The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.10]

“You want to abandon me. I have not performed to your expectations.”

Impassioned words, spoken on the verge of tears, and met with silence.

This was the first exchange of words between Gloria Innocence Luxembourg and Daksha Kansal in days. They had been out of touch since the United Front deliberations began. In Gloria’s imaginary there could only be one reason for this– and so, she had begun maneuvering of her own accord in order to obviate the participation of Daksha Kansal in the Front’s business, and future. She had made her own moves, with a hard one coming.

However– her pride (and her fear) still called on her to confront her “beloved mentor.”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg donned her pure white dress and made up her soft pink hair, looked herself in the mirror, practiced smiling, and left her apartment first thing.

To meet someone at their private quarters for business rather than pleasure.

For her efforts, she was met exclusively with Daksha Kansal’s back.

Surrounded by her spartan apartment, barely touched from when the lease was signed.

There was nothing she could have been staring in there that mattered.

“Turn around and look at me.” Gloria demanded. “I won’t disappear if you look away.”

“You’ve gotten quite demanding.” Daksha replied, in a low voice.

“You are awful, Daksha Kansal! Awful! I cannot believe you! I did everything you asked. I gave you money and I gathered everyone together. You have already decided, without any basis, that you can’t make use of me.” Gloria could not help but put on a bleak grin on her face, her heart pounding. She started speaking out of malice, out of wanting to find any way to needle or hurt her mentor. “It’s accelerating, I think! You spent ten years in the General Strike movement– and four or five years in the Union, right? Maybe a year with the Bureni nationalists– and now in a few months you’re rid of me. You’ve gotten so efficient.”

Daksha Kansal turned around. Crossed her arms. She looked exhausted.

She could not make eye contact with Gloria, and that hopeless smile Gloria wore.

“Gloria, I don’t know who you have been talking to– but you don’t understand anything. You have no idea how important communism is to me, nor how important it is to the survival of the human race. It is for that reason that every decision I make is absolutely critical.”

She was right. Gloria did not understand. Nor did she care.

That Gloria Luxembourg who stood in that room–

had been pushed beyond her ability to care.

“You can’t even use me. You can’t even treat me as a tool. You just want to discard me.”

Gloria had been more than willing to set aside her pride for someone else to give her a path.

She had begged Leda Lettiere, but she was killed before she could even answer.

She made connections with Herta Kleyn and the liberals, but they tacitly accepted defeat.

She founded Raylight Beauty, played the corporate game, made millions– but none of it gave her power and none of it absolved her of either her guilt or her sense of responsibility.

Then she gave herself to Daksha Kansal and now even she would throw her away.

Nobody wanted responsibility for Gloria– nobody could give her power–

nobody could grant her agency–

nobody could purify her sins– and nobody could save her– Nobody could– die in her place– protect her from the consequences of her scheming– protect her–

So– there was nothing to do– but to risk her own neck and die in the slaughter–?

“Gloria, please.” Daksha said. “Please. I’m not throwing you away. You have surpassed my expectations. You have your own strength. You have done everything I desired and planned. It is the next step which concerns me– you do not understand how crucial it could be!”

“Why haven’t you appeared at the United Front even once?” Gloria asked.

Daksha paused for a moment. She sighed. “I’ll put in an appearance. Tomorrow.”

“On the last day.” Gloria said. “Will it be a send off then? What will you even say?”

“Gloria– I don’t know what to do. I wish I had something I could say to placate you in this moment.” Daksha said. “That is the actual truth. I don’t know how I feel about the state of the politics in the Imbrium, I don’t know how I feel about my own actions. I don’t know how I feel about the people I have now or the ones I left behind. This struggle is so vital and so necessary and I am feeling its weight for perhaps the first time. You’re right, I ran away before. I decreed my business done or my colleagues unworthy. You and others have called it running away– I agree and I’m conflicted about everything. Is that good enough for you?”

Gloria looked at Daksha in the eyes. Her expression softened.

For only a moment– because staring at the listless expression of her mentor made her mad.

Her most childish part of herself wanted to say– you led me into all of this.

It was not true. Gloria had led herself from the very beginning.

Choosing when to hide, when to duck her head, and when to take all of the credit.

Ever since she avoided the student protests–

Ever since she witnessed the failures in leadership and the imminent collapse–

Ever since she began to desire power–

it had been her choices that led her to this day.

Whether she was brave or bold, whether she was cowardly– she chose that.

Nobody else.

But it would have been so much easier if someone would take her by the shoulders–

–and stop her before she crossed her rubicon.

It was not fair that the great Daksha Kansal was as confused and scared as she was.

It was not fair that she was not perfect despite her words being so powerful.

“Tomorrow. Alright. We’ll meet and discuss everything among the Front.” Gloria said.

Daksha drew in a deep breath. “I promise– I’ll have made a decision by then.”

“Me too.” Tomorrow, everything would have to be decided one way or another.

Gloria recalled the image of Leda Lettiere walking austerely to her execution.

There were only publicized images of her being taken– never of her dead body.

Would Gloria be afforded that much dignity? No– she wasn’t living in a dignified time.

She was living in an evil era where there were no heroes she could count on.

And– for as much as her pride wanted to say otherwise, she felt like a failed hero herself.

Daksha Kansal turned her back on her again, to stare at the walls again.

For all her fear, Gloria tried to maintain a dignified expression as she wept, unseen.

Beginning her own march toward the gallows.

“Come in, I’m just taking my tea– ah, Murati! How nice to see you!”

Through the door into Euphrates’ room, the tall, somewhat gloomy Murati Nakara walked inside, as always meticulously dressed in her Treasure Box Transports uniform. She looked around the room in order to fix her eyes on something other than Euphrates, but the scientist kept very little in terms of possessions. The room was tidy and furnished the same as any other, the immortal having little of value that she carried beside her vast memories.

However– Murati also knew that Euphrates had another possession, which she needed.

And so, she visited, feeling ashamed of the transactional nature of her appearance.

“You can pull up a chair next to me. I know you’re acting Captain and all, but if you pulled yourself away from the bridge, you must have some time to sit down with me.” Euphrates gestured toward her side. Murati did as instructed and pulled a seat up from the floor and sat down at the table. It was the same type of the table on the far wall of every other room.

“I do have some time. I left the bridge to Aatto.” Murati said.

“Have some tea with me then.” Euphrates said.

She touched the wall, and it opened up, revealing a few synthestitched cups in storage.

On the table, there was a small electric kettle and a small bottle with yellow-brown tabs.

Euphrates dropped one of the tabs in a cup and poured hot water over it.

Quickly dissolving the morsel into a cup of instant tea which she handed to Murati.

Murati took a sip. It was sweet and a bit tangy.

Euphrates smiled at her and sipped her own tea alongside.

“Union instant tea is much nicer than the Imperial kinds– but it only comes in one flavor.”

“It’s the same with the coffee.” Murati said. “You don’t really need that many, do you?”

“Ah, but there is a world of amazing flavors to be found in tea. There are people who drink for pleasure that would be angry with you. Different leaves, treated differently, with different additives.” Euphrates said. “However, you are right in a way– for me, I am only after a bit of caffeine, so the convenience factor of the instant tea is invaluable.”

“It’s not like we don’t have leaf tea in the Union. We don’t need that many instant teas.”

Murati put on a bit of a sour face and Euphrates laughed girlishly at her side.

“You don’t need to be upset, Murati. I think the Union way is quite commendable.”

“I’m not upset– I don’t really care what you think about the Union–”

“That pout says otherwise.” Euphrates said. “I’m sorry– I will stop teasing you now.”

As ever, Euphrates was dressed in a formal sort of outfit with a sportcoat and vest worn over a button-down shirt with matching slacks. The cut and fit of the clothes, which was rather austere and dignified, and reminded Murati of a commissariat clerk, or lawyer or a politician. There were suits of this sort that were dynamic and flashy and gave off a sense of modernity, but those were not the kind that Euphrates liked to wear. Because Euphrates was a relatively waifish woman, young looking as if her pretty face had been frozen in early adulthood, with her jaw-length blue hair barely combed back in voluminous and messy waves– she sometimes gave Murati the impression of a girl with a grandfather’s fashion sense.

Murati knew that she was an immortal and therefore felt that perhaps her sense of fashion was something that she had carried with her on her thousand year jaunt.

Or maybe it was all just Murati’s own biases about who wore such suits in her own life.

“Um.” Murati found herself a bit at a loss for words– and embarrassed at her inability.

This happened every so often– but more often lately as she was confronted with people and the difficulties that they represented. She lifted her hands slightly and tried to gesticulate, moving her fingers as if trying to express the handing of something over from one hand to another. She repeated the gesture helplessly. Euphrates looked at her for a moment, and then tenderly raised her own hand and took Murati’s in it, stroking her knuckles.

“Unfortunately, Murati, I am not able to understand your nonverbal cues as your wife can. I am sorry if I have contributed to this stress for you.” Euphrates said. “It is okay if you came here to ask me for something. I do not think you should be anxious about that. However, if you will allow me to collect a toll– I would like to talk to you about three little things first, and then you can proceed with your request, with full confidence. Is that okay?”

Murati nodded her head, starting to find her words again. “Alright. Sorry about this.”

“It’s fine.” Euphrates said. “It might be embarrassing to admit this, but I do like talking to you because– well, I have felt a sort of filial attachment to you developing since we met. Perhaps I am too quick to become affectionate toward people who I find endearing, maybe it’s a flaw– but I do think of you as someone close to me whom I wish to advise and nurture. Perhaps a mentee, perhaps a student, perhaps something like a– a niece, perhaps. I hope that this is not presumptuous of me to say. Does that offend you at all?”

“No, it does not.” Murati said. “I am– flattered. I respect you greatly.”

Murati was someone who had holes in her heart where family was concerned.

They had known each other a short time but Euphrates was easily the closest thing Murati had to a mother at any portion of the life which she remembered– having lost her mother as a very small child who had little opportunity to know her besides. Deshnov had not been a particularly nurturing figure for her. Euphrates was someone who offered advice and taught her things and supported her. Someone whose approval and respect she sought willingly. Someone whom she wanted to protect and even to care for– to keep from harm.

And now– someone whose resources she needed.

“You seem to be regaining your speech.” Euphrates said cheerfully. “So, my first item.” She extended her thumb in one hand. “Murati, have you continued to practice psionics?”

“Not as much as I would like to. I’m still exerting too much force.”

“I will devise a method so that you can work on that. Give me some time.”

“I trust you.”

“Good! I believe you will only become more skilled with time.” Euphrates smiled. “Murati, I want to teach you another psionic exercise that you can do basically any time– provided there isn’t someone with psionics who would think you’re gawking at them.” Euphrates lifted her hand, and moved it side to side slowly. “While you’re out and about or sitting down at the bridge perhaps– try to watch people’s auras moving along with their bodies.”

Murati pulled her internal trigger and her eyes glowed with red rings around her irises.

She watched Euphrates’ hand and tried to focus on the aura surrounding it.

“It looks like your aura is taking up the entire space your hand is moving.”

“That’s what it looks like now.” Euphrates said. “What I want you to focus on is to try to conceptualize the aura not as an undifferentiated mass that has occupied the entire space of my arm’s motion, but rather, to notice the differences in the aura where my arm is going and has gone. Do you understand? As people move, try to notice any hint of difference in their aura as they go. Does it detach in any given place? Does it move before their body?”

Murati strained her eyes but could not notice any difference at all.

Euphrates’ arm moved in the same predictable motion, for upwards of a minute–

However, the aura remained a static gradient of green and blue occupying the entire space.

There was not even the tiniest speck of a difference in Murati’s perception.

“It would be unfair to demand you understand this instantly.” Euphrates said, withdrawing her hand back to her plastic cup. “All I ask is that you try it as much as you are able, that you keep an open mind, and that you temper your frustrations. This is a conceptual exercise that will help open your mind further. You have already made incredible progress.”

Murati grumbled.

“You keep saying that– but I don’t feel like I have achieved much at all.”

“You, my dear, have achieved more than most of the human race, in this particular field.”

Euphrates smiled and took a contented sip of her tea.

