Through the Osmium shutters, a hair’s-width of purple rays still bled through.
Dim purple sliced the shadows of the upper wall of the reactor engineering pod– leaving the steel thankfully intact. Just a hint of purple touched down upon the tea table set down incongruously below the raised reactor structure in the back of the pod.
Enclosed within enormous osmium and titanium structures flanking the main reactor were steam generators, circuits, converters, backup batteries, and turbines, that captured and converted and stored and transmitted as much energy that reactor had to give as possible. The heat of the agarthic reaction, the motion of the core array suspended in water, the erratic flashes of agarthic radiation that were characteristic of the lower grade agarthicite used in ship cores compared to station cores. All of it was the life-giving gift the sovereign mineral gave to its After Descent subjects. None of it could be wasted.
God lifted and encased upon its throne of carefully alloyed minerals.
At the back of every ship, this was the face that He showed to his subjects.
And within this temple, a few officers infrequently held tea parties.
Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were both in attendance, on the opposite end of the table. Between the table and the reactor there was a protective shield of lead and osmium for the occupants. Aside from thin, stray rays of agarthic light, the only illumination was a wax candle that had a musky, mineral-like scent. Compared to an electric torch, this knickknack was a waste of resources– but the woman who requested it received any such thing she wanted. She had a supply of such charms for the journey.
“Thank you for once again indulging me, Captain, Commissar.”
“Of course. Compared to everything else, this is an oasis of calm.”
“Strange, isn’t it? I have to consider the end of my life every second of every day that I reside here, but even so, every day is so peaceful. I could not ask for a better place to spend my final days. Even when the ship is shaking, and battle raging– I just have to tend to the temperatures and monitor output. If the worst happens– I’ll be painlessly erased.”
“Ah– no need to be gloomy, Chief! I’m sure you’ll have many long years ahead!”
“Oh, don’t worry. It has no bearing on my mood. I’m simply being realistic.”
Across from the ship’s leadership cadre was the least often seen of its officers.
Chief Core Engineer, and Hero of Socialist Labor, Iessenia Kurchatova.
Iessenia was a few years older than Ulyana but her actual age was not too evident. She was a pale and petite woman, pretty and vibrant, with girlish features and very long hair that had been dyed green to cover the drain of their color over time. Long locks fell over her shoulders, reached down her back, and she had fluffy bangs swept to either side. She wore a touch of lipstick, a bit of eyeshadow– but a lot of blush, coloring the middle of her face. She wore the Treasure Box button-down shirt and tie with a black mini-skirt and tights, with a white coat over it. On her wrists were steel cuffs attached to collapsible mobility aids that, in their resting position, stretched partway down the length of her arm.
More noticeable than these basic facts of her appearance were the vestiges of her vocation.
In several places in her body there were hexagonal burns, colored purple-black like bruises. There was a stretch of these burns across the upper left corner of her face, having claimed one eye which was replaced with a cybernetic implant. Her eyelid and eyebrow were reconstructed such that when she smiled and shut her eyes it looked pretty natural. Bits of less severe patches of burns could be seen on her neck and creeping over her right breast, slightly visible due to a few undone buttons. In the dim illumination in which Iessenia kept the room, there was a dim purple glow from the sinews on her neck and arms.
Ulyana knew this was owed to the level of agarthic salts in her bloodstream.
On her remaining biological eye, the color had been slightly altered as well. Purple was creeping in from the lower right quadrant of the eye. Close inspection revealed that the purple was actually made up of tiny hexagons, as if the visible pixelation on a low quality video monitor. Iessenia disclosed to Dr. Kappel that her circulatory system was largely colonized by Agarthicite in its microscopic “salt” form. Eventually enough agarthic salt inside her would react, causing an annihilation that would maim her internally.
It was likely that she would die from this– and not painlessly as she hoped.
Thankfully, that did not seem to bother the smiling woman who offered the Captain tea.
Unlike all the coffee-drinkers in the ship, she had this special dispensation as well.
Much like her scented soy-wax candles.
All for the comfort of the Union’s Agarthicite genius, awaiting her untimely demise.
Iessenia, like most core engineers, was the sacrifice at the altar of God.
For the sake of Humanity– so anything could be spared for her happiness and comfort.
“Today’s tea is my favorite. Masala chai. Black tea with sweetened milk and spices.”
Iessenia stared at her teacup quietly for almost a minute before taking an indulgent sip.
Ulyana lifted her cup to her own lips. Sweet and creamy and with a complex flavor from the aromatic spices. It was the richest cup of tea Ulyana had ever tasted. Like almost everyone on the ship she had a strict coffee habit to keep herself going during the long hours– but she could appreciate the delicate craft of preparing a nice cup of tea.
Minardo was a quiet genius with tea.
At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah took a delicate sip.
For a moment, her stony demeanor melted, her ears folding, smiling with pleasure.
“Magnificent, isn’t it? I try to limit myself to one good cup of tea a day– I don’t want to be greedy, you know?” Iessenia said. “Minardo always makes an exactingly beautiful cup.”
“It is pretty good.” Aaliyah said, as if downplaying her earlier reaction.
Behind them, there was a sudden racket from sliding metal.
Double locks on the door into the pod automatically undid themselves to allow access.
Another young woman, also rarely seen among the ship’s population, joined the tea party.
Dressed in the treasure box uniform with a pair of black pants, she was younger than Ulyana and Iessenia and maybe even younger than Aaliyah too. Characterized by short dark hair that was a little bit curly, and light brown skin and a serious face that made small movements in its expression. Her figure was slightly fuller than Iessenia’s but not by much. Her body had not yet incurred any agarthic damage common to her chosen vocation. She was in as good health and spirits, or better, than the typical crew member.
In her hands she had a tray of snacks from Minardo.
Biscuits with a mayonnaise spread flecked with finely chopped pickles; and simple doughnuts filled with an equally simple jelly and cream. There were not a lot of provisions on the ship for fancy cafe desserts, but something could always be baked, and with sweeteners, preserved fruit and powdered milk a lot could be done. The new arrival set the tray in the middle of the table and took seat beside Iessenia with a small smile.
“Thank you for fetching the snacks, Petty Officer.” Ulyana said.
“It’s no trouble at all,” replied the young woman in a quiet and serious voice.
She was once Iessenia’s intern and student. Now closest companion on the voyage.
Petty Officer and Assistant Core Engineer, Nina Srivastavi.
“I’m thankful to you for helping our Hero of Socialist Labor over here.” Ulyana teased.
Aaliyah’s ears twitched slightly as if she picked up something in her tone of voice.
“It’s truly nothing major.” Nina said.
“She has been utterly indispensable to me.” Iessenia added, laying a hand over Nina’s own.
Aaliyah’s eyes darted down to the hands. She sipped her tea as if in lieu of speaking.
Ulyana noticed Aaliyah’s growing concern and steered things back around to business.
“We had a concern we wanted to share with you, Iessenia.” Ulyana said.
“Not about my social life I hope?” Iessenia smiled.
Aaliyah averted her gaze, still sipping tea.
Ulyana laughed it off without a direct response. “It’s about the shield we installed.”
“Oh yes!” Iessenia said. She raised her hand and gestured behind her as if waving to the reactor. “Clever little piece of tech! I am glad we got it to work in the end. I was aware that the ship had channeled paneling installed during its construction– such things have been theoretically possible for a very long time, but a bit useless in a fleet context, so it was not seriously pursued except by the Ahwalia administration. Ahwalia’s people wanted to have a very small, very high tech and elite navy– Jayasankar promoted a doctrine closer to that of the Imbrian Empire. Lots of ships, lots of fleets, lots of shortcuts. In a contest between dozens of ships, a shield on one or two just doesn’t matter to the end result.”
“In our context, it could be incredibly useful.” Ulyana said. “If it could work.”
“Indeed! It sucked a lot of power at Kreuzung, even threatened to blow a few circuits!”
“Initially we believed it was because we were running it out of the water.” Aaliyah said, finally entering the conversation. “But looking back at the maintenance logs, it seems like even with proper cooling we might not be able to sustain the shield for long. What do you think?”
“As far as the reactor is concerned, we certainly have enough capacity for it.” Iessenia said.
“Our problem is the ancillary parts, I think. I recall there being issues there.” Nina said.
Iessennia raised her index finger to her lips. She took a moment to think about it.
“I think the issue is with the converters. Reactor behaviors have to be converted to usable energy. We need to look at the steam capture, heat transfer and electric transformers. That is the bottleneck– the reactor’s effective power is as high as the converters can actually introduce to the rest of the system. So the converters– and then perhaps higher-tolerance cabling from converters to boards. That should enhance energy transmission.”
“Thank you both.” Ulyana said. “It’s a start– I can float the idea by Euphrates and Tigris.”
“My pleasure.” Iessenia said. “Say, can you arrange a meeting between us?”
“You and Euphrates and Tigris?” Ulyana asked.
“Yes! We have only met on brief business during the refit– I’d love to sit down with them as a social occasion and pick their brains. There are not many people in the world who are aware of systems like agarthicite shields– these are high-end theoretical pseudophysics with very little practical use or development. I want to know what else they worked on. I want to talk about stuff that only comes out of dreaming big, like Project Red Star.”
“We’ll see what we can do.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was a little bit more brusque.
Iessenia spoke more fondly about the scientific developments of the Ahwalia regime than anyone else on the ship. Project Red Star was like a bad joke to the Jayasankar regime– Iessenia had been right there in the middle of it, however. Given heaps of resources to “dream big” despite practicality and giving her all to advance science. None of the rank and file on the ship knew enough to begrudge her participation with Ahwalia’s biggest policy failure– but Ulyana thought it might have been the reason Nagavanshi consigned her to this dangerous journey, rather than keeping her working in the labs in Solstice.
“They’re busy, but I’m sure we can arrange something.” Ulyana said.
Her voice was gentler as if trying to smooth out what Aaliyah had roughened.
Iessenia did not look like she minded at all. She continued smiling.
“Thank you, Captain. If you have any other questions, I am at your full dispensation.”
She took another delicate drink of her tea. Her hands slowly began shaking.
“Ma’am, I think it’s time for your Neurotin.” Nina said.
“Oh, true. Can you be a dear and fetch it please?” Iessenia asked, putting down her cup.
Nodding, Nina stood from the table.
She crossed a door on the side of the room, entering a small shielded living space in which she and Iessenia slept and cleaned up and stored their things. She searched for the medicine.
Back at the table, however, the tea party simply continued.
“Silly hands.” Iessenia said, ever smiling. “But that’s just part of doing what you love.”
