The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.11]

“…interconnectivity between stations has never been more stable and the throughput on wired connections is fantastic. Software has gotten really sophisticated too, so we no longer have to fear dropping transaction information midway nor having it intercepted. Because of this, I think it would only be a net benefit to completely, not partially, but completely digitalize– homph, excuse me– completely digitalize all transactions– slurp, sorry– and bring the financial infrastructure entirely out of the exchanging of credichips and polymer notes. What’s more, we can then implement decentralized, public ledgers that are citizen-auditable– mrrup, oh dear, sorry– and that’s how we can finally get out from under the heel of Eloim banking cartels and have fully party-controlled, volk finances.”

Once again, the tea table resounded with a singular clamor of national socialist eccentricity.

Hannah Schach devoured herb cream steak, expounding on racial theories of banking–

Adelheid van Mueller filled with a desire to dig fingers like knives into Hannah’s ribs–

Mia Weingarten silently shook her head, signaling a firm ‘no’ to Adelheid’s death glaring.

Her third guest, however, took an interest in the topic of conversation.

“Am I to understand then that the Eloim somehow clawed control of finances away from the Imbrians in the Imbrian Empire?” Astra Palaiologos said. Her face was completely impassive while Hannah Schach seemed genuinely surprised to have been spoken to at all. “Aren’t the Eloim mainly service and office workers? Are they strongly represented in the upper class? Do they have so many bureaucratic positions that allow them to enact policy?”

“Well, the management of the Central Bank of Rhinea has been influenced by the Eloim for some time. There are many Eloim politicians and activists. They favor tight monetary controls and conservative spending and have hampered our efforts to mobilize all resources.”

“What do you mean, influenced by Eloim? Do Eloim hold so much political power?”

“You might not understand, madam Palaiologos, but the untermenschen are aligned in their subterfuge against the racially superior– this is the biological basis for leftist ideology, you see. This is part of why the Blood Bund is so active near Hesse station– it is not a coincidence that the Reichsbank is based around the most demographically Eloim area in Rhinea!”

“And how large is this demography?”

“Ten percent of the Hesse station complex.” Hannah said, before forking a big piece of beef.

“Is there solid evidence of this faction’s control over Rhinean financial policy? I studied up before heading here, using the best available information– and I know that none of the heads of the major corporations of Rhinea are Eloim, except for monsieur Heidemann, now dead, who also does not count, because Eloim have matrilineal ties. So what do you mean?”

“Ah– but the matrilineality does not matter– all it takes is for the very base biology–”

Utterly caught off-guard Hannah seemed to babble in response–

Astra narrowed her eyes.

“I am no longer interested in this. Your analysis is groundless and useless to me.”

Hannah wilted in front of Astra and shrank away and stuffed more beef into her mouth.

Adelheid could have cheered for that gloomy, dressed-up shrimp. But she stayed quiet.

Mia averted her eyes, seemingly disconcerted whenever Astra spoke about anything.

Likely she was made to host her by Herta Kleyn and not of her own accord.

From what Adelheid had learned, Astra was an adult of eighteen or nineteen years.

Despite her stature, she was a young lady who had already debuted in her world.

More than that– she was a national leader, sitting at their table so nonchalantly.

“Miss Astra, have you been able to see much of the station during your trip?”

Adelheid asked– Mia still seemed too demoralized and anxious to do much hosting.

She didn’t want to ask what was going on, so she tried to help instead.

“I’m afraid not.” Astra said. “Our access is restricted. However I have looked at a variety of published material about the station and its commercial venues. It has been possible for me to order goods and have them delivered. There is a dizzying variety– it can be overwhelming. I must admit that while the arrangement of such an economy intrigues me intellectually, I genuinely prefer to study quietly in my quarters than to go out and gamble or shop.”

“I see!” Adelheid tried to smile, but this Warlord felt like an utter twerp. Not romantic in the slightest. “Well– how are you enjoying the sweets? Any treats from home you are missing?”

“The cakes are delicious.” Astra quickly replied, idly tapping her spoon on her plate. There were two kinds of cake on the table, a strawberry cream roll cake and a cheesecake. Astra had already devoured a slice of each and had a second slice of cheesecake. “Our sweets back home are never so– fluffy. We tend to have harder or pastier candies and confections.”

“Can you tell me about Katarran candy? I am intrigued.” Adelheid asked.

“Not Katarran candy, Viscountess.” Astra corrected. “Mycenaean candy. While we have a common heritage, the Warlord territories have had many unique cultural developments from one another– we have been separated for over a hundred years now.” Her tone of voice was direct but not harsh. She reminded Adelheid almost of Norn, at times– which might have made some sense considering her supposed lineage. Astra continued. “For example, the Pythian Black Legion of Northern Katarre and Mycenae both share a somewhat hard, flaky pastry known as Bougatsa. In Mycenae, it is eaten with a vanilla and cheese custard– Pythians omit the vanilla and fill it with melted salty cheese. Because the pastry is still buttery and sweet, the Pythian version is rustic and conflicting, but its also simpler and filling. The Mycenaean version is more luxurious. Meanwhile, the Hagian geniocrats fill their Bougatsa with mechanically whipped custard that makes it very airy, moist, almost foaming.”

“Wow! Thank you kindly, milord, I truly know so little about Katarre!” Adelheid said.

Her suck-up voice was thankfully extensively practiced.

Astra nodded her head and took another bite of her cake.

Adelheid could have sworn she saw her horn’s veins light up a bit purple, perhaps with joy.

“Imbrian manufacturing techniques avail themselves time and again it seems.” Astra said.

“I am glad you are enjoying it.” Mia said, finally speaking up.

It was an odd assortment at the table.

Hannah in her deplorable black uniform, Astra in her flashy and heavily decorated military coat, and Adelheid and Mia in more formal dresses. Adelheid wore a black dress with a sheer red half-length cardigan; Mia had on a quarter-length mauve cape over what Adelhed assumed to be a similarly cut dress, perhaps with a halter loop judging by her neck. Her dress was white and just a bit more modest than Adelheid’s high-fashion cocktail wear.

“May I call my servant to the table?” Astra asked.

Mia’s eyes darted to Astra upon hearing her voice. “Hmm? I mean– Yes– of course.”

“Raiza,” Astra called out to the door, for her servant, “come and try some of the cake.”

“Your majesty is far too kind.”

Through the open threshold into the estate, Astra’s Shimii servant and bodyguard crossed onto the balcony in measured, leisurely steps, pausing at the table to stand at her mistress’ side. She was taller than any woman seated at the table and looked almost humorously tall compared to Astra specifically. Yet she had such a demure manner and such a soft and sensual appearance, with her incredible figure, her two fluffy tails, fair skin, and long silvery hair. Adelheid could imagine her bending lustily in some lingerie advertisement.

Adelheid made note of the Mycenaean Shimii woman’s bold and exotic attire.

That gold choker seemed the only thing anchoring that flimsy white dress to her curves.

She thought of acquiring such a dress for herself and wearing it for Norn. Perhaps donning the provocative garb of Norn’s secret homeland would light a fire in her that simple Imbrian aesthetics could not. She might even dare to say, ‘take me like they do in the orient’? Would Norn’s animalistic side awaken then? Even if it did not, it would be fun to see her angry.

“Here. Tell me what you think of it.”

Raiza Sakaraeva bent close and spread her lips. Her ears folded slightly.

Astra brought a piece of cake to her mouth on a spoon and fed her.

“Exquisitely soft and moist. A refined sweetness– not too overpowering. Magnificent.”

A few crumbs were left on Raiza’s lips– Astra wiped them gently with her own fingers.

Raiza then stood back up to her full height. Her tails swayed majestically behind her.

“Do you think you could create something like this?” Astra asked.

“After having a taste– it should not be too difficult with the right ingredients.” Raiza said.

“We will see to it. Thank you Raiza.”

Raiza bowed her head and returned to her position a step inside the estate.

Astra turned to her host. “Thank you for understanding. Raiza is very important to me.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.” Mia said. “It does not bother us at all. She could come in–”

“No, Raiza is more comfortable guarding the doorway. She should not join us here permanently.” Astra said. “My safety is her most important charge, moreso than any temporary pleasures. She takes it very seriously, and I trust her with my life. I should not make her task any more difficult by continuously distracting her. My selfish moment with the cake was just that– a selfish moment. But thank you for considering her feelings.”

“No problem.” Mia said. She glanced at Adelheid.

Adelheid wracked her brain for something to talk about–

When suddenly, Hannah dropped her phone into the middle of the table.

“Let’s play a game!” Hannah said. Her mouth uncharacteristically bereft of meat or candy and therefore once again capable of speech. Regrettably. “My portable has a game with random icebreaker questions. We can catch up and get to know each other a little better!”

Hannah reached out and touched the screen of her portable to generate the first question.

She smiled and looked expectantly at Mia.

“That is– well, I suppose there’s no harm in it. Madam Astra, do you feel up to it?”

Mia began to speak, cut herself off, and then resumed–

Adelheid wondered what she was about to say before she gave up.

“Depending on the question I will have to refuse, but I am otherwise interested.”

“We’ll go in name order!” Hannah said. “Addy first, then Astra, myself, and Mia.”

Shrugging, Adelheid picked up the portable to see the first question that had popped up.

“‘If you could be an animal, which would you be’? Hannah, is this for twelve year olds?”

“C’mon Addy! Lighten up and play the game!” Hannah said, grinning wide.

Adelheid tried to throw out an answer without thinking about it much–

“I’d be a dog.” She said. She only realized directly after what that might imply.

“That’s kind of cute– though, isn’t it a bit too common?” Mia said, playful yet naïve.

Hannah looked surprised at the answer but also a bit conflicted suddenly.

A woman who called herself another woman’s prize pig could not possibly throw stones!

Astra started openly musing.

“An interesting answer. Looking beneath the surface of such a response, a dog is commonly positioned as servile, but all of its needs are supposed to be met by its owner– the dog gives herself up to the administration of the master in exchange for care and fulfillment without responsibilities. It does seem an idyllic life for the dog, does it not?”

Adelheid shot her a glance and felt embarrassment like roots creeping under her skin.

Did she switch pronouns in the middle of that sentence deliberately?!

“Anyway.” Adelheid said. “Your turn, Astra, please generate a question.”

Astra picked up Hannah’s portable and touched the screen where instructed.

“The question is: ‘If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend the extra time?’ One extra hour. I would likely spend it reading, after I had retired to my quarters for the day. Maybe I would spend it with Raiza sometimes– walking through the palace gardens perhaps. An extra hour is honestly more of a burden to think about than a blessing to enjoy.”

A truly droll and dispiriting girl– she had nothing of Norn in her after all.

Astra handed the portable over to Hannah.

“Tappity-tap! ‘What fashion trend would you bring back’? Tunics! We should all throw a toga party sometime– seeing miss Raiza’s dress made me want to look like that too.” Hannah said, tossing her hair and blowing a sultry kiss. Adelheid instinctively turned her head aside.

To think that revolting woman and her had the same idea!

“These questions are very silly.” Astra said.

Her tone of voice betrayed neither anger nor joy.

“That’s what’s fun about it!” Hannah said. She handed her portable to Mia.

Mia tapped on the screen and frozen when the question appeared.

Her gaze became even more evasive than before and she put her fists on her lap.

Hannah laughed. “That’s the face of a girl who’s gotta answer a juicy question!”

“She doesn’t have to do anything. Mia, you don’t have to.” Adelheid said.

“Is it fun for you to pressure others in this way?” Astra asked, staring at Hannah.

“Are you like being rhetorical or what? Of course it’s fun.” Hannah said, shrugging.

“I’ll answer it.” Mia said. She sighed deeply and shut her eyes before explaining. “Okay. ‘Who was your crush in secondary school?’ I don’t want to cause any offense. It was Adelheid– I had a huge crush on Adelheid. I knew it wasn’t okay– but she is just so confident and stylish.”

Hannah burst out laughing, nearly doubling over.

Adelheid was so surprised her mind went completely blank.

“Why is this funny? Childhood friends develop romantic interest all the time.” Astra said. “Raiza, if you will indulge me one final time, could I ask you a question for a game?”

Hannah started to recover from the laughter, and turned her attention to her steaks again–

However, her attention shot from the plate to the door, exactly as Raiza entered through–

With her hands raised and an agitated expression to her face.

And a gun to the nape of the neck.

Astra turned to face her, as did Adelheid, both frozen at the tea table.

Three white-uniformed soldiers with blue star armbands passed through the door, each armed with a large pistol, two with captives. Raiza and a barefoot woman in a hoodie were brought to the balcony at gunpoint. Both were cooperating with their attackers. Alongside the third soldier was Isaiah, who was very clearly not a captive. He walked casually to the table, and the gunman alongside him raised his pistol at Hannah Schach.

“Isaiah!” Mia cried out. “Who are these people? What are you doing to Orlan?”

She stood up suddenly, and for an instant the gunman aimed at her.

Isaiah condescendingly moved the man’s arm to make him aim at Hannah Schach again.

Adelheid caught sight of the gunman’s lips as Isaiah intervened. He seemed aggrieved.

Isaiah was not fully in control of this situation– these were not necessarily his people.

“Mia, come stand over here.” Isaiah said.

“No.” Mia said. In tears, her lips trembling. She stood by Adelheid and did not move. “You’re going to explain this to me. You’re not going to dismiss me again. Explain all of this. Does Madam Kleyn know what you are doing? That you are threatening her diplomatic guests?”

“You and my mother, both, are irrelevant to this.” Isaiah said.

“Irrelevant to what! Talk to me for goodness’ sake! Talk to me for once!” Mia cried out.

Despite the outburst from his fiance, not once did Isaiah look more than mildly annoyed.

“It isn’t necessary for you to know anything. Nor for you to leave that table.” Isaiah said.

The captive girl in the hoodie spoke up– “Mia– do what he says–”

Isaiah waved his hand and the white uniform holding the girl struck her in the head.

Bashing her against her ear with the fist holding the gun and then putting it to her neck.

She bent forward a bit in the captor’s grip, teeth grit and eyes weeping.

“Mind your own business, Orlan.” Isaiah said dismissively.

“Isaiah, no! Stop this!” Mia cried out–

“Mia, just be quiet. Don’t make things more tedious than they have to be.”

That was the last time Isaiah directly addressed his broken-hearted fiance.

Mia stayed by the table, struck dumb by the callousness and cruelty of her fiance.

Throughout this sorry scene, Astra Palaiologos had remained completely composed.

More stone-faced than Isaiah– perhaps as stone-faced as Isaiah wished he could be.

He turned to her next. Speaking to her in more detail than he ever spoke to Mia.

“Madam Palaiologos. The Katarrans are a young race in the lifespan of the world. They have done the Eloim no historical harm that needs to be redressed. I do believe our confrontation on the world stage will arrive someday– but not now. You and your forces may depart peacefully. I only have quarrel with the Volkisch Movement and the Shimii. I apologize for the trouble and I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive this offense for now.”