Murati was not satisfied with that answer at all. However, she did not respond.

This was her way of trying to temper her frustrations, as Euphrates asked her to.

On the hand extending a thumb, Euphrates then extended her index finger.

“My second item of the promised three.” Euphrates said. “Have you opened the chronicle?”

Some time ago, she had bequeathed to Murati a chronicle left by her parents.

“I opened it.” Murati said, and said no more, leaving out a crucial detail–

She had not looked at hardly any information inside of the chronicle.

Her courage allowed her only to check that it worked.

All she saw was the first page and only briefly.

When she saw that it was a profile of Kutchicetus DNA she became demoralized.

Why would they have left data about some extinct animal genetics to her?

What was the point? They left that chronicle for her– did they think she would care?

She did not want to see the rest after that. But she could not tell Euphrates that.

Euphrates looked too delighted with her response.

“I’m glad. I do not need to hear about the contents– it is yours and only yours. It was only good fortune that led me to have possession of their work so that I could protect it. I am happy that I was able to turn it over. I collected everything I could, but I want you to understand Murati that they left it all to you. That chronicle contains their wishes for you.”

Murati felt guilty, and possibly Euphrates suspected something, but she said no more.

Regardless, she would not yet look at the full contents of that chronicle.

She did not feel ready to have the past intrude upon her present, not right now.

Perhaps– not ever–

“My third request of three– and thank you kindly for sitting with this old woman.”

Euphrates lifted her thumb, index, and middle fingers together.

She winked at Murati with a little grin, drawing a laugh out of Murati in response.

“I told you yesterday I want to form a new organization– I am not trying to recruit you or any Union military personnel on this ship of course.” Euphrates quickly pointed this out when Murati started to wear a troubled expression. “I just wanted to talk to you about my ideas.”

“I’m listening.” Murati said. “But you know– you don’t need to.”

Out of all of them– if anyone tallied up their suffering, Euphrates’ life would outweigh it.

Murati dearly wished this woman could be safe and uninvolved–

“–Ah, Murati, don’t deny an old lady her little hobbies, alright?” Euphrates teased.

As much as she joked, Murati knew Euphrates had a very strong sense of responsibility.

“Anyway.” Euphrates continued, since Murati had nothing to say in response and merely sipped on her own tea. “The Sunlight Foundation had as its chief goal, finding a way to reclaim the surface for human habitation. We had a lot of ideas of how this looked– for example, it would have been acceptable to us if we could construct a habitat that could survive the state of surface. We were not going to reverse however many centuries of destruction. We were not so foolish. Regardless we did not accomplish that. At this point, I can declare our goal a failure– but I always had a subsidiary goal I was pursuing too.”

“I truly feared,” Euphrates continued, after a little pause to sip her tea, “that Agarthicite would be abused as I knew that it had been on the surface. On the surface, I was a captive for much of my life, so I learned very little about how the world operated in any great detail. However, I knew, from the experiments on my body, and my very brief glimpse of freedom on the surface, and my long life under the ocean– that the ocean was technologically stunted in comparison. But it was only a matter of time before the crude instruments of survival which the ocean pioneers were given would develop into weapons along similar lines to those employed by the surface hegemony. So I set myself the task of interceding as I could on affairs related to agarthicite. I am not proud of it– but I still think it is necessary.”

Murati thought back to the Core Separation Crisis and felt a shudder about their future.

“With the current climate of political instability and escalation– I think it is inevitable that Agarthicite will be relied on more and abused as a vulnerability or a weapon.” She said.

To say such a thing was a heinous taboo– but the taboo was already broken.

She also knew that she was in the right company to make such a statement without scandal.

Euphrates smiled.

“No, Murati, it is not inevitable. Someone has to do something to stop it. So I want to create an organization that intercedes on issues of Agarthicite. I will create an organization that does independent research, and that advises on Agarthicite as an issue of public health and worker safety. I think this angle will work with the Union, don’t you?”

“With the Union?” Murati smiled a bit. “You’re finally throwing your lot in with us fully?”

“I have principles.” Euphrates said, grinning a bit back. “My principles tell me the Union will be far more amenable toward safer development of Agarthicite. With the Imbrian Empire and its warring states this is likely to be impossible, but the Union might just be a proper steward of Agarthicite. At the very least I think their rule of law compels them.”

As an environmental cause, it was unlikely for the Union as it was now to care about the concerns around Agarthicite– however, they were more likely to cooperate with an organization that conducted research and framed itself as supporting workers and public health. The Union was a proletarian state, and much like its workers were meant to support their own interests, the Union as a whole was organized around the interests of workers. If Euphrates founded a proletarian organization, she could potentially sway them.

However– this vision presupposed–

“–do you think the Union will be powerful enough to be a worthwhile ally for you?”

Murati asked this and Euphrates responded first with a wry smile.

“Do you not? Isn’t it your goal to spread the Union across the Imbrium?” She said.

“Is it yours?”

Euphrates looked her in the eyes with determination.

“It is now. Perhaps– it has been since the two of us met.” She said. “Everyone else has taken a side– so I am taking your side, Murati.” She raised a hand to her chest as if swearing an oath. “Murati, Daksha Kansal intervened in your life, in the life of the people of the Union, and she has abandoned you– I feel responsible for that. I am not so arrogant as to claim that I made Daksha Kansal what she is now. She is a genius, and without me, she would still have been a generational talent and a firebrand. But– the example I tried to set embittered her. If it were not for her frustrations with me she might still be leading the Union. Setting aside whether that would be better or worse for your people– now she is pitting herself against your people. Someone like her needs to take your side. I am your genius now.”

She tried to smile and to speak with more levity,

as she jokingly called herself

Murati’s genius–

That bit of humor could not hide the pain in her gaze and smile as she spoke to Murati. The edges of her mechanical eyes glimmered with tears she held back. Her fists closed on her lap. Her entire posture, her body language– she looked like someone holding back a storm by herself. Euphrates was openly in pain in front of her even as she spoke optimistically.

Murati set down her cup of tea and met that gaze and the pain hiding behind–

And she reached across the table, embracing Euphrates, suddenly taking her in close.

“Murati–!” Euphrates whimpered, surprised.

“Thank you, Euphrates. Thank you for everything.”

Murati stroked her hair and held her smaller frame, almost ephemeral in comparison.

In a strange way, in an inexplicable way, this woman had become special to her.

Though they had only known each other for weeks, months–

In her mind, in her emotional imaginary, Murati felt like she had known her for years.

Like she experienced a depth of pain and triumph with her she felt with very few people.

Not as a lover, not as a friend, not any of the relationships she ever had to another woman.

It was not something that she could explain that easily.

“You don’t have to hold anything back with me.” Murati said.

Then Euphrates returned the embrace, even more tightly than Murati had held her.

She finally allowed herself to weep. Almost silent sobs, almost austere catharsis.

Murati demanded nothing from her. She only offered herself to receive the tears.

To this woman, so powerful, so unfathomable– and so overwhelmingly burdened.

For exactly five minutes, Euphrates cried into Murati’s chest as quietly as she could.

Trying to make herself small and out of the way even as she cried.

Murati could feel when she was ready and let her go. Euphrates wiped her tears.

“Thank you, Murati. I am really sorry about that. I’ve regained my composure.”

“You don’t need to maintain composure with me. You can just be yourself.”

“That is very kind– but for myself at least, I value avoiding such outbursts.”

“Alright. For what it’s worth this does not change how I see you at all.”

Euphrates smiled.

Murati would not demand reasons or explanations from her.

“What do you think of the name ‘Dawn’?” Euphrates asked suddenly, lifting a few locks of her blue hair that had become displaced and tucking them behind her ear. She looked up at the ceiling as if there was something to see beyond it. “Back on the surface, when my body was being used for medical research– I heard of a rogue scientific collective called the Shooting Stars. They were called terrorists, villains, and were declared inhuman– because they challenged the Agarthicite conglomerates and tried to prevent calamity. Inspired by that vague memory, I came up with the name of the Sunlight Foundation to represent our goal of basking under the sun again. Our goal that tried to subvert everything to achieve. Now, I want to bring the sun down here, for the humans who are alive. I will call it the Dawn Association. Tigris and I will found it, and it will be equitable, and it will cooperate with others rather than hide away. We’ll work openly to raise a new generation of thinkers who believe in this world– rather than any more atavists dreaming of reviving the past.”

Murati smiled back. “I think it’s lovely. I’ll help however I can– in appropriate ways.”

Through and through Murati was a soldier and a communist, not a pseudophysicist.

Or even a humanitarian– all of this felt far too removed from her competencies.

Despite this she would do what she could to help Euphrates.

“Thank you. For now, it is enough that you give us a place to stay. Hopefully the Captain might be amenable to inviting a few more eccentric scientists aboard– I would like to look for some estranged old colleagues to assist me with this endeavor.” Euphrates said. “And perhaps sway any of the old guard that I can to try something new– though at least Daksha Kansal will not accept such a thing. I may have lost her– it hurts, but I must move on.”

“What will you do about Solarflare?” Murati asked.

“Cecilia is the pillar keeping Solarflare afloat. Tigris and I have always been either fixers or a source of selfish disruptions that she has put up with. We have caused her more trouble than we are worth. Ultimately, Solarflare will transition in some way, depending on what happens with Rhinea. For now Cecilia can count on Amelia Winn’s assistance. Alcor and Solarflare will be an interesting partnership. Amelia is a selfish and immature person, but she has a flexible management style to balance Cecilia’s rigidity, and most importantly, Amelia has legitimacy and resources within the establishment of Kreuzung. They will butt heads, but I think they will be fine; I am just not corporate CEO material in the way that they both are.”

“I see.” Murati would not comment on what she thought about Amelia Winn.

Euphrates took another sip of her tea, now beginning to turn room temperature.

She took a deep breath. She sounded contented when she spoke.

“That is my third little request. Thank you dearly, Murati. What did you want to ask me?”

Murati averted her gaze. All of her prior embarrassment returned for a moment.

Her ability to speak coherently did not depart from her again– thankfully.

But her request had not become any less selfish and she felt quite silly.

“I wanted to ask you for money.” Murati mumbled, staring at the table.

The Brigand’s stock of Reichsmarks was nearly depleted. While Premier Kairos would likely secure more funds from Gloria Innocence Luxembourg, it was unlikely that those funds would be available when Murati needed them, and available for her selfish purpose. It would have been even more mortifying to beg the Captain or Premier for money for personal entertainment. So for now, Murati needed money and had no way to acquire it.

“Oh! Of course, of course! Murati I would never judge you for something like that!”

Euphrates looked delighted with Murati, who still could not make eye contact.

“How much do you need?” Euphrates reached into her coat and withdrew a few credichips. Small rectangular devices that contained encrypted accounting of funds available for transactions. Less than a centimeter thick, with their cases decorated in various colors and brands and characters. She had so many– how much money could she have?

“You know, I was thinking about extending you an allowance, but I feared offending you.”

“I just need enough to take Karuniya to a nice restaurant.” Murati admitted, frowning.

“I am so happy for her. Have fun!” Euphrates handed Murati a purple and gold credichip.

Murati reluctantly took the credichip, offered her thanks,

and silently cursed capitalism.

“Oh ho! My little proteins are bouncing back! Grow little guys! Grow!”

A piercing sound of laughter rattled the instruments in the laboratory.

Karuniya Maharapratham held on to the sides of the electron microscope box, fingers clutching corners of the large chassis, while her face was nearly pressed on the LCD display to which it transmitted its magnified images. On the screen, a biostitched organoid subjected to harsh chemicals and conditions had begun to repair itself– after the application of a strange foreign substance. It should have died, as many other test cultures before it had died in the same experimental conditions. Instead it was managing to survive.

“Am I a genius? I need so much more data– but maybe this is it–

Even this modest result had been won after hours and hours of work–

And trillions of processing cycles from the main computer.

“Could this be related to the Omenseer’s durability?”

She had managed to isolate and employ an Omenseer-related substance.

Judging by its effect on an organoid that replicated human tissues–

“Can’t jump to conclusions though. For weird stuff like this– it’s got to be ironclad.”