Perhaps in reactor engineering, the mood was always a tea party.
For those fighting aboard ships in this fallen era, perhaps life had to be like a party.
“Homa? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?”
Hovering over Homa’s eyes was a hand, with only the middle and index fingers raised. On each finger, the nails had pink and blue colors beautifully patterned. To acknowledge the owner of that hand, Homa slowly raised her own hand with two fingers up, the “peace sign.” Only, she found that the arm which she had raised, and the fingers which were at its end, were completely black and had a sheen to them. She stared at the fingers, flexing them in front of confused eyes. She had not known what to expect– they were just limbs.
Each digit was visibly articulated, as if exposed bone. She could see the jointed metal bones turn as she flexed. Her fingers were slightly thicker than she was used to, but only slightly. They had tips that seemed soft, like plastic padding, but– Homa could not feel that they were soft. There were some sensations that terminated at her shoulder. Though she was moving something, there was a missing bit of feedback from her new limbs.
“I– I can’t feel it–” Homa mumbled. Talking mainly to herself, as if alone in the room.
“I’m sorry Homa, for military prosthetics, we do not carry nerve stimulators. We had to make some concessions between comfort and utility. It is certainly possible to reinstall the prosthetics with stimulators in the future, once the– current troubles– are in the past and we have the benefit of safety and better supplies. But these prosthetics are very durable and responsive. You will be able to live independently again in no time, I assure you.”
Through a mind fog, Homa vaguely recognized the voice of Dr. Kappel.
She followed the fingers that were adorned with pretty nails, up the arm, and to the face, with its blue makeup and multi-shade blue hair. Dr. Kappel smiled at her, and wrapped her fingers around Homa’s prosthetic hand. Homa could not feel the touch. Right in front of her eyes, she could see contact between skin and the prosthetic, but it lacked the warmth she expected to feel. This made the gesture just a little bit frustrating to receive.
Nevertheless, Dr. Kappel smiled brightly at the result.
“Good. Looks like the basics are in order. All the kinetics parts are working, the plastic sleeves are flush. Don’t make dramatic movements yet. Between the anesthesia and getting used to the neural interface, your arm may not exhibit the fine control you are used to– yet. I can assure you with time, your standard of living will be exactly as it was.”
“Except for the beef pot– I’m afraid we can’t do anything about that for now.”
“Ms. Loukia– please.”
Homa weakly turned her head and saw Kalika sitting on a chair beside the operating table.
She smiled a little.
Kalika smiled back, and playfully waved the fingers of her prosthetic hand.
Rather than the medbay, the operation had taken place in Dr. Kappel’s office, on a table that was set between the door out of the office and the door into the medicine vault. The table was pulled out of the floor and folded out, and would be folded and pushed into the floor when Homa left it. Anesthesia had been administered in the medbay, so Homa was only then getting her first look at the new surroundings. Her head was swimming.
“If it helps, I do not use nerve stimulators.” Kalika said. “I’ve become accustomed to swinging an unfeeling arm. It allows you to push it to its limits. Makes a handy shield too.”
“It will be a little more troublesome to have a leg that you cannot completely feel under you.” Dr. Kappel said. “But only a little. Most of the focus of our physical therapy will be to get you walking, Homa. With confidence and a good balance. We can begin soon. For now, rest as long as you need. You’re almost at the finish line, so no sense in rushing.”
Homa nodded her head. Despite the anesthesia wearing off, she was extremely tired.
There was a small part of her that was a bit sad and a bit bitter.
She had hoped that the surgery would dramatically change how she had been feeling the past few days. That she would wake up on the operating table like nothing bad had happened to her. Feeling whole again– not just functionally but in spirit. There was a part of her that felt that an arm was not simply a tool for grasping, but that she had been afflicted with a condition in which she lacked possession of an arm. She lacked a completeness of self. With that arm many things had been torn from her. Her future, the people she knew, her home. That arm had a spirit– it was touch, it was warmth, it was a sense of tenderness that flowed from her heart, through her veins, into the flesh. That arm was the things it had done just as much as it was the things that it did. That arm was an interlocking part of the puzzle of Homa Baumann’s life. With the prosthetic this was simply just not so.
Perhaps she would feel differently once she was off the table and active again.
But she could not help but to feel disappointed with the result.
Functionally, she could have the things which an arm did returned to her.
However, she still felt anxious at the idea that she would never be whole in her parts again.
Those anxieties festered into self-criticism of her own ungratefulness to the communists.
That ungratefulness, however, finally led her to think–
I never asked to be rescued. I could have been left for dead.
What do I have to be grateful for?
It was so presumptuous of them– my life should have just been over.
I have nothing– no home– no reason to live–
–not even all of my own body.
How am I supposed to live like this? How do any of you live with all of this?!
In the throes of a growing distress, she started to fall asleep once again.
Before she could find the energy to shout or be frustrated she dozed off completely.
Her head, fogged by bewilderment and confusion and pain, emptied completely.
Flexing in her sleep the fingers of the metal thing that had taken the place of her.
“Illya, I’m coming in.”
Shalikova stood in front of the door to Illya’s room for a moment, enough that she should have been acknowledged. When she heard nothing and realized the door was completely unlocked she delivered her intention and walked right through the door. Inside, Illya was surprisingly missing. There was only Valeriya, in a corner of the room, standing near a pull-out desk surface on the far wall. If Valeriya was there, Illya must have been fine.
“Oh, sorry for barging in, Valeriya. I just wanted to see whether you two were okay.”
Valeriya nodded her head silently.
There were a few curious details about the scene that drew Shalikova’s attention. Valeriya was dressed in an atypical fashion– she had a pair of underwear shorts and a flimsy little tanktop but her thin and fair figure was mostly covered up by what looked like a synthestitched plastic apron. On the apron there was a design of a teddy bear with a chef’s hat. It reminded Shalikova of one of her rejected designs for Comrade Fuzzy. Valeriya’s long, blond hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she had thick plastic gloves.
Hanging from her neck, and sitting atop her breasts, was her tactical mask.
She did not look in a hurry to wear it, even though Shalikova had walked in on her.
On the desk in front of her, a small metal frame had been set up. A recyclable canister of alcohol fuel had been set beneath the frame. To Shalikova’s surprise this canister produced a clean flame that was heating up a small metal cup-pot with something bubbling in it.
Shalikova dimly recalled these items.
Her Diver had a survival kit with food and a petroleum-derived ethylene fuel burner just like this. It was mainly a placebo– Shalikova could not imagine a scenario in which she would need to heat up food to survive inside her diver, where she was not already doomed.
“What are you up to? Is that a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked.
Valeriya nodded her head.
“You are cooking a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked again.
“I am a wife now.” Valeriya mumbled. “So I am cooking.”
Shalikova stared. “Not sure I understand. You’re a wife now?”
Valeriya nodded her head.
It began to dawn on Shalikova what that must have meant.
“Wait. You’re serious? Did Illya– did she really–?”
Valeriya nodded her head again.
Shalikova whistled with surprise and a bit of sudden cheer.
“Wow. I thought you would just shack up forever. Congratulations!”
A small smile, but for her, it was brighter than the sun.
Even a reserved girl like Shalikova could not help but feel a swell of joy for Valeriya.
For all the time that she had known her, Valeriya had been Illya’s shadow. As teenagers they were always together, and even when Zasha was around, it was clear who Valeriya had a crush on. They went to school together; they went into the Academy together; they went to war together. Even in the special forces, as far as Shalikova knew, they were inseparable. And now, on the Brigand’s historic mission, Valeriya continued to follow Illya without pause. Shalikova knew that Illya reciprocated Valeriya’s feelings romantically, but she also had a low estimation of Illya’s ability to commit– she figured Illya would have sex with Valeriya all her life without even saying the word ‘girlfriend’ to her much less ‘wife.’
In Shalikova’s mind, Valeriya deserved this marriage proposal.
“It’s vinaigrette with beans.” Valeriya said suddenly.
She pointed at the cup-pot, beginning to come to a boil over the alcohol-burning element. Normally in the Union ‘vinaigrette’ referred to a salad of chopped boiled root vegetables pressed together and dressed with vinegar and fat. Usually beets, carrots, potato, onion, and to add protein, red or white beans. Normally all the vegetables used would be pickled, or canned in salted water. Valeriya was cooking from a last resort block, so all the items were vacuum-pressed and dehydrated. She had brought water to a boil, to create essentially a mushy last resort vegetable stew. Judging by the flecks of fat in the water and the smell of vinegar, the vegetables were dressed before dehydration and compression.
Valeriya looked a little proud of herself as she stared at the bubbling little pot.
“Well, I hope you enjoy your meal.” Shalikova said. “Will there be a ceremony?”
“Not now.” Valeriya whispered. “We’re being punished.”
“Oh! Right– I had wanted to ask what happened at the disciplinary hearing.”
Valeriya pointed at the cup. As if to silently say that was the punishment.
“I see. Well– I don’t know whether to say ‘you got off light’ or to wish you luck enduring the torture.” Shalikova said, crossing her arms. “I guess it can’t be that bad when cooked.”
Using a steel spork, Valeriya mixed the stew up as it cooked.
Shalikova realized then that throughout all this talk, Valeriya had never raised her mask.
“You can pull your mask up if you want to. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”
“I want to talk to you.” Valeriya said. Her voice was still quite whispery.
“I see– just don’t push yourself just to be nice to me.”
Valeriya quietly nodded her head again.
Quickly stirring the little stew, breaking up pieces. She looked dedicated to the work.
“Sonya– how do you feel about Illya? Do you still admire her?” Valeriya asked.
Without meeting eyes, she asked the question, still stirring the stew.
And what a question it was– it caught Shalikova by surprise.
What kind of answer did she have to that? What DID she feel about Illya?
Shalikova stuck her hands in her pants pockets.
“That’s– I mean, I’m not a kid anymore, you know? So it’s kinda complicated now.” She took a moment to consider the question. For Valeriya, she tried to be honest. Sometimes Shalikova was quick to be difficult to Illya, but she tried to be kinder to Valeriya. “I don’t idolize her or anything– but like, I got on hormones because she did. I wanted to be a cool soldier like her and Zasha. Illya always encouraged me, even against Zasha’s wishes. So like– Illya is family to me. I care about whether she’s okay or not. I ask her for advice. But we’re both soldiers now and I am an officer too. I can’t ‘look up to her’ anymore like a kid does.”
“She would want you to respect her more than admire her.” Valeriya said suddenly.