Astra narrowed her eyes at him. She glanced at the captive Raiza with clear discontent.

“Madam Palaiologos–” Hannah Schach spoke up. The gunman’s arm twitched.

Isaiah stared at him as if forbidding the soldier to fire. “Only on my command, damn it.”

“Madam Palaiologos. Five million Reichsmarks. For you to solve this problem for me.”

Hannah Schach spoke simply, smiled anxiously. Hands raised, a gun to her face.

Astra Palaiologos shut her eyes and sighed.

“That price is about right, Madam Schach.”

Murati and Karuniya did not usually awaken together.

Karuniya almost always awakened before Murati and was out of the room by the time she awakened– unless they had sex the night before. In such a case they fell asleep together in the same bed, and in the morning Karuniya extracted herself from Murati’s arms, waking her in the process. She would give the drowsy Murati a kiss, dress herself and go on her way. Murati would lay in bed for a few minutes more, grumbling, and then rise.

“Love you, Murati. Good luck with today! I’ll be in the lab as usual!”

“Love you too. I’ll see you later.”

It was 0700 and her go-getter wife was out the door to work.

It took until 0730 for Murati to finally rise out of bed.

She grabbed hold of her plastic bath robe from the wall closet and walked out wearing it.

In the shower, Murati hung up her robe and found a pair of robes already on the hooks. Her gaze wandered slowly to her left, and she saw Semyonova and Fatima standing under the hot misty water in adjacent showers. Judging by the ambient temperature of the shower area they must have begun recently. Murati took her place beside them and turned on the hot water herself, kicking up a bit more mist. The pair greeted her, and she smiled back warmly.

“Good morning, Murati!” Semyonova said. “Ready for another day as Captain?”

“Good morning! Ah– this will be her last day as Acting Captain, won’t it?” Fatima asked.

“It’s the final day of the United Front’s deliberations, so I believe so!” Semyonova said.

“Ah– sorry to be so nosy, Acting Captain.” Fatima said, ears folding a bit.

“Good morning! No need to apologize Fatima, as far as I know you are completely right.” Murati said. “Captain Korabiskaya should not be indisposed again after today.”

“Would you like a horoscope for your last day as Acting Captain?” Semyonova said.

“I would rather find out for myself what the future holds.” Murati replied.

Semyonova reached for one of the dispensers of soap on the wall and a splash of gel landed on her palm which she began to run through her blond hair. Fatima washed her face, while her ears periodically flicked rapidly and cast a spray of droplets. Due to all the new guests, Semyonova and Fatima had been roomed together. Murati thought them an unlikely pair– Semyonova was the bubbly and beloved idol of the Brigand, like their own pretty pop star on the comms, while Fatima was seen as a bit reserved and kept to herself. Fatima was notably pious even among the Shimii crew, and Semyonova had a fixation with the occult, ghost stories, astrology, fortune telling and magic tricks, all of which a Shimii should not get involved with. However they worked together well on the bridge at least–

“Fatima, do you need help washing your tail?”

“Not today. Thank you. I’m sorry for seeking your assistance with it.”

“No, it’s perfectly fine. I have trouble washing my back, I can’t imagine having to reach for the base of a tail in addition to that. Maybe I’ll lobby the captain for some bathroom brushes.”

“Ah– but if we get brushes, Natalia, then I won’t get to ask you to clean my tail!”

Fatima and Semyonova exchanged smiles and laughed together under the water.

Murati glanced aside at them quizzically.

They seemed to be getting along.

For the most part, Murati tended to not interact with whoever she was bathing with.

She spoke if spoken to, but otherwise she just spaced out in the shower.

However, it was rare for her to find herself in the same bathroom as the women considered the prettiest on the Brigand. It brought to mind how Murati was considered a ‘prince’ by the gossipy sailors and her thoughts and gaze began to wander about. Compared to the two of them, particularly Semyonova’s quite curvy and plump frame, Murati could not help but consider whether she was perhaps a bit too thin. Minardo did get on her case for not eating well enough. Was this the reason she was ‘prince-like’ perhaps? Fatima’s hair was really long too– would Murati become a ‘princess’ if she grew her hair out? Her mind drifted around in such directions during the largely automatic actions involved in bathing herself.

“Ah, Murati, before I forget–”

Semyonova called her attention again and Murati turned a bit sluggishly to face her again.

Her mind unwound itself from its travels and returned to the present.

“You’re doing a fantastic job as Captain!” Semyonova said suddenly. Murati, at first stone-faced, smiled in return. “I know it must be stressful having to manage that much stuff Murati– I used to work communications on a Frigate that had half the crew and space as the Brigand and even that frayed the captain’s nerves a lot of the time. But you have been cool as a cucumber the whole time! I think everyone is happy with the job you’ve done.”

Since she had been complimented, Murati’s mind fished for a compliment in return–

“Thank you kindly. I can’t praise myself much since we haven’t been out at sea, but I appreciate the vote of confidence. I wanted to say also, it seems like you are getting up much earlier now! Your initiative is not unseen, and we all appreciate the extra effort you put in!”

Semyonova turned a bit red and froze up. She looked surprised at Murati.

Was this that effect Minardo had said she had on others?

She started mumbling and Murati could barely hear nor understand what she was saying.

“Ah, yes, well– Thank you I’ve– I’m not oversleeping– Actually I’ve never overslept– nor have I ever ran out in my pajamas in a panic– I have a great handle on my sleep nowadays–”

“Hmm?” Murati did not know whether she had offended her in some way–

“Ah– sorry, I’m an early riser, so she oriented her schedule around me.” Fatima said.

Semyonova turned to Fatima with a helpless expression.

Fatima giggled and splashed some water at her.

Murati still did not quite understand. “That is quite comradely. I am glad for you two.”

Eventually, Semyonova recomposed herself but did not speak for the rest of the shower.

“I’ll see you all on the Bridge. I have to do a few rounds first and find Aatto.” Murati said.

“Aye aye, Acting Captain!” both Semyonova and Fatima saluted, splashing water.

Murati transitioned from the shower to her room, and from her robe to her uniform.

She looked herself in the mirror. Her hair really was starting to dip below the shoulder.

Maybe she would let it grow longer and see what people thought about it.

Once she was ready, Murati laid her hand on the wall to engage the ship computer.

Scanning the ship access logs she knew that Aatto had left her room. She was probably in the hangar, as she did not usually take to the bridge alone unless ordered to do so. Murati left her room and took the hall to the elevator, in order to take the elevator down into the hangar. Along the way, she looked into the cafeteria, feeling peckish.

Breakfast was already served– Minardo was usually up in the early shift. By 0800 she already had the first batch of bread baked and the morning entrée already served.

When Murati peeked in, Minardo spotted her and waved from the counter.

“Murati! Good morning! We’ve got a bit of fusion today– gazpacho with dippable blini!”

“Can I get some to go?” Murati said, approaching. There were few people in the cafeteria.

“Of course! Rising with the sun today, Acting Captain? Head start on all the work?”

She was acting like Murati was never around in the mornings.

0900 was not so long after 0800! She took a minor umbrage at the insinuation.

“It’s not that much earlier than usual.” Murati said.

Minardo had a bit of a laugh at her expense while passing her a cup of gazpacho and a warm blin folded into a tube and wrapped in plastic foil. Murati thanked her and got back on her way. She ate on the way to the hangar, and was surprised by the gazpacho. The kick of the pulsed raw aliums was almost as powerful as having chilis in the mix. It was deliciously savory for a bunch of blended-up vegetables– truly Minardo had done it again.

She dipped the blin in the soup and ate that way to reduce the pungency.

Out in the hangar, the mechanics were already working, running the morning inspections.

Even though none of the machines had been used, and all repairs were completed, they still inspected them every morning without fail. When it came to the equipment and maintenance, any amount of neglience could mean certain death. Murati waved at the hangar mechanics and crew and found Aatto in her black Commissar-like uniform standing under the Agni. Tigris was with her, and Murati felt a pang of anxiety.

She hoped that Aatto was not bothering the mechanics.

However, Tigris was all smiles and Aatto looked to be entirely calm.

Only becoming excited and wagging her tail rapidly at the sight of Murati.

“Good morning, Master!” Aatto said. “How did you sleep?”

Murati sighed internally– it was a lost cause. She would have to get used to being ‘master’.

“Good morning Aatto. I slept quite well, thank you. Good morning, Tigris.”

Tigris put her hands on her hips, puffed out her chest and grinned.

“Good morning! Feast your eyes! At my latest masterpiece!”

She pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the Agni.

Murati raised her eyes up.

When they acquired the Agni it was just a bit taller than their other Divers and thickly armored, which made it slower but more resilient. It had been designed to operate in the Deep Abyss, within the Gorges, and to engage in the collection of scientific data and samples. It was equipped with a variety of gear but was less capable as a weapon– its greatest virtue was the HELIOS drone-based imaging network developed in part by her parents. Tigris had obliquely hinted at a “Tigris Pack 1” to up-arm the Agni– Murati had not known what to expect and been too busy to keep up with Tigris’ work.


“Why is it blue and yellow? The blue is so dark– and the yellow stripe is really gaudy.”

“What do you mean? It’s a super cool shade of blue and a super cool yellow stripe!”

“Uh huh.”

“I think it suits Master quite well!”

Despite her slight misgivings about it aesthetically, there had been noticeable changes that intrigued Murati. The chassis had been very slightly widened, which might improve the weight balance with the shoulder-mounted drone nests. Some of the armor had been omitted, giving the machine a slightly svelte appearance, but the cockpit had been redesigned to have sharper front angles. This made it much less likely that a round would detonate on a flat surface. On the rear, two of the backpack jets had been moved out, lengthened, and anchored to the upper back, just below where the “nape” of an actual human being was located. They could not swivel as much as the backpack, but at first glance seemed able to process much more water through the turbines.

“Don’t those stick out a bit much?” Murati asked, pointing her soup cup at the hydrojets.

“It’s a risk, but I think it’s a worthwhile risk!” Tigris said. “Everyone has been too conservative with the jets, hiding them in the backpack, both the Union and the Empire. But you will run out of room for small jets, we can’t have eight or ten back there–the design space has to move into bigger jets. I’ve been thinking for a while about machines moved by two large jets– like the pictures of the surface era ‘jet fighter’ that Yangtze used to obsess about.”

Due to the extraction of the bigger jets from the backpack to a direct back-mount, there was some loss of fine maneuverability that Tigris compensated for adding a few additional fin surfaces including a middle of the packpack “shark fin” control surface. She pointed out that all of the fins were now fully retractable into the hull when moving forward at full speed, reducing water drag. Due to the installation of Union-style hands, the Agni was completely compatible with all Union Diver weapons, while retaining the arm-mounted grenade launcher and its jet anchors. Overall it looked potent and aggressive.

“Well– I can only praise it, I think. Praise it and hope not to have to use it.” Murati said.

Tigris began twirling a pen in her hand with a smug grin. “Haha!”

Aatto clapped her hands thrice. “With this weapon, Master will surely defeat any enemy!”

“Aatto, what do you think? You were here before me– did you inspect it?” Murati asked.

“I did inspect it!” Aatto said cheerfully. “I think the combat performance has improved on all fronts. The previous model needed its armor density to enhance durability in the depths– but for our purposes, the current armor package is much better optimized. Higher speed performance matters much more to us. Now it’s using more Union parts too, so it’ll be easier to maintain. All of its weaponry is already known to Master– madam Tigris did well!”

“Thank you Aatto.” Murati said. “I appreciate you getting ahead of that for me.”

“Thanks, but stop with the madam already, I am just Tigris. By the way, while this gal was here, I let her into the cockpit.” Tigris said. She pointed at Aatto with the pen she was holding. Aatto continued smiling plainly. “And I was surprised because the homunculus was tuned to your brainwaves, Murati– but she actually got a reaction out of it.”

“What does all of that mean?” Murati said, dreading the answer.

“It means she can pilot the Agni with you if Maharapratham is indisposed.” Tigris said.

Aatto’s ears perked up, but her expression did not change.

“Okay. I’ll– take it under advisement.” Murati said.

She looked at Aatto, and Aatto wiggled her ears a bit. Remarkably self-controlled.

Then Murati noticed some motion off to the side of the Agni’s leg.

When she looked, there was a disc-shaped figure about the size of a coffee table standing on multiple silvery steel legs. There were intakes on its body for two small hydrojets and fins on its upper surface. On the LCD panel in front of the disc, there were digits that seemed to suggest a pictograph, like the smileys sent in BBSes. In this case, the face was rendered as “>w<” and made the object look mildly distressed. The fins looked like its ears– it resembled a moderate-size creature with a disc-like but somewhat cute body. Murati stared at it, and it seemed to hide just a bit further behind the Agni’s leg as a result of the attention.

It was one of the HELIOS drones– outside of its enclosure.

“What are you staring at?” Tigris looked behind herself and frowned at the sight of the drone. In turn the drone made a “O_O” face on its display when spotted. “God damn it. I tweaked their survival programming to make them get out of the way of battle more efficiently– but now this one’s roaming around the hangar terrified and being a nuisance. But none of the other ones do it! So what the hell is wrong with this one?!”

“I don’t know what to say to that. Just get them under control.” Murati replied dryly.

“Perhaps this little guy has a different prompt. All of our computing is based on predictive programming, so maybe each member of the formation was uniquely trained.” Aatto said.

“Well– I didn’t do the initial programming, so I have no idea about that. This thing is just part of the HELIOS network– so that was all Murati’s parents and Ganges. But the tweaks I made, I made to the network and its routines, not to any one of these stupid little things!”

“I’ll ask Zachikova to access it and send it back to the nest when she gets on.” Murati said.

Tigris sighed. She shot an angry glare back at the HELIOS drone. It then took off running.

After that episode, Murati and Aatto left the side of the Agni and made their way back up.

“Master, just so you know, we are a bit low on personnel.” Aatto said. “Yesterday half of the pilots participated in a Shimii festival in the Wohnbezirk and received permission to stay the night from the captain. They have yet to return. Also, before she left, Captain Korabiskaya gave permission for Valya Lebedova to temporarily leave the ship as well for a walk.”

“Then our only pilot is Shalikova? Can we get her woken up and on standby?” Murati said.

“Absolutely. I will have the security team knock on her door.” Aatto said.

“Thank you.” Murati said.

She felt an initial moment of disquiet at being largely deprived of her Diver squad– however, she expected this would be an ordinary and peaceful day like all of the ones before. It was highly unlikely for anything to happen that might involve them. And even if there was an issue, it was unlikely to be so urgent as to obviate simply recalling their pilots to the Brigand. They were docked and protected in a major commercial port with the dock workers on their side, an official alibi, and no reason for anyone to come looking for them specifically.

“Aatto, I don’t like that so much of the team is gone.” Murati confessed.

“I agree.” Aatto said. “We should always have at least a two-man unit available.”