Everything was recorded automatically, but Karuniya still took her own notes.

While she would have to trial it much more extensively and on more complex organoids, there was a sudden hope brimming in her heart as she watched the monitor. She would call the substance Compound A for now– she had isolated the enzymes from Arabella’s materials. If this was part of the Omenseer’s healing factor, she might have found a base for new medigels and antidotes– and ones guaranteed to be compatible with Omenseer biology. She would have to run a lot of tests and gather a lot of data to convince the Captain and Commissar to let her try the substance on anyone in the crew– herself included, more than likely. But she had something now. It was a start she did not have before.

Her eyes wandered over to a small rack on her desk, containing several different fluids.

These were Murati’s materials– she idly thought of testing Compound A on them–

Karuniya made a dirty grin at the tubes. “I wonder what it would do with Murati’s–”

Her intrusive thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a physical intruder–

“Mushroom lady! Mushroom lady! Good morning!”

“Don’t call me mushroom lady!”

Arabella herself had appeared to pay a visit, all smiles and with a proud grin.

“Why are you so cheerful today?” Karuniya asked.

“Braya said that I was being more annoying than ever and sent me to bother you for a bit!”

Arabella stuck out her hand with a thumbs-up. Karuniya stared at her for a moment.

“Well, if you’ve got some blood to spare, I could definitely use it.” Karuniya smiled.

In response Arabella made a deflating noise.

“Always after my blood.” She mumbled.

Zachikova must have been busy with something important to have actually sent Arabella away– probably adding new requested features to ZaChat. That made her more irritable than usual because she found her power users (Murati and Erika) annoying also. Karuniya did not mind having Arabella around, depending on the circumstances. She was always excitable or at least she put up a front that she was– how excitable was what varied day to day.

Physically, Arabella appeared well.

Her light brown skin and long, dark purple-blue hair were a contrast to how she first presented itself and made her look rather handsome, especially with her shoulders bared. Karuniya wondered if the list of princes might be amended to include her. The sailors must have seen her around without her jacket now. Her figure was sleek, her limbs slim and long, and she presented a bit taller than she used to as well, though not as tall as Murati.

Karuniya had not seen her injuries, but she had read the account of her circumstances in Kreuzung from Zachikova’s report. If a human even survived such a mauling it would take them months of care and attention. Arabella was up and about as if nothing happened– there were not even scars on her shoulders. If Compound A was part of the biological system responsible for these miracle recoveries– well, studying the Omenseers in general might save a lot of future lives or even improve the resilience of ordinary humans.

For the moment however those were pipe dreams.

“Speaking of blood, actually– there is something you can do for me.”

She beckoned Arabella closer to one of the tables, where a small refrigerator for samples had been filled with something else entirely. Karuniya opened the door and produced a small bundle of separately shrink-wrapped packages. Because the shrink-wrap was opaque the contents could not be seen until Karuniya peeled off the plastic. She demonstrated that each package contained a dark brown, nearly black snack bar with a rough surface and a crumbly texture. Karuniya tore a piece and showed Arabella the texture of it.

“This is a bar made of human blood mixed with coconut flour to keep it together.”

One thing Karuniya could test in the moment was the first part of her nascent logistical system for their Omenseer compatriots– a way to feed them human tissue in a humane fashion. This would be necessary to support them in the long term. Without a way to feed their Omenseers, they had to remain in the constant company of their partners.

Arabella averted her gaze briefly, but Karuniya shook her hand in the air.

“The blood was collected humanely! With medical consent and everything!” She clarified.

“Whose blood was it?” Arabella asked. Eyes still averted– wearing a bashful expression.

“Why do you care?” Karuniya sighed. “This batch came from myself and Dr. Kappel.”

“I care because–” Arabella started rubbing her index fingers together, “I– I like biting Braya.”

Karuniya nearly burst out laughing.

“Oh come on! You can keep biting her recreationally! I’m not here to police your bedroom activities! I just want to be able to stockpile nutrients for you and Olga! That is all!”

Arabella made eye contact again. Relief slowly dawned on her face, and she smiled.

She took the blood bar Karuniya offered her. Turning it around on her fingers.

Sniffing it.

Finally she brought it up to her mouth and put the whole thing in.

Puffing up her cheeks to the size of two fists–

“It’s not that much! Don’t act like I’m trying to choke you!” Karuniya said.

Arabella’s cheeks immediately shrank back to normal after. She continued to chew.

“It’s gross. It’s not like Braya’s blood at all. I want to spit it out.” She mumbled.

“Don’t spit it out! Do you feel a certain way when you eat human tissue?”

“Yes, there’s a certain feeling.” Arabella swallowed the bar with a glum expression.

“Do you feel that way while eating this?” Karuniya asked.

“Yes, I feel like I am eating humans. But I did not like it. Can I never eat this again?”

“You will be eating it again. We need to gather more data for my research.”

Arabella looked down at the ground with her arms hanging at her sides.

“It’s for your own good.” Karuniya said. “We can try to make the flavor better.”

She reached out and patted Arabella’s head briefly, careful to avoid her horns.

“We should use Braya’s blood. It tastes better than yours.” Arabella said.

“How the hell– I’m so much healthier; I eat a balanced diet; I actually exercise even–”

Initially offended– Karuniya realized quickly how ridiculous it was to feel that way.

“Nevermind. I promise we’ll improve the flavor. It’s a process of development!” Karuniya said. “For now, just hang around for an hour or two and tell me if you feel sated. You can help me with the mushrooms while you’re here too.” She pointed at a few racks of fresh growing media in need of installation, and then pointed at the mushroom tanks.

“It’s always about mushrooms or my blood.” Arabella said. “Can’t we just play a bit?”

“You can play with the mushrooms. By installing them on the tank.” Karuniya said.

She tried not to sound too stern, but she was an adult with a job to do.

And Arabella did enough playing with Zachikova. Both on and off the bridge.

Regardless of her grumbling, Arabella promptly went to the mushrooms like a good girl.

Karuniya smiled. She was a handful, but she was well intentioned.

“Think of it this way, Arabella– my nasty bars will help humans and omenseers get along.”

Arabella looked over her shoulder, carrying the grow media. She smiled back.

“What kind of gift would a princess like, anyway?”

Mentally, she could already hear Elena’s voice going ‘I’m not a princess!’

Marina McKennedy smiled to herself.

There were so many stores around her that it was hard to get a sense of where to go.

Especially when she was still debating with herself.

“Makeup maybe? Or maybe a new dress? I know her measurements after all.”

Unsure of how she would spend her free time by herself, she decided to get Elena a gift and bring it back to the Brigand– and maybe spend some time with her for the day afterward. The people on the John Brown were alright, and she felt more at home with them than the commies, but she was still navigating the awkward adjustment period. She had just transferred over and did not really know anyone other than Burke– even after a few games of poker she did not really feel like she had any new friends. Burke was fine, but he was also a very business-like type of guy. Captain Eithnen meanwhile was a bit too casual and could be easily provoked to drink too much or to get mad at cards for too long.

Marina missed the friendly and colorful people she had continuously betrayed.

They were strange but they were typically conscientious and easy to get along with.

It was all her fault that she missed them– and that only made it sting a bit harder.

But all Marina had ever known in life– was the sting, wasn’t it? Relief was alien to her.

“Forget it, Marina.” She muttered under her own breath. “Just try to make the best of it.”

At least she was alive– and she was a woman now too.

Some things had improved.

At any rate– what mattered was Elena, and a gift to make up for all the trouble.

And for all the failure–

Marina’s biggest obstacle on her shopping expedition was that, and she had to admit this to herself quite sternly, she really did not know Elena as well as she wanted to. Or maybe even much at all. Leda loved music and art and sweet desserts; she was a polymath and a casual artist; she liked high end beauty products and stylish clothing. She liked to tie Marina up and fuck her– if all else Marina could always gift her that. She had been a sophisticated socialite, and well-bred, with a hidden edge, all of these things were easy to understand.

Elena was not her mother. She was quieter, less sociable, even a little less feminine.

Even before her proletarian streak, by all accounts Elena was nothing like her title would suggest. When she was a girl she played video games, played pranks on her maids, and rode horses. She liked to play in the dirt and woods in her gilded cage in Vogelheim. She was not particularly accomplished in any of her schooling nor proficient in the arts– not interested in playing music, not interested in painting. She was somewhat clumsy and anxious. Leda had been a born and bred aristocrat of a premiere Elven lineage– Elena was sparsely tutored until she was unceremoniously sent to Luxembourg School for Girls where her biggest interest was courting trouble alongside her bizarre gaggle of friends. Konstantin von Fueller had not invested much in her development, unlike that of her brother.

All of this made Elena a cipher to the G.I.A. agent so reliant on stereotypes of others.

Marina walked within a maelstrom of advertising in the first tier commercial area. There were storefronts with promotional images of young girls enjoying desserts and frosty drinks, picking out fancy dresses, enjoying the latest and slimmest slate portables, trying on beautiful makeup. Floating billboards overhead promising high adventure at Epoch Clothiers or a complete transformation at a Raylight Beauty outlet. Perfumes so chic the men in the ads were completely hypnotized by the leading lady. Hip girls tasting the latest bioengineered flavors at Volwitz Foods. Marina tried to place Elena in those scenes as best as she could, but something was not clicking. She did not want to bring Elena something impermanent like a dessert, but she feared that if she bought her clothes it would be filtered entirely through her own taste– and perhaps even worse, subject to her own confused libido toward the girl. Digital gadgets were out of the question because the commies would be concerned about any potential tracking. Anything too cheap or shitty would just embarrass her. Elena would probably appreciate any gesture, but Marina wanted more.

Standing in the middle of four different LED panel ads for the same beverage, Marina put her hands in her suit pockets and sighed. What kind of gift would show her sincerity that this time, she wasn’t lying or trying to manipulate her– what would it take to show Elena that she really meant it when she said she wanted to make up for all the lies and false promises? Something that was sincere and heartfelt and could open the conversation about how fucking terrible she felt? Something to show she still cared about Elena?

Any of the commies would have said something ridiculous about her feelings–

But Marina was through and through a very material person.

More promises without any collateral– would be the same as her many empty words.

This time had to be different.

“Nothing feels right. Am I really this much of an asshole that I can’t think of anything?”

Walking through the thoroughfares, her mind filled with troubles–

She hardly saw the boisterous girl who was heading her way as if she owned the street–

When the two collided, both nearly fell.

“What the fuck is your problem–?”

“Watch where you’re going you piece of shit–!”

Marina came face to face with a girl about Elena’s age perhaps– one also boasting purple hair but wearing her flamboyant hair color openly. She was not an elf, but she was pretty, had quite a body, and she clearly flaunted it, her shoulders exposed by her wide-neck sweater, her skirt cut to where it met her thigh-high stockings. A pair of strange antennae stuck out of her head, each shimmering with a rainbow of colors but largely translucent as if made of plastic. Marina was initially captivated by the girl’s appearance–

Then her scowl brought the G.I.A. agent down to Aer.

Meanwhile, the girl simply tried to push past Marina again, making aggravated noises.

Entering and exiting her life as any other of the billions of persons on Aer–

“Hey! Wait a second! I’m sorry!” Marina called out. She had turned and called out.

Her heart nearly seized when the girl continued to walk away–

Only for a second. Because the girl stopped, and half-turned, a tentative pouting face.

Partway fixed, partway moving– partway in Marina’s life for a moment more–

“Huh? And why the fuck would I care if you’re sorry, lady?”

Why did Marina care about this girl? Why did she call out to her again?

Did she feel familiar?

“You look like a trendy girl– can you show me any decent shopping around here?”

No– Right– maybe she could help her pick a gift for Elena–?

Marina spoke almost before she even recognized that she had spoken.

“Hmph. Hmph! Well. You have some nerve, you know?”

The trendy girl tossed her hair, crossed her arms, and grinned, locking eyes with Marina.

“Trendy huh? At least you can recognize it when you inconvenience someone important. Maybe I’ll shower you with my wisdom. But you will have to make it worth my while.”

“Sure. I’ll buy you a treat. How’s that sound?”