Still not looking her way, just messing with her stew.
This was perhaps the most words Valeriya and Shalikova had exchanged in years.
“I guess that’s what I do. I am trying to take her seriously when she says I need to stick up for myself and make my own arguments. That’s something I’m trying to do with her too.”
“That’s good. Thank you for answering.”
“I love Illya– more than anything in the world. And she cares about you.”
“So in the transitive property of doing the exact same stuff as Illya, you care about me too.”
“C’mon– don’t just say ‘yes’ to that– I was teasing you–”
Shalikova felt instantly ashamed at her own mean-spirited humor.
Valeriya simply smiled and worked on the stew.
Behind them the door opened once more.
Illya walked in through the door, absentminded.
She had begun partially unzipping her security uniform bodysuit. She must have been working. She zipped it back up when she noticed Shalikova was in the room. Valeriya removed the cup-shaped pot from the spent alcohol burner and laid it down on a separate pull-out desk surface as if to set the table for dinner. She then waved at Illya.
“Sonya, what a pleasant surprise. Came to see whether I was still alive?” Illya asked.
She cracked a grin that Shalikova did not return.
“Uh huh. Looks like you’re good though, so I’ll leave you two alone.”
“Not staying for lunch?” Illya’s continuing sarcasm. Shalikova did not play along.
“Maryam is waiting for me.” Shalikova said. “But– Illya, you better treat her right.”
Illya stared at Shalikova. “Hey, where do you get off on telling me that?”
She was not mad– she looked more amused by the rebuke than anything.
No one knew better than Illya herself all that had happened with her and Valeriya.
“Sonya.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head gently.
“Nah, it’s okay. She cares about you.” Illya said. “Trust me, we’ll be fine.”
Shalikova sighed but she had essentially said what she had come in to say.
“Maybe I’ll have a bite, just out of curiosity.” She said.
From the floor, Valeriya pulled up a pair of metal seats around the pull-out desk. There was nowhere for Shalikova to sit, but she did not intend to stay long. Illya sat across from Valeriya, each with their own metal spork, and the reheated and boiled vinaigrette mush between them. Valeriya took a sporkful of the stuff, which was tinged red from the beets, and blew on it– then she gestured for Shalikova to taste it from that spork.
In order to satisfy her curiosity, Shalikova leaned in.
“It’s just like when you were a little beet yourself.” Illya said.
Shalikova felt immediately more embarrassed about it, but still ate from Valeriya’s spork.
She did not know what she expected from it. It was a bit– challenging.
There was some flavor. A bit of tang from the vinegar, some savory notes from MSG.
Owing to all the root vegetables, it was very starchy, and a little bit sweet.
However, the foremost characteristic of the meal was its lack of texture. It was impossible to discern an individual bit of carrot or beet despite the sizeable bite that Valeriya had gathered. All of its elements had become homogeneous mush. Even baby food was more of an eating experience. It was not so bad as to make her spit it out, but anyone with even the slightest sensitivity to the mouthfeel of their food might have felt disgusted by it.
With an untroubled expression on her face, Illya began to eat.
Valeriya retracted her spork and waited with a smile as if for Shalikova’s response.
What did she want her to say? She cooked a last resort ration, so her cooking was gross.
Still– it was impossible to be mean to Valeriya. Even about this culinary misfortune.
“Um. It was lovely. Thank you. You’ll– you’ll make a fine wife, ‘Riya.” Shalikova said.
Valeriya nodded quietly, looking pleased with herself. Just like Illya, she began to eat.
Neither of them looked troubled by the meal. They ate almost mindlessly.
For a moment Shalikova just stared at them. What a husband and wife they would make.
In the back of her mind she wondered whether Maryam knew how to cook anything.
“Aww, I hate to see those bright little cheeks of yours frowning. What’s on your mind?”
“Ugh. I’m feeling worried. There’s nothing I can do– Marina really stepped in it this time.”
“Oh dear. I would characterize what she did as much more than just step in it.”
“Agh, sorry– I don’t mean to reduce what she did, she really sucks– I’m just– blegh.”
“My, oh my. A lot of undignified noises coming out of the princess today~”
“I’m not a princess! Proletarians have the freedom to make noises.”
“Anyway, is it even your problem whatever happens to Marina? You’re your own person.”
“I mean– I don’t want her to be hurt. She was my mom’s– uhh– bestie.”
“You don’t say?”
On the Brigand’s cafeteria, a young woman laid over a table, making faces.
She was seated close to the front serving counter, with her head and arms on top of the table. Sometimes her arms would hang, while at others she would hide her head in them. She was easily identifiable to the crew by now: long purple hair, unblemished and heavenly-soft looking skin, a girlish and simple prettiness to her face. Were it not for the partial elfin ears which she had — and the perhaps exotic color of her hair, which was natural — it would have been easy to call her the perfect picture of the Imbrian woman.
Teasing that young elf woman was the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.
Seated on the opposite side of the same table, taking a break. She pulled off her cap and set it down on the table, loosening up her sweat-slick, wavy black hair. Minardo was a formidable lady, with a big chest and wide hips and thick legs, lean muscled arms and shoulders. Atop that shapely figure was a soft face with a bright smile, eyes like jewels, red lips and gentle eyeshadow. Elena had begun to think, maybe she appraised older women differently from younger women. Maybe, just maybe, she had something of a thing for them– but even besides that, Minardo could only have been seen as staggeringly beautiful.
She must have been seen as such by anyone else too.
Thinking about that, Elena averted her gaze.
“Should I not be at this table? I can let you sulk if that’s what you want.” Minardo said.
Gentle, with just a bit of her ordinary teasing tone of voice.
“No, it’s fine. I should stop. There’s nothing I can do.” Elena mumbled. “Even if I could do anything I think Marina deserves to be punished. She’s been so– awful.”
They were talking around it, but Marina’s participation in the Core Separation Crisis was a deed of such disgusting callousness toward innocent lives that it was hard to quantify it. The Captain and Commissar had spoken briefly with Elena about it and seemed more concerned with the breaches of trust, or at least that was what they told her– but maybe that was just processing the horror that lay in the moral dimension of the transgression. Marina nearly abetted the deaths of potentially thousands. Millions? Elena hardly knew the scale.
In her own mind, it was such a crime she could only sulk about it.
She could not possibly process the actual scale of what had happened.
It was simply too big, and she, too small in its shadow.
“Cheer up, she’s just locked up. She’ll be out again.” Minardo said. “You know– I put in a word with the Captain, alongside Dr. Kappel, that I hope Marina will not be mistreated beyond what is necessary to instill discipline. She is a– troubled person– and I sympathize.”
Elena looked up at Minardo’s hesitating tone voice. She narrowed her eyes a bit.
“You’re friends with Marina too? I’ve never seen you together.” She said.
It sounded more accusatory than she wanted it to– but she did not take back the words.
Minardo looked more amused by this response than anything before.
She smiled and laughed and laid her head on her hands while staring down at Elena.
“You’re not her shadow! She can move when you aren’t around.” She said.
Knowing the kind of woman Marina was Elena could imagine she made passes at Minardo.
Something about that annoyed her but she did not interrogate this feeling any further.
Elena remained collapsed against the table and hardly moved except to turn her head away.
“Well– whatever then. I’ll stop worrying.” Elena said.
“Why are you so pouty all of a sudden?” Minardo asked, poking Elena’s cheek.
“Oh, looks like someone is a bit jealous?”
From seemingly out of nowhere, a second attractive older woman swooped in.
Elena let out a groan as Khadija Al-Shajara sat on her side of the table.
“Can you two go easy on me?” Elena moaned. She was practically surrounded.
“I just showed up, and already my character is under question?!” Khadija said.
Her wine-colored lips turned in a little grin; winking a heavily wine-purple shadowed eye.
“She knows what you are.” Minardo said. “Don’t worry Elena, I’ll protect you.”
“Uggghhhh.” Elena put her arms around her head.
Khadija made a cutesy shrug.
Those two played together far, far too well, Elena thought.
“I’m just here to have some lunch. I don’t know what anyone is talking about.”
“Ah, but where’s your new lady friend, Khadija?” Minardo teased.
Khadija averted her gaze with a suddenly sour expression.
“We’re not friends. She’s helping move crates around for the inventory and shuttling.”
Minardo laughed. “She is such a big lady. Glad to see she’s helping out around here.”
“Checking her out?” Khadija accused.
“What? No. But there’s no way to look at her without thinking she is big.”
“Well. You ought to help too. Those guns of yours could use some action again.”
Khadija reached over Elena to poke Minardo’s bicep.
“I do plenty.” Minardo replied. Like Khadija was finally getting under her skin.
“You both are doing plenty right now.” Elena mumbled childishly.
“Elena, did you know? Minardo was an absolute combat monster once upon a time.”
Khadija looked pleased with herself at how annoyed Minardo was getting with her.
“What was it they called you?” She acted dumb for a moment, letting the question hang.
“That was a long time ago.” Minardo grumbled, as if to signal Khadija to drop it.
“You’re not proud of it? Elena, our esteemed cook once earned the title of ‘The Human Stronghold’. Can I tell the story?” Khadija stared at Minardo with her tail swishing merrily behind her. Elena slowly sat up and looked at the two of them with a dull expression. Minardo sighed and shrugged and waved as if to say ‘fuck it, just go’. Khadija took exactly that meaning from it. “Elena, Minardo was part of a landing party in the revolution– all by herself, she held a narrow passage into the Sevastopol port structure, keeping a way open for close to an hour. She killed 26 imperials, turning back their assaults and protecting our beachhead in the port. Then she joined the arriving assault sappers and charged deeper into Sevastopol, and killed 26 more imperials in close quarters.” Khadija punctuated the numbers in her speech each time. “Those station battles were absolutely brutal. It was necessary for us to get foot-holds inside stations to evict the current, disagreeable occupants. And the defender always has the advantage inside of a station’s confines.”
Elena blinked, staring at Minardo for a moment before catching herself.
In turn, Minardo grunted and sighed and looked a bit helpless for just a moment.
“Those Imperials were pansies. It wasn’t much more to say you killed 26 or 52 than to kill two or four, when it came to close quarters battle.” She finally said, grudgingly acknowledging Khadija and her story. “By the time of the revolution I had already been doing like ten years of hard labor. The slave colonies were like a vacation for imperial nepo babies. I was slaughtering stupid kids, not even the guys who clapped the chains.”
“Well, they all deserved to die, and I’m glad they’re burning in hell.”
“But yes, it’s that brutal energy now kneading bread and stirring soup.” Khadija said.