“I’ll talk to Semyonova about putting that rule before the Officer’s Union.” Murati said.

It would probably annoy the pilots, but this should not have been acceptable.

“That being said, I am sure they will awaken and return soon. Those were the terms given to them by the captain.” Aatto said. “So in an hour or two everything will be well.”

“How much can go wrong in an hour or two?” Murati said, shrugging her shoulders.

“Everything– but for us, probably nothing.” Aatto said, mimicking the shoulder shrug.

When they stepped back into the bridge, they found Evgenya Akulantova in the Captain’s chair, clearly a bit uncomfortable with the amount of legroom at the station. It was a rare pitiable moment for the formidable “Chief Shark” of the security team, who was in line for command behind Murati. Nevertheless, Akulantova smiled, waved, and vacated the chair readily as if she had been waiting for anyone to take it off her hands. Murati and Aatto let her through to the threshold and reassigned her to her usual duty.

“Should we get that adjusted?” Murati asked her, pointing at the chair.

Akulantova shook her head. “If it ever falls to me permanently, I’ll just disband the unit.”

Murati did not appreciate the humor of that but said nothing and let the Chief on her way.

She knew the Chief did not mean such a thing.

Murati had known quite a few Union-born Pelagis as well as Katarrans in the Union and they all seemed to enjoy a somewhat sarcastic demeanor. But in each case their commitment to communism was some of the strongest she had ever seen. Murati greatly respected them– and Katarrans fascinated her a bit– so she tempered her petty automatic responses.

When she took her seat, she found only Semyonova and Fatima at their stations.

Of course, it was only around 0850 or so– too early for the late shifters to come back.

“Captain on bridge!” Semyonova declared playfully to the empty bridge.

“That’s my line.” Aatto said, sounding just a little bit defensive.

Semyonova giggled and Fatima shook her head a bit as if to note her disapproval.

They were not alone for long.

At around 0915 Zachikova walked in through the door and Arabella followed behind her. Zachikova sat down at her station beside Fatima and put down a portable computer she had been carrying on the desk surface. Arabella walked a few more steps to the side of the electronic warfare station and sat down on the floor with her back to it. This was against the safety regulations, but it was a common allowance that Captain Korabiskaya let the two of them have. So despite Murati’s own misgivings she allowed Arabella to sit there.

After all, Zachikova was one of the most important members of the bridge crew.

In terms of mission value and efficiency, her skills were unique and irreplaceable.

“Good morning, Acting Captain.” Zachikova said. “Any tasks for me?”

Turning a gloomy expression on Murati, waving half-heartedly, black bags under her eyes.

“Yes, there’s a HELIOS drone making a scene in the hangar. Coax it back into the Agni.”

“Huh. That’s pretty weird. I guess I’ll give the naughty guy a spank then.”

Zachikova laid her hands on the desk surface and took in a breath.

Her eyes became cloudy, and the LEDs on her ear equipment began to blink rapidly.

An empty gaze fixed on her station, a vacant body sitting slightly limp.

“Semyonova, main screen hangar camera nine.” Murati ordered.

“Right away!” Semyonova said cheerfully.

In front of them the large main screen filled with live video from a camera situated near the middle section of the ship’s lower deck. On the video, the HELIOS drone which had been previously running wantonly about suddenly stopped. A few mechanics who had been chasing it paused around it. On its front LCD, the pixels once used to form smileys now formed the word “PWNED” and the drone wandered hazily back to the Agni. It climbed onto the leg, hopped on the shoulder and slotted itself dutifully inside the drone housing.

Once the shoulder slot was shut tight behind the drone, Zachikova’s eyes regained color.

Half-turning on her seat, she grinned and gave a thumbs up.

Murati gave her a thumbs up back.

With the excitement now over, they resumed the routine for these ‘Acting Captain’ days.

“Semyonova, main screen interactive station model, and captive cameras 110, 205, 315.”

Zachikova had managed to find hundreds of unsecured cameras throughout the station that had fallen prey to her uniquely gifted cyber sleuthing. They were able to watch those video feeds at any time and most were live at all hours, including some very useful ceiling cameras operated by the station climate control service. These were the cameras Murati requested, along with the interactive model of the entire station. Murati liked to have the model on the main screen, as the wealth of live-updating data gave her some comfort.

As soon as the model appeared on screen and fully updated with the live data, Murati could see at any time how many people were moving about the station, where traffic was flowing, as heat maps and path predictions. They had marked the positions and rotations of Uhlan guards, and could track their activity near the Volkisch Gau, and the Oststadt where the United Front was meeting, and other locations of interest. With the model up, the heat maps displaying and everything up to the minute, Murati finally laid back in her chair.

Her eyes briefly glanced over the model every so often out of curiosity, but her anxiety was stabilized by the knowledge that she had so much data at her fingertips. Information was power, and intelligence positions defined so many battles that she had directly experienced and many that she had only read about. With the model, she was confident in her ability to respond to anything that might happen. She had an informational coup on the Uhlans.

In one of her glances, however, she noticed a lot of heat mapped in the second tier.

“Zachikova, can you find any information on why the Uhlan are gathering so tightly?”

They were practically leaving every post on the first and third tier unguarded.

This was unprecedented in terms of the patrol routes they had mapped.

Zachikova began to type into her station keyboard, looking for information manually.

“Aside from a few scouts and technicians here and there,” Zachikova began, having found information on the open web, “it seems the Uhlan are being called to their HQ for a snap audit. There was a clause for this set in their contract negotiation apparently– the station wants to review their budget. So they have to assemble and turn in their gear. Rhineametalle apparently instructed them to comply with all of the provisions of the audit.”

“Is the station’s business that important to them?” Murati asked.

“As a matter of fact, Master, it is invaluable.” Aatto said. “Shall I expound?”

“Please do.” Murati said.

“You see, the Imbrium’s military development has gone through certain stages– it was all founded on the personal armies of the nobles who followed Emperor Nocht, but over time, these shrank into essentially personal and property guards.” Aatto said.

Murati knew some of this history, but she wanted to see where Aatto took the story.

“After that, Ducal forces acting as divisions of a combined Imbrium-spanning Imperial Navy force rose to prominence, nominally obedient to the Naval HQ. Then there was the liberalization within the Fueller Reformation that allowed the Duchies to organize some of their own defenses. Since the liberalization, Rhinea stressed its independence. They had more trust in for-profit, private sector entities than in Imperial officials.” Aatto said.

That makes sense, Murati thought.

Rhinean stations were immediately different than Serrano in how much the corporations and their goods were sold, advertised and relied on in every inch of the stations. Everything in Rhinea was different– they had handheld computers and screens flashing at them in every direction. It made sense that their defense would also be different– and for-profit.

Aatto continued. “Corporations and stations in Rhinea began employing Katarrans, or Loup Grey Wolves, or some other private security forces, and using them in place of Imperial police. This is where Kreuzung’s K.P.S.D arose, for example. It is also where Rhineametalle founded its three security divisions– one division guarded Rhineametalle structures, the second guarded the corporation’s raw materials logistics, and the third division was the Uhlans, who were meant to be a for-profit security venture contracted to other Stations. Rhineametalle wanted to build and keep a large personal security force to both test its weapons and to insure its self-sufficiency if another Imperial crisis arose.”

“But they don’t want to pay too much for it.” Murati said, predicting what Aatto might say next. “So the Uhlankorp have to secure external profits, and the other two divisions are just doing jobs that Rhineametalle would have had to pay a third party to do anyway.”

“Exactly, master. But there is more– the rise of the Volkisch Movement to power in Rhinea upset the stage for these private forces. You must have read about how the K.P.S.D. treated the Stabswache in Kreuzung– they came to blows over security concerns frequently. The K.P.S.D had to continue to assert their value to protect their pfennigs even as the world changed. The Volkisch are immensely far removed from the liberal promises of the Fueller Reformation. They want complete security control over every square centimeter of Rhinea. Now, the Uhlans are part of Rhineametalle, who in turn are in bed with the Volkisch through Violet Lehner. So they do not have to worry about bodily harm coming from the Stabswache– but they must still worry about being made redundant.”

“This sounds ridiculous. How much money could all of this possibly make?” Murati asked.

“Security forces are incredibly overvalued in the Imbrium master!” Aatto said. “With all of the chaos and all the violent ideological actors at play– it’s an extension of why there is such a culture of mercenary and militia work in the Imbrium. The Uhlans make great money for their parent corporation. Crime in Rhinea had been at record lows, but the demand for security forces is irrational– it doesn’t matter what the statistics say. Rhineametalle got to set the price, and even after this audit, they can expect to make a great profit, or they would not be bothering with the whole thing. So the Uhlans just have to go along with it.”

Murati crossed her arms. It made perfect sense, and it was eloquently described.

“Imbria is a bizarre place. Thank you, Aatto. I’ve truly learned something today.”

Aatto beamed with unbridled joy, her tail thumping rapidly against the seat.

“Any time, Master! I live only to improve the quality of my service to you!”

“Let’s– not get too carried away–” Murati said, trying to shush her down.

Semyonova snickered in the background of this display of servile affection.

Fatima shook her head.

Zachikova groaned audibly, not caring if Murati heard her displeasure.

“All of this means the Uhlans will be out of our way today.” Murati said, settling back down against her chair. “Let’s keep an eye on the second tier just to be sure we see when they start streaming back to their posts. We can inform the captain to avoid them.”

“Will do.” Zachikova said, turning a bored expression back to her station.

Murati brought the arm-mounted monitor on the captain’s chair to the front and closer to her, with a mind to check the maintenance logs and make sure nothing was neglected– however, mere minutes later Zachikova called for her attention.

Mildly startled, Murati pushed away the monitor and stood.

“Acting Captain, I found something quite strange.” Zachikova said.

“Anything you can display on the model?” Murati said.

“I’m trying to find a working camera of some kind around there.” Zachikova said. “There was a shock in the second tier maintenance hull, near where the core station meets the Aachen Massif. Flood mitigation went off and that section of the hull was completely sealed off.”

“How serious is it? Is the station taking any kind of action about it?” Murati asked.

“The station computer reported it, but there’s been no acknowledgment.” Zachikova said.

“Perhaps it’s not dangerous. Have you found a camera out there?” Murati said.

As callous as it would sound to say out loud, the health of Aachen station was not their particular concern. Anything that threatened the lives of their personnel was their problem, but if the station underwent a failure, that was up to the station to respond to– they could not risk their mission to intervene in a search-and-rescue mission. They were a combat vessel, too, not equipped for heavy-duty engineering. If the maintenance hull was failing, Murati’s concern was whether they needed to evacuate and when.

Zachikova’s far-gone eyes stared into the middle distance for a moment.

Her consciousness was fully committed to a different “device” than her own body.

When she began to speak, she was still half-slumped over her station, eyes glassy.

“I found a salinity buoy with a camera. It doesn’t look too good, but we can use it.”

Her voice sounded distant and a bit weak, when her mind was committed as it was.

“Put it on the screen.”

Overlayed over the model of the station and the other camera feeds, a temporary square window appeared with a brand new camera feed. Drifting up and down on a line along with the vagaries of the deep currents, the buoy had a rotating camera with a limited angle and a few different visualization modes. It was difficult to tell what it was looking at in the moment– Murati could just barely make out the rock wall of the Aachen massif, and the edge of a steel structure. Everything else was marine fog. Nothing seemed to be happening.

“I was able to access previously recorded images and I found something interesting.”

Zachikova cut the live video feed and replaced it with a few static images.

Mini Zachikova appeared on the screen, pointing her little club hand at one of them.

“Oh! It’s the cute little Braya!” Arabella said, pointing at the screen cheerfully.

“This buoy saves still images for backup as a trio, with a spectograph and a thermograph along with a normal picture. Acting Captain, look at these snaps and compare the two.” The cute little Zachikova on the screen smacked her little hands on the images and they zoomed in further. Her voice was much sharper when it came out of the sound system.

On the live image there was a white flash captured in the corner.

In the thermographic image, the source of this flash was intensely hot.

“An explosion?” Murati said. “Did someone try to breach the station?”

“Judging from the station blueprint, this location has an emergency hatch.” Zachikova said. “Someone might have tried to blow open the hatch to enter the maintenance hull. But it’s a stupid plan– blowing open the hatch will just set off the flood mitigation. If you want to break into the station this way, you need a ship to prevent a pressure incident.”

“Zachikova, run those two images through the predictor and tell it to look for more steel structures within the image.” Murati said. “We might just find our ship inside the mess.”

Sure enough– once the computer processed the images, there was an outline of a ship.

Or at least– there was a large steel structure now adjacent to the station.

“It could be hallucinating.” Zachikova said. “However, it fits pretty well.”

She sharpened the outlines on the processed image manually.

To Murati it truly looked as if the explosion happened at the end of a boarding chute.

“How often does the buoy take pictures?”

“It takes more when there is activity– one second and I will run them as a sequence.”

Once the computer was through processing the sequence of snaps from the buoy–

There was an indication of an explosion, and then a violent scattering of metal.

“Can you query the station supercomputer? Is the station responding at all?” Murati asked.

“One moment.”

On the screen, the mini-Zachikova crossed her arms.

“Arabella, could you adjust my body, so I am up against the desk? I’m uncomfortable.”

“Of course Braya!”

Arabelle got up from the floor and laid Zachikova’s head on her arms, leaned over the desk.

There was something a bit strange about watching her tenderly relocating Zachikova’s half-limp and dead-eyed body– knowing that the mind meant for it was active elsewhere.

“Thank you.” Mini Zachikova turned to face Murati. “Murati, something is wrong here. The Station supercomputer has not acknowledged any responses to this breach. Aside from the automatic deployment of flood mitigation, it’s like the computer doesn’t have permission to do anything about it. No alarms, no emergency services sent to the maintenance hull. Even if the flood mitigation managed to take care of everything, the breach cannot be left like that forever. Either everyone is sleeping on this problem, or the computer’s lost authority.”

Murati felt her heart begin to pound. Something was wrong– and she was missing crew.

“Can you explain the loss of authority? Is this like the Core Separation?” She asked.

“No, the computer is still functioning. Anything it was already monitoring, or anything that is set up to happen automatically, will continue to work. The Station systems will not suddenly stop working. But any new authorizations to the computer are not being answered. So for example, if someone in the government sector noticed these events, they can’t declare an alarm state now. They also cannot open any new communications channels.”

“Who has authority then?” Murati asked. “Can we find out what is really happening?”

“I’m not sure. There are a few ways– It is possible to delegate computing authority to an emergency unit working as a decentralized processor.” Zachikova said. “It is used in case of emergencies or disasters or if the station needs to reprogram the supercomputer’s security processor, which is the main thing handling requests at the station-level. Essentially, a smaller supercomputer with all the security programming handles the requests using the supercomputer’s memory banks and subordinate cores– like a brain moving someone else’s muscles. Other than that, I guess you could subvert the security processor, but this is very difficult. If authority isn’t delegated cleanly it locks down and sounds an alarm. To avoid this you would need both physical access and current leadership credentials.”