Again the girl scowled. “I’m not a kid you know– ah– whatever.”

She put her hands in the pockets of her skirt and walked toward Marina, pausing near her.

Indicating perhaps for Marina to follow– she did, and the two of them walked together.

“My name’s Marina. I’m looking for a gift– for a girl your age.”

“Selene.” Said the girl and snickered at Marina without meeting her eyes, staring forward at the thoroughfare as she spoke. “How perverted– you must be like ten years older than me.”

“More like thirty.” Marina said, cracking a grin. “But it’s not like that. She’s– a friend.”

“You know when you say that you just sound suspicious? And now you’re after me?”

“You’re still here, so you must enjoy the thrill, you damn brat.”

“I got nothin’ better to do, you fucking hag.”

Selene– neither a common nor an uncommon name.

She really did seem way too familiar– Marina was far too amused with her.

It felt silly and impulsive of her–

And– maybe she really did think of Selene that way

However, she would make damn sure her interest remained harmless, for everyone’s sake.

Maybe she would come back with a better gift for Elena because of this.

“Well, I’m always happy to pal around with a cute girl for a bit.”

“Eww. You suck.”

Selene glared at Marina and stuck her tongue out at her. Marina laughed.

As they walked Marina ran through her mental ledger and she just couldn’t put the girl’s face to anything– nor those silly rabbit ears she wore. Marina could have sworn they were attached to her head, perhaps cybernetic implants of some kind. She feared asking about it would drive Selene away. Selene was colorful enough that Marina would have recognized her easily– but she was getting old after all. It made sense she was not as sharp as she was some twenty-five odd years ago in what she considered the prime of her life and career.

Still, the sense of familiarity bothered her. It was right on the edge of her memory–

Thinking she might be letting something slip bothered her even more–

However, even if this girl was someone she should know, there was nothing she could do about this feeling in that moment and on that day. She was a civilian out in public not a G.I.A. agent capable of anything serious. If this girl was actually some Volkisch super-spy Marina could not just blow her brains out in the middle of the shopping district. If she was a VIP Marina was not prepared to kidnap her off the street. So she resolved to put her hands in her pockets and go along with it. Certainly having someone else pick a gift could only be more productive than for Marina herself to wrack her brain in a loop about it.

“Hey, you’re so goddam tense. You’re like radiating tension. Just chill out already.”

Selene glanced aside at her. She looked and sounded more annoyed than anything.

“What do you mean I’m radiating tension? I’m fine. Everything is already ‘chill’.”

Marina tried to play it off. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Anyone ever told you that you’re actually extremely fucking easy to read?”

Too many people for me to be comfortable with. Marina simply grunted in response.

Selene stopped in front of a shop, turned to face Marina and gestured with both hands.

Voila! You ask what’s the trendy gift among girls my age? Look no further.”

Marina looked up at the sign.

It was a toy shop called Buddies Wonderworld, where they would craft custom dolls or sell specific branded ones. Right now, they were promoting, front and center, on both sides of their front panel glass and seemingly all over the store, a toy known as Funni Shark. Selene appeared to gesture silently toward Funni Shark. Marina was mesmerized by the toy– it was orange, with a dark ridged body, googley eyes and two large frontal appendages–

“Funni Shark?” Marina asked.

“Funni Shark.” Selene nodded sagely, with a little grin. Proud of herself?

“I’m not shopping for a twelve year old, you know.”

“You’re just too old to get it, but Funni Shark is all the rage among young girls.”

In no way was that toy a fucking shark! That was the extinct, ancient anomalocaris!

“I don’t believe you. You are just buying into some stupid hype marketing scam.”

“Look at me, Ms. Marina– that is Funni Shark, and he is fucking trending.

This was ridiculous but Marina could feel herself getting drawn in hopelessly–

“No, Selene, you look at me– it’s not a shark. That is not a toy shark.”

Selene crossed her arms and looked smug. “Of course you don’t understand it.”

Marina looked at the toy and then back at Selene and felt like she was going insane.

“It’s just not! I’m not missing anything that is just visibly not a toy shark!”

“That’s what’s Funni about it. That’s why it’s the Funni Shark.”

Marina wanted to buy one just to throw it at Selene’s smug face.

“You can pass it up at your own peril.” Selene said. She shrugged, lifting her palms. “But you won’t find many gifts more universally beloved than Funni Shark. It’s been in magazine ads you know– even Mia Weingarten has been seen with a Funni Shark. It would fly off the shelves and be gone forever if they couldn’t just synthestitch more of them.”

Almost certainly Selene was just fucking with her and wanted her to look stupid.

It definitely seemed to fit with her rotten personality.

Nevertheless, Marina walked past the self-satisfied Selene and picked up a Funni Shark.

Brought it to the front, got it scanned, paid for it and took it away.

Stuffing it in a bag and out of sight.

When she walked back out, Selene was still there waiting.

Marina grunted. “You’ll get your treat, but I want to buy a backup gift.”

“Fine~! I can do this all day~!”

Selene seemed far too amused at Marina’s irritation.

Through the lines of shops, the pair set off again.

Selene led Marina up to the highest platform of the lower shopping district, with the roof above them being part of the floor of the second tier. They were so high up that they were slightly above the attractions suspended in the glass sealing off the central atrium and could see the breadth of the shopping district beneath them. From above, Marina felt there were less people here than in similar locations in Kreuzung. Within the crowd she had felt that there were a lot of shoppers, but with the benefit of different perspective the place felt slightly undercrowded for what it was. There were so many shops too.

“I’m curious– what brings you to Aachen? It doesn’t strike me as a trendy place overall.”

For trend Marina thought of Stralsund, the “island of pleasures” in eastern Eisental.

Or even Kreuzung itself, the nerve center of the Eisental region.

“None of your business.” Selene replied. “I’ve got a job here, just like you do, probably.”

“Would it impress you if I said I was actually a merc?” Marina said, grinning.

She likely sounded weirder for having thought it was edgy than for admitting it at all.

“Nope! Mercs are a dime a dozen in this war-torn hellhole we call the Imbrium.”

Selene also grinned, looking far too happy with how easily she dismissed Marina.

She wasn’t wrong, however– for as much as the ordinary person might never really run into one or think about them, the Imbrium had long been the home of ideological forces thanks to the tug-of-war between various factions. The gradual weakening of the nobility and gradual rise of the innoble rich left enormous gaps between for new actors and for deniable irregular forces. So even aside from the Katarran mercenaries, militias and agitators were not uncommon sights. In contrast, Marina’s homeland was far less dynamic than the chaos that beset the Imbrium. Alayze promoted itself as the sole legitimate democracy on Aer, and this legacy was so widely internalized that even if there was an open political tussle, the winner would always align with the corporations and with democratic governance. They would ultimately uphold the Alayzean way of life– it was in their best personal interest because it was just such a convenient continuity to form a part of.

There wasn’t the kind of horrific runaway broiler of ideologies the Imbrium possessed.

Or so Marina thought– she had not been in Alayze for twenty years.

And even as a G.I.A. agent there had always been things she wasn’t privy to–

How was the Republic of Alayze carrying on now anyway? How as the Mare Cogitum?

Thinking about what passed for normal in the Imbrium brought her painful memories.

It was a dehumanizing evil country– but she had spent so much of her life for its sake.

She couldn’t help but think about it every so often.

If they kept sending failed expeditions into the Imbrium throughout her absence, while never working on the standard of living, and also giving the corporations too many advantages to exploit and too many incentives to manipulate the government for ever increasing war profit– perhaps by now the Republic could be facing its own internal crisis that might actually change the makeup of power there. But she doubted it– Alayze was far too entrenched in the end of its own history, in Marina’s eyes, for anything to ever change.

In her mind, the Imbrium was a maelstrom that would rampage without end, but Alayze was a stoic monument. It had been etched into the stone of its constitution and it could never be changed, because nobody would ever allow it to change significantly.

The Republic of Alayze was a petrified country; stone upon which nothing could grow.

And Imbria was dead; but its corpse was filled with lively maggots ready to sprout wings.

“You went silent on me. Are you that pouty that I am not opening up to you?”

“No, I frankly couldn’t care less– I just enjoy looking at you. You can be quiet if you want.”

Marina responded quickly, an instinctual playbook– Selene immediately set to fuming.

Regardless, she never left Marina’s side. Was she fascinated, perhaps?

Or did she recognize her from somewhere– as Marina had tried but failed to do?

Or– perhaps she was just as bored and aimless as she claimed to be.

Maybe it’s not all conspiracies, Marina McKennedy.

However– in the back of her mind she knew she was missing something–

After all– that shade of purple reminded her so strongly of–


No– it couldn’t be.

And she was not in a position to beg any answers.

Definitely not for such a dear and desperate subject.

“We are here.” Selene said.

Tucked in a corner of the highest level of the first tier shopping district–

“–It’s just a Raylight Beauty outlet. It’s so shameless of them to have two here.”

“It’s a Raylight Bath & Body, dumbass. Totally different product lines.”

Selene looked at Marina like she was the stupidest individual in the world.

Marina did not appreciate being patronized so much by a brat– but she put up with it.

If this girl was related in any way to Asan, she has none of that woman’s cool demeanor.

She reminded Marina of her own difficult self than anything–

“Come on, quit standing there, I have just the thing, your girlie will love it.”

The interior of the Raylight Beauty outlet was massive, overwhelming and mesmeric. In the center of the space there were several slowly rotating pillars made up of cube-shaped product display units that were made of touch-panel steel and glass. They beckoned young women to try a sample, at which point the pillar would stop moving and dispense a bit of whatever was requested, be it a bit of soap to be touched and smelled, or a dab of moisturizer to apply, or a bit of towel fabric to touch and feel. Every wall except for the glass façade bore rows of product shelves that were themselves sealed off in reflective glass that showed the product inside, but each cell could also turn the wall into an enormous screen periodically displaying brand content. Supporting screens affixed to the ceiling also played pop music videos and Raylight commercials, some of which even featured Gloria.

Watching Gloria Innocence Luxembourg wink at her from a dozen monitors was bizarre.

Considering that same pink fairy of a woman was plotting with the commies as they spoke.

“Hmm? Do they not have it anymore? Oh, no, here it is!”

Marina followed Selene around the store as she flitted from shelf to shelf.

Finally stopped in front of a display with a purple and gold bottle of a fancy moisturizer.

“Any girl, no matter who she is, can never have enough moisturizer.” Selene said. “But this is not just any moisturizer. It has natural biotin sourced from nuts, and is made without harsh chemicals so it can be applied to any type of skin no matter how sensitive! This one also has Raylight’s patented scentillation technology– see, the aroma here is ‘jubilant afternoon tea’ and it literally smells like that. It’s the best moisturizer ever made. She’ll love it.”

Selene had said more about this moisturizer than about any other topic they had broached.

Marina squinted at the label to make sure she was not just reading off it.

“Well– I can’t disagree with any of that.” She said. She took a bottle from the shelf.

A stuffed animal, a bottle of moisturizer– Marina wondered if Elena would feel patronized.

She had run around with Selene for that long for such simple items.

Nevertheless– she did not feel particularly put off by the journey she had taken.

It had been fun.

Marina paid for the bottle and as before, Selene stuck around until they left the store.

Looking at Marina expectantly with a smug little smile.

“Alright, you’ve earned it. Whatever you want to eat, and it’s my treat.” Marina said.

“I was curious whether you would uphold your end.” Selene said, punctuated with a giggle.

Skipping along cheerfully, Selene led Marina back down to the middle platform.

They stopped in front of a venue with a large plastic sign above the door, red and green, shaped like a dozen tomatoes all attached to the same bright green vine. In white letters, it read La Bella Pomodora. It was a kitschy Elven pizza shop, its false wood interior decorated with fake reeds and vines as if to suggest the space was overrun with crawling foliage. All of the employees were dressed in white blouses with green bodices and red skirts, and dyed their hairs bright colors, green and blue and even a familiar shade of indigo. Some of the girls wore decorative ear clips as if to make themselves appear more Elven. Like Elves in general, Marina got the impression pizza was an exotic curiosity in the Imbrium.