“From an old friend to another, please drop it already, kitty-cat.” Minardo said.
“Of course, I’ll win the round graciously.” Khadija replied, winking and pawing.
Elena looked between the two of them with an appraising expression.
She was impressed by Minardo’s strength–
but seeing that it bothered her, she buried her reaction.
She did not want to hurt her feelings.
“Are you actually friends or do you hate each other? I can’t tell.” Elena mumbled.
Minardo and Khadija both looked at her pouting and snickered to themselves.
“Khadija is like this with almost anyone who gives her an opportunity. It’s fine.”
“Minardo needs my labor in the kitchen far too much to ever be rid of me.”
Elena stared at them with the same narrow-eyed look she once gave Minardo.
Minardo reached out and pinched Elena’s cheek suddenly.
“Are you jealous?” Minardo said. “Elena, we’re not romantic at all. You’re so silly!”
“I’m not jealous. I do not care!” Elena whined, pulling Minardo’s hand off.
“Minardo is not my type. You, on the other hand, have a chance, little Elena.”
Khadija winked again, leaning closer, chest on the table.
Elena averted her gaze again.
“Why do I keep trying to come here to relax, when you two don’t let me live in peace.”
“It’s because the practiced teasing of a mature woman wipes away all troubles.”
Elena suddenly broke out into a laugh. She could not stifle it that time.
Khadija was completely right– Elena felt much less troubled than when she first sat down.
Though she would not admit as such with the two of them waiting for a reaction.
She appreciated what they were both trying to do and felt– cared for.
There were other troubles she had in mind that she just could not tell Khadija and Minardo about. Things they would not understand. But coming here and getting fussed over did instill the feeling that these two women cared about her well-being in their own way. They wanted to see her smile and laugh, they wanted her to feel special and receive some attention. Attention that she took for granted when it was easy to come by– Bethany would not have approved of her being so needy and bratty, but it was nice to have that freedom.
“So– what’s for lunch today?” Elena asked. She raised herself back to a proper sit.
“Oh, good idea! You’ll love this, I’m certain. We’ve got gazpacho, eggplant fries, and a little sandwich with pulled soy, brown sauce and tomato pickle.” Minardo said proudly.
“Sounds delicious.” Elena said. She smiled at her companions as brightly as she once did.
For just a little bit she would allow herself to luxuriate in Minardo and Khadija’s attention.
Maybe having someone to fuss over was something those two appreciated as well.
“Hmm? What’s up?”
“Do you think I should be nervous about my check-up with Ms. Maharapratham?”
“What do you know about her? Can you tell me more?”
Braya Zachikova briefly put down her computer and looked over her shoulder.
Their shared accommodation was completely dark except for the light from the portable computer, and a bit of bioluminescence produced by strands interspersed in her partner’s blue hair. Behind her, Arabella smiled, her hands hovering just around Zachikova’s waist, squeezing and loosening in turns. They were sitting together on one bed, as they often did since meeting, Arabella’s back to the wall and Zachikova’s back to her.
Zachikova leaned back against Arabella, her head resting on Arabella’s breasts.
Arabella raised one of her hands and toyed with the end of Zachikova’s spiral ponytail.
“Back when you were a Leviathan, in order to keep you safe, I had to partner up with Karuniya Maharapratham and make you a subject of study.” Zachikova said. It was almost surreal to think back to that time, just weeks ago, when she knew nothing. “During the work we did tracking you and studying video of you– I thought that Maharapratham seemed very compassionate towards you. She cares about animals. I’ve seen how other sickos in the Union think about Leviathans, like it’s free target practice until they fuck up and get eaten. She really cared, and she wanted to prevent unneeded harm. You’ll be fine.”
“I see, so you entrust me to her. I feel relieved then.” Arabella said, smiling.
“You make it sound way too dramatic. She’s just going to take your blood or whatever.”
“Braya, do you think any differently about me now? After all that’s happened?”
“Yeah. You’ve ruined me for life and I can’t get away from you.”
“Hmm? I’m sorry– I’m just nervous is all.”
“I’m joking.” Zachikova sighed.
She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say.
Even as she spoke, it felt like it did not convey the fullness of what she felt about Arabella. She still tried with every new word and did not relent even as she let her passions slip. “I don’t think any differently about you. If anything I feel closer to you than ever. I’m also someone whose head got fucked with– not as maliciously as with you, but I’m still not normal. Like– I’m just a nobody. Before the surgeries, and going into the Academy and then the spec ops, I was just some orphan of slave parents who died. I was nothing. When I think back, I’m still kinda nothing– I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fuck around with other girls in my school or win a video game championship or whatever. I can remember all the nothing I did but when you think about it, I effectively have no fucking memories anyway.”
“I see. In that sense– I guess our situations are more similar than I realized.”
“Memories don’t make you Arabella to me. You’re Arabella right now.”
Zachikova reached down and intertwined her fingers with Arabella’s own.
Arabella started to wiggle happily behind her back.
“Braya! Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” She said.
“It’s fine. I know you’re scared and that a lot of horrific shit has happened to you. But I’ll help you– and there’s good people on this ship too. I think it’s insane how much you’re taking on your shoulders. It’s not your responsibility, to make up for your sister, or the fucks who created you, or anyone else– but I’m still here for you anyway. Whatever you want to do, I support it. God knows it’s not like I have my own ambitions anyway.”
“We’ll find you an ambition while we search for my memories too.”
Arabella leaned down on Zachikova’s shoulder, rubbing her cheeks against it.
She was so warm.
A few weeks ago Zachikova might have pushed back.
Now, she was still a little annoyed– but she wanted to feel Arabella through her skin.
Until she felt a bit of a sting–
Arabella nibbled on her childishly.
“If you need blood, just say it. Don’t just bite me out of nowhere.”
“Oh, I’m fine for blood. I ate a lot of human meat back there–”
“Don’t remind me–”
“–I’m biting you out of love Braya.” Arabella’s voice turned suddenly coquettish.
“That can wait until after hours. I’m working right now.”
Zachikova picked her computer up and stared down at the screen while Arabella’s head remained firmly on her shoulder. She felt another little nip from her lover, a deep nuzzle, and even the warm slickness of her tongue sliding over Zachikova’s neck, her fingers prodding her belly. She did not allow it to distract her. She was setting up a digital co-working space for the Nationale Volksarmee and Brigand to communicate together– essentially a glorified self-hosted BBS. It was a simple program. Much of the code was “in-strata” from similar programs and the predictor computer generated a decent user interface for it after a few proddings for it to do so. But she had to put it all together in a day or two, while her leg still hurt, and then also make sure it was not horrifically insecure or buggy.
On the Brigand, anyone who wanted to talk to someone could go and find them and talk to them in person. And in a fleet context, the only thing that mattered was following orders and the battle plan. Inventory comparisons only mattered to the logistics officers in the fleet command. One ship was not shuttling junk to another ship unannounced. Two ships did not randomly send engineers to each other to share ferristitcher blueprints or coordinate dangerous underway repairs. Fleet coordination was just totally different.
But the Volksarmee and Brigand were not two Union ships in a Union fleet with a grand battleplan drafted by a dozen Rear Admirals and a Fleet HQ with responsibility for all logistics. There was no huge staff to plan things. They had to exchange a lot of information between two ships on almost impromptu basis. Their work was like an ongoing conversation between new friends, and it needed a place to happen. Engineers did not have standard protocols for cooperating with each other, and there could be miscommunications. When the Captain approached Zachikova for a solution, she felt that a BBS was a more permanent and simple avenue than staging hundreds of video calls between the ships.
Such a piece of software was not in demand in the fleets, and was only used by civilians.
Sailors could use it to goof off; it could also engender bad information management habits.
Nevertheless for the specific use case of the Volksarmee and Brigand, it made sense to her.
It would likely be okay since the first version was deliberately extremely boring.
Nobody would be sharing nude pictures or lewd audio logs ZaChat.
It could not do so.
Or so she hoped. Computer programming in Zachikova’s era was a bit…odd.
Still, ZaChat was a predictable and simple thing.
Eventually she would upgrade it– but by then there would be better access controls too.
Her work was nearly complete.
She had released the beta version of ZaChat to a control group of officers and engineers. She monitored usage closely. Making sure every message was encrypted in transit between the ships, that chat logs were being retained on both the Brigand and the Rostock, and that data and access credentials were not coming or going anywhere they should not. So far everything seemed to go smoothly, for a thing Zachikova simply threw together.
“What are you working on?” Arabella asked, staring over Zachikova’s shoulder.
“It’s a program for people to message each other across ships.” Zachikova said.
“Can’t they reach each other and talk on the computer screens?” Arabella said.
“We want to keep Semyonova from going insane with hundreds of inter-ship calls.”
“Oh, true. You’re so considerate Braya. What are they saying on the program now?”
Zachikova looked at the board.
So far, the top posters were Erika Kairos and Murati Nakara, by orders of magnitude.
Largely talking to each other. Zachikova sighed audibly.
Utterly hopeless dorks talking about history and music in their own little thread.
In a few other threads on ZaChat, Katarran engineers from the Rostock were thankfully having productive discussion with Brigand crew like Chief Galina Lebedova and her nibling Valya Lebedova. They were hashing out work and equipment transfer schedules that worked for both crews as well as discussing events candidly in open chat threads. The atmosphere seemed jovial and there was actual verifiable progress being made.
Judging by that alone, Zachikova felt she could declare ZaChat a success.
Soon she could talk to the Captain about opening it up to more users.
Hopefully the sailors would not be too rambunctious–
It dawned upon Zachikova at that point she may have to moderate ZaChat–
She shut her computer off after a wave of stress.
“Arabella.” Zachikova said, sighing. “I’m taking a break. Bite as much as you want.”
Behind her there was a contented little noise.
Arabella drew her closer, pressing their bodies tight.
Once Zachikova felt the teeth start to dig,
and Arabella’s hands snaking down her belly, under her pants, between her legs,
she felt far more relaxed– until the first tight, warm contraction shook her skin.
“Ahh! That’s the end of the day for me– well. Until the fucking night shift anyway.”
“Indeed, gamer– do not so easily forfeit the call that beckon us to the dance of shadows.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Whatever.”
It was late in the afternoon and the weapons officers on the Brigand’s bridge were taking their leave for the “day.” They would be back in six hours to attend the “night shift” that was their main assignment during noncombat duty. Until then they had unstructured time to do with as they pleased. Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were meant to use some of this time to catch up on sleep so they could be ready when needed.