Murati felt fear like an infinite spiraling chain wrapping around her skull and heart.

“And if someone has everything they need, they can just silently take over the station.”

She had heard enough now– with the timing of the Uhlan audit, something was going on.

Panic was unproductive, but her hands had begun shaking as she gripped the seat.

“Semyonova, alert code Semyon! I want everyone in positions right now!” Murati said.

“Yes, Captain!” Semyonova said, with none of the cheer she had previously shown. She opened a channel and in a calm, speaking voice, called all of the crew to duty “Semyon.” This was the highest level of alert, indicating that combat was inevitable and imminent. Everyone had to rush to their duties and begin work immediately. While the current situation did not entail combat yet, Murati would rather have everyone rush to alert Semyon just in case.

“Aatto, is Shalikova ready?” Murati asked.

“She is in the hangar and awaiting orders, master.” Aatto said.

Unlike everyone else, there was no sign of anxiety on her face. She was eerily calm.

Perhaps the one strength a person with no regard for her own life could have.

She had been working diligently and without distraction this entire time.

“Have the Cheka prepared. If I give the order, I want Shalikova ready to launch!” Murati said.

“Acknowledged! Leave the hangar to me.” Aatto said.

Overhead, the red flashing alarm lights soundlessly indicated the alert state.

Within five minutes, every sailor on the ship was up and had taken their respective positions. Unnecessary pods were sealed off. Vitamin drinks and energy bar rations were handed to each sailor and pilot. Doctor Kappel had set up her medical station, and security unlocked their weapons. Alex Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa rushed to their stations, and they were even fully dressed. Helmsman Kamarik took his position quickly after.

“Zachikova, send all information and our conclusions to the Rostock and John Brown. Tell the Rostock to get in touch with Kalika Loukia to bring all personnel back from the Wohnbezirk.” Murati ordered. “Semyonova, contact the Captain, Commissar and Premier and inform them about the situation. Tell them to begin to retreat along the predetermined route.”

“Yes, Acting Captain!” Both Zachikova and Semyonova set to work immediately.

Everything was in motion. Murati tried to calm her pounding chest.

Regardless of the outcome, she was doing everything she could do now.

She was meeting the task head-on– all she had to do was keep a cool head and–

“Murati,” Semyonova spoke suddenly in a low whisper, broken by her ragged breathing, calling her by name, “Murati, I’m afraid– I’m– no response. The Captain and Commissar are not responding, Murati. I will keep trying– but nobody is picking up at the Oststadt–!”

Murati’s heart sank.

Her eyes and head grew hazy– and her hands shook all the worse.

For seconds that felt like years she sat frozen still until the cameras caught something–

One attempt to take advantage of the Uhlan’s audit failed before it even started.

However, its engineered failure assured the success of a parallel attempt.

Throughout the morning the Uhlan guards filed into the second tier of the station.

Across the park, their barracks were divided by a wire fence from the street. A meager defense that was largely unnecessary since the bulkheads into the barracks buildings and armory would prevent any casual incursion by themselves. Behind this fence, the Uhlans stood in their sandy yard in their orderly ranks, turning over their personal weapons for inspection, stripping off their body armor and nanomail hats, their vibrobatons and sabres, their grenades. Standing at attention along with their officers. Auditors called the roll, meticulously accounting for each person, their identification and their gear.

Inside the armory building there was a similar accounting. Every locker was opened, every storage container exposed, each individual item down to the last rifle, the last ammunition belt, disposable rocket tubes and each of the rockets contained inside. Manually hand counted and double checked by a second hand. Aachen’s administration wanted a thorough audit and they would receive one. Every last pfennig of what they paid and got away with would be tabulated. Every last hand of the Uhlan would be engaged in the work.

All of this activity played into the hands of those who had been watching.

Mid-morning, across the park from the Uhlan barracks–

Multiple individuals in fireproof hooded jackets rushed to the edge of the trees.

Each carrying a large backpack perhaps at one point meant for a musical instrument.

They dropped to their knees for a second set of individuals to unzip their cargo.

Supported on their backs were launch rails concealed in the packs.

As soon as they were unzipped, and the rails were raised, drones already hooked onto each unfurled their wings. Before the audiences in the cafes and sitting around the trees could barely gasp at what they saw, they were quieted by a series of loud hissing launches. Hot gray contrails filled the air over the beautiful canopies of the second tier’s trees.

Suicide drones sailed over the park and within moments they had flown over the fence–

and crashed among the assembled Uhlans.

Each drone was relatively small– each warhead was improvised from one or two grenades.

Dozens hurtled into the Uhlan yard causing immediate pandemonium.

Striking in and around and between every column of the assembled personnel.

Successive detonations sent torsos flying from limbs, turned standing men and women into thick mist and thin fluid, blew apart pistols and ripped up long lines of body armor set on the floor. Flying and falling and rushing bodies struck each other dumb. Thin grey smoke and upturned clouds of sand blew up from the yard and hid the carnage from the eyes of anyone outside. There was screaming and the reek of iron and steel and passersby ran in every direction from the attack unknowing of whether there would be a second one for them.

Hundreds of Uhlan guards and officers were killed or cast among the gore awaiting death.

For the attackers, there was no pause. Drawing handguns and grenades, they rushed in.

Those hooded operatives soon joined by pristine white uniforms disciplined in execution.

The bridge crew of the Brigand caught sight of the attack immediately as it happened.

Watching the sheer bedlam unfold as perhaps the first to understand the magnitude of it. From ceiling camera 205, they saw the drones rushing over the trees in their dozens and saw the Uhlan yard, once filled with people, disappear in a curtain of smoke, sand and blood. They saw the civilians fleeing without direction and saw gunmen begin to approach and probe the fences. The remaining living Uhlan could hardly resist their executioners.

For a moment, the carnage almost caused Murati Nakara to feel a faint hope.

Was this an uprising of the People (her People, communist People) in Aachen?

Who else would kill the Uhlan but a revolutionary force?

However– if it was that, she might have heard of something of it before–

And might have heard back from her superiors–

“That wasn’t all of the Uhlan.” Zachikova said. “There are still a few scouts and technicians scattered around the station. I’m seeing signs of them trying to report in. But it was most of them. Whoever has this capability, they won’t have any trouble finishing the job.”

Those sudden scenes of raging battle had distracted Murati from Semyonova’s ominous discovery– as much as she tried, she could not get ahold of the Premier, Captain or Commissar. All of whom should have had encrypted communicators.

All of whom should have been reachable.

There was no holding her breath on that any longer.

Already, she had faltered by hesitating and felt ashamed for her weakness.

Through her thundering heart and throbbing sinews she had to remain in command.

“Zachikova, run a spectrum analysis when Semyonova tries to reach out to our officers. We need to know if there’s even the slightest evidence of jamming.” Murati said. “And– get a camera up that has a good look at the bar Oststadt. This situation is our utmost priority right now. We can forget what about what the Uhlans are going through for now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Zachikova said.

For a moment the mini-Zachikova sat on the edge of the screen looked deep in thought.

Zachikova’s physical body twitched slightly with the effort.

“Wait, what’s happening– to what officers–?” Geninov asked from the torpedo station.

“Be quiet, Geninov, please.” Murati said, almost pained to have to say so.

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa exchanged a worried glance with her station-neighbor.

Both seemed to understand the urgency of the moment and did not push back.

“Semyonova, tell Illya and Valeriya to gear up and come to the bridge.” Murati said.

“Yes, Acting– Yes, Captain.” Semyonova said. Replying to her through tears.

Murati almost wished she hadn’t corrected herself.

On the main screen there was a brief flash as camera 205 swapped with camera 328.

From a high angle, looking down from the right, the camera had a view of some of the glass façade of the “oriental bar” the United Front has chosen as its venue. Murati’s unblinking eyes caught motion and everyone on the bridge turned to see– there was shattered glass spilled on the floor outside of the Oststadt and someone was dragging a body with them. There was distant, tinny sound being caught by camera 328–

“Gunshots! Sharpen the image! Identify those people!” Murati called out.

“I’m trying! The camera is shit and the computer is being slow!” Zachikova said.

On the screen the image sharpened, losing some fine detail but filling out the figures better.

Both the woman dragging, and the woman being dragged out of the venue–

Had white uniforms and handguns.

Someone from inside the venue was shooting at them!

The dragging woman desperately shot back as she pulled the other out of the door.

Sporadic gunfire struck the floor near her. She ducked around the corner of the facade.

Her companion was bleeding heavily– her white uniform was stained dark.

With the computer prediction of what the video feed should look like, their uniform details went in and out of focus, but in some parts of the footage they had armbands with an indiscernible symbol on them. Neither of them had cat’s ears, or horns, or tails, and they were clearly not dressed like anyone they knew. This was an unknown faction.

Had there been an attack on the venue? Was the Captain fighting back?

“Can’t identify. It’s not anyone we’ve ever seen.” Zachikova said, sighing with relief.

Murati felt twisted between elation and terror. Her eye developed a small spasm.

She did not see Captain Korabiskaya dying in front of her on video–

but it was yet to be determined whether she would see her alive–

“Spectrum analysis– the computer is seeing some spurious signals.” Zachikova said.

“Would you say it constitutes an attempt at jamming?” Murati asked.

“If I had to call a shot, yeah.” Zachikova said. “Clearly the venue is under attack.”

“We know there’s someone in there fighting these white uniformed figures.” Murati said. “I need to know what we can do to help, or what we might have access to. Zachikova, recheck station statuses– I want to know the state of the elevators and other automated services.”

“If I had to guess it must all be locked down. I will take a whack at it though.”

At their side, the door to the bridge opened, and Illya and Valeriya entered.

Dressed in their nanomail bodysuits, assault rifles affixed to their tactical harnesses.

Along with a variety of other gear– grenades, additional magazines.

Valeriya had a diamond sword strapped to her back; Illya had a missile tube with spares.

“We’re ready to move on your call. What’s the situation?” Illya asked.

Murati wished she was as confident as she would have to sound about the situation. In the back of her mind she wasn’t even sure the captain and commissar were alive! And– thinking about that almost made her want to burst into tears with Semyonova! Her emotions were evident in the dismal little shakes that wrung through her hands periodically.

That was all that she could allow herself to feel. To shake, to keep the fear inside.

Aatto reached out and laid her hand on Murati’s forearm. They shared a brief glance.

In that moment, she recovered more of her composure. She appreciated the sympathy.

However, as soon as Murati was about to speak, the situation changed once again.

Semyonova called out to Murati again with a haunted look on her face.

“Captain– someone is trying to contact us directly. From the second tier.”

Adelheid glanced between each of the faces of the assailants on the balcony.

Wild eyes, shaking hands, ragged breathing.

Their oversize pistols weighing on their hands.

They held their captives as if they could lose control of the situation at any second.

These were not career soldiers– but they would not choke pulling that trigger.

Certainly they had enough of a mix of shamelessness and terror to kill someone.

Then– Hannah Schach’s words in the midst of the situation shook her.

At first, Isaiah seemed to treat the whole thing as a joke.

“Five million? Well, why don’t we bid? How about six?” He looked at Astra.

In his arrogance he seemed to seek a shared understanding that this was ridiculous.

However, Astra appeared to be taking it quite seriously.

“Monsieur Kleyn, out of respect for your mother and fiance, who have been gracious hosts. I would advise that you unhand my servant and turn your weapons away from Madam Schach. I am only tolerating this level of mistreatment of my servant and client in an attempt to deescalate. Should this situation continue you will be suppressed with force.”

“Your client?” Isaiah looked at Hannah Schach with a scoff. “This woman is not–”

“The ‘Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening.’” Astra said.

Adelheid could feel her own heartbeat accelerate in her neck and chest.

“Madam Waldeck will absolutely pay anything for my safe return–”

“Shut up.” Isaiah interrupted Hannah as she began to speak. “Madam Palaiologos–”

“This is your final warning.” Astra said. “Are you making an enemy of Mycenae?”

Mia sat throughout this debacle frozen, her face a rictus of heartbreak and despair.

Looking down at her hands on her lap, rivulets falling from reddened eyes.

Isaiah had not looked at her since he last put her down. As if she did not exist to him.

It was this charade of power that he valued over her.

Of course– so-called high-class men were always this way toward their high-class women.

“I’m afraid that even if I wanted to relent, you are in my house, and I can’t see a way for you to leave here having threatened me. It is you who made an enemy of me– you two–”


One word to answer Isaiah’s near stuttered threats–

All that Adelheid heard next was the sound of two loud footsteps.

In the midst of the assailants and the captives appeared a silver-haired woman with a knife.

First step–

Her blade entered the neck of the gunman holding Raiza and tore through the adam’s apple.

All it had taken was the flick of a wrist, blade in, blade out–

As soon as the knife left the man’s neck Raiza jerked aside and disarmed the corpse.

Second step–

Odyssia flipped the knife in her grip in the middle of a swing.

Angling the blade to the wrist of the gunman turning away from Hannah Schach.

Steel met flesh without pause.

Severing the hand with the gun and sending the man reeling with agony.

Odyssia planted her feet as blood dribbled from the man’s gored limb.

Raiza, now armed, fired over Odyssia’s shoulder and struck the remaining assailant.

Smearing half of the woman’s cranium on the doorway.

Releasing the hooded girl from her grasp. She tumbled to the floor.

It had been seconds. Adelheid felt like it hadn’t even happened in front of her.

She felt as if her mind was backfilling motion to explain the bloody scene in front of her.

Raiza aimed her stolen gun at Isaiah’s head with a furious expression.

At the back of the table, Hannah Schach cracked a grin and sat back.

“Kill him.” She said calmly.

Astra nodded her head once.

Mia stood up and screamed, reaching out a hand.

Raiza shot Isaiah through the forehead before he could even speak.

Perhaps before he could even acknowledge the sudden loss of his power.

Blood and gristle and bits of bone and brain sprayed on everyone around the table.


Adelheid rushed to her side, took her in her arms. But there was no comforting her.

Covered in her husband-to-be’s blood, inconsolable, screaming, gripping Adelheid tight.

Both of them nearly jumped as Raiza executed the remaining assailant.

“Oh god! Please! Please no!” Mia cried, pushing tight as she could against Adelheid.

Adelheid stroked her hair, and tried to whisper to her that it would be okay.

Unsure of whether any of them would be next in Hannah’s horrific spectacle.

Holding onto Mia as tightly and as helplessly as Mia held on to her.

“Err– who’s that anyway? Who are you?”

Hannah Schach, comfortable at the back of the bloody table, pointed at the hooded girl.

She had been brought in as a captive too– Mia had called her ‘Orlan’ had she not?

Adelheid did not know anyone by that name, however.

Though she had been friends with Mia in school, their circles didn’t always overlap.

Adelheid could hardly see over the table and around Mia but–

It looked like Orlan had been kneeling near Isaiah’s body while Hannah harangued her.

