
Marina grit her teeth. She still could not lift her gaze to meet theirs.
“Damn it. You’re both soldiers too. Where the fuck do you two get off on judging me?! Commie bastards. How many people wouldn’t you kill for a victory?”
From across the table, Ulyana suddenly raised her arm and slapped Marina across the face.
With such vehemence she knocked Marina sideways out of her chair.
Aaliyah had no admonishment for this act of impulse.
She quietly stood up from her chair and with Klara’s help got Marina up from the floor.
Marina weakly struggled in Klara’s grip, but could not escape the security girl.
From her expression it was evident she knew she was completely out of hand.
“Take her away.” Ulyana said sternly. Klara nodded and led Marina out of the room.
The last Ulyana saw of Marina that day, was the glint of tears in her eyes.
When the door shut, Ulyana broke out into tears too.
The Captain’s whole body was shaking from the anger and shame bound up inside her.
How could all of this mess have happened, under their watch?
Were they that useless and helpless?
“Captain, we trusted her and had that trust violated. It wasn’t our fault.” Aaliyah said.
“I know.” Ulyana wiped her eyes in vain. “It’s just– god damn it. It’s so senseless.”
Aaliyah returned to the Captain’s side and rubbed her shoulder for support.
“There’s always going to be a horrid, bloodstained line between the need to take action and the need to take the right action.” Aaliyah said. She was not weeping, but had a tender expression. “We can’t hold ourselves up too high– we can be as ethical as the situation allows us; we can try to avoid unnecessary, senseless violence. But our actions against the Empire will have consequences like this– or worse. We have to be ready.”
“I know.” Ulyana said. She lifted a hand to her face to cover her weeping eyes.
Deep down what hurt the most is that only a very thin line separated them from Kitty McRoosevelt. Would they ever become as desperate as she had been?
Ulyana could not deny it– not decisively. That was the worst feeling of all.
“You have a good heart Captain.” Aaliyah said. “You don’t have to bear Marina’s burden.”
“Thank you.” Ulyana said. “I just feel responsible. She admitted to it so callously.”
“Can I be frank with you, Captain?” Aaliyah said.
“Don’t let this become another Pravda for you.”
Ulyana locked eyes with Aaliyah for a moment. She swallowed the shock.
Despite a brief surprise she quickly recognized Aaliyah’s support for what it was.
“Thank you for your candor. I won’t break down. I just need time to process.”
“Thank you. I understand. It has been a heavy few days for you.”
“For us, Aaliyah. You are invaluable to me. I’d go insane without you.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t. I believe you’re stronger than that.”
Aaliyah smiled at Ulyana. Despite her tears, Ulyana smiled back.
They remained together in the room for a few moments, decompressing.
Then, the meeting room door blinked, a bright computer window opening on its surface.
Murati Nakara was requesting access to the room.
Unexpected but not a problem.
Ulyana wiped her tears.
Aaliyah sat beside her and verbally commanded the door to open.
“Greetings. Captain. Commissar. I spoke with the prisoner– it’s funny, actually–”
Murati walked into the room and sat on Marina’s chair– she had on a strange expression.
They had never seen her so apparently nervous, and yet almost laughing.
Ulyana and Aaliyah followed her with their eyes. Murati had a manic sort of energy.
When she spoke, she started gesticulating with her hands in a rather dramatic fashion.
“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather– is defecting to become my personal adjutant. There are a few things we can confirm to be sure of her sincerity, but I will take responsibility for her.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah blinked at her silently for several heavy heartbeats.
In both their heads a calculation of the circumstances seemed to play out.
Their facial expressions went through several increasingly darkening shifts.
“I guess we need to discuss what to do about her rank right? I have some ideas.”
Murati added this while nervously picking at her own tie and collar.
Speechless, Captain and Commissar both laid their heads against the table.
As if a wave of exhaustion had suddenly claimed their ability to stand.
Instantly, the room went silent, save for Murati laughing a bit, nervously still.
For several minutes the Captain and Commissar simply groaned in response.