However, Alexandra, at least had other plans for today.
She kept them to herself– for now.
“So I got to the part where Ythyria starts looking at the prince– I thought this story was supposed to be lesbian? Like what’s going on there.” Alex asked Fernanda.
“Gamer, oh Gamer– how easily you lose faith upon any confrontation with intricacy! As with any endeavor, tribulation and torment enrich the quintessence of experience!”
Fernanda laughed openly while Alex stared at her as they walked down the halls.
Alexandra Geninov, self-described “sexy biracial chick,” with her light brown skin and messy brown hair tied back in a messy bun; Fernanda Santapena De La Rosa, with her fairer skin and straight blond hair with purple streaks. Blue and brown mismatched eyes alongside bright pink-red irises, the work of lenses; tall and short; pants uniform and skirt uniform. Their animated chatter filled the halls, Alex’s deeper voice and Fernanda’s nasally tone.
Despite their contrasts, they seemed to always arrive anywhere as a set of two.
Arriving at their shared room, they dropped onto their individual beds and sighed audibly.
“Hey, Fernanda. Before nodding off, can I show you something?” Alex said.
“Is it about video games?” Fernanda said, briefly dropping her pretentious diction.
“Yes. But– before you stop me. It’s a kind of video game you would like.”
“I’ve told you already, that I have played games before– it’s not like I hate them.”
Two sentences without any thee’s or thou’s? A rare undressed Fernanda indeed.
“Okay, then you won’t object will you? For me? Just this once.” Alex said.
“I’m well aware it won’t be ‘just this once’– but sure. I have nothing to do.”
Fernanda sat up in bed. Smiling and laughing, Alex crouched next to her own bed.
From the set of drawers under the frame, Alex pulled out something wrapped in plastic.
She ripped apart the taped-up plastic wrap and unveiled a little beige plastic box.
“What? How did you get a Dendy?” Fernanda asked, staring incredulously at it.
Alex grinned, rubbing a finger over the slightly rough textured plastic on the case.
For now she would not comment on Fernanda being able to spot a Dendy instantly.
“A Dendy II, actually. One of our new allies uncovered this for me.” Alex said.
One of the Volksarmee officers, Chloe Kouri, loved video games and she apparently had something of a knack for infiltrating even crowded Imbrian places and going mostly unnoticed. After discovering this one morning in the Brigand’s cafeteria, Alex got the scheme in mind to see if Chloe could return to the street market and search for a video game console. Through sheer luck the console in question happened to be a Dendy II–
even Chloe did not realize it as she picked it up and brought it back.
Alex did not tell this story out loud– not wanting to try Fernanda’s patience.
It was enough to say that her scheming had paid off, in the familiar beige box in her hands.
Fernanda blinked. “So there was a Dendy in Kreuzung? And you bought it?”
“I also got a few classic Union storytelling games that run on it.” Alex said.
“I am a bit speechless. What the hell was a Dendy doing in Kreuzung?”
“I’m sure there are Imbrian enthusiasts curious about Union gaming.”
“But how would they get access to it? The Union does not have trade with Imbria.”
“Smuggling or something? Who cares– let’s play!”
Alex pulled out a serial cable that was rolled up in a little shelf in the back of the Dendy and found a serial port on the wall to plug it into. She flicked the switch, and in moments, the wall monitor created a window near the pull-out desk in the back of the room. Alex stuck one of the game cards into a slot on the side of the box and pressed a button to lock it. From the front of the Dendy, Alex pulled out two little controllers, with a cross-shaped directional pad and three buttons. She handed one to Fernanda and kept the first one herself.
At first the screen appeared completely black, and then appeared a block-font DENDY logo.
Then, a message from the Union Commissariat of Entertainment stressing that eyes strain, repetitive strain on the hands, headaches, and addiction might result from playing video games too much. The player had to tab through many screens of guidance and informational health material required by the Commissariat of Entertainment specifically for video games. Once this was done, another Commissariat of Entertainment screen urged the player to set an amount of session time, after which the Dendy would automatically save the game progress to battery memory and shut down. Alex set the session time for four hours, which was as long as the Commissariat would allow a single session to stretch.
“We are not playing this for four hours.” Fernanda warned.
“I knooooow.” Alex said. “Relax.”
Fernanda stared at her, sighed and picked up her controller.
They sat on the pull-out chairs near the pull-out desk and watched the screen.
Watching the little crab dig down and down as the game was prepared.
It was the kind of screen that, to a citizen of the sea, screamed– video games!
Perhaps incongruous– perhaps deeply mysterious.
Displayed on the screen, was a true miracle of underwater entertainment, recently arisen.
Each pixel in itself represented the combined efforts of hundreds of years of computing.
Of course, Alex knew all about how video gaming came about.
In order to truly understand “Dendy”, as Alex did–
one had to first understand the “Strata Crab” seen digging so industriously on screen.
Overwhelmingly, small devices in the Imbrium civilizations were thin clients, deferring some or even all of their computing to a vastly powerful supercomputer in their range, either part of a station mainframe or a ship supercomputer. These larger computers were referred to as “Predictive Computers.” True to their name, their primary design function was to assist in underwater navigation, identification and communication through analyzing data and “predicting” environments, trajectories and other partially known conditions with a degree of accuracy. Predictive computers were designed to take many sources of information, acoustic, visual, thermal, electric, and allow ships and stations to see and speak underwater– two things that were far more troubled by the deep than on the surface.
Predictive Computers performed these functions as part of their advanced and highly stable Base Code. This Base Code ran flawlessly in less than seconds and performed incredible computational feats in its specialized functions. Beyond prediction, the Base Code was imbued with a few other useful features. It could store information in databases, accept human language requests for data or analysis, decode acoustic text messages, and compare any number of like things with each other– byproducts of its function to guide humans on their underwater odyssey. However, there was one problem that the Imbrium civilization and, presumably, every other underwater post-surface society stumbled into. They did not understand how the Base Code worked. It was something of a black box.
Presumably, the Base Code had been worked out as a highly advanced form of machine learning, at some point. Predictors were often updated with new data for ordnance and vessels so they could properly identify them. But what the computer did behind the scenes with the data was a mystery– this design remained largely inscrutable to Imbrians.
It was impossible for a human to read the Base Code because there was far too much of it and none of it was legible in Low Imbrian or even High Imbrian– it was inherited from the surface world and went into widespread reproduction after the Age of Strife with the founding of the Nocht Dynasty. Even the scientists and engineers that had survived the Age of Strife had no idea how to actually read Base Code– seemingly, everyone just accepted the Base Code as an immutable part of computing that was inherited from the past.
Much like Agarthicite reactors, the form of the thing could be replicated, but it was not fully understood. Rather it was painstakingly observed to deduce workable interactions.
Base Code was simply copied onto new computers from old ones, making new predictive computers that all had the same functions. Base Code limitations and uses became readily apparent upon observation. It was possible, at times, to get a predictive computer to spit out a breakdown of a base code function through direct querying, but the predictive computer’s own understanding of base code functions was found to be utterly false.
Direct querying became a technical process of its own. Predictive Computers could be asked in various ways to attempt to do things outside of their known stated functions. Results would vary widely. Predictive Computers processed human language querying in bizarre ways, only answering consistently to known functions of the Base Code. A bad query would simply return false information or pretend to be doing something while doing absolutely nothing. This led to the widespread belief in the unreliability and inaccuracy of predictive computing. However, one miraculous function that was discovered was the ability to run subordinate instructions. This allowed the “Base Code” to be expanded through grueling trial and error with the foundations of civilian computing, “Strata Code.” Strata Code was, as its name suggested, piled atop Base Code in a variety of troubled ways.
When Braya Zachikova coded, or Alex Geninov played video games, or Homa Baumann read books on a portable computer, they were interacting primarily with features of Strata Code– these were the Programs most legible and understood to them, built on top of “Strata Functions” that were discovered to work through the expansion function of Base Code. Code that was not itself Base Code but was understood by the Predictor Computer. Knowledge of working Strata had been uncovered throughout the run of the A.D. years.
Therefore one arrived at the venerable “Strata Crab.”
There was a popular illustration of how computers worked in the Imbrium, known as the “Strata Crab.” The Crab was a program that wanted to do something, and its intended functionality was a tasty worm hiding somewhere beneath the sand. However many layers of sand, and the trajectory of the crab, illustrated the layered execution of Strata Code. There were several layers of cruft the Crab had to dig through to find its meal. A Program hit all of the working strata code in the right succession– dug through the layers correctly– to ultimately execute correctly. Of course, this was a simplification that also obscured the fact that a program, or crab, could also itself dump more sand on top– new Strata Code.
Or that most modern Strata Code was executed by flavors of “Silt Code” written in different, simpler programming languages developed over time that varied quite widely.
And so, on screens everywhere, the crab could be seen to dig, loading complex programs.
For those still following along with the history, the worm was in sight– video games.
One of the things Base Code could do was generate graphics. One of the things it did poorly was generate new graphics on command, rather than synthesizing environment graphics from natural sources. Strata Code was eventually invented to provide a graphical display layer for more things than just dataset text or predictive imaging graphics from sonar or LADAR data. However, this code ran devastatingly poorly at first. In addition it was difficult to eke out more performance from supercomputer hardware without impacting its ability to perform Base Code. Owing to a variety of economic, political and social reasons, the Imbrium did not put any of its engineering prowess behind the development of accessible computing or code execution for a very long time. But ultimately, enterprising generations of Imbrium engineers embarked on the creation of ancillary hardware, such as the various thin clients, which were in some ways more sophisticated units than the supercomputers– because they assisted in the running of feature-rich Strata Code.
Thus, the stage of history led inexorably to the video game console.
An ancillary piece of hardware specialized in innovative video game code and associated strata functions, to a degree previously thought impossible. Creating new, rich content experiences for civilians. Not simulations of military hardware, nor the realistic machine graphics used by films, but a brand new form of entertainment all its own. Beautiful, state of the art sprite characters easily generated by small devices, which could be moved on command by the players using various inputs. This allowed the setting of challenges for the player to overcome, the creation of stories for the player to experience and highly stylized characters some might have even considered more beautiful than life.
And it all began, with the hopelessly inscrutable Base Code, and the humble Strata Crab.
As for the Dendy itself– it was a somewhat sloppily reverse-engineered form of an Imbrian video game device that Alex Geninov played as a teenager in the Union during the Ahwalia years, where civilian entertainment products had a boom. That it ended up back in the Imbrium ocean where Imbrian video game enthusiasts became fascinated with this strange foreign device and its games, perhaps said something profound about society.