“Hey, I’m talking to you. Why did those white uniforms have you captive huh?”

No response.

“Are you a burglar or something? Look, I don’t care– just get out of here.”

No response.

Meanwhile, Astra finally stood from her chair.

She walked up to Raiza and held her hand and used a handkerchief to clean her cheek.


“Thank you as always.” Astra said simply.

Raiza tipped her head in a slight bow, smiling.

“Milord, we should prepare. There may be more of them coming.”

Odyssia sheathed her knife behind her back.

Astra nodded. She then reached into her pocket for her own portable computer.

“Everything’s been wired over!” Hannah said. Astra seemed to confirm it with her portable.

“Yes. Thank you for the additional donative.” Astra said. “What shall we do next?”

“Err,” Hannah crossed her arms. “Figure out what happened. Find Madam Kleyn.”

“We will establish a defensive perimeter in this sector. Is that permissible?” Astra asked.

Hannah looked thoroughly aggrieved to be making any decisions.

She pouted at Astra.

“Do anything you need to, to insure my safety, and so things can go back to normal!”

“Splendid.” Astra put on a little smile.

She picked a glass from the table, cleaned it, and produced a flask from her coat.

Filling the glass with a clear blueish liquid.

“It is customary to toast on the commencement of a business venture.” Astra said.

“Oh, thank you. You’re really too good for mercenaries. I don’t drink much– but I’m curious about Mycenaean stuff. I’ll just take a little sip and you can have the rest, how’s that?”

Hannah Schach reached out, accepted the glass, took a sip.

She started the motion to return it, but her fingers slackened, and her upper body followed.

Astra moved forward and caught the glass– but she left the rest to fall.

With a slight groan, Hannah collapsed forward onto the table.

Mia gasped with renewed fear– but Hannah began rather quickly to snore.

Only the size of her breasts kept her head from planting face-first over her cream steaks.

Astra had knocked her to sleep.

“Troublesome client. Wouldn’t want her trying to micromanage.” Astra said.

With some measure of contempt, she splashed the remaining liquor on Hannah’s face.

She turned to Adelheid and Mia. Her impassive expression unnerved Adelheid.

“I am not going to hurt you. I can’t let you leave, but you will not be hurt.” Astra said.

“Why the hell?” Adelheid cried out. “What do you stand to gain from this?”

Mia descended into fresh sobbing, shaking even harder than before.

“I am entreated to reduce any risk. You two represent possible operational risks. That is all. Once the situation is under control, we can perhaps discuss further. For now–”

In front of the table, the strange hooded girl quietly rose to a stand.

Her makeup running, breathing disturbed.

Shaking hands slowly found their way into her hoodie’s pockets.

Astra and her servants watched her. Odyssia’s hand reached behind her own back.

“Who exactly are you?” Astra asked. Her voice still sounded untroubled.

The girl took a long breath. “Inquisition Jagerkorps. Codename Grun. Grun the Verdure.”

“You haven’t left after my client dismissed you. So then– what do you want?”

Between irritated breaths. “Let Mia go. Or I’ll make this shit not worth the wire transfer.”

No third party should have known about the Brigand enough to have an interest in hailing them specifically. Murati figured that the hail from the second tier must have had something to do with the overarching situation– which was perhaps engineered to include them. However, she was not about to play into someone’s game that easily.

Offering a bit of resistance might mask her current status.

“Semyonova, patch the hail through to me, but set it to audio only.” Murati said.

“Yes ma’am.” Semyonova replied.

She had looked quite frayed throughout the events of the morning.

However, she was beginning to regain her composure.

She had never failed them.

None of them had ever failed– Murati trusted every single one in this moment.

Murati wished she could offer sympathy– but there wasn’t the time.

Trust would have to do.

When the audio waveform appeared on her monitor, Murati spoke first.

Trying her best to sound confident and untroubled.

To sound like Captain Korabiskaya did when dealing with troublesome persons.

She had listened to those calls with Lichtenberg and Norn von Fueller before–

“I don’t know who this is, but we are currently occupied. Call again later.” She said.

Semyonova and Fatima glanced nervously at Murati. But she knew what she was doing.

On the other end, the voice immediately responded–

“Now, now! Don’t leave me on audio and don’t hang up! I know all about your situation, UNX-001 Brigand! I know about your Captain Korabiskaya and your Commissar Bashara and your puffed up Katarran pretending she is a politician. Put me on video and put me in the main screen! Or I won’t be responsible for what might happen to these individuals.”

A woman’s voice, a bit on the low side, and betraying a jocular demeanor.

This was a rather conceited person with access to inside information.

Murati muted her own audio, and quickly unmuted it again.

In between, she said, “Leave Camera 328.”

Upon unmuting, she address the hail directly. “Very well. Main screen our guest.”

Mini-Zachikova stepped aside, and the screen was taken-up by a video feed.

One that was slightly shaking– it originated from a handheld portable computer.

Off to the side of it, Camera 328 documented the white uniforms in front of the Oststadt.

Injured, pinned down outside the venue, exchanging gunfire blindly–

Still without reinforcements–

“Ah, there you all are! Greetings, communists! My name is Menahem Halevi!”

On the main screen, the handheld camera turned–

from the destruction wreaked in the Uhlan barracks,

to the face of a young woman.

Fair skinned, red-eyed, smooth dark hair falling long and neat, in straight locks and bangs. Grinning to the camera. Her makeup was still immaculate. Shoulderboards and the collar of a white coat, a white shirt, a blue tie. She had a badge that was the shape of a blue star, hair clips the shape of that same star, and a blue armband– likely festooned with this star-shaped symbol as well. Not a speck of blood or dirt on her clothes despite everything.

Behind her, Murati got the impression of moving figures.

Rushing into the Uhlan yard– more fighters? Was she an officer in this group?

“You must be Murati Nakara, right?” Menahem asked.

“Stop wasting my time. What do you want?” Murati said.

Menahem looked delighted with her response. She raised her free hand to her chest.

“You should be much nicer to me, you know. I have a lot of lives you value in my hands.”

“You also like to hear yourself talk. What do you want?” Murati asked again.

“Tch.” Menahem made a little noise. “Very well. It’s quite simple, really. We have all of your officers hostage right now. I’m going to trade you the lives and safe return of your Captain Korabiskaya, Commissar Bashara, and your so-called Premier Erika Kairos– in exchange for your little fleet of ships. I want your Cruisers and I want the little Frigates you claim you have swimming around in the periphery. That’s the deal. The only deal we will give you.”

“Cut her off now.” Murati said.


Menahem’s face instantly disappeared from the main screen.

In her place, Camera 328 took over the entire screen, showing the front of the Oststadt.

With the white-uniformed troops still struggling to even breach the entranceway.

“She’s bluffing.” Murati said. She pointed at the screen as if to demonstrate to the crew.

Murati nearly doubled over on her chair, breathing heavily. Chest thundering with fear.

Aatto reached out and patted her on the back. “Master, you are doing magnificently.”

“Thank you– Aatto–” Murati struggled to speak. She raised her hands to gesticulate–

But she stopped herself from doing so. “Thank you. Thank you.” She tried to speak.

“Master?” Aatto asked. Everyone on the bridge was looking at her with concern.

She could not lose her voice now. Menahem would call again soon, any second now.

“Zachi– Camera 215– please–” Murati called out, shutting her eyes, breathing hard.

To steel herself, she tried to focus on what she had learned and what she knew.

There was a force of white-uniformed paramilitiaries with the capability to strike the Uhlan at their base with overwhelming firepower. They were likely attempting to breach the Armory, in the background of Menahem’s video call– as well as on Camera 215, which showed the force prowling around the Uhlan barracks. Menahem had inside information on the United Front– since the Anarchists were already compromised by the Omenseers, it was perhaps not a stretch to think they had also been compromised by this “white force.”

It was either the anarchists or the social democrats.

The Volksarmee was not perfect– but it was much harder to infiltrate them.

As a force of Union communists and Katarrans, anything “out of place” would stick out.

Since all of them were, already, themselves, “out of place.”

Menahem’s stated goal was to hijack their ships. She must have been hungry for weapons.

For this, she had the United Front “hostage.” However, Menahem was not able to carry out the fullness of her threat. Murati had a camera on the Oststadt bar that showed that, at the very least, it was a struggle. She did not have everyone inside clapped in chains. Menahem’s forces seemed not to be kept at bay– and in all this time they had yet to receive any reinforcements. That could happen any moment, on camera– but it was not. Instead, they had a man down and another barely able to trade shots with the interior of the bar.

“She has limited weaponry. She needs the Armory to be confident in pushing on us.”

Not only that– but it was also likely her forces were concentrated on the second tier.

She might have had scouts or infiltrators in other areas, but not a mass.

Otherwise, surrounding either the Oststadt or the Brigand completely and overwhelmingly would have been among her first priorities, rather than trying to call Murati to scare her off and unwittingly revealing her own position. Trying to bluff meant that her position was weaker. She must not have had complete information– she did not know that Murati had access to camera feeds, and perhaps she did not even know the status of the Oststadt. Perhaps the Captain and her allies had killed the moles– leaving Menahem blind.

She had learned certain facts about them, some confidential information–

But was she up to date? How had she gotten her information? How current was it?


Menahem needed Murati to either surrender or slip up and reveal her own desperation.

That call– they were trying to read through each other, but Murati had more information.

All of this was conjecture– but it left Murati in a position to speak confidently again.

“Captain,” Semyonova said, “Menahem Halevi is hailing us again. It’s her portable again.”

“She’s even using a consumer device to hail us. She’s got nothing. Put her through.”

Semyonova looked surprised at Murati’s confidence– she even cracked a tiny smile.

When Menahem reappeared on the main screen, she looked livid–

And Murati was seated upright and smiling at her with her fear purged from her face.

Menahem grunted. “Murati Nakara. You do that to me again–”

“We’re not turning over anything.” Murati said. “Surrender to us and end this peacefully.”

Menahem narrowed her eyes, predictably scoffing at this notion.

“Do you not care about your dear comrades then? Are you so cold-hearted?”

“Yes. You are absolutely correct. And I may yet show you exactly how cold-hearted.”

“Hmm. I see.” Menahem’s expression relaxed. She surveyed Murati’s reaction. “You can take your chances if you want, Murati Nakara. Right now I have more than enough resources to just come and take your ships for myself. Choosing to confront me is choosing to put your people in danger, including your precious officers. You will also risk the civilians of this station if you engage my troops in open warfare in these walls. Feel free to surrender at any time– my offer remains open. Some of you just might not be alive enough to take it.”

“It seems we have nothing to discuss then. I’ll see you here then– if you survive that is.”

Menahem’s expression briefly soured before her video feed cut out again.

“Heh, good show, Acting Captain.” Illya said, crossing her arms with a grin.

Murati raised a hand to her chest and breathed a sigh. She was not so proud of it.

However, she was certain it had the effect she intended.

Menahem had probably not extracted too much new information from Murati.

“Keep a few of the second tier cameras up. Zachikova, are the elevators operational?”

Zachikova’s physical body finally rose from its slumber.

She shook her head drowsily, regaining her senses as her mind “unplugged.”

“No, I’ve been checking. They’ve gone into lockdown mode.” She said.

At her side, Arabella reached up a hand to stroke Zachikova’s arm for comfort.

“I thought so or Menahem would just attack. But — who locked them down?” Murati said.

“At this point I am sure it was not the Kleyn government.” Zachikova said.

“I agree,” Murati replied, “it’s someone who is profiting from this chaos.”

Could the Volkisch Movement be taking advantage of Menahem’s assault somehow?

Perhaps– were Menahem and her forces an affiliate fascist group?

All of this business was simply too convenient. The audit, the computer failing, Menahem.

There was too much that they did not know or only had vague conjectures about.

She should have goaded Menahem into speaking more about her beliefs–

but there was no time, everything was simply moving too fast–

“Semyonova, set up a conference with Daphne and Marina.” Murati said. Semyonova nodded her acknowledgment. “Illya, Valeriya, I will be advising you on what we will do soon enough. Retrieve Chief Akulantova and begin the process of distributing light caliber weapons among the crew. If the worst happens I want everyone ready to fight.” Illya and Valeriya saluted and departed promptly with their orders. Murati turned to the rest of the bridge and addressed them. “Events have been moving too quickly to properly brief everyone. Right now there is an emergency threatening the life of the Captain, Commissar, Premier, and other comrades. I refuse to leave anyone behind– and I am confident we can rescue them all. Remain at your stations, see to your tasks– I believe in all of you and I have plans. Let’s get to work.”

Across the bridge, the officers responded as one:

“Acknowledged, Captain Nakara!”

Though each of their faces showed their own teetering between hope and despair–

It was enough that they acknowledged her and retained the determination to fight.

Blood had gotten on her tunic and shoes– as usual, but still annoying.

Odyssia looked down at her legs, a bit disgruntled.

Bending down a bit and swiping at the hem of her dress, catching glances of the empty eyes of the corpses she had left behind. The young lord of the Kleyn estate had been completely disfigured, his head a gory mass barely clinging to the remains of his jawbones. At his side on the floor, a strange girl knelt, stared at the remains and wept silently. She had been a captive of the white uniforms along with Raiza but seemed distraught over the younger Kleyn.

None of that bothered Odyssia– rather, she had expected to cut a bit cleaner.

Then again, she had not gotten to flex her muscles in quite a while.

Thank you for waking me, milord.

Odyssia sent a mental missive to Astra.

In response, Astra sent a mental image of herself giving an unsmiling thumbs up.

A silly expression that she was too dignified to make physically but could make in secret.

Odyssia smiled.

She had been hiding downstairs, nodding off behind the estate in secret.

To head off just such a possibility of assassination, Odyssia had snuck into the tier.

Even when uninvited she had a duty (and a desire) to protect Astra from harm.

To think anyone would try such a thing on the Warlord of Mycenae.

Though she was not dressed for combat, she never went anywhere without her kopis.

And a Katarran who couldn’t kill with their bare hands was a sorry sight anyway.

Once Hannah Schach was put to sleep and the hostages were properly informed of their state, Odyssia had half a mind to simply walk away and call up the troops and find someone more organized to relieve her. Herta Kleyn had allowed for Astra’s Varangian Guard to accompany her. Several of the officers and numeroi were allowed to stay in the special accommodations Astra had been given in the top tier– the Kleyn “guest house.” She needed to inquire about their status– but she pitied any white coats that tried to attack them. It would be far messier than her knife cuts on the poor salps lying about the Kleyn balcony.

But Odyssia hardly got to take a step from Astra’s side.

She reached for her knife. The girl weeping beside Isaiah Kleyn’s corpse stood up.

Her aura as she put her hands in her pockets flared a vivid red and black.

Its texture erratic, like thorns wrapping around flesh.

This “Grun the Verdure” was not in her right mind.

Eyes unblinking, a red gaze fixed on Astra. Colorful hair tousled, makeup running.

“Let Mia go. Or I’ll make this shit not worth the wire transfer.”