A hostess seated the pair in a small sealed booth table with a touch interface for ordering.

Moments later she returned with a bread basket, olive oil and water for them.

When the door shut on their booth, traditional Elven strings began to play from overhead.

On the walls, a fake scrolling countryside played, all rolling hills and olive trees.

“I’ll leave it up to you.” Marina said, pointing at the digital menus displayed on the table.

Across the table, Selene’s eyes were practically popping out of her face as she surveyed the offerings. She scrolled rapidly through the menu, taking in every single pie, every single topping. Of course, there was the traditional Marzana pie, rustic, with cheese, tomato and basil. But for the Imbrian palette, there was a constellation of non-traditional offerings.

“Currywurst pizza? This looks disgusting.” Marina said.

“What, are you an Elven Heritage Association certifier now?” Selene said.

“Better. I had an Elven ex.” Marina said. “She would be livid.”

Probably not, actually– but it was funnier to pretend Leda cared about such things.

“Well she’s not ordering and I am. I don’t like currywurst anyway.”

Eventually, despite rifling through all of the condiments, combo meals, special offers and exclusive limited time dishes only available while supplies last– Selene finally decided to have a very classic and traditional Marzana pie. Marina ordered the same. Two small roughly thirty centimeter pizzas arrived at their table soon after. Fresh red sauce, melted mozzarella, big lively leaves of basil and slightly charred edges on the crust. It was tantalizingly fragrant and still radiated warmth. They were given a cutter to slice the pie to their liking, and Selene quickly cut herself a big slice, took a big bite, and shut her eyes with a sudden pleasure.

Beaming with cheeks full of pizza, a string of cheese pulled on her lips.

Her antennae twisted into little knots– Marina couldn’t help but find it cute.

She took a bite of her own pie. It was delicious– just the right balance of sweet and tangy with a deep umami, a crispy crust, perfectly melted cheese and bright herbal flavor from the basil. There was a complex, nutty earthiness to the bread, and the sauce still had a bit of texture from the fresh tomato. Marina wished the elves were as widespread around the Imbrium as the Shimii and their cuisine– she could eat this stuff every day.

It reminded her of the fast food back in the Cogitum, but of far higher quality.

“Are you having fun?” Marina asked.

Selene seemed shaken out of her reverie by the reintroduction of Marina’s presence.

She sighed openly.

“I’m glad I ran into you. I was bored. Are you happy now?”

Marina smiled.

Selene averted her gaze and continued to enjoy her pizza.

“You know– I don’t think it’s appropriate for a girl like you to be a mercenary.”

“And what’ll you do about it? Try to save me? I don’t need anyone’s rescuing.”

“Fair enough. I can’t even save myself. But you should settle down while you can.”

Selene put down her pizza for a moment and looked at Marina with a serious face.

“Hey, thanks for letting me play girlie with you for an afternoon– but you don’t know me.”

“I don’t. I’m sorry. I just– I see a bit of myself in you for some reason.” Marina said.

Maybe she was wrong– but she thought she understood what Selene truly got out of this.

Behind all of that attitude and prickliness was a girl who wished this was her actual life.

Running around shopping and carousing and being a normal girl, being a dumb kid.

Marina thought that she had helped provide her a little bit of fantasy that day.

If Selene was a mercenary, and with that strange gear on her head, she might well be–

Then today was a fantasy for a girl who normally lived in a ship that rarely ceased moving.

Maybe battlefield to battlefield; maybe murder to murder; intrigue to intrigue.

Wishing this every-day fantasy could replace her duty, what she had made for herself.

Just like when Marina wore sexy bras in her room and smoked a bunch of cigarettes and wished she was anything but an agent of the Alayzean G.I.A. Entrapping people, surveilling them, fabricating evidence, and of course, brutalizing and killing those who got caught in her webs. On some of those days she had wished she was just a girl going shopping without a care in the world, trying on pretty clothes and going on restaurant dates. Maybe even being some rich guy’s kept girl and being taken care of and bought jewelry and furs.

Having the room to live the life that the world had denied her.

Or– maybe it was all just presumptions from someone with too many regrets.

“Eat up. I’m sorry to be a bummer.” Marina said.

“It’s ok.” Selene said. She resumed eating her pizza, perking up a little bit along the way.

Marina picked up the tab, and when they left the restaurant, they faced each other.

Both of them smiled; the dark clouds left behind along with their completed oaths.

“You don’t have to worry about me, lady. I’m tougher than I look.” Selene said.

“I know. A girl who swears as much as you do does it with confidence.” Marina said.

“Fuckin’ right. Well– good luck with your own shit, you hag.” Selene grinned.

“Good luck. I hope we never see each other out in the Ocean, you damn brat.”

“Mm-hmm. Thanks for the free pizza.”

Selene turned and departed on her own way, waving her hand and laughing a bit to herself.

Marina watched her disappear into the distance, before turning and leaving herself.

Just another moment with a stranger on God’s blue Aer.

Nothing more– of course.

Once Marina returned to Stockheim, she approached Elena with her gifts and a smile.

“Oh! Marina! You didn’t need to–! But I really appreciate it– Funni Shark?” Elena said.

She pulled out the anomalocaris and squished it, giggling at its silly name and appearance.

“It’s really popular among young girls these days.” Marina said, prompting another laugh.

Elena’s gentle giggling– Marina silently thanked Selene that she got to see this again.

Marina reached out and ruffled Elena’s hair, feeling just a bit more at peace.

“Murati– when I asked if we could go out for a bit– I didn’t mean–”

“Hmm? Is something wrong? I’m sorry. I tried to pick a restaurant everyone would like.”

“Murati– it’s not that– ugh– why are you always so–”

“Why are you mumbling over there? You can speak up, Shali-Shali~–”

“Maharapratham– please stop calling me–”

“Sonya is a little bit shy! But don’t worry, she’ll bounce right back around!”

Shalikova sank against the table in complete defeat.

Maryam reached across and squeezed her hand gently in support.

At her side, Murati Nakara– across the restaurant table from her, that demon Karuniya Maharapratham, and her own purple, marshmallowy angel, Maryam Karahailos.

How had it all come to this? How had this horrific situation been inflicted on her? She traced her mistake back to her naïve idea of asking Murati out for a drink or even just a walk around– to talk to her and try to bury her one-sided hatchet. It was ridiculous, she thought, to disdain Murati and to be annoyed and even anxious to talk to her.

Just because Murati could be a little too nice, a bit smothering.

Nevertheless, she had been quite anxious going up and asking her– and then–

“Oh! Shalikova– I was going to a restaurant tonight with my wife.” Murati replied.

Salvation. Shalikova smiled. “Oh, sure, then we don’t need to do anything–”

“Actually– I can definitely pay for you too– and you could bring a friend!”

Murati smiled and became suddenly excited.

Shalikova choked on her words immediately.

“Karu would be really excited about a double date– what do you say?”

“Um.” Shalikova froze up, started to look around, and ultimately–

She agreed?!

Now they were seated at a restaurant together, on the first tier commercial district of Aachen’s core station. How Murati had gotten the money for this reservation when their budgets had been restricted was anybody’s guess– she seemed buddy-buddy with the Premier so maybe she had access to more funds? It was not a particularly ritzy place, but it was not some random currywurst joint either. It was a hip foodie spot called Green is the Garden that had won awards. Murati must have picked it for the bigger vegetarian selection. Every enclosed dining unit had a freestanding table and chairs inside, rather than just being a booth with sliding doors. On the walls, there were projections of bright blue water and flowing green meadows and schools of fish. Colorful vibes, almost garishly so.

Shalikova regretted it immediately– but Maryam had been so excited to go.

And Murati looked pretty happy too. She was usually so stoic and impassive.

So perhaps she would put up with it–

“Shalikova, I have to say, I never took you as someone to dress so boldly.” Karuniya said.

Grinning like a fox– an extroverted vixen from the fires of hell itself!

“This was a gift.” Shalikova said, as if that explained everything.

Once again she was dressed in her red and gold “ACE” tracksuit with her gaudy sunglasses.

Maryam wore her nice blue dress with the ruffled skirt and the matching floppy beret. Her attire became all the lovelier by the fact that unlike in Kreuzung, she could be her true purple self in Aachen. Beside her, Karuniya dressed casually– she had on a long floral skirt and a tight, halterneck green top, bearing her shoulders and with a triangle cutout showing off some cleavage. Probably the outfit she finagled out of the Captain when they were planning disguises for the officers. Murati, meanwhile, had on a long-sleeved button-down white shirt partially unbuttoned, with black slacks. Shalikova was most taken aback by that because she always imagined Murati being too stuck up even to show off a bit of collarbone.

She had never struck Shalikova as the type to deliberately unbutton her shirt.

And she wore a black bra with all of that? Did her evil wife put her up to that?

“Maryam, you look gorgeous!” Karuniya said, still doling out the compliments. “We’ve rarely had occasion to talk– I’m so happy we got to set this up! Shali-Shali, you are so lucky to have such a cute girlfriend, you know? You better shower her in affections day and night!”

“Hey–!” Shalikova tried to interject–

Turning over her mental ledger of who knew about them–

“Sonya is absolutely wonderful to me! She is so lovey dovey!” Maryam said. Her guileless smile had hardly ever been brighter, she was positively glowing from all the attention. Shalikova immediately gave up on trying to stop this meeting of the minds. “You look so nice yourself, Ms. Maharapratham! I always thought you seemed really fashionable! And everyone always talks about how delicious and plump your mushrooms are!”

Karuniya narrowed her eyes and mumbled for a moment. “Again with the mushrooms–!”

“What was that, Ms. Maharapratham? I didn’t quite hear–!” Maryam said.

“Never mind!” Karuniya said. “Don’t call me Ms. Maharapratham! I’m Karuniya!”

She wrapped an arm around Maryam’s shoulder and pulled her in to pat her head.

Maryam laughed racuously and played along, slapping Karuniya’s back with her tentacles.

Making lots of cuttle noises and little wah cries. At least she was happy.

Shalikova glanced at her side, feeling completely out of her depth.

All throughout her wife’s rampages, Murati had been diligently reading the menu.

“Does everyone know what they want to order?” She asked, not even looking up from it.

“Murati,” Karuniya said, grinning, “C’mon! Loosen up a little! We’re with friends!”

“I’m pretty loose?” Murati said. She was wearing her glasses and idly adjusted them.

Shalikova stared at her, wondering how she could be so simultaneously a scatterbrain, and look kind of cool when she was on mission– and look kinda attractive too? It felt like she couldn’t be the same person for all three. Or even the person Shalikova thought she knew to begin with. If that assumption was wrong, what else was Shalikova just not seeing?

What had she unfairly assumed?

Suddenly she felt rather foolish and averted her gaze from everyone.

She looked down at the menu.


Murati spoke her name. Shalikova raised her head suddenly.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had it, but Saag is a North Bosporan spinach dish. It’s delicious.”

Shalikova stared at her for a moment and tried to smile.

“Thanks for the recommendation.” She said, trying to be nice.

Murati smiled and returned to perusing the menu.

There was a lot of stuff on the menu, but it seemed to focus on the more “exotic” cuisines of the Empire– there was a lot of Shimii, Bosporan and Campos foods with some Eloim and Juzni dishes here and there. Certainly it was not a place where one could get a currywurst or black bread like the typical Imbrian eatery. Though they sold it as a “green” menu full of “healthy” food and did not try to exoticise it, the influences were very clear. Shalikova took Murati’s suggestion and ordered the spinach and cheese concoction with flatbread. Maryam ordered rice and beef stuffed cabbage rolls in spicy sauce, seemingly without much deliberation. Karuniya ordered an extragavant layered dish of eggplant, mushroom and potato, topped with both a tomato sauce and a bechamel along with herbs and a sprinkling of cheese, called a Musaka. Murati ordered a dish of vegetable koftas topped with a lentil-thickened tomato and saffron sauce. Everything arrived promptly, hot, and well-plated.

Possibly the fanciest plate of food Shalikova ever had in her life, and it was just a bowl of spinach and cheese with a slices of bread alongside. An herbal foam topping, an oil drizzle on the plate– it was well composed. When she dipped her bread in the creamy green elixir and brought it to her lips she could instantly taste the quality. Earthy, vegetal, deeply savory, with pops of spice adding complexity– it was not Minardo’s cooking, but it was close.