Or perhaps about Katarran smuggling predilections.
“I already have a headache.” Fernanda groaned.
“Huh? We haven’t even gotten to the title screen.” Alex said.
“I feel like just turning this thing on is radiating tedium.” Fernanda replied.
“I don’t get you. Just hush, you’ll love it when it actually starts.” Alex said.
On the screen, several progress bars appeared, and a graphic of a little crab digging.
Building pixel stores– compiling silt codes– pre-organizing post-routines–
Finally the title screen appeared: “The Solstice War.”
There was a young woman in a military uniform, looking through the glass of a digital porthole at a sphere of annihilation going off in the distance from a destroyed imperial ship. Everything was rendered in gorgeous 12-bit color 2D graphics. Sophisticated and stylized designs lent a certain beauty and attractiveness to the characters and made excellent aesthetic use of the color restrictions. Such was its style that gamers throughout the Union had fallen in love with the brooding, handsome, and charmingly autistic protagonist of the game, whose default name “Madiha” was used to represent her in various fanfictions and fanarts, erotic fancomics and even in small tribute fangames continuing her story.
Alex renamed the character upon starting a new game, to, of course, “Alex.”
“Why am I even here, gamer?” Fernanda grumbled.
“You haven’t played this one? I thought I’d get you to admit you had.”
“I have only read the erotic comics and fanfictions of it.”
“There’s a second player. You can name her after yourself.”
Alex pressed one of the buttons to move to the next screen.
Fernanda turned a bit red. She must have known what this entailed.
That second player had the default name “Parinita”– “Madiha’s” love interest.
Nevertheless, she did as she was instructed, renaming her to “Færn.”
Alex stared at the odd spelling. “Wait– is that like your–”
“Just get on with the game.” Fernanda warned.
At first blush, “The Solstice War” seemed like any standard “dungeon” game.
There was a protagonist and a supporting party member, they had parameters that determined the success and failure of certain challenges, they had items to collect. Maps of locations were presented to the player with “nodes” to which they could travel– these would then expand into “screens” of the dungeon that players could interact with in greater detail. There were battles, talking to NPCs, and puzzles to solve, either with logic, collected tools, or keys or other knickknacks uncovered along the way. Both Player 1 and Player 2 were asked to make decisions and could even separate, splitting the screen in half.
But “the Solstice War” was not known as a “dungeon” game, but a “storytelling” game.
Many challenges could be skipped with a careful eye to the character’s personalities and predilections. Charisma was the most powerful parameter, and a keen understanding of the magic spells, called “tactics” due to the game’s militaristic flavor, could enable the player to sidestep many difficulties. There were hundreds of thousands of lines of text to enrich the story and characters. Developing the love story between Player 1 and Player 2 was one of the game’s joys. Players 1 and 2 were sometimes asked to talk about each other.
Combat was there for those who desired it, but it was not strictly necessary.
This was all quite unlike “dungeon” games, known for their violence and treasure.
A collaborative storytelling experience about a romantic story.
Even across just the first hour of the game, Fernanda seemed to arrive at a burgeoning understanding of what made it special and unique among video games. Alex, who had played the game before, led Fernanda down a path that was richer in stories. She was gripped from the first scene, where “Alex” executed the corrupt military commander who had been verbally abusing “Færn” and blaming her for the many inefficiencies of the outpost. Just as “Færn” was stricken at first sight by the melancholy beauty of “Alex”, Fernanda herself realized they were written as tragic lovers and her face began to light up.
In the next scenes, the two navigated an attack by an Imperial force that outgunned and outnumbered the characters’ and the outpost’s forces. But through their bond, and timely decision-making, as well as “Alex” uncovering her hidden powers, they turned back the tide and bought the Union precious time. There would be more tribulations to come.
So began a story of war, conspiracy, betrayal, and sapphic love.
“Gamer. I hardly knew you had it in you, to appreciate culture like this.”
Alex grinned. “So what do you think of video games, huh? They’re an artform aren’t they?”
Fernanda grumbled. “Hmph! I never said I hated all video games! Don’t act so smug.”
It was not all rosy– some systems and solutions were a bit inscrutable.
Dialog was sometimes very convoluted. Fernanda loved this, Alex not so much.
And the audio was not great– especially on an old, well-traveled Dendy like this.
Room computers and wall-windows were not the best interfaces either.
Without a dedicated “gaming monitor” the fullest beauty of the graphics was lost.
However, by the second hour, the two were practically leaning against each other.
Unaware of their proximity due to how engrossed they had become in their roles.
Talking like one was Madiha and the other Parinita, working through the various challenges– and Alex pretending not to know the solutions, gleefully roleplaying along and letting Fernanda take the lead on what objects to interact with, who to talk to, what conversation strategies to use, what fights to pick and how to succeed. Though they would eventually have to go to sleep to get ready for their shift, Alex felt quite elated.
By the time they shut off the Dendy, Fernanda had Alex promise they would play again.
“Ah! I haven’t had such a good workout in forever! It’s nice to be back to the routine!”
“Hm. I guess it’s nice when the gym is kind of empty too. Though– it could be emptier.”
“Hey. You wound me. I spotted for you and everything.”
“Yeah you were a great help, and you had an amazing vantage point on my tits I bet.”
“Again, your sarcasm wounds me. Ascribing such impure motives.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I don’t actually care anyway. Take a gander as long as you like.”
Aside from the two figures in conversation, the Brigand’s gym was completely empty.
Just past the social area of the Brigand, also nearly empty at peak working hours, was the gym, a vital part of the operation. Everyone got a chance to use it if they liked, and everyone was encouraged to. Physical activity was important to keep a healthy body and mind on the ship and to pass the time healthily. To that end there was something for everyone. Running machines, staircase machines, and stationary bikes were popular. There were of course weights of all sizes, and racks for climbing and pull-ups; punching bags, a small sparring arena with a padded floor; and even a ten meter long range with adjustable targets for archery or air-guns. A dispenser for electrolyte-rich bottled drinks in two different flavors, stationed near the door, reminded everyone to keep hydrated as they worked.
Standing near the exercise machines, pilots Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun and Dominika Rybolovskaya stretched their arms and legs on top of padded plastic mats. They had just gotten done with their daily workouts. Not all pilots took exercise as seriously as they did, so they were often seen together at the gym even when it was nearly empty otherwise. This happened enough Sameera had begun to notice Dominika’s preferences– she was drawn to the archery range, the stair climb and the weights. Sameera in turn loved to push the exercise bike hard, and then she took out a lot of steam on the punching bag. She thought that perhaps Dominika was just more meticulous than her.
Lately, she thought a lot of things about Dominika.
Under the glow of the yellow sunlamps and the white LEDs, Dominika’s pink skin glistened with sweat as she stood to full height from stretching her legs. She went still for a moment, catching her breath, staring down at the floor in her shorts and sports bra. So lightly dressed, more of the chromatophores on her body were exposed, small bumps on her skin that glowed gently. They ran down her chest, on her hips, her back. Interspersed within her long red and brown hair were black-striped, fleshy strands dimly glowing.
And her eyes– bright pink with a blue limbal ring. Absolutely captivating.
They met, Sameera’s admiring gaze and Dominika’s narrow-eyed look of disdain.
Rather than scold her, Dominika sighed and turned around.
“You’re catching a shower too, aren’t you? Come on.” Dominika said.
Sameera was quite sweaty herself. Even the fur on her ears and tail was moist.
She smiled and followed behind Dominika.
To their shared surprise, the Brigand’s shower room was also pretty empty.
Dominika quickly threw off her sports bra and pulled down her shorts. She started walking toward the showers without acknowledging Sameera. Behind her, Sameera disrobed a bit slower. Dominika was so thin and lean and her figure almost nymph-like that she could not help but watch as she left her side. That she was a head taller than Dominika was a fact that buzzed around in her brain infrequently, and always ended up somewhere else.
After a truly laborious removal of her own sports bra and shorts, Sameera followed her to the showers. She sat next to her, set the temperature and dispersion of the showerhead, and relaxed as cool water crashed over her head. Two backs to the wall, smiling with relief as the sweat washed off them. Sameera undid her ponytail, and her long, wild brown hair fell over the sides of her and down her back. Her tail splashed on the water. There were no sounds but the running water and no smell but the shampoo and soap dispensers.
Sameera laughed. “I heard there’s some kind of social function going on tonight.”
“You want to take me out on a date.” Dominika said. She shrugged. “We’re just on the ship it’s not like it’s anything special. So whatever– I’ll go with you. Happy now?”
“Ecstatic.” Sameera wagged her tail excitedly.
“What’s with you?” Dominika asked with evident, narrow-eyed disdain and skepticism.
“What are you asking?” Sameera replied, acting dumb.
“I mean–” Dominika reached behind herself and switched the water from falling in a mostly uniform stream to widely dispersed pattern. “I had fun on our date in Kreuzung, but if you think I’ve fallen in love with you or something– I’m not so easily impressed. You can’t just act like it’s a given I’m letting you have me. You’re not so charming that you can just–”
“Oh? You want to be pursued more aggressively then?”
Sameera practically sprang. Cornering Dominika under her showerhead.
One arm on the wall, another on the floor, their faces centimeters from each other.
Eye to eye, nearly nose to nose. Dominika lying back against the wall. Sameera atop.
Locked eyes, a bigger body, a hunger in her eyes and mischief on her face.
Sameera inched forward and took Dominika’s lips into a kiss.
Tasting her briefly, feeling her out, tentative but energetic–
At no point did Dominika struggled or kick her off.
Encouraged, Sameera slipped her tongue past Dominika’s teeth.
Raising a hand to hold Dominika’s cheek, closing her eyes, kissing her with ardor.
She had demonstrated her intent.
Approached, played, savored– and stepped back.
Smiling with the width of a finger between herself and Dominika.
“Was that more impressive?” Sameera asked.
Dominika averted her gaze, keeping a neutral expression.
“Only– a little– playboy.” She said, struggling to catch her breathe.
Never had such critical words made Sameera so contented.
She winked and got off of Dominika and sat next to her again, laughing.
“At least I know the right direction to take!” Sameera laughed.
Dominika grunted, but smiled just a little.
As much as Sameera liked when Dominika played hard to get, reciprocity was far sweeter.
In the shower, Sameera’s hand laid over Dominika’s hand and was not refused.