“Madam–” Astra began to speak–

Monsieur.” Grun hissed at her, interrupting her, a discourtesy she was unused to.

Astra stared impassively. “Monsieur Grun. I am uninterested in the Inquisition’s business. I am familiar with all the whispers surrounding your Jagerkorps. If I squandered your mission I will take responsibility for it when necessary. For now, I will ask that you be on your way.”

Grun put on a grin Odyssia recognized, having made that face herself.

That last hopeless laugh as if to ask oneself: “Am I really doing all of this?”

“It’s actually personal.” Grun said. “It’s actually a matter of love, is the thing.”

“I see.” Astra replied. Voice monotone, expression unchanging.

Grun laughed so hard that he coughed.

“Isn’t it stupid? God, I’m so stupid. I’m just– fuck. I hate this fucking guy.”

Odyssia stepped in front of Astra and withdrew her knife, holding it front of herself.

“Sorry pal. But you really ought to just get out of here.” She whispered.

“The thing is– I intend to.”

Grun removed both of his hands from the pockets of his hoodie–

Palms red with bloody flowers blooming oozing sticky flesh

and covered in a chalky bony pollen–

petals flapped once like horrid wings and released a cloud sweeping through the balcony

“Katarran constitution is tougher than that!”

Odyssia charged forward, but her eyes had been stung, not because the cloud had irritants but because of its thick texture and the fact that she had been so close when it blew out. She thought she would be poisoned but it was not Grun’s intention. Everything was red and sticky and dense troubling her vision– she heard the tableware clatter and realized–

Grun had moved past her.

She swiped at the table on pure instinct and felt the wake of Grun running off it.

“Take her, go!”

Adelheid van Mueller shouted–

Next thing Odyssia saw through her tearful eyes was Grun leaping off the balcony.

With Mia Weingarten safely in his arms.

“Hmph.” Amid the dirty pollen a small, stoic figure stood undaunted.

In the next instant, Astra flexed the strands that hung within her hair.

Emanating a wave of invisible force that dispersed the cloud.

All that power contained in that short frame–

“Send Antandre after them, to delay or capture alive; she will appreciate the fulfillment.”

Odyssia nodded her acknowledgment. She looked over the balcony.

Grun was really moving, running pell-mell– but he had nowhere to go.

Astra approached Adelheid van Mueller, standing against the balcony railings herself.

“I’ll jump too. I’m starting to like my chances.” Adelheid said.

“I’ve already said I am not going to hurt you. I am not keeping you here for my own personal enjoyment, you know.” Astra said. “I can’t stop you from hurting yourself, but I intend to do what I can to secure your release– once all of this is over and I am sure you won’t either leak something, cooperate with an enemy or otherwise compromise my position.”

Adelheid cracked a grin. “You’re already compromising your position. Norn is going to come after me no matter what. You really should release me before she comes get me herself. She is not known for her level-headedness. She is going to tear all of you, limb from limb.”

“I am not afraid.” Astra said. “If she does invite a confrontation then we will have to meet it. Right now I am beholden to the Volkisch. The situation is complex, and I cannot brooke any missteps. If I were in any other position, I would have just let you go, madam. Convey these thoughts and my sincere apology to Norn the Praetorian when you next meet.”

“Hmph. Fine. But she will come. Mark my words.” Adelheid said.

Despite her threats, Adelheid van Mueller was compliant enough to follow the Mycenaeans as they re-entered the estate, leaving the corpses on the balcony. She was unarmed and alone and had already seen what Raiza and Odyssia were capable of– and she might have even felt Astra’s own power when she dispelled Grun’s smokescreen. If she tried anything too clever, Odyssia would sense it immediately and put a stop to her.

There was nothing to worry about from her.

Odyssia was still worried about the rest of their circumstances.

They had no idea who the white coats were or where Madam Kleyn had gone. Isaiah had not been after Astra’s life– he was trying to kill Hannah Schach. And Hannah Schach was just a rich racist– which meant, he was probably after the Volkisch generally.

Was this an open rebellion?

In the middle of the connecting hall to the balcony, Odyssia stopped abruptly.

“Milord– are we perhaps getting in over our heads here?” She asked.

Astra and Raiza stopped when they realized she had done so, and they turned to look.

What could she have expected? Her master was stoic and toneless as always.

“No.” Astra said. “It’s an opportunity. I want to show Labrys something unnerving.”

That toneless unwavering voice that nevertheless delivered such a handsome conviction.

Odyssia bowed her head. At least this was a dramatic decision if nothing else.

“I apologize for holding things up. I shall get the troops in order, milord.”

This girl– this woman, was the future of Katarre.

On the captain’s seat, the arm-mounted monitor was split by two video feeds.

On one half, Marina McKennedy represented the John Brown, to which she had recently been assigned. On the other half, Daphne Triantafalos represented the Rostock. Murati had called both ships to a conference to discuss the ongoing situation. All three ships had lost their highest ranking officers, with Eithnen Ni Faoláin, Erika Kairos and Ulyana Korabiskaya all out of contact. They had inherited leadership of the Volksarmee in this predicament.

Murati wanted to talk to Daphne most. She was an experienced Captain in her own right.

“Did everyone get a chance to review our findings and conclusions?” Aatto asked them.

“I did, thank you, and thanks to Captain Nakara.” Daphne said.

“Yep, took a look. How are you holding up, by the way? Must be rough.” Marina said.

Marina was not someone Murati particularly liked, but she wouldn’t let that affect her.

“We’re still working effectively.” Murati said. She reached a hand out to pat Aatto’s back.

“Murati, I followed up with Kalika,” Daphne said, “the Wohnbezirk went under lockdown and there is a situation at the village– she is doing what she can, but we may not be able to count on your pilots or Kalika for the time being. I instructed her to attempt a breakout when feasible. Chloe is mobile, so I am having her head upstairs. Dimmitra is available as a pilot.”

Valya was still missing too– Murati crossed her arms and sat back on her chair, sighing.

They could not spend time flipping through every camera trying to find them.

“Zachikova set us up with the goods.” Marina said. “I regret to say it, but I actually have intelligence on who this enemy force is if you are interested. I recognize the armbands.”

Murati leaned forward again. “Tell me. Anything you have is invaluable right now.”

Marina looked almost ashamed to have this information. She spoke with some reticence.

“These are Eloim terrorists. That star they wear is called the Star of Judea. They believe that the Eloim were like the fucking rulers of the world in antiquity and have grievances against the Imbrians and Shimii for supposedly stealing their lands and destroying their true culture and language. It is not the first time a group like this popped up. But this one was armed by Kitty McRoosevelt. See those huge handguns they are using? Those are 10 mm McCarthy pistols– huge fuckin’ things, if one plugs you in the shoulder your heart explodes. They are popular with gangs, that’s how Kitty got them. Released from police custody, pushed from Ratha Flow, to Trelleborg, and out to wherever they can do the most damage.”

There was no reason for Murati to get mad at this and yet she could not help but be angry.

From the position of Alayze it made sense to assist any group that might harm the Imbrium.

Murati herself had a mission to foment unrest in Imbria.

She should not have had qualms about the method. However, it had been too many times already that they ended up haunted by the ghost of some Republican misdeed. And too many times that Marina McKennedy was connected to the problem in some way. Because she could not rationally criticize anything Murati remained quiet– but she could hardly hide the anger in her body language except by averting her gaze from the screen.

“That makes sense as to why they are as well armed as they seem.” Daphne said.

Marina crossed her arms and averted her own gaze. Perhaps stricken with some shame.

“Kitty would have given them plenty of handguns and explosives, the lightest and most transportable stuff that she could have gotten her hands on. Grenades, maybe some body armor. Probably not any bigger stuff. Some of what they have their hands on baffles me.”

“Yes, those folding drones are the Imperial reconnaissace model Biene. We have some in here– but ours don’t explode.” Daphne said. “They have launched a great many of this type today. To have modified those Biene means they had a source of chassis, parts and explosive, and enough technical know-how to put together the modification and deploy it.”

“We don’t know how long they have been preparing.” Murati said.

However, if today was a long time coming, they had few big guns to show for it.

Maybe they only acquired those Biene drones and modified them recently.

If there was some kind of supply ship hijacking– or if they had security connections–

“Daphne, I wanted to ask your opinion about our next move.” Murati said.

Daphne sat back on her own captain’s chair.

“If you are correct Murati, and the Judeans are concentrated on the second tier, then they could possibly split their forces to go after the Oststadt and confront us as well– but if they like their chances enough, they could try to overwhelm us instead and ignore our VIPs. Especially if they are mainly after the ships in Stockheim. I do not believe for a moment they will only try to hijack ours.” Daphne looked off to the side– perhaps at her own main screen and the camera feeds there. “I’m worried about the situation at the venue. The Judeans have two people there, and they are only trading sporadic fire, but the people inside the Oststadt are not trying to escape either. They could have wounded in there or there might be close quarters fighting inside that we cannot see. We need to mount a rescue operation.”

Murati feared the same but had not wanted to admit it to herself or to the crew.

She had wanted to operate under the assumption that the captain might still be fighting.

It was still possible– but Daphne was not wrong in her assessment.

They could not know what was truly happening– they needed to act quickly.

“Since the elevators are not running, everyone still needs to climb to tier three manually.” Marina said. “You lot might want to try to break through the Judeans, but I think it would be worthwhile to send someone to sneak out to the Oststadt and see what’s really up.”

Daphne grinned in response. “Are you perhaps volunteering, madam G.I.A.?”

“Yup. If you’ll excuse me, I gotta get geared up and get going– and don’t say no.”

Marina shot Murati a look. Murati in turn shut her eyes. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”

“I owe Korabiskaya and Bashara too much. I’m going. Just keep the Judeans off me.”

Suddenly Marina shut off her screen and left the call.

Murati laid a hand over her face.

There was simply no keeping that woman out of trouble nor keeping her in line.

“Don’t worry about her. She probably has more experience sneaking in and out of places than any of us. Burke Zepp can handle the John Brown– unless he goes with her. I can send Chloe to back them up– Chloe also has a knack for getting around.” Daphne said.

“Do it. Can you also keep an eye on the John Brown for me?” Murati asked.

“Of course.”

Murati was eternally grateful for Daphne not making a fuss about seniority.

Technically as an Acting Captain, Murati should have been deferential to her instead.

She had not once questioned where command lay– Murati respected her temperance.

“Aatto, do you know much about the Judeans?” Murati asked.

Aatto folded her ears and shook her head.

“I know that Eloim terrorists have been active in Bosporus for generations, but since I’ve been working in intelligence, I have been working primarily in Rhinea. I do not recognize the symbol and I cannot speculate as to their predilections. Their open hostility did not extend to this region until now– though I can confirm we have always had a problem with arms smuggling in Rhinea. It would not surprise me if arms from around here made their way to Bosporus and then back here. I’m sorry Master, I wish there was more I could say.”

“You’ve been magnificent Aatto. I would go insane without you.” Murati said.

While Murati had been shouting orders and answering calls Aatto had been working quietly and efficiently. She monitored compliance with Alert Semyon, sought out the status of missing crew members, and insured the readiness of the hangar for battle. She had worked with Semyonova on communications and helped disseminate information to their allies in the Volksarmee fleet, and collected any information they sent in return.

Murati felt that without Aatto she would have been acting as half a person in this situation.

“Daphne, we should make preparations for a land incursion through Aachen.” Murati said.

Daphne nodded her head. She reached out and touched something on her monitor.

Some dossiers appeared on Murati’s screen after that.

“The Rostock has our own team of special forces, the Ekdromoi. Only three, and they don’t have as much experience, but they’re Katarrans, and Katarrans are good in a fight or they’re nothing.” Daphne said. She was smiling at Murati with a calm demeanor. In turn Murati felt a little bit more centered. In this fight, she would rather have Katarrans than anyone else. Daphne continued. “Every sailor on this ship is a hot-blooded Katarran who is good in a pinch– but just like you, I hesitate to send maintenance and engineers into the fight.”

“I agree– we don’t want to invite mass casualties. Unless we become absolutely desperate I do not approve of sending out a human wave of sailors. We should pool our veterans and special forces and come up with a small team that can fight smart and quick on their feet. Aside from Illya and Valeriya I have a few more people I am willing to call up for this.”

“You have a lot of war veterans with you. Judging by the two terrified white coats outside the Oststadt, the Judeans might be working through a deficit of experience. I agree with this course of action, Captain Nakara.” Daphne winked at Murati who felt just a bit affected by the teasing. “I will get the Ekdromoi to transfer over to the Brigand and inform them to work under your BEAST unit. I trust that you have one of those miracle plans of yours in the works– so I will leave the fighting to you and focus on administration here.”

“Thank you, Daphne. You have no idea how grateful I am for you right now.” Murati said.

Daphne laughed. “You’ll make a woman blush with that kind of talk, Murati. Take care.”

She disconnected shortly thereafter. Leaving silence in her wake.

Murati looked over to Aatto and she reached out and briefly squeezed her hand.

Both for sympathy and for her own comfort. “Thank you too.” Murati whispered.

Aatto smiled back. Wagging her tail. “It is my pleasure to serve.” She said.

“Captain, while you were socializing, I caught something that might interest you.”

Zachikova called on Murati in the middle of her exchanging soft eyes with Aatto.

She had a smug little smile. Murati hoped she wasn’t getting any lurid ideas.

“What is it?” Murati asked, gesturing for Aatto to resume her work.

“Someone is speaking through the presidential address system.” Zachikova said.

“Isn’t the station computer compromised right now?” Murati asked.

“It’s a radio system, so they can always use it.” Zachikova replied. “I captured the audio.”

Zachikova swiped a finger on her station touchscreen and sent the audio to the main screen.

A waveform appeared and began to play for the entire bridge.

It was a woman’s voice– or perhaps’ a girl’s voice. Inexpressive but somewhat young?

“–This is Astra Palaiologos of Mycenae. In accordance with established private security practice, the Mycenae Military Commission of Southern Katarre has gone into action around the Presidential Estate. We will defend the Government Tier of the station on the authority of the Volkisch Gau until the end of the current emergency. Any unidentified persons attempting to enter the fourth tier will be fired upon. Remain in a safe place away from tier four and await the reestablishment of public order in the station.”

Murati felt the voice reverberate inside her head– her mind was racing suddenly–

“Zachikova, can you try to contact the presidential estate somehow?” Murati said.

Zachikova looked at Murati with narrowed eyes. She then sighed out loud.

“Ugh, maybe. You’ve got that real troublesome look on your face again.”

Murati had not even realized she was smiling like a demon. “What look?”

After the fires in which the Uhlan perished, a white boot trod on the ashes.

During and after the attack, the word among civilians began to spread, through posts on Rhinean public messaging services and in terrified texts and group chats, but no official sources were forthcoming with information or directives. No alarm sounded; no civil servants guided the civilians away. Government web pages failed to update. The government sector in tier four went completely silent except for, as if a final judgment on their civilian charges, imposing a lockdown that forced civilians to crowd through the long stairways or the emergency insterstice accessways between the station’s massive tiers.