“Wow Karu, that looks a little intense.” Murati said, looking across the table at the Musaka.

Karuniya, meanwhile, rubbed her hands together with a childish grin on her face.

“Everything is courtesy of Murati tonight, so everyone should indulge, right?” She said.

“Well– it’s actually courtesy of Euphemia, but this credichip has a good bit of money.”

“Then I toast to Euphemia!” Karuniya said, raising a large forkfull of saucy eggplant.

Maryam grabbed a forkful of cabbage, rice and meat and raised it as well, laughing.

At least she looked like she was having a good time. That made worth the trouble.

Both of them ate. Shalikova could have almost sworn Maryam was mimicking Karuniya.

“Shalikova,” a little sing-song voice, her name rolling off a tongue–

Oh no– Karuniya was talking to her again

“Hmm?” Shalikova raised a spoonful of saag to her mouth.

“What do you think about Murati? Is she your beloved senior?” Karuniya said.

Murati initially looked at Karuniya sternly but then seemed to become interested.

Shalikova shrank a bit in her seat. “Uh, yeah. I think Murati is like– nice.”

“Oh, Sonya, are you happy with Ms. Nakara now? That’s so great!” Maryam said.


“She used to be scared of Ms. Nakara! But I knew she would turn around!”

Maryam clapped her hands together cheerfully.

Shalikova was reduced to whispering. “Maryam…”

Mortified, she glanced at her side to see what kind of expression Murati made–

And saw the same mildly impassive face Murati seemed to make at everything.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to scare you.” Murati said.

“I’m not scared of you! Maryam just misunderstood.” Shalikova grumbled.

“Oh! I’m sorry Sonya!” Maryam said.

“It’s not your fault– I’m sorry, this is too awkward.” Shalikova sighed.

Karuniya took a bite of her dish and put on a face like she was innocent of everything.

Maryam quickly made a similar face and bit into her cabbage rolls.

“It’s okay to be honest with me and it’s also okay to have criticisms of me.” Murati said. “I’m still new to leadership– I’m not the best with people, and I know that. I’ve focused on transmitting orders and getting everyone back home safely– but I still have a lot to learn about managing people outside of a crisis situation. I will try to do better.”

As much as she did not like how the situation was set up– it was now or never–

If it was okay to be honest then–

“Murati, the thing is– what bothers me is not anything like that– it is how smothering you can be when you try to be nice.” Shalikova said. Once she finally got those words out the rest seemed to come much more quickly and much more naturally. “I’m not a little kid, I don’t need looking after, I don’t need coddling– I don’t want any of those things. I feel like– you don’t actually trust that I’ve had the same training as you and that I can handle myself. You have too much sympathy. So I don’t want to go to you to be patronized!”

“Oh dear.” Karuniya whispered.

“Sonya.” Maryam whispered with her, eyes full of soft sympathies.

“I’ll take that feedback into consideration. Thank you for being honest.” Murati said.

Shalikova looked across the table at Maryam and Karuniya–

And looked at Murati, perplexed, as if to say, that’s it?

“Um. Yeah.” Shalikova said awkwardly. Of course this was the response!

Murati seemed unbothered by everything.

“You’re right, I did tread a bit softly around you. My surrogate father was a Navy admiral who was always a bit of a yeller– I didn’t want to become like that. I wanted to be a leader who is kind and understanding, like the captain is. But you’re right, the captain is much more mature. I think I got a bit desperate for you to like me. I’m truly sorry.”

She lowered her voice, so that no one might hear the more sensitive part.

Turning partially while seated and looking at Shalikova in the eyes.

Laying a hand on her shoulder and patting it softly. With a confident smile on her face.

“Shalikova, I know you are an absolute genius in the water. Your piloting is generational.”

Such a genuine compliment out of nowhere– and she really meant it!

She meant every word! That little smile on her face– God damn it!

It was so frustrating! Shalikova averted her gaze, her face turning a bit hot.

“Thanks, Murati.” She said. She made herself say it. It took a little effort.

Damn it– she could not help herself but to smile a bit. Murati was such an idiot.

“Aww, that’s so sweet. See, Shalikova? Murati can be a good senior when she wants to.”

Karuniya made a little gesture with her hands that Shalikova barely registered.

Was she doing one of Murati’s cryptic little gesticulations?

“It’s so blue­tiful– the reeflationship between two cuttlemrades–”

“Maryam you’re not even trying.” Shalikova sighed. Maryam giggled.

Karuniya looked at the two of them with far too much joy.

“Maryam, you’re also lucky to have landed such a handsome and dynamic young lady!”

“Oh I know, Karuniya! I’m over the moon with her! Sonya is my whole world!”

Maryam beamed her most marshmallowy beam. Karuniya was immediately taken by her.

“That’s so cute! Ah, young love!” Karuniya suddenly grabbed Maryam again, hugging her.

“We’re not that much older than them.” Murati mumbled to herself, looking a bit sullen.

“Don’t even bother.” Shalikova said in solidarity. “Just let them have their fun.”

Both Murati and Shalikova smiled a bit to themselves then– just a bit more comfortable.

Adelheid had done her best to disguise her troubles.

She went about her business efficiently and she traveled down the halls and sat on the bridge of the Antenora with Norn without saying a word of what was bothering her, nor letting up on her daily routine of barbs and demands. However as the days passed she could not help but become depressed with the cruel vagaries of fate.

She began wearing her thoughts on her face without knowing.

Even on the bridge, where she should have been the most careful with herself.

“You look contemplative– which is rare. What’s on your mind?” Norn asked.

Even her condescension did not taste as sweet. Adelheid put her head down.

“Norn–” Adelheid hesitated. Thinking of what to say. “I’m– If you had a friend that–”

“I take it this is about Mia Weingarten’s engagement?”


Adelheid could never hide anything from her. Not even in her most disguised moods.

She had hoped Norn would give her that reckless grin she put on prior to a transgression.

Instead, her expression was chillingly neutral.

“I’ve been thinking about that too. I thought that it might end up troubling you.”

“I’ve been trying to keep it out of my mind. I’m sorry.”

Norn nodded. Her expression softened a bit– as uncharacteristic as Adelheid’s own mood.

“Unfortunately, Mia’s case is nothing like your own. You can’t just make a decision for her. As much as we enjoy the narrative that I took you without consent and ruined you for marriage, both of us know that I did not just abscond with you on a whim. You approached me; you made the choice. You turned your back on your family and you and I maneuvered to escape from their grasp. I am no longer so blessed with resources as I was before, Adelheid. Herta Kleyn might look like a pushover because of her politics and attitude, but where it concerns her family matters she will be much more self-interested. She is covertly collecting power and influence wherever she can get it now, and Mia Weingarten now represents her links to the communications conglomerates and their money. And judging by presence of Mycenae at her court– she’s fishing for some security connections too.”

Everything Norn said made complete sense. Adelheid still felt awful about it.

She had not even known Mia that deeply or kept in touch that intimately–

However, she knew what it was like to be in her position. Helpless to be used by others.

She wished dearly that her friend could escape that defiling situation– but Norn was right.

It was impossible to help her until she herself accepted the consequences.

Until she herself chose to make enemies of everyone around her.

“I don’t know Mia’s circumstances like you do, but I take it if you could do something, you would have done it. So you yourself must know the obstacles barring her way.” Norn said. “For now, I think she, and your conscience, would appreciate it if you continued to be there for her. Attend her tea parties, show up to that wedding and pledge your friendship without trying to change her perceptions. Maybe when she wants to escape, she will think to count on you as an ally. And maybe you will be in a better position when that happens.”

Adelheid nodded her head.

In a way, she felt particularly troubled because Mia’s weakness reminded her of herself.

She relied on Norn and was helpless without her.

Dependent even–

Before her thoughts could spiral too far, she felt a hand grip her shoulder just a bit too hard.

Looking up from her feet she saw Norn’s grinning face.

“One more thing. As much as we both like to pretend you’re an idiot bimbo– I know you’re actually quite sharp and the best second-in-command I could have. We don’t have the luxury of worrying overmuch about the affairs of others. Come back to me, Adelheid.”

Adelheid raised her own soft hand over Norn’s coarse grip, caressing it.

“Yes, milord.” She said, smiling.


She raised her hand from Adelheid’s shoulder and slapped her cheek softly three times.

Adelheid grimaced for Norn, but internally, she was smiling.

Just a bit.

After the pair had a moment of silence to reassess the day, they relocated to a meeting room where Yuri Anneccy Samoylovych-Darkestdays awaited them. She was dressed in a pilot’s bodysuit. All of the furniture in the meeting room had been slotted into the walls and into the floor. Yuri occupied the only remaining chair. Adelheid shut the door behind them and locked it. Norn approached Yuri and stood before her, while Yuri remained seated.

“Remember, I am not a fairy– you might have a ‘bumpy ride’ so to speak.” Norn said.

Yuri exposed her usual confidence in her smile. She was clearly ready.

“Do you have any advice for what I might experience?” She asked.

Norn raised a hand to her forehead, brushing up Yuri’s bangs. Yuri’s ears folded a bit.

“If you see my memories, forget everything you saw, for your own good. If you see your own memories, don’t try to interfere with them. Either way, just let your emotions go where they will go. Don’t try to fight it. You won’t be able to resist for long and will only hurt yourself. Open yourself, and let your self express what it will. I’ll be here to watch over you.”

“Of course. I have nothing but trust and respect for you, milord.”

It was not flattery– she really meant it. For Norn only, she meant every word.

Norn nodded. “Close your eyes. It makes it easier. You’ll feel a jolt and a sensation like you are falling. Remember, whatever happens– don’t fight your emotions. You will want to resist in some way, you will want to exert control, but your mind will drift in certain directions. Find opportunities to take control, to change the direction, but don’t fight it at every turn.”

“Yes.” Yuri said simply. A consummate soldier.

In her own mind, Adelheid lit her candle, and her psionics unveiled the colors in the room.

From Norn’s hand, her own color entered Yuri’s aura, and turned it suddenly bright white. Yuri kept her eyes shut, and her body shuddered. Her eyes moved rapidly behind the lids. Keeping her hand on Yuri’s forehead, Norn used her other hand to affix a blindfold over her face. She then stepped back. Adelheid saw her own eyes flash red briefly.

Examining her psionic handiwork just as Adelheid had been.

“Do you remember when you were baptized?” Norn asked.

“A bit.” Adelheid said.

What she remembered most vividly was her first sight of the maelstrom of colors that she now knew to be auras and aether– when she first laid eyes on it, she felt like a million gazes were judging and oppressing her. She heard their whispers and recoiled from them. She wanted them to shut up, and to be gone, so they disappeared. In their place, there was a vast concrete field, and everything was dyed red. Sparse red trees straddling a road; dim red skies like a dismal but bloody night; and the moon was an enormous red eye that watched her hungrily. However, it was a dream that was over before she could see any more.

Her psionics were awakened– but compared to Norn she was quite weak.

She assumed that Yuri would have far more talent than she did as well.

“Now you are in a position to help me.” Norn smiled. “With your assistance I can make damn certain nothing happens to Yuri. It was a little touch and go with you, I recall.”

“I’m here to serve as usual.” Adelheid said. “But I have no idea how I can assist you.”

“With you there, no matter what, I will come back from whatever I’ve unleashed here.”

Adelheid clutched her portable clipboard to her chest. She was touched.

Norn did not even look at her while saying such things– she did not need to.

However, the pair had nothing to worry about with Yuri. Nothing surprising transpired.

After about an hour, Yuri came to again without interference.

“What did you see?” Norn asked, grinning, as she removed the blindfold.

“Hmm. There was an annoying eye staring down from a red sky. I killed it.” Yuri said.

Another turning of the cycles brought Aachen from a calm night to a pivotal day.