Having sailed for months by now, the Brigand’s crew was used to the rhythm of daily activity and they had gained some confidence in their response times should an alarm sound. Union ships valued a balance of readiness and morale. Because the crew had been through so much recently, Captain Korabiskaya had the idea to stage a screening of a film so everyone could get together, relax and have some communal fun for a few hours after work.
She left the decision of what film to show–
To First Officer Murati Nakara. Whose eyes drew quite wide upon hearing the news.
“I– this is– this is a bit sudden.” Murati said.
“Just look at the ship library and see what interests you, Murati!” Ulyana said cheerfully.
“You need to get used to making command decisions again.” Aaliyah said bluntly.
Murati blinked. “I’ve– I’ve been making decisions– I’ve been working hard–”
Even she knew this was not exactly the case. Certainly, Murati had not been doing nothing this whole time. She had been in important meetings. She had delegated a few tasks to her own subordinates. She had gone over Diver combat data working with Valya, and wrangled Aatto– but she had also been writing her book an awful lot handn’t she?
And mostly posting a lot on ZaChat the past day–
Neither of her superiors would have it– Murati had a command decision delegated to her.
“Just pick something, Murati. We’ll show it tonight. It’ll be fine, pick anything.”
“No, Captain! Murati, don’t just pick anything. Pick something that will improve morale.”
Two pats on the back was all she got after that. Murati was left to make the decision.
A few minutes later, she had made her way further to the back of the ship.
Walking stiffly and with a clearly troubled expression.
Crossing the door into her wife’s laboratory.
“Hubby! You’ve come to visit! I haven’t seen you in days!”
Karuniya Maharapratham called out in a sweet voice and clapped her hands together.
“You see me every day.” Murati mumbled this so as to be just barely audible.
“So what has dragged you away from your book, to see your boring old ball and chain?”
“Karu– please– I’m not that bad to you am I–?”
Eventually Karuniya stopped teasing Murati and invited her to a desk around the back of the tree. They sat together and Murati confided her predicament to her wife. It was not necessarily that Murati did not know any films. She had seen films, played video games– she had experienced entertainment. However, none of those things were her first choice for distractions. She was much more of a reader. What movies did sailors enjoy?
Weren’t they rowdy and rambunctious? She had always been cloistered among officers.
“I’m so glad you confided in me, Murati.” Karuniya said. “Your salvation is here.”
She raised an index finger pointedly and winked at Murati.
“Are you a film fan Karu? I really had no idea. We always went to restaurants or concerts.”
Karuniya crossed her arms, and smiled with great confidence.
“I am not an expert. But I can make trivial decisions without thinking about them so much.”
Murati raised a hand over her face. “Karu– Come on– This is serious here–”
“I don’t understand why you are soooo anxious, Murati.” Karuniya said, giggling.
“This is a command decision Karuniya! Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah must be wondering if I can handle the burdens of a commissioned officer and judging whether I can be promoted. I let my guard down and kept working on my book and testing Zachikova’s program, and now this. This can’t be something trivial– they are testing me.”
Karuniya stared at her for a moment, laid a hand over her mouth and stifled a laugh.
“Murati, you really are so cute. I’m so glad I have you wrapped around my finger.”
In turn, her hubby met her eyes with a helpless expression.
That was what it took for her to realize she was being just a bit ridiculous.
“I’m glad you think so, though I object to this characterization.” Murati said, sighing.
Karuniya reached out and squeezed Murati’s hand for comfort.
“I’ll look at the media library with you, and we will pick a movie together.”
“I’ve only got a few hours to pick something. It’s going on tonight. It’s just so sudden.”
“It’ll be fun! Just don’t take it so seriously. Between the two of us, we’ll find something.”
Silently, Murati thanked Karuniya so much for deflating all the tension in her chest.
Taking up a chair next to Murati, Karuniya brought a portable computer for both to use. She accessed the Brigand’s onboard media library, which served the books, music, comics, art collections, programs and films that were approved by the Union Navy. With a few taps of Karu’s slender fingers, she brought up the library of films. There were hundreds of films to choose from. A few independent or classic Imbrian films with “appropriate ideological content” were canonized as part of the Union’s “film history.” But the Union also had a film culture that had produced a few hundred films in the nation’s twenty year existence. There was movie-making going on even during the Revolution.
As soon as there had been a Union, there had also been Union film-making.
Everything from comedies to dramas, romances, morality plays, action stories, and propaganda pieces. They could sort the media library based on a lot of criteria, like the year and the genre, but they looked through everything just to see what was on offer. Karuniya arrived at a good suggestion as they scrolled through. She figured that sailors would appreciate a good comedy. Everyone could use a laugh, and even the cheapest jokes could draw one out, but not all people had a taste for romantic films or dramas.
“That is a very good point. Narrows it down, but it’s still so much.” Murati said.
Karuniya tipped her head closer to Murati, leaning into her while showing her the films.
“Oh, look at this one. A comedy about a ne’er-do-well father-in-law ending up being cared for by his son and the son’s newlywed bride. Sounds like universally-beloved shenanigans!”
“I don’t know that I want to sit and think about these particular themes for an entire night.”
“Huh? But your taste shouldn’t matter– well, look here! There’s a raunchy sex comedy!”
“The Commissar would absolutely object to this! I don’t even know how that got in there.”
“It’s there because we’re all adults who fuck, Murati. Jeez– okay, how about this?”
“A comedy about an Imperial falling into a coma and waking up in the Union during the early years of the Jayasankar regime, experiencing culture shock–? I don’t know. I think we have enough culture shock right now. We want them to take their minds off things right?”
“How is it you’re being this sensitive? They’re sailors–! Oh! Look at this one!”
Karuniya pointed her finger at a movie called “Supply Ship Groza.”
Physical comedy taking place in an inter-station supply ship. It seemed light-hearted.
“Karu, I think this might be the one!” Murati smiled.
Suddenly, she put an arm around Karuniya, pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek.
“Thank you! This is perfect. I’ll send this to Semyonova. She’ll help set up the projection.”
Karuniya rubbed up against Murati with a placid little smile.
“You’re welcome. But I require a reward for my services.” She said mischievously.
“First, you’re going to take me to the movie tonight.”
Then, Karuniya raised a hand to Murati’s cheek and drew her in for a deeper kiss.
It was a quick embrace– but her tongue crossed Murati’s lips in its span.
When Karuniya drew back she looked Murati in the eyes.
“Second, you’re going to do more than kiss me after the movie.”
That coquettish grin on her face said it all.
Murati felt the tensions of mere minutes ago wholly leave her body.
To be replaced by other, more electric sensations.
“You know I can’t ever say no to that face. I’m all yours, Karu.”
Semyonova announced the movie night on every screen in the Brigand, so everyone was instantly made aware of it. It came as a pleasant surprise with immediate effect. There was a burst of excitement from all corners, slightly deflated when a clarifying announcement was issued that there would not be liquor rations. Still, the mood was electric, with everyone in the halls wondering what movie would be shown and looking forward to it.
Homa Baumann was not planning to go watch the movie.
She had woken up in the afternoon and had her wholly vegetarian dinner and felt off.
From the operating table in Dr. Kappel’s office, she was back in the infirmary.
“Sorry Homa! I got pulled aside to take care of the bridge for a bit!”
Through the door into the infirmary, Kalika Loukia reappeared with a bag in hand.
Homa stared at her with an unfriendly expression.
“Was I gone that long?” Kalika asked.
Homa sighed. “Whatever. I don’t care.” She raised her voice, almost without meaning to.
Kalika smiled. “I hoped the prosthetics would cheer you up a bit– I understand though.”
She unzipped the bag and laid some clothes on the bed where Homa was seated.
There was a sleeveless white button-down shirt, a teal half-length jacket with long sleeves, a pair of pants and a skirt both of which were black, a set of white underwear, a green tie, and a pair of shoes. This was the uniform she had seen most people on the ship wearing. Everything was cheaply synthestitched, and the shoes especially looked a bit formless and unappealing. Homa would have to ask if they could give her work boots back.
“I’m not wearing a tie. Can they synthestitch me some casual clothes?” Homa grumbled.
“No~” Kalika bent down a bit and flicked Homa’s nose gently.
For a moment, that little teasing brush felt almost scandalous. Could she do that?
It was the momentary outrage that gave Homa some perspective on her own behavior.
Still– she was not able to fully control herself. Her tone of voice remained a bit elevated.
“Ugh. I get it– I’m being a brat. I’ll just– I’ll just shut up then!” Homa said.
Kalika remained bent forward in front of Homa and leaned even closer.
Speaking almost nose to nose with Homa’s face. A small smile on her red lips.
“I’ve told you, I understand you’re frustrated. I’m not going to ask you to pretend everything is fine. But I also am not giving carte blanche for you to yell at me all day. Let’s cool it a bit. Take a deep breath.” Kalika looked at Homa expectantly. “Deep breath, Homa.”
With Kalika right in front of her face, she could not refuse.
Homa drew in a deep breath.
Then she let it out.
There was nowhere for it to go so she practically blew right into Kalika’s face.
Kalika did not look bothered by it. She looked more content than before.
“Feel any better?”
Her head and chest felt a bit less tight and knotted after she let the air out.
But she did not want Kalika to be right.
So she denied anything changed.
“Alright.” Kalika drew back from Homa and gestured to the clothes. “Pants or skirt?”
“That’s actually a really hard decision for me.” Homa said.
“It’s not a final decision, though. You can always wear one or the other.” Kalika said.
“I don’t know, Kalika. Do I look like I should be wearing a skirt?”
“You would look lovely in a skirt. Take it from a real fashionista.”
Homa’s ears folded against her head. She averted her gaze.
“No offense– I’ll just take the pants for now.”
“None taken. Would you like to dress yourself, or would you like my help?”
“I’ll do it.”
Kalika turned her back to Homa. “I can whip right back whenever you want me to.”
They had already seen each other completely naked before, but Homa appreciated Kalika having discretion nevertheless. If she struggled with dressing herself, Homa did not want someone staring at her and trying to gauge whether to jump in to save her or not. That would have made her furious. It made her a lot less self-conscious about relying on Kalika to assist if she could choose at any time when to cut her out or let her in.
Homa reached the end of her hospital gown.
Her biological fingers, and the fingers of her mechanical hand, closed around the hem.
She pulled it up and off of her body. As natural as breathing.
Nothing odd happened.
So far the prosthetic was responding fine.
Homa grabbed the synthetic brassiere, put her arms through.
Reached behind her back.
Her mechanical fingers dropped the clips a few times. It was a tiny bit frustrating.
Nevertheless, with time, her quite modest breasts were quite modestly covered up.
Similar to the brassier clips, it was a bit of a challenge to button up the shirt. Holding really small things in her hands and manipulating them precisely was strange. Her fingers on the prosthetics would drop and slip over the buttons, and even if she tried to switch the hand she was using, it was tough to hold the fabric around the button-hole open. Her hand was just so much clumsier than she was used to, and she could not feel it, no touch, no smoothness of synthcloth nor the roughness of the hard button.
Just as with the brassiere, however, the shirt was buttoned up in due time.
Homa clenched her jaw and let out a low hiss.
With the shirt on, she put on the panties and the black pants she had been given.
No problems with those. Everything fit fine and the efforts to put them on were simple.
Finally, she slipped the shoes right on. Cheap shoes like these just fit like a thick sock.
“I’m done.” Homa said.
Kalika turned around. She clapped her hands. “Look at this handsome young lady!”
“You really were serious about the tie huh? Don’t you want to look really professional?”
“Fair enough.” Kalika held out her hands.
Homa looked at them for a moment before raising her own arms and taking them.
Entwining her fingers and Kalika’s own. Kalika gently urged Homa stand.
To get her legs off the bed, Homa turned sideways.
She set her prosthetic leg on the floor first. Shifted her weight on it, tested its strength.
Everything seemed firm but–
For a moment, as she made the effort to stand, she could feel the flesh weighing on metal.
There was an uncomfortably cold sensation because of this.
Alarming as it was at first, Homa choked the feelings down, and made to stand straight.
Kalika held her hands tightly, supporting her.
“Do you want to try taking a step?”
Homa nodded her head. She lifted her prosthetic leg, inched forward, set it down.
Again she felt that cold sensation where the metal met flesh, but it was not as bad as before.
However, as soon as she set her foot down, she felt her weight slide a bit.
Kalika steadied her as she stepped back herself.
She cooed to Homa as they walked. One solid step; one clumsy step; one solid step.
“Good, good. Take it easy, one step at a time.”
“Everything in the world worth doing can be done one step at a time.”
“I don’t need your amateur therapy during all this.”
“One step at a time, and you’ll be less grouchy in no time.”
Kalika laughed a little. Homa grumbled.
She held that hand tight however, felt Kalika’s own steel fingers with her own flesh.
Mirrored her steps, relied on her guidance, leaned into her when near falling.
For a moment, holding Kalika’s hands and walking step by step, almost with grace–
It almost felt like dancing, which Homa had never really done. But she had read about it.
Seen it in films; fantasized about it, maybe, once or twice. Dancing with someone nice.
Homa was not some hero, she chastised herself.
Kalika was not her storybook princess.
it made it easier, and feel better, to think of the infirmary as a grand ballroom.
Her fingers closed tighter around Kalika’s hand.
She met her eyes more closely than before.
Step, by step.
Their little clumsy storybook dance down the aisle across from the beds.
It made Homa feel a little bit more whole than she was before.
Her steel walls and the plastic smell, took on color, took on a floral scent, took on grandeur.
“See? You’re doing great. Soon you won’t need to hold anyone’s hand.”
A chill ran down Homa’s back that she would not admit.
Because she immediately thought–
“I still want to hold your hand.”
She did not say this out loud. She did not want to admit it. She felt ashamed of it.
Such feelings were useless to hold for someone who only pitied her.
And Homa had already been hurt a few times by allowing herself such vulnerability.
Nevertheless. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.
“Sonya’s taking me out to a movie! I could turn gold with happiness!”
“What ‘taking you out’? It takes minutes to walk down from my room–”
“Sonya’s taking me out~ Sonya’s taking me out~”
Shalikova looked at Maryam bobbing her head happily and simply smiled.
They walked down the hall holding hands, toward the social area.
Game tables, couches and other furniture were moved or folded into the floor. Chairs were set up for the movie watchers; there was not enough space for everyone so a similar arrangement was made in the middle of the hangar so more would get a chance to join a movie-watching party. Dispensers for pickles, bread, broth and watered-down juice were moved from the cafeteria to the social pod and hangar to give everyone easier access to snacks. On the stage a black rectangle appeared on the wall to demonstrate where the film would be displayed from. As Shalikova and Maryam approached and took a seat at the back row of chairs, there were already dozens of people seated and chatting lively.
There was a lot of curiosity, since the film to be shown was kept secret.
“Sonya, I bet you’ve seen so many movies.” Maryam said.
“Not a lot actually.” Shalikova said. “I preferred the arcade when I was bored.”
“Oh right! You did say you were the ‘terror of the tables’!” Maryam said.
“Not so loud.” Shalikova whispered. “But yes I played a lot of table games back when I was in school. Pool, and table hockey and tennis and all that. All the student lounges had a bunch. Solstice had nice arcades too. I liked going around town looking for them. You could wander off in any direction and find lounges and games. Theaters were a bit less prevalent.”
“I haven’t seen very many movies.” Maryam said. “Do you not like them, Sonya?”
She must have noticed Shalikova’s sour expression as she waited for the movie to start.
“No, it’s just– theaters are really crowded. With pool or whatever it was just a few guys.”
And just like a theater, the social pod was now quite crowded.
Shalikova endured it for Maryam’s sake, however.
It was very difficult to infect Shalikova with enthusiasm, but Maryam was so happy that she could not help herself but to crack a little smile. Watching her on the edge of her seat, hands on her lap, staring at the screen with stars in her w-shaped eyes. Bobbing her head with enthusiasm and waiting for the scenes to fill with color. Maryam had been through so much– and she was on this damn ship now going through even more tribulations.
She deserved a moment of excitement and levity.
To be taken care of and made to smile.
Everyone on the ship deserved it, really. These were the moments they worked hard for.
So when the lights dimmed, and the screen lit up with the film and everyone clapped–
Shalikova reached out and squeezed Maryam’s hand in the dark, for her own happiness.
Movie night came and went, with applause, laughs and a brief respite.
“Supply Ship Groza” became a new favorite among the sailors. Around the halls and hangar they could be heard quoting the jokes at each other, and calling each other Mykolas, after the clumsy protagonist. Having a social function was good change of pace. For everyone, they spent some cherished time shoulder to shoulder, but the work, as always, continued. It was a new day, the Brigand and Rostock were ever closer to Aachen.
It was busy again, and might soon get even busier.
Officers led a different life, however.
On that morning, Murati stood outside of the brig.
She was quite happy with last night. But the task in front of her was a daunting one.
Once the door opened– out walked the task. In full Treasure Box Transports uniform.
Bushy brown tail swinging behind her, now coming out of black uniform pants. Her brown hair tied into a very professional ponytail, a garrison cap between her tall ears. Shirt buttoned up completely this time, a brand new jacket in freshly synthestitched teal. Afforded a ration of makeup she had used to doll herself up quite presentably.
An almost comically saccharine smile on her face upon seeing Murati.
“Chief Petty Officer Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! Reporting for adjutant duties!”
Murati could hardly believe these were words she had to hear.
“How do I look master? It’s such a cute uniform. A very clever disguise.”
“I told you not to call me ‘Master’. How many times do I have to say it?”
“But it befits your great stature and the profound respect I have for you!”
In fact, Aatto had made out like a bandit.
Normally, defectors were viewed as something of a burden to their new country. They probably had a limited amount of intelligence, and limited military utility. Under normal circumstances, unless it was a Katarran mercenary with a crew, a defector was unlikely to be allowed to keep their military rank, or join the host nation’s military. Defectors were usually just a small influx of specific intelligence, and a moral victory for the host.
Because of the Brigand’s unique situation, however, Aatto was getting golden treatment. The Brigand had to be open to defectors as a way to acquire manpower. She had actually been advanced a rank– in the Volkisch, she would now be a Scharführer instead of a Rottenführer. Special assignment adjutants to commissioned officers could not be entry-level Petty Officers. Delegating work to someone with minimal clearance who lacked the rank even to organize the specialists was a waste of everyone’s time, so Aatto had to have a senior non-commission rank. If it worked out with Aatto, raising the Brigand’s practical skeleton crew of officers by one was a significant boon to acquire.
Of course, it might not work out with Aatto. She was a former Volkisch after all.
“We are not going to have a big fight about this. It’s decided. She’s your responsibility, Murati.” The Commissar had said. “I believe you when you say she wants to turn over a new leaf. The Captain and I had this conversation prior– we can’t refuse even Volkisch defectors at this point, and you could use somebody to assist you. But you can consider this a test of your judgment. We are trusting you, not just her; and if she burns us, it’s on you.”
Murati could be putting everyone at risk, and even moreso, her chances for a promotion.
With a sigh, she turned over a portable computer to Aatto.
She then set her shoulders, took a deep breath and fixed her gaze on the Loup.
Taking one step into her personal space and standing taller than her counterpart.
“This is yours because it is crucial to your work. It’s disconnected from the network and contains all the data your clearance allows plus some educational products. For now, you will work off this device and if you need anything not on it, you will request it through me. Prove to me that you are reliable and trustworthy and you can get access to the network. Just know and understand this, with great specificity, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather: if you scheme against or betray us, I’ll follow you to the ends of Aer to tear you limb from limb!”
Murati jabbed her finger into Aatto’s chest, frustration clearly spilling out of her.
She had hoped to sound commanding and intimidating, but lost control to her passions.
Her speech had an effect, however.
Aatto’s eyes drew wider, her grin more twisted, smoldering with a bizarre euphoria.
She clutched the portable computer to her chest, her entire body shaking.
“There it is! That grand and dominating power dormant within you–! Such radiance–!”
“I’m being serious!” Murati shouted back at her.
“Of course– of course–” Aatto’s breathing became briefly troubled. “I live only to support you and witness your deeds! I will absolutely, without a doubt, employ every part of this body in most excellent service! Master, what ordeals will you subject me to today?”
Why did she sound so happy to be subjected to ordeals?!
Just as Murati struggled to think of a reprimand Aatto would not somehow enjoy–
There was a voice, low but with an undertone of distress, coming from all directions.
Accompanied by flashing red lights from high on every wall.
It hardly had to be said– before she understood the voice Murati felt she already knew.
“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon! All personnel shift immediately to duty Semyon!”
Fatima al-Suhar was sounding an alert from the sonar station on the bridge.
One that they had heard a few times already– alert Semyon meant combat stations.
“Master, is this a combat alert?” Aatto asked with vivid excitement in her voice.
There was no time to try to correct her bizarre fascinations.
Once again the currents were sending sharp steel the Brigand’s way.
Murati and the rest of the crew would have to hurry to meet it, for all they held dear.