For most of the civilians, they were running from their workplaces or leisure activites and rushing to their homes in either the third sector or the residential tower adjacent to the Aachen core station. Because the tram was not running, people took their chances running physically across the long emergency accessway between the two colossal station structures. There was nobody to supervise them– there was pushing, trampling, even fights as tensions frayed and people taught to distrust rather than rely on each other saw everyone around as a possible enemy. Anyone could have been wearing one of those white coats and blue stars that were fast becoming mythical symbols of terror.

That enemy– looked too much like the rest of them for comfort–

Not Shimii, not Katarrans, not “communist barbarians”–

However, the Dibuqim did not deter anyone’s escape, nor did they attack any civilians.

Anyone who ran past them managed to escape.

Anyone who stayed to watch was encouraged to follow them and “see justice done”.

And enough people stayed behind whom, rather than run away, ran toward them.

Not in fear or anger, but with excitement.

For some it was mere hooliganism that spurred them–

A significant portion of the stragglers had loftier ideas.

Those ideas began to spread until hundreds of people believed them in an instant.

For years they had heard meaningless promises and seen little change. Wages were stagnant while prices rose; food products became more packaging than contents; a wealth of high tech, expensive gadgets became increasingly necessary to find good jobs; all this amid a rising current of fascist violence that at first felt confined to ghettos and back alleys but became more and more public, until its organizers were legitimated by the political system. Now those thugs wore uniforms stitched on the public dime to deliver official beatings.

Enough was enough; they felt the explosions like a new heartbeat.

In their minds they were sure this was the moment– the spontaneous uprising against the Volkisch that many of them had dreamed of since Heidemann lost the presidency to that despicable Adam Lehner. The election of 979 ended the previous era of activism with an uncertain future for the next. When the drones exploded in the Uhlan barracks it activated in the onlookers scenes that they thought they would have to bury in their brains forever to continue living. Ambitions that they thought lost since the fateful night. Images of the coalition of activists trying to hold Herth Park against the fascist mob in the days leading up to election night, and in that same night, fighting to survive its surging tide. To them the conflict in front of them was the simplest call to action that they had ever been given.

In their minds history had an inexorable arc toward justice moving invisibly, automatically.

Evil tried to bend the elastic bar that Good represented until it rebounded, struck back.

It was these people, and the people watching them on video streams, and the people whom they contacted via messaging, and the people with secret whisper networks that stretched back to the ambitions of the activists in Hertha Park– it was they who would form the barricades and loot stores for supplies and extract personal weapons long ago hidden along with their hope– it was they who formed that very morning the tragic instrument that would come to be known as the Aachen Citizen’s Guard. Under the watchful eyes of Menahem Halevi, a self-described anarchist, the crowds watching in front of them the burning corpses of the police who had beaten them, and the shattering of the fences and doors that had barred them from power, the knocking-down of everything that had set them up– it was they who would form the greatest mass of the Dibuqim’s fighting power within Aachen.

Unknowing of the agendas that had spurred them to action.

But without anything to animate them but that sudden spark through their frozen bodies.

And nobody to stop them with the bodies of their oppressors going cold in front of them.

If anything, it was better that it was spontaneous— it gave them no time to doubt.

“We are working on breaching the armory!” Menahem said cheerfully. “Once we are in, everyone who wants to join the uprising will receive weapons! And then we will storm upward and bring down the government tier, and we will rush into that vile structure of the Volkisch Gau, and we will head to the Wohnbezirk where the fascists’ closest collaborators are now hiding! Justice is spreading its fire through this place! Rejoice comrades!”

Nobody asked who ‘we’ was– everybody cheered for the white-uniformed benefactors.

“Please wait out here, and we will begin distribution shortly!” Menahem said.

Urging the groups away from the Uhlan barracks as her forces worked.

As something invisible to their eyes trundled closer to assist in the effort.

From the forces assembled in the Uhlan yard, stepping over the mass of blood and shredded flesh, a woman approached Menahem Halevi, waving a hand to catch her attention. For a moment, Menahem briefly lost her little grin at the sight of the woman. She was the only woman in a white uniform also sporting a set of rounded cat’s ears on her head, and with a thick, bushy bobtail sprouting through a gap in her pants. Her cape was even cut halfway to allow her to sport her tail openly despite the implications of such biology.

She had slightly narrow eyes, and a strong nose, a tanned face with light green makeup, and long shiny blue hair on head and similarly colored fur on her ears and tail– she was a looker and done up well despite the smoke in the air and the gore tracking on her boots. Her green eyes scanned the surroundings with the sort of mirth that Menahem wore on her lips instead. Menahem turned to face her and waited for her to speak first.

She held the superior position.

Menahem was Aluf, “Champion.” Aside from the Manhig she was the highest ranked.

This woman, Tiferet Hadžić, was ranked only Seren, a “Lord.”

Not only that– but she was also a half-breed, and what a breed her lesser half was–

“Our little stunt triggered the Uhlan’s automated defenses. We have cleared the yard and have eyes on the remaining Uhlan in the station.” Tiferet reported. “The armory is sealed off by triple-deep bulkheads, military-grade. We do not have powerful enough explosives to breach, nor access to appropriate breaching tools for the job. You should let that doll of yours take a crack at it or we might never get anywhere– at least on time.”

“Already thought of that– but thank you for your keen eyes as always.” Menahem said.

Tiferet grinned, lifting her index finger to her lips. “You are welcome. Where should I go?”

“Take care of this for now– you’ll be sticking close to me for today.”

“I look forward to it. Got any more tests of loyalty in mind?”

Tiferet casually, perhaps thoughtlessly, sucked on the index finger she had raised.

“Perhaps.” Menahem said.

Menahem left the tending of the crowd to Tiferet and waded through the Uhlan courtyard herself, fidgeting with a star-shaped badge. Across a pockmarked sandy field, still littered with bodies and parts of bodies kicked about and trampled a dozen times over, stood an enormous titanium armory building, perhaps as thickly armored as the station hull. Behind its ludicrous bulkheads were the heavy weapons of the Uhlans. While the pile of surviving pistols and rifles outside was a decent haul, the true prizes lay past those doors. Weapons with which they could force their way into a military ship– or destroy it.

If a prize could not be theirs it would be nobody’s– such it was with gold, land or weapons.

That was the bitter way that extermination had to be fought against, and survival won.

“David, my doll, you can show yourself. Open this door for your beloved Menahem.”

Upon hearing the name ‘David’, every one of the Dibuqim soldiers around the Armory kept their distance and made space in front of the bulkhead. Several of them withdrew cloaking shields, took up formation and set them in front of themselves– creating an optical illusion that made the front of the Armory appear empty of what Menahem had summoned.

Lifting a more sophisticated optical cloaking from herself, David became visible.

In front of the armory, raising a mechanical hand against the door.

At first, David appeared to the world as a power armored soldier, but there were some clear visual discrepancies that dispelled this notion. Two and a half meters tall, David stood higher than any of the Dibuqim. Much of that height was a result of the armor’s long, slender and reversed-jointed legs made up of several parts, into which no human anatomy could have fit. The upper torso was sleek and angled forward, with a pivot point in the center that was another curious sight. High, strong shoulders supported a pair of strong arms. Both of these arms bore weapons, one the housing of a long blade, the other some kind of projectile launcher with a rectangular, wide opening and internals integrated into the arm.

Atop the slope of the torso there was a helmet– or perhaps, a head.

So angular it looked like a beak, with a wide and round glass visor.

A voice emanated from the armor. It sounded like a young girl’s voice.

On the glass, there was the impression of a similarly young, pretty face–

“Menahem, I’m opening the door.” She said.

In an instant, David put her arm to the door and forced her blade through the bulkheads.

Tongues of purple energy consumed the material in the way of the blade as surely as the kinetic force of the attack bent and deformed the metal. This symbiosis of technology and brutality punched a hole through the armory doors, through which David’s hands could fit and push apart the bulkheads. Forcing open the triple-depth doors, a third at a time.

Unveiling the terrified remnants of the Uhlan auditors huddling with the weapon crates.

Too shaken by the monster in front of them to even employ any of their bounty.

“Menahem. The task is complete. Was I good?”

“You are such a good girl, David. My beautiful doll.”

Menahem laid her hands on the steel armor, caressing her gently.

Her fingers running over a hexagonal symbol that had been defaced with a Judean star.

While they shared this moment, Dibuqim soldiers opened fire into the building.

Soon, the white uniforms emerged from the Uhlan barracks, bringing with them crates of weapons which they cracked open and thrust into the crowd. People cheered and picked at the caches with a fervor, seizing submachine guns, hand grenades, encryption-enabled radios– but the Dibuqim held back their own spoils of machine guns, ATGMs and plastic explosive. Everyone clamored for justice as Menahem wanted them to; and Menahem watched them run off with glee. Organized into their little impromptu squadrons, different levels of training and experience, but all of them clearly believing in their own justice.

A great opportunity! Let them all believe without direction!

“Will you shoot these Imbrians, Murati Nakara? Because I can get them to shoot at you.”

Unlike the disparate and meagre culture struggling amid the Imbrians, tending to the ashes of the little rituals that remained of their former unity, Menahem was not a simple Eloim. Under the blue star, she would steal anything, kill anyone, destroy anything, for their Nation, their race, for their single, overriding Destiny. Murati Nakara was nothing but a little speedbump– Aachen was but one destination in the journey they had begun. First a brigade, then a fleet, then a navy, and soon, a Power in the chaos of Imbrian dissolution.

“I hope you have something defiant to say when my boot is on your head.”

All would acknowledge the Eloim, not as a quaint bygone superstition, but as the object of their greatest fears– as a united race in charge of a mighty, ruling Judean nation.

“David, let us move out. Grander things– the grandest things, await!”

Walking away from the fires she set, with her great armored shadow at her back–

Menahem smiled and flexed her fingers in anticipation of the war unfolding.

“Well, I did my best!”

Zachikova turned over her shoulder and shrugged.

Murati sighed in return.

On the main screen was a scrawled message, crudely drawn in a paint program, that Zachikova had overlayed on the screens of every appliance LCD in the presidential estate after cracking several of them. The image asked Astra Palaiologos to “please contact” the Pandora’s Box at their berth terminal address so they could “hook up.” According to Zachikova, she had found no means to access the presidential address system remotely, and the best she could do was compromise some of the smart home features of the presidential estate after finding that many appliances still had a default vendor password. The Mycenaeans would have to become interested and then call the Brigand themselves.

“It’s about the best we can hope for. Thank you, Zachikova. You can take a break.”

Zachikova laid her head down on her station. Arabella reached out and patted her back.

At Murati’s side, the doors into the bridge opened.

Two familiar, comforting faces: Karuniya and Euphrates had arrived.

Murati stood promptly and nearly leaped at her wife, taking her into her arms.

Karuniya, so swept up, embraced her as well, and laughed a bit.

However, when they separated, Murati looked down at what she was wearing–

–a pilot’s bodysuit, the one set aside for her use when piloting the Agni.

“We came to offer moral support.” Euphrates said.

“I’m quite grateful.” Murati said. She looked at Karuniya again, a bit confused. “Karu–”

“Looks good, doesn’t it? It always makes my ass look so amazing.” Karuniya said.

“Karu–” Murati tried to smile and follow up the joke, but her words were failing her.

“She has made a determination, Murati.” Euphrates interrupted to get the two on task.

“Murati,” Karuniya’s voice took a softer but serious tone suddenly, “Tigris told me about Aatto and the Agni,” while Murati’s heart sank hearing those words the ensuing was not at all what she initially imagined. “I know you might have figured this out already, but it also means that Aatto and I can pilot the Agni. You must consider that an option as well.”

Murati wanted dearly to be able to say something like–

I won’t endanger you like that–

However, she knew that she would. If it came to it, if the worst happened.

She would use anyone available to her– any option to succeed.

“Thank you, Karuniya. If it comes to that, I’ll trust you and give the order.”

So she answered her wife’s conviction with equal determination.

Karuniya smiled at her and held her hands gently. She glanced past Murati.

“Aatto, I hope you’re good with a Diver, because I’m certainly not.” She said.

“I will strive to be a magnificent charioteer, my Queen.” Aatto replied.

“She always knows what to say.” Karuniya said.

“You’re just incredibly easy to flatter.” Murati replied.

“Maybe so.” She let go of Murati’s hands and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll be waiting downstairs with the Agni. Please keep in mind what I just told you, okay? I’m also a tool in your toolbox. I know you can be conflicted about this sort of thing– but I don’t want to sit around in the lab during an emergency where our comrades need everything we have.”

“I won’t belittle your conviction.” Murati said. “Go, and I’ll support you however I can.”

Karuniya tiptoed slightly and kissed Murati.

Winking and smiling, she left the bridge with a steady, fearless stride.

Murati could only taste her lips for an instant. This burgeoning war called to her.

“Aatto, be ready to run downstairs if I give the order.” Murati said.

Aatto wagged her tail. “Absolutely, master.”

“And– are you actually a pilot?”

“All Northern Loup receive combat training.” Aatto said. “I would not endanger your Queen, and myself as your proud servant, purely to serve my own hubris. Should it become necessary, you will witness the ferocity bred into us in the northern host.”

Murati nodded.

Just as she would not belittle Karuniya’s resolve, she would trust Aatto’s.

“Well, let me scoot over to the side here.”

Euphrates walked past Aatto’s and Murati’s chairs and sat adjacent the wall.

A space usually reserved for Premier Erika Kairos, who was sadly among the missing.

“I’ve availed myself of the available information. Things seem rather dire.” She said.

“Your guidance and assistance will be appreciated.” Murati said.

“Of course. I will do everything I can.” Euphrates said. “I have come to esteem Ulyana Korabiskaya, Aaliyah Bashara and Erika Kairos quite dearly since I had the pleasure of meeting them all. To that effect, I also have something a little dire to say, much like your wife– remember that I am much more durable than I seem, Murati.”

“I won’t stop you if you decide to intervene, but please value your life in the moment.”

“I value my life, Murati– but it is a thing I am completely certain that I cannot lose.”

She whispered the last words– few people knew of the extent of her immortality.

Murati feared she might be treated as a science experiment again if anyone discovered it.

Though people had seen Euphrates survive horrible wounds, conjecture was all they had.

Even Murati, who knew the truth, still did not want to treat her as someone immortal.

“Captain, you have a call!” Semyonova said excitedly. “It is the presidential estate!”

“Send it to my monitor. I don’t want to scare them off by exposing them too much.”

Murati felt her pulse in her fingertips, under her skin, as she brought her monitor closer.

Every second before the Mycenaean appeared on her screen was sheer torment.

Continuing to force herself upright with so much burden on her back was becoming painful.

Her head pounded with dim weariness as her heart thrashed with anxiety.

“Who am I speaking to? What is the meaning of this childish defacement?”