Once more the first tier filled with retail workers, the shoppers they served, and the people grabbing a crepe or a pretzel on their way to the offices in the second tier. In the second tier, people made note of the uniformed guards filing in from throughout the station– the Uhlan had been called to their HQ for a comprehensive audit, but assured the public that automated systems, including surveillance and deterrence, were actively guarding the commercial areas and any crimes would be followed up on even in the absence of a guard. Despite this ominous portent, nobody rushed to loot the stores that morning except in the imaginary of the public frequenting the higher-end third tier of the core station. Their trepidation did not deter them from leaving their luxury apartments for another day of pampering and pleasure in the ritziest location Aachen had to offer.

And higher up, in the fourth tier, the engine of the government–

Well– that was not the concern just yet.

At Stockheim, an innocuous cargo ship arrived, ferrying sand from the Ayre Reach that was used for glass-making– the particular sand was part of the brand product. Little did the ship know that it had brought with it a passenger. From a blind spot on the underside, a small vessel detached, large enough for only a specific occupant and their life support, an agarthic-sodium-ion battery, and propulsion. This long teardrop of metal and air made its own way into Stockheim under its own power and made its way to a specific berth.

Slotting under the Cruiser Antenora, and promptly collected by the crew.

Inside the hangar, the vessel opened to reveal a waifish woman in a dandy purple sportcoat, ruffled shirt and a pair of tight shorts that met her stockings just so. Perfectly preserved within the vessel without a scratch. She had wavy blue hair that framed her face, and a kepi hat– she opened one eye then winked at Norn von Fueller in the hangar. Blinking the long strip of LEDs on the neon-blue, semi-circular antennae that stood in for her ears.

“Amur. You made good time.” Norn said.

“Absolutely! This is the kind of service you can expect from the goddess of cyberspace!”

Amur stepped out from the drone and extended her hand.

Norn shook it without hesitation.

“There is something I wanted to discuss, milord. I’ve been working on my way here.”

“Is it urgent? I’m seeing Adelheid off. She has another tea party to attend.”

“If you won’t be long, we can talk after. It concerns the Uhlan supply ship that was attacked near Aachen– I am not sure I believe the communist groups were behind the sinking anymore. I have concerns about a fourth party– though nothing substantial.”

“Interesting. Yes, we’ll talk. Prepare a meeting room. You’re third in command now.”

Amur’s eyes spread wide, and her pale cheeks turned a bit red.

Seemingly touched by the degree of trust imparted on her.

Lifting her kepi hat, she dipped into a stage bow, and then went on her way.

Amur was perhaps the only person, at that time, whose imagination conceived of what might come to pass in the following hours. Not in the fullness of its details, but in the general texture of the moment. By the time Adelheid arrived at her tea party, and Norn had a conversation with Amur, it was already too late and the events too many for any one person, however talented, to steer the chaos any one way before its formal commencement.

Not even a certain gathering of very talented individuals–

As they had the past six days the United Front reconvened in secret in the third tier.

This time they had an extra guests along.

Daksha Kansal and her attendant Kremina Qote had decided to grace the meeting room with their presence. They sat at the head of the table, just off to the side of Moravskyi and Erika Kairos and their opposed chairs. Both of them had dressed formally, in blazers and pencil skirts, their hair up in buns, all business. It had been the first time the room had seen them.

“Look who finally turned up!” Moravskyi called out, laughing, a big smile on his face.

“Taras. It’s certainly interesting to meet after all these years.” Daksha said, smiling back.

“Interesting, huh? Well, I thought I’d be madder– but I’m not upset you’re here.”

“I’m glad some of us veterans are still around to straighten out our respective young folk.”

Moravskyi burst out laughing. Kremina averted her gaze from the people around.

Particularly from Ulyana, who was staring at her with an unfriendly energy.

“You’ve all done great work. I wanted to at least acknowledge that.” Daksha said, addressing the table as a whole in a little speech. “After what I had been through, I had very humble expectations of what was possible– but you have all come together and coordinated a far stronger threat to the Volkisch than I imagined. From what I have been privy to, you have the tools and resources you need– now you just need the coordination. That will bear out in battle. I don’t doubt there will be growing pains, but you can surpass them.”

She was speaking so dryly about the situation that it was almost strange to hear it.

However, she would not get to finish those remarks.

Whatever she had prepared– someone else had prepared even more.

“Excuse me, dear mentor.” Gloria interrupted. She looked at the smartwatch she wore and smiled, before addressing the table in her typically forced saccharine tone. “We will see the coordination begin to bear out momentarily. I want to address the table! As of now– I am undertaking an operation to take over this station! All of you are invited to join me in our first battle against the Volkisch, to establish our base area and begin our rebellion!”

For a moment everyone on the table was left completely speechless.

Everyone, save for Tamar Livnat, and the disinterested Zozia Chelik, and Ksenia Apfel–

And save Daksha Kansal, who had perhaps been expecting such a move–

Everyone turned at once to face Gloria with immediate panic in their faces.

They saw on Gloria’s face, that she was pallid, nearly in tears, and her hands were shaking.

Even before she set foot in the venue, she had already crossed her rubicon.

“Ah, sorry miss, my bad–”

A grinning old man bumped into a young woman in front of the elevator banks–

However, she reached out instantly and grabbed his wrist.

Shooting him a glare– scrutinizing him in an instant–

Only to let him go a moment later.

He hadn’t taken anything. She had been worried for nothing.

“I said I’m sorry!”

Ignoring him, she stepped quietly into the elevator, grumbling, staring at the ground.

Shutting the elevator door, striking a button on the panel and sliding in a card. On the panel, the elevator warned of additional regulations when visiting the government sector. It displayed a model of the Aachen core station and the destination at the very peak and kept the occupant up to date on the progress of the ride. However, the occupant was no longer staring at the panel’s LCD. She knew her own destination quite well already.

From a pocket of her hoodie, she withdrew a cigarette and a plasma-arc lighter.

Bringing up the light blue arc to the cigarette and setting it afire.

Taking in a long drag. Cigarettes were expensive, but they weren’t fake–

Unlike her–

“Is it unbecoming for a chick to smoke? Whatever.”

However– these were all appearances and pretensions, frustrating in their complexity.

As much as he liked the disguise both for its comfort and utility, Orlan Aries conceptualized of himself as “just a guy,” in the end. Less pressure on himself that way. It’s just that women were underestimated and overlooked by Imbrian society, so it was a good way for someone, especially a troublemaker like himself, to make themselves just a bit more scarce than before. That was how he rationalized it. For the mission that he had assigned himself, and which his current employer knew nothing about, he dressed in a long hoodie and black tights of a thick, covering fabric. He wore a padded bra, and a styled wig with blue and yellow hair, cut in a shoulder-length bob. He wore lipstick, blush and eyeshadow to look less “plain.” Anyone who saw would have thought “she” was some edgy punk girl acting out.

“From what gutter did you crawl out of?” He asked his reflection in the elevator walls.

Cracking a little grin with his dark metallic blue lipstick.

Orlan knew, better than most people, what an invisible person looked like.

What people were seen by the world, who fit the picture; and who slid off the gaze entirely.

It behooved him to know, and to not have illusions about it; but he also knew it personally.

That girl looking back at him could’ve been any dumb kid he had grown up with.

Until his very own debasing star shone on him– so bright that it burned–

Now he got to lick the boots of people like Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

And to lie to them.

Not even for money– he wished anyone would pay him to betray Gloria.

Sadly any of those bridges burnt up with the Empire and the Inquisition.

No– today was actually personal and he was already kicking himself for that reason.

Thinking about it, the expression of the girl in his reflection looked quite fed up.

“Isaiah, you’re not gonna be grateful, but damn it, you should be.”

What a stupid reason to do anything–

“No use turning back– I already did all this makeup.”

When the doors opened, there was an enormous arched hall ahead of Orlan that led to the local legislative assembly and the grand courthouse. Everything was bright and white like it was made of marble but none of it was– it was wearing marble like Orlan wore a padded bra. Such was his self deprecating conception of himself and his cynical conception of his surroundings. But he was not here to get yelled at by the welfare office or to get an ID– he hung a left from the elevators and followed a much smaller and more discrete hallway toward the governor’s estate. He turned over the destination in his mind.

There was an elevator that led directly to the estate– and Orlan had a special key.

However, he preferred to take an alternative route.

To avoid having to “sign the guestbook”.

One notable fact about the architecture of the rich and famous in the After Descent era was that the fancy open air modules with freestanding structures all needed more vents and pipes to keep all that open space comfortable, climate controlled, and smelling fresh and aptly supplied with water, oxygen, and whatever else. Orlan stopped partway through the hallway that would have led him to the estate. There was nobody around– very few people had any business going to the estate, but nevertheless there was a path to it, just like there was an elevator to it. Orlan had studied the route and knew that there were cameras at the far end of the path but not in the middle. So he stopped there, put his back to the wall and pretended to be a bit bushed for a moment, back to the wall, eyes down.

Hands behind his back.

Beneath his feet the floor panels were still shiny enough to see himself.

The girl in the reflection smiled back at him, just as he usually smiled at others.

Then her eyes glinted red.


Behind his back, his fingers lengthened, and thinned, sliding between seams in the panels.

Feeling for every vulnerability, every exposed screw, every weak glue join–

Flesh spreading beneath the panel like crawling vines.

Beneath a concrete path, a root system could take hold from which a flower could bloom.

Orlan had seen old pavement like that in the grand plazas in Konstantinople.

It gave him the idea, and he became practiced in slipping into places this way.

Unworthy of notice, a weed, a crawling vine– fierce and tenacious as a pavement flower.

Once his flesh had infested the underside of the plate, he could easily dislodge it.

And quickly slip under it, into the ventilation duct beneath, lying on his back.

Replacing the panel above him as if nothing had happened.

Now he laid in the dark, beneath the steel, where nothing ought to be. Everything left as if untouched and undisturbed. Taking a drag of his cigarette, the tiniest glimmer of light. Cramped as it was, he had no fear of it and no discomfort. Generally, discomfort was something he feigned for others or for a mission– when it came to himself, he didn’t really care about almost anything enough to be too uncomfortable about it. So he could lay with little room for his arms, in a vent he could only shimy through, smoking quietly.

After all, his life was forfeit– whether now or in the future he would certainly die violently.

He thought that the reflection of the girl in this darkness wouldn’t have had any expression.

“Ugh, damn it, I’m gonna have to put it out. I shouldn’t have lit one up.”

Unfortunately one of the few things he truly hated was the taste of re-lit cigarettes.

Orlan sighed and put out his cigarette with unfeeling fingers.

Dropping the remains into the pocket of the hoodie and producing his plasma-arc lighter.

Flicking it on to serve as a source of equally dim illumination.

Moving primarily with his shoulders and feet, supported by his hips and calves, he pushed himself through the tight shaft, counting the plate joins that he could see with the with his plasma lighter. He began to count from one, starting at the plate he took off and slid down from. Without breaking concentration, he crossed ninety-two plate joins and felt on his side. He moved his plasma lighter closer to the wall. There was a grating there.

He could feel a bit of breeze.

There was a brief flash of red, lightless, but Orlan could see it in his mind.

Because it had come from him–

He put down his lighter between his breasts and felt with his hand on the wall.

Fingertips became the precise correct screwdriver head needed to remove the grating.

Tedious work, but he turned each screw in turn. They stuck to his fingers once removed.

He collected them and forced the grating off. He slid it over his head and out of the way.

Carefully, he squeezed through the new vent. Based on his calculations, he just made it.

Nobody had noticed it, but Orlan had lost weight– or more accurately, he had shed weight.

Nobody noticed it– because it had happened basically overnight, much like this plan.

Disguising himself as a girl was not only practical, but the smaller frame came in handy.

Inside the new and slightly smaller vent shaft, Orlan once again counted the plate joins.

“Now– my lucky number is sixty-four.” He mumbled to himself as he slid along.

Having time to think, he hoped that he was not too late.

Even as he slid through that tunnel– there was a hurtling train that he had to outrun.


He ripped the plate directly above himself and dust fell into the shaft.

When Orlan peeked his head out, he was in the garden of the governor’s estate.

There were fences around the property. None of the Katarran mercs were looking his way.

Climbing out of the ventilation shaft, Orlan approached the house and took off his shoes.

Lifting one of his feet to the wall. His flesh affixed to the surface.

This helped him leap up and grab hold of the wall, his hand flattening against it.

Orlan easily climbed to a window, where his crawler vines forced it open.

Inside, he found himself in an empty bedroom.

Just as the door began to open–

Orlan moved quickly and quietly to position himself behind the door as it opened.

Allowing the new occupants to walk in–

And shutting the door behind them, blocking the way himself.

Two– a young woman, gasping with fright– and a serious-looking young man.

He said nothing, and simply met the eyes of the strange barefoot girl blocking the way.

“Isaiah, it’s Orlan. Liebknecht School For Boys.” Orlan said. He modified his voice.

Both of them immediately recognized that voice.

“Orlan?” Mia said. “You look so different– um– congratulations on the change–”

“I didn’t transition! It’s complicated.” Orlan said.

Isaiah continued to scrutinize Orlan and never once smiled or made much expression.

“Orlan, let Mia go, she has a tea party to host.” Isaiah said.

“I never intended to keep her here!” Orlan said.

“Isaiah, if Orlan has something to say– I want to hear it– if he’s in trouble–”

Mia had begun speaking but Isaiah dismissed her quickly. “I’ll worry about that, go away.”

He made a gesture as if to shoo her away like a small animal.

Casting eyes down at the floor, visibly troubled, Mia approached the door.

“Orlan, please be careful.” She said.

“I will.” Orlan said.

He let her past him through the door and then shut it behind himself again.

“You do not have to treat her like that.” Orlan said.

“Worrying about things will just ruin her pretty face.” Isaiah said.

Orlan grit his teeth.

Isaiah had not changed at all. Tall, handsome, clean-faced, stoic. His brown hair, his pale face and high cheekbones. He was not so lanky as before– he had grown out a bit more. Orlan could hardly believe he was going through so much trouble for this unfriendly face, but it was nevertheless a face that, even now, made his heart race just a bit. It was so pathetic. He was right. Isaiah was not about to be grateful for anything they ever did or had.

He was through and through, still that guy.

“You’re in incredible danger. You don’t even know.” Orlan said.

“I’ve got an inkling.” Isaiah said.

“It’s not just the Volkisch Movement. I mean something right now. Today.” Orlan said.

Isaiah looked ever so slightly more interested in Orlan– but not worried.

Why? Did he have a plan? Did he really know what was going to go down?

“You’ve got a target on your head!” Orlan said. “Let me get you and Mia out of here.”

As if in response, Isaiah turned his back on Orlan and made a dismissive gesture.

In the next moment, something rushed from the wall, throwing down a camouflage shield.

Something dressed in a pure white uniform with a blue star– fast, fit, well-trained–

–put a 10 mm pistol to Orlan’s temple. A woman with an armband he had never seen before.

Isaiah cracked a little smile. “I’ve got a target on my head, but you have a gun to yours.”

Orlan grunted. He lifted his hands. He could almost cry. “You have no fucking idea, man.”

Every time, every time– this bastard just ended up disappointing him.

“Mysia? I don’t understand. Why?”

“Valya, this is what it takes to make my dream come true. It’s just that simple.”

One of the unused warehouse quarters in Stockheim.

Empty containers spilled haphazardly throughout. The lights were dim, and there was a thick glass and steel berth on the right flank that dominated the space and felt like an almost flimsy barrier between the black sea and the pressurized hull. Here the two of them stood, framed in the few working LED cluster lights, alone, the only two– people, present. Valya had met Mysia and followed them here so they could talk in private.

Their heart beating wildly the entire time.

After considering everything, Valya at least wanted to say a definitive goodbye to Mysia.

Recalling their kiss– Valya’s most passionate kiss with anybody.

They had wanted to trust in that.


Flanking Mysia, two Kolibri class drones suddenly appeared to threaten Valya.

Each sporting a compact submachine gun borne on the underside of the chassis.

Buzzing quadrorotors moving the machines indepedently of Mysia’s control.

They stood between the machines with a small smile on their face.

“Mysia, who is in control of those drones?” Valya said.

“Someone powerful enough to pay any price I ask for my information.” Mysia said.

Valya’s heart sank; but Mysia only shrugged.

“You should be flattered! You became part of my payment. I have been working so hard for so many people, you know.” Mysia said. “When I saw you again, I did start thinking about you quite a bit. I’ve hardly found any of the people around me attractive since I left the Union– you always really appealed to me. I promised myself, when I left the Nectaris, that I wouldn’t deny myself anything anymore. I would live like a legendary Katarran mercenary– taking what I want. I would die without any regrets. Don’t worry; I’ll treat you right. We’ll be away from this mess, and you will not even miss it. I’ll keep you entertained.”

Mysia winked at them, and Valya could hardly communicate their disgust in return.

Their hand clutched helplessly at their side in a fist. Almost in tears with anger.

To think they had been so naïve as to trust this person– who already abandoned them once.

Abandoned them and everything they had been taught in the country that raised them.

“Mysia, I am not going with you. You’ll have to rip me from where I stand.” Valya said.

“Trust me, Valya, you won’t want to stay here much longer.” Mysia said, beckoning them.

In the middle of the morning, a ship approached the second tier of Aachen’s core station.

Larger than a shuttle but smaller than a Cutter, the unpainted metal ship had a forward cabin leading a rectangular hold divided into cargo pods pushed by two large hydrojet banks. Rather than dock at Stockheim, the ship bypassed the docks, maneuvering quickly but carefully around the side of the station and closing in to where the steel met the natural stone of the Aachen Massif. The ship maneuvered on its side and found an emergency access shaft to maintenance hull on the second tier. Slowing considerably, the ship wedged itself gently against the stone, clung on with its jet anchors and extended its boarding chute.

Not a typical entry point for a cargo vessel–

Except the ship’s cargo consisted not of sand for local glass blowing shops–

but a battalion of troops with armored vests and helmets, portable missiles, suicide drones, ballistic shields and heavy machine guns, all on a certain rich woman’s pfennigs.

The plan was simple, and they were well-equipped for it– on Herta Kleyn’s orders, the Uhlans were undergoing a complete audit before their contract renewal with Aachen. To satisfy the audit the entire Uhlan force would gather at their HQ on the second tier and turn in all of their weapons for inspection in the early to mid morning. The entry team would approach the Uhlan HQ through the maintenance sector, and take them by surprise. With the Uhlans suppressed or eliminated, the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot would establish military control of the station interior. Naval reinforcements would then follow, taking over Stockheim. All the while Herta Kleyn and Gloria Innocence Luxembourg would take full political control from both the Volkisch Movement and the liberal legislative assembly in Aachen.

Everything hinged on taking out the unaware Uhlans during the inspection.

Everything hinged– on boarding the station through the maintenance hull at this point.

With the ship in position, undetected, and the boarding chute affixed, the teams got ready.

Eight hundred troops, crammed into the cargo hold of a ship, armed to the teeth.

Mercenaries, social-democrat die-hards, desperate contractors, a motley crew but with the gear to match their ambitions. Awaiting the glow of the boarding chute’s warning lights to go from red to green, signaling a connection to the station and stabilized pressure within the chute. The boarding chute door opened, a space ten meters between their ship and the maintenance shaft door. The men and women stood shoulder to shoulder and began to slowly filter out toward the station with their weapons and gear in hand and back.

Upon reaching the door on the other end, they prepared to force the door with their tools.

As soon as their breaching tools made contact with the door–

In an instant, an explosive blew the door open and separated the chute from the station, and the ensuing pressure differential ripped through the entire boarding chute and into the entire ship. Before they even knew it, the entry team was completely butchered, the ship jerked toward the mountain and blew completely apart, killing everyone–

and triggering flood mitigation inside the station’s maintenance shaft.

That explosion and the partial flooding set off a sensor, and sealed off the area completely.

Ending in an instant any thought of ambushing the Uhlans through that path.

However, the action would not go unnoticed–

Sensor data was picked up by a certain Braya Zachikova, monitoring the network.

“Acting Captain, I found something quite strange.” She said, looking over her shoulder.

Behind her, Murati Nakara acknowledged, unaware of what was about to transpire.

Commencing her own participation in Aachen’s longest day.

Animated by vengeance, they finally rose from the darkest corners of the station.

Donning their pure white uniforms, and the blazing blue star alight in their arms.

In the abandoned mines of the Aachen Massif, rows of half-failing LED clusters partially illuminated their caps, masks, nanomail armored uniforms, camouflage shields, drones, assault rifles and heavy pistols. Faces half in shadow and light, just as their souls were bifurcated by the past they mourned and the future that they now hungered to realize. In part they had been in the Eisern Front, and they had been in the Uhlans, and the Imperial Navy, and among the social democrats, and even just civilians from Aachen, from Stralsund, from Kreuzung; and even farther afield in Antioch and Nichori in Bosporus.

Many followed Tamar Livnat here; many arrived after; some joined her in the past days.

They had been everywhere. No matter how hard they tried, nobody could erase them.

As much as they were hated, they survived it all, and they would turn that hatred back.

Below their clothes and above their skins, they had always worn that white uniform.

Animated, possessed even, by that distant, ennobling ideal– their own Nation.

A nation to return to them the status of a people with dignity and power.

All that they ever needed was for an architect to illuminate the true way.

To whisper in their ears that this ghost had always been inside them, yearning.

And that it was the reason why nothing made sense, and nothing felt right.

Even before Tamar Livnat, they had always been Dibuqim. It was their Destiny.

“Today is but the first step! They took everything from us! Show no mercy!”

At the head of the prosession, Menahem Halevi with her bloodthirsty grin spread her arms as if to gesture at the breadth and enormity of the troops that had gathered. So many people that had sacrificed everything and from whom everything was taken, and nothing left– her voice rang out through the mine shafts as the heavy bulkheads behind her began to rise. Their return to Aachen lay beyond those shadowy doors slowly lifting before them.

Their mighty sweeping-up and burning-down of everything–

“Our kingdom awaits us! From the Imbrians, from the Shimii– we shall take it back!”

From the fascists, from the communists, from the sectarians and the liberals–

Everything would be taken, to be given to the worthy, the solely worthy– to the Eloim.

God’s true chosen people– whom their human peers had denied everything.

Stoic ranks filed past Menahem with their faces shadowed and their hearts hardened.

Weapons in hand, gear at their backs and over their chests. Ready to fight.

“Remember the plan! All sections have their assignments! Crush the enemy!”

Menahem grinned, unable to contain her laughter and the swelling of her spirit.

Her cape fluttered as the ranks advanced around her, partially unveiling the cables wrapped around her body, terminating behind her back and into her forearms, as well as tanks and funnels strapped to her back. She squeezed her fist, and there was a brief whirring of a micromotor. Satisfied, she turned from the departing troops and toward the mine shaft.

“Ready, David? Today is the day we have spoken about.” Menahem said in that direction.

There, an enormous figure stood as if activating by her gaze, and took one thunderous step.

Dim lights flicked on one after another on a tall, sleek, humanoid figure.

Two and change meters tall, with a beak-like, visored helmet and a triangular torso.

A colossus of armor ambling toward Menahem and the bulkhead of that fated day.

From an audio system installed on the armor, a small and high-pitched voice answered.

“I will kill anyone you ask me to, Menahem.” David said.

As if to demonstrate her readiness, David briefly bandished a blade sliding out of her arm.

Limbs crackling with a faint indigo glow, tiny indigo sparks flying off her thrusters–

“Beautiful! That is what I like to hear. Follow me, my doll.” Menahem said.

Everything was already inexorably in motion– it already had been since the start.

Ever since the United Front was first scheduled to gather, creating the opportunity.

The communists, the social democrats, the fascists, even the civilians, played their part.

As they spoke, plainsclothes anarchist puppets had begun the task.

And the pretenders and little tyrants would soon find themselves encircled.

On that day a chaotic performance of destruction would unravel Aachen’s fate.

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One thought on “The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.10]

  1. God damn fucking zionists can they just stay dead for christ’s sake we already have enough problems

    and the anarchists are useful idiots as usual

    i need more like i need air thank you for another excellent chapter

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