“Madam Palaiologos, I deeply apologize. I had no other way of getting your attention.”

When the time came, her voice managed to leave her lips despite the trembling in her chest.

Directly in front of Murati appeared a rather slight young woman in a rather ornate yellow military uniform. Her features were gentle and her face was soft and beautiful, pale with stark red eyes, an austere dignity in her expression, and voluminous white hair with an orderly part. Multiple dark horns with purple veins around her head seemed almost to form a crown. Similar but softer forms of these horns fell like reedy strands interpersed within her hair. Despite her petite appearance, Murati felt that she was dealing with someone formidable. An unwavering gaze, a confident voice– and a sensation of power that caused Murati unease even though she had not dared to use psionics to read her.

Murati, this is the Warlord of Mycenae– her name harkens back to an ancient princess.

Euphrates’ psionic counsel in her head. Thankfully, Euphrates was off-screen from Astra.

Astra’s expression was completely impassive, as if she had no emotions whatsoever.

“Your offensive stunt has taken my attention solely because your hubris intrigues me.”

Murati opened. “My name is Murati Nakara. I am– a businesswoman, with a proposition.”

“Your hubris continues to intrigue me, Madam Nakara, but it will not impress for long.”

Murati wondered how many times someone had “called out” to Astra in any way.

She learned a lot about Katarrans and their varied cultures from many cherished comrades.

She tried to situate herself in the mind of a Katarran warlord.

What was Astra’s life like? She looked like a beautiful doll someone dressed as a soldier.

What did she crave? Did she want to be taken seriously? Did she invite a challenge?

Keeping such things in mind would be crucial to Murati’s next few exchanges.

“I am an information broker.” Murati said. It was as good a cover as any for her plan. “But more than that, I am an investor, and I am part of a group of stakeholders who have a lot to lose financially from this current spate of chaos. Right now, madam, there is a lot of property and a lot of people in Aachen’s upper tiers that lies poorly guarded– but a watchman has appeared that can protect them, and I desire the watchman to begin a patrol.”

Murati tried to keep in mind the various dealings the Brigand had with Imbrium cultures.

Whenever they approached something altruistically it would be seen as suspicious.

However, everyone could understand a purely mercenary motive.

So Murati tried to couch her requests in the language of transactions and self-interest.

“I knew eventually someone like you would turn up.” Astra said. “I’m already being paid.”

Yes– being paid in figures on a bank account, on a ledger–

–but not in what Katarrans held to be legendary, to be utmost among riches!

“There is something you stand to gain that no amount of Reichsmarks can buy.”

Astra cocked one eyebrow. It was the most expressive she had looked in a while.

“Everything in this part of the world is purchasable, madam.” Astra replied.

“Reichsmarks can buy a lot; but there are things only violence can purchase.”

Murati smiled and Astra blinked at her. She crossed her arms.

“Milord Astra Palaiologos,” Murati began, trying to look and sound confident, “I humbly request that you expand Mycenae’s cordon to the third tier of Aachen station. You will come into contact with an organized military force that is looking to commit acts of violence and looting within Aachen, and you will have to fight– but in so doing, you will make a show of force to everyone in Eisental and in Imbria’s state of chaos. You will back up your words of Mycenaean power and prestige with deeds, and the station’s elite will indebted to you. And they will know two things: you are worth the money, and nobody can fuck with you.”

For a brief moment, Astra’s eyes drew a little wider.

That recognition of what was possible flashed in her blood-red gaze.

Murati saw it.

“Doing so puts me at risk of interfering with Volkisch business.” Astra said.

“I am prepared to offer you a hedge against any such problems.” Murati said.

“Oh? In your capacity as an information broker, perhaps?”

“Indeed. Accept a direct data transfer from us and you will see.”

“Why should I trust you? You might hack the estate again and then flee.”

“I am responsible for the safety of several V.I.P’s in the third tier. I cannot flee, milord.”

Murati compromised some of her position in the hopes Astra might do the same.

Perhaps with a more hardened operator this may not have worked–

But she was young, and bright-eyed and hungry–

In the next instant, there was a request for transfer from the Mycenaeans at the estate.

“Zachikova, send them a copy of our station model.” Murati said.

Zachikova bolted up in her chair, looking baffled. “Captain?! That’s–!”

“It’s an order, is what it is.” Murati said.

Sighing and grumbling, Zachikova initiated the transfer.

Within moments, Astra had the model of the station at her own fingertips.

“What is this?” She asked. On Murati’s screen, she was clearly looking at a subordinate monitor in whatever lavish room she had taken as an office. She reached out and touched that screen and quickly found that she could manipulate the model. “This is rather sophisticated. An information broker you say. Sounds a bit too humble.”

“I am a humble person and it is within my humble capabilities. I sent you a predictive model of the station, based on up to the minute data.” Murati said. “Let’s just say that it is not strictly speaking a legal venture, so perhaps you should be rid of it once you no longer need it. But for now, it will give you an intelligence advantage. Cameras, traffic, station status– using this, you are no longer blind as to what is going on. Now you are in charge of it.”

“It is a– partial, solution– to my concerns.” Astra began choosing her words. With such deliberation and care that the pauses became rather evident. She began to look conflicted– these expressions made her look even younger. Almost immature. “I am concerned about you, Murati Nakara. It seems clear to me that you have skills and resources, but I am not sure they match who you say you are, and I am not sure that I understand your stakes. Nor do I feel like I understand your ambition. It is difficult to maintain a partnership like this.”

“That station model is a few million Reichsmarks worth of my sort of work.” Murati said.

“It is not money that I am interested in now.” Astra said. “It is you. Who really are you?”

Was she losing her? But why? What was she missing? Murati didn’t understand.

Perhaps she needed to be a bit more honest. She could not panic at this juncture.

“I am somebody who needs what you have– and you might yet need what I have. You have ground forces; I have intelligence and some naval assets. We can’t be seen openly working with each other, but we can assist each other under the table, and overcome this situation together. Both of us are in a tight spot right now. You appear to require my business.”

“I remain unconvinced that I need the business of some unknown character.” Astra said.

“Mycenae has words in this ocean, but not deeds. This will be quite a deed for you.”

“Quite a deed– one that advantages the Volkisch Movement. How do you feel about that?”

Why did she care? “I am more in need of work done than moral affirmation, right now.”

“You are lying to me, Murati Nakara. And that– somehow, it disappoints me.”

Could she see through Murati? Was she using psionics? Murati had not seen the gleam.

Certainly Murati was withholding information, but how did she know? Why did she care?

Mycenaeans were ultranationalists with a thirst for gold and glory!

“You stand to make so much money as a security enterprise in the Imbrium.” Murati said. Astra looked uninterested still. “I will do everything in my power to make you whole if you lose any money. We need your cooperation right now, Warlord Palaiologos.”

“Hmph. Good day, Murati Nakara.”

Why was she not accepting these conditions?!

Financially everything only made sense!

Murati grew instantly desperate. Her nerves were frayed to their last fiber.

“I’m a communist! I’m a communist agent. I need your assistance for my mission.”

Astra had been in the middle of turning away and looked back the screen.

“At this point– how can I trust anything you say? How do I know what you truly want?”

She had lost. She had completely lost everything. She had fucked everything up.

Murati felt like she was drowning. She suddenly felt herself losing the Captain, and the Commissar and Premier, and their allies from the John Brown, and Gloria Innocence Luxembourg and everyone at the venue– without this gamble it would be almost impossible to reach them. They would die abandoned in there! Menahem Halevi and her white uniforms were able to step up from the second tier to the third in force at any time and raze the Oststadt and completely eliminate their comrades. Murati could not think of any way now that she could get there in time to stop them. She had lost; Menahem had won.

Mentally she had staked everything on her ability to coax the Mycenaeans to attack.

She had given up her hand too quickly to Astra Palaiologos. She pored over her mistakes.

But she was not even sure what she did wrong. All her analytics went up in smoke.

Murati was no Ulyana Korabiskaya. She had failed.

She was unfit to be Captain– she was not ready for a real fight, not like her.

A romantic fool with nothing but her ideas and convictions, with no real experience.

How can I trust anything you say?

Murati lifted her head up with her eyes filled with tears, looking at Astra on the screen.

You can trust that I am a romantic fool with too many ideas.

Suddenly, Murati reached for Aatto’s hip holster.

Captains were not issued weapons and Aatto was not issued a firearm like Aaliyah Bashara.

However, she was issued a knife, because she earned the trust to protect Murati’s life.

And a Commissar’s knife was exactly what Murati needed in that moment.

“Master?” Aatto cried out in confusion but dared not interrupt.

Murati, what are you doing? Euphrates called out psionically, but she trusted her.

Nobody moved to stop her in that insane and crucial moment–

Even as Murati unsheathed the knife, and in front of Astra Pailaologos,

carved a slick vertical line of blood and pain down her palm

revealing glistening hot-black blood that shone

and quivered with the words of power–

Astra watched, shaken, rapt, almost trembling– “Her blood– like a Katarran–?”

“I, Murati Nakara, knowing the legacy of the darkest seas and the dreaded deeds, swear the Pythian black blood oath. I swear the fearsome oath from which no Katarran can escape. When the Time of Polemos comes, Astra Palaiologos, I will lead your forces to victory. I will do everything in my power to see you reunite Katarre under the banner of Mycenae and restore Katarre to your rule. Until the Time of Polemos I beseech you to take me under your protection, and on this dark day, to assist me in rescuing my comrades. I beseech you.”

Murati grinned, tearful, shaking with pain, barely able to hold her hand up to the screen.

Euphrates and Aatto looked at her with horror, and the rest of the crew watched, confused.

Astra watched too, speechless for a moment. She then shut her eyes.

Had she lost her again? Could she even live with herself if none of this worked out–?

“I, Astra Palaiologos, spill my blood and complete the oath. Knowing the legacy of the darkest seas and the dreaded deeds. I complete the fearsome oath from which no Katarran can escape. I vow to abide by the oath and I lend my protection in exchange for service.”

Astra reached down and withdrew a small sabre, and cut her own hand.

Raising it up to the screen. Her own cut, across the palm, perpendicular to Murati’s cut.

Their blood was both black but glimmering– droplets fell forward onto the screen.

Floating in mid-air without a physical reason–

Attracted to one another– connected by the legendary Mageia of Pythian dark arts.

In that moment, Murati knew– it was not a trick, it was real. It had always been real.

All the stories, all the merc legends and Katarran superstition– there was something there.

They had been doing psionics– maybe without knowing it as such–

It was all real–

“Murati Nakara, the oath you swore you will not easily escape from. Nor will I– we are bound together by those words now.” Astra said. “However I must dearly apologize to you. I failed to read the strength of your convictions and the lengths you would go. You are worth trusting– and you might make an admirable Merarch. I want to understand you more– for now, consider us partners in crime. Keep a line open. We will talk again very soon.”

Astra disconnected from the feed, openly smiling, clearly quite pleased.

All of the conviction that had been propping Murati up seemed to leave her body then.

Her hand burned with a horrendous inner knowledge– she could feel the Time of Polemos.

Far, far away, yet– but someday nearer, someday sooner.

Murati collapsed forward on the monitor, Euphrates and Aatto standing to check on her.

She secured her gamble, but what had it truly cost?

“This is going to be so fucking huge. This is it. This is it!”

Like the first tier, the third tier was divided into platforms surrounding a grand atrium. Each platform was connected by staircases. On the top platform, a barricade had gone up in front of the stairways and elevator banks leading up to the government sector. Since the word went out from the Aachen Citizen’s Guard, similar barricades had begun to be erected around the tier. At first, they were manned exclusively by unarmed activists, by small time journalists with a cause, by local literati– and sympathizers who were not prepared to turn back an assault. Then, more people began to filter in with personal weapons, illegally stitched handguns, petrol bottles, homemade tear gas bombs. These people feverishly read up on every detail in the messaging services. They were ready for the moment.

All of them bypassed Menahem’s foremost goal in the third tier.

None of them even looked at the bar Oststadt even as they broke into stores nearby.

Menahem did not want them to know. They were not useful in that way.

Particularly, because she herself did not know as much as she wanted about the Oststadt.

So the barricades went up around the tier, made up of stolen kevlar shields and fancy steel furniture, overturned containers, captured cleaning drones. More plainsclothes, armed anarchists began to gather at them, fortifying the station. They had wild dreams of the demands they would make of both the Volkisch and the liberal government of Aachen, both of which had begun to blend together in the imagination. Those barricades were their chokehold on the power which had been choking them for long enough.

Freedom and agency was what they would wring out of them.

Anarchism was all of their disparate wants, the height of freedom that Bosporus achieved.

And it would happen, overnight, by serendipity–

Until, a cold voice resounded throughout the tier, and it began–

“Due to the alarming incidence of looting, property destruction and assaults on citizens, the Mycenae Military Commission has extended our cordon sanitaire to the third tier of Aachen’s core station. We will deter all unlawful actions. Return to your homes. Failure to comply, as well as any threats to Mycenaean forces, will be answered by prompt suppression.”

At the uppermost barricade, the assembled, self-described A.C.G. militia watched in disbelief and growing alarm as the elevator banks in front of them began to blow open one after the other, pouring out smoke. From the empty shafts, rapelling figures hit the solid steel floor of the third tier with weapons in hand, nanomail and power armor, grenades, vibroaxes and AR-80 assault rifles. One individual in golden power armor stood a head taller than the rest, and she strode to within sight of the barricade, facing them without fear of reprisal.

“Out of the way. Dismantle this thing and surrender your weapons now.”

To which the moment responded–

“Fuck you! Kiss my ass, Katarran cop!”

But before a petrol bomb could even be thrown the rifles already hissed with power.

The Optimatoi of the Mycenaean guard began their charge with that first barricade.

And within moments, it seemed, overturned it with unquestioned strength.

Murati hardly knew what she had unleashed and upon whom she had unleashed it.

On the Antenora, a silent alarm of blaring red lights colored the halls.

When the deployment chute opened, a single woman walked through.

Clad in a suit of imperial power armor, armed with a vibrosword and an assault rifle.

Slightly shaking hands checked the magazine. Reaffixed it, pulled the charging handle.

Shaking hands– not with fear, but with immense anger.

An anger deep and dark enough to hide the fear, to drown it, to bathe it in red–

“Milord, I’ll find you a path of least resistance– but every path has something right now.”

A trembling voice, Amur, who had urged caution–

“Guide me to the fastest route, Amur,”

Norn stepped onto the landing at Stockheim, amid panicking dockworkers invisible to her.

“Irrespective of dangers. I’ll kill anyone and destroy anything. Get me there fast.”

She cracked a grin as she stared up at the hundreds of meters of station barring her way.

Because if she did not grin at the sheer bleakness of her fate, she would weep instead.

“Wait for me.” She whispered to herself alone. “Come back to me. Adelheid.”

Gear checked and secured, Norn breathed deep and charged headfirst into Aachen.

Previous ~ Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *